“Hey, great gait!” It’s not exactly the compliment we’re gunning for when we step out into the world each day. But maybe it should be. Excellent gait means you’re more likely to be feelin’ good. Bad gait, on the other hand, means you may be walking all wrong. As rudimentary as it may seem, improving how you walk could save you the hip ache later in life.
But how exactly do you do that? According to Tyler Wilkins, director of performance at EXOS, when you walk, there’s a series of micro-movements happening from your foot to your pelvis as your body absorbs force and then back down from your pelvis to your foot as your body produces force. If something goes wrong at your foot or ankle, it may pass the dysfunction on to your knee, and so on, increasing your risk of pain and injury. In other words, it’s like the worst chain letter ever.
The problem boils down to a lack of mobility and stability in a few key areas. “If you lack mobility and stability at the foot, knee, hip, pelvis, or spine, it causes a ripple effect that can then lead to pain and further dysfunction,” explains Wilkins. Here comes the good news. Regularly practicing mobility and stability exercises makes you less vulnerable, helping you naturally improve how you walk and reduce your injury risk.
If you lack mobility and stability at the foot, knee, hip, pelvis, or spine, it causes a ripple effect that can then lead to pain and further dysfunction.
If you already have an ache or pain you’re worried about, your first stop should be to a physical therapist who can evaluate your movement and determine the problem. But if you want to prevent movement dysfunction and improve mobility and stability where it counts when you walk, here’s a starter guide to understanding what’s happening as you strut your stuff and the exercises that can help you put one foot in front of the other more efficiently.
1. Foot and ankle pronation
Pronation simply refers to the natural motion of your foot and ankle when you walk or run. But it may not be so neutral if you have a movement dysfunction. You might overpronate (the ankle rolls down and in) or underpronate (putting too much emphasis on the outer edge of the foot and small toes).
It’s also essential to understand the stance phase versus the swing phase. The leg with the foot on the ground? It’s in the stance phase, while the leg with the foot in the air is in the swing phase. Each leg is constantly entering in and out of these two phases as you walk. Your feet and ankles, of course, are a vital part of this process. Their position and their pronation matters.
When your lead leg begins to enter the stance phase and prepares to meet the ground, picture the angle that your foot and ankle make. That’s dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion also happens as your back foot starts to swing forward and your hip and knee flex. As this happens, ankle mobility makes walking without pain possible by allowing a normal chain reaction to continue toward your hips and pelvis.
However, if you lack mobility and stability in your ankle, it may result in overpronation or underpronation (also known as supination), and this can result in knee pain, shin splints, ankle injuries, and plantar fasciitis — to name a few issues. You can also develop hip pain.
What you can do about it
Add these exercises to your workout regimen to increase your range of motion as well as stability at the foot and ankle.
2. Hip flexion and rotation
Picture this. The sun is out; the sky is clear. You’re out for a brisk walk. Your front heel contacts the ground, preparing to transfer weight to your toes and create force to help propel yourself forward. But before this happens, your front hip naturally flexes and slightly internally rotates. Or at least, that’s the ideal situation. “It’s what allows us to absorb force from the ground efficiently,” explains Stefan Underwood, EXOS’ director of continuous improvement. “It’s also helpful for getting your center of mass over your base of support, which is required when you’re on one leg.”
A tight hip or lack of stability can make this more difficult, and it could lead to knee pain. "Quite often, if the hip lacks internal rotation mobility or stability, your knee could get left out to dry as the force continues up your body,” says Wilkins. “If the hip isn't in the right place at the right time, then the knee will likely be in the wrong place as it prepares to absorb force from the ankle and dissipate to the hip.”
Quite often, if the hip lacks internal rotation mobility or stability, your knee could get left out to dry.
But that’s just one example. There are several ways it could lead to pain and discomfort. Underwood adds that low back pain can become an issue. It can also stress the anterior tissues in your leg more (meaning those on the front side of your body), which can lead to a patellar tendonitis-like pain just below the knee cap.
What you can do about it
Encourage the process to go more smoothly by practicing hip flexion and internal rotation exercises.
3. Hip extension and rotation
In addition to hip flexion, hip extension is key to walking without developing pain. As weight transfers from your front heel to your toes and your heel lifts, your hip is now extending. “The hip extends and transfers energy down to the foot to propel the body forward,” says Wilkins. But if you lack stability, hip extension may be disrupted, and it can impact what happens at your knee or ankle — not in a helpful way.
“Remember that your whole body is working in unison,” says Underwood. “If one segment is at the wrong place at the wrong time or lacks the required range of motion or motor control, then other areas must change strategy too, and it will likely result in a less than ideal compensation.”
For example, if your hip can’t properly extend but walking requires you to propel your body forward, then something else needs to extend to help you get there. In this case, your back or your knee may try to take on the job, moving in ways they’re not designed to. But as Underwood says, if you enhance how your hip moves, your knee and back can do their jobs and their jobs alone.
What you can do about it
Try these hip extension and external rotation exercises to improve mobility and stability.
- Half-kneeling quad/hip flexor stretch with rear foot elevated
- Single leg glute bridge with leg lock
- Single-leg triple flexion isometric hold and balance with kettlebell
4. Spine rotation
Your spine, arms, and shoulders naturally rotate to counteract the movement in your legs and pelvis as you walk. Wilkins explains that this keeps your center of mass aligned, creating a stable base of support. “The spine rotates toward the flexed hip that’s absorbing force on the front side while simultaneously rotating away from the extended hip that’s producing force on the backside,” he says.
Essentially, the natural rotation in your spine keeps force moving efficiently as you strike the ground with one foot and then swing with the other. As you may be able to guess, a lack of proper rotation can impact your ability to generate, absorb, and transfer force from one leg to another — and a lack of mobility or stability is often the culprit.
What you can do about it
Work these movements into your exercise regimen, or before or after you go for a walk.
About the AuthorMore Content by Catherine Conelly