Proper Mechanics of Walking

Proper Mechanics of Walking

Walking is an important part of our daily routine. A normal person takes around 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day and in their lifetime, could walk around 120,000 miles (1). When we set off walking, we perform it without really thinking about what mechanics are involved. In fact, walking is a complex process that uses the majority of muscles and joints in the body. It does come in many forms such as power, speed and aerobic walking. Having a solid grasp of the mechanics of walking does have the following health benefits attached to it (1):

  • It boosts your efficiency and better use of energy supplies
  • It reduces stress on the major muscles and joints
  • It reduces the risk of injuries because it is a low impact activity
  • It boosts self-esteem, mood and mental well-being
  • It increases the number of calories used
  • It helps to burn body fat, muscle conditioning and body shaping
  • It helps to reduce blood pressure.

The Walking Cycle

Your feet and legs are the main components that propel your body forwards, when you set off walking. There are many different styles of walking, however for the scope of this article we will ‘standardize’ the walking pattern (cycle) as the following:

  1. The feet land on either side of an imaginary line which is continually moving in the direction that you are traveling.
  2. Move one leg in front of the opposite leg.
  3. When the heel of the lead leg contacts the floor, there should be a slight knee bend.
  4. The landing foot will stabilize and take your bodyweight.
  5. The bent knee of the landing leg absorbs the force of the step.
  6. The lead leg moves straight over the foot (this is termed the mid-stance).
  7. As the lead continues to go forwards, the knee straightens.
  8. The heel of the lead leg lifts and transfers the bodyweight to the ball of the foot.
  9. Simultaneously, the back foot pushes off the toes (this is termed propulsion).
  10. The back-leg swings through and then it becomes the lead step.

What are the proper mechanics of walking?

Focusing on your walking ‘form’ is probably not that high on the agenda, for majority of individuals. However, there is a big link between the correct mechanics of walking and a reduction in injuries to the lower back, hips, knees and ankles (2). Why not have a look at the different phases of your walking pattern, as having the correct ‘form’ could have a positive payback in terms of your muscle and joint health.

As you look at your walking technique, break down each of the following phases individually and then put it all together. You can do this yourself by using a long mirror and/or ask someone to film you (with a mobile phone) whilst you are walking. Then review and analyze the clip of you walking using the criteria (1-6) below:

1. Walk Straight and Tall 

The solid base for a good walking stride is posture. Your back should be elongated and not a rigid military position. Try to stay relaxed, stand tall and your ears, shoulders, hip, knee and ankles should be in line before you set off. Your lower back should have a natural inwards curve (S-shaped). If there is an unnatural curve this maybe a sign that you may have ‘sway back’. Unfortunately, sway back is a posture problem that causes discomfort when walking. It can also lead to overuse injuries of the muscles and joints in the hips, knees and ankles. If you do observe this issue in your lower back, fully engage your core and squeeze your glutes, as this will more the pelvis into a more neutral position. When the pelvis is in a neutral position, it realigns the major muscles and joints of the hips and legs.

2. The Head

The head should be in a neutral position, eyes looking forwards and chin parallel with the floor. Try to focus on a point that is about 15-20 feet straight in front of you. Sometimes this is not always the case when you are out and about, but it is deemed as good practice by physical therapists (3). If the neck is not in a neutral position, this puts additional stress on the neck muscles; this can lead to neck pain. The head should not bob up and down or wobble from side to side when walking, as this again is a platform for neck pain.

3. The Arms

The shoulders should in a relaxed position and not hunched up towards your ears. The arm should swing in rhythm with each step and should have a bent (90 degrees) at the elbows. Straight arms on prolonged walks can lead to swelling and numbness of the digits and hands. Bending the arms also engages and tones the major muscles in the shoulders and arms. By engaging the muscles of the shoulders and arms, you are going to burn more calories and move quicker. This is good news for weight loss and body toning!

The arm swing should be natural looking and in between your ribs and waist level. The hands and fingers should be relaxed and with very little tension. Excess tension in the hands and fingers is less economical, and it does waste energy that could be directed elsewhere in the body. Keep your elbows close to the upper body and avoid letting them flare out. The hands should not go higher than the centre of your chest on the forwards motion. On the backwards motion, your hand shouldn’t go past the back of the hips.

If you are a ‘newbie’ using this arm technique you may fatigue quickly. If so, practice for about 10 minutes, then lower and give yourself amble time to recover. Once you feel energized, go back to the arm swing technique that we have just discussed.

4. Below the Waist

In the lower body, walking begins by engaging the core and hip muscles. This is moves the hips forwards. Then all of the maneuvers and motions described in the ‘walking cycle’ section begin. For some walkers this gait cycle maybe difficult to achieve because of poor hip flexibility. Hip flexibility can be dramatically improved by stretching the hip flexors and the lower back. By improving flexibility in the hips will improve and/or tweak your walking cycle. A word of caution; don’t take unnatural stride lengths to improve your hip flexibility and walking speed. This is counterproductive as hip flexibility will boost your walking speed and not poor (longer) stride patterns.

5. The Feet

If your feet maintain their proper position when walking, your legs will work effectively! If the feet are in the wrong positions and aren’t doing their jobs properly, the joints in the lower body will be overburdened. The knees, hip and lower back will overcompensate for the foot’s poor position and stability (2). These joints were not designed to take the additional stress. This can lead to lower body joint pain which is caused by wear and tear (in other words overuse). When walking properly ensure that your toes are facing forwards, as much as possible, as this puts less pressure on the knees and ankles.

6. The Ankles

A. Pronation

Every time that the foot contacts the floor, the arch flattens, and this enables the ankle to move inwards. This movement absorbs the force from the heel strike and ensures that you keep your balance during the mid-stance. However, during ‘overpronation’ the ankle tilts inwards too much and the bodyweight is transferred to the inner soles. Subsequently, the muscles in the lower leg will pull the knee inwards. This leads to a reduction in knee stability, a shortened stride length and issues with general balance (3). Eventually, pain will be felt in the knee, hip and lower back. Overpronation is a major cause of around 90% of all foot issues (3).

B. Supination

Supination is the total opposite of pronation. It causes the ankle to excessively tilt inwards, and this triggers the bodyweight to be transferred, to the outside of the foot. When ‘oversupination’ occurs the outer muscles of the lower legs are over-stretched. The knee then moves outwards which can lead to pain and overuse injuries in the ankle joint. Occasionally, the ankle can roll over resulting in ligament damage. In addition, with this condition the bodyweight can’t be transferred properly through the arch of the foot.

If the arch is not used, the foot is unable to move forwards effectively. Then the hip joint must work harder, the leg will swing in a circular motion, this over-compensates for the lack of propulsion through the feet. Unfortunately, during this scenario there is extra stress on the lower back, as the hips move upwards to clear the toes. This can lead to lower pain issues, muscle imbalances and poor stability (3).

C. A Proper Step

A proper step must have a solid mixture of pronation and supination. The ankle should pronate at the mid-stance and supinate when at the propulsion phase, for the foot to be stable. Problems do occur when there is excessive pronation and supination in the foot when walking. Eventually, this can lead to inflammation in the ligaments and tendons, localized pain and early fatigue, when walking for prolonged periods.

A top tip, is to go to a ‘bespoke’ sport shop that sell trainers (running shoes), as they usually offer an assessment on your feet when walking, using a treadmill and a video camera. Then you can invest in a pair of trainers that match the needs of your feet!

  1. Hamer et al., 2012. Longitudinal patterns in physical activity and sedentary behavior from mid-life to early old age: a sub study of the Whitehall II cohort J. Epidemiol. Community Health, 66 (12) (2012), pp. 1110-1115
  2. Lee M, Kim M, Bascola M, Kalck K, Bendis K, Zhu W. (2005). Proceedings of the Walking for Health: Measurement and Research Issues and Challenges. Urbana-Champaign, IL. 
  3. Glover W, McGregor A, Sullivan C, Hague J. (2005). Work-related musculoskeletal disorders affecting members of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Physiotherapy. 91: 138-147