You probably don’t remember your first steps or how you went from crawling to walking. Your parents didn’t hire a coach – you just did it. And over the years, your pattern or style of walking has become distinctly “you.” Have you ever noticed how you can identify a person by the way they walk long before you can recognize their face?
That’s because we all develop habits or compensations for injuries, big or small, that influence the way we walk. Our walk becomes a kind of signature of ours. Though subtle differences develop between walkers, some walking habits are very common. So let’s start with a common habit that creates a myriad of problems – the backward lean.
It might seem like good posture – you might even be able to hear your mom telling you to “pull those shoulders back”. Does this look or feel familiar? Maybe. Does it look or feel comfortable? You hardly notice. But shoot, your back and hips hurt, and you have really tight calves that no amount of stretching helps.
Leaning back, or having your center of gravity behind you, changes things. We know it changes your breathing (see “The Power of Breath” article).But it also makes you tuck your bottom, putting your glutes at a mechanical disadvantage. It’s harder to use your glutes to propel you forward, even though forward to where you want to go.
Here’s the good news: Just a few adjustments can make big changes in how you walk and how you feel.
Stand in your normal posture and sense into your feet. Where is the weight? If your weight is back on your heels that means your center of gravity is behind you and you probably tend to lean back. Even if you’ve learned the ski jumper exercise, we found that many folks are hinging from the hips, rather than from the ankles. If you do that, your weight will stay back on your heels. So if you don’t feel that weight shift onto the balls of your feet, try again, and focus on the ankle movement.
The forward lean: how far is far enough?
Here’s a test to determine if you’re forward enough. If it feels like you are walking into the wind, you have the right idea.
Do the ski jumper exercise. Now drop your chin onto your chest and look down. Do you see any toes down there? Unless you are really slender, you probably see your stomach or chest, or maybe you can see all the way down to the tips of your shoes. What you should see when you’re properly canted forward are the bows of your shoelaces. Lean enough to see those bows!
Feel and remember that position. Assume that position with every step.
It might feel awkward and you might feel off balance at first, so don’t get carried away. Just practice the forward lean as you walk for a minute or two, a few times a day. It will gradually feel more comfortable, more natural, and you will feel more powerful and stable.
The forward lean is one part of walking well. But there may be other pieces to fine tune. Sure, you didn’t start with a walking coach, but now that you’ve had years to mess up your gait, it might be time to see your PT and learn how to make walking easy and elegant again.