By Petra Fisher
Are you walking in the way that’s best for your body? Better walking is the most powerful way to maximize the awesome benefits of barefoot shoes.
Although minimalist shoes naturally allow our feet to get stronger and healthier, there’s actually a lot more we can do to get the most out of our barefoot shoe choices. Because here’s the thing: after so many years of wearing regular shoes (and sitting in chairs a lot) our bodies have adapted. These shoe and chair adaptations have a big impact on how we walk. And that means that the way we walk can actually cause problems for our feet and bodies in the long term.
Today I’m going over the basics of better walking. I’ll share a simple exercise you can use to improve your gait and your foot function at the same time. You’ll walk away with happier feet, powerful tools for better walking, and you just might find that your ankles, knees and hips are happier too.
Better Walking Basics
So walking is pretty complex. That’s one reason it takes babies so long to learn how to do it! But when you boil things down, there’s one really fundamental thing you need to know about it called ‘posterior push off’.
When we walk, there are two main ways we can move our bodies forward in space. Most walking is a combination of both these propulsion methods.
Walking Can Be Controlled Falling
One way to propel ourselves is by leaning forward, letting gravity pull our bodies forward in space, and then catching ourselves with our front leg. This is essentially falling (because leaning doesn’t take much muscle) and then catching. If you ever google ‘walking technique’ you’ll see that lots of people call walking a type of controlled falling, and this is why.
Walking Can Be Like Paddling
The other way to push our bodies forward is called ‘posterior push off’. It’s a lot like what happens when you’re paddling a canoe or a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) – the standing leg pushes behind us and pushes our body forward.
It’s hard to see in a human but here’s a link to a SUPping video so you can see what I’m talking about. See how these SUPpers push their paddles back so the SUP glides forward?
This posterior push off technique uses a lot more muscle than the falling technique. Our hamstrings and glutes get really involved on our working leg. And because the working leg travels behind us, it demands ankle mobility and hip extension as well.
Benefits Of Better Walking
Most modern humans use about 90% falling and 10% posterior push off in our walking. That’s unfortunate, because this leads to a lot of long-term damage for our bodies.
Our knees suffer, because they’re what’s catching us. And our hips suffer because they don’t get the loads that the knees are taking instead. Our spines, necks and shoulders get overloaded too because each fall causes a sort of mini-whiplash effect. And we miss out on the benefits of better walking, such as a super healthy pelvic floor and strong foot and leg muscles.
To walk better, it’s helpful to understand these basics. But what we really need is to improve our physical capacity so that we’re actually able to walk better.
Because the reason that we’re all mostly falling is our calves are short. And our hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes are weak. And our hip and ankle mobility is limited. All because of shoes (especially raised heels) and years of chair sitting.
So let’s take a look at one powerful exercise that will help you get on the path to more posterior push off.
Better Walking Begins With The Hip Hinge
The hip hinge – AKA the double calf stretch – is an amazing walking exercise because it helps us lengthen and strengthen the backs of our legs. It also helps us become more aware of our hamstrings so we can start using them when we walk. And it helps us disconnect our hips from our low back. So it’s one of my key exercises for better walking!
Here’s a video on how to do a basic hip hinge and the most common mistakes to avoid.
So that’s the hip hinge basics. Hopefully your hamstrings already love it – it’s such a great stretch!
Pro tip: try using this hinging technique when you bend down in real life for things like emptying the dishwasher – it’ll be a great way to get more hamstring length and strength!
Now let’s add on.
Better Walking Fix #1: Feet Straight
Now here’s a simple but not always easy layer you can add to your double calf stretch AND to your walking that will help your feet be healthier.
It’s this: you need your feet to point straight ahead instead of out to the side. And when I say straight, I mean really straight.
When our feet point outwards, it’s an instant bunion-creator. It makes us push off from our big toe joint instead of the big toe (creating bunion stuff), plus it stops our big toes from working right during our gait cycle. It also means wonky rotations all the way up to our hips, which isn’t great for our foot arches (as well as our hips and pelvic floor).
Here’s what we’re going for:
Start by practicing feet straight on your yoga mat. Then add it to your double calf stretch. Then work in it in your real life, especially when you’re walking! But one word of caution – this looks like a small change but it can be a lot for your body if you’re not used to it. If you feel like it’s hurting you, back off and just slowly work on getting your feet straighter bit by bit.
Better Walking Fix #2: Engage Your Hamstrings
So the double calf stretch makes for a great stretch (and FYI, it’s actually using your hamstrings in a lengthened eccentric isometric which is one of the best ways to tell your body that you want them to get longer).
But we can also use this move to help learn what our hamstrings are supposed to FEEL like when we do that posterior push off.
Learning to engage your hamstrings like this will help you connect with getting more of the good stuff when you walk. Here’s how I like to do it:
Connecting to your back line is easier as an exercise than it is when we walk. Try doing a few of these one sided lifts before you go for a walk to help really dial it in.
And here’s your secret weapon: you need to find a gentle uphill to walk on. This will help increase the work the hamstrings have to do which will make them so much easier to feel! And of course, you’re gonna need some good minimal shoes for this, it won’t work in a raised heel.
Better Walking Fix #3: Closed Chain Hip CARs
Hip mobility goes with happy feet like peanut butter goes with jam – you need both for best results. And better walking requires hip mobility!
So now we’re going to take your hip hinge and juice it up so you can work on your hip mobility in all directions.
This next version is called a closed chain hip Controlled Articular Rotation (CAR) and is a foundational mobility exercise. It’ll help you keep your hip tissues happy, improve your brain’s connection with your hips, maintain your ranges of motion, and access more of your hip stuff when you walk. Oh, and it feels great too!
I’d use this one as a warm up before you walk – it’ll help you optimize your hip movement. And it’s a great break during a hike as well!
Better Walking Next Steps
This simple hip hinge – 3 ways – is a powerful tool to help build your walking capacity! But there’s definitely a lot more to learn and explore – walking is an incredibly complex movement pattern.
I believe that there are 3 main steps to better walking:
- Wear shoes that let your feet walk naturally – that’s why we’re here on Anya’s site right?!
- Learn the basics of how we should be walking such as posterior push off and body alignment, but try not to overthink things when you’re truly out walking.
- Build your body capacity so that you have the physical ability to walk with better technique – that’s what we did today!
If you felt like this was useful, you should also work on the other keys to a posterior push off: the pelvic list, hip extension, and general hip mobility. These are additional physical prerequisites that will help you walk better.
This should keep you busy for a long time! Enjoy and happy walking in those adorable minimal shoes!
After years of unexplained body issues, Petra discovered the world of movement. She left her career as a corporate lawyer to become a movement coach and world traveler. Natural movement transformed her health and now her goal with Petra Fisher Movement is to help others build a future where you can do what you love, forever. You can start building a better body right now by signing up for her free Fix Your Feet five day email boot camp.