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Back Pain? 3 Tips to Improve Your Walking Style to Ease the Pain

Updated on April 5, 2018
Sue Adams profile image

Dancer, choreologist (movement notator), author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.

Do you have constant lower back and sometimes leg pain (sciatica)? How do you walk? To get rid of lower back pain your walking posture and style may need correcting. Good posture and good moving style in walking looks more confident and attractive. More importantly, your new improved walking style will be more centered and balanced and more energy efficient (less demanding on the joints and muscles). Follow the 3 tips to improve your walking style to cure your back pain once and for all.

1. Build Up a Perfect Posture From the Ground Up
2. Use the Whole Leg While Walking
3. Which Part of the Body Should Lead the Action During Walking?

So let's get started. How do you build up a perfect posture?

1. Build Up a Perfect Posture From the Ground Up

Just as in building an edifice where gravity demands that the foundations are laid first, building a good posture must begin from the ground up, at the feet, and gradually work upwards through every major joint in the skeleton. So let us begin.

The Feet

The feet are designed by nature to carry the weight of the body in the most efficient way with two arches:

How Do the Arches Work?

The arches work together as a springboard to gently catch the impact of the full weight of the body upon each step taken in walking. Should the arches be weak or sunken, as in fallen arches, impact from walking may result in pain. Not only that, weak sunken arches cause misalignment of the ankle joint (which also drops inwards) and all subsequent joints above it in the body.

In addition to its useful arches that cushion each landing, the foot is blessed with five toes to help keep the body in balance. Of course if those poor toes are trapped in narrow, pointed shoes, their balancing function is greatly disabled.

To check if a shoe fits, hold the sole of your left foot against the sole of a right shoe (or vice versa) and see if the shoe can contain shape of your foot print.
To check if a shoe fits, hold the sole of your left foot against the sole of a right shoe (or vice versa) and see if the shoe can contain shape of your foot print.

In walking, the feet should point where they are going: straight forward and not outwards or inwards.

The Ankles

Take note in the next 30 second short video how the ankle joint is affected by fallen arches.

Walking on Flat Feet

The Knees

The knee cap must be aligned (placed) directly in line above the middle toe or else the knee will hurt and get damaged. Drooping in knees or knock knees usually occur when the walker has flat feet. Drooping out knees or bow legs occur when weight baring in the foot is predominantly on the outside of the sole of the foot (pronation).

Knee Placement

The Pelvis

The pelvis carries several vital organs like intestines, bladder, ovaries and uterus (in women), colon, rectum, and prostate gland (in men). When the pelvis is not carried in its natural straight position but tipped forward as in an anterior pelvic tilt, extra strain is put on the back to keep you upright. That strain causes muscle cramp in the lower back muscles, chronic back pain, pinched nerves as in sciatic pain, all of which can be totally avoided by straightening pelvic alignment as shown below.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

How to Fix Anterior Pelvic Tilt to Prevent and Cure Back Ache

Exercise for Pelvic Alignment

  1. Stand feet shoulder width apart
  2. Slightly bend the knees
  3. Now push the pubic bone forward and keep it there while
  4. Straightening the knees

Note: This may feel awkward at first. Do not lean backwards with the upper body while performing the action in 3 and 4. This exercise will tighten the buttocks and place the pelvis in its natural straight position as shown on the second picture in the above illustration. Retain the forward pushing of the pubic bone while walking until it no longer feels awkward but becomes the "home" place for your pelvis.

Watch the next video to fully understand the effect of incorrect front to back pelvic alignment.

Hip Pain? Lateral Pelvic Tilt

If your hips are hurting when you walk or stand it is most likely because the weight distribution on the feet is uneven. In other words you carry more weight on one leg than on the other. This is very common. Especially when standing still, most of us tend to take most of the body weight on the stronger leg. Doing this over many years makes the weak leg steadily weaker and the pelvis then begins to tip permanently sideways (lateral pelvic tilt). Always make sure that when you are standing you carry the body weight evenly on both feet. This will correct the lateral pelvic tilt and cure the condition.

Yes But...

I often get told by my clients, "Oh, I have a pain in my hip because one of my legs is shorter than he other." Again, and again, people are given excuses (by big pharma) for making a condition permanent and incurable so they have to resort to swallowing pain killers. No, don't worry, you probably don't have one leg shorter than the other.

Lateral Pelvic Tilt

One Leg Shorter Than the Other?

People with hip problems are often told by their physician or osteopath that their hip pain is caused by having one leg shorter than the other. Then they sell you insoles and a heightened shoe sole for the "shorter" leg to even out the alleged condition. Don't believe them. In reality having a shorter leg is extremely rare. The pain in the hip most likely comes from a lateral pelvic tilt. Don't wear any shoes at all when ever possible, sort out your feet and practice the 4 tips to ease the pain in this article instead.

The Spine

The consequences of miss aligned feet have so far affected the ankle, knee and pelvis. Next in line is the spine. Through having to compensate for incorrect carriage of the pelvis, the spine is now also out of alignment. Look again at the above picture to see how the upper body has to compensate for the lateral pelvic tilt. Having to compensate merely to stay balanced demands unnecessary overwork from the muscles involved and causes chronic pain. Any spinal deviations are under constant and repetitive gravitational compression and are bound to worsen with every step you take, especially if you are over-weight. Climbing further up the body, what about the shoulders?

The Shoulders

Consider that the full weight of both your arms is about 10% of your full body weight. So if someone weighs 70 kilos, 7 kilos would be the weight of the arms (= 7 bags of sugar). When the shoulders that carry the arms are drooped in front the of body, those 7 kilos are pulling the upper body down and forward. This may be one reason why the majority of the public suffers from aching upper back and shoulders that have to work hard to carry the weight of the arms in an off-balanced position. The next illustration and explanations will help you place the shoulders into correct alignment.

Outward Shoulder Rotation

Correcting Shoulder Alignment

Shoulders belong by the side of the body and not in front of it. People say, “shoulders back!” but bringing the shoulders back brigs the shoulder blades closer together This narrows the upper back which we want to keep wide, broad and as flat as possible. So rather than telling your shoulders to go back, tell them to rotate outwards. How? Turn the palms of the hands outward so they face away from the mid-line of the body. When you turn the palms out, you will notice that the shoulders are better placed by the side of the body. Try it! Now let the palms go back to normal but keep the shoulders where they were when the palms were turned out as shown on the picture above.

The Neck and Head

Needless to add that a spine that is out of alignment and too deeply curved will affect the 7 cervical vertebrae (the neck) and the way the head is carried. When the neck is too deeply curved it is difficult if not impossible to carry the head in a straight line above the body. Look at your posture in profile in a mirror. To place the head where it belongs, pull it upwards and backwards. No, don't look up, keep the chin down to elongate the back of the neck. Carry the head as if someone was pulling you up by a high pony tail. To stay in line with the center line of gravity the ears should be in line with the shoulder which you placed by the side of your body.

Your First Step

OK, now that you have built up a decent posture from the feet up you are ready to take your first walking step. You may believe that taking a step is simply lifting one foot and putting it down in front of you on the ground but there is more to it than meets the eye. To achieve a healthy walking style one must consider the action of the whole leg, not just the foot.

2. How to Use the Whole Leg, Not Just the Feet While Walking

Use the entire leg and not just the feet. Have you ever seen a slow motion movie clip of a lion walking or running or a cat, a dog or a horse? Observe the movement of the legs in such animals when they walk or run. Primates almost “throw” the foot forward from the hip joint and allow it to gently land on the ground. Watch the next amazingly beautiful video to see how this works.

Using the Whole Leg

Similarly, when we humans walk, there is a difference between “stepping” and “walking”. Stepping is merely alternatively lifting the feet and putting them down in front of you. Walking with a perfect gait however demands a different mindset. Rather than making a conscious effort to lift the foot, we too, a bit like the cheetah in the video, can thrust forward the whole leg from the hip joint and allow the knee, ankle and foot to follow all by themselves to create a more smooth and energy efficient gait. In other words, think of moving the thigh, rather than the foot and the rest of the leg (knee, ankle and foot) will automatically fall into place. A short clip of John Travolta's famous final strut "Staying Alive" illustrates this perfectly.

Recap So Far

From a choreologist's point of view, while building a posture comes from below, from the ground up, efficient leg action in walking comes from above, from the highest joint in the leg, the hip joint. In other words think of moving the whole leg with the thigh thigh and not the foot. Like the cheetah in the video, the rest of the leg will automatically follow. The result is an efficient and relaxed looking walking style. Yes you too can walk like John Travolta but not quite yet. To help you figure out what to do for back pain from walking you need to develop a physical awareness of which part of the body is best suited to lead the action during walking.

3. Which Part of the Body Should Lead the Action During Walking?

Even if you manage to use the whole leg in walking with a perfect posture, you are not done yet. There is one more element to consider and that is the question: Which part of your body should lead in the action during walking? In order to find the answer to that question we must first discover the body's center of gravity.

What Is the Body's Center of Gravity?

The body's center of gravity is the pelvis. Using a gravity inversion table, we discover that the point of pivot to achieve horizontal balance in the body is in the pelvis. Or in other words, if the body was a stiff pencil balancing horizontally on a finger, it would stay in balance around the pelvis as its pivot. Watch the next video which proves this point.

Where is Your Center of Gravity?

Where Should the Force Come From?

So what does gravity inversion have to do with walking? Not a lot, only that it shows us where the body's center of gravity is, namely in the pelvis. Simple physics can now be applied to make a decision: Imagine you were a vertical plank that wanted to move forward but stay balanced upright. Where should the force come from? There are three options, A.) from the top, B.) from the middle, or C.) from the bottom. Compare the three people in the illustration below.

A.) Force Comes from the Top (eyes lead) - not recommended

If you attach a piece of string to pull the vertical plank from its top (the head and eyes in a human body), then the plank will tip forwards like the girl in the first picture. Unfortunately, in most cases the eyes and the head want to lead a walk. People are in such a hurry, they think that by putting their head ahead of themselves as it were, they will get to their destination quicker. Not so! All that will do is make the body lean forward and give you chronic neck and back pain.

B.) Force Comes from the Center (pelvis leads) - recommended

If you attach that piece of string to pull the vertical plank from its center (the pelvis in the human body), then the imaginary plank will have more chance of staying in the upright position while it is being pulled forwards. Therefore to minimize effort in walking, the pelvis, being the center of gravity in the body, must lead the action like the handsome guy in the second image.

C.) Force Comes from the Base (feet lead) - not recommended

Others are more laid back and are quite happy to linger behind their feet while walking like the third character in the third picture. If you attach a string to the base of the plank (the feet in a human body) and pull it forward, the plank will tip backwards. A person that walks like this carries the body weight behind the center of gravity. Again, this is an assault on the lower back.

Economy

Apologies for using pencils balancing on fingers and vertical planks pulled by pieces of string to explain the physics of walking correctly but hey, it hopefully helped you understand how easy it is to minimize effort in the action of walking. As you can now see, leading a walk with the pelvis is more economical (demands far less muscle work). Leading a walk with the pelvis saves energy because no compensatory action (unnecessary muscle work) is needed to keep the body upright in a well balanced vertical position.

How Can You Make the Pelvis Lead?

To facilitate leading the walking action with the pelvis, imagine that your eyes are in your lower abdomen while you are walking. Push the pubic bone forward to correct anterior pelvic tilt which will reduce over-curvature of the the lumbar curve (the lower back).

With a well aligned pelvis the walker can now concentrate on keeping the body lifted in the rib cage and torso, keeping the shoulders turned out and relaxed, the head above the spine, and the chin down to lengthen the back of the neck. These instructions may sound like a big mouth full. They are listed again below so that you may use them as a check list mantra when you are out and about walking.

Check List

Build up a near perfect posture from the ground up, use the whole leg not just the feet in walking and keep reminding your body to obey the following 5 instructions while you are walking:

1. The pelvis leads the action.
2. Lift the rib cage
3. Keep the shoulders relaxed by the side of the body and not in front of it.
4. Lengthen the neck by thinking someone is pulling you up by a high pony tail to keep the head above the spine and not in front of it.
5. Keep the chin down to lengthen the back of the neck.

Now you should be good to go but first take the Self Assessment Quiz below. If you are not sure of your answers, ask a friend or spouse to help you examine your personal walking style and do them the same favor in return.

Self Assessment Quiz

view quiz statistics

How Will You Walk Now?

Your chronic back and hip Pain may come from over-cramped muscles that go into spasm by doing unnecessary overtime holding the body in an unbalanced position while walking. Implementing the correct walking posture and style will get rid of the pain and make you less tired while allowing you to enjoy your walks for much longer distances.

Sources

Weight Distribution in the Human Body

Center of Gravity in the Human Body

Bio-mechanics of Walking (Gait)

Leg Length Discrepancy: Myth or Reality?

Further Reading

Stretches for Back Pain

Why Hanging Upside Down Is Good For You

Is Jogging Bad For You?

Please feel free to ask questions or share your views in the discussion below.

Comments

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    • Li-Jen Hew profile image

      Li-Jen Hew 

      3 months ago

      Hello Sue. Useful article. It's funny how one part of the body can affect another. No worries, your plank and pencil example to explain walking was alright. Thanks for sharing. :)

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      3 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Wow, that is truly a fantastic article. I must read it again and again, therefore, I will share it. Thank goodness for the Yoga classes I have joined 4 years ago. I'm very aware of other people their postures when they walk, so I try to stay very centered and follow your Check List.

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