From the moment you start taking those first, wobbly steps as a child, and all the way through navigating your daily, adult life — walking is an essential part of your movement.
It’s an innate ability of ours, and an everyday activity that we take for granted. We assume that we’ll always be able to walk; that if we want to get from point A to point B, our legs will get us there without a second thought.
Without an injury or pathology, walking is coordinated, precise, and effortless.
But what about those of us who have limitations with walking?
Be it pain, joint restriction, arthritis, nerve compression, neurological disease, depression, poor balance, and so on…
There are countless factors that could affect proper walking gait. And those who have to deal with any degree of restriction likely don’t feel that walking is an effortless motion.
However, even if it doesn’t start out feeling effortless, establishing proper walking form is vital.
Perhaps it sounds strange to associate something as simple as walking with having proper form — but the biomechanics behind it are more complex than we tend to think. (Oftentimes, not knowing or implementing proper form is what causes aches and pains to begin with.)
So, let’s break down what an ideal walking gait looks like! Knowledge is the first step to progress.
What is Walking Gait, Anyway?
The term “gait” refers to the continuous movement pattern that constitutes your walking or running motions. More specifically, it’s a cycle of movement that supports your body through high loading forces, muscular control, and single-leg alignment as you advance from one limb to the next in a forward motion.
Before we dive into all the nitty gritty details of how to walk, here’s a brief overview of some of the terms we’ll be referring to throughout this blog:
- Your stance phase refers to the first half of your gait cycle; it’s the period of time where your foot is in contact with the ground, and when your leg is bearing the weight of your body. (Your stance foot/leg refers to the limb in contact with the ground and under load.)
- Your swing phase refers to the second half of your gait cycle; it’s the period of time where your foot is NOT in contact with the ground, and when your leg is advancing forward into your next step. (Your swing foot/leg refers to the limb that is off the ground.)
- Flexion refers to the mechanic that allows you to bend a joint. (Dorsiflexion is used to describe the motion of the ankle joint when you lift your toes up and towards your shin.)
- Extension refers to the mechanic that allows you to straighten out a joint. (Plantar flexion is used to describe the extension of your ankle joint, or when you point your toes down and away from your shin bone.)
- Contralateral describes the limb or foot opposite to the one being referred to. (I.e., when talking about your right foot, your left foot is contralateral to it.)
These terms are just the start to truly understanding your gait! Being able to differentiate your stance from your swing phase is good, but it gets a lot more complicated than that — both of these phases can be broken down into 4 smaller phases each.
But, don’t fret! That’s exactly what we’re going to dive into here. In order to assess the potential causes behind pain or limitation with walking, you have to start with thorough knowledge behind ideal mechanics first.
So, let’s walk through it, step-by-step!
The 8 Phases of Walking Gait
Technically speaking, there isn’t a distinct “start” or “end” point in your gait cycle, since it’s defined as a continuous motion…
But in order to effectively analyze walking gait, we have to assign distinct phases to the movement cycle. We typically use your foot’s first point of contact with the ground as the “start” of your gait cycle.
Perhaps it seems like breaking out the gait cycle into 8 phases is excessive, but it’s for good reason! When we have specific phases, we can identify all of the biomechanics that go into each minute motion. This allows us to collect highly nuanced data about your unique gait patterns and compare them to normative values (like muscle activation, strength patterns, joint angles, and internal torques).
All of that specific data can be collected through a professional walking gait analysis, where your gait specialist can identify what potential impairments may be limiting your walking.
However, there’s a LOT to unpack behind walking biomechanics, so before you dive into a full-blown analysis, let’s first review the phases of your gait cycle.
As the name suggests, this is the point when your leading foot first makes contact with the ground.
Many practitioners refer to this moment as “heel strike,” as the heel is the most common part of the foot to hit the ground first. And ideally, it should be — however, that isn’t always the case, as neurological or range of motion issues can end up causing a flat foot or forefoot strike.
So, in our clinic, we use the term “initial contact” as an all-encompassing identifier.
During the point of initial contact, you’re in a state of double-limb support (i.e., both of your feet are in contact with the ground). But, even though both feet are on the ground, this phase marks the very start of weight bearing motion in your leading leg. Here, your body is preparing to absorb shock, stabilize the leg, and preserve that forward progression in your movement.
The posture of your hip, knee, and foot will determine how well you’re able to handle weight bearing and loading forces as you move through the rest of your gait. Though optimal gait mechanics may vary from person to person, an ideal gait presents about 20 degrees of hip flexion, and neutral alignment in your knee and ankle at this very first stage.
This is the second phase of your gait cycle, which is also quite aptly named. The loading response phase refers to how your body responds while under load! (Who would’ve thought?)
More specifically though, this marks the point where your body starts transitioning to single-leg weight bearing and shock absorption.
This phase begins just after initial contact: your body weight starts to progress forward in a rolling or rocking motion at the heel. This is known as the “heel rocker,” which prompts plantar flexion in the ankle to help bring the entire foot in contact with the ground.
As the length of your foot hits the ground, your body will start to take in the impact forces of your step — and in order to properly absorb the shock, you’ll need ample knee flexion to ensure your muscles take in the impact forces (rather than your passive tissues).
Through loading response, your hip flexion should still sit around 20 degrees, but your knee joint will start from a neutral position and move into 20 degrees of flexion as well. Simultaneously, your ankle will shift from neutral to 5 degrees of plantar flexion.
Your mid-stance phase marks the beginning of total single-limb support. Now, your stance limb has complete responsibility for supporting your body weight, maintaining a level pelvis, and staying balanced through your forward movement.
This phase starts when your contralateral foot (i.e., the foot of your non-stance leg) lifts off the ground, and it ends when the contralateral tibia (i.e., the shin bone of your non-stance leg) is fully vertical.
At this point, your weight should be fully aligned over the middle of your stance foot. Here is where you experience the “ankle rocker”; as you start moving forward during the mid-stance phase, the tibia glides over your ankle during the forward progression.
By the end of your mid-stance phase, both your hip and knee joint should be moving into extension — they’ll start out at around 20 degrees of flexion and end in a neutral angle. Meanwhile, your ankle will start at 5 degrees of plantar flexion and end up at 5 degrees of dorsiflexion.
The fourth phase of your gait also remains as a single-limb support phase… but instead of predominantly bearing weight, this is where your biomechanics have to progress your body past the stance foot and onto the next.
This phase starts when the heel of your stance leg starts to rise off the ground, and it ends when your contralateral limb makes initial contact with the ground.
During terminal stance, there is a second rocker known as the “forefoot rocker” that’s especially important. Once that heel lifts off the ground, the weight on your stance leg shifts over the metatarsal bones (i.e., the long bones of your foot). With proper calf, ankle, and foot strength, this brings your center of gravity over the front of your foot.
Now, your hip joint should be hitting around 20 degrees of extension, whereas your knee joint stays in a neutral position and your ankle is ideally within 5-10 degrees of dorsiflexion.
During this fifth phase of your gait, you’re still in a period of double-limb support, but not for long!
This is the point where your body is preparing itself to transition into the swing phase.
But before your leg officially starts to “swing,” your body has to shift the majority of its weight from the forefoot and through the toes. (This is very aptly named “toe-off” or “weight release” as you prepare to bring your stance foot off the ground.)
Your pre-swing phase begins with the point of initial contact on your other leg, and it ends with that toe-off phase in your stance leg. To achieve this movement, your hip joint starts at 20 degrees of extension and moves back to a neutral position, whereas your knee moves from a neutral angle to approximately 40 degrees of flexion to absorb impacts. As for your ankle joint, it moves from 10 degrees of dorsiflexion to 20 degrees of plantarflexion. (That pointed toe is exactly what you need for the toe-off.)
Now is when you transition back to single-limb support — but this time, your other leg is the one that’s bearing the weight. (Whenever one leg is moving through its swing phase, the other is in stance!)
This is the point where your now swing foot is fully lifted off of the ground and travels out behind you. Your initial swing phase ends once this foot starts to move forward again, when it’s parallel to the foot of your other leg again.
As your leg is “winding up” to swing forward, the goal is to achieve enough clearance for your swing foot to move back while retaining balance on your other leg, allowing you to advance through the contralateral foot and maintain your forward progression.
Here, your hip joint will move from a neutral position to a slight, 10 degrees of flexion. Meanwhile, your knee will continue to bend to around 40-60 degrees of flexion, and your ankle will decrease from 20 degrees of plantarflexion to only 5 degrees.
The mid-swing phase describes the part of your gait where your leg “swings” forward. While your other leg is focused on weightbearing, your swing leg is focused on smooth motion to continue that forward advancement.
Your mid-swing phase begins when the swing foot moves past your stance leg, and it ends when the shin bone is in a vertical position. (Think of this as the moment just before your foot descends to make contact with the ground.)
Through this part of your gait, your hip will increase its flexion from 10 to 20 degrees, whereas your knee decreases from approximately 60 to 30 degrees of flexion, and your ankle begins at 5 degrees of plantarflexion back to a neutral position.
And finally, your terminal swing phase completes the full cycle of your gait!
The primary goal with this last phase of single-leg support is to fully bring your swing leg forward in preparation for the initial contact of your next gait cycle.
Terminal swing begins just as the shin bone of your swing leg starts to angle out of its vertical position, and it ends when the swing foot touches the ground. During this phase, your hip will decrease slightly to 20 degrees of flexion, your knee will move from 30 degrees of flexion to a neutral position, and your ankle will remain neutral until the point of initial contact.
Improving an Impaired Walking Gait
Alright, we know that was a lot to process… most people don’t realize just how nuanced walking is, nor how specific its biomechanics can be! (We certainly owe a lot of credit to our nervous and musculoskeletal systems for coordinating all that specific joint and muscle activity.)
Now that you know what ideal walking gait looks like, this then begs the question: what happens if any of these phases deviate from the norm?
Think about your walking gait like it’s your car’s alignment — when you’re driving, you might hear weird noises, or you notice that your gas mileage is dropping quickly. Maybe your tires are wearing down way faster than they should be.
With impaired walking mechanics, you may feel aches and pains, grow more exhausted from an easy walk, or experience more wear in your hip and knee joints.
Just as your car needs proper maintenance, achieving walking gait norms requires proper alignment and coordination! If you’re dealing with pain while walking, or it takes more energy out of you than usual, speak to a gait specialist to assess what might be causing these symptoms.
Performing a thorough assessment requires time and specialized equipment. When you find the right place, they’ll not only help pinpoint the root cause of the problem, but they’ll also provide insight into how you can correct and alleviate your symptoms in the long-term.
Originally published on October 14, 2015; updated on May 25, 2022.