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Functional Training Part 1: Walking

We always hear people talking about ‘functional training’, and it usually involves flapping some ropes about, tossing a tyre and the occasional swing of a hammer, but really the most ‘functional’ exercises you can do are walking, running, picking stuff up (deadlifts) and getting up/getting down (get ups & squats).

So, with the intention of minimising the occurrence and severity of associated injuries and pains, and to make you as functional as possible, I’m going to teach and guide you along a path of self-assessment and adjustment, to achieve good technique and practice of these most Functional Movements.

This article is the first of a four-part series which will address each of the primary movements.

Walking

With the exception of those who are unable to walk, walking is the most important exercise you can do.

We use it every single day, without failure, and can’t get much done without it.

So, seems you do it so much; shouldn’t we make sure you’re doing it right?

Believe it or not, walking isn’t as simple as you might like to think… and a decent movement professional can tell a lot from just watching you put one foot in front of the other.

Although it seems like a really basic movement (and it should, you’ve been doing it for almost your entire life), there are many joints involved and therefore numerous ways it can be performed; few of them being ‘right’.

I put ‘right’ in inverted apostrophes because I believe every movement the human body allows us to do was designed for a purpose and therefore it isn’t ‘wrong’, although it may not be optimal for the desired output in the general example. It’s quite possible that what I’ll later refer to as ‘right’ may not be so for some people, due to injury, disability, deformity, anomalous anatomy or something else that didn’t instantly spring to mind – this accounts for about 4% of the population, so although it’s not common, it’s worth being aware of. But use your common sense in these cases and of course ask me about any uncertainties you have.

So, from now on, whenever I describe a movement or technique as ‘right’ (or any synonym to this), you can interpret that instead as ‘The most optimal movement pattern in most cases where someone has no circumstantial reason to deviate’.

Back to the basics

I know what you’re thinking, isn’t walking as basic as it gets?

Well, no it isn’t!

Before you can walk, you have to first be able to stand – and when we look at how you stand, we can get a pretty good idea of where problems might arise when you walk.

Let’s do a quick experiment. Kick your shoes off and get up on your feet. (If you were already standing, stay still)

Okay, now don’t fidget or move or anything.

Just take a look at your feet; spot anything that you think is a warning sign?

Give yourself a score out of 5 and we’ll see how well you did.

Keep still as we go through self-assessment; and all you have to do is give a tick for everything you get right.

1. Are your feet parallel to each other? (pointing the same way as one another)

2. Are they directly underneath the hip joint? (vertically beneath the bone at the front of your hip)

3. Are your knees pointing the same way as your feet?

4. Are your knees slightly bent? (you should be able to feel it but not see it)

5. Is the weight on the inner side of the ball of your feet? (little toe every-so-slightly touches the ground)

Okay, as you were.

So how did you do? 5 out of 5?

Well if you did, you’re either in the top 8% of the population or you’re a little cheating so and so!

So those are some of the most obvious signs we look for when assessing someone’s standing position, and the rest are a bit harder for self-assessment, so we’ll cover them in the articles on the deadlift, the get up and the squat.

Now that we know what you’re doing wrong, can we just straight-up adjust these and expect everything to be happy days?

Well, to a degree, yes.

In the majority of cases, functional discrepancies are formed through habitual or repetitive adoption of an imbalanced motion or action; which means that you can undo these functional discrepancies by replacing those habits with correct ones.

The Easiest Way Out Of A Hole Is Back The Way You Came In.

As much as there’s a reason why you developed these imbalances and we should be conscious of what that is, there is a lot that can be undone by simply correcting the faults we see and forming those corrections as habits.

So, here’s a basic guide to correcting faults in walking and standing mechanics.

Now I’ll say first of all, this is NOT for ALL cases. And you should seriously consider if your body has good reason for developing those faults before changing them.

But, with that taken into consideration, here is you go-to guide for good walking and standing mechanics:

Standing Correctly

Step 1

It’s easiest to identify changes from extremes, so let’s get you into a bad postural stance to start. Head forward, shoulders rounded forward, ribcage up, lumbar overextended, anterior pelvic tilt, feet turned out, foot arch collapsed.

Step 2

When readjusting posture, we always either start from the bottom or the top. So let’s start at the bottom. Place your feet under your hips, both facing the same direction. Now, without allowing the feet to move, add external rotation from your hips, screwing your feet into the ground – left foot anticlockwise and right foot clockwise.

Step 3

Now your feet are in the right place and your hips are tight, we carry that hip tension into your pelvis by tensing your butt cheeks. This should tuck your pelvis underneath you (picture a dog tucking its tail between its legs). Once your pelvis is in the right place, which will happen naturally after steps 1 and 2, you can then ease a bit of the tension from your glutes (butt cheeks), still maintaining that structural position.

Step 4

With that position set using your glutes, you now need to use your abs to hold that in place so you can relax your glutes for movement. To do this, take a deep breath in and imagine putting all that air into your belly. (don’t breathe out until step 5)

Step 5

As you prepare to let that breath out, pull your ribcage down onto your upper abdomen, and brace your abs. Bracing your abs shouldn’t create any movement, it’s simply contract the muscle so that it doesn’t budge. With your ribs down and abs secure, take a strong breath out and move onto step 6.

Step 6

At this point you should have everything from your feet to your trunk firmly in place. Now we need to align your shoulders and neck. To do the shoulders, draw the heads of your arms back and spread your collarbones. As you do this, externally rotate your shoulders and face you palms to the sky. Before you relax those arms down, center your head above your shoulders so that a vertical line could be drawn, connecting your ankles, knees, hips, ribs, shoulders and ears.

Step 7

With everything aligned, you can now take a final breath in to firm that position. As you breathe that breath slowly out, let your arms fall down at your sides, with thumbs pointed forward and a softness in all those muscles except the abs that want to retain about 20% of maximum contraction at all times.

Walking Correctly

Walking doesn’t actually vary that much from standing, in terms of the technical components.

You keep the same posture you had at the end of your standing technique, and then apply movement without deviation.

The only bits you really have to work on with this are how you create the movement and your foot strike; the rest is all technical stuff that shouldn’t even be need for the average person with no deep-set functional issues.

Step 1

The main fault I see, particularly with those suffering with low back pain, is that they put their bodyweight above the front foot as they step. The main muscles that should be used to create the walking motion are the glutes and calves… two muscles designed to move your leg backward. But if you put your bodyweight onto that leg and contract those muscles, your create a force that will either push the ground backward or you forward, and 9 times out of 10 that ground ain’t moving! So, when you’re walking, think about moving the ground backwards – the world is your treadmill!

Step 2

In a standing position, you should have a lot of externally-rotational force going from your hips into your feet, but this needs to be counterbalanced when you walk, or you’ll twist your feet out and put all the pressure onto the cartilage and ligaments in the joints (that’s not good). To combat this, step 2 is to put weight onto the inside of the heel of the leg that leads (in the air). Because the leg is in the air, you can’t physically put weight into that heel – so this won’t contradict step 1 – but trying to will activate a little muscle in the hip called the pectineus which stabilises your hip in opposition to your glute.

Step 3

With your glutes and calves doing all the pulling power and with the pectineus engaged, in theory you’re walking in a straight line with your feet pointing straight ahead. We now need to look at what happens when it lands. Instinctively, your body will want to walk with a heel strike on each landing, and it’s correct. But we seem to have misinterpreted what exactly our bodies mean by this. Instead of landing on the back of your heel with your toes up (like you probably currently do), your moving mechanics would be much smoother if you landed on the bottom of your heel with your toes 2 or 3 inches of f the ground.

Step 4

The next stage is to put that foot down in front to take your next step. Only, should that foot really be stepping in front? Thinking practically you’d say yes. But I’m going to say no. Because I want you to move your whole body forward with that leg, leaving the other one behind. So technically, you may be moving that leg forward, but you’re not putting it in front of you (at least not by much).So when that heel strikes, it should pretty much be directly underneath your chin. That doesn’t mean stick your chin out in front, but instead just lean slightly forward from your hips. This helps with the mechanics of loading onto your glutes and calves.

Addressing Discrepancies

As I mentioned earlier, there are occasions where what I prescribing here isn’t suitable, and without you in front of me, I can’t tell you whether that’s you or not.

But as a rule, don’t be stupid. If you feel pain or discomfort more than just the desire to return to your old position, then your body doesn’t think that it’s a very good position for you, and it’s usually right. However, it’s very rare that you should stay in your body’s preferred position permanently, as it’s usually the case that your body is telling you that because that’s the position that accommodates for whatever underlying issues you have

So first, you’ll have to repair those issues (if that’s possible) before you proceed to adopt the aforementioned stances.

If you don’t have the knowledge on how to address these issues, there are lots of professionals out there who are training in movement mechanics and posture, and can help you unravel what’s going on and restore you back to optimal mechanics.

And as it just so happens, I’m one of them!

So, if you want my help, here’s a little link to get in touch with me and have an assessment of what’s going on – Movement Training

I hope this article helped you and of course fire away any questions you have in the comments section either here or on Facebook.

And don’t forget to stay tuned for the next 3 parts to this series, covering how to Run, Deadlift, Squat & Get Up correctly.

Always Here To Help

Sam Ely

Advanced Nutritionist, Strength & Conditioning Coach, and Head Fitness Coach

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