Many of us eventually arrive at the decision that we need to incorporate more movement into our lives. What is the most natural next step? Duh, we can just walk more! Right? Well, not exactly. In the last couple of blog posts, we explored how our movement-deprived bodies engage in too much continual hip flexion (from too much chair-sitting) and plantar flexion (from positive toed footwear) and some ways to correct for this. However, even after we have spent some time barefoot at our standing workstations… we still need to take a closer look at walking itself. Most of us are not walking efficiently and the way we walk is contributing to our alignment problems. It’s time to get our bodies walking in a healthier way, with a little help from natural movement specialist Katy Bowman.
We recruit the whole body when we walk: we push off from the foot and ankle, the leg moves back in hip extension, the pelvis rotates, the spine flexes, the arms swing. However, the amount of forward movement per step depends on the distance covered by the active push-off. This is directly related to the range of motion in the hip joint, as push-off is all about hip extension. The hip joint has huge forward propelling capability, but modern humans rarely take advantage of it. Our bodies have adapted so well to sitting in chairs and cars that we can no longer physically perform hip extension as we should.
Our muscles have become shortened in the sitting position, specifically the hip flexors and quads, causing a lack of mobility in the hip joint. As discussed in last week’s post, if the body cannot get mobility out of one joint, it will find it elsewhere. In order to cope, the body finds a way to perform the movement, whether it be twisting at the ankle and toe-walking, excessive bending and lateral movement of the knee, twisting at the hips or hinging at the lower back. It is easy to see how any of these modifications to the way we naturally evolved to walk would cause alignment problems and pain. (My own knee pain a few years ago was caused partly by tight quads, which pulled my knee laterally and out of its groove). So, if our gait is compromised by chronic hip flexion, we need to get some mobility back in our hips before we start increasing our walking.
The first step in improving hip extension is to release the muscles that impede the motion: the hip flexors and the quads. Here are some suggestions from Bowman’s book, “Move Your DNA”:
Get in a lunge position on a yoga mat, or something soft to protect your knee (see top image to the left). Make sure that your pelvis is in a neutral position by keeping the pubic bone and your two “hip bones” (the two protruding points in front you can touch when you put your hands on your hips) all in vertical alignment. In other words, don’t tip your pelvis forward when you get into this position, but rather keep it straight so it’s your leg that is bending back at the hip joint, not your spine bending. In the photo, the top pose is correct, the bottom is incorrect for this particular purpose.
Hip Flexor Release:
Lie on your back and prop the bottom half of your pelvis on a yoga block, bolster or pile of blankets. (The lower part of your backside should be on the block and the top half of your backside should tip toward the floor.) If you are using a yoga block, you can use it on the taller side to create more release. Don’t tuck your hips in order to make this happen; allow gravity to do the work for you. It may take a few minutes and multiple sessions to get your pelvis to relax.
Most of us know many stretches for the front of the thighs, but I like this one because the floor provides a good marker for keeping the pelvis in proper alignment. Lie on your stomach, with both “hip bones” and pubic bone touching the ground. Leaving your right leg on the floor, bend your left leg at the knee and reach back with your left arm to grasp your left ankle. You can use a strap if you can’t reach. I always have to twist my body a little in order to grab my ankle (otherwise sometimes I get a cramp in my hamstrings…a sure sign that my quads are still tight!), but after I grab it, I make sure to get myself back into the right shape. Alignment is important: your body should be straight, with your three hip points and your knee all touching the ground. Do not lift your knee up from the ground, because then you are bending at the spine, not at the hip.
Here is a video of Bowman herself explaining it better than I could, plus a great hip opener. There are many other techniques for releasing the hip flexors and quads – feel free to ask your personal trainer or yoga instructor for more ideas!
Once the muscles impeding a full range of hip extension have been addressed, the second step in further improving hip extension is to strengthen the posterior chain muscles which are responsible for performing the movement. The most dynamic way to do this is by walking. Yes! It’s finally time to get walking….remembering the cardinal rules: 1. slow and gentle progression, and 2. variety is key. Many of you might be thinking that starting slowly when I am talking about walking sounds ridiculous. I would have agreed with you a few years ago, until I suffered a stress fracture in my foot. I had been a runner for years, avidly researching training programs and running one or two half marathons per month, on top of my training schedule. I didn’t think walking “counted” as exercise. I had taken a short break from distance running, so my weekly mileage was lower than normal, when I discovered the beautiful greenbelt here in Austin. I started doing 6-10 mile hikes a few times per week, without including these miles in my training program. Within three weeks I gave myself a stress fracture. I had ignored a main tenet in running (build your base!) by discounting my walking miles. Long story short: build slowly. Taking walks after dinner is wonderful. If you haven’t been doing this, however, start with a mile or two a couple of times per week rather than starting with five miles every night. Your bones will thank you. Variety in the movement, like in many things, will provide the spice. Rather than doing three miles every time, try switching it up: two to four miles a couple of times per week and build up to one longer walk once a week. Choose different terrains and inclines. Our Austin greenbelt has miles of gorgeous trails, including rocks, soft dirt, packed dirt, relatively flat ground and many different degrees of incline and decline. Mix it up and have fun!
How about treadmill walking? I have written about this before, but it deserves a second mention in this context. If a treadmill is the only option due to extremes in weather or safety concerns, then the treadmill it is! However, if you have the choice between a treadmill and outside, here is one reason (of MANY) why outside is better. Treadmill walking or running increases hip flexion, which further shortens already shortened hip flexors. In normal walking, we push off from the fixed ground. In contrast, on a treadmill, the ground is moving, so the time we spend in the “push off” phase of hip extension is limited. We really spend our time “catching up” in order to avoid falling off the back. Walking in a way that encourages increased hip flexion and limited hip extension will not get us closer to healthier movement, although it is better than not walking at all.
Now we have a few tools to help us not only move more, but to move better. What’s the rub? Now we have to actually use them! It’s not enough to read about these adjustments. Incorporating these small changes over time will feel simple, and we will be rewarded with more flexible bodies and less painful movement!
“Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement – EXPANDED EDITION”, Katy Bowman, 2017