Over the years the Rolfing° community has discovered many pearls of wisdom dealing with what elegant and economical walking looks like and how to evoke it. Yet these pearls have been loosely held within the context of the standard kinesiological model. We have never put together a model of walking that makes structural sense and fits our experiential wisdom. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate a structural and functional logic to walking. Indeed, our discovery and contention is that the structural dictates of human anatomy demand a different pattern of gait than is commonly seen or theoretically understood in our western techno-culture.
Our presentation does not attempt to cover all forms of human walking. We are primarily interested in unencumbered walking on a flat plane, perpendicular to the force of gravity. Our contention is that mastery of this most basic form will generalize to more appropriate use of the body in more complicated situations.
Let us first examine the basic parameters of walking.
The following seven points summarize the [commonly accepted] kinesiologic account of walking.
1. Walking is initiated at the hip with leg flexion.
2. Walking is assumed to be an alternating loss and recovery of balance. As a result of this assumption, most theorists assume that a balancing compensation is initiated to prevent falling on the unsupported side.
3. Knee flexion followed by extension takes the lower extremity ahead of the body’s center of gravity.
4. Toe-off by the supporting leg initiates forward movement by moving the center of gravity ahead of the base of support. “As the center of gravity moves forward, it momentarily passes beyond the anterior margin of the base of support and a temporary loss of balance results. At this point the downward pull of gravity threatens a complete loss of equilibrium. A timely recovery of balance is brought about, however, as the foot is placed on the ground.” (Wells, 414)
5. In order for the body to catch up with the foot, the heel strike of the swinging leg initiates what is known as the restraint phase. “Once the center of gravity passes beyond the base of support, it is essential to restrain the action of the trunk until a new base of support is established. Hence, as the foot is brought to the ground in front of the body at the close of its recovery phase, a restraining phase is constituted.” (Wells, 414)
6. As the support leg transitions into the swing leg of the next cycle, there is continuing toe-off from support leg into thrust phase.
7. A rocker action occurs along the striking foot as it rolls forward, usually along the lateral arch, with the medial arch taking its share of the load as swing leg transitions to support leg.
One of the major difficulties with the commonly accepted kinesiological account of walking is that it assumes that average is normal. To mistake the usual for the norm is a serious mistake that stands in the way of understanding the nature of normal walking. We, therefore, disagree with nearly every aspect of this model.
Let us now examine more carefully the underlying gratuitous assumptions of this model.
1. “Walking initiated at hip with leg flexion.” This assertion implies a static torso in which the psoas muscle has little or no function.
2. “Balancing initiated to prevent falling on the now unsupported side.” This statement assumes that walking is a continuous struggle to avoid falling and to regain lost balance. We assert that normal, unencumbered walking never manifests a falling or out of balance phase.
3. “Knee … extension ahead of body’s center of gravity.” Actually, in normal unencumbered walking, the knee is not extended as it moves forward, and the body’s center of gravity does not remain stationary while the leg moves forward.
4. “Toe-off from supporting leg to move center of gravity ahead of center of balance.” Once again, in normal walking the body is never out of balance, nor does forward momentum come only from the toe hinge.
5. “Heel strike of swing leg.” The word “strike” is problematic. It creates the misleading picture of a blow, shock, or forceful collision with the earth that the body must somehow absorb and compensate for.
6. “Continuing toe-off from supporting leg into thrust phase.” Physics indicates that thrust phase is only necessary because heel strike of the swing leg impedes forward momentum.
7. “Rocker action of striking foot as it rolls forward, usually along the lateral arch, with the medial arch taking its share of the load as it transitions into support function.” This description of moving from lateral to medial arch logically implies that pronation is normal. But the design of the foot does not support these assumptions.
These seven points taken together presents the following picture: The stride travels ahead of the center of gravity so at heel strike some of the forward momentum is lost in the form of impact that must be absorbed by the body. The momentum is recovered by the toe-off of the opposite foot as that side enters the swing phase, but it is lost again at heel strike. This model presents walking as a series of inefficient start/stop/start/stops and/or fall/catch/fall/catches.
If one takes efficiency as an operating principle of nature, this standard description of walking is totally inaccurate from both a structural and functional point of view. Let us examine, one at a time, the design of the foot, knee, and pelvis.
The feet contain one fourth of the bones in the entire body. When there has been no degradation of the foot, it forms three arches: lateral, medial, and transverse. These arches, suspended by musculature in the lower leg, effectively form a spring. In the [commonly accepted] model, however, at heel strike the calcaneus transfers much or even all of the impact to the talus. The talus transfers the impact to the tibia, which transfers impact to the femur, femur to acetabulum, to sacrum, to the rest of the spine. The vertebral discs are forced to function overtime as shock absorbers dampening the impact to the central nervous system and attendant sensory organs. “Disorders of the low back are currently the leading cause of disability in people under age 45.” (Porterfield, DeRosa., 1). The standard model, by effectively missing the importance of a fully articulating spring in the foot, supports a view of walking that makes back trouble a predictable by-product of human gait. However, when properly understood and utilized, this spring dramatically reduces the impact that the discs are forced to absorb and hence could benefit the many people suffering from back trouble.
The function of the knee in the standard model misses the significance of the fact that the human knee hinges forward. Since the object of walking is to translate the whole human in upright bipedal stance, hinging the knee forward of the center of gravity from a fixed hip is counterproductive. If the knee is forced to come to full extension just as the heel is impacting the ground at the point of maximum shock, it will be severely compromised in its capacity to absorb shock. The extended knee not only forces the leg to load the shock directly into the body, but also impedes forward momentum, as previously described. If the body were designed to walk by swinging the leg ahead of the center of gravity from a fixed hip, the principles of efficiency and functional economy would demand a very different action at the knee. The obvious correction in structure would be a knee joint that hinged backwards. Then, as the center of mass of the body traveled forward, it would encounter no resistance from an extended leg, and the knee hinge would be able to absorb initial contact shocks with the ground. The continued forward momentum of the body as it moves ahead of the back hinged knee joint would put it in an advantageous position to multiply leverage in the leg for forward momentum. The standard model provides the opposite of these characteristics. Ina nutshell, drawing out the consequences of the mistaken assumptions of the standard model shows that if humans were meant to walk by “stepping ahead of themselves,” then their knees would hinge backward like a bird’s.
This standard description of walking is functionally inefficient. The pelvis is the heaviest weight block of the body. The standard model’s fixed pelvis, square to the direction of travel, requires a swaying motion of the entire body from one side to the other to accommodate balance over the support leg. This homolateral movement happens while the body is supported by one leg and requires more muscular effort and neuromuscular coordination than necessary. Allowing the heaviest weight block to shift from side to side actually requires less energy than holding it in a fixed position. Furthermore, balancing homolaterally provides for no elastic storage of momentum, again requiring muscular effort to prevent overbalancing. Small wonder, then, that the movement of an average group of walkers in our society is seldom termed graceful.
A look at the underlying structure of the pelvis and leg reveal other serious problems with the standard view. If walking were meant to proceed in a straight line from a fixed pelvis, why then is the femur connected to the pelvis by an offset created by the neck of the femur, rather than a straight line? This offset implies a certain amount of rotation in the use of the femur, a rotation that must be resisted in the standard model. While the leg certainly is used in rotational activities other than walking, it makes no structural sense to build into a structure a rotational component that must be resisted in its most common activity.
Why, also, are there six dedicated lateral rotators of the femur and no dedicated medial rotators of the femur? From the perspective of efficiency, why would a structure evolve with a built-in rotational component that then must evolve a set of structures whose main function is to inhibit that rotation? The kinesiological model would have us believe that the structure resists itself, that walking is characterized by antagonism and struggle.
By understanding the pelvis as a solidified bony ring, the standard kinesiological model introduces yet another mistaken assumption that makes no structural sense. If the pelvis were designed to be fixed with movement operating from it instead of through it, then the standard model would make some sense. However, the sacroiliac joint is a fully articular joint separating the two [in nominates] of the pelvis. The two halves of the pelvis are joined by an amphiarthritic fibro cartilaginous joint at the symphysis pubis which though firm, does allow some small movement. The movement of these joints is at odds with the idea that the pelvis is a fixed bony ring.
Another structure whose function becomes difficult to understand according to the standard model is the psoas. Our cultural concept of the leg has the leg originating at the hip joint. This fits with the idea promoted by the standard model that the pelvis is fixed and movement originates from it. However, the psoas, a large and potentially powerful muscle, has limited ability to swing the femur forward from this position. It is neither sensible nor efficient to assume that a muscle with the potential power of the psoas would evolve with a pelvis that will not let its power be applied.
Dr. Ida P. Rolf created a theory and practice of myofascial manipulation and movement education. Her system is designed to organize the human structure with respect to both itself and the gravitational field in order to produce economy of function. Her description of the structural organization which produces optimum standing and sitting balance is quite clear. Unfortunately the attempt to describe optimal and economical walking has been less clear. One of the difficulties is that walking, like handwriting, is highly individual in its expression. We have all experienced recognizing our friends from afar by the signature of their movement through space.
Also, walking is very complex. The relationship of body segments in a static position is much easier to see and analyze. And, it is generally easier to manifest one’s best sense of structural order while standing. However, the primary wear and tear on a body does not occur when that body is in repose. Only when one is able to carry structural order into walking, is structural order fully integrated.
We believe that walking, like breathing, is currently greatly underrated. We also believe our new view of walking acknowledges the significance of walking and its power to restore and maintain balance and well-being. When we examine both our experiential wisdom and structural logic, a certain design makes itself apparent. Like the kinesiology model, the Rolfing model has seven points of reference which describe ideal base gait walking:
1. The torso must be balanced over and supported by the legs. If torso balance is “behind the line” and not centered through the femoral head, length and responsiveness in walking is necessarily inhibited.
2. Support, balance, and fluidity of movement improve when the center line adjusts to being carried first by one leg and then the other. In the static standing position, “the line” exists at the center of our body, between two “cylinders”. Many bodies make the mistake of trying to carry this line straight forward in space without allowing for the spiral adjustment of “the line” from one support leg to the other.
3. The “Cross Crawl” movement must be evident in shoulder and pelvic girdle coordination. This rotational balancing accommodates to the way the swing leg moves forward as the support leg stays behind. In order not to look like Egyptian hieroglyphics stuck on a wall, the scapulae counterbalance the rotation of the ilia and complete a spiral through the spine.
4. The pelvis must find dynamic balance on top of the legs. Functionally, a horizontal pelvis must be able to rock with equal ease both forward and back. Like the chair suspended on a ferr is wheel, an open pelvis has the ability to adjust and rock. Many Rolfers have mistakenly held against this pelvic freedom for fear of losing the horizontality of the pelvis, particularly when the pelvis rocks in such a way that it appears to shorten the low back. This confusion originated with Dr. Rolf. In her vision of walking, only the lumbars were expected to participate in the action. The whole spinal movement was not addressed. However, as will be explained in more detail later, an immobile, horizontal pelvis holds length and responsiveness out of the spine during walking.
5. Responsiveness! Everything participates in walking, if only by not holding against the action. Holding through the sternum, the ankles, the jaw, the head, the diaphragm, etc. inhibits the manifestation of functionally appropriate walking.
6. There must be differentiation of function between the axial complex (sacrum, spine, and cranium), and the girdles (in nominates and scapulae for our own purposes here). This means that the axial complex must be free to have its own coordinated response to walking, distinct from the coordination of the girdles. This differentiation of response is visible when the “psoas walk” sometimes makes a surprise guest appearance at the end of a Rolfing session. Functional differentiation of spine from girdles is a highly sophisticated response which requires intrinsic dexterity.
7. Finally, in order for there to be optimum length in motion, which allows appropriate responsiveness, the impulse to move must be two directional. To get off the ground, one must be able to simultaneously let down and lift /off. Even a bird, cannot fly unless it is able to push down on the wind with its wings while stretching upwards through its structure. When a person is caught with either too much resting down or too much holding up, length or responsiveness or both will be lost. As Hubert Godard elucidated, people will show a preference to initiate movement either by reaching more toward the earth or more toward the sky, but once in motion, integrated walking demonstrates the two directional impulse to simultaneously ground and lift.
Using our seven points of reference and following the principle of efficiency as one of nature’s prime directives, we discover an anatomical logic for walking. Let us begin at the initiation phase of walking. In the standard model, the center of gravity stays behind and the leg (originating at the hip) initiates action ahead of the center of gravity of the body. What happens if, instead, initiation occurs at the center of gravity? As the body prepares for leg swing, weight begins to shift to one leg. The physics and principles of efficiency require that the center of gravity continue forward with little deviation both laterally and vertically. Since the heaviest weight block of the body is the pelvis, logically, most of the weight shift will be accomplished by allowing the pelvis to rotate in the horizontal plane over the leg that is to become the support leg. The pelvis is marvelously adapted to accommodate this weight shift because it rests on a ball joint.
Many events start to happen simultaneously from the initiation of weight shift, radiating both up and down the body. As the pelvis rotates to shift the balance point of the body over a single support leg, the femur, due to the structural geometry of its offset head, rotates medially. The femoral rotation is passively resisted and therefore cushioned by the stretching of the six lateral rotators of the femur. This stretching protects the hip joint from over-rotating and damaging the joint. Because they are stretched, the rotators are now poised in the most advantageous position for initiation of the reciprocal pelvic action. When the femur is allowed to naturally rotate, the body is exactly balanced over that leg. Because this action is accomplished with limited neuromuscular effort, balance is not so much acquired as it is provided.
These transitions during the initiation phase of walking all occur while both feet are on the ground. The swing phase does not begin until after balance is shifted to the support leg. Two footed stance until balance is established over a single support leg is certainly logical if one is to attempt the “precarious” task of bipedal walking.
While the pelvis is rotating laterally around the head of the femur, and the femur is rotating medially, and the center of gravity of the body is proceeding forward, a slight twist is set up across the horizontal axis of the pelvis. At the point of swing phase from standing, the in nominate of the support leg remains horizontal and the in nominate of the swinging leg rotates slightly posterior relative to the vertical. As this leg becomes the support leg, the posterior leg goes to full extension, causing a slight anterior response in its in nominate. It is at this point that the two in nominates are in greatest torsion. This torsion is nicely accommodated for by the fully articular joint of the sacroiliac. The consequential twist across the pubis is quite small and is accommodated for by the amphiarthritic joint of the symphysis pubis.
When the position of the pelvis is not squared to the direction of walking, it allows the psoas to swing the leg forward from the center of the body through the pelvis. In this model of efficient walking, forward leg swing never travels ahead of the body’s center of gravity. Consequently, there is little momentum lost and little difference between acquired and lost momentum to be absorbed as shock to the body. In the first step the amount of momentum is small. The principle of efficiency requires that to minimize strain on the body, the first step must be small, like using first gear in a automobile to accelerate from a standstill. As momentum increases, succeeding steps increase in length. Length of stride is defined by the behind leg as the swing leg finds its place under the center of gravity.
From a biomechanical point of view, other synergistic effects are afforded. Heel strike in the standard model occurs toward the back of the calcaneus. The bigger the stride, the further back on the calcaneus is the strike and the greater the shock transferred to the tibia. In our model, heel contact occurs more forward on the calcaneus than the kinesiological model allows. From this point of impact the complex structure of the foot suddenly makes as much sense in walking as it does in standing. The arches of the foot now function as an elastic spring absorbing the forward momentum of the swing leg, conserving as much of that energy as possible in the ligaments and myofascial suspensory structures of the arches and transferring little shock to the tibia.
The rocker action of the foot is still present, but the longitudinal arches of the foot come in contact with the ground more quickly, with the action moving through the center of the foot. This provides a broader, surer surface for support as the swing leg becomes the support leg.
To continue our analysis, as the pelvis rotates to one side and the femur medially rotates to assist and accommodate the pelvic movement, a wave of spiral biomechanical action proceeds down the leg. Since walking is a linear objective, the medially spiraling action must be countered at some point, otherwise we would screw ourselves into the ground. This counteraction is passively provided by the friction of the sole of the foot as it connects with the ground. The foot, whose longitudinal axis has an antero posterior orientation, provides a nice lever for opposing medial rotation. This resistance is communicated to the tibia, which opposes the rotation at the knee. This is called the “screw home” of the tibia on the femur. The screw home takes the knee joint into its close packed position, which is the position in which a joint is most capable of withstanding stress, and which occurs at the point in the stride where the knee is bearing the most weight.
As this biomechanical spiral radiates through the pelvis to the ground, what happens in the upper body? When the pelvis shifts to provide balance over the support leg, a mild side-bend is induced in the lumbar vertebrae. This side bend will be opposite the support leg. Freyette’s Law of spinal mechanics tells us that the vertebrae in the side-bend will rotate into the side-bend. As a consequence, if the left is becoming the support leg, a right side bend will be induced in the lumbars. In a right side bend, the vertebrae will rotate body left. If this rotation is not resisted by the deep muscles of the spine, the torso above the side-bend will rotate slightly to the left. Given a relaxed shoulder girdle, the torso rotation in turn imparts a contra lateral scapulae response. The track of this shoulder response is not straight front to back. Rather, it is tangent to the spiral of action and arm swing tracks at a slight diagonal to the direction of walking.
This upper body movement is in marked contrast to the cultural habit of maintaining a straight spine, squared shoulders, and swinging the arms from the shoulder socket via pure muscular effort. It is, however, congruent with the idea that walking is a whole body, synergistic activity. The whole body participates and conserves energy rather than the legs carrying the rest of the body, which then must accommodate that effort.
The concepts so far clarified may not be necessarily new to our school. Now we wish to put forth several new ideas around which our model hinges.
An integrated body, when set into motion, i.e. walking, will look optimally like an undulate in which all the joints of the body open and close. There is functional logic intrinsic to this concept. The undulate is a movement as old as life. It can be observed throughout the biological kingdom, from amoeba and sperm to fish, giraffes, ocean waves and palm fronds. One needs to observe machinery (or humans imitating machines) to find movement other than this.
The undulate of walking is extremely subtle and complex. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen proposes that we are instinctively programmed to walk and that the stages of learning mirror the evolution of the animal kingdom. Without outlining all the stages and how each one organizes spatial relationships and movement patterns in the body, we can look at several stages of human development which practice individually the components of this complex undulate which we contend are meant to be carried into walking.
Before babies are able to get on all fours, they begin to creep on their bellies. Their movement is a side winding undulate like a snake’s motion at first and then includes the limbs in a movement pattern that echoes the lizard’s style of perambulation. This action opens and closes the joints of the spine laterally and prepares the spine to side-bend in response to weight shifts from one leg to the other.
The next stage of development involves the baby pushing with its arms in order to rock back on its haunches in the first preparation for crawling on all fours. But before crawling, babies spend some time learning how to rock forward and back, pushing back with the arms, taking the body into a crouch and then pushing forward with the knees, elongating the spine. These motions also create an opening and closing of the joints in another plane. On a smaller scale this motion mirrors an action similar to the spring or pounce of four legged animals. Picture the slow motion films that you may have seen of a running leopard or a racing horse. There is a closing of the spine while the limbs gather together and then an opening along the front of the spine as the animal extends along the horizontal plane.
In human walking, the psoas participates in the gathering together of limbs and spine and the stretching out, this time, around the vertical line. So it is not just the lumbars that contract and extend while the head glides along a smooth horizontal plane. The whole spine is subtly involved in this coherent pattern of movement. It is an undulation.
As one leg lifts off the ground and moves forward, all joints close slightly, contracting around the vertical line while one’s center of gravity moves forward. With the torso balanced over the support leg, both legs (not just the back toe-hinge) push into the ground as the spine reaches toward the sky. As the swing phase begins, the joints are opening, unloading their stored angular momentum, in a mild, even spiral that is balanced over the grounded support leg. It is not accurate to describe this movement as a mild falling, because there is never a moment that one is not centered and grounded. It is true that falling would occur if momentum were suddenly interrupted. This is called tripping. At whatever speed the momentum of walking is proceeding, the body provides adequate support in every phase of walking to fully carry its own weight and therefore is never out of balance.
When we put together the structural logic of a rotational movement response to weight bearing with the functional logic of opening and closing joints, we have then a model which describes an opening and closing, head to toe, spiral. This spiral closes toward the center and opens in the other direction for the next step.
In contrast to the conflict/ resistance required by the purely muscle driven engine of the kinesiology model (Gracovetsky, 305), this synergistic model of walking demonstrates how the action of shifting one’s weight bearing balance from one leg to the other actually produces reciprocal, stored, angular momentum in the ligamentous and myofascial structures of the body (Gracovetsky, 306).
A watch spring provides us with a useful analogy. As the spring unloads its energy into the movement of the balance wheel, the balance wheel effects the movement of the gear mechanism and then stores its remaining momentum in an oppositely wound spring, which then unloads its energy into the balance wheel in the opposite direction, etc. [In this analogy], the watch springs correspond to the ligamentous and myofascial structures of the body.
The concept of helical’ actions may appear to be a paradox for Rolfers who have defined efficiency structurally and statically through the medium of vertical and horizontal lines of transmission and action. We have observed that the more balanced and efficient a human body becomes, the closer the movement pattern demonstrates clear horizontal hinge action and vertical integrity.
This language of horizontals and verticals, however, does not deny helical structure and action. This apparent difficulty can be resolved by means of the basket weave principle, or the principle of counter-rotating helices. We are presenting a new picture of human anatomy/kinesiology which abandons the simplistic lever/pulley relationship between bones and muscles. Our view also requires giving up the practice of isolating individual muscle action from each other in order to explain movement. Once one stops automatically isolating one muscle group from another while observing human anatomy, what emerges for observation is a helical fiber weaving from head to toe. For example, right pectoralis major becomes left internal obliques become right gluteals, etc. At every level one finds that the fibers of the body are laid down in crossing diagonal helices, like a woven basket. This design answers our seeming paradox. When one sees clearly woven, balanced, diagonal fibers, verticals and horizontals become apparent without being anatomically present.
The verticals and horizontals Rolfers see and talk about in bodies are result of the angle of intersection of counter-rotating helices created by the fiber winding of the body tissues. The degree of horizontality and verticality is dictated by the relative Balance in the helices. We have long spoken of deviations from vertical and horizontal as occurring in the form of rotation. This model of seeing the body as counter-rotating helices explains this observation in terms that become lawful and predictable. As an unbalanced (with respect to the vertical) counter-rotating helical pair progresses to its next intersection, the angle of the intersection is necessarily reversed and the bisection of the their angle corrects toward the vertical.
Furthermore, laws of physics and mathematics define the efficiency of the helical model (Willson, 39-40, 122-126; Vinogradov, 398400) in the following way:
1. A helix is the simplest form for representing three dimensional space.
2. A helix is the most efficient form to transition from one plane of action to another.
3. A helix has the most efficient kinetic storage potential. It can integrate both angular and linear momentum separately or simultaneously.
4. A helix is the most efficient form for storing sequential information, such as D.N.A. (Sequential information is information that is self-referencing, meaning that it can listen to itself).
Ida Rolf believed that we were still evolving into our grace and ease as two-legged creatures. Certainly we do not see manifest around us either the picture that we have evoked with words or the grace demonstrated by some primitive tribes, capable of walking endlessly. However, as most of us have experienced through Rolfing something we call “core lift”, or feeling simultaneously grounded and lifted, many readers may recognize the experience that have attempted to describe.
We see the body as perfectly designed for an action as efficient as the ticking of a watch. Walking is practically a perpetual motion design which uses the musculature of the body evenly and completely in cooperation with the gravitational field.
“This is the gospel of Rolfing: When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then spontaneously, the body heals itself. ”
Dr. Ida P. Rolf
1 Authors’ Note: In prior versions of this paper “spiral” was used exclusively. Even though in common usuage the words spiral and helix are used inter changably, the mathematical definitions differ. A spiral is the path of a point moving around an axis while approaching or receding from that axis. A helix is any curve on a developable surface such that when the surface is flattened out upon a plain it becomes a straight line.