The Gait Cycle in Physical Therapy

Analyzing changes in the way you walk can help tailor treatment

Gait is your manner, pattern, or style of walking. An easy walking gait is normal and healthy, but injury, illness, or muscle weakness can cause pain or functional mobility loss that affects your gait. Such changes in the way you walk are what medical professionals refer to as an altered gait cycle. This is unhealthy since compensating for an abnormality can cause injuries in other areas or put you at higher risk for a fall.

Woman in a green dress walking outside on a paved pathway
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A doctor or physical therapist can analyze your gait cycle and offer strategies to help you walk easily and safely. Understanding what happens during a gait cycle can give you a better sense of what your healthcare professional is looking for when evaluating you and what might need to be addressed in therapy.

Phases of the Gait Cycle

The gait cycle of the foot that is hitting the floor and accepting your weight when walking consists of specific phases, which you move through as you step. They include:

  • Initial contact: The moment your foot hits the floor
  • Weight acceptance: The moment your body weight is placed upon your foot
  • Midstance: The moment your center of gravity is over your foot
  • Terminal stance: The moment your foot is about to leave the ground

The other foot, which is simultaneously swinging through the air, goes through three phases:

  • Initial swing: The moment your foot leaves the floor and starts moving through the air
  • Midswing: The moment your foot is swinging through the air and directly underneath your center of gravity
  • Terminal swing: The moment just before your foot hits the ground

Once these three phases are complete, and upon initial contact with the ground, this foot becomes the stance and the gait cycle repeats itself.

One foot swings through the air 40% of the time you're walking.

Examples of Abnormal Gait Patterns

There are many types of gait patterns. Your physical therapist is trained to recognize them and offer strategies to maximize safe walking.

Gait analysis is done visually and your therapist may use video to evaluate your movements in slow-motion and take onscreen measurements.

Your therapist may notice:

  • Antalgic gait: Using a limp to avoid pain on weight bearing structures (hip, knee, ankle).
  • Ataxic gait: An unsteady, uncoordinated walk, normally due to cerebellar disease
  • Festinating gait: Short, accelerating steps are used to move forward; often seen in people with Parkinson's disease.
  • Four-point gait: Utilized by crutch users; one crutch steps forward, then the opposite leg steps forward followed by the other crutch and the other leg
  • Hemiplegic gait: Involves flexion of the hip because of inability to clear the toes from the floor (foot drop)
  • High-steppage gaitAnother symptom of foot drop when weakness of your anterior tibialis muscle forces you to lift your foot high so your toes don't drag
  • Trendelenburg gait: Weakness of your hip and gluteal muscles cause you to lean sideways while walking.
  • Spastic gait: The legs are held close together and move in a stiff manner, often due to central nervous system injuries.

After a gait analysis, your PT will examine you further to see why you are walking the way you are.

A Word From Verywell

Learning about gait and the gait cycle is an important component of your physical therapist's education. By recognizing specific patterns and understanding what may be causing a gait problem, your physical therapist can prescribe the best exercises and strategies to restore your normal, safe gait pattern.

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