The Gait Cycle in Physical Therapy

Woman in a skirt walking on a street.
Your PT can analyze your gait and walking ability. Dominik Eckelt/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Gait is your manner, pattern, or style of walking. Your physical therapist may analyze your gait to look for impairments or compensatory motions that may be causing your pain or functional mobility loss after injury or illness.

Walking, or gait, is often thought of by physical therapists as a gait cycle. Sometimes an injury or illness can change the way you walk, and this can lead to an altered gait cycle. Your PT can analyze your gait and offer strategies to help you walk better or more safely.

Steps of the Gait Cycle

There are different steps in the gait cycle. These include:

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

These descriptors are about the foot that is hitting the floor and accepting your weight when walking. What about the foot that is swinging through the air during the gait cycle? Here are descriptors for that foot:

  • Initial swing: when your foot is starting to leave the floor and about to start moving through the air.
  • Mid swing: when your foot is swinging through the air and is directly underneath your center of gravity.
  • Terminal swing: The moment just before your foot hits the ground.

Once your foot hits the ground at the end of terminal swing, it becomes the stance foot during initial contact, and the gait cycle repeats itself.

To effectively and safely walk, you need good strength and good balance; you have one foot swinging through the air 40% of the time while walking. The ability to stand on one foot is paramount to proper and safe walking. If you cannot stand on one foot, compensatory strategies, like walking with short steps or with a wide base of support, occur.

There are many types of gait patterns. Your physical therapist is trained to recognize these patterns and he or she can offer strategies to maximize your safe walking. By quickly analyzing your gait, your PT can offer you solutions to walk better and more safely. Your physical therapist may also have the tools and technology to perform a video gait analysis. This allows your PT to record your walking, slow it down, and make on-screen measurements of your gait and walking.

Examples Of Specific Gait Patterns

Your PT can analyze your gait. He or she may be looking for specific walking patterns. Then, your PT may examine you further to see why you are walking the way you are.

  • Antalgic Gait: painful gait, a limp is adopted to avoid pain on weight bearing structures (hip, knee, ankle).
  • Ataxic Gait: an unsteady, uncoordinated walk, a wide base of support is seen. 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, first on crutch, then the opposite leg followed by the other crutch and then the other leg.
  • Hemiplegic Gait: involves flexion of the hip because of inability to clear the toes from the floor at the ankle and cirumduction at the hip.
  • High Steppage Gait: This occurs when weakness of your anterior tibialis muscle causes foot drop and you must lift your foot up high to clear your toes over the ground.
  • Trendelenburg Gait: Weakness of your hip and gluteal muscles cause you to lean over sideways a bit while walking.
  • Spastic Gait: walk in which the legs are held close together and move in a stiff manner. often due to central nervous system injuries.

Each gait pattern has a distinct look and feature, and this can help you PT decide on the best treatment for you to improve your gait.

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 by understanding what may be causing a problem with gait, your physical therapist will know how to properly intervene to maximize your safe walking and functional mobility. Then, your PT can prescribe the best exercises and strategies for you to implement to restore your normal, safe gait pattern.

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Article Sources

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  • Tate JJ, Milner CE. Real-time kinematic, temporospatial, and kinetic biofeedback during gait retraining in patients: a systematic review. Phys Ther. 2010;90(8):1123-34.