Assertive walk – what is an assertive walk and can we train it?

We are all unique and special right? Well yes! Of course we are!  There is a lot about each and every human being that differentiates them from everyone else. Our physical makeup contains a good number of these unique qualities. 

A fingerprint is the quintessential unique physical identifier. The pattern of the iris in your eye would be another great example of a physical feature that is particular to the individual. 

And while physical bits and pieces might be classic identifying features, they are certainly not the only ones. Movement patterns, like our walk for example, are also unique constructs that are informed by (and that perhaps also inform) our personality, mechanics, mood and environment. 

Movement can be used to make attributions about us by observers. 

Researchers have shown that general personality characteristics such as extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness have been attributed to individuals by observers viewing video clips of movement as short as 16 seconds long. 16 seconds is not a long time. That first impression can be based on very fleeting and detached interactions indeed!

Even the way that people will vote in an election has been shown to be influenced by movement patterns of the politicians standing for office! Imagine that electioneering might depend in part on having the candidate move in ways acceptable to the electorate. Campaigns might have to hire movement experts to train politicians in such pleasing movements. Actually and depressingly, I can imagine that this is already the case…

One of the things that we also know is that while observers may be quick to make judgments about us based on our movements, those judgements are (and I hope that this is obvious!) not always accurate. In fact one interesting 2012 study found that observers were reliable but not valid in the way that they judged people based on their walk. That is, they consistently jumped to the same conclusions about the personality traits of a walker on multiple separate observations. But these conclusions did not correspond to the walkers actual personality traits as judged by standardized personality tests.

So the old adage that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover should extend to judgements about the books walk as well it seems! 😉

Still, accurate or not, others DO make judgments about us based on the way that we move. Given that, it is in our interest to manage those judgements by managing our movements. Think of it as like managing perceptions by wearing sharp clothes. And the best part is that unlike those sharp clothes, moving beautifully doesn’t cost a penny!

Of interest to us in this particular blog are walk based perceptions of our physical vulnerability. Observers do assess walks for signs of  physical vulnerability. Believe it or not, research has assessed the features of gait styles identified as weak by convicted violent criminals (I know… who exactly does this kind of research!?).

Features of a walk considered weak include:

  • Short stride length
  • ”Full” foot lift, that is, low ankle motion through the swing portion of stride, and flat foot strike on landing.
  • Small size of arm swing
  • ”Constrained”  movement, that is, tight with poor dissociation between upper and lower body.
  • Slow speed.
  • ”low” energy.

Conversely, features of a strong walk include:

  • Long stride length.
  • Higher Speed.
  • Upper/lower body dissociation, this means that as the pelvis rotates left in gait, the trunk rotates right to keep the chest and head facing forward – and vice versa.
  • Large arm swing (within reason people!)
  • ”High” energy.
  • Fluidity of movement, “loose joints” (not constrained or stiff).

In the video above I discuss these features of an assertive walk with MMA fighter and owner of Girls Who Fight Inc. Gemma Sheehan. Gemma teaches assertive posture, movement and voice, as well as mixed martial arts, to girls and women in Toronto and internationally.  She is a highly regarded self defense expert with a strong MMA record. Anyone with the courage to get in a ring (square, octagon… you name the shape) to fight another person in front of a raucous crowd has my utmost respect. It helps that she is a delightful person to talk with as you can see in the video.

Gemma has a keen interest in this topic and offers us her insights and tips in the video. You can learn more about Gemma and the work that Girls Who Fight does locally and abroad at her website here.

Now we understand the features of “Strong” walking. Here’s an important question: can we “learn” movement patterns? In other words, can we modify our walk through repeated conscious effort? Well, research suggests that this is the case. 

One study examined the effect on ratings of walk vulnerability for women who took one on one “walk training” classes. And walkers who trained the skill of walking with strength were rated as less vulnerable to attack after the lessons. This is encouraging to all of us! 

If we train muscular strength with resistance training we can get stronger. If we train cardiovascular endurance we can run longer. And just like with any other skilled movement, if we train “strong walking” we can improve the perceived strength of our walk. It’s really no different than training to serve a tennis ball, it’s just another skilled movement. 

That’s why I call these types of movement patterns “the skill of human movement”! They are trainable like any other skill!

Here’s another thought for all of us… I think that it’s very important to note that while an outside observer might infer all of these things about us (and more) from our walk, we also infer things about ourselves by the way we walk. 

What are we saying to ourselves about ourselves when we walk in a manner that we would objectively perceive to be weak if we drew our attention to it. Similarly what do we say to ourselves when we walk in a manner that we would perceive as strong?

If positive self talk is important at all, and I believe it is, then I would choose the latter, to speak to myself with strength about who I am. 

Yet another good reason to train ourselves on the features of a strong walk and on beautiful movement in general. Have fun!


Further reading (if you really want to impress your friends)

Gunns, R. E., Johnston, L., & Hudson, S. M. (2002). Victim selection and kinematics: A point-light investigation of vulnerability to attack. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 26(3), 129-158.

Johnston, L., Hudson, S. M., Richardson, M. J., Gunns, R. E., & Garner, M. (2004). Changing Kinematics as a Means of Reducing Vulnerability to Physical Attack 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(3), 514-537.

Koppensteiner, M. (2013). Motion cues that make an impression: Predicting perceived personality by minimal motion information. Journal of experimental social psychology, 49(6), 1137-1143.

Kramer, R. S., Arend, I., & Ward, R. (2010). Perceived health from biological motion predicts voting behaviour. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63(4), 625-632.

Thoresen, J. C., Vuong, Q. C., & Atkinson, A. P. (2012). First impressions: Gait cues drive reliable trait judgements. Cognition, 124(3), 261-271.


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