10 gait training exercises that may help balance and coordination after a stroke

therapist Natalie using Ekso with SCI patient

The vast majority of strokes affect the motor cortex, which sits at the lower back portion of the brain. As the name suggests, it controls movement by sending and receiving information from the arms and legs through the brainstem and spine. Usually, the stroke will affect either the right or left side of the brain, which controls the opposite side of the body. 

Depending on the stroke’s severity and the amount of time before initial treatment, patients’ muscle groups and walking abilities can be affected in different ways. The strength and tone of muscles can change, as well as the patient’s awareness and sensations of their limbs, their balance mechanisms, the timing of their gate, and their walking speed. 

The first three months of stroke rehabilitation are the most critical window for recovering strength and abilities. This article will cover some examples of gait training exercises we use with patients at Ability KC.

What are gait training exercises?

Gait training exercises target specific muscle groups, sensations and parts of a patient’s gait (e.g., their manner of walking or moving on foot) that have been affected by a stroke. Patients typically begin with a gait analysis to break down what parts of their gait are strongest and what parts are weakened or deviate from what’s considered a “normal” gait. Patients start their exercises with small, repetitive movements that isolate one part of their gait and slowly put them together for more complex, fluid movements.

The exercises we’ll cover here, and the ones that are easiest to practice at home, don’t require any special equipment. Patients in our day rehabilitation program and outpatient programs will use specialized equipment like the Ekso GT and functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike to build up their walking abilities.

10 gait training exercises for stroke rehabilitation

Some of these gait training exercises build muscle strength or balance, and some are micro-movements that make up your walking gait. In your first days of recovery, just a few reps can take a lot of effort — and some shaking is expected. Remember that walking involves movement in your arms and core, too, so swinging your arms and rotating your trunk can be good balance exercises to complement these.

You might start with the first two exercises, which are seated, and set a goal for the number of reps you want to reach before adding more to your routine. Soon you’ll find yourself doing more complex movements and longer exercises every day.

Here are 10 gait training exercises you can practice at home:

  • Seated knee extensions — Start seated in a chair with your legs in front of you and your back straight and tall. Extend one leg out and try to point your toe, and then release it down with control. Then do the same with the other leg and alternate back and forth. 
  • Seated marches — Start in the same position, except lift one knee toward the ceiling at a time. You might start with small movements and try to lift higher as you get stronger.
  • Left to right weight shifts — The rest of the exercises are done standing. Shifting your weight between your lower limbs is a critical part of keeping your balance as you walk. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart (holding on to something is perfectly fine) and move your hips slightly to the left, putting more weight on that foot, and then shift to the right.
  • Flamingo stands — Once you’re confident with shifting your weight, start lifting the opposite foot as you shift left and right. As you get better at this, hold the raised leg up longer.
  • Forward steps over level surfaces and obstacles — Make one step forward with your left foot, and then move it back to the starting position. Then do the right foot. You can put something on the floor in front of you like a book or a pair of socks to add some height to your step.
  • Sit to stand — This one is exactly what it sounds like: Start in a seated position and stand; then sit back down. You can alternate putting more pressure on your left and right leg if you want.
  • Step-ups — The next progression is to step up with your left foot first onto a stair or platform, and then step back down with your right and left foot. Repeat for the other side.
  • Side steps — These movements help with bearing weight between both of your legs. As you shift your weight to the left side, lift your right foot and extend it out sideways. Lower it down with control; then shift to the right and move your left foot out.
  • Knee to chest — For the last couple of exercises, lie on your back. With both legs extended, raise one knee to your chest; then lower it and do the other.
  • Toe taps — This one takes a lot of strength. While lying on your back, raise both knees up with your shins at a 90-degree angle. Touch your left toes to the ground; then raise them back up and repeat with your right leg. 

Get help with stroke rehabilitation at Ability KC

Recovery after a stroke is time sensitive. To reach your fullest potential, you’ll need an integrated team of therapists that understands your personal goals and interests. We tailor each care plan to the individual patient’s needs for engaged and comprehensive treatment experiences. 

Start with our day rehabilitation program for the highest level of support, or if you’re further along in your recovery, outpatient treatment is also available. We accept most major insurance carriers, and try to help remove payment barriers. Learn more about eligibility and our admissions process.

Questions? Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.