Posted October 24, 2014

Crawling Your Face Off

I’m a big fan of crawling, and not just for infants, frat boys on Saturday nights, or sniper ninjas sneaking up on their unsuspecting opponents. Crawling is one of those basic “template movements” where a lot of things can happen simply from that position to make adjustments, give variations, and produce entirely different exercises based on who you’re working with, scaled from rehab to elite athlete.

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It’s a basic developmental movement that allows infants to go from stationary, using only rolling patterns to move from one place to another, to being somewhat mobile and able to explore their environment. In adults, it’s a challenge to the shoulders, core and hips as the quadruped position redistributes gravitational forces in new directions that we’re not used to. Upright standing puts more emphasis on axial compression, whereas crawling causes the spine and core to manage forces through the transverse plane and to manage low level shear stresses through the spine. The hips are working on a flexed position, and the shoulders are working on bearing weight with a locked out elbow, meaning the scapulae and muscles around it are working to keep the scaps from slapping off the rib cage. Like I said, there’s a lot going on.

One interesting thing that happens with crawling is the typical matrix of stability/mobility segments becomes reversed. The sacrum and lumbar spine has to have some mobility to allow the hips to move, the scapulae needs to be more stiff against the ribs, and the thoracic spine needs to be less mobile to allow for more stabilization to occur compared to bipedal stance. This juxtaposition gives a big challenge to the body, but also to the brain in order to coordinate the arms and legs in a new manner. Some of the patterns, like forward crawling are automatic and take very little time to figure out, but then some patterns like backwards and sideways crawls take a lot of mental energy, as well as physical exertion.

So let’s start at the beginning. One of the easiest crawling patterns to use is a forward crawl working on opposing arm and leg action. Think about how you would walk or run when upright on two feet. When you reach forward with your left arm, you wind up striding forward with your right leg, and vice versa. That’s what’s going to happen with a crawl pattern.

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In this video I used a small 2.5 lb or 1 kg plate on the point where my low back meets my pelvis and it acts as a positional feedback tool to let me know how much hip roll I’m getting. The goal is to make sure the plate stays put and doesn’t slide off my back. If it does, I’m moving my hips side to side too much and I’m not in control of the movement. From there we can work on elongating the phase where I’m on 2 points.

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This is a tricky version, and may make you look like a small lizard crawling, but lizards like this are bad ass so go for it.

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Not bad ass enough for you? How about this little guy who RUNS ACROSS WATER LIKE A CHAMP!!!!

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Off-topic, but cool nonetheless.

A more challenging variation, both from a strength aspect but also a motor programming aspect is a simple backwards crawl. This one will make you feel like you’re back in elementary school trying to figure out how to square dance all over again. Left foot forward? Right foot back? Do si do?? What the hell am I doing!?!!? Additional to this mental and most likely social anxiety, the movement requires a lot more from the shoulders to drive the movement forward, an aspect that was performed by the hips in the forward crawl.

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A no less challenging but slightly different variation is a lateral crawl, still working on getting opposite arm and leg moving together.

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A stepped up version from this is adding in an element of hip rotation to the mix in an amoeba crawl, a name that pays homage to a unicellular being with a flaggellum who’s milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

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Here’s a way cooler and more fluid version performed by Dewey Nielsen.

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Okay this is just getting ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome.

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A crawl is like a moving plank with controlled movement coming from all four limbs in a concentrated and concerted effort to maintain balance, strength, and positional stability. It’s easy enough to do, but challenging to include in any workout. I’ve had seasoned veterans of strength struggle and lose the ability to breathe and even almost black out with a short length of crawling, and conversely seen clients with a history of low back pain benefit from some variations, either stepped down or at any given level. It’s fun to mix into a workout to challenge someone mentally and physically, and can be made easier by reducing the distance between limbs and keeping the elbows straight, or challenge the person more by spreading the arms and legs apart and getting lower to the floor.

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When starting with crawls, try to pick a space where you can go uninterrupted for ideally 20 yards or meters, making multiple round trips as needed. From there progress up in distance or add some intensity with either a load to carry or expanding your base. Make sure you’re braced, not letting the knees come too far ahead of the hips (to keep the low back from rounding and pressurizing posteriorly, at least initially until you can control the movements), and focus on maintaining the ability to breathe deeply and without hesitation or pausing.

Crawling works really well when added at the beginning of a workout as a dynamic warm up, at the end as a finisher, or in the middle as a filler or superset activity paired with pretty much anything you would like. It’s like cheap beer in that it goes well with anything. It also leaves you feeling slightly tipsy, much like cheap beer. There may even be a sense of regret, but at least no ones getting pregnant from a crawling pattern.

  • Shane Mclean

    Love it Dean and all the variations. That Dewey guy is insane.

  • gizzard of oz

    Thanks for this. First time I’ve seen pausing crawls. Would you view crawling as being a workout in and of itself? And do you esteem crab crawls (crawling with heels on the floor and back facing the floor) as being any good for posterior development? Or are they dangerous for the shoulder?

    • deansomerset

      Eric Cressey wrote a really good piece on this very question a few weeks ago. Essentially, it’s going to put a lot more pressure on the anterior shoulder and be really difficult to control properly without having some increased risk of excessive stress through the area. I’d rather go with the versions outlined in the article than a crab walk. They’ll be a great workout on their own, and in addition to any other exercise program.

      • gizzard of oz

        Thank you Dean. I see, that makes sense. It’s great that a host of strength coaches are breaking down the benefits of crawling movements.