The Bear Walk/Crawl is more than just a warm-up movement. Performed properly and in a variety of ways, it is a full body exercise that stimulates and builds high levels of strength, flexibility, and body control.
For years, various “animal” movements and locomotive patterns have been used in calisthenics, gymnastics, martial arts, and playground games, and their positive effects reach beyond just being fun exercises.
In this article, we’ll go over the details of why and how the Bear in particular is a powerful exercise, and how it is so much more than just moving around with your hands on the ground.
Why Everyone Can Benefit From Locomotion
First let’s have look at what makes locomotion work in general so helpful.
A Really Quick Primer on Movement Terms
When talking about movement, you might hear the following terms:
- Closed Kinetic Chain (often described as Closed Chain) – this is where a limb is fixed and the rest of the body moves around it.
- Open Chain – in which a limb moves around freely.
An everyday example of both of these is walking, where the foot on the ground is the base of a closed chain for that leg. As your body is propelled forward, the leg that is swinging forward for the next step is an open chain movement.
Many traditional training exercises tend to fall under one or the other category.
For instance, pull-ups are a closed chain exercise for the upper body because your hands are fixed and you are lifting your body up toward them, while doing a pull-down on a machine is open chain because your body is stable and you are moving your hands.
Here’s Why This Matters…
So what does this mean beyond just being a neat biomechanics terminology lesson?
It’s useful because both types of movement provide different stimuli to the body. We’ll discuss this in detail below, using several variations of the Bear as examples.
But one general – and incredibly important – distinction in locomotion work is that the spine and trunk both have to be more involved in creating and handling dynamic forces. Placing the hands on the ground obliges your upper back to work and stabilize to maintain correct positioning.
This is a stimulus we don’t always get in regular activity, and it improves your upper spine’s ability to be a supportive platform for so many activities.
An additional benefit to locomotion is the how the movements change your normal orientation in space.
Most of our days are spent upright with the head level and on “top” of the body. In the Bear, you are inverted (upside down) and this simple change of position has a host of distinctive upshots:
- One benefit is the traction of the spine in this position. This is not a heavy force, like you’d experience if someone were to pull on your head, but rather, the Bear position puts your spine into light traction, enough to decompress your neck and upper spine a bit. This along with the active motion can be a very good relief of tension.
- Another benefit is the shift in body position, which changes circulatory and respiratory responses. This counteracts a lot of the sitting many of us are forced to do in our daily lives.
With this understanding of the broader benefits of practicing locomotion exercises in general, and the Bear in particular, let’s take a look at some more specifics.
Bear Variations to Help You Reach Your Goals
There are many variations you could work on with the Bear, and they all stimulate your body in different ways. Here we’ll focus on just a few variations and show how to build your strength, flexibility, and motor control with its diversity and novelty of movement.
In the video above you can see 5 main variations on the Bear:
- Standard Bear – straight arms and straight legs
- Bent Arm Bear – bent arm, straight legs
- Bent Limbs Bear – bent arm, bent legs
- Bent Leg Bear – straight arm, bent legs (AKA “Sexy Bear”)
- Bent Elbow Bear – starts with straight arm, straight legs, but the elbow bends to touch the ground after each step
Before we look at the benefits each of these has to offer, it’s important to understand these are not “progressions”. The variations are there for you to work on what you need as well as adaptable to what you can do. One is not “better” than the other. It all depends on what you want to emphasize.
So, for instance, if you have problems in your elbows and knees, you might find the Standard Bear to be much easier than the Bent Limbs Bear, while another person might have the opposite experience if they have limited hamstring flexibility. Conversely, if you’d like to work on strengthening your elbows, you may focus on the Bent Arm Bear.
Rather than thinking of these variations in terms of progressing from one to the next, I’d like you to look at the benefits in the chart below and see which variations might help you address your particular needs.
And just remember, these are only a few examples of ways you can use the Bear exercise to accentuate different areas.
|Standard Bear||• Scapular strength through concentric and isometric protraction, eccentric and isometric retraction, and eccentric control of elevation
• Rotator cuff strength to control eccentric internal rotation and concentric, isometric external rotation
• Spinal strength for isometric extension, rotation, and flexion
• Hamstring and calf flexibility
|Bent Arm Bear||• Elbow strength
• Spinal strength and controlled mobility
• Hamstring and calf flexibility
|Bent Limbs Bear||• Elbow stability
• Knee stability
• Spinal strength for isometric rotation, extension, and flexion
|Bent Leg Bear||• Rotator cuff strength
• Knee strength
• Spinal strength and controlled mobility
|Bent Elbow Bear||• Elbow strength
• Rotator cuff strength
• Spinal strength
You can see that there is quite a bit of overlap in terms of the benefits for each of these variations, but with a slightly different focus for each one.
Though the Bear is a full body exercise, you may notice a common theme – almost every variation has benefits for strength/stability in the spine and in the shoulder girdle. Let’s look more closely at those specific benefits.
The Bear’s Impact on the Shoulder Girdle
By the shoulder girdle, I am referring to not just the primary shoulder joint (glenohumeral “ball and socket”), but to the entire area that connects your lower neck to the shoulder, shoulder blade, ribs, and upper arm.
This is a interconnected body area that really cannot be separated from each other functionally.
As mentioned earlier, closed chain movement produces different effects and one in particular is the change this kind of loading has on muscle and joint action. We’ll look at the main parts of the shoulder girdle that are involved in this type of closed chain movement.
Scapulae (AKA the Shoulder Blades)
Let’s start with an examination of the scapula (shoulder blade).
The scapula provides the “moving platform” of the shoulder girdle. Connecting the upper arm to the clavicle, the scapula glides around the ribcage, providing a base for the many muscular attachments needed for moving your arm.
For activities such as reaching forward and overhead, as well as lifting and carrying, the scapulae move on a stable thorax as your hands do their thing.
This situation is reversed when your hands are placed on the ground and your body moves around that fixed point, as happens when practicing locomotion exercises like the Bear. In this case, your scapular muscles resist different types of forces.
For example, the serratus anterior muscle protracts your scapulae (brings them forward), which is its concentric contraction. This is the motion of punching and reaching out with your arm. But with the hand on the ground the force to keep the scapulae from collapsing is now an isometric contraction, and the control into scapular retraction is an eccentric contraction of the serratus.
Good strength and control of the different types of muscular contraction are necessary for optimal shoulder girdle performance in the many activities we do every day and in sport. Practicing and training them are keys to maintaining and improving shoulder health.
The Bear movement automatically does this for you when you practice with mindful action.
Rotator Cuff Muscles
The shoulder rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) also experience unique stimulation from the Bear.
Keeping your elbows pulled into your body midline and your fingers rotating outward is a shoulder external rotation force. This, combined with the scapular protraction and shoulder elevation from pushing firmly into the ground, creates a practical and functional activation of the rotator cuff that is in contrast to the familiar remedial open chain exercises with rubber bands and dumbbells.
While those can be very useful for quite weak muscles to bring them up to a certain level, but once closed chain work can be incorporated safely it’s best to combine these approaches for best results.
Another interesting effect of the Bear movement on the shoulder girdle is the de-emphasis of the upper trapezius.
This muscle is commonly tight and overworked in a lot of people, partly due to stress and tension, and also because of the loads it encounters from carrying and lifting work.
The active scapular protraction and shoulder elevation that happens when you take the body upside down encourages upper trapezius contraction under a lessened and distinctly different loading. This unique stimulation gives the upper trapezius a break from the usual pattern, which in turn can alleviate the effects of overwork from repetitive daily strain.
Strengthening Your Spine with the Bear
I’ll confess that the spine is one of my favorite topics. I’ve spent many years studying and specializing in treating it, and am still amazed at how important and powerful it is.
The spine is a very complex structure, but we can talk about it in the general terms of the gross movements that it performs: forward motion, backward motion, side bending, and rotation. With this in mind, keeping the back straight and “long” in a movement such as the Bear requires the spinal muscles to resist movement that would take it out of this positioning.
This is where stability and control come into play, as the spine has to contend with the resistant forces from the body moving around while the alternating legs and arms are anchored on the ground from step to step.
The two parts of the spine that are most involved in the Bear are the thoracic spine (upper and mid back) and the lumbar spine (low back).
The contralateral movement pattern (right leg moving forward with left arm, and right arm moving forward with left leg) necessarily causes spinal rotation and side bending, which happens grossly in the thoracic spine (upper and mid back). These motions then have to be controlled by the spinal muscles to prevent excessive motion.
It’s important not to think of “locking” the spine in place; rather, think of it as a variable and appropriate control of motion. We don’t want to move around with a stiff back, we want a spine that is strong and mobile at the appropriate times.
And again, because of the closed chain movement and weight borne through the arms, the Bear gives a particularly good and singular stress to the upper back.
The positioning also encourages mobility and control for backward bending and rotation, the two primary issues in the upper back for many people. Think of the classic slumped forward posture that sitting at a desk or steering wheel can engender.
Another nice benefit of the inverted position in this movement happens at the lumbar spine (low back).
We discussed earlier about the traction force at the neck in the Bear. While this is not really happening in the low back – because your upper body isn’t hanging freely – there is a decreased loading and compression to the low back while practicing the Bear.
While traveling in the Bear, the upper body becomes the stabilizing counterforce as the load comes down through the hands and upper body, whereas in standing, sitting, and walking, the low back takes the brunt of that force.
From reading the above you can see now how the Bear movement, though seemingly simple, can actually induce a great stimulus in your training and particular in body areas that benefit greatly from it.
Making Locomotion Part of Your Practice
As you can see, the Bear isn’t just about crawling around on the ground for the hell of it. There are numerous benefits to practicing this locomotion exercise, and playing with its many variations.
And that’s true of any type of locomotion. You can get a lot out of making crawling of any kind a prominent part of your practice.
The variations above are only a few options you can work on. There are many more you can explore, but often, the ability to explore a movement confidently comes from first getting comfortable with the standard form of that movement.
The Bear is an excellent tool to help you work on whatever needs the most work – be it shoulder mobility, elbow strength, spinal stability, or whatever other areas you need to address.
We cover locomotion and the ways it can be used to address strength, flexibility, and motor control in our Elements program.
Elements uses fundamental locomotor movements such as the Bear to help build a strong foundation, which allows for confident exploration of movement, as well as the ability to move on to more advanced skills and goals down the line.
Build Your Basics
With Elements, you’ll build strength, flexibility, and body control through locomotive exercises and targeted mobility work, in just 8 weeks.