Imagine a time when you wanted your body to move in a specific way but you were limited for some reason.
Maybe you bend over at the waist to pick up your toddler for a bath because you know squatting down will make your knees hurt.
Or you notice pain in your shoulder when trying to grab that box of nails on the top shelf in your garage.
You felt tightness in your hips and groin at the gym when while doing lunges, and had to cut the set short even though you weren’t worn out.
Any restrictions you have are almost always due to a deficit in one or more of the following:
- Adequate strength you can rely on at any time
- Reasonable flexibility and mobility through all joints
- Confidence in your ability to move smoothly, with control through any range of motion
Barring any serious injuries, most of us could benefit from some basic, yet powerful types of exercise we call ‘animal movement.’
We like to think of it simply as crawling because with these movements, we have you crawling around on all fours.
For example… what if you could move like this? 👇
The reason I’m able to move like this is because:
- I have the strength in my entire body to move in and out of awkward movements easily and without pain or restriction.
- My flexibility is sufficient to a point where almost no position is off limits.
- The exercises I’ve practiced over the years forced me to be mindful of every movement, enhancing my motor control.
This isn’t to say you have to be able to move like this, but working toward this ability can enhance any athletic movement you’d ever want to do.
And to be clear, the ‘flow’ that I’m doing isn’t a rehearsed routine. It’s just something I came up with on the spot. And I’m only able to do it because of the crawling movements we’re showing you here.
A lot of the exercise programs and routines we love call for very specific movement patterns.
And this makes sense if you’re practicing a particular sport like running or biking or martial arts, or you’re lifting weights in the gym.
Not all programs can address every single thing you need to work on, and we don’t claim that any one program will make you great at everything.
It’s why we encourage people to use our programs creatively – either on their own or alongside your favorite way to work out.
But we teach a very specific type of movement known as locomotion based on 4 animal movements. We’ll get into those exercises more in depth in a second. But first let’s look at why locomotive movements are so important…
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What Is Locomotion?
The quick definition is moving your body through space. Like walking, you stand up and walk from your desk to get your keys, then you walk out the door to your car.
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.
Walking is an easy way to understand this, 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.
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 the 4 animal movements we use in our programs.
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.
Check out the position of the Bear walk here. Butt up, head down, weight on your hands. 👇
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, let’s take a look at some more specifics.
4 Animal Moves For A Stronger, More Able Body
We focus on the Bear, Frogger, Monkey, and Crab. All of these movements have you down on all fours, moving your body through space.
Each movement has its own benefits, but all of them, minus the Crab, has you in an inverted position.
These animal exercises are fun, playful movements that go way beyond just being good for warm-ups. When you do them properly, and in a variety of ways, these exercises stimulate and build high levels of strength, flexibility, and body control, everything you need that most sport-specific, singular programs cannot fully cover.
For years, these locomotive patterns have been used in calisthenics, gymnastics, martial arts, and playground games, and their positive effects reach beyond just being fun exercises.
The 4 Foundational Animal Movements
Crawling is one of the best ways to train your entire body to be strong and flexible, while giving you the same mind-muscle connection gymnasts and martial artists possess.
The Bear gets you in to an inverted position, helping you build strength and stability through your arms, shoulders, and upper back.
It also helps you develop more flexibility in your hamstrings, calves, and helps you stretch out your upper torso.
The Frogger helps you build strength in your upper arms, shoulders, and core, while opening up your hips in the deep squat position.
As you build strength through your upper body and core, you’ll have more control, and be able to lift your hips higher, translating to skills like the handstand.
The Monkey also builds upper body strength through the arms and core, while encouraging greater hip mobility and control through lateral movement.
As you get stronger in this position, you’ll be able to work toward skills like cartwheels and tumbling.
The Crab has you in a supine position (belly up), and helps you build core and hip strength while moving backwards, forwards, and laterally.
This movement lends itself to building the strength that allows for skills like the L-sit, and gives you the ability to transition to various movements with control.
Don’t Let Limited Flexibility In These ‘Animal Positions’ Keep You From Moving How You Want
These crawling exercises require a good level of mobility. So if you find you’re stiff when trying it out, get our 15-Minute Mobility Boost 👉 Click here to download it.
Why You Should Use Crawling In Your Training
Animal movements are good for the shoulder girdle, but I’m not just referring to 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 an 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 these locomotion exercises. 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.
These animal movements automatically do 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 in these positions.
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.
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 animal 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.
How Crawling Builds A Stronger Spine
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 these movements 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, being in these positions 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 inverted position. 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, Frogger, and Monkey.
While you practice crawling in different positions, 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 these animal positions, 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, it’s not just about crawling around on the ground for the hell of it. There are numerous benefits to moving mindfully this way, and playing with the various positions and movement.
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 movements above are the four main exercises you can work on. But there are many more variations 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, Monkey, Frogger, and Crab are excellent tools 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 these 4 fundamental locomotor movements 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 a Consistent Training Habit With a Foundation in the Basics
With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control using the Bear, Monkey, Frogger, and Crab.
Anatomy Image Credits
Lumbar Spine Image: Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Shoulder Blade Image: Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rotator Cuff Image: National Institute Of Arthritis And Musculoskeletal And Skin Diseases (NIAMS); SVG version by Angelito7, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Upper Trapezius Image: Mikael Häggström.When using this image in external works, it may be cited as:Häggström, Mikael (2014). “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 2002-4436. Public Domain.orBy Mikael Häggström, used with permission., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons