Train Like an Animal
Crawling isn’t just for babies and furry friends. When done right, it can improve all the ways you move — even on two feet.
A dog walking on its hind legs: hilarious (and social media gold). An adult human crawling on all fours? Not as cute, but surprisingly beneficial. Hear us out.
Moving the way our four-legged friends and babies do is called “quadrupedal movement training” (QMT), or “primal movement,” and it’s as old as human evolution. The training style includes more than crawling, with exercises like bear planks, crab walks, inchworms and striking scorpions (all YouTube-able). Familiar with downward-facing dog or frog jumps? Those count as QMT too. (Notice how they all have the name of an animal in them? Not a coincidence.)
All of these exercises require you to move on all fours, something we obviously don’t do on a regular basis. And while it may look or feel silly, training this way can have some serious perks. Such as:
Whether you’re traveling side to side in a deep squat for monkey hops or lifting your hips high for crab reaches, primal movements typically challenge your strength throughout your joints’ full range of motion, says Jeffrey Buxton, an assistant professor of exercise science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. In his research, he’s discovered that people who incorporated one hour of QMT into their routine twice a week for eight weeks saw major improvements in their shoulder and hip mobility, as well as their squat and lunge form. (That’s a big deal if you’re gearing up to lift heavy.)
ICYDK, mobility is different from flexibility, which is a muscle’s passive ability to stretch (as in, how far your PT can lift your fully relaxed leg for a hamstring stretch). Mobility refers to the amount of strength and control you have to actively move your limb through a joint’s range of motion, says Buxton. In this example, that’s how high you can lift your leg on your own, in all the right directions.
Primal movements typically challenge your strength throughout your joints’ full range of motion.
Why does it matter? “If there’s a large gap between your flexibility and mobility, you could increase your chance of injury,” says Buxton, as you might not have the neuromuscular control to move that way. For example, you could be stretchy enough to sit in a squat, but if your hip mobility is lacking, your knees could start caving in, which can put excessive pressure on the soft tissue protecting your precious knee joints.
Primal training can help close that gap, says Buxton. If an hour twice a week seems like a lot (because it is), sprinkle QMT into your workouts as part of a 10-minute dynamic warm-up, he says.
A Stronger Core
We all know that a strong torso can help give you more power and stability to perform all the activities we do: running, cycling, carrying groceries — you name it.
But if you’re tired of doing plain old planks, etc., many primal movements are great for targeting those smaller, underutilized muscles in a different way, says Nike Trainer Kirsty Godso, who incorporates primal movements into her HIIT workouts. Buxton explains: When you’re on all fours and you, say, lift the opposite hand and foot to move forward in a crab or slowly rotate in a sit-through, you need to engage your core’s stabilizing muscles to keep upright.
QMT-style isometric holds, where you maintain a certain position for a length of time, can be solid core strengtheners too, says Godso. One of her favorites: the bear hold, where you get in a quadruped position and hover your knees just off the floor. Research shows this move engages your rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles), external obliques and lower-back muscles — all protectors of your spine during exercise. Try to hold it for at least 30 seconds each time, says Godso.
Moving on all fours three times a week for 60 minutes at a time can also increase your cognitive flexibility, according to a four-week study published in Human Movement Science. That includes your ability to mentally respond to changes in your environment and solve problems.
The researchers behind that study also discovered that QMT can improve a person’s sense of joint repositioning. Unlike traditional weight training, primal movement tends to be “very challenging on a neuromuscular level,” says Godso. You’ve got to be on to do them right. It’s worth the extra mental effort, because this body awareness will translate to front squats, pull-ups and more, she adds, helping to better your form and keep you moving well for longer (yep, that whole injury-prevention thing again).
Way More Fun
“I love primal movement because it’s fun, it’s challenging, and it brings me back to the first movement patterns we all learn as children,” says Godso, who especially likes to fuse these movements with traditional burpees. For example, Godso’s signature “hot sauce burpee” (catch it on her IG) incorporates a version of a frogger, where you hop your feet outside your hands and suspend them in the air before you come down and jump up, in the middle of the movement.
Getting creative can make exercise feel like a game, distracting you from how hard you’re working, says Godso. (And, let’s be real, no one really likes doing burpees anyway.) At the very least, QMT can encourage you to explore something new, and new can be exciting, right?
Now that you’re down to, well, get down, a few pointers from the pros:
- Always, always, always prep your wrists.
Many primal exercises require the wrists to be in extension (where your palm is flat and your hand bends back toward your forearm) for a while, says Buxton. This can be downright painful for many of us who spend hours with our wrists flexed over our laptops. Constant flexion causes our forearms to be tight, says Godso, making wrist extension difficult and crawling uncomfortable. To ease wrists in, she suggests warming up with this exercise: Begin on all fours with your fingertips pointing toward you. Gently circle your body 10 times to the left, then repeat in the opposite direction.
Even if your wrists are flexible, avoid doing more than two exercises in a row where you’re on them to help spare them in the long run, says Godso
- First find neutral, then stay active.
Unless otherwise directed, when starting a primal movement on all fours, your back should be flat and your wrists directly under your shoulders, says Buxton. You want to return to this position after every rep, he adds. For example, before you go into a loaded beast position (think a child’s pose with your knees slightly off the floor), start in bear — or what Buxton calls “static beast” — and check in with your alignment. Make any needed adjustments. Then when you sit back toward your heels, you’ll more easily find the positioning that’s best for your body.
As you perform the exercise, you might notice an achy joint or two. That’s likely a sign that you’re being too passive, muscularly speaking, says Godso. For example, if your wrists are hurting while doing a bear crawl, pull your abs toward your center, engage your triceps by rotating your elbow pits forward, and push away from the floor. This will prevent you from dumping too much of your weight on to your wrists, removing some pressure, says Godso. (Plus, it will give you some solid arm and core work.) Of course, if anything feels painful once you’ve corrected your form, stop what you’re doing and move on to something else.
- Take it easy (pace-wise).
As you learn these movements, go slow and listen to your body, says Godso. For a lot of people, the biggest barrier to getting into this sort of training is working through tight hips and hamstrings. If that’s you, don’t force it. “Stretching will be your gateway in,” says Godso. “When you understand similar movement patterns through other modalities, like yoga, your body will begin to start opening up.”
To prepare her body for primal work, Godso likes to do hip circles to lubricate the joints and open up with a figure-four stretch. Even when you do get more comfortable in the movements, remember: Focus on coordination and stability, she says. Speed up only when you feel in control…like an animal on the prowl.
To find these types of exercises, try one of Godso’s HIIT workouts on NTC, or, for a low-impact version, choose a workout from Nike Trainer Branden Collinsworth. You can also look for IRL classes at your local gym that use words like “primal,” “animal” or “play.” And of course, there’s always Google, just be sure to get your instruction from a certified trainer or PT. Wherever you go, this advice will help you become a real beast not just on all fours, but in whatever you’re training for.
Words: Adele Jackson-Gibson
Illustration: Jon Krause