Crawling is touted as a highly beneficial movement pattern included in numerous training programs which offer various performance-enhancing, rehabilitative, and corrective benefits. Not only does it tie together the vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (awareness), and ocular (visual) systems of the human body, but it can potentially improve hand-eye coordination and reflexive strength or one’s ability to anticipate movement. This is also sometimes referred to as motor control. Despite its uprise in popularity over the past several decades, crawling represents a primitive movement pattern we all come to master in our developmental years, which is far from new.
Children instinctually begin to crawl from a very young age as they are hard-wired to do so; unfortunately, many adults lose the ability to crawl throughout their adult years properly. This is due to several factors, including a sedentary lifestyle, injuries, declining fitness, and atrophying neural pathways, to name a few. Despite this reality, crawling can and should be part of a holistic training program; however, most individuals cannot execute any crawling variation properly, which can lead to more harm than good.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
When most coaches refer to crawling within a training program, they are often referring to “Bear Crawls.” Typically, this involves an awkward shuffle or gallop with the butt high in the air, which places a great deal of stress on one’s elbows, shoulders, and wrists. Unfortunately, these are not the correct way to do Bear Crawls and could be detrimental.
A properly executed crawling movement stimulates the muscles throughout the arms, legs, and torso, which activates sensory nerves in the feet/hands. Every time a step is taken, the corresponding muscles around that area reflexively fire. The contra-lateral (opposite) shoulders and hips learn to work in a coordinated fashion where the mind and body are being stimulated in an equally taxing fashion.
Properly executed bear crawls are performed in a slow yet methodical way with no unnecessary movement. At baseline, the knees should be directly under the hips while the hands are directly under the shoulders. Both knees should be slightly elevated from the ground but no more than 1-2 inches off the ground, all while the shoulders remain in a relaxed yet stable position. This means that the trapezius muscles are not excessively elevated, and the scapula properly glides with every step. An athlete performing a well-executed bear crawl should be able to balance a glass of water on their back without a drop spilling because they are under control and maintaining a neutral spine throughout. With every step, one hand should move forward while the contra-laterally corresponding foot moves in concert. A well-executed bear crawl is not only challenging but should feel very difficult.
How To Incorporate Bear Crawls
Once a firm understanding of how to execute the Bear Crawl movement has been achieved, it can still be difficult to understand where it optimally fits into a training program. Traditionally, they have been used as a method of conditioning, warm-up, or punishment for those who feel a bit devious. While the latter two methods can still be an option, conditioning and crawling are rather incompatible in that they should not be performed for long stretches at a time because maintaining high-quality form is of utmost importance and is extremely hard to do for extended periods, which conditioning requires. Instead, Bear Crawls can be included as s stand-alone movement or supplemental movement within a properly constructed training program. Crawling and, more specifically, bear crawls offer a unique approach to training a movement pattern that is often neglected or forgotten by adults of the modern age, even those who train regularly. Practically speaking, the following progression is an option for those who wish to begin incorporating Bear Crawls appropriately:
Week 1-3: Regular Bear Crawls
– Sets: 3-4
– Distance: 10-15 Meters for each set
Weeks 4-6: Backwards Bear Crawls
– Sets 3-4
– Distance 10-15 Meters for each set
Weeks 7-9: Lateral Bear Crawls
– Sets 3-4
– Distance 10-15 in each direction per set
These progressions are not to be hard-coded by any standard and can be altered or mixed/matched depending on one’s ability to execute them effectively. The most important piece to appropriately implementing crawling movements is to execute them low, slow, and with precision. They are a fantastic addition to all programs and will aid anyone who seeks to regain or maintain their primitive locomotive function. Keep crawling on, my friends.