White Belt Fitness

Crawling

What I might also call the “Quadruped Position”. That term would typically describe an animal with four legs, but here I use it to mean on on all fours.

However, I’ve come to the recent realization that there are two major positions to consider within the crawling position and they don’t both involve a four point stance (what quadruped means). First in growth and development, we’ll often learn the six point stance first:

Six Point Quadruped Crawling Position

A position where the knees, feet and hands are all in contact with the ground, or six points of contact, hence the name. If you try this position, you’ll notice that it is fairly easy to get into, is a pretty stable position and also a great place to do a variety of torso exercises from. We’ll get to some more of those soon. A child may initially learn to crawl from this position, because it’s more stable, but I generally don’t do any actual crawling from the six point stance, just from the four point stance:

Four Point Quadruped Crawling Position

The only difference between the two is that my knees are now off the floor. Creating greater trunk stability requirements by reducing the number of contact points. This position is more challenging than six point, but all the exercises you’ll find in the six point stance could apply to four stance too.

Bird Dog

Aptly named because of it’s resemblance to a hunting dog pointing towards the prey. The bird-dog is a great torso exercise, what many people identify as the ‘core’ or ‘trunk’ or ‘abdominal’ region.

Six Point Bird Dog

It’s a reasonably low threshold activity, meaning if you strain or struggle with it, just like breathing, periscope or sphinx positions, you should probably train gradually until you can execute it easily. Strain should be a red flag that you need to improve this movement before trying harder variations. These low threshold movements, though they may not necessarily always feel tough, like walking, can serve a variety of functions within a good training program.

  1. They train deeper muscles, which require greater endurance and arguably do more throughout the day than your larger, power-oriented, prime mover muscles.
  2. They stimulate more of the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation part of your nervous system).

If you constantly train your body with a high volume of high threshold exercises you risk stressing yourself beyond the benefits of exercise. It’s important to have some balance in your routine because the human body is incapable of operating at 100% intensity all the time.

This exercise specifically demonstrates rotary control, or the ability to control the body in a rotational plane of movement. Rotary movement is extremely frequent in everyday life, everything from walking to running or pushing/pulling with one arm. This skill however is not found in many traditional weight lifting exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench press or pull ups.

As I indicated in the brief anatomy section, rotational movement is something to train to for a variety of reasons. One big reason is that your muscles follow angular kinetic patterns, another is you can produce more power in rotational movements. So the total power generated from a shotput is significantly higher than a very heavy olympic lift, despite the significant difference in the load used. A staple of the chinese training system ‘quantal training’ is the use of rotational pattern development. Maybe a testament to their generally high levels of performance at the Olympic Games.

Before we get you to that level of rotational power, we need to master simple controlled movements first to demonstrate fundamental ability. Many people execute this move incorrectly, or believe that the purpose of the exercise is to move your arm and leg as far to the ceiling as possible.

It isn’t.

The bird dog’s purpose, like almost all core exercises is to demonstrate the ability to stabilize the spine in the presence of change. You start the movement with that neutral spine position we were talking about, and you should finish in a very similar position without a heavy arch, nor a heavy rounding in the back, like I recommend for the plank.

Opposite Arm and Leg Bird Dog

Also known as Contralateral Birdog. The word contralateral means the opposite side limbs are being used. If you’ve got the individual limbs down, then you’re ready to take on the full bird dog variation. We increase the instability of the movement and the rotary requirement by lifting the opposite arm and leg out at the same time. You’ll notice that my arm position is a little more in line with my ears and that I’m on the balls of my feet on my right foot here. I prefer most kneeling variation exercises to be on the balls of the feet because it’s been my experience that has the most transfer to life and sport. However, staying on the tops of your feet can increase the tension on the front of the calf, the quadriceps and the hip flexors so it may serve a benefit to some people, some of the time.

Six Point Quadruped Crawling RALL

Like the above counterparts, you’re still looking for no change in spinal position while the arm and legs are held out into straight lines. Hold for reps of ten seconds a time, relax and repeat for a total of thirty to sixty seconds of work per side for multiple sets.

Before moving onto the level 3 challenge you can start to play with movement in the level 2 bird dog for fun if you’d like. It’s a great way to start improving your dynamic stability (which will be more prominently featured in an upcoming book) in a low threshold environment.

For instance, try to draw a small circle or square with your hand and foot in the same direction while they are out. Next try to draw one or the other in the opposite direction to the hand or foot. If you go counterclockwise with the hand, try going clockwise with the foot. It’s important that spinal stiffness is maintained but if you’re not ready for Level 3 and level 2 is boring you, this might be a good way to maintain some of that initial lust in your relationship.

Same Side Bird Dog

Also known as Ipsilateral Birdog. The word ipsilateral means the same side limbs are being used. If you want to make something even harder, reduce the base of support even further and force people to lift the same arm and leg at the same time. I recently watched Dan John bust this out in a seminar, just because he can and he knows how challenging it is, even for a room of fitness professionals. That’s because it’s a tough move.

Six Point Quadruped Crawling LALL

If you think I’m making it look easy, believe me, it took a lot of practice to get to that point. If you got down on the floor to try, you probably notice just how incredibly difficult this move is to execute and it is unlikely that you’ll be able to be able to completely maintain a spine that isn’t slightly rotated to the side you’re working. That’s why I haven’t made it a passing requirement of the white belt program. People who can perform this well are few and far between, or they need a considerable amount of practice. Consider it something else to work towards if you have the basic movement down.

Six Point Quadruped Crawling RARL

One consideration that makes this move easier is to move your hands and knees a little closer together or towards the mid-line of your body. This brings your centre of mass into better alignment for such a narrow base of support.

You’re successful here, if you can get the balance right, maintain lines that are as straight as you can manage and hold it for 10 seconds. Like always you can start smaller and accumulate more reps of shorter duration, but I recommend accumulating roughly thirty to sixty second worth of work per set.

Troubleshooting Bird Dog

Before we get to advanced levels of the bird dog, I typically clear performance with very very simple movements first. That being said if you find anything above too challenging — for instance, you can’t maintain neutral spine —  then you might want to lateralize to something more in tune with where you’re at. These are to the bird dog, as a plank from the knees would be be to a regular plank. I recommend trying these before you attempt the full bird dog position.

Before you start make sure that your knees are directly below your hips and your hands are directly below your shoulders. Push your chest as hard as you can away from the floor to engage the shoulder stabilizers more intensely. This not only increases core tension, it leads to improved shoulder stability with training.

Can you raise your right hand up, hold for ten seconds and maintain neutral?

Six Point Quadruped Crawling Right Arm RaiseIdeally that arm is in line with the ears so this is a tad short of full range of motion, but what about your left side, can you raise that hand up, hold for ten seconds and maintain neutral?

Six Point Quadruped Crawling Left Arm Raise

Can you raise your right leg up, hold for ten seconds and maintain neutral?

Six Point Quadruped Crawling Right Leg Raise

Can you raise your right leg up, hold for ten seconds and maintain neutral?

Six Point Quadruped Crawling Left Leg Raise

Notice the position of each limb relative to the spine. The spine should move as little as possible. You want your knees directly under your hips, your hands right under your shoulders and on each lift the elbow or knee should be straight and the rest of the limb in as straight a line as you can. Reach with the heel behind you to engage more of the glutes and the arms straight out, inline with the ears is ideal.

Many people tend to sacrifice low back position in order to get the leg straight back, indicating a lack of stability. Definitely something you should work on. You’ll probably notice that lack of stability in another core exercise before you get to this one though.

On the other hand (get it?), many people have difficulty getting the arm position straight out without a change in the spine. This could be an indicating that you have some kind of restriction in the shoulder, perhaps a motor control problem but really for now it means that you should probably avoid overhead pressing until you’ve got it sorted out.

I recommend training these similar to the plank whereby you do reps of ten second holds, but if that’s too difficult, start lower. Accumulate roughly thirty seconds for each set and demonstrate control by breathing around the movement.

If you can demonstrate stability from these four relatively easy positions then you’re ready to step it up to level 2. If not, there is no shame in working on this skill with a partner until you’ve got good motor control of all four limbs.

Did you notice anything in the four pictures above? Was there a loss of neutral spine in any of them? Which one?

You may have noticed that when the left leg goes out the belly dropped, the hip rotated out and we got a little more low back arch than in all the other photos. I have a photo of this side being executed well but chose to leave this in here to see if you could pick it up. Even skilled trainees like myself occasionally need some feedback, in this case just a simple coaching cue, to get into a better position. Don’t nitpick about your position to the point of frustration though, just choose the most appropriately challenging variation and practice to your best efforts.

Remember this book wants to force you to think a little bit about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Four Point Stance

Crawling with six points of contact is too easy for most adults once they’ve mastered the other moves from six point quadruped. As a result, I recommend that you progress it to the four point version instead. If for whatever reason that challenge is too great, then you can always dial it back to six point the way a child might before they learn to stand and walk. It requires a little more core stiffness as a general rule but is otherwise easy to maintain with four points of contact, once you get the hang of it.

Four Point Quadruped Crawling Position

Four Point Rocking

It’s not quite crawling but this is a move you can use to develop basic dynamic stability. Meaning learn how to stabilize your spine while your hips and shoulders move. It’s also a great default move if for whatever reason you can’t quite squat yet, but you’re looking for a challenge that will train a similar position. It will still make you feel like you’re working, even if you’re not squatting.

Four Point Quadruped Crawling Rocking Bottom

The key to any quadruped rocking movement, like everything else we’ve discussed thus far is maintaining a fairly neutral spine position while you do it and work with the range of motion that you personally have.

Four Point Quadruped Crawling Rocking Top

Just return to the top position (seen here) or you could even link this one with a levered plank or push up and see if you can do 15 reps. If you can execute that well for a few sets, you’re at least ready to try some crawling in place or maybe even the squat.

Crawling in Place

What’s interesting about the crawling position is, that at this point in motor skill development, you are developing the freedom to move your arms and legs independently of one another, while maintain stability of the spine. We can start getting locomotion, meaning the ability to travel from one location to another long before you learned to stand up walk or run. It’s kind of neat. Before you get to that though, we may as well practice the movement in place, similar to the bird dog above.

Four Point Quadruped Crawling LFRH

Of course the rules above still apply, you could try simply lifting one arm or leg at a time to check your stability but if you’ve already cleared the six point quadruped movements, then it’s reasonable to assume that you have the potential to execute your right arm, left arm, right leg and left leg here too. If this is too challenging but you’ve got six point down, and four point rocking down, then go with a single limb version until you develop the requisite stability.

Four Point Quadruped Crawling RFLH

This is also often when reasonably fit people start to notice a significant challenge to the mid-section of the body, balance and coordination. Fewer points of contact obviously makes this more challenging, so I often shorten the duration of each hold to reps of three or five seconds, though you can certainly stick to ten second holds. My rationale is that it becomes unlikely when actually crawling that your arms and or legs will be destabilizing for much longer than three seconds. Of course I believe the same rules apply:

  • Breathe around the movement
  • Accumulate thirty to sixty seconds worth of work for each set
  • Do one to three sets on average

What I love about crawling patterns is that they require total body stability, significantly improve shoulder blade stability, as well as trunk stability, and tap us back into our playful child nature. I believe it’s good for adults to keep getting up and down from the floor too. It’s a good skill to possess as we age and the risk of falls leading to injury increases. Don’t be afraid to get down on the floor every once and a while, especially if you have small children at home.

Crawling: Forward

Once you’ve mastered crawling in place it’s time to get more acquainted with your inner child. The reason the baseline above is a requirement is because crawling can be used for a variety of purposes. You’ll find many variations in many of my warm-ups, but I’ll also feature it as active recovery between sets of weight training or even at the end of training sessions for conditioning purposes. Crawling is wonderfully versatile.

ForwardCrawlStartingPositionForward Crawling Quadruped 1

Forward Crawling Quadruped 2

Of course, as I’m sure you’re sick of me saying, the aim is to maintain neutral spine while you create movement around it. That’s the biggest mistake I witness while watching others perform this move. If I put a beer on your low back, and send you around the room, you better not spill a drop! Well you might but you get the idea, and that makes this move even more challenging. There is a right way and an easy way of crawling, and the easy way doesn’t yield much of a training effect.

Crawling: Backward

As if crawling forward were hard enough. It’s harder to crawl backward due to increased upper body demands.

Backward Crawling Quadruped 1 Backward Crawling Quadruped 2 Backward Crawling Quadruped 3

Crawling backwards is a great way to challenge some upward pushing in a plane that nearly everyone can handle, even if overhead pressing is extremely challenging to your mobility. Of course the same rules apply, keep that torso stiff and make your shoulders work with your hips.

Crawling: Lateral

As an introduction to moving side to side, something that we won’t discuss much in this book, this move probably isn’t as challenging as crawling backward but it adds some nice variety to the mix.

Lateral Crawling Quadruped 1 Lateral Crawling Quadruped 2 Lateral Crawling Quadruped 3

 

Lateral crawling is often easier than forward or backward crawling for many people, which is strange given that the same side bird dog is so challenging. I credit this to the differences between dynamic movement and static movement. Dynamic movement is often easier for many people to execute, take for instance the act of walking. Most people don’t have a problem walking and dynamically shifting their weight from one leg to another, as long as the movement happens at a pace they are comfortable with. Take that same person and ask them to stop and stay on one leg, and they will often struggle at least at first.

Ultimately, it comes down to practice and exposure. Few people have probably practiced holding a same side bird dog, while the motor patterns they learned crawling at a young age are not entirely lost. Rotational criss cross patterns found in forward and backward crawling are only slightly more complex but all are worth using in your training.

Troubleshooting Crawling

Like the bird dog above you can easily troubleshoot crawling in place to see what limb might be holding you back:

Four Point Crawling Quadruped Left Arm Up

Lift your left hand a couple of inches off the floor, do you lose your balance or compensate somewhere?

Four Point Crawling Quadruped Left Leg Up

Lift your left foot a couple of inches off the floor, do you lose your balance or compensate somewhere?

Four Point Crawling Quadruped Right Arm Up

What about after lifting your right hand a couple of inches off the floor? Do you lose your balance or compensate somewhere?

Four Point Crawling Quadruped Right Leg Up

 

Last one, give your right leg a try a couple of inches off the floor. Do you lose your balance or compensate somewhere?

Find the weak link and practice grooving that movement. Lift the limb up for three second holds at first if you must, then accumulate good reps of that. Graduate to five second reps, then ten second reps. If you can do sixty seconds of total work with ten second holds you are probably ready to head back to crawling in place.

Where you Use These?

Use them first as a diagnostic tool to see where you’re at. Most people should be pretty comfortable doing the opposite arm bird dog and the crawling in place in a short amount of time. If that’s a struggle, put the right variation in your warm ups attempting to accumulate two or three sets of thirty to sixty seconds every training session at the very beginning of a training session.

The very basics of programming dictate that what you need the most improvement on, should always come first in a good program.

Once you’ve mastered the basics you can lower the total volume, so that maybe only one set of same side bird dogs and a crawling variation or combination — lateral, forward and/or backward — becomes a welcome addition to your program.

These also work wonders as a third exercise filler in a triset that has a pull as the dominant upper body movement. If you want to get extra practice in, during the workout, or just want some active recovery work.

Lastly, you might find these in the programming section as a component of finishers. Crawling variations especially can be exhausting and really contribute to fat loss programs.

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Darren Beattie

Coach, Writer and Founder of Fitnack and Skill Based Fitness. I'm going to change how you think about fitness and coaching. Quality of Life Crusader. Knowledge Junkie. Recovering perfectionist.

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