Crawling is a great way to maintain strength, mobility, and coordination as we age. Here are the many benefits crawling will add to your fitness routine and some exercises to help you make the most of your fun on all fours.
A while ago I filmed myself for one of my Workout of the Week videos doing some crawling movements. Specifically the Inch Worm, Bear Crawl, and Crab Walk. And while I know that crawling around on the floor isn't the coolest way to stay fit (although Chris Hemsworth makes it look pretty cool), it is a basic human movement that remains important long after we've successfully learned to walk.
Doing some work on all fours, including crawling exercises like these, can promote and maintain proper movement patterns, build new connections in the brain, protect us from injury and challenge our strength and stability. That's why I think getting down on the floor, to do some crawling exercises, is a great addition to anyone's exercise program.
If you are skeptical about whether crawling can be a great form of strength and mobility exercise, you can simply check out a football practice because you are very likely to see professional football or rugby players crawling on the field during practice. They use this movement to help build lateral strength and the ability to transfer power from the lower body to the upper body.
You may also have seen soldiers crawling as part of their basic training. As they say, "Keeping low can keep you alive," and I couldn't agree more.
Fitness and rehab professionals have seen a big rise in the popularity of crawling movement patterns as well. Exercises involving rocking, squatting, rolling, and crawling are now being used regularly to help people out of their chronic pain.
Give crawling a try
For us adults, who spend all of our locomotion time on our two hind feet and our sedentary time in the “double 90-degree” chair position, we can use crawling to keep our body guessing and surprise it with new motions and new angles to make exercise interesting, fun and effective.
- Get down on all fours
- Try to keep your bottom down and in line with your head
- Keep your body as close to parallel with the floor as possible
- Bring your heels up so you are up on your toes
- Pull yourself forward using your arms and hands
- Using just your legs, catch your body back up to your arms
- And repeat
Instead of placing your palms on the floor, keep your hands in a loose fist to take some of the pressure off your wrists.
Now try this:
- From the same position, flip over and try crawling with your belly facing up
- Instead of alternating your arms and legs to crawl forward, try moving sideways by moving opposite limbs
- Again, try to keep your bottom in line with the rest of your body
For some an added challenge and fun, you can use a weighted vest (or a loaded-up backpack) to up the ante.
And then try this:
- Lie down flat on the floor
- Lift your body slightly off the ground using your elbows and toes
- Use your elbows to crawl forward like an alligator sneaking up on its prey
Spend some time practicing your low plank position before you start trying to take it on tour.
If you did all three of those movements back-to-back, you've likely already convinced yourself that this type of movement can give you a serious workout. You're likely out of breath. And depending on how long you did each movement, you might have a case of jelly arms or wiggle legs.
Crawling is a whole-body movement! You not only have to support your entire body weight with your limbs, but it also requires some pretty underused coordination.
Crawling really is a lot more effective than we think. You not only have to support your entire body weight with your limbs, but it also requires some pretty underused coordination. It also engages your calves, quads, glutes, shoulder girdle, abdominals, and all those tiny muscles in your wrists, feet, ankles, and hips. Whether you crawl on your hands and toes or crawl facing up, you'll be working pretty much your whole body.
As babies, we humans instinctively crawl. But as soon as we learn how to walk, we abandon crawling unless specific circumstances call for it. After learning how to walk, our quadrupedal movements are relegated to getting under something low, avoiding dangerous situations, playing with our pets, or lowering our center of gravity if we feel very unsteady. But here are a few more reasons why I think we should change that.
Crawling for injury prevention
I went snowshoeing a couple of weeks ago. At least twice that day, I found myself quite suddenly in a crawling position. I have to say, I was pretty grateful for all the time I have spent practicing getting in and out of this position.
The first time I found myself crawling was after I caught my toe in some loose powder and face-planted while going down a steep hill a little too recklessly. The second time was because I hit some ice and my feet shot out from under me. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I escaped both situations completely unscathed due to the strength and stability I've developed by practicing things like bear crawls and crab walks.
And you don’t have to be a winter sport adventurer to enjoy these benefits either.
If you are suffering from balance problems or recovering from some injuries, being able to crawl helps a lot. Plus, as we age, we become more prone to falling. Practicing crawling exercises regularly can help us maintain our mobility and balance while also strengthening our muscles, bones, and ligaments. Being comfortable in a crawling position does more than protecting us from the panic of the fall. It can also help us maintain the ability to fall safely and return to an upright position with greater ease and resiliency.
Crawling for cognitive benefits
Because of its unique movement pattern and perspective on the world, crawling requires both sides of our brain to work together. If you did the exercises I described earlier you will have experienced that to successfully move in a crawling position, your limbs on both sides of the body have to move synchronously in what is called a contralateral movement pattern. The contralateral movement pattern unites your brain’s sensory systems and integrates your balance system, your proprioceptive system, and your visual system.
Crawling requires both sides of our brain to work together, helping your body build new neural connections and strengthen old ones.
When your brain passes a lot of information through the corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres of the brain, as it does during a crawl exercise, your body will build new neural connections and strengthen old ones. And we all want new neural connections!
Crawl with caution
As always, it is important to remember that just because crawling can be a fun and effective exercise to add to your workout program, it is not necessarily appropriate for everyone. People who may want to avoid crawling are:
- Individuals with inflexible or weak wrists and forearms
- People with certain types of knee pain
- Folks that have joint replacements or other pathologies that make particular movement challenging or painful
- Individuals of a particular size or body shape who find this type of movement difficult or embarrassing
But if you don’t have any of these restrictions, I definitely recommend you give crawling a try. If nothing else, it might just make you feel like a kid again and give you a good laugh!