Plank, Crawling and Other Core-Strengthening Progressions

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Paratroopers bear-crawl during the Brostrom Challenge.
Paratroopers from 2nd Bn., 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade conduct a 200-meter bear crawl during the Brostrom Challenge. (Sgt. David Vermilyea/U.S. Army photo)

Over the past five years, there has been a growing sector within the fitness world that proclaims that crawling is a fundamental movement pattern that sets us up as sitting, crawling, cruising toddlers to walking and running adults.

But should we, as adults, continue to add crawling variations into our training programs? If you are in the military, police or firefighting communities, you will use a variety of crawling in your job. Whether you are low-crawling for cover from danger or baby-crawling (on all fours) while in a burning house as a firefighter, crawling has specific uses in the tactical population.

There is little argument on the benefits to crawling in these situations. However, is crawling a foundational movement pattern for humans? Does it reset our central nervous system?

In our training groups, we have created a crawling progression that actually starts with plank poses -- a static position held for time that isometrically flexes the entire core musculature. From the basic plank, you can move to side plank poses and challenge your stability with lifting a foot or hand off the floor. By doing planks, your ability to do more push-ups or crawl longer, as well as lift more weight off the ground, will be enhanced by working the core this way.

Once you apply any movement to this planking position, it requires you to move opposing arms and legs together in a coordinated effort -- a cross-pattern movement. This requires your left and right side of your brain to create connections (synapses) to coordinate movement.

We do this in every movement from walking, throwing, swimming, running and crawling as well as other athletic movements and skills. Our workouts, practices and training help build these "habits" of movement. Our left arm swings forward as our right leg moves forward and the opposite occurs for our other arm and leg. That creates movement and power generation for vertical and horizontal positions.

Baby crawl: Crawling on all fours is the first movement in this progression. Add sets of crawling to a full body workout. We typically will add crawling to and from different areas of a workout. For instance, do pull-ups under a pull-up bar, but do your push-ups and other exercises about 20 meters away. Do variations of crawling or carrying to and from both places.

A favorite movement position for firefighters in hot and smoky rooms, the crawl on all fours with some variations is a tactical and functional movement to surviving these situations. (video)

Spider crawl or bear crawl: Unlike the baby crawl, instead of using your knees to balance yourself, these methods place the weight of your body on your feet and hands. (video)

Stair crawl: Advancing the crawl to move up and down a flight of steps may sound potentially dangerous, but if done slowly and deliberately with people who can crawl or plank for at least 10-15 minutes is another progression. This works the core and shoulder girdle even more, especially when traveling down the stairs headfirst, but up the stairs feet first. (video)

Adding fundamental movement patterns

First of all, what are fundamental movements? These are nothing fancy, but they can become quite difficult if neglected over time to a point of inability to perform at or correctly. A fundamental movement pattern allows coordination of the body to occur during weight transfer, forward motion, lateral motion, up-and-down motion and full-body movements, and it creates power.

All require left, right, top and bottom parts of our body to work together, and all stimulate the central nervous system for growth and creating movement memory. The most basic of all movement patterns are the following: crawling, walking, bending, reaching, grabbing, squatting, running, swimming, kicking, punching, shuffling laterally, avoiding objects and hand-eye coordination. They all involve moving through multiple angles and planes.

The crawling drills are advanced core movements that require a foundation of core strength as well as shoulder and hip mobility. The body works together in a cross-pattern movement. Adding a variety of basic movements is an idea for the tactical athlete. Some ideas for integration into workouts:

  1. Walk (proper arm swing coordinated with leg movement) as rest periods between sprints.
  2. Bear-crawl to and from exercise areas.
  3. Stair-crawl when and where appropriate when traveling up and down a flight of stairs.
  4. Do dynamic stretches of many of the above movement patterns before workouts.
  5. Static stretching after workouts, involving bending and crossing of multiple joints.

One of the best quotes of the day at the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Tactical Stretch and Conditioning Annual Training was by former Navy SEAL Jeff Nichols of Virginia High Performance. 

"If you think fundamental movement patterns are not important, try loosening the lug nuts of your car," Nichols said. "Driving slowly, it may not be that noticeable, but pick up speed and you will better understand the need for proper movement."

Links to More Studies on The Topic

Building Reflexive Strength Through Crawling

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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