What do we know about the benefits of ground-based movement? When I start writing a blog my brain starts with one question…
What does the research say?
This is important because there is so much personal opinion and self-proclaimed absolutes that bear no sniff of actual imperial evidence littering the fitness and strength training space. I therefore feel obligated to lean towards what we know, instead of what fits one’s bias.
So, based on published research, what do we know about the benefits of crawling and ground-based movement for shoulder performance in an adult population?
Multiple searches of Pubmed pulled exactly zero ‘useful’ studies related to adult quadrupedal locomotion.
Infant crawling up to the age of 9 months is well documented. You can also read studies about the similarities and differences of human crawling compared to quadrupedal vertebrates in the animal kingdom.
However, none of this helps build the case of why the average athlete or exercise enthusiast should get down on all fours and crawl around the gym like something from Dawn of the Dead.
So if you’re going to buy in to this type of movement practice, I need to come at this from a different angle.
What does a shoulder need to be ‘healthy’?
I’m going to keep this short as each of the following are blogs of their own but at top level the shoulder needs:
Range of motion
The ability to control and co-ordinate movement of the scapula and humerus
Kinetic chain integration (the shoulder needs to be integrated with wider human movement involving the rest of the body)
The ability to express appropriate and balanced forces in all planes of motion.
Traditionally, the first three are the primary objectives of a normal rehabilitation (physiotherapy) intervention. The latter is the job of the strength and conditioning coach.
At Dynamic Shoulders, we integrate these support functions to create something highly effective which we can call ‘Reconditioning’.
When we create a training programme that targets each of the 4 points above, we are likely to have a shoulder which can perform well. Therefore, we select exercise which stimulate the desired adaptations. Ground-based movement or crawling is one of the methods we use.
Open Vs Closed Kinetic Chain
If you’re sceptical about crawling it is important you understand this principle.
An open kinetic chain movement occurs when the hand is free to move in space, for example a dumbbell shoulder press. Closed kinetic chain movements occur when the hand is fixed or prohibited from moving freely.
Crawling, with it being ground-based, is a closed kinetic chain exercise.
Physiotherapists have been using closed kinetic chain training for shoulder rehabilitation for a long time. It is, however, typically done in a less dynamic way than movements we are discussing here such as bear crawls and crab walks.
Studies have shown closed kinetic chain increases joint compression forces, muscle co-contraction and facilitates higher eccentric contractions. In simple terms, we get better congruency (contact) between the ball and socket of the glenohumeral joint, more proprioception (awareness of where your hand, shoulder and body are in space), neuromuscular control and functional stability.
These are all good things for shoulder performance so we can utilise closed kinetic chain environments to improve shoulder function.
Crawling is a Shoulder Trifecta
Crawling is effective because is ‘stacks’ positive stimulus and associated adaptations for the shoulder.
Range of motion: A great example here is the crab walk. So many people with shoulder pain and instability struggle to execute this pattern. They can’t extend the shoulder and co-ordinate the rest of the body at the same time. With the hand fixed on the floor, you can ‘push’ into shoulder extension using the stable base and encourage simultaneous glenohumeral control.
Crawling to improve range of motion is effective because it is:
'Active’ i.e. you are using muscle force to work into end range positions
We can do it repeatedly
It integrates the chain
Range plus muscle activation and connection performed for reps is a potent stimulus to improve mobility.
Control and Co-ordination: This time let’s take the Bear Crawl performed in a high hip position. We use the high hip because when we move the shoulder past 90 degrees of flexion we get more serratus anterior activation.
Serratus helps to protract, upwardly rotate and posteriorly tilt the scapula. You would not believe the number of people who see a massive improvement in shoulder function when serratus anterior gets some targeted stimulus.
The stack again comes because of the closed kinetic chain movement. The development of serratus strength is therefore ‘contextualised’ and ‘wired’ by the brain as part of the wider human movement system.
Kinetic Chain Integration: You’re likely getting the point by now that crawling patterns demand connection between the shoulder and the pelvis. The shoulder is not an island, yet so many rehabilitation programmes treat it so. This is one reason a lot of people have had poor outcomes before coming to work with us.
Crawling often provides the integrative link in our training programmes between range of motion work, isolated muscle strengthening and the bigger lifts we use to get people strong.
Finally, when the chain is integrated to a movement, we often see people move in ways that they can’t when a single joint movement is isolated. So training more global patterns presents another way to scale shoulder function and performance.
Build from the ground up
There you have it, a glimpse into the rationale as to why crawling patterns and ground-based movements are effective for shoulder health and performance.
If you have a shoulder problem or want to scale shoulder performance, build some crawling patterns into your movement preparation.
For the complete package, get our BASE online training programme (details below).
Kick-start your journey to stronger, more stable shoulders you can trust.
Are you frustrated with banged-up shoulders?
Are your shoulders restricting your training and progression?
Are you looking to enhance your upper body performance in sport, CrossFit, calisthenics or other gym-based strength training?
Take a look at our 6-week BASE online shoulder training programme.