Can you crawl?

Posted on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 by Rob Manlove

Can you crawl?

Can You Crawl?

This post will take you through my second experience learning to crawl, at the age of 29. I'll explain why I decided to go on this journey and share the benefits I experienced. I'll also explain why I believe every athlete participating in CrossFit should learn to crawl.

Lets start with how and when we learn to crawl (for the first time):

  • 6-7 months- babies start lying on their tummies and doing mini press-ups
  • 8-10 months- babies are able to sit and the back/ leg/ and arm muscles have sufficient strength to support them on all fours.

  • 1 year- crawling confidently.1


It’s a commonly known and observed fact within the CrossFit community that toddlers, when they first learn to walk soon develop the ability to squat with perfect mechanics. After learning to walk we explore things of interest on the ground, or even just take a rest in the squat position. No one teaches us, we just do it- it’s natural. When we start spending long periods of the day sitting in chairs at school, in cars, while playing video games, and watching TV many of us sadly lose our ability to squat.


If we continued to use our squat position regularly from the time we first learned it then we would maintain our excellent squat mobility and mechanics throughout our lives. Many societies where squatting is still the default position for resting, pooping, and eating are perfect examples of this. The advantages of having an excellent squat are obvious to anyone who wants to excel at CrossFit. Coaches of CrossFit know well the importance of that moment when you ask a new student to squat for the first time. The athlete's ability or inability to perform this foundational movement with sound biomechanics and full-range of motion will have a dramatic affect on how easily they’ll master many of the movements we use in training.


So what does this have to do with Crawling?

The parallel I am drawing between squatting and crawling can be explained by this common maxim: ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’.

We lose our ‘toddler squat’ when the influence of the world around us stops us from using this position. I was recently delayed for 3-hours in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport and decided to spend some of the time sitting in my squat, the reaction of the other patrons clearly showed that an adult squatting to rest is something alien in our culture. This got me thinking that even the clothes we wear inhibit this natural human resting position. Try squatting in a pair of jeans . I was not brave enough to try it at Gatwick but can you imagine if I had started crawling around the duty free? Our ability to crawl is lost in the same way our squat it lost when most of us stop crawling sometime after we learn to walk. You could even say, we learn to squat at the expense of being able to crawl. 

What if we could have the best of both world and be masters of squatting and crawling? 

Athletes and coaches generally understand why perfect squat mechanics translate into performance and injury prevention in CrossFit. The same connection exists between crawling-ability and performance/injury prevention but it’s not quite so obvious so let me make the connection for you. Athletes that can’t squat well are easily spotted by a competent coach. On the other hand, being able to spot scapular instability during pressing movements is much more difficult. Crawling is a versatile natural movement whose many variations can teach scapular stability and control and develop strength in multiple movement planes and directions. The shoulder-complex has arguably the largest range of motion of any joint in the human body allowing us to place our hand anywhere in space. Overall strengthening of the entire shoulder complex is a valuable pre-hab for anyone participating in CrossFit. Think about all the stress we put on our shoulders doing movements such as: handstand press-ups, handstand walking, strict-press, push-press, jerks, thrusters, ring-dips, burpees, press-ups, snatches, & benchpress, I could go on. When new athletes start CrossFit they often get caught up in a race to master all the movements and develop the strength they need to complete workouts Rx. Taking the time to master the basic natural skill of crawling and practising it regularly will set athletes up for success rather than injury by developing a base of strength in the entire shoulder complex. A recent poll of thirty-four UK CrossFit Affiliate owners asking what they thought was ‘The most common body part CrossFit athletes suffer injuries to?’ yielded the following responses:


Body Part

Responses

Shoulder

72.97%

Lower Back

18.92%

Knee

5.41%

Other

2.70%


The poll was voluntary and two participants selected multiple answers but even so, the results affirm what I am hearing from coaches and athletes across the community. Responsible coaches require athletes to demonstrate safe MECHANICS, CONSISTENTLY before adding INTENSITY (load/ speed) to a movement, but given the chart above I think we need to be doing more to keep our athletes shoulders healthy.


Once an athlete learns to crawl it’s a valuable skill which they can use to warm-up for training, on active-recovery days, or even as the basis for an entire session. I believe an athlete's ability to crawl fluidly at walking pace (or faster) both forwards, backwards, and sideways with only the hands and balls of the feet touching the ground and while balancing a small weight-plate on his/her lumbar spine is a relevant test of their ability to control and stabilize their scapulae and mid-line. I am not saying it’s the only type of pre-hab necessary to keep the shoulders safe. In the list I provided above I did not include any hanging movements which also place great stress on our shoulders and are prevalent in CrossFit. There’s specific pre-hab to prepare the shoulder complex for hanging movements but that’s a subject for my next post. The appearance of systems such as Crossover Symmetry in CrossFit boxes and on the display stands of equipment suppliers shows that there is a demand for shoulder pre-hab in our community. I am not passing judgement on these systems, just pointing out that crawling is natural way of strengthening the shoulder complex without equipment. Crawling can be easily integrated into group classes as it’s scalable for varying abilities. As an athlete becomes more proficient they can crawl further, faster and perform the more advanced progressions such as lizard/ gecco crawls.


What’s with the plate?

Balancing a small weight-disc on the lumbar spine ensures that the athlete maintains the desired technique which keeps a significant potion of the load over the hands. Without the plate the athlete can raise their hips and take most of the load on their feet. Keeping the plate balanced requires the athlete to maintain mid-line stability while coordinating movement of the arms and legs , a skill that transfers to many other movements we use in CrossFit.


When a baby crawls his knees are on the ground, why can’t my knees be on the ground?

A baby’s head at crawling age is a much-larger percentage of his total body weight than that of an adult. This natural front-loading means that a significant portion of the load is in the hands. For adults, bringing the knees just slightly off the floor increases the overall instability of the position and also shifts the load towards the arms which adds resistance. This combination of resistance and instability is a perfect recipe for developing strength and control in the shoulder-complex. Keeping the knees off the ground also allows for higher top speed which adds another degree of difficulty.


What inspired me to start crawling?

In January (Yes-right before the Open!) I fell skiing and suffered a partial tear of my supraspinatus tendon. The injury was stubborn and did not improve despite my diligently doing the rehab drills I was prescribed. Thinking back this was not my first shoulder injury, before I started CrossFit I spent years playing high-impact sports such as rugby and ice-hockey and had suffered shoulder separations, and rotator cuff strains. Even since starting CrossFit I’ve gone in and out of periods of shoulder pain which sometimes caused me to avoid certain movements and on other occasions affected my sleep due to the constant aching I experienced while laying in bed. One day I came across a video by Ido Portal, it was instantly apparent that he was passionate about movement and an amazing athlete. He asked the question “Can you flip? Can you invert? Can you crawl? Or is it just aesthetics?” His last question struck a chord with me, this was common ground. In both CrossFit and in Ido’s method there are no points for aesthetics, it’s only about the ability to perform physical tasks.  After trying to imitate the movements I saw in some of Ido’s video’s and failing miserably I decided that I needed to start with the basics. That’s when I came back to his third question, “Can you crawl?” In another of Ido’s video’s featuring his 64 year old mother, who can do strict pull-ups like a boss, I saw her crawling with a weight-disc on her back. So, I got a 1.25kg plate and placed it on my lower back and crawled across the gym. It was surprisingly taxing and took complete focus to stop the plate from falling off. I started playing with as many variations as I could think of: backwards, sideways, doing 360 degree spins, slaloming the uprights of the rig, wide hands, narrow hands, over obstacles, hands turned inwards, hands turned outwards, and increasing speed. Something about crawling just felt right to me. I was not very good at it, I was getting funny looks from my members, but it made sense to me that this was how I was going to teach my shoulders to work again.


Here's some footage of some of the variations I used:



The Results

After a month of diligently practising the variations I had come up with as well as some more advanced variations such as lizard and gecko crawls both my shoulders felt amazing. For the first time in over 6 months I was able to lay in bed, even on my side without pain. My overhead squat had gone from 115kg for 3 reps before my injury to a complete inability to perform the movement without pain even with a training bar. A few weeks into my crawling drills I was able to comfortably OHS a 20kg bar again. It’s been several months now and I am consistently Snatching over 100kg again pain-free.  Movements like HSPU which had previously required a 15 minute warm-up were now accessible to me completely pain free with zero warm-up. Crawling was not the only re-hab I was doing but I believe it played a key role in finally solving a stubborn injury and giving me completely pain-free shoulders for the first time since my first shoulder separation in 2009. Eager to share this gem with my athletes, I started integrating crawling drills into the programming at CrossFit CM2 and with my private clients. Their feedback was positive: several athletes who struggled with shoulder pain reported improvement in their symptoms.


What other basic movements like crawling are out there?

After watching all of Ido’s video’s I realized that he possessed a vast knowledge of human movement. Even though my goal is to excel at CrossFit I felt inspired that I could open up a new level of performance by developing some of the basics of movement using drills I derived from Ido’s YouTube content. I was so enthused with the discovery of this fundamental skill and the benefits I had experienced that I started to think about what other fundamentals were out there that could convey similar benefits. A fundamental skill should serve to build a base of strength and movement efficiency which would transfer directly to many other movements by reducing the risk of injury, increasing performance, and increasing the ease with which a movement is learned or mastered. So far I have come up with three fundamental skills. Crawling, hanging, and squatting. The list is not necessarily complete, but these skills met my criteria and I believed that both myself and all my athletes would benefit from developing them on a fundamental level. CrossFitters of all levels, from elite competitors right down to complete beginners can increase performance and avoid injury by mastering these basics of crawling, hanging, and squatting. In CrossFit there are already so many complex disciplines to master: Olympic Lifting, Kettlebells, Double-unders, Rowing,  and Swimming just to name a few, and adding more things to the list might seem like insanity, but once learned, these three skills can be integrated into warm-ups and maintained in mere minutes per day. Considering the overarching benefits to nearly everything we do I believe mastering the basics is time well spent. When people ask, “What is CrossFit?” we tell them it’s:


“Constantly varied functional

movement

 performed at relatively high intensity”


Even though all crawling variations are not measurable like the movements we see in WOD’s and competitions, if they make us more efficient movers by developing the fundamental skills underlying more complex exercises, then they will make us better at our craft and less prone to injury. By all means keep smashing met-cons, I certainly will be, but learn to crawl too, you won’t regret it.
In my next post I will talk about increasing performance and preventing injury by learning how to hang and I'll tell you how after nearly 6 years of CrossFit I finally learned to squat.

References

Video's I mentioned from Ido Portal's You Tube Channel
Photo of Squatting Chinese Man  
Superscript 1