Readers, I have been thinking lately about the purpose of training quadrupedal movement patterns. I was asked recently by some friends at a Christmas party about the benefits of these movements, and found myself unable to produce a satisfactory response. I’m offering this post as an attempt to properly answer that question.
For the uninitiated, quadrupedal movement patterns are those performed on all fours. You might be familiar with things like bear crawls which have been used for ages to torture hapless pursuers of fitness. The exploration of these movements has been gaining in popularity thanks to the work of people like Ido Portal (known chiefly for the so-called Lizard Crawl, though this is certainly the tip of the iceberg in terms of how quadrupedal movement fits into his method), but they still remain a bit of an oddity in mainstream fitness culture.
My initial reaction when questioned as to the purpose of quadruped patterns was to try and extol some of the fitness benefits one might derive from their training: conditioning, strength, mobility, and all that; but those answers didn’t satisfy me, nor do I think they satisfied my questioners. One friend offered that perhaps they could improve one’s ability to dissociate the limbs when in motion (something that had been emphasized in our paediatric physiotherapy classes recently), but that didn’t quite get to the point either. I think, though I didn’t properly understand it at the time, I realized that my reasons for training these movements would not be a suitable explanation to give my friends as to why they were important to train. We were fortunately interrupted in our discussion by some other goings-on, and I was spared the awkwardness of being unable to articulate a good answer.
In my own practice, the utility of quadruped patterns is obvious. There are simply times when these movement patterns have practical application. Just yesterday I encountered two situations in which I was able to apply them. The first was when I was on the beach, climbing across the jagged sedimentary rock formations that jut out from the hillside. This type of terrain is more easily ascended on all fours. The second was when I was on my way home. As I ran, I approached a tree in my path with low branches and was able to transition smoothly into and out of a crawling pattern to pass beneath them. There are also those situations where four points of contact and a low center of mass are important for stability on narrow structures, such as when climbing along a tree branch.
Yes, in the context of developing a complete repertoire of human movement, quadruped patterns have clear importance. The ability to change levels while in motion has many applications. But what is evidenced in my inability to answer my friend’s question is that, while quadrupedal movement has utility for most people, it isn’t important to an individual unless becoming a more complete human mover is as well. For most modern humans, the argument that quadrupedal movement will help you more proficiently navigate jagged rocks and trees is not particularly convincing.
No, an effective argument for the importance of training quadruped patterns requires an existing understanding (or, at least, openness to the concept) that further developing the fundamentals of human movement has a practical benefit. There may, indeed, be few situations in modern life when one truly requires the use of quadrupedal patterns. In this context, I have found them useful for picking up items dropped beneath a table, or peering beneath the couch for a lost pen, but seldom otherwise.
The benefits of developing human movement fundamentals broadly speaking, however, are much easier to articulate, and will provide the context in which the importance of quadrupedal patterns can then be understood.
The most ubiquitous of these benefits could be viewed as those related to health and fitness (which I so poorly offered to my friends during our discussion). The structure of the human body developed in response to an environment that offered a wide array of challenges which demanded movement solutions if the human, as an animal, was to thrive. Entire books have been authored on this subject (such as Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA), but in short the implication of this idea is that exposure to these inputs (in the proper dosages) is greatly beneficial towards maintaining the optimal working condition of the body. Movement expressed in the context of the human’s natural environment (hanging, squatting, climbing, running, etc.) is analogous to whole foods, providing a rich assortment of mechanical nutrients. We can supplement our movement diets with isolated movement patterns under controlled conditions, and there are certainly times when this is necessary, but when we move towards practices that center around more nutritious movement patterns (to further reference Katy) we are able to derive many more benefits much more efficiently.
The second category of benefits could be seen as those related to movement competence. Being familiar and skilled with a variety of movement patterns gives us options for movement. Sure, there may not be a terrific number of instances that we will need to apply something like quadrupedal movement patterns in modern life, but our physical practice should not aim only to sustain the minimum amount of function necessary to survive as modern humans – it should allow us to thrive. As we gain proficiency in using our bodies, physical obstacles wither away and become like games. Barring those disabilities and diseases which would render this discussion irrelevant, there is little excuse for a human being unable to bypass a five foot fence or lift a box without sustaining a back injury. Quadrupedal patterns may have less obvious utility in the modern world than being able to deadlift a box, but being familiar with them shines light into another corner of our movement profiles, providing more options to overcome the challenges of the environment.
The importance of quadrupedal patterns is clear in the context of complete human movement because it is a part of that completeness. It is not a matter of whether or not one can function without them, but rather the high degree of self-efficacy and wellness that can be achieved through mindful practice of the realms of movement our bodies have developed to express. They are one example of how the pursuit of fitness could be altered to offer so much more than calories burned and heart rates raised.
My friends, I hope this answers your question.