Groundwork: The Benefits of Quadrupedal Training
GROUNDWORK: THE BENEFITS OF QUADRUPEDAL TRAINING
by Dan Edwardes
Parkour has involved quadrupedal locomotion patterns, or crawling drills, since its inception over 25 years ago. Anyone who has ever come to one of our classes, workshops or events will be familiar with just how challenging, demanding and sophisticated this form of training can be, as well as how fulfilling it is to become proficient on the ground.
The wider world of fitness has woken up to the power of this training protocol only in recent years, with all manner of systems popping up promoting crawling patterns – some doing it well and intently, others simply to join the bandwagon with no real thought given to quality or purpose. But the parkour community knows from experience how useful good quadrupedal work can be, hence its continued use by training groups around the world. And now for the first time we are beginning to see scientific studies embarked upon that support what we intuitively know through simple empiricism: it works.
This 2016 study in the Journal of Human Movement Science, entitled Quadrupedal Movement Training Improves Markers of Cognition and Joint Repositioning found that ‘performance of a novel, progressive, and challenging task, requiring the coordination of all 4 limbs, has a beneficial impact on cognitive flexibility, and in joint reposition sense’[i]. Now, we who practice quadrupedal locomotion know this, we understand this, but it’s nice to see the sport science world catching up.
Like anything else, done well quadrupedal locomotion is of real value and benefit in terms of all-round physical development; done poorly it’s of no use whatsoever. At Parkour Generations we value quality of movement, acquired through mindful training, rigorous discipline and enjoyment. We emphasise practical movement skills over arbitrary, isolated movements or numbering systems, as these skills enable us to use our potential to explore our environments, adapt, solve problems and actually discover just what we can do. We do not train in order to be better at training. We are not fit in order to be better at fitness. Fitness comes about as a side-effect of good, regular movement and a life well-lived. We move with purpose, always.
And the same should be applied in quadrupedal training – the aim should be to move smoothly, efficiently, effectively and freely on all fours and low to the ground, just as we do in our bipedal movement. There is a danger, I think, that we can deconstruct our quadrupedal movement in the same way as many people do with bipedal movement, compromising the naturally holistic movement we are born with and limiting our innate athleticism.
Good quadrupedal movement should result in fluid, effortless locomotion across the ground so that we are able to change directions quickly, control our bodyweight throughout the various planes and patterns, and react instinctively and easily.
A SUPPORTING PARADIGM
It’s also vital to remember that we have evolved to move primarily on two legs, standing upright. The point of quadrupedal training isn’t to backwards engineer yourself so that you become excellent at crawling and nothing else; it’s a training paradigm we utilise to support and improve our ability to move across terrain, which is primarily done in a bipedal fashion. If the majority of your training is crawling you’re likely over-specialising. That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen that simple truth be forgotten sometimes in the quest for needless complexity and difficulty for the sake of difficulty.
It also creates the foundation for being able to support one’s bodyweight while moving over obstacles and terrain that require the momentary use of the arms/upper body, particularly vault movements and rolls. Many of the quadrupedal drills we practise relate directly to a particular vault pattern used to clear obstacles. There are clear relationships between these areas of movement and working them on the ground can be of huge benefit to practitioners, old and new, in terms of developing the mobility, strength and coordination to apply the same movements at speed while clearing an obstacle in one’s path.
THE BENEFITS OF QUADRUPEDAL TRAINING
Crawling (and, prior to this, rolling – something else we include in our quadrupedal training methods) is typically the root form of locomotion before the body can stand up and combine movements in high gaits; it’s how we learn to develop contra-lateral movement (both sides of the body co-ordinating for optimal movement efficiency) and it builds the foundation for efficient biomechanics. There are myriad benefits to quadrupedal locomotion practice, so let’s look at the most obvious ones to start with.
Improved Stability and Tension
Moving well on all fours demands stability across all four limbs, engaging lines of dynamic tension both along and across the body – sometimes known as slings of connective tissue that typically cross via the mid-point of the torso. Being stable in various positions on all fours requires control and tension throughout the body, improving length-tension relationships and emphasising the coordination of all those small muscles and joint-chains involved, particularly:
- The scapulohumeral joint, or the shoulder joint, where the arm attaches to the torso;
- The scapulothoracic, which is the relationship of the shoulder blade to the upper spine;
- The lumbosacral joint, at the lower back, where the last section of the spine connects to the sacrum and pelvis; and
- The hip joint, which can affect the entire lower body, especially the knee and ankle.
It also requires the ability to support loads throughout the integrated joint chains of wrist-elbow-shoulder and ankle-knee-hip in a wide variety of positions, developing dynamic tension throughout the whole body, which is critical to absorbing impact and expressing power in movement.
About 70% of all terminal nerve endings are in the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, meaning those are the main areas of the kinesthetic system that provide our brains with positional information.
Coordination and Joint Position Sense
Coordination plays a major role in physical performance and the application of strength. By improving our neuromuscular coordination we become smarter and faster, mentally and physically, and, as the fore-mentioned recent study demonstrates, crawling helps increase our brain’s ability to know what position each joint is in at any given time and to thus control this more precisely. The biomechanical variety within quadrupedal training helps build neurological webs that improve communication speed and efficiency throughout the nervous systems, increasing overall coordination and spatial awareness.
Sometimes known as ‘bullet-proofing’, developing healthy joints is down to sufficient mobility, strength and flexibility, as well as the ability for the chains of joints to distribute loads effectively across the whole body. Good quadrupedal locomotion will do just this, loading several joints at once and promoting blood flow through the areas under pressure while mobilising and stabilising.
Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity
Due to the constant activation of so many muscle groups across the body at once, the demand on the aerobic system during crawling can be very high. A few minutes of decent quadrupedal work can have you sweating and breathing hard and subtle shifts in the intensity and speed of the drills can easily then move us into the anaerobic work zone too.
Crawling drills require most muscle groups to work simultaneously, with some patterns requiring the activation of slow-twitch fibres while more explosive movements engage the fast-twitch, thus building muscular endurance and explosive power across the whole body. Typically, the patterns that take your torso very close to the ground will require more strength and, due to the huge variety of positions and angles your support levers will be exposed to, these movements can be highly demanding. Make no mistake, quadrupedal training is a fantastic way to develop truly practical strength and endurance.
Mobility and Flexibility
Hyper flexibility / mobility can risk affecting joint stability, but because most crawling positions require the loading of several joints simultaneously and tension across the whole body I find it less likely that people will extend beyond healthy ranges of motion when crawling around. You will find you gradually increase the range of motion in the joint-chains while also increasing stability at the same time. In other words, a dynamic flexibility can be achieved while also strengthening the supporting tissues surrounding the joints.
Reduced Impact Forces
One obvious benefit of training methods that keep you low to the ground is a huge reduction in impact forces you experience, as your centre of gravity is, well, already as low as it can go! So it provides a great way to work many physical attributes while reducing and controlling impact forces to the skeleton and joints. Of course, manageable impact is a key part of physical development and there are various quadrupedal patterns we use that introduce impact absorption – but it’s a great way to control that introduction to a practitioner’s training.
Nervous System Stimulation
At the end of the day the quality of our movement is governed by how smart our nervous systems are, and they get smarter through increased stimulation providing more information to the brain. About 70% of all terminal nerve endings are in the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, meaning those are the main areas of the kinesthetic system that provide us with positional information (the other systems being the vestibular and visual). So, simply put, the more you connect to the world around you with your hands and feet, the more information your peripheral nervous system takes in and transmits back to the brain, and the smarter your movement will become all round. This is why barefoot quadrupedal training is the best of all, allowing the soles of your feet to ‘read’ the ground far better than when encased in shoes.
No Equipment Necessary!
The other fantastic aspect of low-gait movement is that it requires absolutely no equipment, special terrain or machinery: simply your body and the ground. Any ground. It’s free, go ahead and use it to your heart’s content. You’ve probably even got some in your own home. If not, there’ll be some outside, I guarantee it.
DO YOUR GROUNDWORK
So, benefits aplenty. However, perhaps the coolest aspect of quadrupedal training is the sheer variety of drills, patterns and protocols one can employ. It can work strength, power, endurance, mobility, agility, spatial awareness and more, and it can focus on a few specific areas or all of these at once. Typically it has benefits across the board of physical development due to the whole-body nature of the patterns. You can go for sheer volume to work physical and mental endurance; you can work quality and form for movement sophistication and control; you can opt for playful games and mobility work for a dynamic warm-up or during an active recovery day. The options are fairly endless, low-risk, low-impact and, well, lots of fun!
If you’ve never tried it you’re guaranteed to find it challenging. And even when you become an experienced crawler you’ll discover there are endless permutations and variations that will keep you coming back to the ground time and again. Mastery, as with all things, is no easy task.