Primal Movement Patterns | APEX THE GYM

Primal Movement Patterns

Primal Movement Patterns
Tuesday, April 21, 2015 *from archives

By Kevin Hirose – BKin, CSCS

When you think of the word, “primal”, what comes to mind?  Primitive societies or civilizations? Perhaps a wild animal such as tiger?  The picture above probably had something to do with that thought.  For the purposes of this entry the word “primal” means essential or fundamental, not something which is primitive or dated.

In fact, without “primal” movement patterns humans would not be the most dominant species on earth and as individuals we would not be able to function well physically or even at all.  These patterns are innate or inborn in all people except for those born with developmental and/or physical disabilities.  It is just as natural and even more primal than our ability to speak language.  And similar to learning language, timing and progression is crucial to the development of the basic movements which allow us to run, jump, lift and throw later on in life.

So what are these primal patterns?  The previous blog entry, “Understanding the Basic Movements – Part 2”,  revealed an introduction to them:

“Primal movement patterns are the movements which are innate or inborn in human beings, in this case.  For example, a baby learns how to roll in the very early stages before it is able to crawl, stand and eventually, walk.  NOT every infant necessarily goes through all the stages and each develops at their own pace.  Eventually, all children learn to walk and the run, unless of there is a major developmental problem or disability.  A list of many but not all fundamental movements from infancy to adulthood:

  • rolling
  • crawling
  • climbing
  • squatting
  • lunging
  • gait – walking, running
  • jumping
  • throwing

Along with basic movements done in the gym, these can be included and incorporated in a program with the purpose of training movement competency and fluency and less emphasis on resistance to increase strength and/or hypertrophy (size). “

When a humans are born they have almost no conscious control over their movements; they are instinctual and reflexive.  As time passes, the infant develops more control and is able to make more conscious and purposeful movements.  As Gray Cook has stated an infant is “a ball of instability” and gradually begins to control and stabilize its movements where it gains true mobility, or movement with proper stability within its range of motion.  Eventually, there comes a point when the infant begins to roll and eventually move short distances.


The first stage of movement is rolling.  Many of you have seen it; an infant rolling to an object such as a toy in order to reach it.  They roll from supine (back) to prone (front) or vice-versa.  In my son, Ronin’s case, we put him on his belly for “tummy time” and he would try to roll onto his back since he did not particularly like being prone.  As he became more accustomed to it he eventually began to roll from back to front.  Here is an example of a rolling pattern:

Before an infant can crawl, it must learn to roll just like a toddler must learn how to walk before it runs.  Rolling for adults may seem like a pointless task but it is not for some.  For those with major neuromuscular dysfunction or injury, it can help restore motor control at the most basic rehabilitative level.  Rolling seems like a simple skill but for many adults with impaired movements systems it can be difficult, particularly asymmetries in rolling ability.  There are two rolling variations: upper body rolling and lower body rolling from front to back and back to front.  Difficulty moving in a particular direction can reveal a fundamental motor control problem, which then can be used as a corrective exercise to treat the neuromuscular dysfunction.  These fundamental movement impairments can hinder the development in the ability to progress to more complex movements or can reduce the movement quality of existing patterns.  Below are video demos on rolling drills:

Upper Body:

Lower Body:


If you watched the demos you might have noticed that each variation is initiated by movement of the extremities and the rest of the body following.  These movements can be put into a gym or home routine as part of a warm-up or movement preparation, if desired.


A more advanced fundamental movement is crawling.  This would require the infant to be able prop up on its hands and knees and move the limbs in an alternating fashion to facilitate movement for means of travelling a distance to reach an object or person.  There are different variations of crawling but the basic premise is that the limbs move in an alternating pattern while the torso and hips remain stable much like the spinning wheels move the fixed body of a vehicle.


The movement patterns of the baby versus the adult are very similar with the major difference being the baby crawls on his knees and the adult has his knees above the ground.  Therefore, the hips on the man are higher and the back is parallel to the ground; this is known as the “bear crawl”.  As an exercise or drill, the individual maintains a flat back, using core control for spinal stability and utilizes the hips and shoulders in an alternating fashion to travel forward.  This exercise can easily be done with less than perfect posture and would not be a safety issue like many other exercises and can still be a very physically taxing regardless of technique.  If you’ve ever done it you know what I’m taking about!  This movement is the precursor to climbing and, although it usually precedes walking, it is not a prerequisite for it.  As a real-life example, as an infant I did not crawl much at all but I could stand well. According to my mother, finally one day, I got the courage to let go of the furniture and take my first steps and quickly turned walking into my main means travel.

Crawling patterns going in different directions (backwards, sideways) are also possible and can be done almost anywhere, especially the outdoors.  And with the beauty of having human innovation and equipment crawling can be done with load (resistance) by pulling a sled with a harness.


Our very distant ancestors, before we evolved into modern humans, climbed in trees, up vines and on natural terrain such as hills, mountains, caverns and over debris like  fallen trees and boulders.  In my opinion, it is fair to say that crawling is a prerequisite to climbing meaning that one would have to be able to crawl before developing the ability to climb.  The basic movement pattern is similar in that limbs move in an alternating fashion for the purpose of traveling forward.  However, the basic difference would be that climbing is done on an incline or decline and climbing can also be done going backwards, when descending.  I haven’t really thought about it until recently but how many people do you know have the instinct to climb down a tree head first?  Very few, if none. Therefore, for humans climbing in both directions is useful and was necessary for early hominid lifestyle.  Backwards crawling is not often done since it is not a natural function for a human in the natural environment, however, it can be used as a progression to train a backwards climbing pattern.

In addition, climbing usually involves a measure of grip strength, of both the hands and feet, which crawling does not require.  Looking at the picture it is clear that the hands are gripping the holds with enough force to support body-weight from the top and the feet from the bottom.  Climbing also involves core strength, strength and mobility of the limbs, and body awareness.  It is one of the more advanced primal patterns since it requires all of these qualities, and in addition, balance, mental focus and confidence.

However, there is also an excellent piece of indoor equipment called, “Jacobs Ladder“, which is a climbing/crawling machine .  It can be found in a number of gyms and is becoming increasing popular.  By all accounts, it is a high quality piece of machinery that provides quality training and challenging workouts for a large range of abilities.  Here is a video link:


Lunges, lunges, lunges.  We see them in gyms, bootcamps, sport practices and so on.  The problem is that they are usually done incorrectly and sometimes just straight ugly to the point that it looks painful.  Correct alignment and joint angles are important but even more important is proper execution.  Lunges are a split stance leg exercise which requires core engagement and stability of the hips.  Here is correct posture and alignment for the lunge position:



From the side view the knee angles are approximately 90 degrees and the torso is vertical.  I believe there is an acceptable range for knee angles which the anatomy can handle with lower risk to the joints and ligaments.  The front leg angle should be between 75-90 degrees (behind the knees) and the rear knee angle 90-105 degrees (also behind the knees).  You might have noticed a 15 degree range at each joint so there is a bit of room to play within the optimal range.  Through experience I have discovered that allowing the knees to move beyond the toes (knee angle less than 75 deg) generally puts more stress on the knee joint and often leads to the heel coming off the floor putting even further stress on the knee. Conversely, if the angle is more than 90 degrees the hamstrings takes on extra load leading to a higher risk of injury.  The rear leg is basically the opposite in terms of knee angle.  Again, in my opinion, the rear leg should be at least 90 degrees and not in excess of 105 degrees.  I have found that people with knee issues or history of injury have problems tend to have pain when less than 90 since there is progressively more pressure on the knee joint as the angle decreases.  Also, I prefer that my clients/athletes to get a good active stretch of the rear leg with full hip extension.  However, if the angle becomes greater than 105 the hip joint begins to move into the range of taking stress off the muscles and more stress on the joint and ligaments, which is not what we want when training with load.  Walking lunges or lunge walk can also be done with an alternating arm swing pattern seen in walking and running.  And remember while doing lunges, especially walking lunges, “stay off the tightrope”! (walking mid-line).


These are just some of the primal movements that were important to our survival and evolution as a species and if we are to continue to survive and evolve as a physically active and adaptable creatures we must continue practicing them whenever possible. These primal patterns are the foundation in which we use to physically function in life, at work, during sports and for survival.  If there is a significant decrease in movement capacity as an adult the neuromuscular system becomes compromised and the anatomy begins to suffer more injuries, especially repeated and chronic ones.  As the well-known Strength Coach and Physical Therapist, Gray Cook, says repeatedly, “Move well and well often”.  In a future entry, I will discuss one of the most fundamental primal patterns that humans possess early in life but often lose with time; the squat.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *