Quadrupedal Movement: The Bear Crawl Exercise Explained

By on February 24, 2021

If you’re new to movement training and “animal flow,” then you probably have one enduring impression of the training modality; people crawling around the ground. The bear crawl exercise certainly creates a striking image!

Whether it’s Ido Portal, Animal Flow, GMB, or Vahva Fitness, crawling is a common feature among many different approaches to “movement training.” But is it just a gimmick? Or are there real, tangible benefits to the bear crawl and lizard crawl exercises?

Top Bear Crawl Benefits

The short answer is yes: there are many benefits to the bear crawl exercise and other “locomotive” or “quadrupedal” movements like it. There are even more when we get a little inventive with the different variations we can do.

See also: Movement Training for Beginners – With List of Key Movements

Strength Endurance

The first benefit of crawling is that it develops strength endurance, especially throughout the core. When you crawl, you are under continuous tension. This means that the muscles involved get no time to rest and are flooded with blood and metabolites that stimulate growth. This actually makes crawling a good move for hypertrophy. This is especially true for the lizard crawl exercise, as you keep your body low to the ground and therefore maintain an isometric contraction in the pecs, triceps, and shoulders.

Quadrupedal movement bodyweight training
Foot hand crawl

More to the point, this type of training will develop endurance that allows you to exert strength for a long time without getting exhausted – something that is crucial whether doing manual labour or competing in any sport (especially MMA).

See also: Movement Training Explained: Iso Portal, Movement Flows, and More

This is even a good form of “resistance cardio” meaning that it can increase mitochondria and cardiovascular fitness without running or cycling. Many people get immediately put off the bear crawl exercise after trying it for a few minutes and concluding that it isn’t “tough enough.”

I someday hope to see a world where it’s not unusual to see someone crawling down the road, or carrying a kettlebell down the road. We see people jogging places for fitness and the benefits here are just as useful! Why should we be restricted to public exercise that other people deem to be normal? Why is everyone so boring??

Try crawling for one mile and now tell me how your entire body is feeling. Treat this like a loaded carry. Alternatively, try using crawling in the place of running, battle ropes, or kettlebells in a bout of high intensity interval training. And if it’s not challenging enough? Crawl faster!

Core Strength

Moreso than the arms and legs, the bear crawl or lizard crawl exercise will keep the core under constant tension. This makes the movement work very much like a plank or any other isometric hold for the torso.

The problem with plank is that it’s boring and not terribly challenging once you develop a certain amount of fitness. Crawling lets gives you the benefits of the plank but ALSO much more; like the aforementioned strength endurance for the upper body. Push ups have the same “secondary benefit.”

Crawling lets gives you the benefits of the plank but also much more.

The lizard crawl exercise, in particular, has the added benefit of also training the obliques in an anti-rotation capacity. This has fantastic transfer for any movement that involves resisting rotation, such as wrestling.

This is also where the crab crawl or table top exercise comes in useful. This movement has you upside down, groin-side-up, crawling like a crab. This is works the endurance of the hip extensors and erector spinae in a similar manner – which often get overlooked and are actually more important.

Strength endurance in the core can make you more athletic across the board and potentially prevent injury.

The Lizard Crawl Exercise for Mobility

Another benefit is that many crawls also enhance mobility. This isn’t as prevalent for the bear crawl exercise, but it’s huge for the lizard crawl.

In the lizard crawl, you’ll be reaching over your head, while at the same time bringing your knees up by your side. You can also exaggerate this movement if you prefer.

Crab Crawl

This is good news because it means you’re moving in the frontal plane and it means you’re exploring a wider range of motion. This is particularly good if you want to improve hip mobility.

Another great exercise for mobility is what GMB calls “The Bear.” This is a little confusing, as the “bear crawl” is often associated with the foot hand crawl. It’s called the bear crawl exercise in parkour but “Beast” in Animal flow!

We can call these movements whatever we like, really. There’s no right or wrong way and that, really, is the fun of movement training.

There’s no right or wrong way.

Either way, the GMB bear or “downward dog walk” is like the bear exercise where your butt is sticking in the air. This is fantastic for improving your pancake stretch and opening up the shoulders.

Then there’s the frogger, which is not strictly a crawl, but which is excelling for hip mobility and deep squatting.

Why spend ages in static stretch positions when you can be training your endurance while getting passive mobility gains as well?

Coordination

Then there’s the fact that the bear crawl exercise is a “cross-body movement,” making it excellent for coordination and proprioception. Crawling is a movement we perform in infancy and this helps us to develop the crucial connection between the right shoulder and left hip, and vice versa. We see this connection in the serape effect whenever we walk or go to throw a ball.

Bear Crawl

This may also be partly responsible for the unusual wiring that connects the left side of the body to the right side of the brain, and vice versa. The nerves that travelling from the brain to the peripheral nervous system cross at the medulla (pyramid decussations) in the brainstem. This is known as the lateral corticospinal tract.

In short, contralateral movements that cross the midline have potential to thicken the important bundle of nerves that connect the left and right hemispheres (the corpus callosum).  

The brain also often “cheats” by often moving both arms simultaneously. A movement like a push up requires less processing power than a crawl, because both arms are moving through the exact same range of motion. There is one set of instructions split across two limbs. Moving your limbs independently requires you to divide your attention and effectively “multi-thread” your cerebrum (reference).

See also: Training the Serape Effect for Maximum Power Generation

Balance and the Multifidus

Finally, crawls also incorporate a balance aspect. The exercise known as “bird-dog” involves resting on all fours and reaching forward and back with contralateral limbs. This is often used as a warm up or mobility exercise, and is fantastic for stabilizing the core while balancing on two points. To do this, we must be aware of the multifidus, which is a long string of small muscles running up either side of the spine. These muscles are extremely strong and contribute heavily to “spinal stiffness” but they are also rich in muscle spindles – making them highly sensitive. That’s because the multifidus must listen to and anticipate movements and then brace the body to stabilize against them.

Bird Dog

The bear crawl exercise or lizard crawl effectively utilize the same challenge and therefore allow you to improve your balance and coordination even further.

All crawling movements also benefit from being highly compound. That means they utilize many muscle groups and joints working together, thereby improving general coordination and athletic application of strength. You’re not just building the muscles, but the connections between those muscles and the possibly the “epimuscular force transmission” that may occur via the fascia.

It should come as no surprise then, to learn that studies have found quadrupedal movement training to improve both proprioception and “markers of cognition!” (study). In particular, this type of training was shown to improve performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task. A surprising demonstration of far-transfer.

Awesome Variations for the Lizard and Bear Crawl Exercise

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that the bear crawl and lizard crawl exercises are valuable as they are. But once you start getting creative, they can become even more useful.

You can incorporate any exercise you like with the bear crawl exercise or lizard crawl, just as you can incorporate movements with a push up. For example, you could include a kick-through after every two “steps” or you could combine the movement with a burpee. This makes the movement even more compound and trains those spaces between positions. This turns the movement into a kind of complex or hybrid exercise.

This is where crawling movements work so well in movement training, especially by allowing the practitioner to “freestyle” and mix up their movements.

Balancing Variation

Bear Crawl Balance

In parkour, the bear crawl is often used for balancing along beams, railings, and branches. This drastically increases the role of equilibrioception and proprioception. The core lights up and you’ll even feel your grip working over time if you’re on a railing. In short, it sounds easy but it’s an amazing full body workout.

See also: The Brain, Movement, and Training

And better yet, this may even have more benefits for the brain. I’ve discussed at length how cognitively challenging any kind of movement is, and how much information must be processed. This may be why studies show training that incorporate balancing, asynchronous limb movement, and manipulation may actually improve focus, visual spatial processing, and more. This actually increases the grey matter of the basal ganglia (study).

Best of all, research from Tracy and Ross Alloway suggests that climbing trees, crawling along beams, and running barefoot can all help to increase working memory! The very process of learning new movements may even elevate levels of BDNF, improving neural plasticity.

Tugging Variation

Want to turn this into a more brutal conditioning workout? Then try tugging an object while crawling. Get a harness ($15 from Amazon) then attach some resistance bands to a few weight plates or a sandbag. This is one of the only bodyweight exercises that can train pulling muscles without a suspended bar or ring! It’s also a great way to increase the resistance and it’s a fantastic workout for your mental fortitude. You’ll even feel your fingers and grip working to try and dig into the floor if you do this on grass!

Crawling Sandbag Drag

Hill Crawl

Another way to instantly make the bear crawl exercise or any other crawling movement more challenging, is to crawl up or downhill. Going up is a great alternative to rock climbing if you don’t have a center or a crag near you. Coming back down, meanwhile, places much more pressure on the shoulders (especially the anterior deltoids). This can be easily incorporated into a trail run, for awesome benefits.

You’ll light up those little supporting muscles, your grip, and your cerebrum.

Throw on some minimal shoes, go for a run across some rough terrain, do some pull ups from a tree branch, crawl along it, then crawl down a hill. You’ll light up those little supporting muscles, your grip, and your cerebrum in ways that you can’t manage by simply repeating curls and squats in a cushy gym.

Trail running for knees

To conclude then, the bear crawl exercise certainly has a LOT to offer and can complement nearly any training program. But you have to treat it like a serious part of your routine.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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