Primitive Movement Patterns

Posted: March 7, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Everyone enters the gym with hopes of losing weight and getting bigger, faster, and stronger. This is usually attempted with no regards for movement quality. All too often we go to the gym and just go through the motions of doing exercises without ever thinking about it. Not to our own fault, but that is how the entire field of exercise is set up. Magazine articles claiming results in just a few weeks and even the educational system for personal trainers is lacking a true understanding of human movement.

Developing proper movement patterns begins right from birth. During growth and development we go through a progression of movement patterns known as primitive movement patterns. They are supine support, rolling, pushing up, quadruped, and crawling. These fundamental movement patterns lay the foundation for quality movement as an adult. The inability to perform these movements can increase injury risk and decrease performance.
We develop dysfunction from poor sitting posture, sleeping posture, being sedentary, wearing sneakers, etc. Then we go to the gym and further ingrain this dysfunction. Push-ups and planks are two of my favorite exercises to perform, but they are two of the most poorly performed exercises in the gym. Next time you are working out look around at people’s posture during the exercises. There will most likely be flaring of the scapula (the medial border of the shoulder blade moving away from the thorax), winging of the scapula (inferior angle pulls away from the thorax), and/or increased lumbar lordosis

As you can see in the pic above, the scapulas are coming away from the back. That is a lack of scapula stabilization. The more he does planks and push-ups in that position the more the dysfunction becomes ingrained. The same applies when we see an increased lordotic curve in the lumbar spine. This is loss of spinal stability. We learn spinal and scapula stabilization through those primitive movement patterns.
Primitive patterns reduce the balance and stabilization requirements to allow for proper development. It takes less balance and stability in supine support then in does in crawling. There is also increased proprioception. We learn a lot from our environment from our hands and feet. We can also learn about proper spinal alignment through contact with the floor. Primitive movement patterns also limit available movements.
For example, when crawling one arm needs to stabilize the body. This is not the case while walking. This all allows for proper learning to take place. Due to our environment we lose the ability to perform these simple tasks because we never practice them. You cannot be an elite athlete sprinting, changing directions, and jumping if you lack the ability to crawl. You may develop the necessary speed and strength for a sport, but injury risk will continue to rise as you get older.
Most exercise programs neglect these fundamental movement principles. Instead they focus on contractile strength of an individual muscle groups, or exercises that place too much load or metabolic demand on movement patterns the athlete or client cannot control. This is why an assessment is such a critical piece of developing an exercise program.
If there is pain or an inability to perform fundamental movements without load or metabolic demand we need to regress and retrain these primitive movements. The majority of people have lost the ability to stabilize the spine. Retraining this also requires relearning how to properly breathe.
Most of our organs are on our right side. When we sit down we compress everything and this limits our diaphragm from actually expanding. This leads to secondary muscles taking over respiration. These include pec minor and our sternocleidomastoid (SCM). When these muscles become overactive they can lead to improper shoulder function. Just stretching or doing soft tissue work will not fix the underlying movement dysfunction. The same goes for the hips.
Improper breathing patterns limit our ability to stabilize the spine. Couple this with sitting all day in a posture that leads to tight hip flexors, inactive glutes, tight hamstrings, and elongated lumbar muscles and we have a recipe for back pain and limited performance. Stretching the hamstrings in this case will not work because it does not address the underlying movement dysfunction. Retraining spinal stabilization and getting the glutes to be more active will release tension in the hamstrings. Principles we will get into at a later time.
I like to retrain breathing patterns with a straw in a 90/90 position while performing shoulder flexion. 90/90 simply refers to the knees being bent to 90 degrees and the hips flexed at 90 degrees. With the feet on the wall and squeezing a foam roller between your thighs, fill your belly with air and exhale through the straw as you bring the shoulders into full flexion while maintaining your back and pelvis on the floor. I like 90/90 here because it retrains posterior tilt of the pelvis. From sitting all day a number of us develop anterior tilt (pelvis rotates forward). It also teaches us proper spinal alignment while moving through the proprioception of the floor while retraining proper shoulder movement. Here is our supine support.
Rolling helps us to develop strength and balance. It teaches us how to absorb higher impact such as jumping and also plays a critical role in training our vestibular system. Ever get dizzy from bending down and standing up? Perhaps your vestibular system needs to be retrained. Try rolling and if your head needs to come up off of the floor to power through it, or if the grounded arm or leg needs to assist then we need to work on this movement pattern.
As a baby once you learned how to roll you earned the right to crawl. Crawling helps us further establish stabilization and strength. We raise our center of gravity up and begin a contralateral movement similar to walking but with less stability requirements. Crawling trains our shoulder and hip function to properly stabilize and move during gait. Problem is once we walk we never go back to crawling. We lose this ability and continue to live life and exercise with this dysfunction, making the dysfunction even stronger. Our biceps and triceps have tendon attachments on the scapula and during crawling they are responsible for pulling the scapula over the stance arm. Too often we neglect their importance in proper shoulder function and train them to only flex and extend the elbow.
Once we have mastered crawling we can begin to learn the adult movement patterns. In my next blog post we will cover the transition from crawling to standing using half kneeling position. Until then, play more like a kid and roll and crawl around!


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