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The Importance of Primitive Movement Patterns

November 12, 2008 12:36 PM

The foundation of how we all work towards improved strength and power begins with efficient movements. In order to fully appreciate these fundamentals we first must realize the importance of primitive movement patterns. Primitive movement patterns are used to describe those movements most humans explore during growth and development. These fundamental movements include rolling, pushing up, quadruped, and crawling. It may be difficult to understand how movements such as crawling or rolling relate to strength and performance enhancement, however development of fundamental movement is the foundation that leads to effective functional performance. This foundation is often neglected in the approaches we take to enhance function and/or performance through exercise programming.

The first rule of functional performance is not forgetting fundamentals. We enter this world as infants with unrestricted mobility; we then learn to stabilize quickly progressing to movement. In order to progress to movement we first learned to reflexively stabilize the spine, in order to control movement more distally in the extremities, this happened naturally during growth and development. However, many individuals lose the ability to naturally stabilize as they age due to asymmetries, injuries, poor training or daily activities. The individuals who do this develop compensatory movements, which then create inefficiencies and asymmetries in fundamental movements.

Exercise professionals too often overlook the fundamental movements because highly active individuals can often perform many high level movements without easily observable deficits. The Functional Movement Screen was first introduced to give us greater relative insight into primitive patterns by identifying limitations and asymmetries. Compensation is a survival mechanism and your clients and athletes will opt for compensation when you neglect to identify problems with mobility and stability. In many cases it is the lack of sufficient mobility and stability that leads to dysfunction in basic movements, which then causes decreased performance or potential injury. If we can get back to the basics of looking at many of these patterns that are common during the growth and developmental sequence, we may be able to overcome some of these common compensations.

We commonly use positions every day in performance enhancement that could be considered primitive patterns, bridging, planking, push-ups, or in many cases most any supine or prone activity. Babies explore these types of positions of mobility and stability on their journey toward higher-level functional movements, such as rolling, crawling, squatting, standing and walking. In order to determine if the proper amount of mobility and stability is being utilized a simple rolling pattern or bridge can be broken down and assessed for limitation or asymmetry. They can also be utilized as an exercise to re-establish the reflex stabilization we need to have in order to accomplish efficient movements.

Here are a couple quick techniques you can utilize to observe primitive movements, checking for asymmetry and limitation.
  1. Observe a single leg bridge, left and right side, first for quality in a static hold, and then look for quantity in a series of repetitions comparing left to right side.(figure 1)

  2. Observe push up position in a more advanced client or athlete. Instruct them to get in the start position for a push-up: elbows extended, neutral spine, and then elevate the right leg. Repeat a series of push-ups with the right leg elevated and look for any loss of stability between the pelvis and the shoulders. When difficulty or loss of stability is noted, mark the number of repetitions completed and then repeat with the left leg elevated. The single-leg push-up demonstrates stabilization effort throughout the torso and hips during movement of the upper extremities. It is an excellent demonstration of how stability can diminish across repetitions or through fatigue. (figure 2)
A technique that we utilize as an exercise to improve a person's primitive pattern is a " Hard-Roll".

Hard-Roll(Figure 3): Have a person lie flat on their back, with their arms above their head, and their legs extended flat on the ground. Begin by touching the opposite elbow to knee, raise your head toward your flexed shoulder(arm above head) and roll toward your flexed shoulder, while maintaining contact with elbow and knee. Once you roll on to your side return to the starting position without losing contact with elbow and knee. When you begin the roll back , make sure you turn your head and "lead" with the head back to a flat back. Perform on both sides and determine if there is an asymmetry and focus on the more difficult side.

This movement requires proper sequencing of the core in order to reflexively stabilize. The first few attempts are difficult, however, it quickly becomes easier as the individual learns to use their core to roll and not their extremities.

Consideration of primitive patterns can help make you a more intuitive, and intelligent exercise professional. Very often we become experts in exercise without considering growth and development, which is where the fundamentals of movement were first established. Children develop naturally and symmetrically with adequate stability and no limitations in mobility. Preferential activities and injuries create imbalances and asymmetries that most fitness and performance professionals often contend with as individuals grow in age. Unfortunately, there are many trainers and coaches who ignore or overlook these problems creating further compensation and asymmetries. The most intelligent performance professionals do not ignore these asymmetries and limitations, they confront them head-on; they modify work-load, reduce positions and even resort to primitive patterns to correct the root cause of the problem.

Modern fitness and training science has bestowed upon us the ability to create strength and power in the presence of extremely poor dysfunction. This dysfunction means that fundamental movement patterns are limited, asymmetrical or barely present. Just because we can make people bigger, faster and stronger on top of this does not make it right. Seated, fixed-axis equipment perpetuates the illusion of fitness without enhancing functional performance. Utilize all of your tools to uncover an individual's dysfunction and then work to correct it. The result will be an individual who moves more efficiently, thereby creating a foundation for more effective strength, endurance and power training.

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