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The Ultimate Exercise

It may sound bizarre, but Johnson crawls every day to strengthen her core muscle groups.
“You can crawl in many ways. You can crawl on your hands and knees. You can also prop up on your toes and just hover, one or two inches above the ground, which is really going to pull in those core muscles and work those muscles effectively,” said Johnson, a physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.
“Then, as you start to move, you’re working on your shoulder girdle, you’re working on your hips,” she said. “If I could give one exercise to almost everybody, this would be it.”
Crawling has been used as a physical therapy tool, Johnson said, and now it has been adopted for strengthening and fitness.
The idea of turning crawling like a baby into exercise has been championed by the training system Original Strength, which repurposes fundamental movements into a fitness regimen.
According to Original Strength, when you crawl, you’re “pressing reset” on your central nervous system and revisiting the mobility patterns you learned as a baby.
Patterns such as crawling not only require motor skills, they involve the vestibular system, a sensory system associated with balance and spatial orientation, said Justin Klein, a chiropractor and CEO of Got Your Back Total Health in Washington, who has incorporated crawling into his practice.
“It’s like resetting the central loop in the nervous system to bring all of the parts involved in coordination, movement and reflexive stability into synchronization,” Klein said.
“You have to really work to be able to breathe, keep your head up and crawl at the same time, all while keeping your pattern,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing where, if you are being really mindful within your crawl, it is harder than it looks.”
Klein always recommends crawling as exercise to his patients, he said, from professional athletes to those injured in car accidents.
Denard Span, a center fielder for the San Francisco Giants, has included crawling in his strength and conditioning training, Klein said. When Span was with the Washington Nationals, he was Klein’s patient and learned how crawling translates directly with movements used in baseball, such as a certain cross-crawl pattern seen in throwing and batting.
To spread the word, Klein hosted a Crawl on the Mallevent this month in which participants crawled the National Mall.
But as Klein, Johnson and other enthusiasts insist that the crawling movement will help your body regain the strength, mobility and stability you had in your youth, other experts remain skeptical.
“To me, the benefit is that it’s an efficient exercise,” Simpson said of crawling, adding that he hadn’t heard of the exercise before now.
“Based on the position you are in when you’re crawling, you have to contract your abdominal muscles, and you also have to use your back muscles and your other core muscles to maintain that position and propel yourself,” he said. “My one word of caution would be for anyone with knee pain. Crawling on your hands and knees is rough on the knees, but there are some types of crawling exercises where you are up on your feet rather than your knees, which would be safer for the knees.”
Crawling also should be avoided if you have wrist, shoulder or neck issues, said Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.
She added that crawling on all fours, with the knees off the floor, further activates the core muscles and the body’s ability to balance.

Learning how to crawl

To crawl on all fours, with your knees off the floor, experts recommend to follow these three simple steps:
  1. When on your hands and knees, place your wrists under shoulders and knees under hips
  2. Next, keep your back flat and straight, as you lift your knees about 2 inches off of the ground
  3. Finally, start crawling by moving your opposite hand and foot just 2-3 inches forward all while keeping your knees off of the ground and your back level — repeat with your other hand and foot

Questioning the crawl

More research is needed to scientifically support the argument that crawling “resets” your central nervous system, at least within the physician community, said Dr. Scott Simpson, a faculty member at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, who specializes in sports medicine at Stony Brook Orthopaedic Associates.
“Crawling, we’ve all done it, but just like when babies and toddlers squat with perfect form, over time, our adult bodies begin to resist these primal and very effective movement patterns,” Crockford said.
“As the fitness industry evolves, we are seeing more and more trainers, coaches and teams go back to these primal roots by implementing movement patterns like crawling, bending, lunging, rotating into their programming,” she said. “Crawling can be helpful to those seeking to challenge their body in a way they may have not tried since before they could walk, literally.”
As Johnson, the physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic, put it, “Crawling and other natural movement patterns are not a fad or fitness craze but a return to the fundamentals of movement.”
Yet, will crawling catch on in popularity among gym-goers? Experts aren’t so sure — but if it does, don’t be surprised if its name changes.

What’s old becomes new again

Though crawling might seem new, Shape magazine fitness director Jaclyn Emerick said she has seen exercise enthusiasts crawling before — but it was called something else.
In 2012, Equinox fitness clubs offered a class called Animal Flow, in which participants crawled around the gym animal-style, she said.


“Fitness can be like something in fashion where it was trendy or in style at one point, and then it goes away for a while, and then it comes back,” Emerick said.
“Crawling is super accessible; it’s body weight. To a lot of people, it feels new, so anything that feels new is exciting, and they’re more willing to try it, and it’s not something that requires you to do for a very long amount of time. You can maybe do some intervals with it,” she said. “Crawling doesn’t have to eliminate other good things that exist — you’re seeing people compare this, like ‘it’s the better plank’ — there’s room for lots of good things. It’s just another cool move, another cool exercise to add to your arsenal.”
Certain exercise movements that require you to focus on your balance can improve your working memory, according to a small study published last year in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.

Balance may help your brawn and brain

The study involved 65 adults between the ages of 18 and 59 who were separated into three groups. One group required the participants to complete various dynamic exercises — such as crawling and climbing trees — for two hours. The exercises also required participants to balance and be aware of their movements and the positioning of their bodies, which is called being proprioceptively aware.
“If you think of crawling or balancing, you have to plan where you’re putting your feet. You have to plan where you’re putting your hands so you don’t lose your balance. It’s this idea of us being aware, proprioceptively aware, but also being dynamic in that awareness. We have dynamic movement involved,” said Tracy Packiam Alloway, a psychologist at the University of North Florida who conducted the study with her husband, Ross Alloway.
Another group in the study participated in a yoga class, and the third group sat in a two-hour classroom-style lecture in which they learned new information. Before and after the groups participated in these tasks, they completed a working memory test.
After comparing the test scores, the researchers discovered that the adults in the exercise group had improved working memory scores compared with those in the classroom and yoga groups

Figuring Out Fatigue

Physical skill transcends sport and can be recognized in its absolute form—speed, power, coordination—across a variety of athletic endeavors. But less visible, and perhaps less considered, is the power of the elite athlete’s mind. In fact, what often differentiates the greatest athletes has more to do with mental strength than physical. It’s because sport not only demands a lot of the body, but the brain as well. “With the exception of military combat, it has been suggested that team sports such Physical skill transcends sport and can be recognized in its absolute form—speed, power, coordination—across a variety of athletic endeavors. But less visible, and perhaps less considered, is the power of the elite athlete’s mind. In fact, what often differentiates the greatest athletes has more to do with mental strength than physical. It’s because sport not only demands a lot of the body, but the brain as well.

“With the exception of military combat, it has been suggested that team sports such as football [soccer] place more stress on the brain than any other activity,” writes Dr. Andrew Coutts in recent Journal of Sports Sciences article. “Indeed, football players are required to remain vigilant for long periods before and during matches, adhering to tactical strategies, constantly adjusting to changes in the opposition and their teammates.”

Those demanding game situations—in combination with factors like training, sleep and stress—challenge an athlete physically and mentally and lead to the development of fatigue. But while physical fatigue has long been considered a factor in performance, diminishing an athlete’s capacity to react, run faster and jump higher, researchers are beginning to understand that a tired brain can negatively affect performance as much as a tired muscle.

Researchers have suggested that the sensation of fatigue, once considered solely a physical phenomenon, might also arise from the brain. Meaning that the brain is responsible for collecting the physical sensations of the body—the burning legs and heaving lungs—and deciding how much is too much. This research has demonstrated that mental fatigue—produced by sustained periods of demanding cognitive activity, and described by feelings of “tiredness” and “lack of energy”—can reduce the time it takes to reach exhaustion during exercise.

Dr. Samuele Marcora has studied the effects of mental fatigue on soccer performance and discovered that mentally tired athletes don’t perform as well. After inducing mental fatigue with a demanding cognitive test, Marcora and his team of researchers found that the mentally fatigued soccer players couldn’t run as far or kick a ball as skillfully as their mentally-fresh counterparts.It is important to note that even though the mentally fatigued athletes were performing at an equal level of physical exertion as a control group, those mentally fatigued players perceived the effort as more difficult than those not asked to take a mentally demanding test. Meaning their effort wasn’t physically harder, it just felt harder. “Physiologically you may be fine but mentally fatigued athletes find the same task much more effortful,” says Marcora.

Similarly, a recent study by Coutts and Dr. Mitchell Smith from the University of Technology Sydney found that mental fatigue impaired the accuracy and speed of soccer-specific decision-making.But for soccer players, and all team sport athletes, prevention of mental fatigue is more than just avoiding a math exam before activity. While research requires that mental fatigue be artificially produced with a test, mental fatigue can be developed through a variety of natural activities. “Though studies have found that mental fatigue can develop from sleep deprivation, video games, and having to perform an activity deemed unfamiliar or difficult, such as an interview, any sport that is mentally demanding can induce mental fatigue,” Marcora says.In that context, it’s easy to see how mental fatigue may develop before a game or practice and subsequently decrease performance.

“I’d always been told by coaches that when the legs are too tired, the mind will take over,” says Brad Evans, a defender for MLS’ Seattle Sounders of MLS. “But later on I realized that it doesn’t work that way.” Evans, also a veteran of the U.S. men’s National Soccer Team, is well aware of the role of mental fatigue, “Mistakes happen when you are mentally and physically fatigued—like missing a tackle I would usually make.”Some of soccer’s most successful teams have invested in research on tracking fatigue and recovery, realizing the importance of the subject. Andrea Azzalin, sports scientist for Premier League champion Leicester City and a former student of Marcora, continually monitors the team for signs of mental fatigue after every training session and game. For Azzalin, it comes down to knowing his athletes.

“Monitoring how the players feel—their perceived effort—is often enough for me to understand that they are more fatigued than usual,” he says. Leicester City’s sports science staff uses markers of mental fatigue, along with GPS and heart rate information from each player, as tools to detect situations of overload. That information is relayed to the club’s manager, Claudio Ranieri, who decides if the training schedule or other player demands need to be adjusted.

Golden State Warriors’ head of physical performance and sports medicine Lachlan Penfold, who comes from a background in rugby and soccer, is also aware of the research and absolutely believes that mental fatigue can impair performance in any sport.   “A tremendous amount of fatigue—mental and physical—develops over the course of a long NBA season,” Penfold says. “Players can be more or less resistant to its effects.”While Penfold believes that an awareness of how to avoid mental fatigue has the potential to help many professional athletes, he says that getting players to buy into avoiding using social media or video games—potentially mentally fatiguing activities—before games may be a tough sell.

“Since the effects of mental fatigue sometimes aren’t obvious—manifesting as an opening not capitalized upon or a move not made—it can be difficult to quantify or present its effects,” maintains Penfold.With its long 162-game season, it should be no surprise that mental fatigue is also evident among Major League Baseball players. A study by researcher Dr. Scott Kuscher found that plate discipline—as measured by a hitter’s tendency to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone—got progressively worse over the course of a MLB season, contradicting the belief that plate discipline should improve over time due to frequent practice. Kutscher believes that sleep, or a lack of it, is behind the decline in performance.

“We theorize that this decline is tied to fatigue that develops over the course of the season due to a combination of frequency of travel and paucity of days off,” concludes Kutscher.Avoiding mental fatigue before competition is one thing, but because an athlete can tire over the course of game or training week, building resilience to mental fatigue is also important. Andrea Bosio, a sports scientist working with Serie A soccer teams Sassuolo and Juventus, believes that much like taxing the heart, lungs and muscles with physical conditioning, a combination of small sided soccer games (somewhat like a half-court basketball game) and mental training can be used to make the brain more resistant to mental fatigue. Call it brain training—or more specifically, Brain Endurance Training, the term Bosio and other researchers at Mapei Sport in Milan, Italy, have coined during their developing and testing of this mental conditioning for the brain.

The BET program, developed by Marcora, aims to improve mental performance. Athletes are given repeated mental to perform during the rest periods of intense small-sided games. Similar to “normal” physical training, these brain-training sessions can be systematically carried out over a period of weeks and months.The adaptations occurring in the brain after repeated sessions of BET (the scientists are still trying to understand the biology of what occurs) seem to positively influence the perception of effort during endurance activity. Early results suggest that at the same intensity of training, players perceive less effort, and at the same perceived effort, players are able to sustain a higher intensity.

Seattle Sounders sports science and performance manager David Tenney uses yoga in his attempts to reduce mental fatigue in his players. “I’ve found that the mental aspects of yoga, with its focus on breathing and relaxation, have been helpful in reducing the mental fatigue of practice and competition,” he says.No matter the sport or proposed solution, mental fatigue and findings have proven one thing for certain: for an athlete, a tired mind is just as meaningful as a tired muscle.