Strength, Conditioning & Fat Loss: One Exercise
There's a simple movement you can do literally anywhere that'll improve your strength, increase conditioning, accelerate fat loss, and even serve as a valuable "corrective" exercise. And unlike other exercises, you can add this one into your current program and not worry about it hindering your progress – it won't interfere with your body's adaptive response.
The Spider-Man crawl looks just as it sounds – you crawl across the ground on your hands and feet with your head up, eyes forward on the horizon, and hips down, below the level of your head. You look like the amazing Spider-Man.
As silly as it may look, this movement will make you incredibly strong – almost super-humanly so. Why? Because the Spider-Man crawl trains an overlooked component of strength: your reflexive strength (also known as reflexive stability).
Your reflexive strength/stability can be thought of as your "original strength" or your strength foundation. It's the strength you built when you developed as a child from 23 days after conception to approximately 3 years old that got you upright and running around. It's subconscious and automatic. If you've ever caught yourself after slipping or tripping and managed to stay upright, that's a great example of reflexive strength working for you. Conversely, if you've ever slipped and caught yourself but pulled or strained something, like your groin, that's a great example of your reflexive strength not being up to par. Another great example of your reflexive strength is picking up a suitcase and feeling your obliques on the opposite side of your body automatically contract. Feeling your lower back is a tell-tale sign that you've lost some reflexive strength.
Specifically, reflexive strength is what allows your body's stabilizer muscles (like your gluteus medius and rotator cuff) to stabilize the joints before and during movement so your larger prime movers (like your gluteus maximus, hamstrings, deltoids and lats) can actually move your limbs and do all that you want to do, like pick up heavy stuff and put it down.
It's a loss in or lack of reflexive strength that creates movement dysfunctions and compensations. From a corrective exercise vantage point, all movement dysfunctions that aren't a result of immediate trauma (like a contact ACL tear) are a result of a loss of reflexive strength/stability. This is why you may have had limited long-term success with traditional corrective exercise programs – they don't address reflexive strength, only the symptoms of its loss.
Furthermore, if you've hit a plateau in your strength levels, or keep getting injured when you try to increase your strength, there's a very good chance you're lacking reflexive strength/stability. Your body, in its intuitive wisdom, is literally putting its brakes on, keeping you from doing something that will potentially harm it. You can think of these as strength gaps. And crawling fills in those gaps.
Here's why: Your body can be thought of as a giant "X."
Neurologically, your left hand is connected to your right foot, and your right hand is connected to your left foot. They cross in your center, what many of us know as the "core." The core is the center of force production, transmission, and reduction, so the stronger your midsection, the stronger the potential the rest of your body has.
And one of the best ways to strengthen your body, especially the core, is through contra-lateral (opposite arm and leg) or midline crossing movements. This is because these movements increase and strengthen the neural connections between the two halves of your brain, making your brain and body operate more efficiently. (The theory is the brain literally uses less ATP for central processing, so it's not as taxed, and therefore you don't experience CNS fatigue or burnout.) These movements literally tie your body together, making the "X" stronger and stronger. Don't believe me? Drop down and do a one-arm, one-leg push-up... and keep your body level while doing it. That's a classic test of true core strength. Can't do it? Looks like you've got some work to do, amigo.
Interestingly, this improved neural efficiency is the primary reason you can add crawling onto the end of any workout – it won't fry your CNS. It will tax you muscularly and metabolically, but because of its "X strengthening" properties, it actually makes your CNS more efficient, strengthening neural connections between hemispheres, and enabling it to do more work with less energy. Larger, thicker, neural pathways require less energy.
You can see this "X" in motion when observing walking, our primary means of locomotion. Sprinting is great example of training your "X." However, we all know that before you run, you must walk, and before you walk, you must crawl. Hence the Spider-Man crawl.
When you crawl, you'll use every muscle in the body from head to toe. Your neck extensors will fatigue because you're not used to keeping the head up. Your shoulder girdle muscles will get a pump, and you'll be working your rotator cuff the way it's designed to work – isometrically stabilizing your glenohumeral joint. Your legs and hips will be on fire. And don't be surprised if your feet get tired as you use and stretch your deep foot intrinsics.
This increased and unusual metabolic demand will cause lots of heavy breathing... and swearing. As a result, your conditioning levels will improve and you'll experience greater fat loss from a two-pronged approach. First, the obvious "afterburn effect." Second, your body will start working more efficiently. You'll stop working against yourself as you start to restore your reflexive strength and stability. You'll start to lose your body's movement compensations and dysfunctions.
This in turn will allow you to access more of your muscle fibers, create more force, and lift heavier weights in your normal workouts. This uses more energy and therefore burns more fat. One of my female clients lost 14 pounds in a month on a steady diet of Spider-Man crawling as her main form of exercise, with very little nutritional changes.
Because the Spider-Man crawl works every muscle in your body and ties your X together, you get what I call "incidental" strength gains – gains you weren't going out of your way looking for. This is because you're regaining and developing your reflexive strength and stability. And when you do so, you're mobility increases, allowing your prime movers to do their jobs. You can get into more structurally sound positions and develop more force while there.
Some personal examples of these incidental strength gains: I was able to get my first body weight only (no counterbalance) pistol squat, a one-arm-one-leg push-up, and a muscle-up – bodyweight exercises usually reserved for light and middleweight guys – at over 200 pounds. My friend Tim Anderson used it to perform a barbell Turkish get-up with 135 pounds at a body weight of 155. What "incidental" strength gains will you see? Try it and find out.
There are three ways to use the Spider-Man crawl:
- As part of the warm-up and cool down. I use this as the last part of a simple 5-exercise program that takes about 3 to 5 minutes and again maybe as part of the cool down.
- As a form of conditioning after heavy traditional strength training. This is done for 10-15 minutes after a 30-45 minute strength training session.
- On its own day(s) as part of a traditional strength training program. I'm not a big fan of "off days," except for maybe once per week. So it's not uncommon for me to alternate traditional strength days, like Monday-Wednesday-Friday, with Spider-Man crawling on Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.
As far as the actual programming, you can either crawl for time or for steps. I recommend beginners use steps.
As tough and fun as the Spider-Man crawl is, many people just aren't ready for it. In order for it to be effective you have to be able to keep your pelvis level while crawling. Many people "spill" their pelvis – it rotates side-to-side indicating a lack of reflexive core stability and the inability to disassociate the legs from the pelvis. Most of the movement comes from rotation at the lumbar spine. This is especially prevalent with anybody who's ever had a lower back or sacroilliac joint injury.
Therefore, a simple regression called the leopard crawl is in order. The leopard crawl is different from the Spider-Man crawl because it doesn't require the same pelvic stability and core control. Instead of the legs being on the outside of the elbows, they end up inside the elbows, almost as if on a set of tracks. The head is still held high and the hips low, below the head.
You may have tried other forms of crawling before like the bear crawl. The bear crawl is usually performed with the head down and the hips elevated – usually higher than the head. Although still metabolically taxing and still a contralateral movement, the bear crawl reduces the loading on the mid-section and therefore is nowhere near as effective as the Spider-Man or the leopard crawl.
Absolutely, the Prowler is great, but your arms aren't doing the same amount of work as they are as when crawling, so you're losing the full spectrum of benefits. Furthermore, since the arms and upper body are locked in place, you're not truly tying your X together as you would if the arms moved independently and synchronously with the opposite leg. You're not fully strengthening your core and the rest of your body, including shoulder and hip integration, as with the Spider-Man crawl.
Decreased movement restrictions and dysfunctions, increased performance gains, and better body composition. If that's not enough for you, think of it this way: you Spider-Man crawl because you can't actually fly like Superman. It's the next best thing.