Prior to entering the fitness industry, the last time I heard the word “Primal” was in reference to Optimus in a 90’s Beast Wars cartoon (best show ever!). Regarding fitness and movement, however, the word primal describes a specific set of movement patterns. There are eight primal movement patterns in total, and they have been the foundation of human functionality pretty much, forever. Even before our modern society, ancient humans performed these patterns daily. They tie directly into functional training and quality of life, so learning to perform them well will help you move better.
The eight primal movements are as follows: squat, hinge, lunge, twist/rotate, pull, push, gait, and crawl. However, there are some sticklers out there in the universe who say there are only seven. Well to those sticklers I say: leave a comment, send me a DM on social media, or even challenge me to a Yu-Gi-Oh duel. Regardless, you can get the smoke or the shadow realm.
So, why are primal movement patterns important for modern humans? The integration of primal patterns is a necessity for workout training programs because they maintain or increase overall human functionality. A human that functions well often lives injury free, leading to an increase in quality of life.
It is unfortunately common for people who compete in a sport or participate in fitness activities regularly to battle aches and pains. Often times, those aches and pains can be linked to a loss of function at a given joint or area. Therefore, whether you love to run marathons, lift like a powerlifter, stretch like a yogi or a flex like a professional Pokemon trainer its important to train primal patterns and maintain functionality.
Barring a notable injury, the good news is that the loss of function at a specific joint isn’t permanent. However, restoration of this function requires special attention and effort. If you’ve read this far I’m assuming I’ve piqued your interest. So now I’d like to challenge you to review your workout routine. See if it contains any or all of the primal movement patterns. They are listed below along with a brief discussion of their benefits and how you can incorporate them into your own workout routine.
If you know me personally, then you know I’m a huge advocate of the squat. I am, admittedly, a bit partial because the sports that I compete in often demands a strong and efficient squat. Multiple variations of the squat exist today, and with time I foresee the creation. However, there are a few things that every squat variation will have in common.
Ankle dorsiflexion, the ability for your knees to go over toes as your ankle bends, will be challenged during this movement. Hip flexion and extension are also challenged here, especially if you have a deeper squat. Lastly, the knee is challenged in a GOOD WAY! Getting better at the squat will improve your ankle range of motion, which benefits older populations who want to maintain the ability to get onto and off of the floor. A stronger and more mobile ankle can also translate to better running. Lastly, the squat trains both horizontal and compressive forces about the knee. Learning to do a proper squat could strengthen that joint. This is beneficial if you participate in any sports or activities that involve active knees.
The hinge is my least favorite movement, personally but only because I’m structurally built like the human equivalent of a daddy long legs (long limbs and short torso), which makes for horrible hinge mechanics. However, that doesn’t undermine the importance of the movement. A quality hinge pattern is an efficient and effective way to pick things up off the ground, especially if they’re heavy. Some knee, hip, and ankle dorsiflexion will be present in this movement but not to the same degree as the squat.
If you find that your low back is weak and fatigues easily, learning to deadlift (a hinge pattern) properly will strengthen your hamstrings/glutes. This will most likely alleviate the low back tweaks that you feel. The deadlift also helps build a strong upper back and t-spine, so it can be used for postural work as well.
Think of the lunge as a unilateral variant of both the squat and the deadlift. When performed with an upright torso the movement will have more transfer to a squat. However, if you emphasize a hinge during this movement it will have more transfer to your hinge related patterns. If you find that you have the lower body stability of a new born baby giraffe, I definitely recommend working on the lunge pattern and its variants. It challenges a lot of the same joint angles mentioned in the squat while integrating a stability component. This pattern is also more dynamic and sport specific. If you compete in any sport that involves unilateral acceleration and deceleration, the lunge should be considered the peanut butter to you jam.
The ability to twist and rotate is a lost art among humans in modern society. Most activities or actions that we perform in daily life involve our spines being static. Your ability to twist and rotate your spine, while keeping the core engaged, plays an integral role in functionality. If you suffer from low back pain while running or hinging, it may be due to inability of your spine to twist and rotate properly.
Now, there is some risk involved with rotation and twisting since there are countless angles and ways to twist and rotate your body, so start simple. I recommend high to low cross body chops while in a split stance position. If the implement starts off on the right side of your body, keep your right leg back, left leg forwards, and chop across/over that left leg. Performing the pattern in this manner is a safe and effective way to get your core engaged while you’re rotating.
There are multiple ways to perform a pulling motion, but not all of them are safe for everyone. The ring or barbell rows are two great movements that can teach you to pull effectively and safely. Learning to pull properly will strengthen your back and lessen your risk for unnecessary inconveniences like shoulder impingements.
I suggest mastering the horizontal pull first before doing overhead pulling motions like the pull-up. Performing pull-ups when you lack the strength or kinesthetic awareness in your back can definitely put you at risk for a shoulder injury. So if you’re currently suffering from a shoulder tweak, put some row variations back in your workout. See if that added back strength mitigates or even resolves that shoulder injury.
AH-HA! This is the point in the article when I get to talk about international chest day…. stop that sh*t asap. Many of us are going overboard with this particular primal movement in an effort to build a booty chest (huge pecs). Spending hours a week trying to get a bigger chest has a positive impact on your aesthetics, but has the potential to wreak havoc on your shoulder functionality. The ability to bench 500 lbs is pretty cool, but so is the ability to reach overhead without shoulder pain. Training your chest is important, but making it the sole focus of a workout program (outside of those who need that muscle group for competing) isn’t going to do you any favors. This is especially true if you’re already at risk for shoulder pain.
That being said, there are several movements that involve pushing and work the pectoral muscles with less harm to your shoulders. I recommend training push mechanics with tools, like olympic rings, that are more functional and integrated. Movements like ring dips, ring push-ups, and pike push-up variations will allow you to work your chest without the sacrifice of shoulder health.
The gait pattern is, in essence, the locomotive of the human body via its extremities. We use this primal pattern any time we do any type of walk, run, or skip/ jump. Because its use is so common and integrated into daily activities, the loss of this function typically has a negative impact on overall quality of life. Humans are meant to move and do so often, so losing the that ability is extremely detrimental to your health.
On a small scale, gait actually challenges all of the other primal movement patterns mentioned so far. During any gait pattern there will be a slight rotation about the core, flexion and extension of the shoulders (occurs in push/pull), flexion and extension at the hip (occurs in squat/lunge/hinge), and dorsi and plantar flexion of the ankle. The extent to which the gait challenges the aforementioned ranges of motion varies based on the type of gait being performed. For example, sprinting the 100m will put much higher demands on ranges of motion than walking uphill. If you’re going to incorporate any primal pattern into your workout program, it should be this one.
This pattern is actually the first locomotion pattern we learn as humans beings. As the old adage goes “before you walk, you gotta learn to crawl.” This pattern doesn’t have much of a place for many modern day adults, but don’t let that undermine its importance. It is true that the crawl has similar demands on the body as the gait pattern. However, the main difference is that during the crawl all four limbs connect to the ground to drive locomotion. This means the crawl requires constant loading of the shoulders and wrists whereas the gait does not.
Lastly, the extension forces about the neck and the additional lateral flexion required of the spine merit its recognition as a separate pattern. Crawling is a great way to challenge the work capacity of the wrist and shoulder dynamically. It can also be used to strengthen your core (since core engagement is easier in this position), and improve your spine’s ability to laterally flex
WHAT A PRIMAL PATTERN ISN’T
Primal movement patterns have become synonymous with a style and sect of movement known as “Animal Flow.” Animal Flow is flashy but potentially injury inducing. The majority of the movements require both strength and stability in multiple planes of movement. However, the demands the majority of the movements place upon the body have the potential to cause some major injuries. This is because most people lack kinesthetic awareness and the ability to control their own body weight at the beginning of their fitness journeys.
There are technically no bad forms of movements, except for those involving a Bosu ball (you’ll never convince me otherwise). However, some movements inherently carry more risk, so if you decide to get your “flow” on please be careful.