A quick search on any journal databases will reveal strong evidence supporting the benefits of exercising.
While virtually everyone will agree is good for you — from reducing pain to improving longevity and quality of life — there is little clarity on the type of exercises we should performing for maximum health value.
Many “professionals” in the health and fitness industry exploit the grey areas to push and to capitalise on the “latest” and “greatest” trends.
At Square One Active Recovery, we do not blindly subscribe to broscience and marketing fluff. Today, we will explore the truth behind ground movements — one of the up-and-coming movement training niche that is predicted to be the next big hit in the trillion-dollar wellness industry.
What is movement training?
Before we can discuss ground movements, we have to first talk about movement training.
With its roots in gymnastics, calisthenics, martial arts, yoga, parkour, capoeira, and many many other disciplines, “movement training” is a broad term use to describe any form of exercise that emphasises movements over strength. From crawling like an animal or to flow in graceful, deceptively effortless and aesthetically pleasing movements, there is no clear definition of what constitutes movement training.
Many consider movement training to be a subset of functional training. But functional to whom?
Popularised by Israeli Ido Portal, movement culture moves away chasing numbers on the barbell or holding contortionistic yoga poses. Instead, it focuses on refining the basics of movements and increasing the efficiency of how a person moves.
It comes as no surprise that movement training seeks to make a practitioner fundamentally good at moving. This assumption is that this would translate to superior physical performance.
What is ground movement?
Within movement training, there is a specific approach known as ground movement.
As defined by Erwan Le Corre, one of the pioneers of movement training, ground movement consists of “positions and movements that you do while your center of gravity is lower than your knee level when you’re standing, regardless of which part of the body is the base of support.”
If you have trouble imagine that, think of rolling, crawling, squatting, and kneeling. Essentially the primary movements you may expect a toddler to do.
With the increased interest in exercise and movements, we are seeing many branded programmes making their way to market. Some examples include Animal Flow, MovNat, and GMB Fitness. All of which have developed their flavour and interpretation of movement training, and with that their own movement programs and trainer certifications.
Let’s take a look at what they offer.
What is Animal Flow?
If you have had a gym membership, you may have come across an Animal Flow class in your gym.
Animal Flow is a ground-based movement system with six components.
1. Wrist Mobilisations: simple exercises to promote flexibility and strength in your wrists, and to prepare them for loading. Since this is a ground-based training approach, it is essential that your wrists can support your body weight. It is not uncommon for beginners to experience mild wrist soreness (which should self-resolve in a few hours) after their first Animal Flow class!
2. Activations: static (i.e., no movement) hold exercises. The idea behind it is to “connect” and “wake up” the body before the start of ground movement. The Beast and the Crab are the two activation positions utilised in Animal Flow.
3. Form Specific Stretches: exercises that will begin in an animal form hold before movements are introduced to move the body through a wide range of motion. The intent is to increase mobility and flexibility.
4. Traveling Forms: exercises that require locomotion (i.e., move from one place to another place) that mimics animal movements such as the Ape, Beast, and Crab.
5. Switches and Transitions: movements that link the animal forms together. In Animal Flow, they comprise of the Underswitch, Side Kickthrough, Scorpion, and Front Kickthrough.
6. Flows: all the components are combined into a single fluid “flow” routine.
Animal Flow promises “increased mobility, flexibility, stability, power, endurance, skill and neuromuscular coordination”. While there is no clear evidence to support this, the claim sounds reasonable enough and warrant the benefit of doubt.
If we were to dig deeper though, is it possible for any structured exercise program with a proper load management protocol to not deliver the same benefits?
I am willing to bet that weightlifting can also yield the same benefits!
What is MovNat?
MovNat is a coaching method developed by Erwan Le Corre on the practice of natural movement skills.
Unlike Animal Flow, MovNat comprises of more than just ground movement. It also includes locomotive skills (such as running, jumping, climbing, and swimming) and object manipulation skills (such as carrying, throwing, and catching).
In that sense, MovNat is a lot more well-rounded as a exercise choice.
However, it has not caught on as well as Animal Flow. According to the MovNat website, there are no licensed facilities in Singapore. Human Naturally, an outdoor exercise company by MovNat certified coaches in Singapore, seemed to have since closed.
A characteristic of the MovNat curriculum is the emphasis on movement efficiency, with five movement efficiency principles which includes breathing techniques.
MovNat do make a few claims about the benefits of their program.
1. MovNat would make you fitter, stronger, and leaner. This sounds fair. Any form of exercise would very likely make you fitter, stronger, and leaner.
2. MovNat can benefit you in your sport by reducing physical deficiencies, imbalances, and preventing injury. This is contentious. There’s no high quality research to suggest that the approach to physical exercise can prevent injury.
3. MovNat can be used in conjunction with therapy to help people recover from injury. Again, high contentious.
It should come as no surprise that a search for MovNat on Pubmed would yield zero results.
A case of lifestyle or evolutionary mismatch?
There are some plausible hypotheses to why ground movements may be helpful.
Neurologist Jack E. Riggs first coined the term Evolutionary Mismatch in 1993. In his commentary, evolutionary mismatch refers to the maladaptation of ancient genes to modern civilisation. The genes which made our ancestors from hundreds or thousands of years ago well adapted in to survive and thrive to the environmental demands previously, is no longer adequately adapted for the living demands of today.
A Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, Dr Daniel Lieberman, further unpacks this theory with a hypothesised list of diseases which is result of this evolutionary mismatch. He asserted that musculoskeletal conditions such as lower back pain, flat feet, and osteoporosis could potentially be the mismatch between our physical body and 21st century living.
The suggestion is that perhaps our diets, sedentary lifestyles, and other behaviour are contributing to our pain and problems. Their solution was that we should try to imitate the environmental demands of our ancestors to reduce our susceptibility to these conditions.
This is where movement training comes into play.
Many movements in movement trainings are close imitations to the movements our hunter-gatherers ancestors from centuries ago would perform in their daily activities.
By training within fundamental and primal movement framework, they exert that the physical adaptations may lead to improved physical function as well as reduced pain and injury. However, research and clinical guidelines are unable to find evidence to support that moving the way our ancestors do is superior to any other forms of exercise available today.
Is ground movement for me?
With the lack of evidence supporting the claims of various movement training programs such as Animal Flow and MovNat, is ground movement even worth your time?
The connections made to movements of our distant ancestors and our postural reflexes are indeed rather far-fetched and not supported by any clinical studies.
However, ground movement as a form of physical exercise, is not without merits.
First, it is fair to assume that participating in any form of exercise — crawling like a bear and walking like a crab inclusive — will benefit you.
Second, class and instructor fees aside, it is low cost. You do not need any specialise equipment in order to participate in ground movement exercises.
Third, it is convenient to practise ground movements. You can literally do it anywhere!
Fourth, ground movements cater to people of all ages and abilities. An experienced instructor can easily progress and regress the movements to suit your physical fitness levels.
Fifth, there is a huge social component to it. Most ground movement classes are conducted in groups. There are also lots of IG content sharing of people working through their practice.
While movement training might not prevent injury, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All the claims aside, ground movements can be a meaningful exercise that will bring you physical health benefits.