If you’ve ever watched a baby in action, you’ve likely noticed that they tend to use primal movement patterns. “This refers to movements that are natural and fundamental to the human body, like squatting, lunging, pulling, hinging, rotating, or pushing,” says Andrew Slane, sports conditioning specialist and instructor at Fiture, a smart home fitness mirror. Primal movements are instinctual, hence why tiny humans are able to perform them without being taught.
But these movements aren’t just essential to your early childhood development—doing them daily is also an indicator of longevity. In fact, the number-one thing the longest-living people on the planet all have in common is natural, aka primal, movement practices.
“As we age, we tend to fall into dysfunctional movement patterns that cause injury over time—how we pick things up, bend over, or perform any seemingly normal function in our daily life,” Slane says. “Usually, we blame this on aging, but in fact, it tends to be caused by bad habits and not paying attention to how we perform a task.”
He gives the example of lifting a basket of laundry: “Do you properly hinge at your hips with a neutral spine and no twist or torque in your neck, or do you just bend with a rounded back? Now, imagine how that has taken a toll over decades,” he says. “Working primal movement patterns properly, and making sure these movements stay harmonious and fluid over time, is key to continue moving efficiently and without pain.”
More often than not, you’ll hear trainers talk about primal movements as “functional movements,” meaning that they mimic the way you use your body in everyday life. Yet everyone’s day-to-day looks different. What’s “functional” for a pro athlete is going to be different than a mail delivery person, or desk worker. Primal movements, however, go back to the basics for all of us.
“Primal movement often involves play, which can be fun and a welcome change from traditional exercises that can feel monotonous,” he says. Again, think about a toddler. Their idea of fun is squatting low to play with toys, throwing a ball, or pushing themselves up off the floor. “They can also be adaptable and modified to suit a wide range of fitness levels,” Slane adds.
The benefits of primal movement patterns
Although exactly what you get out of practicing primal movements depends on your own fitness and goals, Slane says that there are three universal perks most people can expect to gain.
Because primal movement exercises involve using the body in natural and functional ways, they often help improve overall strength, according to Slane.
Enhanced mobility and flexibility
Primal movement exercises can increase the range of motion of both muscles (increasing flexibility) and joints (increasing mobility).
“Primal movement exercises often involve using multiple muscle groups at once, which can help to improve overall coordination,” Slane says.
The best way to incorporate primal movement into your fitness routine
Slane says there are several good ways to go about this. Here, he offers are a few sample primal movement exercises to try adding in your next workout:
Start sitting on the floor with slightly bent knees, lean back to engage your torso. From there, rotate your torso from side to side. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Start lying face down on the floor with arms and legs extended, keeping your neck neutral by gazing down. While keeping your arms and legs straight, engage your core muscles, then lift your arms and legs toward the ceiling just a couple of inches using your glutes rather than your lower back. For a less advanced version, only lift your arms. Hold for a few seconds and lower back down with control for one rep. Do three sets of 8 to12 reps.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lower your body as if sitting back in a chair. Make sure to keep your chest up and your weight on your heels. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Start in a plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart and lower your body in one piece. Make sure to keep your core engaged. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Start in a high push-up position with your hands shoulder-width apart, engage your core, and hold for 30 seconds. Do three sets.
Start standing up straight with feet hip-distance apart, hands behind head, elbows wide. Next, hinge forward, pushing your hips back, with your knees slightly bent. Slowly lower your torso until your spine is almost parallel to the floor, maintaining a flat back from your head to hips. Then return to the starting position, keeping your core engaged. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Start standing up straight with feet hip-distance apart. Step forward with one leg and lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Push off the front heel to step back to your start position. Make sure to keep your torso upright. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps on each leg.
Best practices for beginners
If you are new to primal movements, start slowly and progressively to build up the intensity and complexity of the workout as you become more proficient and comfortable, Slane says. “It’s also critical to listen to your body, take breaks when necessary, and use the proper form and posture to get the most out of the workout and avoid possible injuries,” he adds. “When getting started, it’s also important to consult a qualified fitness professional who can help you determine the best workout plan for you and help you learn the proper technique.”
As you get stronger, continue to progress your practice by adding load to the exercises—but only after you’ve nailed good form.
Why primal movement is more than a passing fad
Searches for primal movement were up 120 percent on Pinterest last year, so you can potentially expect to start hearing more about it. But it’s far from a new concept.
“To some, primal movement may seem like a specialized form of exercise, or a fad—it is not,” Slane says. “It is functional training to help anyone better the activities of their daily life, which is at the center of the main goal in fitness: Keep people healthy and moving properly. In truth, it doesn’t get much more old-school than this.”