How to Do the Bear Crawl

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

bear crawl annotated photo

Ben Goldstein / Verywell 

Also Known As: Crawl

Targets: Shoulders, core, total body

Equipment Needed: None

Level: Intermediate

The bear crawl exercise is a movement that is commonly included in bootcamp style workouts, CrossFit workouts, spartan training, and other high-intensity training protocols. The total body movement challenges muscles throughout the body, improves coordination, increases the heart rate for cardiovascular benefits, and may help improve performance in a wide range of sports.

But this activity isn't for everyone. Exercisers should be in good health and have some fitness experience before attempting the move.

Benefits

When performing the bear crawl you use muscles throughout the entire body including the shoulders (deltoids), chest and back, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and core. You'll build both strength and endurance in these muscles if you do the exercise regularly. It also helps you to increase or maintain an elevated heart rate. So, it may also help you to improve your cardiovascular fitness—especially if you include it in a longer total body training session.

In addition, the bear crawl is an exercise that is often a part of comprehensive agility workouts, sometimes called SARQ training. SARQ stands for speed, agility, reactivity, and quickness. These workouts used to be reserved for professional athletes, members of the military or police forces, and other elite sports participants. But in recent years, SARQ workouts have become very popular in gyms across the country and the classes draw a wide range of participants at different fitness levels.

The benefits of SARQ training are wide-ranging.

Encourages Engagement

While some regular exercisers are content to walk on a treadmill, climb on an elliptical, or pedal in place on an exercise bike for long stretches of time, many people get bored after a while and some even drop their hard-earned habit. In fact, loss of interest is often cited as a reason that exercisers quit their programs.

But SARQ-type programs boost creative engagement with equipment, allow you to move more fully in the gym space, and encourage engagement between participants. So for example, teams may compete against each other to complete exercises like the bear crawl, pull-ups, rope drills, and other full-body movements.

Studies have shown that this type of workout model encourages adherence to an exercise program. Most people who have tried these workouts will also tell you that time flies by when you are moving from activity to activity and engaging with fellow teammates.

Better Workout Efficiency

Research has confirmed that lack of time is a common reason that people either avoid exercise or quit their exercise program. But most of us don't need a study to confirm this fact. Anyone with a hectic life knows that when demands from your job, your family, and your social life ramp up, your workout often ends up on the back burner.

Compound exercises like the bear crawl help you to gain more benefits in less time. Compound exercises are those exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. For example, participating in a bear crawl session for 1–2 minutes can work your abdominal muscles, chest, shoulders, and lower body.

As a result, you don't have to spend time doing individual exercises to target each of those body areas. You can also include the bear crawl with other exercises like jumping jacks and push-up to complete 5-minute mini-workouts throughout the day.

Improves Athletic and Daily Performance

Athletes in many different sports and at different levels benefit from agility training exercises like the bear crawl. Agility exercises are commonly included in programs for athletes in sports such as volleyball, soccer, and football to boost performance. And studies have also shown that agility drills can be manipulated to meet the changing physical and physiological demands of a periodized athletic training schedule.

But you don't have to be an athlete to gain benefits. In an article for the American Council on Exercise, fitness expert Pete McCall notes that SARQ exercises improve coordination and body awareness for exercisers at all levels.

In fact, studies have documented the benefits of agility training in elderly women, finding that it may help reduce the risk of falling. While older exercisers may not be comfortable doing the full bear crawl, modifications may be appropriate and beneficial.

May Boost Cognitive Functioning

Not only can agility exercises like the bear crawl improve physical performance, but they may also be able to improve mental performance as well.

In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers suggest that agility training exercises should be incorporated into military physical training programs as a way to improve war-fighter performance. Their research study compared 41 individuals who underwent either agility training or traditional training protocols for a period of six weeks.

At the end of the trial, researchers evaluated several measures of physical and cognitive functioning They found that not only did the agility training improve physical fitness but it also improved visual vigilance, listening skills, and working memory.

While most participants of a boot camp class at the local gym aren't likely to go into combat, improved cognitive functioning may be helpful while navigating traffic, chasing down toddlers, or managing boardroom negotiations.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before you try this or any exercise, you should be in good health. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare provider if you are new to exercise or if you are coming back to exercise after an injury. You can also work with a fitness trainer to get tips and advice.

No weights are needed for this exercise, but you need a wide-open space in which to move. An outdoor space is ideal. Indoor spaces like a gymnasium or tennis court also work well.

You'll start the bear crawl in a push-up position. Hands should be beneath the shoulders. The back is strong, and the core is engaged. Feet should be hip-distance apart with heels off the floor.

  1. Begin to move forward by simultaneously moving the right hand and the left leg forward with a crawling motion.
  2. Immediately after placing weight on the right hand and left leg, switch sides and move the left hand and right leg forward.
  3. Keep the body relatively low and you continue in a crawling motion. Imagine that you are crawling beneath a low net.

When you first try this move, execute each step slowly and carefully to avoid injury. Move forward for 5–7 steps, then take a short break and try it again. Gradually increase the distance that you move.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common blunders that are often seen when performing the kickback exercise.

Hips Too High

It is natural to let your hips start to lift when you get moving with the bear crawl. After a few crawling steps forward, the arms get tired and lifting the hips high in the air helps reduce the stress in your core and upper body. But it also reduces the amount of work your body has to do—reducing the effectiveness of the exercise.

Try to keep the back completely flat as you propel your body forward. Imagine that you are balancing a bowl of water on the small of your back as you move. If you still lift your hips, try the modification outlined below where you practice holding a tabletop position with the knees off the ground.

Sagging Back

The bear crawl is a great core exercise, but not if you let your back sag or droop.

Before you start moving, try to brace your core so that the hips and shoulders are in one straight line. The head should not sag forward or droop. Maintain this solid core position as you move. Watching yourself in a mirror is helpful. You can also have a friend or trainer watch you and provide feedback.

If you have a hard time maintaining a solid core while moving forward, practice holding tabletop. Or do just a few steps forward and gradually add steps as you get stronger.

Too Much Side to Side Movement

Try to keep all of the movement underneath your torso as you move. If you notice your legs sneaking out to the side to crawl forward, you might be taking steps that are too big. Similarly, if you notice your hips swaying as you move, you may be taking steps that are too big. You might also lack core strength.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you're not ready for the full bear crawl experience, you can do a preparatory exercise to train the same muscles.

Begin in a tabletop position. You're on your hands and knees with the back flat, head in line with the spine, and core engaged. Hands should be placed beneath the shoulders. Feet are hip-distance apart and toes are tucked under. Maintain this position but lift the knees off the floor about one to two inches. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Relax and repeat up to three more times.

This exercise strengthens the same muscles as the bear crawl but without the forward movement, it is slightly easier. Also since the body is "shortened" with a tabletop position (instead of a more extended push-up position) it is not as hard to hold your body weight up.

As you get more comfortable with the modified bear crawl, you can try taking a few steps forward and gradually increase the distance you travel.

Up for a Challenge?

There are several ways to make the bear crawl more challenging. Many military training programs involve carrying weight on your back while traveling forward. The bear crawl performed outside on an uneven surface is another way to challenge this mobility exercise. But there are other ways to make this exercise harder.

Once you've mastered the bear crawl moving forward, you can add a backward bear crawl to your routine. Simply travel about ten yards forward, then reverse the sequence and travel ten yards back without taking a break in between.

You can also do the bear crawl moving to the side. Start in the same position as would for the forward crawl, but move to the side instead of to the front and back.

Another way to add a challenge is to move a workout barrel (such as a Vipr) beneath you as you travel forward and back. A barrel is a weighted device, so when you first try this variation you should start with a lighter one. Simply place the barrel beneath your torso and after taking one "step" forward, grab the barrel and slide it forward. Then take another step and move the barrel again.

Lastly, you can add a push-up to your bear crawl to make it harder. Simply move forward about four steps then hold the body in place and perform one push up. Move forward another four steps and complete another push-up. Continue this pattern for about ten yards, then reverse and travel back.

Safety and Precautions

Most people who are comfortable getting onto the floor will be able to try some variation of the bear crawl. But there are some people who should exercise caution.

Pregnancy

Pregnant women (in the later months) may have a hard time with this exercise because they carry more weight in the middle of their body. In addition, hormones may change the stability in your joints, especially those in your pelvis and lower back. Work with your healthcare provider to get personalized advice about including the bear crawl as you advance through your pregnancy.

Overweight Individuals

People who are obese may also have a harder time holding the bear crawl position or advancing forward. But using the table-top variation is a great place to start to gain the benefits of the exercise.

Lastly, those with wrist and shoulder injuries should work with their physical therapist to determine if the exercise can be performed safely and effectively.

Try It Out

Incorporate the bear crawl into one of these strength training workouts. Add it to the end of these workouts or insert between strength exercises after your warm-up.

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