Think back to those days in elementary school gym class. Chances are, if you had a good teacher, you probably did some form of the above pictured movement during class—it’s called the crab. Young children love doing novel crawling exercises like crab walks, but that’s not the only reason they are done so often in elementary P.E. Smart physical education teachers know that crab walks are a great activity to help develop coordination and total body strength. It’s unfortunate that this little gem of an exercise is not continued in middle school on through adulthood, because it serves as an effective exercise to improve many elements of athletic development and coordination.It’s unfortunate that the crab walk isn’t continued in middle school and into adulthood because it serves as an effective exercise to improve many elements of athletic development & coordination. Click To Tweet
This article will take a deep dive into everything involving the “crab” exercise. We’ll look at:
- What exactly the basic crab exercise is, including the well-known “crab walk.”
- The athletic benefits of the movement.
- The many variations that athletes can play with in a training program.
The Basic Crab Position
In my work as a youth athletic development coach, the crab is a staple in our programs. For some older athletes it may be a small part of a warm-up, whereas for younger athletes it may serve as a total body strength exercise. For even younger kids, crab work may come in the form of a game or challenge. As you can probably guess, the crab exercise has a wide range of uses for different ages and abilities.
Let’s take a look at the basic crab tabletop position and talk about why it’s a fantastic tool for the developing human/athlete. The basic crab position finds the athlete in supine (or facing up) position:
- Knees are bent.
- Feet are flat on the floor.
- Hands are on the ground underneath the shoulders and slightly behind the hips.
Prior to lifting the hips off the ground, we always cue the athletes to push their hands into the ground and squeeze their shoulder blades together. Then the athlete starts the exercise by lifting their hips all the way off the ground, so their hips are in line with the knees and shoulders—almost resembling a flat tabletop. We have the athletes hold this position for a certain amount of time, focusing on getting their chest and hips to “touch the sky.”
The crab walk finds the athlete in a similar position, with hips elevated a few inches off the floor. Instead of lifting the hips as high as possible, the hips stay a few inches off the floor, and the athlete then tries to walk on hands and feet in the desired direction. Athlete can walk feet first or hands first, and even sideways.
This basic exercise is highly valuable for today’s athletes—particularly based on the amount of sitting many of them do when they are not playing sports:
- Sitting in school.
- Sitting on their phones.
- Sitting playing video games.
- Sitting while driving to their next destination.
Lots of sitting with passive recreation. As physical therapist Todd Hargrove said: “Modern culture can make you forget that life has a physical dimension. Our attention is focused so often on computers and cell phones there is little left for our bodies.”
Lack of physical activity and the movement issues associated with sitting and being sedentary used to be an adult issue, especially in the older population, but now we’re seeing childhood obesity pushing almost 20%. Throw in a pandemic and a six-month lockdown, and it’s plainly obvious that when it comes to movement, many children are struggling right now.
Screen time and sedentary activity are way up, and overall general physical movement is way down. I’m seeing the negative effects of this even in so-called “athletic” kids. Many parents think that more sports is the answer, but the truth is that sports skills do little to arm the young athlete with appropriate levels of general strength, general mobility, and coordination needed to navigate the sporting environment. If the only physical activity a young athlete does is highly specific (for example, they just play basketball), it’s easy for the body to get used to moving in only those certain ways.
Strength and conditioning coach Pat Davidson said it best: “The human body is a marvel of energy conservation. It will always seek the path of least resistance. When you combine that with the modern world that doesn’t force you to go out and move a lot in a lot of different ways, you get habitually stuck in certain patterns and positions.”
Since return to play after the pandemic, there have been high numbers of youth sports injuries—many of these injuries stem from too much too soon on bodies that are not prepared. This why it’s important to always cover your athletic basics, even with the best athletes.
According to strength and conditioning coach Max Shank, some of the movement problems associated with extensive sitting are:
- Decreased thoracic mobility (specifically excessive kyphosis, or forward curvature).
- Decreased shoulder mobility (rounded forward and drawn inward).
- Lack of shoulder stability due to lack of scapular movement.
- Poor core coordination and hip strength.
- Gluteal amnesia (the glutes stop working).
- Head-forward posture (really bad for your neck).
In short, chronic sitting and lack of physical activity is an athleticism killer.
Video 1. Over time, too much sitting can really take away from being a highly functioning athlete. So, when I work with groups of young athletes, I try to nip this in the bud as quickly as I can.
The Antidote: Enter the Crab Hip Lift
At its most basic level, the crab hip lift does everything the opposite of sitting. Sitting is a passive, lazy activity with little or no movement. The crab, on the other hand, is an aggressive activity that involves the entire body.At its most basic level, the crab hip lift does everything the opposite of sitting, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Some of the benefits of the crab hip lift are:
- Strength and mobility through hip extension.
- Isometric strength of glutes/hamstring/low back.
- Scapular strength and stability.
- Shoulder mobility/arm strength.
- Core strength.
- Coordination with more advanced drills.
- Wrist strength and mobility.
- Static and dynamic balance.
- Spatial awareness.
This great movement challenges balance, stability, and coordination and develops strength from toenails to fingernails—particularly in the more advanced versions, when the athlete is asked to reach or rotate with their arms and legs in a variety of directions crossing the midline of the body. This crossing of the midline of the body is very similar to the act of crawling. “The closed chain crawling position uses bodyweight to stimulate the scapular muscles along with the abdominal wall and involves the stability of the spine with cross coordination when moving.” According to Vern Gambetta, crawling is the basis of reciprocal movement that underlies most sport skills.
Having covered what athletes need and why they need it, let’s look at the basic crab hip lift and its many variations.
Video 2. In this video, we can see the crab hip lift in its most basic form. The movement is very easy to learn and well-tolerated by most athletes.
I try not to give too much coaching on these movements because I want the athletes to feel them out. However, it’s okay to offer some suggestions. Usually, I encourage an athlete to get the hips to the sky or ceiling, and the other cue I tell them is to squish their shoulder blades together as hard as possible.
Progressing can be pretty straightforward. You can do straight reps up and down, then transition to short holds for something like 10 seconds on 10 seconds off, finally moving to the much more challenging long-duration holds, which can be done for 30 seconds up to a few minutes.
My friend and fellow coach Austin Jochum has some of his athletes attempt to hold this basic crab position for five minutes straight. For anyone who may think a five-minute crab hold is easy, I encourage you to give it an honest try and see for yourself. It’s a tremendous effort of isometric strength, endurance, and mental toughness to stay engaged.A five-minute crab hold is a tremendous effort of isometric strength, endurance, and mental toughness to stay engaged, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Moving a bit further down the rabbit hole, let’s take a look at some fun and challenging crab variations that require a bit more motor control, coordination, dynamic balance, strength, and spatial awareness.
Videos 3 & 4. I call these variations “crab reaches.” They are challenging because we limit our base of support by holding ourselves with three and then two points of contact.
The first version is a one-arm crab reach. We’re simply lifting the hips and reaching one arm straight up into the air. For you kettlebell fans out there, this may look very similar to the Turkish get-up. I would say that this is a great foundational exercise for learning the Turkish get-up without having to worry about holding a weight overhead.
For a little bit more range of motion through the spine and hips instead of reaching straight up, the athlete can also attempt to reach behind their body or rotate across their body. This gives the athlete quality rotation though the mid-portion of the spine—and that area is of particular importance because it is the rounded area we see when athletes are slumped over their cell phones.
Similarly, instead of reaching an arm, we can attempt to lift a leg up as high as possible. This obviously places more strain on the push leg on the floor, helping develop those important and often neglected muscles of the posterior chain.
Taking it one step further, we can have the athlete attempt to reach both an arm and the opposite leg at the same time. This is very challenging for the developing athlete because they will now find themselves balancing on two points of contact instead of three or four, increasing the balance component as well as the strength component (having to hold more body weight off the ground).
Video 5. My favorite version of this challenging variation is to simultaneously lift the hips while grabbing the foot with the opposite hand. This requires a nice combination of strength, mobility, and balance.
The next step in the crab progression is combining the hip lift with a reach and then a rotational component. Of all the crab exercises, this version is the most difficult to perform. Does the athlete have the strength and balance to hold themselves off the ground with one arm and one leg to control themselves as they slowly rotate their bodies around those two pivot points? This activity challenges even the best athlete’s spatial awareness, having to coordinate their limbs to move under control.
Video 6. Of all the crab exercises, this version if the most difficult to perform.
Crab Walking Variations
Although I use the in-place crab variations more often than crab walks, these definitely have their place in an all-around athletic development program. The best thing about crab walks is that they require virtually zero coaching: most young athletes can simply get on the ground and go without a lengthy explanation of the movement. It may look a little sloppy and awkward at first, but with a little practice, things tighten up nicely. Although they can be very difficult for bigger athletes, most people can handle 5–10 yards of a crab walk without a problem.
The crab walk is what I call a coordinated strength exercise. To move efficiently, the opposite arm and leg must work together. Since you have to hold yourself off the ground for the duration of the walk, the upper body—particularly the wrists, shoulders, and scapula—get some serious strength work at various awkward angles. The same goes for the glutes and hamstrings, particularly on the forward crab walk.The crab walk is a coordinated strength exercise—to move efficiently, the opposite arm and leg must work together, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
While the glutes hold the hips off the ground, the hamstrings basically pull the body forward. This is great general strength work, while at the same time challenging the athlete to move forward in a rhythmic, coordinated manner. The crab walk can be done moving forward, backward, and side-to-side.
We make sure that we keep our movements efficient by doing crab walks for very short durations, usually 5–10 yards. It’s not an endurance event or punishment—it’s training to be efficient, strong, and resilient.
Programming the Crab
The age group I most like to use crab walks with are athletes ages 5–12. Their smaller bodies move a bit more efficiently and don’t seem to tire as easily. Also, because it’s such a novel activity, kids tend to really enjoy it. Two of my favorite variations to use with kids are crab soccer and crab walks on planks.
Crab soccer is, as you might guess, exactly what it sounds like. We play 1v1, where each player is in an active crab position (hips off the ground). Both players try to kick a ball past their opponent’s goal. This is a fantastic warm-up activity that most kids love to play—five minutes of crab soccer and kids are warmed-up and fired up for the rest of the training session.
Plank crab walks are a great challenge for younger kids. The key is to elevate the 2×4 planks a few feet off the floor to provide that fear of falling off. This little trick works great, as the kids really have to slow down and concentrate on the movement. We often play a game where if you slip off, you have to to start over. The kids in our youth program love this challenge—once they make it across going forward, we try going sideways and backward.
Crab movements can be hugely beneficial for all levels of athletes—it’s one of those unique exercises that trains the entire body, from the toes to the fingers. The variations can allow for beginners all the way to advanced-level movement. They can be used as part of a prep/warm-up for older athletes, part of a youth athletic training program, or a novel challenge for kids.Crab work is a simple and equipment-free bodyweight activity that can check a lot of boxes when it comes to all-around athletic development, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
We know that the environment many young athletes are growing up in today is not very movement-centric. Just because kids play a sport, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting exposed to enough movement variation that develops strength, resists injury, and improves performance. Crab work is a simple and equipment-free bodyweight activity that can check a lot of boxes when it comes to all-around athletic development.
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Deen, JC. “How to Do the Crab Walk.” GMB Fitness. 3/22/22.
Gambetta, Vern. Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Human Kinetics: 2006.
Hargrove , Todd. Better Movement.
Hurst, Ryan. “Movement Checkup: 5 Fundamental Movement Patterns to Focus Training.” GMB Fitness. 11/5/19.
Shank, Max. “The 30 Second Mobility Cure.” T-Nation. 6/26/13.