Shortly after periscope and to some extent sitting (something you probably already do enough of, so we won’t discuss) a baby will learn how to roll from their back to their stomach and back again, somewhere around six months old.
Some can even use rolling as a form of locomotion or a method for moving from one place to another, long before they learn to crawl.
When you get a little bit older, kids will refer to this as steamrolling. Admit it, you know what I’m talking about, and you loved it.
“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
~ C.S. Lewis, Author of The Chronicles of Narnia
It’s been my experience that people have a bitter outlook towards childhood, as if it something you must absolutely grow out of. Particularly their outlook on ‘baby things.’ This becomes painfully obvious every time you have a conversation with a three or four year old and find yourself caught up in an argument like, “no that’s for babies!” Oh how kids can outsmart you.
As a result, adults have often removed ourselves from being on the floor with any regularity, but particularly from relying on any of the basic motor patterns we developed decades ago. Something you might continue to observe in eastern cultures, where people eat off low tables, converse in the squat position and sit on the floor. There is something to the connection we feel to the earth, and it’s not necessarily spiritual, but it goes a long way in prevention of immobility.
Ask an adult in the western world to crawl, and you’ll surely witness a sneer, or at a very minimum a complaint. Yet I’ve never met an adult, who doesn’t want to have some fun now and then. Play is hardwired into human beings, just like our primate ancestors. These developmental patterns we’ve been discussing, from breathing to half-kneeling, are also hardwired. Nobody really had to teach them to you, you just figured out that they were the best way from point A to point B. As a result, we’d be wise to revisit these predetermined motor patterns from time to time.
If you’re like me, there is a part of you that secretly longs for the lack of responsibility you enjoyed as a child, the freedom you used to have, but there is a part of you that doesn’t want to look ‘stupid’ at the gym either.
I understand that some of these patterns seem irrelevant to you, or just downright silly, but getting back to your developmental roots is actually a great way to spark physical aptitude at any age. They are also great diagnostic tools to double check physical literacy and can be preventative of injury. Rolling is one such movement.
If you have a good physical literacy of ground based movements, then you are more likely to know how to absorb force and avoid terrible late life ailments like falling and breaking something.
And I’m not joking when I say that you’d be surprised how often I come across an adult who cannot do what should be a very simple movement of rolling from their stomach to their back. Some coaching ‘hacks’ are often necessary for them to relearn this lost motor skill.
The trick of the rolling exercise, is that it should be driven completely by muscular action and without momentum. Momentum is a phenomenon many adults are familiar with and will often use to bypass necessary nervous system recruitment. The first time I ask anyone to do this exercise, almost all will swing or use some kind of momentum to make it so, but you’re really missing out on the deep internal core recruitment needed to execute this movement effectively.
It also gives a strong baseline of your ability to contract muscles of the abdominals/torso/mid-section, and how well your rotational musculature operates. Something most sagittal plane movements you’ll find at the gym have difficulty gauging and improving upon. Before you move to two legged or two arms patterns, best figure out these ground based patterns to a point of effortlessness.
Rolling (Left to Right)
In this example I’m rolling towards the left, the second image is the mid-way point, but I need to roll back to the starting point to complete this repetition. I’m using a couple of black mats here, but they are generally not that necessary if you have good control over your rolling pattern. Or maybe you just don’t like to be face down on a dirty gym floor, in which case, I understand that too. Rolling has a simple objective, to roll from one side to the other, and back again.
Seems simple right? Well not entirely and it might surprise you that one or two of these movements for this can often be incredibly difficult.
To get the most out of the rolling pattern, there are two ways of initiating this movement, and you should double check each of them, from both sides. This addresses that four point sling system I discussed earlier, training rotational movement patterns, in the transverse plane. If you have difficulty getting from one position to another with one method only, this is a clear indication that you need work on that specific problem and may need additional rotational movement challenges to improve upon too.
The key to the two versions is that you have to move solely through your upper half, and later solely through the lower half of your body. Imagine during the upper body roll that your lower body is completely limp and cannot help at all. Any assistance from the leg could be telling you that you need more rotational control and practice with a particular movement. AKA an imbalance.
For upper body rolling, tuck your chin into the shoulder of the direction you want to go, and reach through your opposite shoulder. In this example, I’m rolling to my right using my left arm. If this is difficult on it’s own, use more of your oral facial drivers; Look hard to your right with your eyes (remember your body will go where your eyes go) and drive your tongue into the side of your mouth. These slight nuances to the movement can have a dramatic effect. After a short moment of reaching, you’ll find yourself past a point of no-return and your body weight will take care of the rest as you gently complete the roll. Remember your legs should not have to push off at all, if you own this pattern of movement.
Once you’ve reached the facedown position it’s time to reverse the movement back to the starting position (face-up or supine). Many of the same rules apply, twist your head to look in the direction you want to go and simultaneously reach with the opposite arm back in the direction you want to travel. Again, if this is challenging, focus on the oral facial drivers by looking hard into the side of your head and pressing your tongue into your cheek. Once more, gravity will eventually do it’s thing after a short moment of effort and you will softly roll into the starting position.
Was one easy versus another? It is not uncommon for you to struggle with one and not the other, and this gives us some clues as to what other exercises might need to be used more frequently by you, particularly during your warm ups. Remember rolling is another one of these diagnostic tools to see how much of what should be a relatively low threshold developmental pattern you still have a lot of motor control with. It’s something that even the most advanced trainee can revisit from time to time, it’s like having your alignment checked by your mechanic.
A great deal of strain in the neck for either of these movements might indicate that you should seek out the help of a qualified fitness coach or physiotherapist.
Don’t forget to check rolling to both sides!
It’s been my experience that lower body rolling is generally easier for almost everyone, but every now and then, I still find someone who has a tough time and needs some more lower body rotational work. Particularly rolling backwards. The legs are heavier and generally stronger, so reaching the point of no return, where gravity takes over, is typically faster and easier to execute. The same rules apply with the lower body as they did with the upper body, with lower body rolling, you’re going to want your arms above your head and imagine that they are limp, unable to help you finish the movement. If they try to help, this could be another indication that you need to work on some lower body rotational movements.
My apologies for the blur in some of these images, but my camera can’t shoot with a high speed frame rate for catching shots in the middle of moving. The oral facial drivers do not seem as relevant to this movement as they do to the upper body rolling patterns. As you can see by the relaxation in my face. However, they can still be used if you find this pattern difficult. Try not to swing or use momentum in your legs to roll yourself over quickly, this movement should be really controlled, smooth and relatively slow. You must reach with the leg and once you reach that point of no return, your limp upper body will simply follow.
Rolling backwards means reaching with the opposite leg high and back to your other side. Just like rolling forward, the weight of the legs will eventually pull the upper body smoothly into the starting position once more. If your upper body has to help, then something isn’t quite right that you’ll need to work on.
What I love in particular about rolling backwards with the lower body is that it gives you a clear indication about gluteal strength. The gluteal muscles these days are often weak in many people, so failure to finish this movement without the help from your upper body, means you need more hip and gluteal strength. Something we will address in greater detail with the hip hinge patterns. If you feel a great deal of strain in your low back doing this movement, that might also be a diagnostic indication that you need some manual therapy work and seeking out a physiotherapist or fitness coach would be advisable.
Once more, make sure you attempt each movement rolling in both directions and not just the one I’ve indicated with pictures.