Behaviorally and neurologically, humans are one of the very few species on the planet that are completely dependent upon their caregivers for survival. Of the limited altricial species on the earth, humans have the most extended developmental period. Full physical, neurological, mental, and behavioral development takes us 20+ years to accomplish, which means that there is a very long and elaborate span of development and refinement. In all aspects of our development, we continuously see skills/characteristics/attributes that are layered on prior -or lower-level- skills/characteristics/attributes. To successfully address issues or problems later in this developmental progression (physical, mental, cognitive and/or behavioral), oftentimes requires extensive peeling back or reverse engineering.
“Primitive patterns” and “primitive movements” are terms that have been thrown around over the past 10-15 years in the movement world. The first to use the term primitive patterns were Gray Cook and Lee Burton on their “Secrets of the Primitive Patterns” DVD in 2008. Since then, the use of the term primitive has exploded and has been thrown around quite often, and I fear its meaning has eroded over that time. Why? Primitive has become the new functional; it has become a misunderstood adjective that is thrown around to create a visceral response or imply false validity to something.
In Charles C. Manns’ book 1491, he paints a picture of the pre-Columbus era America’s that is quite different than what is taught in the history books. In contrast to the uneducated, savage natives population of the Americas that barely survived in a “primitive” lifestyle, Mann writes of a population that is quite the opposite. Written records from the earliest Europeans to interact with the native population describe them as “strikingly healthy species. Eating an incredibly nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the (native) people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in.” In 1523, Italian mariner Giovanni da Verrazzano described the natives as “as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe.” This got me to wondering that if the picture of the Native Americans that is portrayed in traditional history teachings is incomplete, how complete is our understanding of what primitive actually is?
These “primitives” that were native to both North and South America were not the simple hunter/gathers that wandered endlessly to survive on a limited and basic diet that barely sustained life. Instead, the picture of “primitive” that Mann paints is one of intense social bonding that understood nature and through reasoning, foresight, and planning thrived in many aspects.
If you don’t want to read the entire book, you can watch this hour-long video to get an introduction to the America‘s before Columbus.
Describing a movement as “primitive’ does not make that movement a foundational movement any more than calling a goose a duck actually makes that goose a duck. Recently, a social media post discussed how the deadlift is a primitive movement. The individual based this around the premise, that man has always picked things up… This is quite different than when Gray and Lee explained primitive patterns in regards to the Functional Movement ScreenTM by going deeper into their Trunk Stability Push-up and the Rotary Stability tests. My opinion on their (Gray and Lee’s) intent was to shift the conversation of movement from “functional” back to the basics. At the time, everyone was jumping on the “functional training” bandwagon and were neglecting many base attributes that developed function. They were attempting to refocus the conversation back to the basics of movement with a term a the time was an appropriate adjective. But, like often happens, a few nut-jobs have ruined what started out as good for everyone. The term Gray and Lee used correctly has been degraded.
The term primitive may no longer be the most correct. We have learned quite a bit about movement in the past 12 years (since 2008). It could sound like I’m trying to split a hair and argue semantics. On the surface, you are correct; just like on the surface “Primitive” seems like the best word. In 2008, it was a very appropriate term to balance out the functional frenzy. Still, I think after 12 years, it is okay to take a step forward, especially when the next question is asked.
What does the word primitive actually mean? According to dictionary.com, this is the definition of primitive:
- Being the first or earliest of the kind or in existence, especially in an early age of the world.
- Early in the history of the world or of humankind.
- Characteristic of early ages or of an early state of human development.
- Anthropology. of or relating to a preliterate or tribal people having cultural or physical similarities with their early ancestors: no longer in technical use.
- Unaffected or little affected by civilizing influences; uncivilized; savage.
- Being in its earliest period; early.
- Simple; unsophisticated.
- Crude; unrefined.
- Primary, as distinguished from secondary.
Not quite as simple as finding a single definition. Is the deadlift a simple, unsophisticated lift? Not at all. Is crawling crude and unrefined? Not when you understand crawling. Is a push-up the earliest expression of movement? Only if we ignore the first 2-3 months of life. Rolling and reaching are characteristics of the early stages of human development, but they are not the earliest nor the first characteristics in our acquisition of movement.
To understand the word primitive, we have to go even deeper. Primitive originates from the Latin word Prima hora (the first hour), according to Merriam-Webster.com or from the Latin term Primivitus (first of its kind) according to www.dictionary.com. That helped a little, but not completely. The commonality in both origins is the root word “prime.” In Latin, the source of “prime’’ is primus, which means first. In old English, Prima means first. In Middle English, prim means the first canonical hour. At its origin of origins, the intent of the term primitive relates to something that is the first; being the FIRST or the EARLIEST of its kind or existence.
What is the first movement or first movement pattern? This is very simple to answer – breathing. Breathing is the first purposeful thing to happen, which marks both the entry to this world and, eventually, our exit from this world. Life and movement both develop off of this first pattern. Taking away the ability to breath threatens survival and destroys movement.
“Breathing is probably the most simple and yet complex thing we do“
“If you can’t control your breath, you can’t control your movement.”
These both are quotes attributed to Gray Cook.
We know the first movement pattern is breathing, but what else in the movement world meets the actual definition of primitive. Let’s look at the roots of primitive again; more specifically, what happens in the first hour of our life (prim: the first canonical hour). The simple answer is a lot. But, in reality, it doesn’t look like much. Like is commonplace, the simple is often overlooked in exchange for the complex. In all that is going on, it is easy to miss this simplest, but most integral part of our lifetime of development; our first sensory experience after leaving the womb…
The first hour of life has to be overwhelming. If we look at recent recommendations by the medical community, we get a hint as to what else is of primary importance for lifetime development – skin-to-skin contact and social bonding. In the movement language, sensory information from our skin. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth for stable mothers and babies is so well documented, it is recommended by all major organizations responsible for the well-being of newly born infants, including The World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM), and the Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP). This action is vital for thermoregulation, initiation of feeding, and regulation of the heartbeat and breathing. Each is very important, and utterly dependent upon the sensory input from the skin and transmitted to the lizard brain portion of the CNS, which is the only portion of the brain that is operational. This sensory information is the first sensory input carried from the peripheral nerves to the CNS. In that Prima hora our CNS is learning, for the first time, how to process this sensory information at a root level – it becomes critical for all functions of life and movement as the brain develops upon its lizard foundation (the brain stem and the limbic system which account for survival and emotions).
What does that mean for us? Simple. From a Neurodevelopmental standpoint, breathing is the first and the mostprimitive pattern and function. To honor the Prima hora, the prone and supine postures provide the most cutaneous input from the ground (or whatever we are laying on). In short, our most “primitive” postures are prone and supine, and our most “primitive” pattern is breathing. With all that we have learned in the past 10-years, this is just the next step of refinement. In the healthcare world, breathing is not only essential to address, it is CRITICAL to restore. From a pain management standpoint, a physiological perspective, an emotional viewpoint, and from a tissue healing standpoint the action of restoring normal and optimal breathing WILL impact many avenues of the healthcare world. In the world of movement, systemic flexion is rooted in supine and systemic extension is rooted in prone; many of our range of motion restrictions/problems can be solved by restoring these two basic postures.
Regaining our breath and restoring our sensory connection with the ground (especially the actual soil of the earth) is a corrective strategy that alone will positively impact the lives of all who initiate just this, let alone what happens to those that become proficient at all three. Our lives and our habits make this a significant hurdle.
Am I saying you should go lay in the grass and just breath everyday?
From an exercise standpoint, to honor the intent of Primus, we have to get on the ground. As much physical contact with the ground as possible is the best. When considering the Functional Movement ScreenTM, that is the Trunk Stability Push Up, and the Active Straight Leg Raise. With that being said, there is no way to justify how a deadlift is considered primitive, or first in regards to anything other than creating clickbait and creating drama.
But breathing and leveraging cutaneous input is just the prima gradus (first step)! We cannot consider movement as an isolated entity in our desire to become more optimal humans. Without creating/restoring a strong social support system and creating an optimal diet that restores gut health, breathing and rolling around on the ground will make you feel like you are accomplishing something, when in fact they are just distracting you; you will feel busy, but you will not be productive.
While breathing and getting into prone and supine (then doing stuff) is the first step, we cannot just start one more thing. As a society, we are great at starting things, however, our ability to actually stay on task all the way to completion is lacking. What is step 2? Call this the cliffhanger to get you back to read some more. Until then, go outside and breath. Get down on the ground. Do stuff. If that makes you feel primitive, even better!