An Alternate View of Crawling and Quadrupedal Motor Patterns: A Correlation to Free Solo Mountain Climbers ?

Quadruped Patterns: Part 1

In the last 3 years, if you have been with us here at The Gait Guys that long, you will have read some articles where we discuss quadrupedal gait (link: Uner Tan Syndrome) and also heard us talk about CPG’s (Central Pattern Generators) which are neural networks that produce rhythmic patterned outputs without sensory feedback. You will have also read many of our articles on arm swing and how they are coordinated with the legs and opposite limb in a strategic fashion during gait and running gaits. Through these articles, we have also eluded to some of the fruitless aspects of focusing solely on retraining arm swing in runners because of the deep neurologic interconnectedness to the lower limbs and to the CPG’s. 
IF you are interested in any of these articles we have written please feel free to visit our blog and type in the appropriate words (Uner Tan Syndrome, arm swing, cerebellum, cross over gait) into the Search box on the blog.

Here we briefly look at interconnected arm and leg function in crawling mechanics in a high functioning human (as compared to the Uner Tan Syndrome) in arguably the best solo free climber in the world, Alex Honnold. Here we will talk about the possible neurologic differences in climbers such as Alex as compared to other quadruped species. Primarily, there is suspect of an existing shift in the central pattern generators because of the extraordinary demand on pseudo-quadrupedal gait of climbing because of the demand on the upper limbs and their motorneuron pools to mobilize the organism up the mountain. The interlimb coordination in climbing and crawling biomechanics shares similar features to other quadrupeds, both primate and non-primate, because of similarities in our central pattern generators (CPG’s). New research has however determined that the spaciotemportal patterns of spinal cord activity that  helps to mediate and coordinate arm and leg function both centrally, and on a cord mediated level, significantly differ between the quadruped and bipedal gaits. In correlation to climbers such as Alex however, we need to keep it mind that the quadrupedal demands of a climber (vertical) vastly differ in some respects to those of a non-vertical quadrupedal gait such as in primates and those with Uner Tan Syndrome. This is obvious to the observer not only in the difference in quadrupedal “push-pull” that a climber uses and the center-of-mass (COM) differences.  To be more specific, a climber keeps the COM within the 4 limbs and close to the same surface plane as the hands and feet (mountain) while a primate,  human or Uner Tan person will “tent up” the pelvis and spine from the surface of contact.

What some of the research has determined is that in quadrupeds the lower limbs displayed reduced orientation yet increased ranges of kinematic coordination in alternative patterns such as diagonal and lateral coordination.  This was clearly different to the typical kinematics that are employed in upright bipedal locomotion. Furthermore, in skilled mountain climbers, these lateral and diagonal patterns are clearly more developed than in study controls largely due to repeated challenges and subsequent adaptive changes to these lateral and diagonal patterns.  What this seems to suggest is that there is a different demand and tax on the CPG’s and cord mediated neuromechanics moving from bipedal to quadrupedal locomotion. There seemed to be both advantages and disadvantages to both locomotion styles. Moving towards a more upright bipedal style of locomotion shows an increase in the lower spine (sacral motor pool) activity because of the increased and different demands on the musculature however at the potential cost to losing some of the skills and advantages of the lateral and diagonal quadrupedal skills.  Naturally, different CPG reorganization is necessary moving towards bipedalism because of these different weight bearing demands on the lower limbs but also due to the change from weight bearing upper limbs to more mobile upper limbs free to not only optimize the speed of bipedalism but also to enable the function of carrying objects during locomotion.

The take home seems to suggest that gait retraining is necessary as is the development of proper early crawling and quadruped locomotor patterns. Both will tax different motor pools within the spine and thus different central pattern generators (CPG). A orchestration of both seems to possibly offer the highest rewards and thus not only should crawling be a part of rehab and training but so should forward, lateral and diagonal pattern quadrupedal movements, on varying inclines for optimal benefits.  Certainly we need to do more work on this topic, the research is out there, but correlating the quad and bipedal is limited. We will keep you posted. Next week we will follow up on this quadrupedal topic with a video that will blow your mind ! So stay tuned !

Shawn and Ivo
The Gait Guys

Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011 Oct;21(5):688-99. Idiosyncratic control of the center of mass in expert climbers. Zampagni ML, Brigadoi S, Schena F, Tosi P, Ivanenko YP.

J Neurophysiol. 2012 Jan;107(1):114-25. Features of hand-foot crawling behavior in human adults. Maclellan MJ, Ivanenko YP, Cappellini G, Sylos Labini F, Lacquaniti F.