Primal Movements: Does Pilates Deliver the Goods?

Primal Movements: The Fundamentals

We humans  love to classify and organise things and so  we do it with human movements.     One classification is that of Primal Movements, that is, the fundamental movements that our ancestors needed to survive, eat, and generally get through life.  The question is, will you practice these fundamental Primal movements in the course of a Pilates session?

Cave Paintings from The Sahara Desert, around 12,000 years old

Here is the list of 8 Primal movements:

  • Squat
  • Lunge – for walking through difficult terrain, scrambling up hills
  • Push – key for the upper body, to push heavy things forwards
  • Pull – also key for the upper body, to pull heavy objects
  • Bend down and extend back – for picking stuff up.  Not everything has to be done via a squat. It might just be reaching from the floor or bending forward to prepare  or eat food
  • Twisting – fundamental to walking and running and of course, reaching for things
  • Balance – locomotion is an extended balancing act.  We move from one foot to another as we walk
  • Locomotion/Gait

We definitely need these primal movements in everyday life.    They are both Primal and Primary.

It is maybe more accurate to say that we move through life with these movements.   Our virtual lives, important though they are at this time of Covid Crisis, be it watching TV or Sport, working from home or seeing family is a very different landscape. For the most part it is sedentary: it lacks movement.    Sitting for too long is a whole other issue which I write about here 

Squatting: basically, sit in a chair to stand.   Stand to sit.    When people get weaker as they age, progressively they lose the ability to get up from chairs.  This is a really big deal.  We NEED to be able to squat

I bet you are thinking, I don’t need to lunge!  You are probably right in that you can get by without it, but, if the body is supple and strong enough to lunge then you can do more stuff, like Standing Yoga poses, or Hiking.  In some ways stair climbing is extended lunging.  Many people would like to do that with more ease.  To get on and off the floor is modified lunging.   It is commonplace for people to lose the ability to do this.  How many people do you see in the park on deckchairs?   For how many is that because they can no longer sit down on the grass and get back up again.  The floor should never be the preserve of babies!

Bend to Extend?  Despite being told we need to squat down in order to safely life stuff up from the floor, most of the time we fetch and carry via curving forwards through the spine.  It is how we operate as healthy humans.  You won’t squat for example, if you are leaning towards a sink to wash your hands, or to put your trousers on or to pick up your phone or you if you want to extend back to look at the stars.

Push? A modern life bug bear of mine is escalators and automatic doors, although I know the latter helps people in wheelchairs.   There was a time when you needed strength to push open a door.  It is a useful activity!  Supermarket trollies, open cupboard doors need a push.  Tennis, swimming and ball games such as netball are a combination of push and pull.

Pull?  A great deal of our upper body activity is pulling. Lifting the kettle in the morning is pulling.  Lifting up your shopping bags.  Much of our time is spent neither pushing or pulling, merely sitting in front of our various devices.   Right swiping on Tinder does not count.  Different kind of Pulling!

Twisting: I could write an entire blog post in the fundamental nature of Twisting.  It is vital for good walking and integral to other movements too.   A lot of our pushing and pulling incorporates a twist.    We don’t do everything in the plane of movement just in front of us – called The Sagittal Plane.  All day every day we twist slightly to reach stuff, do stuff, hear things, look at people etc.   Staring at devices is, however, largely sagittal and the more we do it, the more time we spend sitting, the more we lose our ability to rotate the upper body.

Balance?  Don’t need that?  If you think that, it is because your balance is good.  When it declines, you realise, often the hard way.  Maybe you lose your balance after tripping and fall instead of steadying yourself.  Maybe you can’t lean on one leg to negotiate tricky terrain

Locomotion?  Being able to walk is not fundamental but it is still pretty critical. Like everything else, use it or lose it.  Squatting, lunging, and twisting well contribute to good locomotion

Nothing is Black & White

Part of the reason that we don’t recognise or see these movement patterns in our daily life is because our movement is more complex and multi dimensional than the list would suggest.

The list is still essentially correct though – it is just that we mix, match and blend the movements constantly.  For example, getting out of bed in the morning might require a trunk twist, a single sided push up and a reverse squat, not  to mention the extension pattern found in a full body stretch!


So How Does Pilates Measure Up In Terms Of Enabling These Primal Movements?

Squat & Lunge

Many classic Pilates exercises work the hip extensors: hamstrings and gluteals: think Side Kick, Bridge or Swimming, but the traditional repertoire lacks the actual exercise of the Squat.  It is for that reason that it has made its way into the regular exercise choices for most instructors including myself.  Likewise the Lunge.  I rarely do a Lunge in class but frequently use that shape on the floor, aka Knighthood (pictured), or even use it whilst sitting sideways on a chair.

Writer kneeling on one leg in the Knighthood posePush Exercises

The number one iteration of this is the Press Up or one of its many variations, for example Press up against a wall.   In addition, we sit sideways and push up from the Pelvis on the arm, or on the elbow (pictured).  Both of these side variations are essentially pushing into the floor.  All work on All Fours is a push, but the body is pushing against the resistance of the floor, which rarely gives way!

reader in side lying pose with pelvis lifted

Pull Exercises

It is in Pulling exercises that Pilates is decidedly lacking.  It is via Pulling that the back of the body gets a work out: back of the shoulder, the shoulder blades and mid back.

The issue is that to Pull and work the back of the body, you need, well, just that: to pull against resistance and you can’t do that with the floor.  It is not just Pilates, but all exercise formats that use body weight struggle with this.

Swimming Legs, and all of the Plank exercises including Supine Leg Pull utilise these muscles as stabilisers but not via an actual Pull.

What to do?  The easiest option and one I’ve used in Face2Face exercises is to add resistance in the form of Dynabands then you can do Row type exercises, or front raises, side arm raises, bicep curls,  in standing or sitting.  .

Author working the latissimus dorsi muscle using a dynaband

It is a totally different story when you talk about the Pilates Studio equipment, for example The Reformer.  This is spring loaded and has straps that can be pulled with the arms and the legs.  You can also push against loads too.    The Reformer really does deliver  a full body work out in one glorious package

reader on the reformer. exercise is hug a tree

author doing part of the Rowing series on the Reformer

Bend & Extend

Here Pilates really delivers the goods.  The daddy of them all is Roll Down but there are many other examples: Seated Spine Stretch Forwards.  There are many pure extension exercises too, such as Diamond Press or the Swan Dive.   The picture below is Roll Down using the Wunda Chair, another piece of Pilates Studio equipment



Pilates is full of this – all of the rotation exercises, or where rotation is a component of other exercises.  Examples include Saw – seated rotation with forward bend, or Cleopatra – side on seated rotation, pictured here.



There are plenty of balance challenges.  For example,  side lying with 2 straight legs lifted (2nd picture). Simply being in the Knighthood position is a challenge, and even more so, Teaser (1st picutre) .  To challenge functional balance however, you really need to be standing up and doing as much as possible on one leg, or with your eyes closed.  I incorporate this kind of thing  into my classes and it is a Pilates staple these days although not found in the original repertoire

author side lying with straight legs

Locomotion and Gait

Whilst locomotion is by its very nature, dynamic, Pilates floor exercises will indirectly assist.  The focus on symmetry and alignment and opening up the hips to engage the gluteals are all brilliant preparation for walking.

In some ways lying down with good alignment and muscle activation is brilliant for walking because often you are making the shape of walking but without all that pesky gravity getting in the way.  From there we can mobilise the ankles too, and stretch the calves.

However Pilates, like Yoga and other strength based exercise formats is fairly static.  It stays in one place, so to speak.  Joseph Pilates himself advocated regular walking and fresh air to supplement regular Pilates.


For people who are interested in incorporating the Paleo philosophy into daily life, or at the very least, having a more natural lifestyle, regular Pilates will give you full body Primal movements to keep you strong, supple and mobile in your joints.    Paleo lifestyle is generally taken to mean the Paleo diet, but beyond diet, natural movement is of equal importance.

Pilates will help to keep you match fit for daily life. We all need to move about and walk plenty but we need the strength and stability to lift and transfer loads.   The load is not just our own body but the stuff of life the universe and everything: at work, in sport, in the  garden, in the kitchen, hoiking children and grandchildren about.

Pilates exercises, lying down, sitting or any other position sustain the body for these Primal Movements. They keep all the joints mobile enough to be functional whether they are pushing, pulling or anything else.   This issue of joint mobility is a crucial one because moving through a full range of motion at each joint tends to keep the muscles supple and working effectively.  Sometimes, keeping the joints free can be more useful for sustaining muscles through a full range of movement then simply stretching.


a favourite song of mine, and very much a reminder of some time spent, or misspent in the 1990s with some of my favourite people.  It is the words here that are special:

Keep Pushing On, things can only get better



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