Our Journal

How to Step Under & Through Obstacles

By Alex Schenker, MovNat Master Trainer

Stepping under or through obstacles is a movement pattern everyone is going to put to use some day, especially if you spend any time in nature, and extra especially if you find yourself off the beaten path!

I think the practical relevance for this skill is pretty obvious, but did you stop to think about the kind of mobility development that this movement pattern builds in your body? You are engaging in single-leg balancing (the foundation of all bipedal movements), a half-squat while hip hinging (and then locomotion in that position), and shifting your weight from one leg to the other in a wide stance. This all demands hip flexibility, spinal stabilization, lower body strength, and spacial awareness without having a visual on your obstacle during the entire movement.

I find that stepping under and through obstacles are among the most overlooked movements in the development of functional mobility. I could continue to describe the personal discoveries from my exploration of this skill, but I believe that your own practice will reveal the details to you. So, have a look at this video, and give it a try yourself!

Stepping Under

The way to step under something depends on the height of the object, the length or width of the space through which you have to pass under, and how fast your situation requires you to get through. Obviously, when the height is under a certain level, crawling is the only option. Even if crawling is easier, if you are holding something or the ground is hazardous you may still opt to stay bipedal.

With some obstacles, a half-squat or half-deep knee bend allow you to keep the spine more vertical, but are energy inefficient and slower than other options.

Sideways stepping under allows you to pass under an obstacle swiftly and efficiently in only 2 steps. This variation is ideal when the obstacle is not too long and at least as wide as the space between your forehead and hips (so that you can fit!). This movement involves both a hip hinge and shifting the trunk from the rear leg to the lead leg.

Directions:

  • Approach the obstacle from the side.
  • Shift your weight to your rear foot and reach your lead leg toward the far side of the obstacle.
  • The more you sink and bend your knee on the rear leg, the farther you can reach with the lead, but the ideal width is not too narrow or too wide to compromise your balance.
  • Maintain an elongated spine and hinge at the hips.
  • Keep your head up to scan your environment and keep your hips lower than your head. This ensures that you don’t bump your back or hips.
  • Shift your weight from the rear leg to the lead leg.
  • Once your torso is over top of your lead leg, you should be clear of the obstacle.
  • From here, you can return to an upright position while turning to face the direction you are going.
  • The rear leg can slide forward and transition to continue into a walking pattern.

*If the obstacle is at an angle, position your head at the higher end.

Progression: add targets to step to; move more quickly; carry an object while you traverse; or limit the width or expand the length of your obstacle, to name a few.

Forward Variation

This is the ideal option when the space you are passing under is too long or narrow to approach it sideways. It is slower and more energy consuming than going sideways.

Directions:

  • First hip hinge, looking forward.
  • Keep your spine elongated behind head and slightly beneath head level. Once your head clears, you know your spine will.
  • Bend your knees to walk forward
  • Take short steps

Stepping through

Horizontally: This is similar to stepping over sideways, except it requires you to step over and under an obstacle at the same time. You need enough space for your torso to pass through; plus, spacial awareness both above and below your trunk.

Vertically: This variation involves reaching through with the lead foot, and lateral flexion of the trunk as you shift to the lead foot. It’s important to stay relaxed. For a very narrow space, deflating the lungs can help you squeeze through. Try not to bump or rub against the obstacle. Some surfaces may be abrasive, and that combined with quick movements can lead to some nasty scratches and bruises.

Common inefficiencies

Having your back rounded & head down allows you to avoid bending your knees as much, which feels easier. But it forces you to look down, which is a problem when you need to remain visually alert of your surroundings, such as when you move quickly. Rounding your back also risks bumping your spine. Whereas, having your head up and your back straight means if your head passes, everything behind will as well.

 

Thank you for reading! I hope this tutorial inspires you to integrate this wonderful skill into your Natural Movement and mobility training. If you have the chance to try it out, or if you can think of variations, progressions, or practical applications that I didn’t mention, please leave a comment and let us know what you think!

About the Author

Alex Schenker is a MovNat Master Trainer, Martial Arts Instructor, Movement Therapist, and the creator of Natural Mobility. His approach emphasizes restoring and maintaining the natural state of our human bodies, reconnecting with the evolutionary movement aptitudes of our species, as well as stimulating our own natural healing capabilities through corrective exercise. Alex coaches people privately, and teaches regular weekly MovNat & Combatives classes in Toronto, Canada. Follow him on Instagram: @naturalmobility.

Alex Schenker

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