How Understanding the Stages of Motor Development Can Improve Your Bodywork


A drawing of each stage of motor development in babies

Gait analysis and body reading can be tricky skills to pick up. The body has so many moving and interacting parts that it can be difficult to know what you’re even seeing as you watch a client walk. To help us create some sort of structure when reading the body and working, we at the Morales Method® Academy of Structural Integration rely on what we call The Order of Complexity. When body reading, we use and look at planes of the body in a particular order: Sagittal, Coronal, Transverse, and then the product of the planes, Rotation. This order is determined by the order in which we go through the early stages of motor development as babies. Each stage has a particular theme that interacts with the previously mentioned planes. The image below is a summary of the Order of Complexity.

A graph illustrating the order of complexity

We begin with the sagittal plane because the first landmark on this journey through motor development begins with lifting our heads a movement that happens along the sagittal plane which establishes a cervical curvature in our necks. This leads to lifting off of the floor with our arms and elbows creating lumbar spine extension.


The next movement, the rollover, continues along this sagittal plane theme. Most people mistake this particular rollover for rotation of the spine. In actuality, we (when in supine, moving to prone) flex our lower body at the hip joint to let gravity bring us to prone. In the reverse, we extend our spine and one of our arms in order to bring ourselves off balance and “roll” into supine position. As you can see in this video below, the baby does not rotate to roll over, he flexes and almost rolls over as a mistake.

As we progress to learning how to sit, we set the stage for movement along the coronal plane. Gravity begins to affect our spine in a different way now that we can stack ourselves upright on our pelvis. Being able to sit is a huge landmark on our movement journey; it changes everything! The muscles of the spine are challenged and strengthened in new and important ways. We can see so much more, creating a motivation to be mobile so we can engage with the environment around us. So obviously, the next step is crawling. We begin to develop the back-and-forth side-bending action in our spine that we were not able to engage with when weren’t yet sitting. This strength and coronal movement of the spine is then combined with movement from our arms and legs, to begin crawling!


Two major things happen at the crawling stage:

  1. The side-bending action of our spine in crawling creates coronal movement

  2. The introduction of contra-lateral motion, meaning when the left knee moves forward, the right arm moves forward, and vice-versa

This contralateral movement in crawling plants the seeds for the contralateral movement we utilize later in walking. As we move to standing, we prepare ourselves for movement in the transverse plane as well. When taking our first steps, they’re much less refined than our adult steps. We call them “Toddlers” for a reason, the walk is more of a waddle. When we observe the movement, it’s obvious that toddlers have yet to hone the transverse movement they’ve recently discovered in the pelvis. Once walking becomes more refined, there’s more contra-lateral movement of arms and legs (thank you, crawling!) and a final integration of sagittal, coronal, and transverse movement in the spine. The sum of these movements creates the rotation that makes our walk look nice and smooth, rather than clunky and wobbly like that of a toddler.


Now that we understand the origins of the Order of Complexity (sagittal, coronal, transverse, rotation) how does this actually help us when we work? In MMASI, we use this order as a framework to help us organize the work. As I mentioned earlier, the body has lots of moving parts and it can be difficult to find where to start without a way in. The Order of Complexity is MMASI’s way in.


If you would like to learn more about the ins and outs of the Order of Complexity and how we pair that with the Principles of MMASI to create Structural Integration sessions, check out our online course: Structural Integration- Theory and Gait Assessment!

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