Is it time you switched your train­ing fo­cus from mir­ror mus­cles to an­i­mal agility?

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - BY JAMIE MIL­LAR

Valu­ing dy­namism over brute strength and an­i­mal agility over mir­ror mus­cle, the ‘move­ment’ phe­nom­e­non has at­tracted en­thu­si­asts from Conor Mcgre­gor to Ja­son Statham. But while acolytes are fer­vent, many re­main scep­ti­cal of its purist credo. MH sought out the prime movers re­defin­ing ex­er­cise to ask whether fit­ness fun­da­men­tal­ism truly has legs

Around seven mil­lion years ago our an­ces­tors came down from the trees. Now, at 2pm on a Mon­day, I’m turn­ing back the clock and mak­ing like an ape­man. My lo­cal park is hardly wild, but its hectares of green­ery are about as close to na­ture as you can get in the mod­ern ur­ban jun­gle. And any­way, so con­di­tioned am I to ex­er­cis­ing in des­ig­nated man­made spa­ces, the sim­ple act of climb­ing a tree feels pos­i­tively trans­gres­sive. “You can de­velop a sur­pris­ingly strong grip strength, not to men­tion get a good work­out for the shoul­ders and legs, from climb­ing,” says my coach, Ben Med­der, one of the most re­spected new ‘move­ment coaches’. “Plus there’s more vari­a­tion than with a chin-up bar – ev­ery tree can be climbed in dif­fer­ent ways.”

Trees duly scaled, Med­der then asks me to move from my front to my back with­out tak­ing my hands and feet off the floor. Quickly I re­alise this de­mands as much men­tal agility as mo­bil­ity in my shoul­ders and hips. “There are whole cour­ses that you can take on sim­ply rolling,” says Med­der, ev­i­dently en­joy­ing my strug­gle with this de­cep­tively el­e­men­tal task.

This is ‘move­ment’. What might sound like a kid’s af­ter­noon spent frol­ick­ing in the woods is be­ing ad­vanced as a route to im­proved dex­ter­ity, co­or­di­na­tion and range of mo­tion. Re­searchers in Florida have even linked ‘ar­bo­real lo­co­mo­tion’ (yep, that’s tree-climb­ing) to im­proved mem­ory. And with our of­fice-cen­tric life­styles in­creas­ingly held re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing us too stiff to func­tion and freez­ing our me­tab­o­lisms, the move­ment move­ment is gain­ing mo­men­tum.

Park­our, a close cousin of nat­u­ral move­ment, has gone from the back­blocks of Parisian hous­ing projects to re­ceiv­ing of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion as a sport. In MMA, Is­raeli move­ment spe­cial­ist Ido Por­tal helped make Conor Mcgre­gor a two-belt cham­pion. At the time of writ­ing, #move­ment re­turned about 3.9m hits on the cul­tural barom­e­ter that is Instagram.

In Med­der’s view, climb­ing, rolling and learn­ing to move like a pri­mate (or, for that mat­ter, a ti­tle-hun­gry Ir­ish fighter) are ac­tiv­i­ties “that typ­i­fied our evo­lu­tion”. Move­ment is a phi­los­o­phy as much as a method­ol­ogy. It prizes qual­ity and va­ri­ety over quan­tity and ve­loc­ity. It shuns all bar­bells and most shoes. It is a throw­back; the work­out equiv­a­lent of the pa­leo diet. At its most fun­da­men­tal, it ques­tions not only how we train but why and the very na­ture of what it means to be hu­man.

But, like pa­leo, it can also seem at once en­tirely log­i­cal and, well, com­pletely nuts. That’s why I sought out the men defin­ing this most lit­eral of move­ments to find out whether re­ject­ing decades of sports-science re­search and tak­ing cues from the an­i­mals re­ally is the fu­ture – or sim­ply an­other hy­pe­beast.


Be­cause of his hook-up with Mcgre­gor and his Instagram-friendly feats such as one-arm hand­stands, Ido Por­tal is for many men the gate­way into move­ment. Ap­pro­pri­ately, he’s also very hard to pin down, elud­ing MH’S at­tempts to talk to him, partly be­cause of sched­ul­ing clashes but also due to se­crecy re­gard­ing his meth­ods and clients. (For the record, Med­der, who has stud­ied un­der Por­tal, de­scribes him as “a warm, en­cour­ag­ing and cool guy”.) Nev­er­the­less, Por­tal is happy to share on so­cial me­dia and his web­site, where he speaks about es­tab­lish­ing “a move­ment cul­ture” to fa­cil­i­tate “a cross­dis­ci­plinary ex­change of in­for­ma­tion be­tween var­i­ous types of movers”. But of course.

In train­ing videos on Por­tal’s Youtube chan­nel, Mcgre­gor can be seen walk­ing on all fours, flu­idly dodg­ing sticks or bal­anc­ing them on his feet as he rolls from front to back. To some, it might seem just a step away from wax-on-wax-off ter­ri­tory, but if Mcgre­gor’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory is any­thing to go by, it cer­tainly ap­pears to be ef­fec­tive. ‘The No­to­ri­ous’ has de­clared, with char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty, that he’s no longer a fighter; with Por­tal’s help he has be­come “a mas­ter of move­ment”.

But the move­ment phi­los­o­phy hasn’t al­ways been so fash­ion­able, nor co­her­ent. Pre­vi­ously its var­i­ous dis­ci­plines were highly seg­re­gated, says Mike Fitch, cre­ator of An­i­mal Flow, a ground-based move­ment sys­tem that cross-breeds el­e­ments of gym­nas­tics, park­our, capoeira and even break­danc­ing. With An­i­mal Flow, you might find your­self per­form­ing novel ex­er­cises like ‘crab reach’ (a sort of arch­ing back bridge) or ‘lat­er­al­trav­el­ling ape’ (jump­ing side­ways with your hands on the floor). “Not so long ago, some­one who had done gym­nas­tics would stay in gym­nas­tics,” he ex­plains over cof­fee.


“Park­our was its own lit­tle niche and a very tight com­mu­nity. But over the past few years, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proaches have started to evolve.”

Fa­tigued after a decade in the fit­ness in­dus­try and constantly sore from get­ting swole, Fitch had an epiphany at age 30. He sub­se­quently put down the weights and picked up body­weight train­ing in all its myr­iad forms. “I was shit at ev­ery­thing,” he ad­mits. “I had very lit­tle abil­ity to work my body. But [move­ment train­ing] res­onated with me right away on such a deep level.”

A tall, broad-shoul­dered, blond-haired Amer­i­can, Fitch – like many move­ment con­verts – talks of a spir­i­tual awak­en­ing as much as a phys­i­cal one. Grad­u­ally, he be­gan to join the dots be­tween the sep­a­rate dis­ci­plines. “I no­ticed that they all used some form of an­i­mal lo­co­mo­tion,” he says. “I started fig­ur­ing out how I could teach those in or­der to im­prove the func­tion of the ‘hu­man an­i­mal’ – neu­ral se­quenc­ing, pos­tural dis­tor­tions, per­for­mance.

“Whether it’s na­ture or the hu­man body, ev­ery­thing has an ebb and a flow. The ex­treme of ex­er­cise is run­ning in one di­rec­tion as far as you can, or do­ing start­stop, fixed-axis lifts. The re­coil is re­al­is­ing that’s not how we’re de­signed to move.”


Rel­a­tive to pur­suits such as marathon­ing or body­build­ing, move­ment cul­ture is still in its in­fancy. I first wrote about An­i­mal Flow in this mag­a­zine in 2013; it has since spawned many de­riv­a­tive ‘pri­mal move­ment’ classes at the likes of your lo­cal Fit­ness First and Vir­gin Ac­tive. But while it’s in­fil­trated the gym, it hasn’t dom­i­nated it: the weights-room go­ril­las and tread­mill ham­sters are for the most part un­moved.

Med­der had his Da­m­a­scene mo­ment while stag­nat­ing in a deskbound IT job and flirt­ing with the weights floor. Tired of train­ing for aes­thet­ics, he tried mar­tial arts and park­our, be­fore stum­bling across a video called ‘The Work­out The World For­got’. Part Rocky montage, part Planet Earth episode, it de­picts a man run­ning, jump­ing, climb­ing and swim­ming through a lush trop­i­cal land­scape.

This lat­ter-day Tarzan is Er­wan Le Corre, the mostly shirt­less founder of Mov­nat. Ab­bre­vi­ated from the French phrase ‘mou­ve­ment na­turel’, Mov­nat is a coach­ing sys­tem that teaches tech­niques for ac­tiv­i­ties as hap­haz­ard as climb­ing trees, plus jump­ing, swim­ming, car­ry­ing, throw­ing, bal­anc­ing, crawl­ing, walk­ing and even breath­ing. Along with Por­tal, the equally pho­to­genic Le Corre is one of the poster boys for move­ment cul­ture.

“When I first dis­cov­ered Er­wan, he was a com­plete un­known liv­ing in a Brazil­ian for­est town,” says au­thor Christo­pher Mcdougall, an Amer­i­can writer who fea­tured him in his 2013 book Nat­u­ral Born He­roes. “[Since then] his Mov­nat sys­tem has been taught to as­tro­nauts and spe­cial forces sol­diers. He was even in for­mer UFC wel­ter­weight champ Car­los Con­dit’s camp be­fore his last ti­tle bout.”

Mcdougall has him­self shifted the move­ment nee­dle. His 2009 best­seller Born To Run pop­u­larised bare­foot run­ning – and pushed yearly sales of Vi­bram Five Fin­gers ‘shoes’ from $500,000 to $50m. In Nat­u­ral Born He­roes he ar­gues that hu­mans need to re­con­nect with an ear­lier form of move­ment. “The spe­cial­i­sa­tion we en­joy to­day, be it as a marathoner, ten­nis player, even a triath­lete, is a lux­ury of mod­ern so­ci­ety,” he says, quot­ing ki­ne­si­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Dr E Paul Zehr. “It doesn’t have great sur­vival value for homo sapi­ens in the wild. You never see your dog run­ning non­stop around in a cir­cle for an >

hour . . . he’ll chase some­thing, roll around, sprint, rest, mix things up. An­i­mal play has a pur­pose, and it’s not hard to sur­mise that hu­man play should as well.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mcdougall, “it was our re­mark­able range of move­ment that en­abled us to thrive, ma­noeu­vre across any ter­rain and spread to ev­ery corner of the planet.” The irony is that, in do­ing so, we elim­i­nated any need to move.

“Our lan­guage is re­ally a lan­guage of re­claim­ing the nat­u­ral ca­pac­ity of the hu­man be­ing,” says Dr Kelly Star­rett, au­thor of an­other mo­bil­ity bi­ble, Be­com­ing A Sup­ple Leop­ard. “The leop­ard can at­tack and de­fend at full ca­pac­ity in­stantly, whereas the av­er­age per­son has to warm up, ac­ti­vate their glutes and mo­bilise their tho­racic spine,” he ex­plains, with the char­ac­ter­is­tic lofti­ness of a move­ment afi­cionado. “That’s not how it’s sup­posed to be.”


Not ev­ery­one is con­vinced by Star­rett and Por­tal’s an­i­mal al­lu­sions, or pro­grams that at first glance rely more on re­cap­tur­ing child­hood free­doms than tried-andtested fit­ness reg­i­mens. Bret Con­tr­eras, an un­re­pen­tantly ev­i­dence-based trainer, has pub­lished a com­pre­hen­sive move­ment take­down called How To Be A Func­tional Move­ment Guru In 40 Easy Steps. While he does not name names, and ad­mits that “there are in­deed some cred­i­ble and valu­able func­tional move­ment ex­perts out there”, it isn’t a stretch to en­vi­sion who was at the fore­front of his mind when he wrote, “Pseu­do­science is much more prof­itable these days. Imag­ine a world with no sci­en­tific bound­aries, where any­thing you think up in your head can be played off as fac­tual, re­gard­less of whether or not the idea holds merit in real life. Imag­ine build­ing a strong, cult-like fol­low­ing and get­ting paid to spout off jib­ber-jab­ber all day long.”

Else­where, for­mer USA Weightlift­ing med­i­cal chair Dr Bren­dan Mur­ray has at­trib­uted an in­crease in in­juries to the ex­treme ‘knees out’ tech­nique seen in some weightlifters, Cross­fit­ters and those mim­ick­ing some of the move­ment cul­ture’s teach­ings. An­other com­mon crit­i­cism is that, by set­ting bench­marks for hu­man biome­chan­ics and an ‘ideal’ way of mov­ing, Star­rett et al are ig­nor­ing in­di­vid­ual vari­ance and ge­net­ics.

Ar­guably, such crit­i­cisms could be lev­elled at al­most any widely adopted fit­ness pro­gram. The fact re­mains that our daily lives are less ac­tive than they’ve ever been, and when we do move, it’s in in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing ways. For in­stance, where we were once con­tent to sit on pec decks and leg presses, the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Olympic lift­ing, Cross­fit and MMA has shown up our move­ment de­fi­cien­cies. Even if Star­rett isn’t the mes­siah, at least he has ini­ti­ated the con­ver­sa­tion about how to pre­vent in­juries in­stead of wait­ing for them to hap­pen.

Mod­ern ath­letes might be faster and stronger than ever, but, cru­cially, they’re not tougher. The Amer­i­can Or­thopaedic So­ci­ety for Sports Medicine has di­ag­nosed a rise in overuse in­juries in younger ath­letes that used to be the pre­serve of old pros, while the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin found that high school ath­letes spe­cial­is­ing in a sin­gle sport are twice more likely to sus­tain fre­quent in­juries as those en­gag­ing in a wider range. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent BBC re­port, ACL in­juries in the English Premier League are at “epi­demic lev­els”. What­ever the so­lu­tion, it’s clear a change of pace is needed.


Nat­u­ral move­ment may well prove the tonic for many of the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with mod­ern train­ing, but no one is ar­gu­ing that it’s a sub­sti­tute for tried-and-tested strength and con­di­tion­ing. “Pi­lates and yoga are great for move­ment, but you can’t hold them up as com­plete sys­tems un­less you’re also do­ing heavy lift­ing and hard run­ning,” says Star­rett, who has worked with Olympic gold medal­lists, mil­i­tary per­son­nel and Ja­son Statham. “But I’ll take the park­our mover over the guy who can squat 200kg any day, be­cause when you ask the freestyle ath­lete to dead­lift, they’re go­ing to be safer, stronger and more powerful. Move­ment comes first.”

While its pro­po­nents might get stick for the tree-hug­ging mantras and oc­ca­sional detour into mys­tic vo­cab­u­lary, the truth is it’s dif­fi­cult to pick holes in nat­u­ral move­ment. The things that it en­tails – run­ning, jump­ing, climb­ing, crawl­ing – are ob­vi­ously, in­con­tro­vert­ibly ben­e­fi­cial. If there’s a flaw, it’s per­haps the overzeal­ous­ness that also leads pas­sion­ate Cross­fit­ters, cy­clists and yo­gis to for­sake other forms of train­ing. Med­der, for his part, still per­forms squats and dead­lifts in the gym. Only he does them less fre­quently than he used to, and as an ad­di­tion to his nat­u­ral reg­i­men. “Some might take ‘nat­u­ral’ to mean ‘best’, which isn’t what I be­lieve,” he says. “I’m happy to leave that de­bate to oth­ers; just get­ting on with do­ing, mov­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is more im­por­tant to me than who is right.”

At the move­ment move­ment’s heart is an over­whelm­ing feel­ing that in our nar­row­minded pur­suit of sport­ing tri­umph, we’ve lost sight of play. And the ob­ses­sion with per­for­mance at the cost of all else doesn’t just ap­ply to elite ath­letes. “This is my big­gest is­sue with con­tem­po­rary gym cul­ture,” says Star­rett. “We’ve for­got­ten why we [started go­ing] in the first place: to re­fine skills and de­velop strength so that we could ex­press that some­where else.”

Mean­while, Rafe Kel­ley, trainer and founder of Evolve Move Play, makes a distinc­tion be­tween play, which is for its own re­ward, and train­ing, which is a means to an end. Nat­u­ral move­ment can be both play or train­ing. And while the for­mer may sound frivolous, Kel­ley be­lieves it is na­ture’s way of get­ting us to do use­ful stuff: hence why kids run, climb and fight. The phrase ‘work­ing out’ lit­er­ally pre­scribes some­thing en­tirely op­po­site. To bor­row Kel­ley’s anal­ogy, if nat­u­ral move­ment is a whole­food, then ex­er­cise is a sup­ple­ment. If you have am­bi­tious goals, you might need to take more supps. But they shouldn’t rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of your diet.

Back at the park, Med­der and I spot some saplings and en­gage in a game of ‘The Floor Is Lava’, climb­ing be­tween them while keep­ing off the ground. Then we stand palms-to-palms and try to push each other off bal­ance. When I even­tu­ally re­trieve my phone from his back­pack, I’m as­ton­ished to see that I’ve been train­ing for four hours. Then again, such is the joy of discovering nat­u­ral move­ment for the first time, I re­alise that I re­ally haven’t been train­ing at all.

Can a new twist on train­ing un­ravel your body’s true po­ten­tial?


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