Every once in a while, usually at some social gathering, when I’m presented to my new acquaintances as a strength coach or, God forbid, « fitness expert », the same question almost inevitably pops up: from the general health point of view, what is THE best form of exercise or physical activity?
The answers people around me immediately start shooting at each other OK Corral style range from running, biking, or swimming to Yoga, Pilates, and Zumba. I’d like to share with you the answer that seems so obvious to me—but somehow, not so much to people I usually give it to.
Adaptation to most common activities
Our particular species has been roaming this planet for roughly a hundred thousand years. During all that time, we continued to evolve by adapting to the prevailing conditions and the most common challenges of our everyday lives.
Would it be too much of a stretch to say the « activities » that have shaped our bodies over the course of millenniums should be those to privilege to keep our « shapes » from softening and dissolving? Seems quite logic to me.
So, what are those activities anyway? If you’re not sure, watch a documentary about « primitive » men still living in the Amazonian jungle or African savannah. Or, for a change, Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls’ adventures around the world. What do those guys do (or do not)?
– They walk
A lot. Kinda figures: no roads, no cars, no subway. When your basic activity is hunting and gathering you have no choice but to walk. If your game migrates seasonally you have no choice but to follow—you walk. If floods, forest fires, glacier sliding, earthquakes and such are all part of your life, you need to move your settlement quite often—you walk. Walkers we are.
– But not runners, not really
« Primitive » men and women do not usually run. As in « long distance running ». I’ll limit myself to just two reasons. First one, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re on schedule. Want to get somewhere before sunset? Start before sunrise. Or camp. On the other hand, run barefoot in the wild forest—and sooner or later you’ll get hurt. When a « primitive » man was on his own in the prehistoric wilderness, sprained ankle meant death. As simple as that. The second reason is quite evident too. Look at all the animals renowned as good runners: horses, wolves, elks… They’re all four-legged (think about weight distribution). And even then, Mother Nature deemed useful to grant them with another joint between the ground and the pelvis. Unlike humans, their « heels » are well in the air. They basically run « on the tip of their toes ». Born to Run sure makes a nice title for a book. But as sad as it might seem, for a human being it’s just not true…
– « Primitive » men and women lift and move weights
Rocks, logs, killed game, and buddies with sprained ankles. They lift, they push, they drag, they roll, and they carry. They find a way to do what needs to be done without hurting themselves in the process.
– « Primitive » men and women climb
They climb trees. They climb cliffs. Up, down, and sideways. Fast and slow. In daylight and in the dark. Their hands free or holding stuff.
– « Primitive » men and women do run
As in « sprinting ». But—important distinction—rather than a « common activity », sprinting is a survival skill. You won’t outrun an antelope or a bear. But you can buy yourself enough time to throw your spear from closer up before the antelope takes off. Or to get to that cliff the bear won’t be able to climb. Notice that those are short dashes followed by a jump or a throw, rather than acceleration in a straight line on an even surface with enough space to decelerate.
– « Primitive » men and women don’t swim
That is, when they can help it. They’d rather spend an hour looking for a place to ford a river than swim across. Even the populations living on tropical islands would rather use a paddling boat. As with sprinting, swimming is a survival skill. You still might end up in the water against your will. Your main goal then will be to stay afloat and to reach the shore before the hypothermia (or the alligator) reaches you.
– Just to not leave it unaddressed…
Yes, « primitive » men and women do fight and dance. But those are hardly activities our body’s adapted to across the centuries of evolution.
Finally, « primitive » men and women don’t do:
- « Functional training » (as in lifting tiny dumbbells while sitting on a Swiss ball)
- Bike riding…
The list goes on.
So, what should you do if you wanted to implement this information?
How to be « basic »
Let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. We’re talking about GPP, General Physical Preparation. We’re talking about things that, from the general health point of view, should probably be the bulk of your overall physical activity (including your training).
With that in mind, you probably should:
- Walk. As much as you can. Even if your day is made of hour-long commutes and cubicle dwelling, you should still be able to find a way if you set your mind to it. Sit less, stand and walk more. Use stairs instead of elevators. Pick up the habit of hiking on the weekend. Be smart about it, though. Start short, slow, and light. Progressively, add up duration, speed, and eventually, heavier backpack. (A word of caution: you might want to check and fix your gait first, most of us being so much better at sitting than at walking).
- Lift weights. The trick is to have them odd enough to stay close to the real world but not too odd—to still be able to program your training and to track your progress. I’m willing to argue that Kettlebells are your best choice. Training with (one heavy or double) bells should probably be the bulk of your weight training. Sometimes, you might want to turn to the barbell in order to submit your system to heavier loads. Sometimes, you may want to use two bells of different sizes, sandbags, logs, stones, tires… I’d say, across the year you might want to spend 25% of your time working with barbells, 50% with Kettlebells, and another 25% with odd objects. Experiment; see what works best for you. Oh, and never underestimate the value of proper instruction: take a StrongFirst Kettlebell Course or find a certified SFG instructor. Your body will thank you.
- To emulate climbing, make sure to include the bodyweight classics in your training regimen. Even if you live in the “urban jungle”, Split- and One-legged Squats, OAOL Pushups, HSLRs, and Pull-ups will get you a long way. If available, use rings and ropes. Find a gym equipped with a rock-climbing wall and spend some time on it every two or three weeks.
- Learn how to sprint. If at all possible, find a coach to learn proper sprinting mechanics. Then maintain this skill by including sprinting in your training regimen, or at least make sure to do those short dashes when you’re out hiking. You may also want to learn some basic « Parkour » moves and practice them in the same fashion.
- In quite the same way, learn how to swim then practice regularly to maintain the skill. When possible, do it in a way close to the real world conditions (for instance, privilege open water to your pool).
And that’s about it.
But what’s with my running? and my yoga (dancing, spinning, mud wrestling…) classes? Can’t I do them anymore?
Sure you can. Have fun, knock yourself out! All I’m saying is you probably shouldn’t make it the main form of your GPP—that is, if physical health is still your primary objective.