Child Jumping On Rocks

Are Natural Movement Systems A Fitness Regression?

A few weeks ago Danny Clark, MovNat Performance Director, posted an article titled Is Natural Movement Primitive or Cutting-Edge? It was spawned in response to a comment someone made to him. The comment was:

“Granted any type of exercise is better than no exercise at all, yet, the whole philosophy behind this seems to be missing a crucial point: it’s in our nature to overcome nature, to rise above it. It’s the essence of what makes us human. Regression to primitivism seems to me the most un-“nat” thing imaginable.”

Danny’s response was excellent. But I decided I wanted to write my own response to this point. In a nutshell, I strongly disagree on both of this gentleman’s assertions. But he is right any exercise is better than no exercise!

It’s Human Nature To Overcome Nature

This assertion rests on a fundamental assumption. That humans are separate from nature. This belief creates an antagonistic relationship between nature and us. The idea that we can triumph over nature has led to the ecological disasters we now face.

I’m talking about polluted waterways, fields that could only grow weeds without applied fertilizer, CAFO livestock management, a new continent in the form of waste plastic, and animal extinction rates that have only been seen a few times on our planet.

It’s generally accepted that Homo sapiens, modern humans, have existed for 200,000 years. I have heard some people say there’s now evidence that number may be 300,000 years, but we’ll just go with 200,000. Agriculture has been around about 10,000 years. This is important because agriculture made civilizations possible.

Let’s ask a foundational question about our nature. If overcoming nature is our human nature why did we wait 190,000 years to begin exercising our nature? Agriculture created the mindset of nature as separate and it has not been good to us or our environment. Read American Serengeti if you’d like to learn how this mindset forever changed the American West.

I would argue that it is not in our nature to overcome nature and that currently, humanity is not acting very human. I believe that it is human nature to work with nature and to guide it into systems that are beneficial for humans, other animals, and the ecosystem as a whole. Food forests are a fantastic example of this.

Primitive People Are Inferior Critters

This one is a major pet-peeve of mine. The belief that uncivilized, primitive people are lower forms of life. Having a smartphone and a car does not make a person superior. Indeed there are many things in our modern world that our ancestors could only describe as magic, but there’s more to this story than technology.

If you compare the health of a modern urban human to that of hunter-gatherer societies, you’ll find that it’s no contest. Original human societies hand down beat modern humans. Study after study shows that there are far more health issues for urban humans. On that point alone, I would say that we should pay more attention to “primitive” humans’ lifeways and find ways to better emulate them in the modern world.

If you compare the average American’s ability to move through a complex environment, i.e. not a city street, to an aboriginal person’s ability I think you would find the results embarrassing. Most of us have a movement capacity that is a little better than a toddler.

We now rely on technology to provide for us. Very few of us produce any substantial amount of our own food. Do you know anyone who built their own house? Do you collect water or turn on a faucet? How many people do you know who have the skill to build a fire in the woods using only a match? Or better yet, no match? Modern humans have never existed without fire. It’s a part of our species.

We go to work so we can buy the things we used to procure for ourselves.

Why Isn’t The Gym Superior?

I know, I know… I took a long time to get here. The gym definitely has its uses. But it’s only a small slice of the movement possibilities our bodies can perform. Here’s an example. If you’re right-handed write a sentence with your left hand. Switch it if you’re left-handed.

How’d that go? Probably not very well. You have years writing with your dominant hand. So you have developed very strong neurology to control that movement, whereas you likely have almost none for that movement with your non-dominant hand.

Performing novel movements builds new neurology. But Ben, a squat is a squat is a squat right? Wrong, minor changes in body position and weight form and position make the movement different.

Squatting in the gym involves looking for the same proprioceptive ques every time and trying to stay as close to the prescribed form as possible. Natural movement squatting happens where the environment is a little different every time. That means you have to assess a slightly different situation every time you squat and develop a slightly different squat every time.

A Natural Movement Puzzle

Think about the difference between squatting with a large rock on your shoulder versus squatting with a log on your shoulder. The way the weight reacts to your movement is completely different. What about a long log compared to a short long? Again very different reactions.

Let’s make this simple squat experiment a truly complex movement puzzle. Let’s imagine you need to get a rock that’s laying on the ground to the other side of a creek.

First, you have to deadlift the rock up to your waist, squat down and set the rock on your lap. Next, regrip the rock so you can lift it up to your shoulder. Now stand up with the rock. Last you’re going to walk across a downed tree to get across the river. Check out the video if you want to see different ways to pick up and carry an object

Do you have the movement skill to pull this maneuver off? This small puzzle is far more complex and challenging than just squatting with a bar on your back. How would it change if you were carrying a log instead of a rock? You probably wouldn’t even get it on your shoulder the same way.

True, someone who regularly squats in a gym will pick this up faster than someone who doesn’t train at all. But you don’t get the neurological benefits without performing the novel movements regularly.

Now, I get that most of you don’t “need” to complete the above puzzle in your life. That’s fair. The problem is your body needs these puzzles to stay healthy. I rather liked Danny’s point that we go to work to buy things that do the work our body needs, and then go to the gym to simulate the movement we just replaced.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Let have a discussion! Comment with your opinion.

Further Reading:

How Long Have Homo Sapiens Existed?

Why Food Forests?

Human Ancestors Tamed Fire Earlier Than Thought

American Serengeti by Dan Flores


Featured Image by Jaro Larnos

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