MovNat - Explore Your True Nature
MovNat - Expolore Your True Nature

I’ve decided to take a bit of a different approach to this post on the MovNat seminar in Edinburgh last weekend.

Chris at Conditioning research has already written a great review of what went on in the workshop, and Rannoch has a fantastic interview with Erwan up at his Simple Strength site.

Suffice it to say, I found the seminar inspiring and invaluable – Erwan is the perfect ambassador for the evolutionary fitness movement; eloquent, passionate, charismatic, and I would highly recommend that if you get the chance you should definitely get yourself to one of his courses.

One of the biggest revelations for me was Erwan’s insight into the importance of our interaction with an enriched environment and the use of imagination in training.

As human beings we evolved with constantly changing environments, situations and conditions, to which we constantly had to adapt.  Our modern lives have become stagnant through routine and uniformity.  Our environments have become standardised and sanitised – Free from risk and danger, but also from stimulation and variety.

Erwan recognises that it is not practical for everyone to go and live in the woods, but that it is possible for us to enrich our environments with a little imagination.  He talked of how when children play, they make up stories such as “this area is a pit full of scorpions, here is on fire” etc, but as adults (or zoo humans) we are conditioned out of doing this.  I have talked about this loss of imagination myself on numerous occasions, but realised I have never actually done a great deal about it!

To put this into context, at Primal Fitness we do many different types of jumping – Broad jumps, box jumps, jumping obstacles, jumping to grab the frame etc, but we are always still in the comfort of the gym.  If you don’t jump quite as far on your broad jump, or you stumble when you land, there are no consequences.  In “real life” if you were having to do a broad jump it would be to clear a gap or obstacle, and may require landing on a small/unstable area.  Not making the distance or failing to stick the landing could result in injury or even death!

When doing broad jumps in the seminar Erwan marked out specific landing and take off sites and had us imagine we were leaping a precipice to land on a narrow ledge, a small but subtle difference that is difficult to convey without experiencing it for yourself.

This small change in psychology within the gym, in turn inspires you to actually go out and experience movement in different environments – If just imagining an enriched environment can revolutionise your workout, just think what actually getting out there and exploring and testing your skills can do for you.  Indeed, Erwan encourages you to gradually push your comfort zones, manipulating risk and danger as any other coach would volume or intensity.

This need for adaptability soon became very apparent to me in the workshop part of the seminar.  I regularly train muscle ups in Primal, both on the monkey frame and on the rings.  However in the seminar, we were required to climb up onto a circular beam, rather like a smooth tree branch.  Although I was able to climb up into a support position, it was in a rather ungainly and undignified manner, more of a struggle up than a muscle up!

This leads me on to the main focus of this post.

To really get a handle on Erwan’s training philosophy behind MovNat, I thought it would be useful to compare it to two of the other apparently very different training philosophies in the strength and conditioning world – Functional Training, as popularised by Mike Boyle, and HIT (High Intensity Training) derived training as advocated by Doug McGuff in his book Body by Science.

One of the driving philosophies behind MovNat is that one should focus on developing specific skills and abilities, rather than generic strength and conditioning.  For example you could well be great at doing pull ups, but inept at actually climbing.  If you become good at climbing, however, you will invariably develop the ability to do pull ups.

What I find particularly interesting, is how this concept of the application of strength as having a significant skill component, and the S.A.I.D principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) is central to all of these different training philosophies.  The actual application, however, could not be more different.

Essentially, all three camps agree that in order to be able to perform a specific movement or skill one needs the combination of sufficient physical muscle, plus the inter and intra muscular co-ordination necessary to make said muscle perform the required action.

A good analogy for this would be to think of a computer.  The muscle itself is like the hardware – A muscular individual is like a PC with a fast processor, lots of RAM and a large hard disk.  While this is all well and good, even the most powerful PC is little use without any software.  What good is a super computer if the only program installed is solitaire?

Where the three training philosophies differ is on how powerful the PC needs to be, and what software needs to be installed.

In Body by Science, McGuff proposes that in just 12 minutes per week, you can build muscle throughout the entire body using what he terms “The Big 5”.  He argues that by performing just one set to failure of horizontal and vertical presses and pulls and either a set of leg presses or squats, one can build and maintain enough muscle to look good on the beach, and to be able to maintain sufficient health, strength and mobility into old age.

Although the thought of using resistance machines, training to failure, and a lack of any core training or single leg work might sound like heresy to the fans of functional training, in reality Mike Boyle’s view is not too dissimilar to that of McGuff.  In terms of movements, Boyle simply identifies a few more patterns that he feels should be trained – Rather than just training the squat or leg press, Boyle breaks lower body training down into hip and quad dominant movements, and emphasises the importance of unilateral training, as this is more similar to “real life movements” .  He also focuses on the importance of training the core muscles to resist flexion and rotation.  We have moved from a big 5 to a big 8-10, all done with free weights of course, as these are more functional.

In theory an individual performing such a program should have the necessary strength, skill, balance and co-ordination to perform any physical task they are likely to be faced with in the modern world, look good naked, and be free from the back and joint pain caused by an otherwise sedentary life style.  If the individual plays a sport, they may well be prescribed additional “pre-hab” work to maintain structural balance between their muscles.

In MovNat, Erwan recommends developing proficiency in 12 broad ranging movement categories; crawling, walking, running, climbing, jumping, swimming, balancing, lifting, carrying, throwing, catching and fighting.

To put things in perspective, all the movements recommended by McGuff and Boyle would only cover a small percentage of the movements that fall into the one category “lifting”.

The functional training camp often look down at body builders with their “fake” muscle, asking what use is it if they don’t have the skill to use it to deadlift a heavy barbell, or even lift their own bodyweight in a strict full range pull up?

From a MovNat perspective though, being able to deadlift a barbell or do a pull up in the gym has little more functional cross over than being able to perform a leg press or a lat pull down when it comes to trying to lift and carry a cumbersome rock on uneven ground, or to actually climb up a tree.

In MovNat therefore, all conditioning is developed through specific skill practice, rather than the use of any generic physical training.  There are so many movements to practice, it makes no sense to devote time to building unskilled muscle that serves no functional purpose.

The real difference between the three different training modalities is not how to train, but why.

In Body by Science, McGuff has identified the minimum “dose” of exercise necessary to prevent the body from degenerating.  In McGuff’s view of the world, actual physical activity is no longer really necessary, and health and fitness should be preserved in the most risk free, time efficient manner, so that you still have plenty of time to “live your life”.

Boyle argues that there is more to being fit than simply having sufficient muscle mass to prevent disease.  By spending 3-4 hours in the gym per week training functionally, you can develop sufficient real world strength and fitness to be able to perform any tasks you are likely to encounter in the modern world, while maintaining a proper structural balance between your muscles and thus avoiding back and joint pain.

Although when compared to each other, these two approaches seem diametrically opposed, when contrasted with MovNat one can see that really they are both based on the same core precept:  What is the minimum time and risk I need to devote to training my body in the gym, in order to maximise my physical health and longevity in a modern world?

What sets the MovNat philosophy apart from other training philosophies, is that it is really a philosophy of life. Erwan does not perceive a dichotomy between body and mind.  The body is not simply a vehicle for carrying around your brain that must be periodically exercised to stop it degrading, we are a human animal that must move and interact with a varied environment as we evolved to, in order to thrive, not just physically but emotionally too.

Rather than try to reduce the total number of movements we need to do to the bare minimum, MovNat takes the opposite approach and requires the individual to try and find as many different and varied ways to move as possible.

Erwan acknowledges that in the modern world the chances that one will actually have to sprint from danger, leap to safety or fight for your survival are slim to none.  He also makes no pretences that even if you did face such danger, that any amount of MovNat training would guarantee your chance of escape.  What he does believe though, is that on some deep psychological level this sense of readiness is deeply rewarding and part of being alive.

This is what MovNat is really about – Experiencing life to its fullest potential.  While HIT and Functional training are all about minimising risk, MovNat is about managing risk.  To fully “Explore Your True Nature” as Erwan puts it, you must continually strive to expand your comfort zone.  This is not to say that you should go out and recklessly endanger yourself by trying to leap a gaping chasm on your first session, but that as you develop your skills and abilities, you should put them to the test to see what you are truly made of.

To use another analogy, these training methods can be likened to fight training.  Body by Science would be the equivalent to doing a session of traditional Karate once a week.  Punching and kicking the air will keep you fit, and may even give you a sense of confidence, but if you actually find yourself in a bad spot down a dark alley its not going to be much use (though if you avoid dark alleys maybe this isn’t a problem?).

Functional training is more like MMA.  Many traditional martial artists got a serious wake up call when they actually tested their skills in the early mixed martial arts competitions.  They found they needed a much broader range of skills than they imagined, and that even applying the skills they had already was a totally different experience when someone was actually trying to kick the proverbial out of you!

MMA is marketed as “As Real As it Gets”.  In reality though, it is still a long way from being in actual physical combat.  There are rules to follow, a referee, protective equipment, a matted floor and you know who your opponent is in advance and that he’ll be roughly matched in skill and weight.

If MovNat were to be compared to a fighting style, it would be to have the mentality of Tyler Durden from Fight Club, with the skill set of Jason Bourne!  Prepared for any eventuality, but participating for the pure experience – Not for sport/competition/status.

I’m sure that the idea of possessing all these skills does appeal to most people on some level, but most people simply “don’t have the time”to acquire them.

For most of their practitioners, HIT and Functional training are both viewed as necessary investments in time, that will pay dividends in the future – Whether it be looking good on the beach next year, lifting that trophy at the end of the season, or still being able to walk to the shops when you finally retire at 85…

MovNat is different as it is the actual process of training itself that is the reward.  Although you may have goals – To be able to climb a certain route, jump a specific obstacle etc – MovNat is about living in the here and now, experiencing life through physical interaction with your environment.  If you climb the route/jump the obstacle there will always be more routes and obstacles to explore, but even if you never surmount them, the process of trying is what really gives the reward.

My question is, if you do decide to go the Body by Science route, and do all your training with 5 movements in 12 minutes per week, what are you going to do with the rest of your time?  Get some over-time in at the office?  Watch some more TV?  Go to a shopping centre and buy more stuff?  In my opinion, none of these activities will be anywhere near as gratifying or rewarding.  How about spending more time with family and friends?  This is an excuse I often hear for not training, but I can think of no better way to spend time with your kids than teaching them to climb trees, throw and catch and swim!

My advice to any “human animal” reading this is to begin to “explore your true nature”.  Use your imagination and start interacting with your environment, incorporating all the different categories of movement that your body is able to perform.  Don’t ask yourself what exercise do I have to do, but instead what could I do?

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

10 comments

  1. This is an interesting discussion.

    I’ve spent the last couple of years considering these “dueling” philosophies (MovNat, BBS, Crossfit, etc.) in an attempt to discern the proper training regimen for a person (me) whose fitness goals include general fitness, lean muscle mass, flexibility, balance and a skill set similar to MovNat (i.e. running, climbing, jumping, swimming, etc.).

    Initially, Crossfit seemed the likely fit, considering its focus on “functional”, all-around fitness. However, the perceived risk of either immediate or delayed injury from performing deadlifts, pull-ups and kettle bell swings for time was a deterrent. Also, the idea of mixing strength training with skill development, while originally appealing, lost its initial luster. The concept hinges on skill transference between strength-building exercises and real-life movements, but there is little scientific evidence to support such a claim, and much to refute it.

    At some time during my Crossfit phase, I discovered Body By Science and the theory of HIT, which presented a completely different philosophy for fitness. In BBS, Dr. McGuff argues that strength training and skill development are two different activities, and never the twain shall meet. Exercising, according to McGuff, should be a brief, intense, infrequent and safe activity. While you correctly characterized McGuff’s assertion that the BBS approach is all any person “needs” for baseline health and fitness, I don’t know that he’s arguing for shiftlessness or complacency when not in the gym. HIT is simply a time-efficient and safe way to develop simple strength and cardiovascular health, leaving more time for other fitness goals and physical pursuits, if one so wishes.

    As for MovNat, I’m curious, but skeptical. Your write-up has further piqued my interest, in any event. The argument initially seems valid and logical, but I’d like to see some clinical results to back up the philosophy. But, it is interesting.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. awsome article. even as a movnat alumni, sometimes you find yourself training more strength than skills then you have to just step back and rethink and go to basics. the days i feel it was too easy or fun, i feel the next day more improvement uin my overall strentgh, mood and health in general. Even your performance at work or your attitude during the day changes so much after doing movnat style workout. thanks for the article reminding us the basics.

  3. Simon,

    What an excellent overview.

    “Don’t ask yourself what exercise do I have to do, but instead what could I do?” captures the whole philosophy perfectly. I think we all struggle with different agendas, trying to make out training achieve numerous goals, sometimes ignoring the simple art of moving and moving well.

    Certainly, as far as sustainable pratice is concerned, we have to look beyond abs of steel and PR lifts and really get to grips with our “true nature”.

  4. good post. i visited Erwan in West Virginia this summer and I’m seeing him again in Thailand in January. You are right that the philosophy is largely about risk and its proper assessment. This can actually be taken and expanded upon into your entire life really well.

  5. That is a great piece. I really agree with you analysis regarding HIT. I get some flak for highlighting both HIT and MovNat on my blog but I think that the principles do not contradict. You can build strength with HIT but you need to develop skills to apply that strength in real life and that is where movnat comes in.

  6. You pretty much just described Parkour in this article 🙂
    I’ve been doing it for over 2 and a half years now and in a nutshell your article is what I do, and I do find a greater sense of achievement and accomplishment comes from overcoming my obstacles, both physically and mentally.

  7. You’ve nailed it. I have been following the Movnat “movement” for a couple of years now and your post is the best encapsulation of the philosophy I have read to date.

  8. I’ve been trying to get more in movnat and learn as much about it as as i can and this article does a great job of illuminating some of the philosophies that make it different from fitness. I did Crossfit for the same reasons as jerod, and left for similar reasons, and movnat or Parkour, with the mind body connection and the insistence on learning skills rather than training movements, both appeal very strongly. Hopefully, with the principles you explain I’ll be able to get more authentic practice in until I can take a workshop.

  9. Can’t believe I only just found this article! I certified as a MovNat trainer with a friend of yours in London a few months back. This is probably the best write up regarding MovNat that I’ve come across. Happy new year to you and Primal Fitness! Keep up the sterling work.

    1. Thanks Matt!

      Hope you enjoyed the cert. I’ve only done the one day seminar so far myself in snowy Edinburgh.

      Need to save some pennies and go do a week in Thailand I think, get away from this miserable Manchester winter!

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