Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Part I of this series examined the efficacy of “functional training” and came to the conclusion that in reality there may be little benefit to athletes performing protracted free weights programs in the hope of improving their performance at their sport, and that they may in fact do better with a super minimalist machine based routine, and devoting more time to practising their chosen discipline or simply getting extra recovery time.

Part II looked at pulls from the floor such as deadlifts and cleans, and why there is a strong argument for them to be a part of everyone’s training routine in some form, regardless of their goals, due to their practical application in everyday life, and injury prevention benefits.

Part III is going to look at the Bench Press, and other stalwarts of the weights room, and whether they can take a place in Primal Fitness 2.0?

With my current knowledge, if designing a strength and conditioning program for a professional athlete, it would follow something similar to the following format:

>Soft Tissue and Mobility Work to Warm Up

>Pull From the Floor (Deadlift or Clean variation)

>HIT Resistance Routine (Legs, upper body push/pull, and core)

>HIIT Finisher – I.e. 1 x 4 min Tabata Series

The aim would be to complete this routine in under 45 mins once every 4-10 days depending on the athletes goals, demands of their sport and their individual recovery capacity.

As I made clear in Part I, I would never recommend a professional athlete perform back squats, snatches, bench presses or any other such exercises, as they will have minimal impact on their performance, and all carry a relatively high injury risk.

This does not mean, however, that I think that no one should perform these exercises.

Human beings are meant to move. In order to properly express our phenotype, we need to be active on a daily basis. The key to optimum health, well-being, performance and appearance is finding the right balance of frequency, intensity, duration and type.

There is a bell curve relationship between activity and health. Being sedentary is certain to end in poor health, both physically and mentally, but on the flip side, too much activity at too high an intensity is equally likely to end up in pain and physical degeneration. The solution is to find that sweet spot in the middle!

Most sports place a very high demand on the body, and come with inherent risks. Repetitive movements and sports related injuries can all take a toll on the body. Adding more stress and injury risk with a highly demanding supplemental training program is definitely not a good idea.

But what about those of us who are not professional athletes? Should we too limit our program to the minimalist routine outlined above and avoid these potentially risky weights room movements?

Human beings evolved to run, jump, climb, balance, swim, lift, carry, throw and fight – This is the fundamental principle that underlies Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat. He argues that although we may not necessarily need these skills any more in order to survive in the modern world, one cannot thrive without allowing your body to move naturally.

Whilst a stand alone minimalist training program such as the one outlined above may be enough to prevent metabolic derangement, back and joint problems, and physical degeneration, there is a lot more to a full life than simply avoiding disease!

MovNat is about exploring your limits, pushing your boundaries and finding out what you are capable of. The benefits are as much psychological, or spiritual if you prefer, as they are physical.

I personally love MovNat – I like the variety, the way it tests your imagination, and the fact that it is as much, if not more, about the process rather than the end result.

Is it practical for everyone though? Perhaps not. To be proficient in all those disciplines takes time that not many of us have today. In fact, I doubt any humans were ever masters of all those disciplines – It would depend upon their environment and their individual genetics. Hunter-Gatherers that lived in forests might be expert tree climbers, those that lived by the sea or rivers fantastic swimmers, persistence hunters on the plains tremendous distance runners.

In terms of movements, sports can encompass many of the same elements as MovNat – Running, jumping, climbing, throwing, lifting etc. Of course this makes perfect sense, as it is likely that sports initially developed in order to help train the skills necessary for hunting and fighting.

One possible criticism of sport is that it is too specialised – The argument being that humans evolved as generalists, their day to day lives requiring a huge variety of skills and movement patterns in ever changing environments.

Though this argument may have some grounds, I think that in reality, physical specialisation by individuals is more than likely older than sport itself. Humans have become one of the most successful species on the planet not only due to our ability to adapt to every environment, but also through our ability to collaborate and work collectively.

Within a tribe is it not more likely that there would have been an individual who was stronger than the rest that would have done the heavy lifting, a skilled climber for collecting honey, an endurance legend for leading the persistence hunt and so on? This would explain the large variation in muscle fibre types and somatatypes still present within populations.

For me, the main problem with sport is not necessarily the specialisation, but the focus on winning, and/or accomplishing a specific outcome. The goal of sport has become about the attainment of something external – Be it a prize, recognition, status or a predetermined outcome such as achieving a certain bench mark, rather than the purer pursuit of the love of the process itself and the physical development that comes with it.

I believe that human beings thrive on personal challenge. To test your limits, take risks, push yourself to new levels, and accomplish new feats are all great things. There is definitely something Primal about trying to run as far and as fast as possible, to climb an imposing rock face, to lift a seemingly immovable weight.

When these activities become sports, however, the focus can change from loving the process itself – Simply being in the moment whilst running the trails, being on the rock face or even in the gym, to an over importance being placed on the outcome. The need to finish the race under a certain time, or before another individual, to claim the first ascent, or to be the strongest in the gym, can change the emphasis of the activity from a fun, enjoyable and enriching endeavour, to a high pressure, stressful one.

So what on earth does all this have to do with the bench press?

Weightlifting became a sport in the 19th Century, with the Clean and Jerk, Snatch and Press first featuring in the Olympics in 1896. Powerlifting started in the US in the 1950s, where the Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press first became standardised lifts with rules and regulations.

Although the majority of these lifts can be considered neither functional, nor practical (even the clean and deadlift aren’t really practical at the immense weights seen in competitions), there is certainly something Primal about the desire to challenge your body and test the limits of human strength.

Though it is true that there is no practical need to lift a heavy weight above your head and hold it there, or pick up a barbell only to put it down again in exactly the same spot, the same could be said for any physical activity done for sport or enjoyment, even MovNat!

There is no longer any real need to climb a tree or a mountain, to be able to jump over a wall or run a long distance. You will more than likely never be required to do any of these activities. That doesn’t mean, however, that practising these movements cannot give you pleasure, and achieving new personal bests can’t be deeply satisfying.

Lifting weights, like any other physical activity, can be a highly rewarding pastime, both physically and mentally, providing the motivation behind it is in the right place.

You should lift weights, because you want to lift weights – You enjoy the process itself, and the satisfaction gained from seeing yourself get stronger. Practise the Bench Press, because you enjoy Bench Pressing, and you want to see how much you personally can lift, same for the squat, the press and the snatch, or any other feat of strength you find yourself drawn to.

Prior to the formalisation of Weight-Lifting into a sport in the 19th Century, there was a movement known as “Physical Culture”, which I believe had many more parallels to the philosophies embodied in MovNat and Primal Fitness than the standardised sports of Olympic Lifting and Powerlifting.

Physical culture was concerned with finding a balance between health, aesthetics and human performance. Rather than being limited to a few standardised lifts, participants challenged themselves with a wide variety of different physical challenges that were as much about imagination and individuality as they were about being strong. Legendary Physical Culturists such as Eugene Sandow, could not only lift huge weights, whilst maintaining amazing physiques (prior to the invention of supplements and steroids I might add), but could also perform acrobatics and astounding feats of balance and skill.

Unfortunately, for many, lifting weights is no longer about a journey of self discovery, but about being able to lift more than John Smith at the gym, or hitting some arbitrary benchmark target weight.

It is my belief that providing you are active, it doesn’t matter so much what you do – Be it MovNat, Physical Culture, or a Sport, be it Triathlon, Powerlifting or Squash – But rather how and why you are doing it.

If you are doing MovNat solely because you want to look like Erwan when wearing a pair of surf shorts, or have become overly obsessed with being able to jump further, sprint faster and lift more than the people you are training with, you are missing out on the true benefits.

Conversely, if you are playing a sport, just for the love of it, not because you feel you have to, or to achieve any specific goal, status or extrinsic reward, the rewards can be much greater than simply “keeping your heart healthy” or “burning calories”.

So ask yourself why am I doing what I’m doing?

>To look better?

The key to looking better is less fat, more muscle. The best way to reduce fat is through good diet. The most efficient way to build muscle is through a minimalist resistance training program as outlined here.

Adding extra activities may help you burn extra calories, thus aiding the fat loss – But the effect is relatively minimal, so make sure it’s something you enjoy doing anyway.

Strength sports such as weightlifting and gymnastics will help build muscle, but just be aware it is not the safest, fastest or most efficient way to do so. Do them because you enjoy them, and view any muscle gain as an added bonus!

>Because you feel you have to?

Life is too short, and too precious, to spend your days doing something you don’t enjoy while you are doing it. Unfortunately we have developed an attitude of “pay now, live later” when it comes to “exercise” for health and longevity.

Put the dull boring repetitive hours in the gym now, so that you can avoid getting sick later in life is the sales pitch for most conventional exercise programs.

No wonder people don’t use their gym memberships!

Movement and activity should be fun in its own right – It should give you pleasure there and then. Better health, well-being and longevity should be a happy side effect.

>Because you want to compete against others?

This is a more difficult question, and I have very mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, competition can be good as it raises the bar for all involved. Under competition conditions people run faster, jump father, lift more, this is true.

But the dark side of competition is that it has the potential to take the fun out of the activity. If every work out is about new PRs, becoming the best, and winning at all costs, it can actually start to add stress to your life, rather than relieve it.

If you are a professional athlete, then perhaps this isn’t an issue, as you don’t have the stress from another job to deal with, but if you are simply a weekend warrior you are potentially losing most of the benefit.

Again, I feel that it is all in your perception. Competitive sports can be great providing you have a relaxed attitude to them: You enjoy the training, and you enjoy competing. You are inspired by those better than you, and want to help improve those that aren’t. You perform as well as you can on the day, but your happiness is not hinged on where you place, or what other people think of your performance.

So to summarise, the key to Primal Fitness is to use your body to its full potential. Whether you choose to practice MovNat, Physical Culture, Climb a mountain, compete in an Iron Man, play a team sport or simply throw a Frisbee around in the park with some friends, the important thing is attitude:

>Challenge Yourself – Keep trying to reach new levels of skill, strength and endurance

>Get outdoors – The more activity you can do outside the better. More than just getting vitamin D, being out in nature has been shown to have a multitude of benefits

>Have Fun – Much more important that breaking bench marks and winning medals. If you’re not smiling and laughing on a regular basis, what’s the point of living to 100?

>Share the Fun – There’s nothing wrong with some solo pursuits, but Primal activities are also a great way to socialise, break down barriers, make friends and form strong bonds

For more info on the importance of Play, I’d strongly recommend checking out this video by Mark Sisson:

“Play: A lost art” by Mark Sisson from Ancestry on Vimeo.

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

4 comments

  1. hi simon really enjoy your blog and have taken onboard alot of your eating advice. with regards to the current article i have a few questions, soft tissue work, is this with a foam roller? the HIT resistance routine, could this be as mark sissons big 5 exercices ? good article thanks. jason

    1. Hi Jason,
      Glad you’re finding the blog useful! Re your questions:

      Soft tissue work with a foam rollerpvc pipetennis ball.

      Doug McGuff Big 5 good for HIT: Leg press + horizontalvertical push and pull + isometric core.

      More posts to come with more details soon.

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