A New Understanding of Fitness and the Human Body
Until recently, it was thought that a human being could be perfectly healthy eating only parts of food, as long as they were in sufficient quantities and ratios. The nutrient model of diet claimed that we simply needed sufficient protein, carbohydrates, and fats, plus vitamins, in order to be healthy. Foods were broken down, proteins, vitamins, and minerals extracted, removed, concentrated, and added back in sufficient quantities. We had mastered the science of nutrition and were entering a golden age of health and convenience.
So much for that…the nutrient model has been discredited lately, as it became more and more obvious that the benefits of whole foods, eaten fresh and close to the source, simply could not be copied by even the most carefully scientifically balanced meals. Sometimes this was because of the limits of our technology, but just as often, there were factors we hadn’t even identified that seemed to make the difference between health-promoting and obesity-inducing food.
Fitness and exercise is where nutrition was a few years ago. We are only now starting to pull out of the mistaken belief that movement-related health can be broken down into its constituent parts and fed in concentrations to promote certain kinds of growth. Happily, we have mostly discarded the notion that the body can respond to training muscles in isolation on weight machines. Unfortunately, we still pull movement apart into elements like strength, speed, power, agility, coordination, balance, and flexibility, just as we used to think of food only in terms of its proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
We are paying for this in potential vitality left untapped. We try to cultivate our bodies by picking and choosing movement elements, training them to extreme degrees in order to derive health. This is exactly the same thing as picking a few kinds of foods and eating a ton of them in order to get enough of the elements you need for health. It is a better strategy to eat a variety of unaltered foods; what one food lacks another will have in abundance. It might also be a better strategy to engage in a variety of holistic movements rather than confining yourself to just a few. You’d have to develop your weightlifting to quite an advanced degree to become even half as flexible as an intermediate Yogi. On the other hand, becoming strong in comparison to a lifter or a gymnast takes a Yogi a very long time.
Which elements are at play running through a forest, climbing over boulders, ducking under fallen trees, hauling yourself up a cliff face, carrying a log, and sprinting down a rock strewn hillside? All of them.
We think we have mastered the science of developing the body, when in reality, the greatest bodies every crafted were done so without all this picking and choosing. They simply existed naturally, moving holistically in the way nature intended. They were strong, fast, flexible, durable, and beautiful. And they didn’t have the luxury of our science and exquisite programming. They ate whole animals, and they engaged in whole movement.
Dissatisfaction Sets In
After two years of CrossFit, I was ready to strike out on my own. I was strong and tough, but I would watch videos like this one and feel clumsy in comparison, like I was ignoring a whole set of abilities and my body was getting creaky from neglect. I just didn’t feel like the training was getting me where I wanted to be. I went back to basics, essentially trying to boil down the physical abilities of the human body all the way to the fundamentals. I wanted to build up a fitness program from scratch, custom built for my own interests, goals, and inclinations.
I knew that the best exercise programs were those that used the body in the way it was meant to be used. As an example, I spent years doing stability ball pushups and exercise machines, but saw no change in my strength, attitude, or appearance until I started doing whole-body functional movements that resembled things I might actually do with my body. The further a movement is from the way the body was designed to be moved, the less useful it is and the less likely it is to produce vitality. Vitality and health were the ultimate goal because that meant the human organism was fulfilling its purpose.
Fitness and health, therefore, were not things to be squeezed out of the body, but rather things to be coaxed out of it with the right conditions. To grow a healthy plant, you have to provide it with the conditions most suitable to its growth. Then you just let it do its thing. Create within and around yourself the right conditions, and you can’t help but grow towards your potential.
What Does Work
Based on this observation, which was verified from experience, I thought that the composition of an exercise program was as important as the types of movements it included. I wasn’t going to pretend that I knew what humans evolved doing all day in the Pleistocene, nor was I going to pretend that I could extrapolate appropriate movements in the modern world. But what I could do was examine what range of movements we were capable of now.
Over the course of a week, I doodled, sketched, and brainstormed on my iPad, and I came up with a list of ‘things the body can do’ that was disturbingly distant from most every fitness program in use. Movements fell into several broad categories:
- locomotion (running, walking, crawling, swimming)
- climbing (up or down)
- tumbling/avoidance (rolls, flips, general damage avoidance)
- lifting/carrying (picking up heavy things or people and moving them)
- throwing (launching projectiles)
While this list was not necessarily the total picture of human movement, and of course my categories were still categories rather than unifications of movement, the overall picture seemed to suggest that weightlifting, the mainstay of modern fitness, was only a small part of what the human body was capable of.
It also suggested that there were a lot of things we can do that require learning and practice, like climbing trees, which are as much about technique as strength.
In my model, there were only two categories that involved moving external weights, and only one of those involved what we might describe as weightlifting. Most of my categories involved moving the body through space.
So why weren’t people doing this to train for health?
I eventually came to the conclusion that fitness programs were often selected not for their effectiveness, but for their ease of application. It is relatively easy to make someone strong through weightlifting, and as long as the activities they engage in were fairly basic, it was strength that was mostly functional. CrossFit, which at first seemed to accept no substitutes for effective exercise, now seemed to cherry pick its movements because they could be applied in large group settings and in minimalist gym environments.
Any way I tried to look at it, there was no way I could make weightlifting as prominent in the library of human movement as it has been in the field of exercise. Thus, it occurred to me that the best suite of activities for health should maintain similar proportions. There ought to be a strong emphasis on development of movement ability.
The Fitness Community Moves to a New Standard
When I read Lon Kilgore’s excellent new book on training, Fit, I noticed a similar structure in the chapter on mixed-modality training. While he recommends barbells as the most efficient way to develop strength, he suggests trainees limit themselves to bodyweight movements for general conditioning until they have advanced past a particular point.
I also ran across a similar idea in the method that inspired me so long ago, MovNat. MovNat’s system is based on a pyramid of movement, with the manipulation of external objects near the top, supported on a wide foundation of basic body awareness and self-movement.
In the same way that isolating a muscle in order to develop it is counterpproductive, it seems to me that isolating any aspect of the human body eventually becomes pointless. Developing strength without the skill to apply it, or flexibility without balance, or speed without strength, or the body without the brain, leaves gaping holes and imbalances that eventually lead to health issues.
Muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, and even the nervous system function together in order to move the body in space. We can hack the system to an extent in order to isolate strength, or flexibility, or balance, and develop these things more directly. However, doing this is akin to .
Strength exists to move the body, after all, and even weightlifting is ultimately effective because it makes our muscles better at moving the bones. Without strong muscles, we cannot move easily, but without movement, we have no need for muscles anyway. And learning how to move well and efficiently lets us use our muscles to better effect, so we get more mileage. The same goes for other abilities like flexibility and speed. They all exist in order to move the body.
The usual approach of get stronger and bigger muscles, at the expense of the Skill of Moving, is the equivalent of having a car with square tires and trying to fix the problem by building a bigger engine. It would make more sense and save gas to simply change the tires.
It would be better, I thought, to focus on human movements, which, by their nature, require all elements of the human organism to be coordinated. Strength applied to balance, flexibility applied to directed purpose, and speed applied to intention.
Not all of us have the luxury of running around in the woods, carrying logs and diving off of rocks, but we all can and should take a step towards a more holistic view of human movement.
- If you’re still on weight machines, now is the time to learn how to lift weights or do calisthenics using your entire body as one unit.
- If you’re a dedicated specialist, adding a different exercise will fill in gaps that your chosen sport has left unfilled. Runners, who have to do lots and lots of hill sprints to develop strength, will find their legs more powerful within a few weeks of weightlifting.
- If you’re already a fairly well-rounded athlete, you probably don’t need the advice to seek out more integrated forms of movement, but here’s a reminder anyway.
Just as we should always be trying to eat close to the sources, we should always be trying to engage in movements that are as comprehensive as possible.
I’ve written a handbook explaining my experiences with fitness and the role I think it should play in our lives. I have seen too many people who find themselves at war with themselves over their own health. I have also become really fed up with the fitness industry misleading people to make a profit. I’d like to clear away some of the myths and the lies, and present a vision of health that does not involve self-destructive exercise or starvation. My goal is to explain the fitness and diet aspects of health in a way that lets you make your own decisions. If anything in this article resonated with you, check out my ebook (it’s free).
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(photo credit: Marco Gomes on Flickr)