If it is important, do it every day,” advises Dan John, one of the world’s best strength coaches, in his seminal 2009 book Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning. Simple, yet hugely profound. To give the quote some context, what he is referring to are the “primal pattern” human movements—the basic ranges of motion the human body is capable of, without which humans would not have survived their environment. John, and physical trainers and coaches around the world, feel that every person should be proficient in these physical movements: squatting, lunging, bending and lifting something off the ground, walking while carrying a weight, pushing, pulling, and some explosive movements like jumping.
Paul Chek, one of the foremost experts in high-performance exercise kinesiology (how the body should move during exercise), who has trained everyone from the American basketball team Chicago Bulls to the US air force, feels the human body learnt to perform these primal pattern movements quickly during the years of early evolution to survive in the wild. For instance, without squatting properly on the floor, it is difficult to imagine lighting a good fire in the open. In fact, the squatting pattern remains, in many ancient cultures, a preferred positional stance for performing a number of functions like prayers, ablutions, healing techniques, etc. Our urban lifestyles have moved very far away from our developmental ancestors, but mastering these primal movements still remains essential to making our bodies strong and injury-free.
The bend-and-pick pattern is used consistently by construction workers, nurses, parents (picking up a baby). Like all primal pattern movements, bending and picking remains an integral part of our daily lives, and if we can’t do it properly, we are likely to injure ourselves. For early man, lunging was an essential pattern for negotiating with uneven and challenging terrain. Today, we can recognize lunge patterns in most sports. In an athlete, failure to lunge properly can compound knee problems.
Gyms and motion issues
For most urban people, the first choice for exercise is the modern box-like franchised gym with all sorts of gadgets and machines which do very little to promote motor patterns compatible to our primal motions. In fact, they are notorious for destroying these motor patterns and developing certain other movements that are completely non-functional—like the bicep curl, which has little practical use apart from giving you big muscles where you don’t really need it.
I have noticed that people who come to train with me without having ever gone to a gym before perform better than those who are frequent visitors to a gym. In fact, some regular gym users are complete motion disasters.
The average person working long hours in the office is motion deprived and functionally challenged, in terms of the ability to do basic body movements such as running or lifting heavy objects, to begin with. In most people, the prime movers, i.e. muscles such as the quadriceps, glutes, lower back and shoulders, become dormant due to lack of activity and slowly the peripheral muscles begin to compensate, thereby “hijacking” the functions of the prime movers. My challenge as a trainer is always to get a person to do the most functional training—strengthening the primal pattern movements to make a person truly fit across a range of activities.
Get out of the gym
Once in a while, the more often the better, get out of the claustrophobic world of the gym and train your primal pattern movements in the open—your neighbourhood park, the parking lot, an empty garage, your own or a friend’s garden or patio, steps or a bridge or just any urban structure that tickles your physically creative side.
Here is a 20-minute fitness regime out in the open that challenges all your primal pattern movements. Try carrying a knapsack with about 5kg of weight (don’t carry hard objects like dumbbells that can hurt you, carry soft-cover books instead) on your back to add a resistance element to your training.
• Learn to climb
For two-and-a-half- million years, we were hunter-gatherers and have merely been agriculture based for 10,000 years or so. Swiftly climbing a tree was one way for our early ancestors to avoid predators. Although we don’t face the same threats in our urban lives, our bodies are largely unchanged and need the stimulus of such movements to stay in proper working shape. Hang a strong, thick rope from an overhead structure, or the strong, big branch of a tree, and develop your climbing skills by hauling yourself up. When confident, try it on a strong tree in your neighbourhood park or garden. Used as a training technique by the military and by wrestlers, this builds immense overall body strength and stamina.
• Box or chair jumps
Jump on to a box, chair or park bench, or a low, wide wall which is around waist-high. Jump up explosively with both feet, and concentrate on landing with good balance, with your back straight and your knees parallel to each other. Do this 15 times, and rest for 15 seconds. That’s one set. Perform three sets. Jumps are great for building explosive leg strength and lung power
• Sprint, don’t jog
Have you ever seen any animal in the wild jogging? Learn to move fast! Sprint or even walk fast from one lamp post to another, then rest for a few seconds. Repeat for 4-5 minutes. Early man hunted hard, and then rested. He did not trot out endless reps! Compare this to the modern gym where people spend a lifetime on a treadmill or forever on the step machine, without significant aerobic gains.
• Push, then pull
Find an overhead horizontal rod for performing pull-ups. You’ll find them in parks or even at bus stops. Drop to the ground and perform 10-15 push-ups, then alternate with 10 or 15 pull-ups. This develops both sides of the shoulder capsule and keeps the scapular muscles balanced. To make the push-ups more challenging, you could plant your feet approximately 12 inches up a wall (perhaps your neighbour’s backyard wall).
• Wall squats
These are great for building endurance in your back, hip and leg muscles and for developing overall strength and balance. Work 15 reps for three sets.
• Alternate sprint and crawl
Find an open area with a landmark like a series of lamp posts or trees spread out with around 15m gaps between each. Just pick any even stretch, grass is best, and use anything that can be used as a landmark. Now sprint hard for 15m or so, or till the first landmark, and then crawl for more or less the same distance. Keep repeating this pattern for 3 minutes without resting. This will really condition your legs and improve your lung power.
Find yourself a fleet of stairs and crawl up Spiderman style for 15-20 seconds. Rest for about double that time, i.e. 30 seconds, and repeat for three-four sets. This will burn your core and deep abdominal muscles and set your lungs and heart on fire.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from The National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Bengal cricket team, East Bengal Football Club, and the Indian U-21 cricket team. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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