Move Like a Human: Why You Shouldn’t Exercise
You ready for this?
You need to stop exercising. And you need to start moving instead.
What do I mean by that? Well, when we think of exercise we typically imagine high frequency, low variety repetition of consecutive and limited movement patterns. You hit the gym or the sports ground or the running track 3-5 times per week for 30-60 minutes, get very sweaty and out of breath repeating a highly predictable and routine set of movements that may or may not follow the natural function of the human body. Even the ‘functional training’ paradigms that fill the fitness industry now are actually just finding new patterns to slot in the place of the old – kettlebells instead of dumbbells, ring pull ups instead of bar pull ups, – and end up often producing the same results: athletes with specifically strengthened tissues sitting next to underdeveloped tissues, leading to unhealthy loads, deformation and injury.
Our bodies weren’t meant for that. That way of moving – short, intense bursts of limited variety surrounded by hours of inactivity and sedentary living – is a very recent phenomenon in human evolution. Perhaps a few hundred years at most. It’s not the function of the body, it doesn’t nourish us physically or mentally, and the results are clear to see in the general physical debilitation and lack of movement skills of the modern human being. Fitness training is either carried out for aesthetic purposes – to burn fat and build muscular frames – or to supplement specialised sporting practices which have fairly few demands in terms of complexity and adaptability of movement. Look at the current definition of agility as an example – ‘changing direction at speed’ – and tell me that didn’t come about as a result of sports players on a flat pitch needing to dodge and weave past opponents. But if that’s your definition of agility, you’ve never seen how a monkey moves, or a leopard. Or, indeed, a child at play.
Our movement is meant to be so much more: hugely varied, constantly changing and adapting, working with strange alignments and demands, challenging the mind as much as the body… And this leads to health: not to fitness, not to specialised strengths, not to gradual physical breakdown – to health. A very different concept.
I’ll say it again, movement is more than the sum of its parts. Reduce your patterns to linear, closed chains and guess what – that’s all you’ll ever be able to handle.
Exercise is a part of movement, and that’s all. It’s a useful part, at times, and can be fun, challenging, rewarding and community-building. But that’s all it is: a part. To limit your understanding of movement to whatever your chosen form of ‘exercise’ may be is to limit your potential to that very narrow form of movement.
We get asked all the time how and why parkour athletes are so competent, so skilled, so strong and agile and all-round capable. The answer isn’t in any magic technique or training method. In fact it’s found in the absence of any one training method. It’s because parkour practitioners move fully and properly and holistically, and typically they do it every day and for a good amount of time every day. Their play has become their discipline. They’ve followed their true nature.
Further, they let that movement bleed into every moment of their day – playing with architecture they encounter as they walk, experimenting with new movements while relaxing in the park, even just walking a whole lot more to explore their environment and find good training spots. Parkour is a true movement culture, one of the very very few found in modern industrialised societies.
The key to developing all areas of the body equally and therefore to be holistically healthy is to use your body equally and as a whole: Just running, no – unnatural. Just lifting, unnatural. Just climbing, just crawling, just jumping, just playing squash. By themselves, any one of these will promote unnatural and unhealthy development. But blend all together, combine all these movements and forms of loading the body into holistic movement patterns that require constant adaptation and variation and you’re getting close to how we evolved this amazingly capable physical form in the first place.
But it’s also a mistake to isolate these components of natural movement and think it’ll be effective: combinations of segregated drills practiced consecutively but still I isolation. That’s missing the point entirely – thinking you can strip down our bodies’ need for variable, complex movement patterns into trainable subsets like balancing on a piece of wood on the ground for 30 minutes, or repeated throwing drills by themselves.
The secret is found in the application of these components as parts of a whole. Movement is more than the sum of its parts. Parkour produces seemingly super-capable humans simply because its entire training paradigm, from day one, is found in movement challenges that are not overly deconstructed or divided into components. The brain, the nervous system, the tissues, all are tested equally and the whole system has to work in unison. In flow.
I find this to be empirical, not theoretical. By far the most overall capable and adaptive group of humans I have encountered is that of the parkour community. They are expert generalists. Not as specialised as other sports and exercises, no – long jumpers jump further, weightlifters can shift more weight, sprinters can cover 100 metres quicker – but parkour practitioners are hugely more capable overall and with a higher baseline of physicality, natural movement and body-mind integration than any other athletic subculture I’ve encountered. There, I said it.
Want proof? Visit YouTube and look at the variety, complexity and sheer scale of movements that parkour practitioners do regularly, and do for fun and with ease. Then bear in mind that the vast majority of these individuals have never followed a programmed, standardised approach to exercise or calculated their one-rep max or done routine gymnastics training – they are the product of consistent, gradually increasing in difficulty, adaptive movement challenges in their natural terrain, be that rural or urban. They can adapt to almost any other training paradigm fairly easily, they are expert at managing risk and fear, and their training brings them deep pleasure and growth across the board. They didn’t start that way, they developed those skills and attributes over time. They aren’t super-human or genetically gifted and they come in all shapes and sizes. They are you plus years of movement training, not exercise.
I don’t think mastering our movement is rocket science. It simply requires us to use our bodies the way they can and should be used, which from an evolutionary standpoint means covering terrain and getting over obstacles regularly.
So, what are the key components to movement health? Here’s my top three:
1. Adaptation: repetitive training paradigms or environments breed mindlessness, overuse injury, and limited capability. Vary your training routine, your movement patterns and explore your environments as much as possible. Grunting and powering through endless reps of isolated, useless exercises may build your muscles and burn fat but they won’t make you the true mover you’re meant to be. Mix it up, play, explore, when one movement challenge tires you out start working on a different one to let your body recover. There are no ‘leg days’ or ‘arm days’, there are only whole-body days. Let everything get stronger and more mobile in balance with every bring else.
2. Move Holistically: avoid deconstructing your movement too much. I’ll say it again, movement is more than the sum of its parts. Reduce your patterns to linear, closed chains and guess what – that’s all you’ll ever be able to handle. Shift your thinking towards finding movement challenges that are quirky, technically challenging, and require the body to think in order to solve the problem. Find unique movement challenges by training outdoors on structures that weren’t designed for that purpose and the resulting micro-variations in a regular skill will do you enormous amounts of good.
3. Task-Oriented Training: your daily movement patterns should include actual challenges, by which I mean they need to be tasks you aren’t sure you’ll conquer first time. They must be difficult enough that you have to bring your whole system to the party in order to overcome them: mind, body and spirit. Don’t be afraid to push yourself in this way; the most gains are made when we are within that thin zone at the edge of our capabilities, where success and failure interact. This means a good blend of technical, physical and cerebral difficulty. This will require your conscious brain to relax a little and allow your unconscious abilities – your natural animalistic, athletic capabilities – to come to the fore to help you succeed. And they will. They lurk in all of us, just below our over-programmed and deconstructed surfaces.
I don’t think mastering our movement is rocket science. It simply requires us to use our bodies the way they can and should be used, which from an evolutionary standpoint means covering terrain and getting over obstacles regularly. The truly amazing thing is that we all have this potential, and over ten years of training and teaching parkour have removed any doubt from my mind that anyone with sufficient desire can achieve these incredible movement skills and abilities. The parkour community continues to go from strength to strength, with teenagers today surpassing the most difficult movements and jumps of only ten years ago with ease. I think that’s because parkour reveals our true holistic potential as human beings. And it will continue to find new heights.
So let’s not try to exercise like machines or even to move like animals – let’s move like humans and take the next step.