The human body has remained relatively the same for–conservatively–thousands and thousands of years.
Human activities, on the other hand, have dramatically changed. Especially in the last century.
For most of us, our bodies don’t regularly do the things they were built to do. Climb. Squat to poop. Sprint from predators. Walk up to 12 miles every day. Carry heavy objects back to our caves.
While we should be grateful that we have modern conveniences that no longer make this type of work necessary, they do come with drawbacks. Muscle atrophy and dysfunction are the norm in developed countries.
Sitting—“the new smoking”—uses the body’s incredible adaptability against itself. This unnatural posture causes certain muscles to become over-active and shorten, which can lead to pain or injury virtually anywhere in the body.
Most of us have jobs that require us to sit for hours a day (hell, I’m sitting while writing this).
So what do we do?
By regularly practicing exercises that mimic the movements of our ancestors we can have the best of both worlds: the comforts of modern society with the natural motor patterns of our supple ancestors.
These 7 exercises are paramount when aiming to recapture this functionality.
Pull Ups (Climbing)
It’s widely agreed upon in the scientific community that humans and other primates developed opposable thumbs in order to better navigate through trees, our original homes. Meaning our ancestors were climbing before they were walking the plains of the Serengeti.
Pull ups are a safe, controlled proxy to going out and climbing trees and mountains. (Though, if you’re physical able and inclined to do so, climbing is an even better functional exercise.) Think about it: You’re safely replicating the earliest movement your body was designed to do.
“But I’m not strong enough to do a pull up!”
I this all the time. Like many obstacles, this is a self-imposed excuse masquerading as logic.
Use the assisted pull up machine to start.
(In fact, most people who do pull ups at the gym would be wise to utilize this machine. Why? Their form—the most important element for optimal safety and performance—is terrible. Mine isn’t perfect either. That’s why I still use the assisted pull-up machine, too.)
The assisted pull up machine allows you the opportunity to practice good form by working with less than your bodyweight. It’s all about progression—walk before you run.
Some keys to performing a pull up with good form:
- Make sure to generate enough torque (external rotation) through your hands to keep your shoulders externally rotated throughout the movement.
- Go all the way down and stay at the bottom of the movement for 2 seconds. Failing to go down all the way can shorten your lats (back muscles). Pausing at the bottom ensures you’re not cheating via momentum.
- Keep your abs and glutes flexed. Flex your stomach and butt tight enough to keep your spine in proper alignment. This will help promote equal weight distribution between your left and right side, as well as safety.
Long Walks (Preferably Barefoot)
Our ancestors walked. A lot.
According to neuroscientist John Medina in his great book Brain Rules, they walked up to 12 miles a day. This is why walking for at least 30 minutes 3 times a week can have both cognitive and physical health benefits.
Barefoot on grass or dirt is optimal. Why? It’s the way our bodies were designed to walk.
Shoes with any kind of raised heel can negatively impact your gait. Furthermore, the yogic tradition believes that doing this can help people become more grounded by neutralizing the radiation that comes from all of our electronic devices. To my knowledge there is no clinical data to support this claim; however, it can’t hurt (and you may just Placebo Effect yourself into feeling it has done just that). Finally, it feels good!
I’m not a big fan of treadmills (except for short cool-downs). I believe that over time they can affect your gait as well. Whenever possible, opt for the real deal.
Toilets, believe it or not, are a relatively new invention. For the majority of human history people had to drop down into a squat position every time they wanted to relieve themselves. In fact, sitting to poop is a sub-optimal position because part of our colons are clamped off while seated. This is why the Squatty Potty is such a brilliant device.
Human beings are built to squat.
The problems associated with squatting arise from the muscular dysfunction caused by our sedentary lifestyles. Steps should be taken—namely foam-rolling overactive muscle tissue and activating the glutes—to alleviate this dysfunction prior to performing a squat.
The Bodyweight Squat should be mastered prior to using additional weight. Again, it’s all about progression.
Ladies, if one of your fitness goals is to build a better booty, heavy squats are required. Guys, if you want to become truly strong and not be known as Chicken Legs, heavy squats are a necessary.
To perform a squat:
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Create torque by screwing your feet into the ground (note: your feet should be straight; you’re not externally rotating them, you’re simply creating external rotation by creating outward force) in order to externally rotate your hips.
- Squeeze your butt enough so that your pelvis is in a neutral position.
- Flex your abs in order to bring your torso into alignment with your lower body. Keep flexing (glutes too) during inhalation and exhalation.
- Pull your shoulders back by raising your arms, palms-up, as far back as possible. The shoulders should now be in vertical alignment with your hips, knees, and ankles. Maintaining this alignment, drop your hands down to your sides. This is called neutral spine–also known as tadasana in yoga. It’s an extremely safe position, one your body should be in most of the time (standing, walking, and during most exercises).
- Break parallel at the hips by driving your hamstrings backwards. (Most squatting-related injuries occur because the person breaks parallel at the knee joint.) Maintain external rotation of the hips while squatting down to—whenever possible—at least 90 degrees (your hips level with your knees).
- Utilizing the glutes, push up evenly through your feet to return to starting position.
Sprints (Health Permitting)
While roaming the untamed Earth our ancestors encountered hungry predators. Lions. Tigers. Bears (Oh-my!). These beasts—and many others—were physically superior to humans. Our forefathers were left one slim chance: running for their lives.
If you believe in the “survival of the fittest” tenet of the Theory of Evolution, it’s easy to see how every single one of us had ancestors that sprinted. The slow were food for the powerful predators that ruled the world prior to a cognitive revolution that led to humans capable of unmatched complex thinking.
If you’re healthy enough, and your movement patterns are clean enough, sprinting is a phenomenal physical activity. Unlike long-distance running, it has been shown to increase muscle-friendly testosterone (while burning calories more effectively, too).
Prior to sophisticated tools, man had to manually move everything. The first step required in this process? Lifting the object off the ground.
Deadlifts, when performed properly, are a great way to build your posterior chain.
Deadlifts provide a way to functionally train the hamstrings, glutes, and rear delts—muscles that suffer and atrophy in the modern world. Getting these muscle groups to function properly again can eradicate internally-rotated shoulders and an anterior pelvic tilt, both of which can be the source of significant pain throughout the entire body.
Maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement is paramount. For a solid short explanation of the set-up for a deadlift, check out the first two minutes of this video.
Once early humans had lifted their desired objects off the ground, they had to carry them to their destination. This built up their shoulder muscles, especially the traps.
Again, this exercise is so attractive because it functionally helps build up the neglected posterior chain. By grabbing 2 moderately heavy dumbbells and walking with them for about 30 seconds, you can help reclaim a confident upright posture while battling the effects of techneck.
Maintain a neutral spine position throughout the exercise. Focus on keeping the shoulders externally rotated and as much of the load bearing on the big trapezius muscles.
While technically not an exercise that mimics ancestral movements, it is super effective in helping to get our bodies back to and maintain natural function.
Why? Stretching the pectoral muscles helps combat internal rotation of the shoulder. This exercise is complimentary to building the posterior chain.
While performing flies—whether it be cable, dumbbell, or machine—the focus should be on keeping your shoulders even and externally rotated, and range of motion after that. Even if your goal is to build muscle, the pecs still need to be stretched out on a regular basis.
A primary goal of a truly functional fitness program is to reverse the atrophy and dysfunction that comes from modern living. Basically, to get the body to move the way it was designed to move. Functional fitness is so important because if your body isn’t moving the way it was designed to, it will be difficult to safely and consistently hit whatever individual goals you have.
These 7 exercises are the best way to incorporate functional fitness into a training program.