Tuesday, 13 May 2008


I see people day in and day out in the gym, plodding away on a bike or treadmill. Sure they are working hard - they look exhausted to me - and the volume of exercise they complete is often tremendous, with some of them spending an hour on a 'cardio session' up to four times a week.

But is this productive? Well if you could distill all training advice down to a single word it would be 'specificity'. You will specifically adapt to a particular stimulus - so if you want to be good at running marathons then ultimately you need to run marathons. Of course you can experience a cross training effect from other activities, but specificity is king. So, our treadmill athletes will be good at running at a 'medium' intensity for an hour or so on a level surface.

Is this beneficial? Well two things that strike me about the people who engage in these regular cardio sessions:

- Most of them are fat (if not fatter than when they started), with poor muscle definition;
- Several of them whom I know to have been training for around five years are carrying significant recurring injuries.

The first point always amuses me. I see people who have been training their 'cardio fitness with the aim of fat-burning' for several years, and yet they are still fat (and of those I have conversed with, I KNOW that one of their goals is to lose weight). If you had been on a weight loss program for several years and you were still fat, then wouldn't you start to question the program? Not these guys. The latter point saddens me - why should exercise lead to premature wear and tear?
How should we exercise? A simple question with obvious answers if we look at evolution. My personal faith in 'evolutionary patterns' stems form the fact that homo sapiens are an incredibly successful species - adapted to many harsh environments in which there are other exceptional specialist apex predators. It is here I personally draw my answer from.

We evolved on the plains of Africa. A place with fast apex predators. To escape such predators you would need to run fast using several bursts of sprinting at top speed with perhaps several changes of direction. You would need to climb up trees or scramble over rocks and other uneven terrain to elude capture. You could also include jumping and throwing in this mix. You might occasionally need to escape across water - another environment where faster predators reside.

What if you were doing the hunting? Even when killing prey using persistence/exhaustion hunts, you would not jog for extended periods. Most of your movement would be walking with bursts of speed - evidenced by modern ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer societies. Analysis of Kalahari bushmen suggests average speeds of 6km/h over a 5 hour hunt - but natural obstacles and the overhead of tracking the animal ensures that the hunter's work rate is anything but 'steady state'. The 'kill' would have to be carried to camp, and camp itself would be carried from place to place. Hard days are followed by easy days.

On a human level there would likely be need for combat skills (striking and grappling) in our ancient past whilst a final source of exertion would come in the form of procreation ;)

Here then are some clues to those activities and movement patterns that shaped our very being. Conversely, can you imagine hunter-gatherer doing a 'cosmetic workout' - crunches to improve his abs or a set curls for his biceps? I thought not! If any ancestor did aim to develop a bodybuilder's cosmetic physique (which is a form lacking function as their goal is form NOT function), who do you think would end up being a meal for Mr Sabretooth?

Child's Play
I have a couple of kids. They have already taught me more than I can ever teach them. I have watched them learning - reaching out to the next challenge in their physical development. From simple tasks requiring a bit of hand-eye coordination to walking, they are incredibly inspirational with their willingness to learn despite the pain of failure (although falling on a nappy when learning to stand probably doesn't hurt that much!). But the keep stretching themselves - always a little further.

My eldest is at pre-school. The kids here do lots of running and jumping. There a lots of games of 'tag' and general chasing going on amongst the lot of them. Obstacles are climbed on/into. Balls are thrown and kicked. The movement is erratic, intense, stop/start and generally complex. The movement pattern here is unadulterated by adult concepts of exercise. Their play is free-form and 'natural'. In fact we have this in common with other mammals (think of those documentaries about lions - the youngsters in the pride are always playful, chasing one another, play fighting and generally sharpening their survival skills).

I Like To Move It Move It
So looking at the picture above, the steady state movement of the treadmill athlete and gym-biker seems to have more in common with the prey in a persistence hunt than that of either the evolutionarily shaped movement of hunter gatherers or the intuitive movement of children.

Hunter gatherer and infant movement actually follow a 'power law'. Short and repeated burst of highly intense activity. It is complex movement using chains of muscles. Transporting the body (speed, agility and quickness), balance, lifting the body, carrying a weight, lifting a weight from the ground to a position overhead, fighting. These are the skills, qualities and movements we are inclined to make and adapted to respond to. These should therefore from the basis of our exercise.

There are other qualities we can discern in the life amongst wild predators, and even the games children play. In both cases there are elements of adventure, novelty, fear, excitement, exhilaration. Have you ever wondered why children play chasing games involving imaginary monsters/wolves/sharks/bears? Could this be an evolutionary adaption?

These then are the movements that inform my training - with an emphasise on quality activity (following the principles above), and quality rest. Less is more!

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