My Beef With Primal Fitness

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computer cavemanI’m sure you’ve heard of primal fitness lately. Fitness guru’s all over the blog-o-sphere have been talking about it, and it’s picking up quite a bit of attention. All over the web, you’ll find pictures and videos of people training in nature, climbing trees, doing interval sprints, and lifting stones and logs. But is primal fitness all that it’s cracked up to be? Is this just an emerging trend that will die away in a few years, or is it the start of a revolution that will forever change the fitness industry? Are there any flaws in the philosophy or actual practice of primal fitness? What are the primal fitness guru’s NOT telling you?

I’ve never completely subscribed to the primal fitness philosophy, and I think I’ve got a few good reasons why.

What is Primal Fitness?

Although there is no single, accepted definition of primal fitness, those that teach about it tend to hold some of the same beliefs. Primal fitness is the idea of exercising as our ancestors did. It’s a mimicry of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, which many people still live today. Now, I doubt our hunter/gatherer ancestors had time specifically for exercise (exercise is a modern innovation based on new cultural needs). However, there is no doubt that people who live primitively lead a much more active lifestyle than we do today. Daily physical activity would be a way of life, probably for almost everyone in the community.

So, primal fitness is a modern solution for exercise based on the physical activity of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. The problem when defining primal fitness is that everyone has a different interpretation of how hunter/gatherers lived. And on top of that, everyone has a different interpretation about how to train based on how hunter/gatherers lived.

So, it makes primal fitness a pretty broad and vague subject to discuss. On one hand, you have someone that is doing primal fitness out in nature – lifting stones and logs, climbing trees, trail running, etc. And on the other hand, you have someone that is doing primal fitness in the gym, with their mp3 player, on the treadmill, and with barbells. There’s quite an array of interpretations based on the various beliefs held about primal fitness.

Primal Fitness Pro’s

Primal fitness is a cultural movement that is encouraging trainees to take their training outdoors, which has a ton of health benefits. Plus, it gives us an opportunity to explore our environment, and get outside our comfort zones. I think going outdoors is one of the single greatest changes any trainee can make in their program, and I’m all for anything that encourages this.

Primal fitness is generally movement-based, instead of “muscle-based,” meaning it is more functional than popular bodybuilding-style programs. In this regard, I think it’s a step in the right direction, even if it’s not optimal yet.

Primal fitness training is new and fun. Not only is it a different, and thus, a fresh training style, it’s also fun to imagine running away from a tiger or climbing safely away from a wild dog (or is it? – I think most people would be terrified!).

Primal Fitness Con’s

The biggest disadvantage about primal fitness is that it is still largely open to interpretation. As I alluded to above, there is no standard definition of what primal fitness actually is. Guru’s tend to make up workouts based around what they think a hunter/gatherer might have done – but it’s all theory. Sure, a caveman may have needed to sprint as fast as possible to avoid becoming catfood, but did this really happen 3 times a week for 30-60 second intervals lasting 20 minutes? It’s speculative theory, meaning that the end-result workouts don’t necessarily reflect what true primal fitness really entailed.

We really cannot know if the average primal man experienced chronic pains or injuries, and we don’t really know the functional capacities or true functional movement patterns. We don’t even know how long they lived or how stressful their lifestyles were, which leads me to my next point.

The fitness of the primal man is somewhat glorified, and presented as the pinnacle of what we should strive for in health and function. When in reality, hunter/gatherers may be in much better shape than your average American, but that doesn’t mean they were/are in excellent condition by any stretch. The guru’s like to proclaim that the cavemen were able to outrun cheetahs, outclimb monkeys, and outswim dolphins. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but seriously – I keep reading about how the primal man would easily climb to the tops of trees, could run for miles and miles, and be able to lift humongous logs and stones (due to the HYUUUGE guns, no doubt).

Primal fitness is put on a pedestal, like a holy state of vitality that is virtually non-existent anymore. These romantic notions just don’t match reality. We have the most advanced training tools and systems ever, and it’s foolish to think that we have to revert back to primitive training disciplines while ignoring modern innovation. Even though human bodies are incredible adapting machines, the basic physiology hasn’t changed in the last several thousand years. The body is still the same, with the same potential today as  it was back then. If anything, we’re better equipped and prepared to push the limit of physical potential today because of the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout the generations.

So, my main point is that primal fitness rests on a shaky foundation at best.

Training in nature, without modern technology, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the laws of conditioning.

The law of outcome states that whatever we do produces an outcome (everything we do, even inaction, is an act of conditioning). So, if we use an inefficient or poor movement technique, a negative outcome will always occur. If we continue to do this over a period of time, the body will change in a self-regulating attempt to produce homeostasis, meaning an even worse negative outcome. If a certain behavior is continually repeated, the principle of progression tells us that those activities will become more easily repeatable in the future – even if we don’t desire that specific conditioning.

Also, the human body cannot differentiate between different forms of resistance. It doesn’t know if you’re throwing a rock, a kettebell, or swinging a clubbell – it only knows resistance, not where that resistance comes from. It’s up to us to create a safe and sustainable training environment that allows for proper adaptation, without conditioning ourselves into injury.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a youtube video demonstrating a “primal workout” that is chock-full of horrible training practices. Just because you’re lifting a giant log instead of a barbell, doesn’t mean you have an excuse to use poor technique. I’ve seen some AWFUL movement techniques demonstrated by highly regarded coaches, in the name of primal fitness. If you can’t use proper technique when sprinting, jumping, or lifting, then you shouldn’t be doing that in your training. Training is meant to improve your health and fitness, not increase your chances of injury or worse. If you can’t train safely, you need to drop down a skill or difficulty level because everything is an act of conditioning and you don’t want to condition an improper and unsafe movement pattern.

Without coaching, it’s difficult to sustain a primal fitness plan safely and effectively long-term. I began to understand this first-hand at the recent MovNat training seminar I attended. People don’t necessarily move well naturally unless they have been coached to do so – even if the movements are labeled as natural (like walking, which is a perfectly natural human activity). Our bodies are wired to find the most effective method to accomplish a physical task, even if it isn’t an efficient expression of that movement. This is great from a survival standpoint, when we may need to do anything it takes to accomplish a physical task quickly. For lifelong training, however, this isn’t ideal because a “natural movement” can be naturally good technique, or naturally bad technique. Over time, poor technique will lead to inevitable problems.

This is getting back to the first disadvantage of primal fitness, that there is no foundation for the training discipline to rest on. There is still no such thing as a “primal fitness coach” who has stood the test of time to prove that their methods are safe, effective, and sustainable long-term.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to using primal fitness “as is,” I think the con’s far outweigh the pro’s. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to draw on those things that are useful and beneficial for us. I think some aspects of a fitness program can and should be primal (like training outdoors, for instance), but the entire program shouldn’t be based on a primal man living in a modern world. It’s just not practical. We aren’t living in caves or out in the bush, and our needs are drastically different from those who are. Our nature hasn’t changed, just some tangibles like our environment, technology, food availability, etc.

In conclusion, my advice is to be careful who you listen to when it comes to primal fitness training (even me). It’s a gray area, and everyone has their own differing opinions about it. Use what you already know to be true about training – there is so much excellent knowledge available, and we don’t need another romantic idea skewing our perception of reality. Movement is movement, and it doesn’t change anything when it’s labeled “primal.”

I think what most people are looking for is to be stronger and healthier, and able to perform most physical tasks pretty well (like lifting, carrying, running, etc.). If you’re interested in a training method that incorporates the primal nature into its practice, but still addresses our modern needs in a comprehensive fashion, I highly recommend checking out MovNat for some “True Nature” training.

Review of a 5-Day MovNat Training Seminar

And no offense to my many enthusiastic primal friends. I still love many things about the primal way of life – especially on the nutrition side of things. I just think the training department leaves much to be desired.

To your health and success,

CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional and MovNat Alumni

25 Responses

  1. A new reader. Great stuff. Especially like two of your recent posts (Cross-fit and Primal Fitness). Agree 100% with both.

  2. I agree 100%…Just like primal/paleo eating is a great idea in general, I am not into food re-enactment for the sake of someones idea of what people ate 20,000 years ago which wasn’t even the same food as what we have now(fruit and veg).

  3. Hi Bill, welcome aboard – glad you’ve found something that clicks with you.

    Chris, that’s exactly how I see it – good analogy!

  4. Excellent, well said John. An important article.

    You are right on about the safety risks of training with poor form. Our ancestors’ priority was survival, not longegity and optimum health. Just because they were capable of running away from sabre toothed tigers, doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so on a regular basis was good for their health and longevity (or ours). It may have made them better at running away from sabre toothed tigers (enabling them to survive attacks, and live long enough to pass on their genes), but we don’t know the negative impacts it had over time, or what injuries or problems they suffered as a result. All we know is that they survived as a species, but how many individuals suffered short hellish, injury ridden lives? We just don’t know.

  5. Exactly right, Nick. So, it seems foolish to model a fitness program off of a true hunter/gatherer lifestyle.

  6. John,

    I enjoyed reading this. I agree there is a danger of over-romantisising the idea of ‘primal’ fitness or evolutionary fitness, as Art Devany would call it. Your point about the body not differentiating between sources of resistance is one Doug McGuff also makes in Body by Science – he also believes there is a degree of romanticisation at play.

    That said, I think you set yourself a difficult target to shoot at here, in a way by your own admission. Primal/evolutionary fitness is such a nebulous area that it’s very difficult to find the ‘cons’ of something that you can’t tie down – somewhat of a catch 22 if you are saying that being difficult to tie down is a con in its own right ;-)

    For me there are two main elements to primal/evolutionary fitness – frequency/intensity/volume and exercise/environment.

    I buy much more into the former because it makes sense to me that our bodies will have evolved to function best with the typical exercise patterns of our ancestors. So once you start straying into daily, hard workout territory you are creating conditions we are not genetically programmed to function optimally with. It is in this area I have personally felt the most benefits – being an obsessive trainer, it really helped to have a framework in which to operate that made sense and forced me to train less. I think Mark Sissons is very good on this point about the likely mix of frequency and intensity our ancestors experienced and therefore what patterns are best for us to thrive under.

    As for the latter (exercises and environment), I think this is secondary. As you say, resistance is resistance. I do agree that for people looking to get started, simply taking the primal idea literally could lead to injury. But for me it’s all about randomness, and it’s for this reason I think that primal/evolutionary fitness will remain nebulous in its true form – for me that’s a pro. Ancestral life was random and there’s no reason modern life can’t be too. Makes it more interesting. I swim, do weights, sprint, run mountains, do circuits and even some of the more ‘romantic’ things like lifting stones, climbing trees etc. Sometimes I don’t swim for weeks. At other times I try doing the same thing for weeks on end (such as experimenting with BBS). Letting go of the idea that I must do the same thing over and over again to get ever stronger, faster or bigger was the most liberating aspect of it for me – I could start enjoying the activites instead of obsessing over improvement.

  7. I realise that last point may sound contradictory… which to some extent it is. My recent experiments with BBS are a departure from randomness, unless you consider that it’s a way of making the extent of my randomness random ;-)

    More broadly I guess what I am saying is that there is a difference between a training protocol and an exercise philosophy. Primal is for me a philosophy – how you choose to operate within that philosophy can encompass a wide range of tools and techniques that may include disciplines that in their own right are well defined, extensively researched, etc

  8. While I’m sure the author of this post is well versed in training for the sake of function, I think a lot of modern exercise philosophies are based on isolating muscle groups and LOOKING “cut.” This primal fitness movement, if nothing else, should be recognized as something that is finally beginning to open people’s eyes to the importance of training for function and considering the body’s overall well-being (as opposed to image alone).

    Furthermore, the fact that we’ve advanced and modernized technologically does not mean that our genes have modernized as well. We humans tend to get very wrapped up in ourselves, allowing our skewed perception of reality to run away, leaving the objective physical reality (a.k.a. our bodies) in the dust of the imagination. In other words, just because we have the brain capacity to dream up and build a bunch of fitness equipment does not mean it’s called for by our genetic make-up. We were given our bodies for a reason/reasons, and I highly doubt that we’re doing ourselves any justice by assuming that our bodies thrive under man-made conditions, based on the mere fact that those conditions exist now.

  9. The paleo / primal “prescription” is closer to the ideal than most conventional fitness, but it’s still miles away from being perfect. It’s the new holier than thou – better than you – best of the best.

    Things I like the most: nutrition and the energy expenditure model are great.

    Things I don’t like: it’s just another “prescription”. It misses the GREAT opportunity to make people realize we must stop using their bodies as machines.

    Before movement there’s perception and there’s awareness.

    As you state, it doesn’t matter what you lift if you have horrible form. And where does horrible form come from? Bad form = bad coordination. Bad coordination comes from lack of perception (external and internal – propioception, interoception) and awareness. Sensory motor amnesia is the fancy name.

    Take for example the barefoot movement with all the vibram fivefingers and other minimal shoes. People don’t realize that the current modernized way of life is as aberrant for our nervous system like wearing shoes is for our feet.

    We are not born just to eat and “exercise” like our ancestors — our genes also predispose us to be aware of our surroundings.

    I am not saying that primal fitness it’s bad – just that we should expand the concept to avoid falling in just another fitness fad.

    Sorry, I don’t speak english and I’m writing this in a hurry…

  10. My beef’s with Primal, Paleo etc. or any other programs with registered trademarks, eg. Crossfit.

    1. They are fads.
    2. The marketing – Grok (Primal), clowns vomiting (Crossfit). Overall “packaging” of plans to make money. The “guerilla marketing” crap to sell programs that say the same thing.
    3. Cults – we better than you because we are believers.

    Fitness is simple: move more, eat less, minimize crap intake.

    Disclosure: “Simple Fitness” is a registered trademark…. oh forget it.

  11. Interesting article. I think you make a good point here about “primal fitness”. You can’t just go out into the woods and lift logs or do sprints for 30 minutes and not have any notion of proper form.

    There is a lot of information from sites like Panu and MarksDailyApple about the nutritional aspect of paleo eating, but I guess I would like to see the same research put in to exercising. There are some great sites out there that go into depth more with exercising obviously, but to give all this great information about nutrition and than go out and say to “exercise like Grok” seems a bit reductionist to satisfy my interests in developing my body optimally.

    But, at the same time, primal fitness is also a good way for people trying to transition to a healthier life style. Starting from the simple and moving to the complex. And I see “primal fitness” as a good beginning point for people.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents. Interesting article.

  12. Hi John,

    A bit late on this post sorry, but I wanted to get on record. At first after reading this post and the CrossFit posts I was feeling somewhat rebellious. However after calming down and reading further, particularly your review of MovNat, I now appreciate where you are coming from and want to thank you for making me think about it all!

    I am essentially on the same page as you, although I do Crossfit and do Primal workouts, for want of another label. They both have extreme aspects that make them fair game for criticism, however my own experience of them is completely positive. Crossfit (and Crossfit Endurance) has improved my performance and health across the board, giving me my best health and event results ever this year. And the coaches here in NZ are fantastic; safety and good form are paramount to them.

    My “primal” workouts are another thing entirely, I design them, and it is a creative process for me that I enjoy. Mostly for me the primal workouts are ways to play, get back to nature, be a boy again. The fitness aspect is secondary. Actually it may be more MovNat than Primal, I am not sure.

    That said, I totally respect the need for coaching! And that no system is perfect. I look forward to experiencing MovNat at some stage, although New Zealand is far away from…everywhere! We do like the outdoors here though. Thanks again, keep it up.

  13. Terence Flynn

    You have an interesting website but what makes you so knowledgeable about fitness. What you said about primal fitness and its cons outweighing the pro I disagree. I have been s Phys Ed teacher for 8 years and for the first 5 years I was doing the traditional gym program for ages 4 to 14 in my classes. It got boring doing jumping jacks sit ups etc. The kids got bored too. So when I found Movnat and primal Blueprint and exuberant animal it made sense and I changed my whole program by doing bear crawls lifting heavy things while balancing on a beam, climbing and creating obstacle courses. My students loved it and still do. They are getting stronger with basic equipment. New technology in fitness in my experience with kids does not mean its better. Kids are naturally gifted examples of true fun fitness. “primal fitness ” that is used out in the world is practical for me and my own children and my students. I know because I experience the difference. With all do respect thats how I see it.

    • Terence,

      Keep doing what you’re doing. We disagree merely on the definition of primal fitness. I’m a strong advocate for both MovNat and the Exuberant Animal way of life, not so much the Primal Blueprint.

  14. And some of us are much more than just primal fitness. Some of us are about integrating Mind, Body, Spirit, Tribe, Land, and Ancestral knowledge in a way that fits who we are and where we are now.

    check out http://www.exuberanttribe.ning.com

    Those just looking at “primal fitness” are only seeing part of the story. This is not a complete way to look at the question of who we are and what we need.

    And I will give a hint – skill is best found through playful exuberant exploration with others.

    • Hey Kwame,

      It’s great to have you here! I’m 100% with you on this one. It’s when we isolate primal fitness that we run into problems.

      you wrote:
      “skill is best found through playful exuberant exploration with others.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by this – what skill?

  15. This really is a good read. I agree, but not 100%. Here is a thought, that might be a little irrelevant but whatever. I know tradesman (roofers, farmers, floor coverers,etc.. ) that their training is nothing is nothing more than a day at work. and most of them could usually wipe their ass with any crossfitter, strongman, primal.. whatever. Beasts of men that when asked about training will say F-off.Why do we never hear of training thats functional to the actual needs of people today?

  16. Jerry Cagle

    Hi John,

    You said: “The biggest disadvantage about primal fitness is that it is still largely open to interpretation.”

    The same thing can easily be said about “primal nutrition”, yet you embrace it…? There isn’t total consensus in the fitness industry about many aspects of training. Even the basic principals are open to dispute, e.g. training to failure (MMF), yet we wouldn’t dismiss the practice entirely just because there is room for “interpretation”.

    Depending upon whose model of primal fitness you reference, I think what it boils down to is making movement fun and providing a framework for people to move in that will endure. Most gym-goers do not persist over the long haul because they find it b-o-r-i-n-g after awhile. There’s also a “tribal”/social/community aspect that, for some, provides motivation and may produce greater fitness gains (we always run faster in races than when training in isolation).

    There’s never any profit in throwing the baby out with the bath water…

    • Hi Jerry,

      Good points, especially regarding providing people with a framework to live and express physicality. I’m ALL for anything that does just that, but I will be critical nonetheless. I think people benefit much more from a system rather than an ambiguous idea.

      Also, I don’t embrace primal/paleo nutrition. I’m not sure what gave you that impression, but there are some things that I do really like about it in general.

  17. Jerry Cagle

    Hi John, i took my comment about your embrace of primal/paleo nutrition from this- “I still love many things about the primal way of life – especially on the nutrition side of things.”

    To one of your other points – I’m not clear about what you would define as a “system”. Since you participated in the MovNat workshop I’m assuming it doesn’t have a system in your definition. Would Exuberant Animal qualify?

    Thanks,
    Jerry

    • Right, I DO love many things about it, but I wouldn’t say I’ve embraced it by any stretch. That is, I don’t adhere to it or identify myself based on that basis. I’ve formed my own nutrition conclusions from a variety of sources over the course of my life, but I’m not in a position to provide nutritional advice.

      Both MovNat and Exuberant Animals are wonderful systems that I fully support and have spoken favorably about over the years. But to clarify, neither MovNat or EA are about primal fitness, which is a common misconception. They’re both based on the evolution theory and draw some of their methods from theories about how hunter gatherers lived, but these are NOT fitness systems – not by a long shot. It’s true that they can be used for fitness purposes, but that is not their primary purpose. They are each in a category of their own.

      Thus, this article does not represent them at all. I’m referring to the type of person who goes out in the woods to lift logs and climb trees and labels it primal fitness because it’s cooler than what they were doing in the gym. I know it’s a gross over-simplification, which is resultant of one of the flaws I mentioned above regarding interpretation.

  18. “Also, the human body cannot differentiate between different forms of resistance. It doesn’t know if you’re throwing a rock, a kettebell, or swinging a clubbell – it only knows resistance, not where that resistance comes from. It’s up to us to create a safe and sustainable training environment that allows for proper adaptation, without conditioning ourselves into injury.”

    This demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the nervous system and proprioception.
    The inputs to your brain about the environment are the eyes, ears, nose, mouthm hands, feet (skin in general) and stretch receptors/mechanoreceptors.
    if you cannot tell the difference between a kettlebell and a rock with all these highly developed inputs feeding your nervous system, and make changes accordingly, maybe you shouldnt be training at all!

    • That was poor communication on my part, Joshua. I should have said, “Also, at a cellular level, the human body cannot differentiate between different forms of resistance. Your cells don’t know if you’re throwing a rock, a kettlebell, or swinging a clubbell – they only know resistance, not where that resistance comes from.” (of course, we do!)

  19. Hi John, great post. I am a retired professional football player who is now a Client and Owner of Natural Instinct Nutrition. I have been looking for a safe, functional, effective, movement program that is aligned with our philosophy of “eating real food” with very “targeted supplementation” for each individual.

    Primal Fitness garnered my attention briefly but I agree with many of your “con” points as well as the “pro” points. I have yet to experience a MovNAt training seminar but will soon, is there a MovNat program that can be translated into every day living?

    Thanks!

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