Around seven million years ago our ancestors came down from the trees. Now, at 2pm on a Monday, I’m turning back the clock and making like an apeman. Hampstead Heath in north London is hardly wild, but its 320 hectares of greenery are about as close to nature as you can get in the capital’s urban jungle. And anyway, so conditioned am I to exercising in designated manmade spaces, the simple act of climbing a tree feels positively transgressive.
“You can develop a surprisingly strong grip strength, not to mention get a good workout for the shoulders and legs, from climbing,” says my coach, Ben Medder, one of the capital’s most respected new ‘movement coaches’. “Plus there’s more variation than with a pull-up bar – every tree can be climbed in different ways.”
Trees duly scaled, Medder then asks me to move from my front to my back without taking my hands and feet off the floor. Quickly I realise this demands as much mental agility as mobility in my shoulders and hips. “There are whole courses that you can take on simply rolling,” says Medder, evidently enjoying my struggle with this deceptively elemental task.
This is ‘movement’. What might sound like a kid’s afternoon spent frolicking in the woods is being advanced as a route to improved dexterity, coordination and range of motion. Researchers in Florida have even linked ‘arboreal locomotion’ (yep, that’s tree-climbing) to improved memory. And with our office-centric lifestyles increasingly held responsible for making us too stiff to function and freezing our metabolisms, the movement movement is gaining momentum.
As of January 2017, the UK became the first country officially to recognise parkour – a close cousin of natural movement – as a sport. In MMA, Israeli movement specialist Ido Portal helped make Conor McGregor a two-belt champion. At the time of writing, #movement returned about 3.6m hits on the cultural barometer that is Instagram.
In Medder’s view, climbing, rolling and learning to move like a primate (or, for that matter, a title-hungry Irish fighter) are activities “that typified our evolution”. Movement is a philosophy as much as a methodology. It prizes quality and variety over quantity and velocity. It shuns all barbells and most shoes. It is a throwback; the workout equivalent of the paleo diet. At its most fundamental, it questions not only how we train but why, and the very nature of what it means to be human.
But, like paleo, it can also seem at once entirely logical and, well, completely nuts. That’s why I sought out the men defining this most literal of movements to find out whether rejecting decades of sports-science research and taking cues from the animals really is the future – or simply another hypebeast.
The Origins Of Man
Because of his hook-up with McGregor and his Instagram-friendly feats such as one-arm handstands, Ido Portal is for many men the gateway into movement. Appropriately, he’s also very hard to pin down, eluding MH’s attempts to talk to him, partly because of scheduling clashes but also due to secrecy regarding his methods and clients. (For the record, Medder, who has studied under Portal, describes him as, “a warm, encouraging and cool guy”.) Nevertheless, Portal is happy to share on social media and his website, where he speaks about establishing “a movement culture” to facilitate “a cross-disciplinary exchange of information between various types of movers”. But of course.
In training videos on Portal’s YouTube channel, McGregor can be seen walking on all fours, fluidly dodging sticks or balancing them on his feet as he rolls from front to back. To some, it might seem just a step away from wax-on-wax-off territory, but if McGregor’s career trajectory is anything to go by, it certainly appears to be effective. ‘The Notorious’ has declared, with characteristic modesty, that he’s no longer a fighter; with Portal’s help he has become “a master of movement”.
But the movement philosophy hasn’t always been so fashionable, nor coherent. Previously its various disciplines were highly segregated, says Mike Fitch, creator of Animal Flow, a ground-based movement system that cross-breeds elements of gymnastics, parkour, Brazilian capoeira and even breakdancing. With Animal Flow, you might find yourself performing – or attempting to perform – novel exercises like ‘crab reach’ (a sort of arching back bridge) or ‘lateral-travelling ape’ (jumping sideways with your hands on the floor). “Not so long ago, someone who had done gymnastics would stay in gymnastics,” he explains over coffee in east London’s Ace Hotel. “Parkour was its own little niche and a very tight community. But over the past few years, multidisciplinary approaches have started to evolve.”
Fatigued after a decade in the fitness industry and constantly sore from getting swole, Fitch had an epiphany at age 30. He subsequently put down the weights and picked up bodyweight training in all its myriad forms. “I was shit at everything,” he admits. “I had very little ability to work my body. But [movement training] resonated with me right away on such a deep level.”
A tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired American, Fitch – like many movement converts – talks of a spiritual awakening as much as a physical one. Gradually, he began to join the dots between the separate disciplines. “I noticed that they all used some form of animal locomotion,” he says. “I started figuring out how I could teach those in order to improve the function of the ‘human animal’ – neural sequencing, postural distortions, performance.
“Whether it’s nature or the human body, everything has an ebb and a flow. The extreme of exercise is running in one direction as far as you can, or doing start-stop, fixed-axis lifts. The recoil is realising that’s not how we’re designed to move.”
Learning The Ropes
Relative to pursuits such as marathoning or bodybuilding, movement culture is still in its infancy. I first wrote about Animal Flow in this magazine in 2013; it has since spawned many derivative ‘primal movement’ classes at the likes of your local David Lloyd and Virgin Active. But while it’s infiltrated the gym, it hasn’t dominated it: the weights room gorillas and treadmill hamsters are for the most part unmoved.
Medder had his Damascene moment while stagnating in a deskbound IT job and flirting with the weights floor. Tired of training for aesthetics, he tried martial arts and parkour, before stumbling across a video called ‘The Workout The World Forgot’. Part Rocky montage, part Planet Earth episode, it depicts a man running, jumping, climbing and swimming through a lush tropical landscape.
This latter-day Tarzan is Erwan Le Corre, the mostly shirtless founder of MovNat. Abbreviated from the French phrase ‘mouvement naturel’, MovNat is a coaching system that teaches techniques for activities as haphazard as climbing trees, plus jumping, swimming, carrying, throwing, balancing, crawling, walking and even breathing. Along with Portal, the equally photogenic Le Corre is one of the poster boys for movement culture.
“When I first discovered Erwan, he was a complete unknown living in a Brazilian forest town,” says author Christopher McDougall, an American writer who featured him in his book Natural Born Heroes. “[Since then] his MovNat system has been taught to astronauts and special forces soldiers. He was even in former UFC welterweight champ Carlos Condit’s camp before his last title bout.”
McDougall has himself shifted the movement needle. His 2009 bestseller Born To Run popularised barefoot running – and pushed yearly sales of Vibram Five Fingers ‘shoes’ from $500,000 to $50m. In Natural Born Heroes he argues that humans need to reconnect with an earlier form of movement. “The specialisation we enjoy today, be it as a marathoner, tennis player, even a triathlete, is a luxury of modern society,” he says, quoting kinesiology professor Dr E Paul Zehr. “It doesn’t have great survival value for homo sapiens in the wild. You never see your dog running nonstop around in a circle for an hour... he’ll chase something, roll around, sprint, rest, mix things up. Animal play has a purpose, and it’s not hard to surmise that human play should as well.”
According to McDougall, “it was our remarkable range of movement that enabled us to thrive, manoeuvre across any terrain, and spread to every corner of the planet.” The irony is that, in doing so, we eliminated any need to move.
“Our language is really a language of reclaiming the natural capacity of the human being,” says Dr Kelly Starrett, author of another mobility bible, Becoming A Supple Leopard. “The leopard can attack and defend at full capacity instantly, whereas the average person has to do things like warm up, activate their glutes and mobilise their thoracic spine,” he explains, with the characteristic loftiness of a movement aficionado. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
Not everyone is convinced by Starrett and Portal’s animal allusions, or programmes that at first glance rely more on recapturing childhood freedoms than tried and tested fitness regimens. Bret Contreras, an unrepentantly evidence-based trainer, has published a comprehensive movement takedown called How To Be A Functional Movement Guru In 40 Easy Steps. While he does not name names, and admits that “there are indeed some credible and valuable functional movement experts out there”, it isn’t a stretch to envision who was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote, “Pseudoscience is much more profitable these days… Imagine a world with no scientific boundaries, where anything you think up in your head can be played off as factual, regardless of whether or not the idea holds merit in real life. Imagine building a strong, cult-like following and getting paid to spout off jibber-jabber all day long.”
Elsewhere, former USA Weightlifting medical chair Dr Brendan Murray has attributed an increase in injuries to the extreme ‘knees out’ technique seen in some weightlifters, CrossFitters and those mimicking some of the movement culture’s teachings. Another common criticism is that, by setting benchmarks for human biomechanics and an ‘ideal’ way of moving, Starrett et al are ignoring individual variance and genetics.
Arguably, such criticisms could be levelled at almost any widely adopted fitness programme. The fact remains that our daily lives are less active than they’ve ever been, and when we do move, it’s in increasingly demanding ways. For instance, where we were once content to sit on pec decks and leg presses, the growing popularity of Olympic lifting, CrossFit and MMA has shown up our movement deficiencies. Even if Starrett isn’t the messiah, at least he has initiated the conversation about how to prevent injuries instead of waiting for them to happen.
Modern athletes might be faster and stronger than ever, but, crucially, they’re not tougher. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine has diagnosed a rise in overuse injuries in younger athletes that used to be the preserve of old pros, while the University of Wisconsin found that high school athletes specialising in a single sport are twice more likely to sustain frequent injuries as those engaging in a wider range. According to a BBC report, ACL injuries in the English Premier League are at “epidemic levels”. Whatever the solution, it’s clear a change of pace is needed.
Natural movement may well prove the tonic for many of the problems associated with modern training, but no one is arguing that it’s a substitute for tried-and-tested strength and conditioning. “Pilates and yoga are great for movement, but you can’t hold them up as complete systems unless you’re also doing heavy lifting and hard running,” says Starrett, who has worked with Olympic gold medallists, military personnel and Jason Statham. “But I’ll take the parkour mover over the guy who can squat 200kg any day, because when you ask the freestyle athlete to deadlift, they’re going to be safer, stronger and more powerful. Movement comes first.”
While its proponents might get stick for the tree-hugging mantras and occasional detour into mystic vocabulary, the truth is it’s difficult to pick holes in natural movement. The things that it entails – running, jumping, climbing, crawling – are obviously, incontrovertibly beneficial. If there’s a flaw, it’s perhaps the overzealousness that also leads passionate CrossFitters, cyclists and yogis to forsake other forms of training. Medder, for his part, still performs squats and deadlifts in the gym. Only he does them less frequently than he used to, and as an addition to his natural regime. “Some might take ‘natural’ to mean ‘best’, which isn’t what I believe,” he says. “I’m happy to leave that debate to others; just getting on with doing, moving and experiencing is more important to me than who is right.”
At the movement movement’s heart is an overwhelming feeling that in our narrow-minded pursuit of sporting triumph, we’ve lost sight of play. And the obsession with performance at the cost of all else doesn’t just apply to elite athletes. “This is my biggest issue with contemporary gym culture,” says Starrett. “We’ve forgotten why we [started going] in the first place: to refine skills and develop strength so that we could express that somewhere else. My wife and I are hiking, running, swimming, paddling, biking. We’re playing more.”
Meanwhile, Rafe Kelley, trainer and founder of Evolve Move Play, makes a distinction between play, which is for its own reward, and training, which is a means to an end. Natural movement can be both play or training. And while the former may sound frivolous, Kelley believes it is nature’s way of getting us to do useful stuff: hence why kids run, climb and fight. It is not coincidental that the phrase ‘working out’ literally prescribes something entirely opposite. To borrow Kelley’s analogy, if natural movement is a wholefood, then exercise is a supplement. If you have ambitious goals, you might need to take more supps. But they shouldn’t represent the majority of your diet.
Back on Hampstead Heath, Medder and I spot some saplings and engage in an impromptu game of ‘The Floor Is Lava’, climbing between them while keeping off the ground. Toward the end of the session, we do some ‘roughhousing’: standing palms-to-palms and trying to push each other off balance. When I eventually retrieve my phone from his backpack, I’m astonished to see that I’ve been training for four hours. Then again, such is the joy of discovering natural movement for the first time, I realise that I really haven’t been training at all.