By: Ken Best
Have you noticed the most successful programs are the ones based on sound principles? The Paleo diet strategy is one of the best because it is underpinned by principles that apply to everyone and are simple to implement and follow. Based on my career experience, successful business models, self-defence programs and design services live and die according to the principles they apply and the values of the individuals applying them.
I value my health and my family’s wellbeing. It’s one of the reasons I follow and promote the Paleo diet in all its forms. But, diet alone won’t guarantee the highest level of health we strive for. A properly structured exercise plan, one that includes strength training with all forms of resistance, is essential in your quest for peak health. There are so many exercise plans, programs and movements available these days, how do you separate the good from the bad? You can apply the following principles of human movement and see how they stack up.
Just as we are genetically and environmentally designed to eat certain foods, we are biologically designed to move a certain way. In discovering (or rediscovering) the principles of human movement, we need to examine one of the most basic and fundamental human movements available – the walk. In doing so, we identify the elements of such a movement and mould them into principles everyone can understand and apply.
From the day we are born, we roll, climb and crawl with the ultimate goal of being able to stand and walk on two legs. Walking is a basic act of bipedal motion in a ground-based, upright posture requiring our whole body to move against the force (or friction) of gravity. Right away, that one sentence describes the five most important elements of human movement we can form into principles and apply to every other movement pattern we as humans are capable of performing. In doing so, we can narrow down the overwhelming choices of exercise plans into the most effective ones.
Principle 1: Bipedalism
Bipedal motion, ie. standing and walking on two legs, is exclusively a human trait. Some mammals and reptiles can move on two limbs for short distances or short bursts, but it becomes painful and inefficient to continue any measurable distance. And birds, although they stand and walk on two feet on occasion, use flight as their main method of travel. Unless handicapped or injured in some way, the vast majority of the human population move about on two legs, and every other principle described here supports and augments this one.
In evaluating the effectiveness of an exercise plan, make sure the movements take advantage of this very important principle. Exercise plans based on the movements of quadrupeds (four limbed animals) and brachiators (mammals who use upper limbs to move through trees) are a step in the right direction but somewhat miss the mark as a natural human fit. And conventional gym programs requiring lots of sitting and laying down during the session is like bread to a Paleo diet – remove it immediately.
Principle 2: Gravity
Our muscular and skeletal systems work together to create movement through space. Without either one, we would be blobs of flesh sitting on the ground going nowhere. Muscles contract on bones to create motion against the constant resistance of gravity, so they are uniquely designed to work in this way. Have you heard the term weight-bearing exercise? If so, you’ve probably heard it’s the best kind, thanks to gravity.
Gravity works straight down, so our bodies are structured to resist this force in the opposite direction, ie. straight up. Exercises using resistance to amplify the force of gravity – free weights, heavy objects, and bodyweight movements – are the best for the human machine. If an exercise plan has you doing lots of machine-based exercises where the force of gravity is nullified or removed, it’s time to re-evaluate things.
Principle 3: Ground-based, Upright Posture
This principle has two equally important parts. Humans are land-based animals. Although we brave the water in numerous ways, we thrive in an oxygen rich, land-based environment. Elite and recreational athletes vastly improve their competitive edge with the inclusion of a land-based strength and fitness plan whether they participate in ground-based sports or not. We are all ground-based athletes because we’re human! So, make sure the majority of your strength training includes ground-based exercises.
Bipedalism requires our posture be very different to other mammals. It makes our back muscles stronger, it arches our lower spines, pulls our shoulders and heads back, tightens our core, and frees our shoulder joints for increased range of motion for our arms. In everything we do, whether in the gym or not, we must be mindful of good upright posture. Poor posture leads to a number of health concerns and hampers our health and wellbeing. In every exercise we perform, be aware of correct body positioning and form, and try to maintain an upright posture at all times.
Principle 4: Whole Body Involvement
Traditional bodybuilding programs where you perform exercises that isolate individual muscle groups are good for bodybuilders and nobody else. As can be seen in the example study of walking, effective and efficient exercise forces us to move as a co-ordinated whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Strive to ensure at least 80% of your exercise program includes movements using most of your muscular system at once. Not only will you receive strength and cardio benefits, you’ll improve the oft neglected elements of balance, co-ordination, stability, and agility.
Time is your most precious resource bar none! Timothy Ferris describes time as the most valuable commodity of the new rich, and I add it’s also the most valuable commodity of the new healthy. Using exercises requiring your whole body to execute will save you a lot of training time, time you can put to good use elsewhere in your life. Conventional programs where you do multiple sets of an exercise interspersed with long periods of rest are effective for athletes who have the time to do them. The rest of us benefit from circuit type programs condensing lots of exercise into short periods of time.
Principle 5: Basics First
We live in a technologically advanced society, and whilst technology offers lifestyle benefits like better health care, refrigeration, and transport, it is insidiously destroying our health by offering poor alternatives to functional exercises, real food and active recreation. Strength training at it’s core is a simple activity made complicated by the mainstream muscle media, supplement companies, and equipment manufacturers. Please don’t fall prey to these peddlers, you’re better off going into the back yard and lifting a rock to get stronger.
Technology’s goal is to make everything easier. That’s good for our work practices and learning, and bad for our strength and fitness training. If your exercise program requires access to a vast array of powered machines, environments and gadgets, you’re not doing your health any favours. You shouldn’t need anything more than power for a music player and light (if you train at night) when you train, and even the music isn’t necessary. Everything you use and every move you perform should be basic, low-tech, and functional unless you are rehabbing an injury.
So how do your exercise choices stack up? If you’re starting afresh, you’re lucky not to be influenced by the overwhelming amount of conflicting exercise information out there. If you’re using a program that is too comfortable, boring, conventional, or ineffective, I hazard a guess it’s not applying the principles outlined above. I’m confident most of you, being Paleo followers, aren’t boring or conventional in any way, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble applying these principles to your exercise choices.
How do I know these principles work? The exact same way the Paleo diet works. I base them on the physical activities of ancient and modern hunter gatherers – people who thrive on the basics without the influence of modern methods of agriculture, pasturing, industry, and technology. For the past twenty years I’ve been using these principles in my athletes’ and my training, and the results have been amazing. Feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and regular posts. Live strong and prosper!
Ken Best is a strength and conditioning coach and writer based on the Gold Coast in Queensland Australia. He is a regular contributor to Australian Ironman Magazine and MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes. His first book, Wild Strength is available as a kindle or print book on Amazon.