Craig Valency, CSCS
An Evolutionary Perspective
The “sport” of being human requires that we do many activities, such as getting out of bed, sitting on a toilet, rotating, procreating (yes, I said it), walking, and occasional explosive movements like sprinting, jumping or reacting to avoid danger. Much in the same way that our evolutionary past should inform the way that we look at the optimal way to eat, we need to also look at our common past to see how we were meant to move.
Our ancestors didn’t have chairs that kept their hips, knees, and ankles in a perpetual state of 90 degrees of flexion. They also didn’t have a 12-hour-per-day job requiring them to sit in these chairs. No cars, no markets, no Mad Men marathons to watch. They didn’t need to do a series of hip and ankle mobilization exercises before going on the hunt. When they ate or sat around, they sat on their haunches in a deep squat, with their feet flat on the floor and their butts to the ground. They were mobile. They stood up, creeped and crawled, walked, sprinted, climbed rocks and trees, lifted heavy things, and threw objects. They got plenty of rest too.
Mark Sisson’s Book, The Primal Blueprint, does an incredible job of weaving a tale of fitness gone mad. He creatively contrasts the way early man, “Grok,” was designed to move, with the way that modern man (and woman!) has taken it too far. Mark was a nationally competitive endurance athlete himself, and he goes on to highlight the dangers of the typical “chronic cardio” scenarios so many of us fall into. Stress hormones and inflammation begin to make what should’ve been a positive stressor into a negative stressor with ominous consequences.
Move it Like a Baby: A Developmental Perspective
It’s also helpful to examine how we developed from infancy to adulthood. Look at how a baby or child is able to drop into a deep squat, touch their toes, crawl, roll, and get up, all while holding up that enormous head. We literally adapt our way out of this optimal degree of mobility, and perfect stability that every one of us once had. Gray Cook’s success as a physical therapist and developer of the Functional Movement Screen is, in large part, due to his intelligent observations of this developmental process. He brings patients back to their primal, reflexive movement patterns to help re-set the joints, muscles and nervous system and achieve optimal symmetry.
Reflexive Core Activation
For the body to function well, it is imperative that it is subconsciously or reflexively firing the right muscles in the right order. The “inner unit,” or stabilizing muscles, such as the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and diaphragm, for example, need to fire before the larger prime movers take over. Traditional training methods often bypass the inner unit by allowing us to externally stabilize these muscles. This puts less limitation on how much weight can be lifted, so maximum size and strength can be achieved. For example, on a leg press machine, lying supine with my back and hips fully supported, I was able to press 400 – 500 pounds with my legs. If I tried to load a bar onto my shoulders with that much weight for a squat, my discs would explode! Is this really functional training?
My Two Favorite Exercises of All Time
Bear crawls and farmer walks (walking with a heavy weight in each hand) also act to reflexively create forces that will result in improved core stability and shoulder joint integrity. The bonus feature of this more functional approach is that the body recognizes these reciprocal movement patterns neurologically, and the whole body benefits. Besides shoulder joint integrity and core stability, you are also gaining upper and lower body strength and mobility as well.
In Part 4, it’s time to explore flexibility. You’ve heard of functional strength training. Is there such a thing as functional flexibility training? The answer is YES! Tune in to part 4 to find out exactly how to do it.
To read the complete series start here for part 1: From Muscles to Movements