For as much as I emphasize the importance of food with regards to health and body composition and deemphasize the purely mechanical act of burning calories through arduous, protracted exercise, you still do have to move. You have to lift heavy things. You have to move very quickly every once in awhile. You have to stay active. These behaviors are absolutely essential to your Primal foray. So, let’s dig into Primal exercise, shall we? Enough food talk.
First off, if you haven’t downloaded a copy of Primal Blueprint Fitness , my free e-book that lays all this stuff out, go sign up for the newsletter to gain access. It’s free and you get tons of other cool freebies, so there’s really no reason not to do it. Plus, it’ll flesh out everything discussed in today’s post. Second, click on the pyramid to the right to zoom in. And we’re off…
Move (Frequently at a Slow Pace)
Moving frequently (at a slow pace) is the foundation of Primal fitness. It’s what we are meant to do most often, and what we should be able to do – walk around our environment for long periods of time without tiring or complaining about sore joints or needing to stop every few minutes to rest. Regular movement keeps us moving. And yeah, it “burns calories,” but the main reason to move slowly and frequently is to stay mobile, healthy, and alert long into old age . Just check out some of the benefits and health effects associated with walking:
- Kids who walk to school  are fitter than peers who do not.
- Older healthy adults who walk briskly live longer  than those who don’t.
- Healthy adult males who engage in short bouts of brisk walking experience lower resting blood pressure and postprandial triglycerides .
- Regular walking improves working memory  in older adults.
- Walking improves longevity  in women over 70 years of age.
- Walking programs improve cognitive ability  in people with Alzheimer’s.
Take an early morning stroll. Before you eat breakfast, before you have coffee (okay, maybe not before the coffee), before you head off to work, just take a short walk for as long as you can spare. Got five minutes? Do a short five minute walk around the block. Got twenty? Do twenty.
Take brief breaks from work. Not only will this add several hundred steps to your total throughout the day, it will also clear your head and get your creative/diligent juices flowing anew.
Avoid elevators, take the stairs. Oh, and try something you’ve been wanting to do since you were a kid (don’t lie): go the wrong way on an escalator. It’s like a free treadmill!
Get a dog (or walk the one you’ve got). If you’ve got the time and energy that a dog deserves, get one. It will probably enrich your life in many ways, not just by goading you into regular walks. Extra points if you feed a species-appropriate diet.
Walk before you get home. After pulling in the driveway, take ten minutes to walk around the block a few times before you go inside. Because you know you’re gonna head straight for the couch otherwise.
Take an after-dinner stroll. The after-dinner stroll is customary in many cultures, and for good reason: it helps lower the glycemic response to a meal .
Grand weekend outing. Go for a long bike ride or hike. Spend about two to three hours in constant, slow movement.
And whenever it’s applicable, drag your entire family along.
Mini-challenge: Shoot for 10,000 steps a day . The average American gets just 5,000, which qualifies as “sedentary.” Don’t be sedentary. It feels bad to be out of breath after a couple blocks or a flight of stairs, and it’s really easy to avoid that. Still, 10,000 steps seems like a lot. Why, that’s nearly five miles!
Move (Less Frequently at a Slightly Faster Pace)
Sometimes it’s good to elevate your heart rate. I don’t think elevated heart rates should be sustained for very long, but staying between 55 and 75 percent of your max heart rate will keep you burning fat for energy while avoiding any serious burn-out, Chronic Cardio  symptoms.
In lieu of actually taking a strenuous maximum heart rate test, you can simply use a fairly accurate formula: 208 minus (0.7 times your age). So, if you’re forty, your estimated maximum heart rate would be 180 beats per minute, and your upper limit for aerobic activity would be 75 percent of 180, or 135 beats per minute.
To monitor your heart rate, you have a few options.
- You could buy a wireless heart rate monitor, which generally start at around $50-60. Polar  is the leading brand.
- You could use a smartphone app, like the iPhone’s Cardiio , which uses the phone camera to monitor your heart rate.
- You could place your finger against the carotid artery on the side of your neck (where it’s the easiest place to find a pulse), count the beats for ten seconds (using a watch), and multiply the number by six to get beats per minute. This is how I do it.
Once or twice a week, spend some time at the upper range of your aerobic limit. Stay there as long as you can without exceeding your target rate. Try stuff like:
- Brisk walking
- Uphill hiking
- Rucking (wearing heavy packs while walking or hiking)
- Cycling (mobile or stationary)
- Jogging (if you’re fit enough to stay under 75 percent of your max heart rate)
- Stand-up paddling (my favorite)
When you’re done with one of these sessions, you should feel energized, refreshed, renewed. You shouldn’t feel too wiped out, and if you find yourself nursing an intense sugar craving, you probably left the fat-burning state  and drifted into sugar-burning. That’s okay; just use this new experience to keep yourself out of that zone next time.
Mini-challenge: Get to the point where you can jog for fifteen minutes without exceeding 75 percent of your max heart rate.
Any effective total body fitness program has to include strength training, or else it’s neither effective nor total body fitness . You can run marathons and bike mountains, but if you can’t do a few sets of pullups and pushups or help out when your buddies need to move furniture, can you truly call yourself fit? I don’t think so, which is why I (having come from an endurance athletic background) always emphasize the importance of lifting heavy things. Strength training isn’t just about developing the physical ability to manipulate heavy objects in space and time; it’s also about building stronger bones and more resistant joints, developing more lean mass, living longer and better, staying healthy into old age, improving insulin sensitivity, and building up organ mass (or, as I like to say, insurance against disease ).
Contrary to popular belief, strength training does not require heavy weights and expensive machines. That’s certainly one way for people to get an effective workout, but you can get quite strong and fit using just compound bodyweight movements. And even if you want more, you can always add weights later.
The Primal Essential Movements are as follows:
From a plank position (straight, rigid line from feet to head), hands flat on the ground and shoulder width apart, arms extended, fingers pointed forward, lower your body until your chest (or nose) touches the ground. Keep your core and glutes tight and a neutral spine and neck.
Simplified Progression (consecutive reps needed to progress)
1. Knee pushups (male, 50; female, 30)
2. Incline pushups (male, 50; female, 25)
Movement Mastery – male, 50 pushups; female, 20 pushups
Keep your elbows tight, tuck your chin (try to make a double chin), retract your shoulder blades (to protect your shoulders). Without flailing or using your lower body, lead with your chest and pull your body up using an overhand grip until your chin passes the bar. When lowering, never fully protract your shoulder blades. Don’t lead with your chin; keep it tucked throughout.
1. Chair-assisted pullups (male, 20; female, 15)
2. Chin-up (inverted grip) (male, 7; female, 4)
Movement Mastery – male, 12 pullups; female, 5 pullups
With feet at or around shoulder width (whatever’s most natural) and toes either forward or pointing slightly outward, lower by pushing your butt back and out until your thighs reach at least parallel. Keep the weight on the heels and a tight, neutral spine throughout the movement.
Assisted squat (using a pole or other support object while lowering into squat) (male and female, 50)
Movement Mastery – male and female, 50 full squats
Your body is a plank, as the name suggests. You are a single cohesive unbroken body, a straight line from head to foot. Elbows/forearms and toes are your only points of contact with the ground.
1. Forearm/knee planks (male and female, two minutes)
2. Hand/feet planks (male and female, two minutes)
Movement Mastery – male and female, two minutes
Twice a week, warmup , get your body and joints warm with some light “cardio,” and engage in a total body workout using the Essential Movements. Your goal should be mastery of all four movements for three sets. Once you’ve exhausted your mastery and want more, then add some weight (weight vest, kettlebell , sandbag , barbell , etc). Otherwise, maintaining movement mastery or bumping up the rep counts will keep you fit, lean, and strong.
For more variety, check out our Workout of the Week archives , which contain all sorts of workouts that incorporate these movements and more.
Mini-challenge: Achieve Essential Movement mastery for at least one Primal movement.
Ah, sprints: the forgotten movement. Nobody sprints anymore, unfortunately, but we’ve all done it before. Check out how a kid gets from here to there – he sprints! Remember those days?
It turns out that those kids know something we do not. Sprints stimulate the production of testosterone (important for libido and muscle building). They increase the secretion of growth hormone (crucial for fat-burning). They improve insulin sensitivity and increase endurance and develop fast-twitch muscle fibers (the muscle fibers that look impressive and allow us to make powerful, quick movements). Okay, so maybe that nine year old sprinting around the house just for the heck of it isn’t thinking about all those health benefits, but we certainly can.
Before you head out to the track with visions of Usain Bolt dancing in your head, give an honest assessment of your abilities. When’s the last time you sprinted – truly gave an all-out effort on the track, pavement, or path? If it’s been awhile, or if you have some doubts about your abilities, it’s best to take it easy. Launching into sprints full bore can easily lead to pulled muscles or strained ligaments, and you don’t want that to happen.
A few sprint tips and tricks:
- Uphill sprints are remarkably easy on the joints, since your feet aren’t traveling quite as far and the impact is lessened. They’re also a killer workout, which makes hill sprints my favorite sprint alternative for everyone (even people who can handle flat sprints).
- I like beach sprints, but you have to live near a beach to do those regularly. The sand sure does feel nice, though.
- Running on grass is a nice compromise, especially without shoes. I wonder if Walt Whitman ever experienced his blades of grass like that.
- Running on a true, rubberized track is far easier on the joints than running on pavement. Just be sure to wear shoes. One of the Worker Bees tore off inches of hard-earned foot pad running barefoot sprints on a legit rubber track. Don’t let that happen to you.
- Tabata sprints  are real killers.
- Sprints don’t even have to be on foot. You can cycle, swim, crawl, climb, or hit the stair stepper. As long as you’re giving a maximal effort, you are sprinting. It’s not about speed; it’s about effort. Try to go as fast as you can and it doesn’t matter how fast you go.
Let’s dig way back into the archives for this little gem from the early days of MDA:
Mini-challenge: Try mini sprints. Instead of sprinting for ten to fifteen seconds at a time, sprint for four to five seconds at a time – 40-yard dash territory. These aren’t quite as physically daunting, and you recover much faster. Bonus points if you do it uphill.
It all comes back to play , of course. I train so that I can play , so that I can enjoy my life and my family and do things that I truly enjoy doing. I train so that I can keep up with the younger guys at Ultimate Frisbee . So that I can beat the younger guys. And more than anything, I train so that I can play and not get injured. I train so that I can keep on playing, keep on living.
If you’re going to go through all the trouble of walking, hitting that fat-burning aerobic zone, lifting heavy things, running hills, and everything else, you better have something to show for it, and I don’t mean a six pack or big biceps. I mean a good, long, enjoyable life full of experiences that you can look back on – and forward to – and smile. That’s play .
Mini-challenge: Assemble a group of friends  and play some old school yard game – dodgeball, tag (freeze or standard), capture the flag, kickball, etc. Try to make a habit of it, too.