Ever since Mark linked to that Men’s Health feature by Christopher McDougall on Erwan Le Corre and his MovNat system a few years ago, I’ve been interested in it. I saw the videos of a barefoot, shirtless Erwan lithely moving from rock to rock, climbing cliffs, leaping from high places, sprinting, diving, and moving fallen trees. His interview describing the plight of the “zoo human” and what to do about it really resonated with me, so I began trying to work MovNat-esque training into my life. It seemed like a good fit. Outdoorsy stuff has always been my thing, and I’ve never been one to avoid dirt. I didn’t make natural movement a huge priority, instead focusing more on weights, but I always kept it in my thoughts and played around with it whenever the opportunity arose.
When the opportunity to attend a one-day workshop arose, I jumped on it. It was sold out by the time I landed, but I emailed the instructor, hoping he could squeeze me in. He could. It just so happened that Mark and Erwan had just had a little post-AHS pow-wow in Malibu (I believe frisbees and shirtlessness were involved), unbeknownst to me, so we all decided I’d do a write-up on my experience and post it to MDA. (Side note: Mark is so impressed with the MovNat method that he has invited Erwan to be a featured presenter at PrimalCon 2012. It looks like tickets will go on sale next month. Stay tuned!)
This past Sunday, MovNat instructor Clifton Harski showed up at a park in Palo Alto, CA, driving a sweet cherry red ride (KIA, a rental) and bearing such gifts as 40 pound rocks, 80 pound sandbags, and a seemingly endless cache of snack bars from Whole Foods (that he didn’t share). His mission? To impart that which had been lost: the ways of natural human movement. That same Sunday morning, eighteen individuals in various states of shoelessness arrived at the same Palo Alto park to reclaim what had apparently been lost. It was a bit overcast and sorta cold. A tai-chi class was going on across the grass – elderly Asian folks, lots of windbreakers, and five dollar flip flops. At the playground, kids were playing and adults were watching.
Except for a few repeat MovNatters (including a ringer named Nick who wore official shorts and basically showed everyone up), most of us didn’t know what to expect. I was curious, but pretty confident that I’d do really well. I mean, this was natural human movement. I’m a human, have seen the videos, I go barefoot all the time, eat lots of animals and plants, squat and lift weird objects, hike, climb trees, do Grok crawls and other things in public that embarrass my wife… I know what I’m doing, right?
The first lesson was in pole climbing. “I’ve done this,” I thought. Back when I lived in LA, there were flag poles with ads for realtors all over my neighborhood. I used to climb them regularly, using basically all upper body to muscle my way up. It was a killer workout for the arms and lats. Totally MovNat, right? Wrong. Instead of muscling your way up, you keep your arms straight and relaxed and initiate upward movement with your feet, either by pinning the pole in between them or walking right up. Your hands and arms just anchor you to the pole, or so he said. My feet kept slipping, and I couldn’t get myself to relax and let my grip and feet hold me. I kept wanting to engage my arms. Once I learned to relax, I found the MovNat way to be far more sustainable. You could climb a pole my way once, maybe twice, but using the MovNat technique, Cliff said, you could climb it almost indefinitely. First lesson: learned.
We then swung across overhead beams using the sway of our hips. I was tempted to again muscle my way across a la Ninja Warrior, but Cliff gave some great pointers. On the backswing, you advance the back hand and on the return swing, you advance the front hand. I tried it a couple times in both directions, and picked up the technique pretty quickly. It was really easy and felt fluid. Graceful, almost. Okay, I was wrong. Again.
Next, we moved to the swing sets to learn how to get ourselves up on top of the horizontal beam. You’ve probably seen videos or read blogs describing this; it’s the classic MovNat drill. Clifton showed us a half dozen different ways to get on top of the bar. Some methods required more strength than others, but once they got their elbows on top of the bar, just about everyone was able to make it all the way up. Again, Clifton provided really simple, incredibly helpful cues. Simple cues like “keep your leg straight when you swing it” or “stay on your elbows, not your armpits” made all the difference in the world. I saw a young musclebound dude struggle to make it, while an older guy, whose Fran time probably wasn’t nearly as impressive, got it right away simply by focusing on technique.
Balancing was next. Using a four inch wide concrete curb as our “walkway”, we walked forward, backward, and sideways. We squatted and climbed over and under imaginary barriers. We bear crawled on all fours. It was only about half an inch off the ground, so there was no danger from falling (except for the hot lava dragons with cockroaches in their mouths, of course), and yet doing all these things while staying on the curb was incredibly challenging. Especially the crawling, which I highly recommend (don’t let your knees touch and stay on the curb). The risk of falling varied depending on your sense of balance, while the danger from falling was low regardless. Clifton consistently emphasized the risk:danger ratio throughout the day, noting that as beginners it was important to learn the movements via progressions with a low risk:danger ratio.
The kids were beginning to swarm the playground, so we moved across the park to a picnic area to practice jumping. Or maybe I should say “landing,” cause that was the main focus. After all, anyone can dip their hips, bend their knees, and lift off. You might not get high, but you get somewhere that isn’t the ground. Nobody gets hurt jumping. They get hurt landing. We learned to stick all sorts of landings – from vertical jumps, broad jumps, jumps onto tables, spinning jumps onto tables, jumps onto curbs, spinning jumps onto curbs. Cliff, who played ball in junior college, was like a young Charles Barkley (before his back went and he got fat) demonstrating the various jumps. The dude is big, bulky, and extremely strong, but he could really get up. And most importantly, he could land softly, quiet as a cat. Very impressive. I’d hate to face him on the court.
Lunch provided a much-needed rest. We lazed around in the grass and introduced ourselves. NomNom Paleo was in attendance, with hubby FitBomb. Both were incredibly friendly and (unsurprisingly) stocked an impressive lunch pail (thanks for the jicama!). Chad Hydro, founder of the Norcal Paleo Meetup group (join it, Bay Area people!) and owner of the greatest porn name ever, shared some pineapple in return for one of my yams. A Stanford Ph.D. student (the aforementioned MovNat ringer) named Nick ate a few bites of sweet potato with his entire stick of Kerrygold butter. A buff ex-Crossfitter-turned-adaptogen-alchemist mixed royal jelly, bee pollen, pine pollen, and a foul black powder that turned out to be rare nutrient-dense soil from the Himalayas with water and slurped it down. It was an eclectic group, but I felt right at home.
After lunch, we worked on crawls. We crawled uphill, downhill, backwards uphill, and on flat ground. Crawling the MovNat way isn’t a mad dash, nor is it running with your butt in the air and your hands grazing the ground. It’s smooth contra-lateral fornication with the ground.
The best was yet to come: a simulated walk through an imaginary tunnel fraught with danger and various obstacles. As picnickers, soccer teams, Ultimate Frisbee players, and dog walkers looked on, Cliff led us on a simulated walk through an imaginary tunnel, over and around various obstacles. As the tunnel shrank, we were forced to duck walk. As it wound around, we had to walk laterally and squeeze around tight corners. And then, after reaching the “end,” we had to return the way we came, backwards. We laughed, joked around, and generally looked ridiculous, but that was kinda the point. It wasn’t until we finished that I realized my legs were on fire. I’d just gotten an incredible workout and subjected my entire body to a day’s worth of contortions and exertions while laughing my head off. Funny how a little visualization can work, eh?
The rest of the day brought more awesomeness. My personal favorite was learning several new ways to do something I’ve never really thought about: standing up from a sitting position on the ground. This is simple stuff, you’d think, but Cliff showed us three or four really smooth, graceful ways to stand up. We also did some barefoot running, practiced forward and backward rolls, played tag, lifted stones, carried sandbags, and learned a couple ways to carry a fellow human being. With every drill, we made fast improvements thanks to simple cues from Clifton. Things like “Shoot your right arm through the gap between your left arm and leg” made rolling effortless, and “Superhero chest, flat back” really helped with lifting. I guess these movements really are intuitive, deep down. We just had to be reminded.
The day ended with Cliff explaining how to implement MovNat into our training. I’m not sure if Erwan does anything but MovNat, but Cliff still works out with kettlebells and barbells at least once a week, since he “honestly enjoys that stuff.” It was reassuring to hear that the two could coexist, because while I plan on incorporating MovNat into my schedule, I also like lifting symmetrically weighted objects.
Three of the pillars of MovNat that Cliff continually stressed were efficiency and functionality, and not the ridiculous “single arm cable curl with one leg on a bosu ball and your other leg using the elliptical while you do one-armed kipping pullups with the offhand” functional fitness type of stuff you see in gyms. MovNat is true functional fitness, because you are literally performing the actual functions, rather than approximating them or breaking them up into isolated movements. And it’s efficient fitness, because making the movement easier is the end goal, not engaging more type II muscle fibers or optimizing metabolic conditioning by contriving to make the movement harder. Some schools of thought assume a workout must physically break you down to be effective. MovNat suggests that this isn’t the case at all, and that the opposite is probably true.
Overall, I really got the sense that MovNat is a practical, utilitarian, extremely Primal approach to fitness. It’s not mystical or romantic. It’s much more than “running through a forest.” Even though we’re trying to get away from “zoo human” mentality, we’re still stuck with the zoo and we have to make this modern world work for us. You can’t head out to the mountains every time you want to work out. You can totally do MovNat in the gym, the park, or your backyard. As Cliff says, the zoo is now our “natural” environment. It’s what we know and we can still flourish in it. We have to. Even when we’ve got robot maids, teleportation, and Facebook embedded in our brains, we still need to know how to walk on all fours, run barefoot, and get on top of horizontal bars, because that might be the only way to stay grounded in the fact that we are human animals.
Clifton was a great coach whose talents extended far beyond the physical. He’s funny, practical, and extremely down-to-earth, but with a real reverence for human movement. It shines through in his work and you can tell he’s doing what he’s meant to do. And so I suggest that all Homo sapiens sapiens check out a MovNat clinic ASAP. One-day, two-day, five-day, or a full seven-day clinic… just get to one. You may think you know what you’re doing – I certainly thought so – but I guarantee you’ll learn a new way to refine your movements.
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