Yesterday, we explored the multitude of modern fitness standards spanning a variety of professions – soldier, cop, firefighter, Olympic athlete, pro athlete. We discussed the amorphous, free form standards held by pure fitness methodologies like CrossFit, as well as the simple but starkly delineated physical benchmarks a “real man” must satisfy as laid out by Earle Liederman. And though I didn’t even get into all the other fitness markers of the various athletic subcultures (ultrarunners, mountain bikers, soccer players, body builders, kayakers, backpackers, etc.), I’ve concluded that modern fitness is, by and large, incredibly splintered and heavily specialized. If you were to take a cross-section of examples of ideal athletes from every sport or activity imaginable, you’d get a veritable motley crew of different shapes, sizes, musculatures, and body types. Each would have wildly different capacities for strength, power, speed, endurance, agility, balance, and precision, and you’d see a wide range of resting heart rates, inflammatory markers, chronic injury rates, stress levels, and immune systems. And, if you had X-ray vision, you’d probably see an assortment of liver, heart, kidney, and other organ sizes.
Variety may very well be the spice of life, but excessive levels can lead to confusion, indecision, and then stasis, especially in the inexperienced beginner who just wants to be healthy, look good, and get stronger/leaner. Does he hop on the bike for a thirty mile trek, because as everyone knows long distance cardio is the key to burning fat and man, would it be nice to fit into that biker spandex! Or does he do split routines (arms/back, chest/tris, legs) at the local gym capped off with a long bout on the elliptical? Or does he listen to the old withered dude claiming his endless laps around the block every evening are the key to his health and longevity (while hacking up phlegm and descending into a wheezing, coughing fit that wracks his emaciated frame), and take up jogging? He might even take a serious gander at the local CrossFit affiliate if it weren’t for the primal grunts, guttural outbursts, barbaric yawps, and barbell clanging emanating from its bowels (I love you, CrossFitters, but you guys can be pretty intimidating to newbies!).
There are almost too many choices, and, barring a few like CrossFit or other similar “all-around, functional” approaches to fitness, most of them are too specialized and promote poor overall fitness habits. And even the hardcore functional fitness sets, while incredibly effective if you actually commit, might be just a bit too hardcore and too off-putting for the tender, gentle beginner. So, what’s the answer? What is a suitable fitness routine for the average modern Homo sapien?
I propose (unsurprisingly, probably) that we adopt an entirely different set of physical fitness standards. I say we look to the old, time-tested benchmarks set by our ancient ancestors. These were the benchmarks that had real weight behind them; rather than determining a number on a scorecard, a trophy in the case, or a bulging, pulsating bicep vein on a vain body builder, they marked a hunter-gatherer’s ability to survive, hunt, and provide food, shelter and protection for his community. Without these ancient benchmarks (which aren’t really even official benchmarks, and that’s the point) put into place and enforced by natural selection, I wouldn’t be typing this today. The human race would have died out long ago if Grok weren’t such a goddamn incredible stud at running, leaping, throwing, hunting, and lifting. Let’s see what Grok did, and could do, in the way of physical activity, because since he is us and we are he and we are all together (sorry, was just listening to “I Am the Walrus” an hour ago, and yes, I know I butchered the lyrics there), the same standards should apply to us – so what were the ancient Primal fitness standards, and how can we apply them to our modern lives?
Grok had to be physically strong.
Early Primal men and women lived a life of constant activity. Unless they were resting, they were lifting rocks, hauling carcasses back to camp, carrying babies, transporting foraged food, erecting domiciles, heaving huge ornamental stones from miles away to form temples (think Stonehenge), and clearing out debris.
Lift weights or do body weight strength exercises, focusing on the same movements Grok made: squats, lifts, presses, lunges, pull-ups. You want to use multiple muscle groups at the same time, because that’s how our bodies are intended to work – as a machine with many parts, none inconsequential. And pay strict attention to form, especially on the more difficult lifts; Grok used correct form when lifting rocks or hauling carcasses (and the fossil evidence shows that skeletal damage was minimal), because it’s simply the best way to generate the most power with the most efficiency (and least chance for injury).
Grok had to be quick on his feet.
When the need arose, Grok would have had to run really fast for short (or not so short on occasion) distances. He might have to catch a small critter for a meal, rush in full speed for the killing blow, or flee a marauding boar that just took his spear thrust head on and now wants to respond with tusks. In an all out foot (hoof?) race, Grok loses to most mammals, but sometimes all he needed was that final burst of surprising speed.
Sprint. Tabata sprints, uphill sprints, beach sprints, pool sprints, even uphill bike sprints – any type of exercise where you’re pushing your speed to the max is a sprint, and it will help you reach the Grok sprint standard. Even if your idea of a sprint is fast walking uphill, as long as you’re pushing yourself to a reasonable limit (don’t injure yourself, of course), you’re getting the benefits of sprinting.
Grok had to have a good strength/body weight ratio.
Grok was lean and powerful for his size. Natural selection dictated that the best body type for hard, active living was lean, well-muscled, and strong. The ideal Grok had almost no wasted space; every inch contributed to the overall cause. If Grok had to climb a tree to grab some honey or steal eggs, he could. If he had to ascend a cliff face with inconsistent, spotty handholds, his insane strength/body weight ratio would allow it.
Pull-ups, muscle-ups (think pulling yourself up to a branch with just your arms), push-ups, box jumps are all important ways to test your strength ratio, but you have pay attention to the other side of the equation, too: body weight. Less body fat means less dead weight, and if you pack on muscle, that’s active weight that makes the job even easier.
Grok possessed immense explosive power.
Whether it was throwing a spear to fell a distant deer, engaging in feats of strength with his brethren, or leaping from a crouched position to make a killing blow, explosive expression of power was a key component of Grok’s ability to survive. The ability to generate massive amounts of force in a short amount of time is crucial in those fight-or-flight moments.
Make your short workouts even more intense. The best way to develop explosive power is with kettlebell work and lifts like power cleans and snatches (consult with a trainer or pour extensively over instructional videos before you try these, though; CrossFit is a good resource). I also like doing medicine ball (or rock) throws in the sand. You could also consciously weight train with power expression in mind by moving the weight as quickly as possible. Just be sure to pick a weight that’s not so light that it isn’t hard work to move, but that’s also not so heavy that you can’t move it quickly. Keith over at Theory to Practice has some great thoughts on power expression.
Grok had to move around a lot at an easy pace.
Grok in almost constant motion. If he wasn’t lifting, climbing, or moving incredibly fast, he was walking. Foraging, hunting/stalking, and exploration all required massive amounts of walking around.
This one’s easy, but it’s also the one we forget most often. We get too caught up in sprints and weigh training to remember to relax, take your significant other by the hand, and just go for a walk. It takes the edge off a rough day in a way that wine or pharmaceuticals cannot, and it’s a crucial aspect of Primal Blueprint Fitness. If you want to get even closer to Grok (and work a little harder), go for a hike instead.
All in all, Grok was prepared for any situation. Climb an 8-foot rock wall? Yeah, he could do that. Swim a half mile? If he was a coastal dweller, or lived near a body of water, I bet a little swim wouldn’t be an issue. Run a half marathon, if the situation called for it? He’d certainly do better than your average couch potato, but he wouldn’t make it a regular occurrence. Heck, Grok would probably be a half-decent two-guard on the basketball court, or maybe a cornerback on the football field, provided he got some training first. But he undoubtedly had the physical tools – and so should we.
I’m not saying you have to do twenty pull-ups or be prepared to swim across a small lake. I’m just suggesting that Grok’s fitness benchmarks are a good target for which to aim. After all, anyone can take the basic concepts of Primal Blueprint Fitness – sprinting, lifting, walking, hiking, climbing, squatting – and understand their practical application, even to our modern world. We aren’t hunting boars or climbing trees for eggs or building stone temples anymore, but we are helping friends move, carrying sick or injured kids to the emergency room, playing sports with our buddies, and climbing several flights of stairs. And, as we age, we become ever more conscious of these basic life activities. As I said yesterday, we shouldn’t have to consider taking the escalator or elevator instead of the stairs; we should be able to take a walk or lift a box or move some furniture without thinking twice.
I think of Primal Blueprint Fitness as endlessly malleable, eternally scalable. The hardcore can push their bodies to the limits lifting REALLY heavy things and running REALLY fast, while the beginners, the ill, or the elderly can lift moderately heavy things and walk REALLY fast. As long as you pay attention to the underlying principles of Primal Blueprint Fitness and follow in Grok’s footsteps, you can achieve functional, lifelong fitness – at any and all levels of proficiency.
What about you guys? Are there any Primal benchmarks you think I’ve missed? And do you think there should be some strictly quantified numbers that all Primal Blueprint Fitness heads should achieve?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.