11 Physical Challenges to Take This Month

Female trail runner leaps an obstacle along a mountain top.Some people don’t need any help finding physical challenges. They naturally and intuitively figure out ways to engage physically with the world and test their prowess. But that’s not everyone, or else we’d see people sprinting down the street, hurdling park benches, climbing flagpoles, and swinging from tree branch to tree branch. It’d be a cool world, to be sure. It’s just not the one we live in.

In this world, where physical challenges are usually optional, we have to go looking for them.

What are some fitness challenges to try? I’ve got 11.

1. Climb a tree tall enough to make you a little queasy.

How high you go depends on the climber’s faculties and experience. Don’t underestimate yourself on this one, however.

This one, of course, tests both psychological and physical fitness. Everyone has that point where they begin questioning the decision to climb. And climbing itself requires hand-eye coordination, tactical planning, and physical strength. Compared to bouldering, climbing a tree is much more user-friendly, allowing the climber to dictate the terms of ascent. You can rest in between branches, or go full steam ahead. You can get winded, or take long rest periods in between bouts of exertion.

Try different routes up and back. Practice until you can ascend and descend smoothly.

Do pullups and dips on the branches. Use your legs for assistance if needed.

Take a selfie at the top. Post it to social media and bask in the adulation. You earned it.

2. Return to an activity you used to do all the time but haven’t touched in years.

For me, it’d be basketball. I always liked the game but was too small to make it very far in school. That’s actually why I turned to running—the more illustrious football and basketball options didn’t work for a guy my size.

Maybe you were incredibly passionate about martial arts as a kid, but drifted away after high school. Go take an introductory class at the local gym. They’re usually free.

Maybe you were a decent wrestler in high school. Get back into it. Barring that, roughhouse with a friend.

Maybe you figure skated as a kid, giving it up when it became apparent you weren’t elite-level material. Go down to the ice rink and strap on a pair. See how it feels.

Unearth your passions and check for viability.

3. Go rucking for at least 3 hours.

From hunter-gatherers lugging auroch quarters back to camp, Roman legionairres carrying 80 pound packs on campaigns, to patchouli-scented trustafarians backpacking their bong through Bali, the act of trekking with something heavy on your person is a time-honored human tradition.

Maybe you grab a couple friends and go backpacking in the nearest uninterrupted slice of nature (lots of places have short backpacking trips you can cover in 2-3 nights). Maybe you do a dayhike with a really heavy bag. Maybe you freak your neighbors out by walking around the block a few times with a kettlebell in the rack position.

Just carry something heavy and go walk.

4. Swim in cold water for ten minutes.

Aim for sub-65° water. Cold enough that you inhale sharply, but not so cold that you have to take Wim Hof’s course just to survive.

Swim sprints with plenty of rest. Swim laps at a slow pace. Try swimming the entire length of the pool underwater. See at least how far you can get.

Breaststroke and freestyle are the easiest strokes to learn from scratch.

You don’t have to swim. You could just sit there. But I find swiming, even very light swimming, helps me deal with the cold water.

5. Try a set of weighted max-rep (20 minimum) squats.

There’s something about putting a moderately heavy weight on your shoulders, squatting down, coming back up, and repeating it as many times as you can.

They don’t have to be back squats. Other options include the zercher hold, the front rack position, goblet squats, wearing a weight vest, or holding weights in your hands.

They don’t have to be heavy. Aim for 20 reps at least, so choose a weight that makes that possible but really difficult at the same time. It should be a struggle toward the end (these 20 rep squats are sometimes called breathing squats, because you have to stop in the middle to catch your breath).

If squats don’t agree with you, check out any of the alternatives I mentioned a couple years ago.

6. Do the horse stance for at least five minutes.

This is the horse stance. It’s a mainstay of Chinese martial arts, whose proponents say it develops a type of lower body strength and stability unlike any other execise. It teaches you to “root” to the ground. It’s also not too bad for the quads and glutes.

Assuming you have the flexibility, it starts out real easy. But after 30-45 seconds, things get serious. Your thigh might start trembling. You might feel the urge to dip your shoulders and break the integrity of your spine. Work up to being able to sit in the horse stance for five minutes.

Do it every morning, first thing when you get up. I find it opens up the hips quite nicely, so any subsequent movement comes more easily.

For a little added difficulty, try slowly rising up on your toes while in the stance. Maintain the upright torso. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat.

If you can get someone to whack you with bamboo poles every few seconds, all the better.

7. Do the Wingate Test.

The Wingate Test is what exercise physiologists use to test an athlete’s peak anaerobic output: 4 30-second, all-out sprints on a stationary bike at maximal resistance with 4 minutes rest in between. To illustrate just how difficult these are, subjects peforming Wingate Tests typically get puke buckets.

This month, take a Wingate Test. I don’t intend for you to commission a an exercise scientist to run a study on you. Just get your hands on a stationary bike of some sort, crank up the resistance, and do it. Set aside 20 minutes or so to complete the whole thing. Puke bucket is up to you.

8. Walk all day long.

Long, long walks are restorative. They’re where you find yourself, where you arrive at solutions to problems you thought were unsolvable.

But they’re also physically harder than you think. Most people just aren’t prepared to walk all day long anymore. Even people with pristine 10k daily step records bow out after a few hours.

You may have to work up to an all-day walk by taking lots of shorter walks (this is my secret trick to get you to walk more frequently).

I recommend a blend of city and country if you can make it work. That way you can stop for coffee, maybe browse a book store, ford a stream, hear a hawk’s cry, climb a tree (see above). You know: do it all.

9. Run a mile for time.

Men, try to break 7 minutes. Women, try to break 8 minutes. Move that number up if you’re older or out of shape. Drop it down if you’re younger or in great shape. But think about keeping it intact if only to motivate you to do your best.

Run that mile.

10. Compete against another human.

Competition is good, to a point. It drives us to be our best, and it wrings every last drop of quality out of us. It’s also a powerful motivator, helping us ignore pain and suffering in order to perform and beat the other person.

Competition can be formal (join an adult sports league, sign up for a StrongMan or powerlifting competition) or informal (challenge the local bully to a foot race). It can take many forms, but what’s important is that you test your physical prowess against another human.

11. Attain the feat you’ve been pining after.

Everyone has that white whale of exercises, that physical feat that just eludes us. Sometimes it remains out of grasp because we’re not really trying as hard as we can to get it. This month, get it.

Want your first real pullup? Get after it.

Want to beat your Fran time? Start training.

Want to bench press bodyweight? Redouble your efforts.

Drop everything and work solely toward achieving this specific goal. And if you don’t achieve your goal, you have improved and progressed.

Okay, enough talk. Get moving, folks. Accept a challenge, then defeat it. And maybe shared about it here, eh?

Which one are you going to try? Something from your own stash? Or are you going for more than one?

Thanks for reading, everyone.

Primal Kitchen Ranch

About the Author

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.

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36 thoughts on “11 Physical Challenges to Take This Month”

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  1. OK, totally love all of these ideas. Even that horse stance, which I’m going to try. Except the swimming in cold water. Never! I am a total baby when it comes to water temp. The feat I am pining for? In college, it was bench pressing my bodyweight. Which I eventually did. Also around that same time, squatting 160 pounds. Which I repeated at the age of 46. But the one thing that I really want to do now is a pull up. I’ve had hernia surgery and always feel a little funny when I try one, so I will have to work up to it slowly. Thanks for all the great ideas!

    1. Swimming in cold water…never!? Why say you can’t? I did a polar bear swim last year after thinking for years it’d be too hard. I did it with a friend and it was awesome. We’ll probably be doing it again soon. You just might love it!

      Once. <— Minimum times you should try anything.

    2. I do a variation of the cold water: every weekend I swim 80 butterfly strokes on the beach. Ok, it is in Miami Beach and it is not super cold or Pacific cold, but in winter it feels really cold for us miamians … and I still do it. It really feels good and you get used to it.

  2. I was literally thinking last night back to my childhood on how fun it was to climb trees, and how I need to attempt to climb one sometime soon!

    Once this snow melts that will be the first thing I do… or maybe I’ll go do it right now and accept the snow as a little, fun challenge.

    1. I haven’t climbed a tree since I was in grade school and can’t say I’ve missed it. However, I do miss the agility I had as a child, but I don’t think there’s any way I can turn back the clock. More likely I’d just end up in traction. Okay, I’ll go against the grain regarding the rest of these challenges too. The only word I can think of is…why? I’m not training to be on American Ninja Warrior, or the like, and I’m not 25 years old any more, so why would I want to attempt these things? I could probably still walk all day if I took a lot of breaks, but that’s about it. Mark, how about some realistic challenges for us non-athletic older people?

  3. Thank you for the suggestions which “freak the neighbors out.” The courage and willingness to do this are (I say very sincerely) maybe the biggest foundation stone to getting healthy. Thanks again

    1. People need to step out of their boxes and live a little. I dont think it will freak them out as much as it will make them jealous that they cannot or will not live a little 🙂 Love these ideas. I have some of my clients carry around a cinder block all day for their training and I am sure they get some crazy looks 🙂

  4. I absolutely love walking – city or in nature and I used to go on long hikes ever since I remember myself. But less so, during my service as a paratrooper; then it became a task with lots of gear on my back, bland rations and plenty of miles to cover (up to 100km none stop). All this will have to wait until I recover (mentioned in the previous blog). I also liked climbing; especially when fruit is involved 🙂 Let it be succulent figs or mulberries from my aunts tree. Now, if you like climbing make sure you don’t follow Lucy’s foot steps….by the description, it was very agonizing

    Did a Fall From a Tree Kill Lucy, Our Famous Ancestor?

  5. I like the Fran idea even though I am still a bit frantic about crossfit.

  6. Wow, a five minute horse stance is ambitious, even for those who practice it. I have been practicing Shaolin kung fu (nanquan) for the past two years, and we do horse stances in every class. Most of the time, if we can hold it longer than a minute or two, our form is incorrect. With proper form (back straight, knees over the ankles, sitting back on the heels, tailbone tucked under, thighs parallel to the ground), the legs are BURNING after a minute or so.

    1. Yes–I do tai chi regularly and just tried horse stance…a minute with good form is seriously challenging. And that’s self-correction…a teacher would have probably busted me sooner!

  7. There are a group of large rocks at the local community college that call my name whenever I see them. I try to jump from rock to rock without touching the ground; haven’t been able to make it across the last chasm. Maybe this month is the month! Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. I am ready to take on the horse
    After all, we do them in Zumba
    Just need to do them a little longer …
    (to be continued)

    1. One day later: still gathering the will to try this. I can do it … I know … ommmm

      1. I did it. One minute and a half. And after doing it I realized that it is very similar to the yoga chair, especially when the yoga instructor drones “go two inches lower”. And to use a stick over your thighs keeps you honest.

  9. I’m gonna try to deadlift 300 lbs. of bacon into my open mouth.

  10. Another great one, Mark (how do you keep this fresh day-in, day-out?!).
    For me, #2 (tennis! guess it’s also #10), 6, and 8–though that all-day walk will be something to work up to.

  11. The feat I have been pining for is a workout called king kong:

    3 Rounds

    1 Dead lift at 455lbs
    2 ring muscle ups
    3 squat cleans at 250 lbs
    4 hand stand push ups

    I weigh 165 pounds at 5’8 and currently DL 445 lbs and squat clean 235. The gymnastics movements are not a problem. Do you think it would be healthy/primal to do a scaled version of this workout (405 DL and 205 cleans for example) every 7 to 10 days until I can accomplish the prescribed version?

    1. wow completely out of my league, even 40 years ago … my respects ! 🙂

  12. I am a SpartanSGX coach and I really want my clients to have fun and I take them back to childhood all of the time…..LOL…..11 things to try? Why not….Like to fit people standing next to each other.

  13. I built a climbing station in my yard. About 16′. I can climb over, or thru a small window near the top for a tight squeeze and focus on body positioning. Also has some climbing grips, rail grips…this spring i attach a climbing rope.

    Regretfully the trees around here are sketchy…lots of rot and insect infestations…never know when a branch is too weak. I would suggest that sqeamish adults climb a high school fence, or baseball back stop cage. (Watch for the barbs!) Climb what you can and get used to being off the ground…the memory is there…just reinvigorate it…

    Climbing is body, mind and soul. Doesnt have to be on a rock fsce, or a climbing gym…

    1. Very good motivation, I cannot use it because I live in an apartment but it inspires me to use more the trees and monkey bars in the park where I work out

    2. Most community centers or YMCAs now include climbing walls. Another good way to get your climb on and tackle any fear of heights you may have.

  14. I don’t think you should be puking on the windgate test. I do that once a week except with a minute and half between each 30 second sprint. And i don’t rest. i just back of the resistance enough to catch my breath. I’m nowhere near puking.Not bragging, just don’t want people to be scared off. But you should not try this without building up to it. To just do it without working up to it, you may very well blow a hamstring, calf or achilles tendon.

    1. Thanks Clay–I was writing that one off subconsciously for those reasons. And good advice on the warm up. Only took me about 50 years to figure out!

      1. I hear you. I have a simple rule that keeps me out of trouble at age 50 – don’t do any athletic activity that you aren’t currently in training for. That means no spontaneous games of basketball or volleyball, no trampolines or pogo sticks, no skateboards or roller blades…nothing that I am already not trained for.

        When you hit middle age you can’t just do stuff out of the blue anymore. So I stick with surfing, HIIT on the spinner bike, and planking.Hiking and swimming are fine because those are low impact skills that overlaps with my main ones.

        This last summer I decided to add pull ups. Even though I worked up to it slowly I still ended up with tennis elbow and had to stop doing it. It was just too much to add onto what I was already doing.

        Which is a huge bummer because pull ups make you feel like a badass big time.

  15. OK, Mark, i’m in. How about 1,000 push-ups for time. Try for under 30 minutes including rest. Make it more difficult by adding a weight vest

    1. I do mine with an iron vest over a 3 foot electro-magnetic disk. My utility bill is sky high but my pecs are amazing! Not sure it it’s primal though.

  16. Thank you for the ideas Mark!! It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to exercise. Most people think it has to be boring and arduous, but these ideas sound anything but! Well most at least 😉

  17. This is brilliant. I love reading of new things which I have not thought of but I can see myself doing. These ideas put a seed in my mind. from there one or two things germinate and then I get excited about life again. I have fitness goals but these are different and I really like that. it sits well with me. I too, don’t like cold water so I wont be doing that. I don’t like heights as well, but i think that’s just because i think I’m not strong enough to get up and then get down again. i might surprise myself. I really like the idea of long walks, back packing for a few days or doing a few exercises with really heavy weights. I’ll see what i can do. It might not be next month but ill work my way up to it and my family will be a little older and then we can all go together.

  18. Today I did this!!!

    1. Climb a tree tall enough to make you a little queasy

    And it felt gooooooooood

    And I had to come back to this post to update it 🙂