How to Personalize Primal Blueprint Fitness

The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Challenge manifests differently for everyone. Some folks are focused on improving their diets, on removing this food or adding that food. Some have committed to optimizing their sleep by getting to bed at a certain time and eliminating nighttime electronics. And many just want to look better naked. But there’s one tie that binds nearly everyone I’ve interacted with through the course of this and previous challenges: physical activity. Whether you’re trying to eat, sleep, or look better, exercise matters. Effective exercise especially matters for everyone, and my intent when creating Primal Blueprint Fitness was to democratize fitness without compromising it—to distill effective training down to its essential elements so that everyone could practice it.

Sure enough, the same basic concepts apply to—and work for—everyone:

  1. Strength train two or three times a week, focusing on the basic compound movements—pushing, pulling, squatting/knee flexion, hip extension, planking.
  2. Sprint once a week—move as fast you can for short distances.
  3. Get as much long, easy aerobic movement as possible—hiking, walking, easy trail running.
  4. Play as often as you can.
  5. Make your short, intense workouts—the sprints, the lifting—even shorter and more intense. Make your long, easy workouts—the walks, the hikes, the jogging—even longer and easier.

But here’s the thing about effort, intensity, workload, and even exercise choice: it’s all relative.

A former high school wrestler will apply the concepts differently than a 65 year-old retiree. A burnt-out CrossFitter will sprint, lift, and play differently than a disgruntled marathoner.

Elite athletes’ schedules will look very different. PBF probably won’t get you past BUD/S or into the upper echelon of the CrossFit games without serious modifications. Bodybuilders won’t be contest-ready on vanilla PBF. But for everyone else, this basic structure underlies every effective fitness program.

How can different populations tailor PBF to their needs, goals, and capacities? How does the retiree do PBF? The former CrossFitter? The recovering triathlete? The harried parent of twins? Let’s go through some basic archetypes and my recommendations for each.

The Retiree

Maybe you’re not exactly retired yet, but you’re certainly of the age, and you’re a little out of shape. You probably couldn’t identify a kettlebell. There’s a little, or big, paunch situated below your sternum. You’ve noticed everyday things getting a little bit harder than you’d prefer. Climbing more than two flights of stairs is unpleasant, your [enter body part] aches from time to time, and things that shouldn’t be sagging are sagging. You want to get stronger, be more active and comfortable on your feet, and lose some of that paunch.

Vanilla PBF is the way to go. Download the eBook if you haven’t already and stick to the basics. Figure out your capacities and work your way up from the bottom.

Pushups, squats, pullups, and planks. Assisted when necessary.

Sprints performed on a stationary bike. If you insist on running, sprint uphill, as that’s easier on the joints than sprinting on flat ground. Remember that sprinting is as fast as you can go, not as fast as others can.

Walk tons, hiking when possible. I don’t see the need to jog or run at all. You’ll only risk injury without getting any fitter than sprinting and lifting will make you.

Find something you love doing that keeps you active. There’s a reason you haven’t exercised much over the years, and not enjoying it is a likely candidate.

The Endurance Athlete

You’re skinny, or maybe skinny fat. You pride yourself on your capacity to run/bike/swim far longer than everyone else, but you’re unclear whether it’s actually improved your quality of life or overall fitness. You’d like to be stronger and—let’s face it—have bigger muscles. Even your lower body, which does the most work, isn’t nearly as impressive as your neighbor who doesn’t appear to do anything but lift weights a couple times a week. Not fair. Also, you’re skinny with an annoying layer of subcutaneous fat that won’t go away and, unbelievably, seems to get worse the more you run.

Limit yourself to one big training run a week. Your endurance capacity is high, so you have a weird idea of “easy, slow movement” and can get away with a lot more while keeping it easy. Whereas the average human finds a five mile run to be highly taxing, it’s chicken scratch to you. You need to tone it way down, if only to avoid getting sucked back into the maelstrom of hardcore chronic cardio.

Focus on strength. And once you have the bodyweight movements mastered—which shouldn’t take long, as you are an athlete—move on to weighted lifts. Lifting heavy things is most crucial for endurance athletes, as excessive endurance athletics done to the exclusion of all else tends to atrophy muscle and reduce bone mineral density. Lifting weights can reverse that trend and even improve your endurance performance by strengthening joints and giving you raw power. Get a coach if you need one. Just lift.

You also need to sprint. Since you’re a runner through and through, you can handle full-on sprinting. If you’re a cyclist, do 30 second all-out sprints with plenty of rest. You’re good at maximizing your output over long periods of time. Now it’s time to see how hard you can go for 10-30 seconds at a stretch.

Find something fun to do—a sport, a “childish” game like tag or capture the flag, anything. Speaking as a former marathoner, I know the love-hate relationship you have with your training. You hate doing it, you dread doing it, but love having done it. With physical play, you look forward to doing it, love doing it, and love having done it. Win-win-win.

The Parent

Bad sleep, worse eating habits. Stress levels sky high. Less sex than you’d like. More responsibilities than you’ve ever known. Parenting, especially the early years, can really throw your fitness routine for a loop. But you shouldn’t allow it. Training is more important than ever.

Strength training has to happen whenever you can grab it. You can’t rely on single chunks of time devoted to training. Working out while parenting is all about workout snacks. As soon as you wake up, do 10 squats and 5 pushups. While you’re waiting for the bottle heat up, do another 10 and 5. Plank while the kid’s nursing (unless your breast is involved).

When sprinting, keep it short and sweet. High stress environments call for low-stress training (stress is stress). And while longer sprints are supremely taxing, short (5-7 seconds) sprints are easy to recover from and still provide great benefit.

Walk every day as a family. Strap that kid onto your or your partner’s chest and walk. Walk through the neighborhood. Walk through green spaces (I strongly believe this is a way to lower stress for everyone and imprint the beauty and majesty and importance of nature onto your kid). Even if it’s just 15 minutes, walk.

Incorporate your kid. You can overhead press, KB swing, deadlift, squat, curl, row, and bench press a child throughout infancy and on into toddlerhood. Lay that slab of baby flesh across your back and do some pushups. Plop that kid astride shoulders and do walking lunges through the grocery store. You’ve probably got poop on your sleeve as you’re reading this, so why the modesty? Expel shame and embarrassment.

Play. Set a good example for the kid and stay sane.

The CrossFitter

CrossFitters who are happy with CF don’t go looking for other modalities. So if you’re considering switching to PBF, you’re probably a little burnt-out. That’s okay. That’s to be expected. CrossFit is a powerful tool melding fitness, community, and competition, but it’s very demanding. If you’re not careful and cognizant of your recovery, sleep, and nutrition, you might burn out.

Focus mostly on bodyweight exercises to lower the intensity from your normal routine or focus on heavy weights with low reps. Either way, you need to take a break from lifting moderately heavy weight for high volume at high speed with little rest. That’s the hallmark of many CrossFit WODs, and while it can get people really fit in a short amount of time, it comes at a heavy price.

Focus on all-out sprints with more rest than you think you need. Instead of running tabata hill sprints, take a full three to four minutes rest in between each one. Low rest intervals are great for building stamina, but I’ve noticed the greatest benefits from resting long enough to give it my absolute all each time. Rowing, cycling (your CF box probably has an Airdyne, which is fantastic for sprinting) also work.

Walk. Just walk. You’re gonna fight it. You’re gonna think you’re wasting your time. But trust me on this: you are healing your broken body and relearning how to simply move for movement’s sake. Don’t think about all the force you could be applying over time and distance and just move and glide through the world.

Pick up a sport. This is fun, so it’s a form of play, but team sports feed both your competitive streak and need for community that you may be missing. Also, the raw athleticism and stamina you’ve picked up CrossFitting will serve you well running up and down a field or basketball court.

The Office Worker

You sit all day. Your posture isn’t great. You may like your job, but you don’t like being cooped up inside all day. What to do?

Start with basic PBF. Just like the retiree (only younger), you’re probably out of shape and out of the game. You need to ease back in and get comfortable with the movements before increasing difficulty. The same recommendations apply to you. In addition:

Prioritize sleep. You’re working long days. You’ll be tempted to sacrifice sleep for training. Don’t.

Train outside as often as possible, maybe at lunch. You need the fresh air and the sun.

As you’ve noticed, there are many common recommendations. Pretty much everyone over the age of five needs to play way more than they do. Play doesn’t discriminate. I’d even argue that focusing on play becomes more important the older we get because the world conspires against us engaging in it.

And while I couldn’t speak to every individual situation, there are overlaps. People who come home from work exhausted from being on their feet or doing manual labor all day can refer to the CrossFitter recommendations. Anyone of any age who’s really out of shape can glean useful advice from the retiree and office worker sections.

That’s it for today, everyone. Read the post, see which section applies to you, and let me know what you think down below. Thanks for reading!

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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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