Primal Blueprint Fitness Standards

(This is the fourth part of a four part series on fitness. Part 1: What Does it Mean to Be Fit?, Part 2: Could You Save Your Own Life?, Part 3: Modern Fitness Standards)

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?

TAGS:  Grok

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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35 thoughts on “Primal Blueprint Fitness Standards”

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  1. Hi Mark,

    A nice reminder of the more physical principles. And let’s not forget that Grok certainly used that big brain of his too. We may not have the chance to produce cave paintings, but being creative is also something to which we should aspire. Anything from painting to wood carving, writing a book, learning a language, acquiring more practical skills (DIY or CPR), anything which takes your fancy. Practising or learning skills seems to be something that could fit into the PB lifestyle; Grok would have found time for a little creativity…cave paintings, anyone?

    As ever, great post 😉

    GROK ON!

  2. Hi Mark,

    very nice article, and I am glad to see the balance of references to females as well as males, and especially the older humans among us… and the ill or recovering, etc. Thanks!
    You might think of including the concept of flexibility, and stretching, since a strong body still needs to be able to get into awkward positions to apply the strength, often. No doubt Grok and friends were on average more flexible than is common in westernized city dweller types today?

    good post!

  3. Mark – What a week! Thanks for a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and thought provoking set of posts. You ended on a high note. This one was the best of the bunch.

  4. “Grok had to be quick on his feet.”

    I think people underestimate how useful this was to Grok with hunting. Many animals can outrun Grok in bursts, but they also tire more quickly when dosed with a adrenaline.

    This re-registered with me this morning while I was bird hunting. Relying a bit too much on my shotgun, I missed two opportunities to take a bird.

    There is just not enough time in close quarters even if you’re on constant high alert (which is exhausting). You only have a spit second to make a shot when stationary, but if I utilize that time to run down the bird as soon as it explodes from its position/perch instead of shooting, he no longer has the element of surprise when you’re almost on top of him upon landing. Big birds are poor flyers in the woods and tire quickly. They’re easy to run down.

  5. Mark, I think you missed a major aspect of primal fitness: hand to hand combat. Surely Grok, like many other animals including even some modern humans, relied on fighting ability to ward off rival tribes, settle disputes within a tribe, and showcase physical dominance for winning the admiration of potential mates (and intimidating competitors for those mates).

    Now, fighting can involve a fair amount of blunt force trauma, which is not healthy in either the short or long run. However, with certain restrictions and precautions (e.g., an even-matched wrestling match, using protective gear, for 15 minutes with no breaks), fighting can provide a tremendous all around workout for strength, endurance, flexibility, and skill, not to mention the ultimate stimulation of the competitive instinct.

    1. Agreed. All animals compete physically, and childern instintivly grapple with one another, play wrestling, so do pups, lion cubs etc. Very good work out and lots of fun as long as you don’t take it to seriously!

  6. Great articles for the week, Mark. I completely agree with your Primal Blueprint philosophy on health, longevity and fitness. I also can attest to the various modern fitness programs/standards you mentioned yesterday, as I have been fortunate enough to be able to test and/or work in such professions that require such standards. Currently, I’m a firefighter/paramedic and see the guys “come and go” with the crossfit stuff. For most, it proves to be too much. I received my crossfit certification a few years ago but gave up the whole crossfit way of life because for me, it was just too much. My diet was and is about as “dialed in” as it gets but my lack of recovery from 3 intense days on and 1 off for rest proved to be exhausting and detrimental to other daily activities. I find that the primal way of living is so much more beneficial and overall healthier for me and probably anyone else who incorporates it. Since giving up Crossfit and programs like it, I have actually become even more lean, stronger and faster. My body does not constantly and/or chronically stay sore, ache, or hurt anymore. I attribute this to more rest, more natural movement, and not calorie counting, hence “zoning” all of my food. I don’t want to come off as knocking programs like Crossfit, because I think they’re exceptional for elite fitness levels and people who aspire or are “preparing” for SEALs and other special forces. I just feel that doing that much work that often (which does promote chronic inflammation even with a perfect diet and immense tablespoons of fish oil) is still at conflict at with what Grok would have done. Crossfit, Wendler’s 5/3/1, Olympic lifting, ultramarathons, etc, etc. are all specific events and/or programs. Crossfit may have the most variety and be more about “across broad times and modal domains” but, Grok followed NO program and relied on NOBODY to tell him what to do or how to do it. Great work Mark. Keep it coming!

    1. Steven,

      I’m an avid Crossfitter, and I see your point. I went through similar reactions. I was becoming sluggish, and was sore ALL THE TIME. Following the Zone was not practical at all! But then I started following now only other aspects of PB, but focused on diet. I inhale fat and protein, and watch my carbs pretty closely. My strength has gone up, as well as my recovery time. It’s been great! I encourage you to give it another shot if feel so inclined 🙂 Grok on!

  7. Mark,

    I’m interested in your opinion of Ross Training, mainly if you consider it too intense to be “primal.” I’m currently engaged in his 50 day challenge from his “Never Gymless” text. The first week made me more sore than I’d ever been before, but since has leveled off and I’m feeling much stronger and more explosive. I think the impetus though is how I’ve “primalized” it by taking more days of rest in between workouts, instead of going 4 consecutive, very intense days on and one day off. I’m sure Ross would disapprove, but what do you think? In my opinion, one cannot achieve 100 percent intensity, no matter how mentally or physically tough, if every part of their body feels broken down. Taking a day off between most workouts seems to have allowed me to get more out of each session. Would love to hear your or any other readers thoughts on the matter.

  8. I agree with Jon. A karate sparring match is made up of a lot of burst type movements, and don’t last long. It’s great exercise. It’s a great way to reduce stress too.

  9. There are about two dozen tried-and-true exercises out there that will stimulate muscular growth when done correctly and not injure. Power cleans and snatches are NOT one of them. They are done manly by skill. The explosive nature of these lifts places terrible forces on muscles, joints, and connective tissues. And because they involve so much momentum, they are not effective in muscle overload. If you have to get a great weight off of you, then by God, do whatever necssary, but remember, building strength is one thing, demonstrating it another.

    1. Chris,
      Could you elaborate? Does this apply to full as well as power cleans. Similarly, is there a discrepancy between the power and full snatch? Thanks.

    2. “There are about two dozen tried-and-true exercises out there that will stimulate muscular growth when done correctly and not injure.”

      It’s not all about muscular growth.

      “building strength is one thing, demonstrating it another.”

      Exactly. Being prepared to demonstrate strength and power in the real world when circumstances demand it is MORE important than just having them. Exercises that may translate to increased strength in gym may or may not translate into effectiveness in Grok’s world.

      Expressing power in lifting from the ground to overhead is about as primal as sprinting, throwing, climbing, and jumping.

      The O lifts, when properly performed, train this expression of power in a controlled environment, preparing the lifter for the uncontrolled environment of life.

      Why dumb down such a dynamic,quick, powerful, natural movement? Because it takes some skill? Skills like strength, power, speed, balance, “core stability,” and flexibility are prominently represented simultaneously in the O-lifts.

      If you get injured doing them, you went too heavy too soon, you are doing them really wrong, or/and your life and previous training left you shy of your potential to adequately control external objects (ie your training left you strong enough to move the weight, but not quick and responsive enough to control it–otherwise the lifts are self-limiting).

      Respect, but don’t fear the O lifts. Learn how to do the lifts properly. Progress slowly but consistently with load. PRACTICE the skill. Just like anything else worth doing. Follow that advice and you will see unexpected benefits.

      Here are a couple of links to start to look at injury and benefits of these lifts.

      Obviously you don’t have to do them to improve your fitness, but safety issues and lack of effectiveness are not valid reasons to exclude them and there is no true substitute for them that I can think of.

      1. If a program does not increase strenght then it is not exercise. Sport maybe, not exercise. O-lifting is a SPORT, trying to mimic a sport while “exercising” is in conflict to motor learninng science. Throwing weights around “heavy” or not is not was causes injure. It is acceleration that causes injury. The change in velocity. Bottom line: Do those lifts w/your “average” 40-50 year old female and you will injure her rotator cuffs, neck and back. And may even break bones if she is osteoporotic.

        1. Can you think of anything in life that would require a quick and stable response to an unexpected change in load? I can. Tripping, a bag of dog food slipping from grasp, weight shifting suddenly in a box of junk you’re carrying to the car, misjudging the weight of an object, grabbing your child out of oncoming traffic, a decrepit parent passes out as you help them off the toilet. Training strength only and only at low “accelerations” does not adequately prepare the body for these.

          I have nothing against scaling back with populations that are de-trained to the point of serious risk of injury, that is just due diligence, but I think you may find a number of 40+ men and women who would take exception to the idea that they are that fragile and are destined to stay that way–including me. [I did not start to learn the lifts until I was 38, I’m doing them now at 40 and every time I do them I wish I had started years ago].

          Also, slow strength training is not an ironclad protection from injury to the shoulder, neck, or back when pursuing fitness. Truthfully, anything effective has inherent risk and I’ve seen MANY people of all ages mess themselves up with “safe” “resistance training” machines and protocols.

          Your point begs the question: how fragile would these average 40-50 year old females be if they had trained appropriately throughout their life?

          Also,”If a program does not increase strenght then it is not exercise..” I did not mean to imply that I was against getting stronger. I also didn’t mean to imply that I think O-lifting is the only activity required to get fit. They are a beneficial addition to the mix. Beneficial in a way that is difficult if not impossible to duplicate.


  10. Thanks for the link-up, Mark. I truly believe that the power/bodyweight ratio, and the bettering of that ratio, is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated aspect of physical fitness.

  11. Temple building – including Stonehenge – are all Neolithic activities.

    No self-respecting Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would have spent a minute wasting his time this way… 😉

  12. Mark, there is one sort of fitness that I think you left out. Its the sort of mental fitness that is required in parkour. Grok would be lucky to have to run away from a predator in an open field. What about an uneven environment riddled with obstacles? Grok would need to know how far he could jump, how to land from a high jump, how to quickly assess an area and be able to decide what was the quickest way to get out while eluding the predator.

  13. I followed Crossfit for around 5 years. I also have all of Ross’ materials, and completed both of his 50 day programs. My opinion on Crossfit and Ross is that the intensity is too high, and there is too much emphasis on conditioning, (not enough on strength). There are no moderate, or easy days built into the program! This will catch up to you eventually.
    It matters not if I were training for SEALs, LEO, or whatever. I work with inmates, and I need to have some advantage when the sh*t hits the fan.
    I was sick, injured, and sore more often than I can remember! I loved the variety, but was it worth it? I don’t believe the benefits outweighed the negatives. If you are sick, sore, or hurt, can you respond 100% when an inmate that outweighs you by 80 lbs. is attacking? The answer is NO!!!
    It took a while for the brainwashing of the Crossfit boards to get out of my thick skull!
    Presently, I follow the BFS program:
    and add kettlebells for the auxiliary exercises.
    I feel MUCH better, stronger, faster, and I am leaner and more muscular than when I followed CF/Ross!!!
    My advise if you follow CF/Ross is to do most days at a moderate intensity and don’t rush the clock. Only bust ass on occasion.

  14. Mark,

    Just wanted to thank you for the whole Primal Blueprint concept. I was introduced at the beginning of August; I’m feeling a lot leaner and healthier as a result. Next Saturday, I will be taking the Physical Agility exam for a position with the Sheriff’s Department of San Francisco, and confidence is high!!! Best to you and your beautiful family…

  15. I don’t know about you KC, but if a big dog jumped out at me, I’m going to run as fast as I’m ever going run. That is, I don’t have to train for speed. True, if I were going to complete in sprinting, then I would want to practice sprinting, but to save my life, just having big muscles is enough to let me run fast. So, you don’t need to train fast to be fast. Complete nonsense. As a wrestler and judo player I can tell you some of the fastest/powerful humans I have delt with are wrestlers and that is simply because they have a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers, not beacuse they throw weight around.

  16. One more little point regarding fast lifting prepairing you for real world expirences. I train my neck real hard and it is strong. Prehaps you train yours too. So how about little experiment: The average head ways 8 to 10 pounds, (mine 7lbs from brain shrinkage, but anyways,) head doesn’t weigh much right? Now lets try whipping the head and neck back and forth as hard and fast as we can for, say, 30 sec. Not a heavy weight right, and my neck is very strong at least. Do you think we would like the results of that? Well, I sure the hell wouldn’t,I can promise you that. And all from a 8LBS mellon.

  17. exactly right on about fitness, i found this article using stumbleupon, great knowing someone else shares my same ideas on fitness, definitely the way to im probably the healthiest of all my friends too which i credit to my regimen.

  18. I think Capoeira would be a great primal fitness activity. It deals with balance, strength, speed, rhythm and music. It moves your whole body and you get to play real Grok-like drums! It’s a fighting style (maybe not the most efficient one) but the whole idea is not to hit your opponent, but to dodge, play and have fun!