Primal Challenge Point: Master the Primal Essential Movements

Inline_Fitness_Live-Awesome-645x445-02Contrary to popular belief, strength training doesn’t require heavy weights and expensive machines. That’s certainly one way for people to get an effective workout, but you can get quite strong and fit using just compound bodyweight movements. And even if you want more, you can always add weights later.

It’s a great start for those beginning (or reigniting) a fitness routine, but I’ve also known plenty of experienced folks who benefit from putting aside more elaborate routines and practicing the basics now and then.

As a mini-challenge, work on one per week.

The Primal Essential Movements Are As Follows:


From a plank position (straight, rigid line from feet to head), hands flat on the ground and shoulder width apart, arms extended, fingers pointed forward, lower your body until your chest (or nose) touches the ground. Keep your core and glutes tight and a neutral spine and neck.

Simplified Progression (consecutive reps needed to progress)

1. Knee pushups (male, 50; female, 30)

2. Incline pushups (male, 50; female, 25)

Movement Mastery – male, 50 pushups; female, 20 pushups


Keep your elbows tight, tuck your chin (try to make a double chin), retract your shoulder blades (to protect your shoulders). Without flailing or using your lower body, lead with your chest and pull your body up using an overhand grip until your chin passes the bar. When lowering, never fully protract your shoulder blades. Don’t lead with your chin; keep it tucked throughout.

Simplified Progression

1. Chair-assisted pullups (male, 20; female, 15)

2. Chin-up (inverted grip) (male, 7; female, 4)

Movement Mastery – male, 12 pullups; female, 5 pullups


With feet at or around shoulder width (whatever’s most natural) and toes either forward or pointing slightly outward, lower by pushing your butt back and out until your thighs reach at least parallel. Keep the weight on the heels and a tight, neutral spine throughout the movement.

Simplified Progression

Assisted squat (using a pole or other support object while lowering into squat) (male and female, 50)

Movement Mastery – male and female, 50 full squats


Your body is a plank, as the name suggests. You are a single cohesive unbroken body, a straight line from head to foot. Elbows/forearms and toes are your only points of contact with the ground.

Simplified Progression

1. Forearm/knee planks (male and female, two minutes)

2. Hand/feet planks (male and female, two minutes)

Movement Mastery – male and female, two minutes

For more details and videos on these movements, check out their pages on MDA: squat, pullup, pushup, plank.

Twice a week, warm up, get your body and joints warm with some light “cardio,” and engage in a total body workout using the Essential Movements. Your goal should be mastery of all four movements for three sets. Once you’ve exhausted your mastery and want more, then add some weight (weight vest, kettlebell, sandbag, barbell, etc). Otherwise, maintaining movement mastery or bumping up the rep counts will keep you fit, lean, and strong.

For more variety, check out our Workout of the Week archives, which contain all sorts of workouts that incorporate these movements and more.

Primal Kitchen Ketchup

TAGS:  mobility

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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4 thoughts on “Primal Challenge Point: Master the Primal Essential Movements”

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  1. My daily exercise routine is very close to this. However, Mark you really demonstrate the best approach to these essential movements that I have seen thus far. Thank you!!!!!

  2. I still can’t do a pull-up…that is going to be my challenge for 2018! But other than that I’ve mastered all the others…used to hate planks but can hold one for two minutes now. And squats are so great to squeeze in throughout the day…I’m always telling people to do them while waiting for coffee to brew or any other time that you just have a few minutes. So simple but so effective!

  3. This is a comment concerning the push-up tutorial. First, I really liked the video. It provided some excellent advice for properly executing a push-up. My critique is about his statements concerning the cue, “squeeze the glutes.” In my experience, trainers use this cue b/c their clients tend to poke their backsides up pretty high b/c it makes the movement easier in some ways, and the only way to get them down is to use the glutes and get the hips into a little more extension. I am often getting my clients to bring their backsides lower, not to a perfect straight line, but lower nonetheless, and to do so, I have them squeeze their glutes lightly, and I emphasize lightly. I know I’m being picky, but in a forum like this, stringent criteria can be beneficial.

  4. Quick question…would that mean we should aim for 3 sets of 50 reps on pushups (and likewise on other mastery of movements) to achieve full mastery of the respective exercise?