On a recent February morning, New York City-based trainer Brandon Sewall threw a heavy, misshapen brick he’d found on the ground in East River Park at me. After I learned to catch and throw it back, I hurled it over a fence, sprinted towards another fence, and then scaled said fence—while the traffic on the FDR zoomed past.
The regimen—a mix of exercises like climbing, throwing, and running on outdoor, unpredictable terrain—was part of Sewall’s Primitive Movement program, and he’s not alone in his back-to-nature approach.
A growing group of fitness professionals are advocating a similar philosophy—that fitness and strength are found in mastering basic, functional human movements. The approach is sometimes referred to as “Paleo Fitness.”
WHAT’S NATURAL MOVEMENT?
The leader of the movement is Erwan Le Corre, the founder of MovNat. Le Corre was influenced by his own proclivity for bounding through nature, and by a forgotten fitness method “Methode Naturelle,” created by Georges Hebert at the beginning of the 20th century. (Sewall, who grew up on a farm in Maine and was once a lobster fisherman, was similarly inspired.)
At the core of the approach is the idea that humans have stopped moving in the way they were meant to, and, because of this, they’re unprepared for physical challenges that may arise and are unable to move through the world efficiently. Picking up heavy things and putting them down may build muscle, for example, but it doesn’t teach the many muscle groups in your body to work together to, say, climb a tree.
“I believe there’s a lot of confusion about what’s natural and what’s not,” Le Corre says. “To me, natural means that there is a real interaction with nature, that you have to adjust and adapt your movements to your immediate environment.”
The MovNat workout includes 13 movement skills, like jumping and balancing, and 10 natural movement principles, like practical and instinctual. Since Le Corre launched it in 2009, he’s trained several hundred instructors around the world, and Movnat has affiliates and trainers all over the U.S. and in dozens of countries like China, Germany, and New Zealand.
WHY NATURAL MOVEMENT?
Of course, for the modern, working woman, does this approach to fitness even matter? When are you ever going to need to scale a wall or balance on the limb of a tree? Sewall insists that the strength and agility you’ll gain from working out this way will help you with the challenges of modern, and even urban, life (even if he did tell me during traning to “throw the brick like you would a bale of hay or a lobster trap,” to which I responded with a blank stare).
“The exercises teach you how to move in real life, whether it’s carrying your laundry up a fifth-floor walk-up or throwing a person over your shoulder and carrying them out of a burning building,” he explains. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. “The movements are functional, playful, and graceful, without the monotony of the gym or weight room.”
Le Corre agrees. Both men and women can benefit mentally and physically from realizing their body’s true, natural potential, he says. “Actually, most of the movements are gentle and require more skill than brute strength. You don’t have to be half-naked in the woods; it doesn’t have to be rough.” —Lisa Elaine Held
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