About 160,000 years ago a group of upright walking apes evolved in East Africa. These apes spread to every continent except Antarctica. As they spread to new lands with new environments they had to discover new things to eat, new animals to hunt, new ways to fish and new ways to construct shelters. They thrived by being curious, innovative and adventurous.
Man the Mover
How did these Homo Sapiens, that is us, spread so successfully across the globe and, most likely, drive very capable competitors, such as our Neanderthal cousins, to extinction?
Intelligence, tool use, language, symbolic behavior, tribal social structures are all key. But what good are those without movement skill? Homo Sapiens are one of earth’s premiere movement generalists capable of performing advanced movement tasks in jungles, on savannahs, in deserts, up mountains, on coastlines, in forests - pretty much all over the world. Homo Sapien means “thinking man” (sorry ladies, 18th century science doesn’t list gender equality amongst its great accomplishments). Perhaps Homo Kinesis, “moving man”, would have been just as appropriate.
Climbing, walking, running, crawling, swimming, lifting, dragging, even fighting are among the skills that have enabled humans to thrive almost anywhere. Movement skill is our birthright and too often we are losing that and falling into a poverty of movement skill.
We don’t expect cheese puffs, energy drinks and other junk foods to improve our wellness. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect elliptical trainers and resistance machines to improve our movement skills. Your body needs rich sensory input in order to decide what it should do for motor output. This is what all of the sensors in your skin, muscles, connective tissues and joints are for. Unfortunately a typical workout doesn’t provide this input.
The Solution - Be Free
Boring, simple, low skill, low complexity exercises like resistance machines rob your body of this vital input. Don’t get me wrong they will do a good job beefing up your sweat glands. Sadly, they will also force your body to concentrate stress on one part of a bone and one part of a joint and one part of a tendon and one group of muscle fibers. It locks you into the pattern and doesn’t allow your body to adapt, compensate or share the workload. This causes repetitive damage which will leave a well intentioned exerciser’s body even more hungry for sensory input. Not to mention weaker, more vulnerable and less skilled - all while trying harder and harder to keep up the usual intensity.
Contrast this with a complex movement task that makes the body work in symphony with itself rather than isolated parts. Give in to your body’s craving for a boatload of rich input from both itself and the environment. Let your body be free to make moment to moment adjustments based on that input as well as on joint stress and muscle fatigue. The workload is shared and repetitive injury avoided.
Human movement is a combination of the state of one's body, the task you want to perform, and the environment you do it in. To develop movement skill you need stimulating and complex tasks in a variety of environments. You will develop holistic strength and endurance as a side-effect of putting skill development as your top priority.
Here are some reliable guidelines:
There are lots of great exercise systems that any Homo Kinesis can be proud of. They put skill first and intensity second. Kettlebells, yoga, pilates, boot camps, martial arts, crossfit and Movnat just to name a few.
Don’t worry, you can still go to the gym, but next time, consider adapting your workout routine by changing the volume, intensity and complexity. Learn further about adapting your routine with these 3 Practices Towards Functional Fitness.