Hear your body's primal scream

Vicky Hallett / The Washington Post /


Published Mar 22, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Under most circumstances, if I did an activity that left me with multiple bruises and such sore muscles that lifting my arms was agony, I'd guess that I'd done something very stupid. But after getting roughed up earlier this month, I couldn't help but feel smart — or, at least, smarter than the average gymgoer.

I'd earned my black-and-blue marks hoisting myself over a bar, rolling on the ground and dragging around my fellow participants at a workshop devoted to MovNat, a physical education system designed to teach us how to be human. That's as opposed to being a “zoo human,” MovNat creator Erwan Le Corre's term for the domesticated animals we've become, creatures who no longer remember how to leap between boulders or haul a heavy load.

“I've never been normal,” says Le Corre, a 40-year-old Frenchman rarely photographed with a shirt on. Since childhood, he's been baffled by society's focus on developing flat abs rather than practical skills for surviving in the wild. “Exercising in a confining gym with machines is acceptable,” he says. “But climbing a tree and moving on all fours is not.”

With MovNat, which he formally created in 2008, he's hoping to change that. The timing seems right. The program he's suggesting isn't totally out there, considering that serious athletes already train with bear crawls and sandbag carries in the name of functional fitness. And we've all come to recognize the hazards of our sedentary lifestyles and begun to question whether fitness “advances” have actually set us back. “People start running barefoot because it's more natural,” Le Corre says. “Then they wonder, ‘Are there ways to move other than running?' “

You want me to what?

For starters, try walking, balancing, jumping, crawling and climbing. Those were all on the schedule during that seven-hour workshop led by Clifton Harski, Le Corre's disciple who travels from town to town all over the country, spreading the MovNat gospel.

“I'm not interested in giving you guys a good workout,” he announced to the dozen participants, a mix of triathletes, CrossFitters, gymnasts and rock climbers who'd each shelled out $229 for the chance to get back to their physical roots. “I'm going to let you go through things and see if your body can figure it out. They may have been forgotten, but these are developmental movements,” Harski said.

We started with simply standing (straight) and breathing (diaphragmatically). I was feeling pretty good at being human. Then we entered the “magical forest,” which was really a quiet street in an industrial park where we imagined we had to lift our legs over fallen logs and duck under low-hanging tree limbs. Sunk into a squat and walking backward out of a tiny cave, my quads began to protest.

Soon, our shoes were off and a series of 2-by-3 planks of wood were out. The wobbly balance beams didn't seem that daunting. I could do back-walkovers on beam — 20 years ago. Turns out that now, I'm hopeless. Going forward and backward was okay, but my attempts at crawling were pitiful. “I'm ready to buy a plank of wood,” said Krissy Rusello, 35. She also was reminded of how easy it once was to make these kinds of moves. “I think if you threw a bunch of kids in here, they'd be able to do all of this.”

Next up came climbing, which Harski insisted was all about the progression. First, we just had to hop up to grab a pull-up bar and hang. Done. Swing back and forward. Easy. Swing side-to-side. Got it. Then move side-to-side along the length of the bar. Trickier, but I managed that, too. Eventually, he told us to swing a leg over the bar, scramble up so we were also resting on our elbows and then pitch ourselves forward. That, I couldn't do.

From there, we jumped and, more important, landed. (That's the part when you can get hurt.) We rolled in every direction and practiced various methods of getting up from the ground quickly. We went through the basics of barefoot running and how to carry other people.

We ended with the hardest part of all: how to incorporate MovNat into our daily lives. Le Corre recognizes that though everyone ideally would be frolicking in forests every day, that's not possible. “I run a company and manage a team. I have to stay seated many hours a day. We're all zoo humans to some extent, even me,” he says.

So Harski offered a few ideas for urban dwellers: Practice precision jumps on curbs, play tag to speed up direction changes, balance on rails. He also suggested hiking with a kettle bell to mimic having to haul home your kill. (On the issue of food, MovNat advocates the paleo diet, consisting of mostly meat, nuts, fruits and veggies.)

But really, we'd just scratched the surface of MovNat, Harski told us. There were still swimming and combat techniques, and countless other drills to improve our locomotion. People hungry for more have the option of signing up for a five-day camp in West Virginia.

Other than heading off to camp or waiting for the next workshop in your town, it's been tricky for folks who've gone through a day of MovNat to continue their education. That's a shame not just for people who've found a passion for natural movement, but for society, said Ann Wendel, a 41-year-old physical therapist who left the workshop hooked. “If everyone did more of this, we wouldn't have as many injuries,” she told me.

It's possible they soon will be. MovNat, which has been taught by only a handful of master instructors, is planning to hold its first trainer certification program in May.That could lead to MovNat classes in parks, one-on-one sessions and gyms using elements of MovNat in their programs.

Before we get carried away, however, it's worth hearing out Todd Miller, an associate professor of exercise science at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and a board member for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Although he supports MovNat's style of training — which shares many elements with how top athletes train today — Miller says humans have evolved too far away from these movements to make them a part of their daily lives. “When it comes to exercise, the gym is the place you do it. We've compartmentalized fitness,” he says.

Le Corre still believes that these skills are inside of us, and that with the right movement, we'll find them again. “We're not reinventing the wheel,” he says. “We're just making sure it rolls more smoothly.”