Are You Working Out Au Naturel?
No – this is not what you think!! I am referring to natural movement, or primal movement, (however you want to describe it), which are movements that are (or should be) innate to us as humans. But as our world becomes increasingly more sedentary the repercussions on our health – and movement patterns – are becoming increasingly more worrisome. Basic movements that we shouldn’t even have to think about doing become difficult, or even impossible for some, and we start to experience aches and pains, which puts us off doing anything and so we end up in a vicious circle. We become weaker and weaker, suffering from conditions such as sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Statistics show that someone who falls and breaks a hip is likely to die within a year, with a 5- 8- fold increase for all cause mortality during the first 3 months after hip fracture!
I know several older people who are frightened to get down on the floor because they cannot get back up. Last year, my husband and I were out shopping and a woman asked him if he could help her get up – she had knelt down to look at something on the bottom shelf and could not get back up again – and she wasn’t particularly old! I have even had young clients who struggle to do the very basic human movements that are listed below, which makes it very difficult for them to then participate in any exercise program. Getting up and down from, and even just sitting on, the floor is something we should be able to do with no problem our entire life. Elderly folk in contemporary tribes squat for long periods of time as they perform daily tasks such as cooking, and they can sit and stand with ease. What has happened to us in our modern world that this basic ability has become so difficult?!
Movements that we instinctively do as babies and young children become long forgotten as we grow up and become part of a “civilised society” and, unless you find the joy of sport or gym fitness, it is likely that you will not return to anywhere near the same physical health you had as a child. Indeed, even young children today are often not as active as they should be, with the result that we are seeing youngsters struggling to partake in sports day or preferring to sit indoors on the iPad or X-box rather than running around outside, climbing trees and swinging and hanging from branches. This is a tragedy, and something we should be working towards reversing. Active parents (and grandparents for that matter) are a great role model for young children.
To combat these issues – and our increasingly immobile society – it is essential to incorporate more basic, natural movements into our everyday lives. We can get anything we want delivered right to our door – we don’t even need to walk more than a few steps to open the door! We spend so much of our time sitting – in cars, on the tube, in buses, at our desks, in front of the TV… Whilst I am not necessarily advocating hunting and gathering (although actually I think it would do us all a lot of good to not only be moving for a large period of the day, but to reconnect with the food we eat), we simply don’t get out and about enough to be anywhere close to the amount of time our ancestors spent on their feet. Even if you attend an exercise class regularly, or go to the gym a few times a week, it is not enough if you are sitting, or are largely inactive, for the rest of your day. Equally, performing endless cardio exercises day in day out is not terribly clever either, as this can lead to fatigue and burn out and, as I have discussed in previous blogs, cardio, whilst it has its place in fitness, may not be the best form of exercise that you can implement for better overall health outcomes, but should be part of the bigger picture of what you include in your weekly activity.
Brief, intense exercise sessions, involving functional, full-body movements such as squats, bending, pushing, pulling, lunging, twisting and gait movements are essential for building strong lean muscle tissue and healthy bones. Our ligaments and tendons also benefit from these types of general movements, and if we perform them regularly we should find ourselves becoming, and remaining, fit, strong and healthy into our old age.
What if you don’t have access to weights?
No problem – you can utilize everyday household objects and items around you to help implement the movements. Best of all – you always have your own body with you and bodyweight movements can be extremely beneficial – after all, if I asked you to lift your bodyweight in a deadlift most of you would struggle, so just moving and lifting your body is enough of a stress to help your muscles, ligaments, joints and tendons to adapt and develop, becoming stronger and better at the demands placed on them. And, best of all, you don’t need to be doing this for hours on end, in fact breaking up your day and performing different movements at different times for just few minutes can be just as beneficial (and perhaps more so) as taking a whole hour to do the same movements.
The Seven Natural Movements
Let’s take a look at each natural movement pattern in a bit more detail:
- Squats: These are (or should be!) used in every day life, movements such as sitting down on, and getting up from, a chair and the floor. Many cultures, and contemporary tribal people, squat daily and perform tasks easily in this position. They have no problems continuing to squat into old age because they do this movement on a daily basis. We have the ability when we are very small but somehow seem to stop doing it, so that even teenagers today have problems squatting. There are numerous issues that I see with squatting, from knees turning in, to heels lifting off the floor, to pushing the knees forward over the toes, to the back tipping forward rather than the legs doing the work. For a good squat, keep the weight in the heels, lift the back as upright as you can and really sit down into the squat, pushing your butt back and down towards the floor. You can use a counter surface or table to hold onto to help keep you in the correct position when starting out. You can even use a partner and hold each others hands at arms length and slowly squat together, staying upright and controlled, keeping the knees tracking in the same direction as the feet. Exercises to help improve squats include, air squats, front squats, barbell squats, goblet squats, hunter-gatherer squat hold amongst many, but even a simple sit down and get up off the floor, utilising the squat movement, is a great way to make this become an easier to do.
- Push: Pushing our body up off the ground should be a fairly simple thing to do, and one that is done with some regularity. However most people, unless they are performing push-ups specifically, tend to avoid this movement as it is seen as “too hard” or perhaps unnecessary. Pushing and lifting luggage up into an overhead cabin locker on board an aircraft, or putting groceries up into a high cupboard are another example of common pushing movements. Push-ups engage more than just the arms, the whole core is involved, from the abdominals to the lower back and down through the glutes and legs. If a full body push-up is too advanced for you, then start by pushing off from a wall, making sure your body is in a straight line. You can also use a kitchen counter surface to lean against and push off from. Then move down to a lower surface – a bench for example – before advancing to the knees and eventually a full plank position. Remember to keep the bodyweight over the arms, shoulders directly over the hands, making sure not to arch the back or push the pelvis down to the floor, but rather taking the head and shoulders down, allowing the rest of the body to follow in a straight line, keeping the glutes and abs tight. To develop arm and chest strength, lie down on your back, with your knees bent, and press a heavy object up and lower it back down with control (use a rucksack filled with something heavy, for example). Examples of pushing exercises include push-ups, bench press, shoulder press.
- Pull: We use pulling movements for something simple such as pulling ourselves up, pulling something down towards us for easier access, starting the lawn mower, or pulling a heavy object along. Pulling exercises engage the core muscles and help to build a strong back when performed properly. Learning to pull correctly can improve issues with back pain. Unfortunately it is all too common to see pulling exercises performed with improper form; pulling from the shoulders and the neck as opposed to engaging the back and latissimus muscles. Finding a sturdy tree branch to hang from and simply practising pulling the shoulder blades down can help to strengthen the back muscles before trying to do pull-ups. Using a resistance band to assist with pull-ups when you start out is also helpful, as is doing negatives (jumping up and holding the top position for as long as possible and then lowering slowly back down). Placing a sturdy broom handle across a couple of chairs and lying down underneath it so that you can grasp hold of it from below and then pull yourself up and lower back down is another great way to develop strong back muscles. Exercises to help with pulling include pull-ups, suspension trainer body rows, inverted rows, lateral pull-downs, bent over rows and many more.
- Lunge: We use a lunge when we are stepping up and down, and this can be particularly challenging when we are carrying a heavy object at the same time. We need our legs to be strong and this strength comes from the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and feet. People often complain that they are unable to lunge because of knee problems, however this is usually due to the fact that they are performing the lunge incorrectly. A lunge should have the knee placed over the ankle (not forward over the foot) and the back should be upright and not leaning forward, (which puts the bodyweight into the knee – thus putting strain on the knee.) Placing your hands behind your head can help with keeping the back more upright. If you want to add some extra resistance, trying holding a large watermelon as you perform walking lunges (just be careful not to drop it!!), then enjoy a slice after your hard work! Lunge exercises include forward and rear lunges, deficit lunges (up and down from a step), side lunges.
- Twist: Rotational movements such as turning from the waist to reach for something, picking something up from the floor or throwing an object sideways all involve a twisting motion. Twisting improves core strength and one of my clients has found that her golf swing has vastly improved since we started implementing rotational twists into her weekly workout. Resistance bands are inexpensive and can be a useful tool with rotational twists. Attach one end around a pole or small tree, and then, standing sideways on, use both hands to pull the band from one side of your body to the other, keeping your feet firmly planted. Other exercises to help this movement include Russian twist, rotational rows, wall ball throws to the side, kettlebell woodchops.
- Bend: Bending is a very common everyday movement; we bend to pick up small children and babies, we lift up heavy bags of shopping, and yet so many people complain of aches and pains in their lower back or legs when doing this. However, it is improper bending that results in lower back pain and injuries and these are unfortunately all too common today. Learning to bend properly, hinging from the hips and engaging the core muscles is crucial to good back health and can really help prevent these type of problems as we age. So many of my clients round their backs when they are bending forward, looking downwards and hunching over – it’s no wonder so many people complain of a sore back! Hinging forward with soft or bent knees, flattening the back and looking ahead produces a much safer, and stronger, position from which to pick up something heavy. Unfortunately once someone suffers from a bad back, they are naturally very wary about exercising it, however it is crucial to exercise a bad back in order for it to get stronger and healthier – the caveat being that you must seek professional advice as to how to implement this properly and safely. Only by exercising the back can you hope to make it – and the whole core – stronger. If you suffer from rounded back and shoulders, a great and easy technique to start addressing this is to use a broom, or mop, and place it across the back of your shoulders, holding it in place with your hands (at a comfortable, shoulder width distance apart), and then practicing hinging forward. The broom/mop will prevent you from rounding, because you will feel it move upwards if you do. Fill a rucksack with some heavy objects and practice performing a deadlift, using the correct hinge position, making sure to come up to a completely straight position at the top of the movement and squeezing the glutes when you do so. And, of course, let’s not forget about working the back in the opposite direction – back bends. If you were into gymnastics when you were young you would have thought nothing of bending over backwards and landing on your hands in an upside down position! Again, this is something we stop doing (if we ever did it) and become too scared to try as we get older. Exercises to improve bending include deadlifts, good mornings, kettlebell swings, barbell and kettlebell cleans, tabletop hold, back bend.
- Gait: This includes any movement from crawling to walking to jogging to sprinting. This is incorporated into most other movement and is usually used in combination. Learning to walk barefoot is an important part of developing strength from the feet up. There are numerous bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments found in the feet and they all need to work properly to ensure good posture and to support the legs and spine. Improper footwear, or even shoes that “support” the feet, do not allow for the intricate movement necessary for flexibility and strength to develop. (It’s a bit like wearing mittens and then wondering why you haven’t got the dexterity in your fingers for more intricate movements!). A proper gait pattern translates into good posture and vice versa. If you are continually slumped over a desk, or hunched in front of the TV, chances are your gait is being affected, with the neck rounded, shoulders and back rounded and pressure being put onto the lower back. Practice the old-fashioned “model” technique of walking around the room, balancing a book on your head! Drop down onto your hands and knees and then lift the knees about 1” off the floor and slowly crawl about in that position (cat walk shown below) – you will be surprised at how hard it is (done correctly) and how much your heart rate will go up just from this one simple movement! Exercises to improve your gait include cat walks/bear crawls, walking barefoot, jogging, sprinting, jumping.
Activating The Gluteals.
Along with adding in natural movement patterns, another important factor to examine in overall health is why working the lower body is so beneficial. Exercising the legs, in particular, has shown to send signals to the brain that are vital for the production of healthy neural cells, critical for the brain and nervous system. Reduction of movement alters the activity of many organs in the body, including the brain. This study’s lead author, Dr. Raffaella Adami said “It is no accident that we are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things. Neurological health is not a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles ‘lift,’ ‘walk,’ and so on.” The research demonstrated the critical role that movement plays in our lives.
Leg exercises require upper body strength, core strength, mental strength – and functional strength (that natural movement pattern). The glutes, in particular, require a lot of energy to move. These are a major muscle group within the body, and should provide strength, power and stability for the whole body to draw from. However, this is an area where many people are woefully lacking in strength and power. Many of my clients struggle with firing up and engaging glute muscles, and this is simply because we have forgotten how to implement it in our everyday lives. Many gym-goers perform their typical squat patterns forgetting to engage the glutes at the top of the movement, with the squat simply ending in just standing in an upright position as opposed to squeezing the glute muscles at the top of the movement. Inability to activate and fire up the glutes leads to poor execution of many other leg exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts etc.
Great Glutes On Fire!
Here are some really excellent exercises to help you to strengthen your derriere:
- Glute bridge – start with just the bodyweight version and progress to using a weighted barbell if you have access to one. (and don’t be afraid to build up those weights and go heavy).
- Single leg hip thrust – either from the floor, or with your head and shoulders supported on a bench, and then advance to an elevated foot position.
- Frog pump – again this can be bodyweight at first and then place a weight of some sort on the pelvis (use a soft cushion to protect your hip bones!). Cheap sandbags are ideal to use as weights for this kind of exercise.
- Bulgarian split squat – this will fire up the quads and the glutes and is a great exercise. Go with bodyweight at first, as this will be challenging enough for strength and balance, and then simply hold a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells (or something heavy from the house like a couple of large water containers or buckets filled with water to whatever weight you can manage) – one in each hand. Or wear a weight vest, or a rucksack filled with some heavy objects.
For a helpful technique video of these glute exercises click here.
So, whatever your exercise regime is, remember to add in natural movements throughout your day – every day! Stay strong, mobile and agile, as well as retaining mental health, into your dotage – what you do today affects your tomorrow!