Back to Basic: How to Train Like Primitive Man

At social gatherings, when I’m presented to new acquaintances as a strength coach or, God forbid, “fitness expert,” the same question inevitably pops up: “From the general health point of view, what is the best form of exercise or physical activity?”

The answers people around me immediately start shooting at each other O.K. Corral-style range from running, biking, or swimming to yoga, Pilates, and Zumba. I’d like to share with you the answer that seems so obvious to me—but, somehow not so much to people I give it to.

How Did the Primitive Man Train?

Our particular species has been roaming this planet for roughly a hundred thousand years. During all that time, we continued to evolve by adapting to the prevailing conditions and the most common challenges of our everyday lives. Would it be too much of a stretch to say the activities that have shaped our bodies over the course of millenniums should be those we prioritize to keep our shapes from softening and dissolving? Seems quite logical to me.

So, what are those activities? If you’re not sure, watch a documentary about “primitive” men still living in the Amazonian jungle or African savanna. Or, for a change, Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls’ adventures around the world. What do these guys do (or not do)?

1. They Walk

A lot. Kinda figures: no roads, no cars, no subway. When your basic activity is hunting and gathering you have no choice but to walk. If your game migrates seasonally you have no choice but to follow—you walk. If floods, forest fires, glacier sliding, earthquakes and such are all part of your life, you need to move your settlement quite often—you walk. Walkers we are.

2. But Don’t Run

Primitive men and women don’t run, as in long distance running. First, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re on schedule. Want to get somewhere before sunset? Start before sunrise. Or camp. On the other hand, run barefoot in the wild forest—and sooner or later you’ll get hurt. When a primitive man was on his own in the prehistoric wilderness, sprained ankle meant death. As simple as that.

The second reason is quite evident, too. Look at all the animals renowned as good runners: horses, wolves, cheetahs. They’re all four-legged (think about weight distribution). And even then, Mother Nature deemed useful to grant them with another joint between the ground and the pelvis. Unlike humans, their “heels” are well in the air. They basically run on the tip of their toes. Born to Run sure makes a nice title for a book. But as sad as it might seem, for a human being it’s just not true.

3. They Lift and Move Weights

Rocks, logs, killed game, and buddies with sprained ankles. They lift, they push, they drag, they roll, and they carry. They find a way to do what needs to be done without hurting themselves in the process.

4. They Climb

They climb trees. They climb cliffs. Up, down, and sideways. Fast and slow. In daylight and in the dark. Their hands free or holding stuff.

5. They Do Sprint

Rather than a common activity, sprinting is a survival skill. You won’t outrun an antelope or a bear. But you can buy yourself enough time to throw the spear from closer up before the antelope takes off or to get to that cliff the bear won’t be able to climb. Notice that those are short dashes followed by a jump or a throw rather than acceleration in a straight line on an even surface with enough space to decelerate.

6. They Don’t Swim

That is, when they can help it. They’d rather spend an hour looking for a place to ford a river than swim across. Even the populations living on tropical islands would rather use a paddling boat. As with sprinting, swimming is a survival skill. You still might end up in the water against your will. Your main goal then will be to stay afloat and to reach the shore before the hypothermia (or the alligator) reaches you.

7. They Fight and Dance

Just to not leave it unaddressed—yes, primitive men and women do fight and dance. But those are hardly activities our bodies adapted to across the centuries of evolution.

8. They Don’t…

Finally, primitive men and women don’t do:

  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Functional training (as in lifting tiny dumbbells while sitting on a Swiss ball)
  • Roller-skating
  • Bike riding

The list goes on.

How to Shape Your Training Around That of Primitive Man

So, what should you do if you wanted to implement this information? Let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. We’re talking about training for GPP—general physical preparation. We’re talking about things that, from the general health point of view, should probably be the bulk of your overall physical activity (including your training). With that in mind, you should:

  1. Walk. As much as you can. Even if your day is made of hour-long commutes and cubicle dwelling, you’ll still be able to find a way if you set your mind to it. Sit less, stand and walk more. Use stairs instead of elevators. Pick up the habit of hiking on the weekend. Be smart about it, though. Start short, slow, and light and add up duration, speed, and load in the form of a heavier backpack. (A word of caution: you might want to check and fix your gait first, most of us being so much better at sitting than at walking).
  2. Lift weights. The trick is to have them odd enough to stay close to the real world, but not too odd—to still be able to program your training and to track your progress. I’m willing to argue that kettlebells are your best choice. Training with (one heavy or double) bells should probably be the bulk of your weight training. Sometimes, you might want to “regress” to a barbell in order to submit your system to heavier loads. Sometimes, you may want to “push forward” to two bells of different sizes, sandbags, logs, stones, tires, etc. I’d say, across the year you might want to spend 25% of your time working with barbells, 50% with kettlebells, and another 25% with odd objects. Experiment to see what works best for you. Oh, and never underestimate the value of proper instruction. Take an SFG Course or Certification or find a Certified SFG instructor. Your body will thank you.
  3. To emulate climbing, include the bodyweight classics in your training regimen. Even if you live in the “urban jungle,” pistols, OAOL push-ups, hanging straight-leg raises, and pull-ups will get you a long way. If available, use rings and ropes. Find a gym equipped with a rock-climbing wall and spend some time on it every two or three weeks.
  4. Learn how to sprint. My good friend Franz Snideman, Senior SFG, and his brother Keats Snideman, SFG, have developed a specific program, Primal Velocity, offering you just that. Take their course. Then maintain this skill by including sprinting in your training regimen, or at least make sure to do those short dashes when you’re out hiking. You may also want to learn some basic parkour moves and practice them in the same fashion.
  5. Learn how to swim then practice regularly to maintain the skill. When possible, do it in a way close to the real world conditions (for instance, prioritize open water over your pool).

And that’s about it.

But what’s with my yoga (dancing, spinning, mud wrestling…) classes? Can’t I do them anymore? Sure you can. Have fun and knock yourself out! All I’m saying is you probably shouldn’t make it the main form of your GPP training—that is, if physical health is still your primary objective.

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Alexey Senart
Senior SFG, SFB, SFL
Alexandre "Alexey" Senart, SFB, SFL, and Senior SFG, is the owner of RedStarKettlebell in Paris, France.
Alexey Senart on Email

26 thoughts on “Back to Basic: How to Train Like Primitive Man

  • My comment probably won’t be read, as I’m three years late 🙂 .

    “How to train like primitive man” Think about it? The title is flawed because it presupposes that primitive man ‘trained’.

    We can safely say that primitive man ‘lived’ and that physical movement was how he/she lived EVERYDAY- not an additional extra to do after work – and not a conscious process of, “I must train today!”

    If you had to ‘train’ (move) to survive each day – how would you approach these tasks required for living/surviving?

    How would those tasks differ depending on your environment, weather,season?

    I think modern life is too devoid of things that primitive man would have required for survival for example:

    # Real human connection (yes the irony of my typing this on a computer via internet…I get it 🙂

    # Meaningful connect with nature

    # Living in the present moment

    These things are seen by many as being nice extras in a modern consumerist life – which promotes escapism.

    To only look at physical training of primitive man in an attempt to emulate him/ her is to fail to acknowledge the complete picture of a different lifestyle and approach to ‘Living’ with many other factors that contributed to their physical capacity.

    I like the suggestions in the article – although I would say that us humans have a great capacity to adapt – in this day and age we have greater choice in what we want to adapt to… ultra running sure… power lifting sure etc.

    The recommendations I think should be looked at as what you should do not as a ‘training session’ but as PART of your everyday life. And if you want to train for a specific event that’s the training you would do.

    Good would Strong First! Enjoy your thought provoking articles 🙂

  • Great article Alexey. We were born to run…. When needed. Not distance. Not pro-longed distances anyway.

    As a cyclist who races across different disciplines, I whole-heartedly agree that it is not for GPP and health symbiosis. I find that a lot of my additional work, beyond Strength and riding, is nearly all FMS, constantly correcting and helping the damage I’m doing to my body. I’ve embraced this for my sport, and have transcended this to my athletes, especially distance runners.

    Stick to basics.

  • Primitive man vs sociopath society

    Primitive man was not locked and caged into a social pathogen of society and the paper based reality we live under.

    He was free, he was not a slave to the system, no birth certificate to account him to the slave system.

    He was free. simple as that. But since I am locked into this system like everyone else, I try and take everything primitive man did and apply it to my own life.

  • Walk, lift, climb, sprint, fight, dance…30 years at working in ” primitive ” countries, it’s look like I became ” a primitive woman ” .
    Back to the ” civilization ” 5 years ago, I don’t understand why people are driving to a gym with air conditioning to spend 20 minutes on a treadmill looking at the TV…so many things that I don’t understand…
    Amitiés sportives.

  • Is this a joke, a travesty of the natural/primal movement?

    What about intellectual thinking, is that something primitive men and women did in prehistoric time?

  • I have always hypothesized that when I was in ‘the best shape of my life’ in the military, all that stamina I had was simply because we walked everywhere. Sure we ran alot too, I even went on extra runs, did extra PT to pass the tests but I keep wondering if WALKING around was what built the foundation. Of course, these weren’t any ordinary walks either… we had to carry all our equipment too.

    It is good to start a thought-provoking discussion, and you seem to know your stuff based on how you respond to the angry comments.
    Well done, Alexey!

  • I must admit I was surprised—and saddened—by the violence and contempt of some comments to my article. All I wanted was to share my opinion on a common topic in hopes of maybe helping someone to ‘cut through the noise’, to provoke some thoughts and maybe, start a discussion. Not to be shouted and spit at. Apparently, I should’ve shut up and only talk with the permission of those who know better like this ‘survival instructor’ whose comment is still visible on the SF Facebook page and who is ‘tired of urban people’. What’s worse: these comments could be avoided if only their authors paid attention when they read the article. It seems the notion of ‘common activities” has totally escaped them.

    I wouldn’t bother to answer to insults but I’m kinda fond of ‘urban people’ so, on their behalf:

    1. While in the military I was stationed in Djibouti, a small country in Eastern Africa, the very region some of the world’s best long-distance runners come from. One of our missions was to escort our Chief Medical officer when he provided assistance to people dwelling in the desert. While he was getting busy, we would stay by the trucks or patrol around. The natives would not pay us any attention, which made us ideally positioned to observe their habits and their everyday life. I have never, not once seen them running.

    2. Several of my friends were stationed in French Guyana and regularly meet the natives still living in the tropical forest there. One of the guys has actually befriended a native and came to spend all his leaves in his jungle village. No running reported either.

    3. Totally different situation: for the past four or five years I’ve been friends with a homeless guy leaving on the riverbank near my company. Not the type who’d spend hours at the door of some social service waiting for a bowl of soup. This guy grows his own veggies, fishes, and scavenges around the neighborhood. Guess what? He never runs either.

    So, aside from not running, what PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES are COMMON to all those guys? Despite being separated by half the world, they all:

    1. Walk a lot.
    2. Lift stuff (stones in Africa, logs in South America, anything and everything here in the city).
    3. Climb (rocky slopes in Africa, trees in South America, fences in the city).

    I believe that those are our MOST COMMON natural physical activities in a ‘primitive’ (as in ‘cut from the joys of civilisation’) state/situation. They are now and they were for an extended period of time where they’ve influenced our anatomy and physiology. And that from the point of view of physical health, walking and strength training (with and without weights) should be the bulk of anyone’s GPP. All other stuff (long-distance running, yoga, dancing etc.) is totally welcome as long as it doesn’t take over the first two. If you have different opinion, please, share.

    • Dear Alexey,
      How typical ignorant American! when are you guys giving up your stupid BS generalization based on your extremely limited exposure to the real “world”? Since you were in Djibouti ( have you ever seen it on the map compared to the Africa!!!!) and you observed!! people and they didn’t run, then the primitive people didnt run??? how about the Kalenjin inAfrica (The Kalenjin have been called by some “the running tribe”) or the Tarahumara . now that I have found two is it ok to say that all “primitives” used to run??( quote: Totally different situation: for the past four or five years I’ve been friends with a homeless guy leaving on the riverbank near my company. Not the type who’d spend hours at the door of some social service waiting for a bowl of soup. This guy grows his own veggies, fishes, and scavenges around the neighborhood. Guess what? He never runs either. THIS IS THE MOST RIDICULOUS REASON ONE CAN HEAR prove that primitives never ran.well yes, because a homeless man freind of yours never run. LOL. do you even listen to yourself dude?) how about the people in Japan, The Philippines and other Island people who swam and dived for a living for thousands of years??? nobody ever swam unless thrown in the water…yeah right. all of the primitives climbed!!! another stupid generalization, where did the Eskimo climbed???where did the Massai climbed?? where did all the desert people climbed? of course some people who lived near mountains and cliffs had to climb , but with your own reasoning, dude, which one people dont do when they can: swimming in water or climbing a 300 ft cliff??????
      well , being sent to Djibouti with US armed forces and spending time near your base and having a homeless friend who dose not run , don’t make you an expert on primitive way of living by humans for the past 10 thousand years.
      It helps to read what you post a few times. But it surprises me that some people still believe whatever nonsense is thrown their way even though they are Americans. Reminds me of the American new fashionable lifestyle ( read excuse for some smart-ass guys to rip many idiots): the Paleo diet!!! since the cavemen couldnt reach Honey, you should not eat it!!!! LOL!! heard about a lady who dose not take a bath cuz it is not paleo. and she is running an online business out of it. it means there are so many idiots who tend to get advise from such an idiot!!!well, only in America.
      one last word: dont get surprised or “saddened ” by my comments. Try to think . you have been given something called a brain. it is used to do something called thinking. try to get rid ofyour computer for a while and actually read something. instead of thinking 24/7 about how your stomach looks , try to think about life, people and purpose.
      God bless you.

  • To Dale:

    Thanks, Dale. I did physical work for a living since I was 17 (I’m including here my years in the military). Plus a lot of walking, very little running, lifting weights, doing gymnastics… Now, ‘few’ years after, I’m more productive in my work–and life–than when I started. Which is the purpose of ‘GPP for life’, as I define physical culture.

  • To Dave Smith:

    Thanks a lot for the links! Dan Lieberman is brilliant; whether one agrees with him or not, his presentations are a real pleasure to listen to.

    That being said, I remain unconvinced. And as hard and bold as might be the arguing with a Harvard PhD, I’m about to dare. Just for the record: I am not professing the final truth, neither here nor in my article; I am merely expressing my personal opinion—which I’m ready to change if presented with the arguments I deem solid.

    So, here are few remarks on ‘Persistent Hunting’ and more generally, on human evolution and adaptation.

    1. I might be wrong but ‘Persistent Hunting’ seems highly dependent on restrictive external factors, such as:
    a. The environmental factor (climate, nature of ground and terrain), which seems crucial for the ‘cost’ part of the ‘cost/benefit’ equation—injury risk, exposure, and energy cost of a long distance running are different from sand to rocks to swamp to snow.
    b. Even more restrictive is the eventual presence/absence of the “concurrence”—bigger and stronger or more numerous predators; the linked video was shot in the Kalahari desert; in slightly more humid regions of Africa hyenas are well known to systematically attack lions to rip off their kill.

    This is to say that ‘Persistent hunting’ and thus, long-distance running might not have been widespread enough to provoke adaptations but locally. Actually, it might be quite the opposite: our ancestors would already be ‘adapted’ enough for running to undertake such a form of hunting when conditions presented themselves. More on it below.

    2. I might be wrong but Dan Lieberman presents the ‘Persistent Hunting’ in a way that makes one think that all Homo Erectus were running “from 9 to 15 km a day”. He may have his own sources but in the very same video he uses for his presentation (the one you linked in your comment) the story is slightly different. There are three hunters hunting for the whole tribe and only one of them—the ‘best runner’—actually runs down and kills the scared animal. Women and most men of the tribe do not hunt/run. So running is the primary activity of, well, runners. Or would be—if they didn’t have to bring their kill back to their tribe. I’d bet they were walking, not running back home.

    3. I might be wrong but even if ‘Persistent Hunting’ was a widespread hunting method, to surmise it provoked adaptation you must be sure the hunters/runners were also the breeders. As we know, in animal groups the healthiest females breed with the group’s Alpha and possibly his lieutenants. Alpha is usually the biggest/meanest male, enough so to scare/fight off the contenders. Or the meanest and smartest. Anyway, smart or mean enough to delegate the strenuous and ungrateful tasks (such as running down animals all alone in the heat, while the tribe is ‘unattended’) to his ‘soldiers’ (I suspect not even lieutenants but of course, I might be wrong).
    But even if runners/hunters did breed, all other things equal, their injury and hence early death rate were probably higher than average, which mechanically weeded out their genes from the gene pool over a long period of time.
    That means our skill/capacity in long distance running should diminish over a long period of time, while on the contrary our sprinting skill/capacity should rise because better sprinters were better survivors: remember that joke, “You don’t need to run faster than the lion, only faster than the other guy”? Natural selection.

    4. I might be wrong but to illustrate his theories Dan Lieberman mostly uses as example long-distance runners. Those are usually people who have freely selected that form of physical activity, stuck to it, and actually got good at it. All of which suppose predispositions, mainly anatomical/physiological. What about people ‘too heavy’ for their height? Those, for example, who have naturally large and heavy bones? What are the long-term effects of long-distance running on their health? Joint health, especially? I mean, we might be theoretically good at something and ‘adapted’ to it, but that doesn’t necessarily means it’s good for us. Look at sitting.

    5. I might be wrong but Dan Lieberman himself says this method of hunting started to decline with the invention of the throwing weapons somewhere around 300,000 years ago. Then another, hunting method took over and is still in use today: get close to the animal undetected, shoot/throw to injure, follow the blood trail (easier to track and does not require running), kill, carry home. So, from this point of view, in terms of ‘shaping the human body’ over the last 100 000 of years (as I suggested in the article in reference to the age scientists give to our species’, Homo Sapiens Sapiens) ‘Persistent Hunting’ would simply be irrelevant.

    6. I might be wrong but there is a difference between ‘being adapted’ and ‘having adapted’. Is our adaptation to long-distance running the result of extensive running during some period of our evolution? Or is it incidental to our adaptation to long-distance walking? I’m wondering. Dan Lieberman illustrates the difference between walking and running gaits showing the legs’ use as ‘inverted pendulum’ in the first case and ‘springs’ in the second. True but that implies walking on flat surface only. Actual walking in wilderness implies climbing up and down more or less steep slopes, hopping, jumping, even short sprints—hence, using the legs both as springs and ‘inverted pendulum’. Wouldn’t it prepare/’adapt’ one for long-distance running? Actually, it makes me think about how we prepare for the Snatch Test. One will do a lot of Snatches—and ruin his/her shoulders. The other will do a lot of Swings and Get-ups and just a few Snatches to refine the technique—and nail the test no problem.

    7. I might be wrong but beyond all that looms the controversy of human origins. I won’t get into it here, this post already being way too long.

    Thanks for reading.

  • To William:

    I do not hate running (where did you find that in my article?) Actually, I do run myself. Not on a regular basis and not for training–for practical purposes. As a matter of fact, I ran yesterday morning: was late for work, so instead of walking as usual, I ran. And I actually enjoyed it, despite 25lbs backpack and concrete under my feet. But I still wouldn’t recommend running as the primary form of physical activity in the context of GPP.

  • I see many are picking apart this article as they have a deep connection to their running, yoga, etc roots. But the main idea behind this article is to show and teach that the best starting point is to first RESET… Much like in FMS. Getting back to our basics, our simple movements, both in exercise and diet, have a huge impact. Then you can reinforce, followed by a quality reload. Complexity clutters an already chaotic industry. Think simple, use whatever word you want (primitive, etc), but the purpose here is to explain the vast array of tools we have just with our own bodies and their natural movements.

  • Still unresolved in my mind… the persistence hunting hypothesis versus distance runners dying from heart attacks.

  • Very good article Alexey. I have agreed with this philosophy for over 30 years. I was in best shape of my life when I lived in Washington DC and used to walk 2 hours every day.

  • Agree with calling BS on the “no running” thing. And let’s try not to overplay the zombie apocalypse angle, shall we?

    • Thanks for posting the persistent hunt video in your response. Born to Run does make a nice title, but the writer of this post would have known about this if he read the book. Besides that, I also agree with all the other things.

  • Primitive people all over the world do run. It has been repeatedly documented. Your claim is blatantly false and you should retract this nonsense immediately.

    Primitive people don’t do yoga, but they don’t do long cycle clean and jerks, either. Considering yoga is several thousand years older than kettlebell training, it’s baffling that yoga isn’t primitive but kettlebells somehow are.

    You have good advice to offer but it’s clouded with needless ideology and blatant factual errors.

  • I whole-heartedly agree with the aspects covered here – from sprinting to swimming (I actually took some advanced courses in swimming for the very reasons covered above), and of course lifting.

    The only difficult aspect of this blogpost involves the mentality of lifting, running, and walking. When I am posed that very same question by the general population – What is the BEST exercise ever? – I almost always follow that up with a question with this response: “If I were to give you an answer, would you perform this one exercise forever?” Most likely not, because 1) If they were looking for the one magic exercise to do, they probably would have been doing it already (and that is another subject all together). and 2) If they were to perform this exercise for a lengthy period of time (say sprinting, walking, or deadlifting even), then the exercise may prove to be too injurious for me to even consider prescribing them, no matter how much it will provide in terms of “bang for your buck”. and of course 3) How many reps? Duration? Load? Every other day or every day? Can I still drink beer and then do the exercise because they negate each other right?

    In reality it is never one answer, but rather it involves a variety of health, fundamental movements explained even better in the form of the “7 Fundamental Movement Patterns” better detailed by the folks involved with the FMS.

    Folks nowadays are simply too deconditioned to start actively sprinting, lifting, and performing the various “master level” bodyweight exercises, no matter how awesome of an exercise they truly are.

    While I appreciate the honesty of the post, it may gloss over some actionable items that will help folks get involved with the SFG and understand what a person’s perspective of exercise truly is.

    Check out this blog post I have onUnderstanding Perspective to read a bit more on what I mean!

    Regards,
    Miguel

  • i think back to basic is training with kettlebells is the best training out there , you have every thing with kettlebells right pavel

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