The Wild Gym – Nature’s Gift for Natural Movement – Part 1

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As modern humans in western society we are very good at making excuses as to why we can’t do something. And when it comes to moving our bodies we are veritable experts at it, able to conjure up a whole cornucopia of reasons as to why we can’t do it.

Some reasons are of course totally legitimate. Injuries, under recovering, those black swan events that nobody can expect. But many are simply excuses.

Time is a common one. “I don’t have enough time to workout.” I have been known to be a douche bag at times, and while the person explains why they don’t have enough time to work out, I bust out a set of push ups whilst listening sympathetically. A bit crass, I know, but it does illustrate that it is often the person’s perspective of what a workout is that is holding them back. 5 minutes of moving one’s body daily equates to over 30 hours of movement a year. That’s 30 hours you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Not to be sniffed at. And factoring in 5 minutes will lead to you extending that time more easily in the future.

I get it, I really do. You may be a new parent, snowed under with work, or struggling with a whole host of other issues. This is not to shame anyone. Much of the sense of not having enough time, is not having the head space or emotional wriggle room be able to factor it in.

We are so much in demand in our modern lifestyles that to focus unashamedly on ourselves feels like a frivolous, selfish act.

But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I like to use the analogy of air travel. As you are revving up on the runway and listening to the safety talk by the flight attendant, they explain that you must first put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs.

This makes perfect sense. You can’t help others effectively if you yourself are incapacitated. This is exactly the same for your health. If you are not performing to your optimal capacity, then you cannot serve others to your fullest.

You cannot pour water for others from an empty cup.

person scooping water using green cup

I believe that looking after your own health is one of the most selfless acts you can do. And it took me a long time to recognise this myself.

“I don’t have any equipment or a place to train.” First up, as long as you have enough space to stand and enough space to lay down you can have a complete workout. Look at some of the prisoners who are stuck in a tiny cell that come out looking scarier than when they went in. See this for some prisoner bodyweight routines.

And if ‘lifting heavy’ for you requires picking heavy stuff up then really your imagination is the only limiter, not your budget or what’s available. Search our blog for articles on DIY training equipment for some great, simple and affordable examples.

And then there is making do with what you have around you (hint- there is loads of stuff).

For most of human history, cardio, strength, and mobility training is what our ancestors generally referred to as ‘life’. Their conditioning and health came from them flowing through the natural landscape, a landscape that they were very much a part of.

When human societies started to ‘train’, an insane concept to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they generally used the things that nature left lying around.

Despite our obsession with complicated exercise machines, bright gym lighting, a wall of TV screens, and pumping dance music we are still the same wild humans that we always were. Tamed, yes, but with that wild, feral core that is just waiting for the right conditions to flourish.

And those conditions are right here, right now.

We always encourage people to get outside as often as possible, and to take their workouts out into the open air. Whether that is running through the landscape rather than on a treadmill, lifting your heavy stuff under an open sky, or using that grassy patch of ground near your house instead of a yoga mat. Being outside in nature offers a whole host of benefits.

And you can take it a step further by letting the natural world dictate how your session is going to pan out.

Enter the Wild Gym

This is a concept that has existed for a very long time, and one that every child is familiar with, but at some point on our journey to adulthood we somehow forget it.

The concept of the Wild Gym is simply to get outside and move your body as dictated by the landscape, the obstacles and the objects you finds, and however the playful whim takes you.

This can be as simple as a run or walk off-trail where you challenge your body to move over undulating surfaces, twisting, ducking, climbing, jumping, crawling and hanging in order to get past whatever obstacles lie ahead of you. A true master of this is London based (no excuse, you city dwellers) movement coach, Ben Medder. He shows a perfect blend of athleticism, joyful play, and ecstatic dance within his practice. Beautiful to watch.

On a recent walk with my kids the quest was to find as many ways to move our body as possible within the woodland environment. There was so much we were late getting back and we had merely scratched the surface.

Hills to climb, branches to crawl under, branches to hang from, trees to climb, logs to flip and carry and throw, rocks to lift, stumps to jump on and off, streams to straddle and jump, logs to balance on. Pretty much the whole gambit of human movement were open to us.

Balancing

I have talked at length about why having a balancing practice is such a good idea in this post. Excellent for developing healthy ankle, knee and hip movements, gaining stability, and is an act in itself of pure mindfulness. And the opportunities for balancing are nigh on limitless in any environment.

Hanging and climbing

For me and for many of our clients hanging is a super food of the movement world. This position of the dead hang, along with the swinging motion used when swinging from branch to branch, know as brachiating, is pretty unique to the great apes, which includes us. Monkeys cannot do it fully. Squirrels cannot do it. But despite having been out of the trees for over 3 million years we have retained the skill.

Orthopaedic surgeon John M Kirsch, M.D. realised the potential wonders of this action in the 80s when he applied it to his own shoulder issues. He has since helped many people avoid the surgeon’s knife by recommending a protocol of hanging. In his book Shoulder Pain? The Solution and Prevention he suggests that hanging from a bar for up to 30 seconds, 3 times per day, can fix up to 99% of shoulder pain.

Just don’t go all gung ho with it though, start slow. Initially you can hang whilst still taking some of your bodyweight with your legs. Many of our clients aim to try and build up to hanging for 5 minutes accumulated over the whole day.

Fun with Logs

Everyone loves a log

Like many kids growing up in the early 80s, I was lucky enough to have real celebrity role models to influence my life choices. From trying (and failing) to jump my BMX over my neighbours prone bodies (thanks to the influence of Evel Knievel), to only ever entering my parents car via an open window (Dukes of Hazzard, obvs), it’s a surprise that many of us made it to adulthood.

But one character stood out from all the others. Geoff Capes.

The World’s Strongest Man and Highland Games Champion was a no nonsense, milk swilling, budgie loving, bearded barbarian and hero to a whole generation of kids. Watching him pull trucks, throw logs, carry rocks, and just be a general all round bad-ass greatly influenced how I move my body. All our 1-1 clients will tell you that many of our training sessions resemble episodes of WSM, but in miniature.

There is something so primeval about hoisting a log up off the ground and either carrying it, flipping it, or throwing it.

Logs are great for a landmine style squat (first two pictures) and for flipping as you would in tyre flipping. This it what was known as Fingle’s Finger in the World’s strongest man events.

To add another dimension to our log work, we can try to carry it. Bear hug, zercher, single shoulder, both shoulders, caber style, over head (with huge care and diligence!!), there is no right or wrong way of doing providing that you remain safe and don’t exceed your capabilities. And when you have it in a carry position you could walk with it, lunge with it or squat with it. Choose a log that is suitable for your level and be mindful of those around you.

Rocks and stone.

From my years of studying ancestral skills I have become a bit of rock nerd. The use of stone tools and the development in lithic technologies was a big driver in making us human as we know it today. Many creatures use stones as tools but humans took it to a creative level of pure artistry.

But I am not an artist. I am a blunt tool of a human, and that is how I train.

Stone lifting for me is the epitome of strength work. And this sentiment has been echoed thoughout history, all over the world. For some stunning documentaries on stone cultures around the world check out this series by Rogue.

Scottish stone culture.

Icelandic stone culture.

Basque stone culture.

The principle is simple – Pick up a rock, then hold it, carry it, throw it, or lift it onto another level.

The execution is far from simple. Stone lifting is an art form and technique is everything. Keep it light to start with and seek out the correct form. The awkwardness makes it so much harder to lift than conventional weights. My heavy stone that I use regularly is 84kg (yes I weigh stones) which is less than half the weight of my regular barbell dead lift. But it is easily more than twice as difficult.

These are just a couple of ways the sticks and stones can build you bones. But to reiterate, when poorly executed they can do a pretty good job of breaking them too.

Jump, step up, leap

This is simple, just find something within the landscape to traverse. It could be as basic as performing step ups or box jumps onto a tree stump, rock or bank. It could be jumping or leaping over natural obstacles like rivers, or trying precision jumps and landings from one rock to another, or one branch to another. The very wild nature of the whole activity makes it feel so much more real than the turgid indoor gym alternatives, and the degree of instability and uncertainty gives it an exciting edge. Failing a broad jump in the gym means nothing; failing it over a river has real consequences.

I fail a lot and my socks are permanently soggy.

So there are just a few examples of ways to incorporate your movement practices in your natural environment, but the true extent is only limited by your imagination.

Next week we will look at some of the benefits of the Wild Gym and some of the ethical codes of practice relating to moving in nature in a responsible way.

Let us know how you incorporate your movement practice in nature.

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