Fitness Without Weights, Equipment Or Rules
There’s a grassroots movement out there trying to reconnect fitness with our natural, human way of moving. It’s fitness without weights, equipment or much in the way of rules.
Some call it Movement Culture, others MovNat or bodyweight fitness. Many have no name for it at all.
This culture is a gathering of “movers” interested in understanding the human body, being comfortable in their skin and enjoying finding freedom through the ability to move in any way they can imagine.
The reasoning for bodyweight fitness versus the standard fitness routine of running and lifting heavy weights is as follows:
The engagement of stabilizer muscles less used in standard bodybuilding or powerlifting leads to greater functional athleticism in addition to better posture and ease of motion.
To explain, let’s meet 2x world BJJ champ Carlos Zuqueto and 37-year-old Frenchman Erwan Le Corre.
Zuqueto is also a professional free diver that battles sharks with not much more than a knife and lungful of air. Yet, he’s been chasing, but not catching, Le Corre for 20 minutes, sprinting around trees, leaping off boulders, and once even vaulting through the front window of a hut and back out through the rear without breaking stride.
Currently, Le Corre balances on a pole parallel to the ground, roughly eye-level. “What are you waiting for?” he taunts, as Zuqueto loses his grip and once more falls to the ground.
Discussed in a lengthy Men’s Health expose, Erwan Le Corre, ranks as one of the most physically fit men on the planet. He calls his style of training “Natural Movement” – or “MovNat” in its French abbreviation.
To explain his training style’s benefits, Le Corre uses Zuqueto as an example.
A smart body knows how to convert force and speed into an almost endless menu of practical movements, including the ability to quickly and easily balance on a random, eye-level pole.
“Versatility was the key to survival, because early humans had to be ready for anything at any time,” says E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at the University of Victoria and the author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero
Le Corre’s teacher preached a simple philosophy – “Be Strong To Be Useful”. And his training focused on 10 essential skills –
Neglect any of Le Corre’s essential skills and in a life or death situation – “out there” – in the wild, you may find yourself struggling to keep up.
Why Movement Culture Resonates?
For me? Well it all started with that old story – when my family left Kyiv, Ukraine and emigrated to America. It was the first time we lived in a house instead of an apartment building, with carpets and a back yard. I still remember the long, carpeted walkway that stretched from the edge of the kitchen through 2 rooms. Back then it seemed to be a mile long. So much room to play!
I finally had space to tumble, to do handstands and let myself fall … without too much pain. This opportunity to explore was how I learned to walk on my hands and fell in love with movement.
To this day, I’m exploring new ways to add novel movements to my workouts.
And what about others? Why are people really digging movement culture? For one possible reason, let’s get back to Le Corre’s story …
In 1902, Georges Hebert, Le Corre’s teacher, was a 27-year-old French naval officer stationed on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He was there when Mont Pelee erupted, raining hot ash and sizzling rocks on the horrified population. As the people of Martinique panicked, Hebert led his troops ashore. Of the fewer than 700 survivors, many were rescued thanks to Hebert’s efforts.
Although Hebert was seen as a hero, he couldn’t get over the lives that were lost. How many died, he wondered, because they couldn’t leap over a 3-foot gap? Run, crawl and climb without exhausting themselves? Or keep their balance while carrying a child and escape with their lives?
“The modern world, Hebert believed, was producing hollow men who focused on appearance and forgot about function. At the same time, they stopped exercising with the wildness of kids and instead insulated themselves from risk. The cost, he’d learned, was far more destructive than one might imagine.” A Wild Workout for the Real World – Men’s Health
What are we all training for, if not to be free to move, to be able to call on our bodies on command, to perform in difficult, dangerous situations?
It’s A Confusing World Out There
Of course, many “movers” aren’t worried about surviving in a “wild world”, they care about pushing their bodies to the limits of optimal performance. And there’s a ton of different disciplines that play with the concept of moving for the sake of movement.
After asking a lot of questions and spending a lot of time on research, here’s how I understand the terminology (it can get confusing):
Movement culture is the umbrella term under which exercise, fitness, sports, martial arts, stretching can all fall, if there’s no opposition, no resistance – besides yourself and gravity. Kind of like how “grappling” would be the umbrella term that covers specific styles of competition between two opponents and nothing else – Judo, Wrestling, BJJ. With movement it’s just you and the limits you can imagine.
And today’s modern business models of social entrepreneurship make things even more interesting. Take for example founder Adam Griffin of Bodeefit. He’s using the train anywhere benefits of bodyweight fitness to help fight childhood obesity.
Of course, as much as today’s movement culture celebrities want to package these concepts as something new, the idea of fitness through movement is anything but. Take the internal martial art styles (e.g. T’ai Chi) as an example. The characteristics that define internal martial arts are a heightened awareness of one’s body posture and structure, the release of tension and letting go of physical, muscular strength to perform techniques and postures. It’s movement to the core.
Gymnastics, then is an even more obvious example – a classical sport that’s also a movement discipline. And, if anything, gymnastics is a great argument for a higher level of movement focused training for general performance benefits. The very successful Soviet athletics system started all athletes on gymnastics before moving on to more specialized training. US Olympians like wrestler Jake Herbert argue for more gymnastics training for our athletes. Even, the godfather of movement culture – Ido Portal, who we’ll talk about a little later, called gymnastics the most well rounded, complex, and difficult sport he’s come across.
Performance and Bodyweight Fitness – The 3 Reasons
The athlete is training to be successful, to become better in her chosen sport, to strive for mastery of her discipline and let’s be honest … to win. So, she might look at this esoteric concept of “movement for movement’s sake” with a pretty skeptical eye.
But exercise looks different when you examine it from a broader movement perspective. While I do not believe in set right and wrong ways to perform a skill, there are ways to make it more mechanically efficient. It’s especially in this area that I believe adding movement training to your repertoire can be useful and effective.
1. Alignment and Performance
The human body evolved to stand on two feet and to be in motion, almost constantly, in order to survive. The combination of gravity and movement are not only necessary to maintain the body’s skeletal alignment, but also critical for survival. Alignment, in this case, refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles relate and line up with each other.
Don’t take my word for it though. Per the National Osteoporosis Foundation:
Knowing how to move, sit and stand properly can help you stay active and prevent broken bones and disability.
I believe mastering the fundamentals of movement forces you to better understand optimal bio-mechanical alignment. The key is realizing that that the principles of making one simple technique work are the same fundamentals that fuel the whole system of human performance. How else would it be possible to execute advanced work like the Florieo?
Ido Portal, founder of the (capital M, capital C) “Movement Culture,” explains how Florio came to be –
The name of the art presented in the videos above is called Floreio for lack of a better term. Floreio means flower in Portuguese, and I consider it a sub-art of Capoeira, one including a very sophisticated form of floor flow work.
[Note: When I watch Ido work, I’m reminded of NCAA champ Steven Abas using Capoeria to prepare for wrestling competitions – learn more about his dynamic warmups in my post – 7 Unusual And Effective Ways To Warm Up For The Win].
Although sometimes seen as a controversial figure (he fires students that often pay in the thousands for his coaching services) Ido must be credited for his role in bringing movement culture to the mainstream. In his search for a “movement teacher” Ido realized that most practitioners confined themselves to a specific discipline – dance, martial arts, gymnastics – and none were interested in movement for the sake of movement. So Ido decided to become that person. “How presumptuous, yet necessary” he says.
According to Ido, the goal of Movement Culture is to create a cross disciplinary exchange of information between various types of movers. Information that was isolated in specific isolated practices can be extremely useful for other types of movers, but in the past this information was not shared.
2. Balance and Performance
Static balance is the ability to maintain a base of support with minimal movement. Dynamic balance may be considered as the ability to perform a task while maintaining or regaining a stable position or the ability to maintain or regain balance on an unstable surface with minimal extraneous motion.
Static and dynamic balance both are emphasized by movement teachers.
Independent research correlates balance ability to competition level for some sports, with the more proficient athletes displaying greater balance ability. In fact, there seems to be a significant relationship between balance ability and a number of performance measures.
All that being said, when the effectiveness of balance training was compared with resistance training, resistance training produced superior performance results for jump height and sprint time.
The takeaway here is while balance training is a worthwhile addition to your usual training , it shouldn’t replace resistance training.
3. Core Strength, Core Endurance and Performance
This summer, I dove head first into bouldering to prepare for a run at American Ninja Warrior. If you think about it, bouldering is really just movement on a floor that’s perpendicular to gravity. Compare this video of climbing technique video to the Floreio video I shared earlier to see what I mean.
Being perpendicular to gravity presents many unique physical and technical challenges of course. And one of the first things I noticed is the importance of core engagement as a key to successful route completion.
What is the core? Besides being responsible for the stability of the truck and pelvis, these muscles also help in the generation and transfer of energy from large to small body parts during in many sports.
This principle of core strength and endurance as vital to success presents itself over and over again in all types of movement disciplines.
- Bodyweight Fitness
To me it seems clear that core strength and endurance are instrumental to general physical performance. So, my question becomes, how well does it translate to sports specific performance?
While researching this article, however, I found a few rather surprising truths:
1. Few studies have observed any performance enhancement in sporting activities despite observing improvements in core stability and core strength
2. Having stronger back and abdominal muscles does not help reduce back injuries— however, higher endurance in these areas does!
Nevertheless, even if improvements made in core stability and strength only impact indirectly on sporting performance by allowing those athletes to train injury free more often, I’d say it’s a huge positive.
And sometimes it’s important to look past the research and use our intuition. Although core strength and stability hasn’t been directly linked to improved sports performance yet, that’s more likely because it’s difficult to prove, not because the link doesn’t exist. After all, sports performance is largely about transfer of energy and the core, as I mentioned earlier, is crucial in this regard.
Potential Performance Benefits of Core Training:
Bringing It All Together
Clearly, the benefits of movement training training are many and exploring the world of movement as an interdisciplinary subject is fascinating.
The sports performance benefits of posture, alignment, balance, core strength and body control are clear and scientifically validated. Just as important are the practical and survival benefits of movement training.
That being said, I agree with my friend, and BJJ Blue Belt, Alexander Mejias –
Visually it’s beautiful but I need way more function to my art, I can’t choke someone out while doing a one handed vertical push up into a back flip.
And you should be weary. There are many that argue Movement Culture, MovNat, etc are all just words meant to brand different exercises in order to generate revenue.
It’s a clever point – how else can you get money out of an activity that doesn’t require any equipment?
Still, although it’s not a substitute for resistance training for building explosiveness and power, adding movement training and bodyweight fitness to your repertoire is likely to improve your performance, will almost certainly grow your mind-body connection and might just save you if a volcano erupts near by.
I’m personally continually inspired to study movement culture when I watch this interview with Ido Portal. Listen and enjoy.
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Share your bodyweight fitness journey in the comments.