How Should We Train?

A short while ago, I posited the idea that we’ve been training wrong. I argued that we’re capable of more regular training than we currently do. I stand by that.

However, after discussing it with some other folks, I took a step back and reevaluated a few of my assumptions and how that may impact things.

With that, I think I have a better idea of just what form training should take going forward, at least for me.

Like I mentioned yesterday, I’m very interested in how our bodies evolved and in maximizing that evolution to its fullest. We evolved a certain way, and while you can probably do things contrary to that evolution, it’s probably not the best way.

However, looking at what I found yesterday, it led me to wonder just who else has looked at this idea of evolution and maximizing our training ability.

That search led me to Mark’s Daily Apple, which is owned by Mark Sisson.

I’ve been familiar with the site for a long time now. At one time, I pursued a pretty paleo lifestyle. I still think there are some serious advantages to eating paleo, especially when it comes to weight loss, though I’m not completely convinced we haven’t evolved a bit beyond the early hunter-gatherer days when it comes to food.

But, Mark’s Daily Apple is one of the premiere sites for a paleo/primal lifestyle.

What’s really important is that Mark doesn’t look at diet as the cure-all for everything. Instead, he sees it as just another tool in the toolbox. Here, he has an infographic with what he sees as all the essentials for a healthy life. It’s in the form of a challenge, but that’s a large chunk of his overall thinking when it comes to overall health.

What I want to bring up, however, is this image, which is his Primal Blueprint Fitness program. (I do not own the rights to this. I’m using it under “fair use” as this is commentary and discussion.)

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Now, let’s take a look at this for a moment and consider it.

First, it calls for the majority of one’s activity to be frequent and slow. A half-hour walk every day would easily fulfill this basic requirement. Make the family tag along and you get what at least used to be termed “quality time.”

You can do this every single day, too. It’s low enough intensity that you don’t have to recover from it, which is kind of what I was talking about when I suggested we were training wrong.

So far, Mark and I are in complete agreement.

Next up, he suggests “lifting heavy things” one to three times per week for seven to 60 minutes. That’s per session, and it seems reasonable.

However, what does “lift heavy things” mean?

Well, Sisson’s infographic seems to suggest four basic exercises: The pushup, the pull-up, the squat, and the plank. He calls these the “Four Essential Movements.”

I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon just yet.

For one thing, a plank isn’t a movement. Yes, I’m being pedantic, but it’s not. Further, it’s not all that essential. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome ab exercise and something I probably need to do more of, but it’s damn sure not lifting anything heavy.

The others are decent calisthenics movements and things I think could be very useful, but they’re not lifting heavy things. At least, not as I think of it.

Sisson has a good reason for this, to be fair. In his own words at the above-linked post:

Of course, in this case, that heavy thing you’ll be lifting will be your own body. You could do the gym thing and get out the barbells and the machines, but I’m about streamlining this process for as many people as possible. I want you to be able to work out on the road or in your living room. And so I’m just asking you to follow the PBF plan for a month and complete two bodyweight workouts each week. 

So he has his reasons. 

Considering what he’s trying to do, I don’t even disagree with them. Not in that context, at least.

But bodyweight exercises all suffer from one fault. They’re all limited in the amount of weight you’ll move. It’s kind of hard to add weight to your body to do true bodyweight exercises, after all. I mean, it can be done, but then it’s not bodyweight anymore.

Instead, I really think doing the “gym thing” is a better way to go. Lifting weights is a way you can take yourself from moving very little weight to moving a whole lot of weight over time.

Further, I think there are essential movements one should engage in, but I’m partial to Dan John’s definition of the five essential movements:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Loaded Carry

Note the lack of a plank. That’s because it’s not a movement.

In this context, the hinge is a movement like a deadlift, but it can also include ab exercises like knee-raises, situps, crunches, or abdominal machines.

The rest look to be self-explanatory.

Now, these aren’t completely different that Sisson’s list. I mean, there are pushes, pulls, and squats. I’m just quibbling on his use of planks instead of a hinge-like ab activity and noting the lack of a loaded carry. 

Then again, throw some weights in a backpack, turn your daily walk into a ruck, and you’re covering that as well.

The more I look at it, the less I’m convinced we disagree on this one, really. I just think the “gym thing” is a better way to go and to change one exercise completely.

Lastly, Sisson argues you should sprint ever week to a week and a half. By sprint, he means move in an all-out effort in a forward direction.

In the right dose, maximum efforts are excellent for body composition, muscular health, and hormonal balance. Doing one sprint workout – whether it’s traditional running, cycling, swimming, or even Grok crawling – each week just happens to be the perfect dose.

So, for me, a sprint might be an all-out sled drag or push, since I love sled work. For you, it might be cycling, a literal sprint, or a swim. I don’t think it really matters.

Plus, by limiting it to once a week or so, you minimize the strain on the joints. Sprinting can be rough, especially a running sprint.

So, is this the way to train? Maybe. It’s definitely an intelligent way to increase your total movement without creating unnecessary strain on your body.

Further, if you’re already training, it’s a very intelligent want to ramp it up a bit. A walk a day or, if you prefer, on not lifting days for longer is certainly doable even right now. Most anyone can get up and move a little bit at a really low intensity for half an hour. It makes this an easy way to ramp things up.

My biggest quibble is how Sisson places his focus on resistance training, but it’s not like he’s telling people to do things that are terrible. This particular blueprint is focused on both the beginner, apparently, and removing excuses. It’s not like I can find fault in that.

He still focuses on (mostly) compound movements and doing them regularly, so why not?

Now, there’s something Sisson doesn’t include on his pyramid that he places a high importance on, and that’s “play.”

While play doesn’t get a prime spot on the Primal Blueprint Fitness Pyramid it is central to Primal Blueprint Fitness. Let me explain. I sprint, lift and move slowly in large part so that I am both able to do the things I enjoy (weekly Ultimate Frisbee outings, snowboarding in Aspen, playing sports with my kids) and do them without fear of injury. If PBF is the “what”, play is a big part of the “why”. Additionally, play is a built-in feature of PBF, with Workouts of the Week (WOWs) often incorporating playful routines that can be done with friends and in groups. (If you have your own idea for a group WOW game submit it here.) Check back each Monday for a new WOW.

It makes sense, in a way.

But it’s also important to remember what Sisson is preaching here. He’s trying to replicate our primal ancestors, people who lived a particular lifestyle.

The problem for me is that I don’t actually want that lifestyle.

I’m not a hunter-gatherer. I’m a warrior. So, with that in mind, the “play” portion of Sisson’s pyramid seems like a logical place to instill some kind of martial arts training like MMA.

Frankly, though, this seems like an intelligent and elegant solution to what I was considering, at least to start.

Is this the way to train, though? 

Well, that’s difficult to tell. What I do know is that Sisson’s approach to physical makes a fair bit of sense and, coupled with his diet thoughts, seems to have gotten some results for a whole lot of people.

I do think it’s worth a try, though.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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