The Workout the World Forgot

It's called Natural Movement -- or "MovNat" in its French abbreviation.

I admit that before last night I had never heard of what has been called "humankind's oldest, trickiest, and most indispensable physical disciplines." Writing for Men's Health magazine, Christopher McDougall has a terrific article on this beautifully primal training method.

Describing its beginnings, McDougall writes:

In 1902, Georges Hebert was a 27-year-old French naval officer stationed on the Caribbean island of Martinique. On May 8 of that year, he was aboard a ship off the coast when an ominous plume began rising from Mont Pelee, the volcano looming over Saint-Pierre, Martinique's largest city. Sometime around 8 a.m., Pelee erupted, raining hot ash and sizzling rocks on the horrified population. Molten lava gushed down the slope and spread through the streets in fiery streams, igniting everything in its path. Swarms of pit vipers poured off the mountain to flee the searing heat, tangling in the feet of fleeing people and biting at their legs. In minutes, the Paris of the Caribbean had turned into an absolute hell.

Into this inferno plunged Hebert. Leading his troops ashore, he scouted out viable escape routes and waded into the panicky crowds, trying to shepherd them to safety. By the time the eruptions ceased, fewer than 700 people had survived, many thanks to Hebert's improvised rescue operation.

While touted as a hero, Hebert couldn't help but focus on those lives lost in the incident.

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 felt, was far more destructive than they might think.

Motivated to do what he could to realign our fitness philosophy, Hebert convinced the French navy to put him in charge of conditioning for a class of its recruits. Using the recruits as guinea pigs, he incubated a system he called Methode Naturelle -- the Natural Method. Hebert preached a simple philosophy -- "Be strong to be useful" -- and focused on 10 essential skills: walking, running, jumping, walking on all fours, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, defending, and swimming.

Next, Hebert set to work on an outdoor training facility. He designed it to look like a giant playground, equipping it with climbing towers, vaulting horses, sandpits, and ponds. Scattered about were rocks and logs and long poles to be used for throwing, or balancing, or passing hand-to-hand while running, or anything else an athlete dreamed up at the moment. Hebert had only one firm rule: No competing. When you try to beat the other guy, he believed, you test the other man's weaknesses and not your own.

Within a few years, Hebert's "Be Useful" system was adopted by the entire French navy. In 1913, speaking before the French Physical Education Congress, he astounded them with the results of tests he'd performed on 350 navy recruits. On a rating system that scored performance according to strength, speed, agility, and endurance, French sailors ranked with world-class decathletes.

The time had come to take Methode Naturelle to the world. Hebert handpicked an elite team of trainers and prepared them to spread the word throughout Europe, Asia, and America. But before they scattered, the First World War erupted. Because of their superb physical conditioning and dedication to service, the men of Methode Naturelle were deployed in frontline positions against German troops armed with machine guns and poison gas. By the end of the war, the trainers were all dead or maimed. Hebert was heartbroken, but not surprised. Methode Naturelle was never about trying to live forever -- it was about trying to make a difference before you died. (all emphasis mine)

And if that's not enough to get you motivated, read the entire article and/or check out this promo video.

(Feed readers click through for video)

McDougall continues:

A smart body, he explains, knows how to convert force and speed into an almost endless menu of practical movements. Hoisting yourself onto a pole may seem as trivial as a circus stunt, but if you're ever caught in a flood or fleeing an attacking dog, elevating your body 5 feet off the ground could mean the difference between safety and sorrow.

And with that one word -- "practical" -- Le Corre exposes a key weakness in modern exercise: Our workouts are domesticated, while the world out there is still plenty wild. In a pinch, can a man put gym-generated biceps and tank-tread abs to any real use? Could it be that our treadmill-running, elliptical-gliding, well-oiled Cybex world has turned us into show dogs who can't hold our own in the hunt?

"I meet men all the time who can bench 400 pounds but can't climb up through a window to pull someone from a burning building," Le Corre says. "I know guys who can run marathons but can't sprint to anyone's rescue unless they put their shoes on first. Lots of swimmers do laps every day but can't dive deep enough to save a friend, or know how to carry him over rocks and out of the surf."


"Being fit isn't about being able to lift a steel bar or finish an Ironman," Le Corre says... "It's about rediscovering our biological nature and releasing the wild human animal inside."

I don't know about you, but I feel like climbing a tree. Where do I sign up?

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