The notion of using animal-inspired exercises for training is nothing new. Traditional disciplines, such as Shaolin kung fu, use animal-like exercises to create movements of incredible strength and grace. And if you visit any playground, you’ll see kids crouching, crawling, and climbing just like other mammals do.
What’s new is the integration of these animal moves into comprehensive fitness programs to help humans achieve exceptional results.
Why Move Like An Animal?
If you tell your friends you’ve just spent an hour shuffling like a crab, crawling like a bear, hopping like a bunny, and slithering like an alligator, they might give you a puzzled look. But these movements can create some amazingly functional and capable physiques.
What animal-inspired fitness programs have in common is that they focus on primal, instinctive workouts involving the entire body rather than individual muscles and are based around the concept of functional and practical movement.
Take A Movement Cue From Nature
If you’ve ever observed an animal in the wild or at the local zoo where they have access to a natural environment, the first thing that might impress you is how fluid and natural all the movements appear to be. Whether they are swinging from branch to branch or prowling about in front of their young ones, everything they do seem to be smooth and graceful.
The fundamental principle is that the movements mimic those you’d find in nature. That’s why many of the locomotive patterns are directly named after bears, gorillas, rabbits, or cats. You are emulating moves that have been honed by millions of years of evolution and natural selection.
While humans can sprint at speed, we cannot possibly compare to the cheetah. While people can excel at climbing, we have nothing on the bonobo. And while humans can crawl, slither, or jump, we cannot compare with the unique movements of a bear, alligator, or kangaroo. Hence why these movement patterns are challenging for most.
Generalization Not Specialization
If you think about the conventional exercises performed in the gym, such as the bicep curl, most of them isolate one or two muscles at a time. Only a few exercises, such as the squat, actually involve the full body working as a unit.
That’s something that training like an animal tries to functionally overcome. One way to optimize strength, flexibility, mind and body control is by involving the spine and trunk — what many refer to as “engaging your core.” We do this with locomotion, especially with quadrupedal movements.
Instead of a specialized movement for just one muscle, the idea is to develop generalized movements for multiple muscles and joints at one time. These are known as compound movements.
A classic example is the “bear crawl” -, which is crawling on the ground, without using the knees. This involves the arm and leg muscles, as well as the engagement of the hips, back, shoulders, and trunk. The very act of moving-on-all-fours forces you to focus on orientation, flexibility, coordination, and fluidity.
How to Train with Animal-Inspired Exercise
- You Are Your Own Gym: to do these exercises, you don’t need additional weight. All you need is your body weight. You’ve never seen a tiger or lion working out with weights in the jungle (bench pressing tree trunks?), so why would humans need weights to get beast-like strength? Move with purpose.
- Jack of all Trades and Masters of One: Humans are unique in our ability to climb, run, jump, lift and carry. These exercises promote stability and orientation without creating the type of muscle that might get in the way of mobility, grace and control. Work on a variety of movement patterns at different intensities.
- Sit Less and Move More: In modern Western society, not all the movements we are capable of are put to good use. Most of us lead rather sedentary lives, where the ability to sit in a chair for hours at a time during the day and recline on a couch for hours a time during the night are what we “train” most often.
- Think of Our Roots as Hunter-Gatherers: as humans evolved into an upright, bipedal species, we gradually lost touch with our natural roots. Our history as hunter-gatherers bears little resemblance to modern technological society, where everyday survival has nothing to do with foraging long distances for food or escaping wild animals. This means we’ve lost touch with nature. Four-legged locomotion is something that rarely occurs to most of us, even though that’s exactly how our babies learn to crawl.
- Focus on Function: Focus on “functional movement” — the type of action that can make you more efficient and productive in your everyday life. What does that mean to you? This might include exercises that make it easier to take a few flights of stairs, play with your kids or practices that make it simpler to carry heavy groceries to and from the supermarket.
Training like an animal is one way to capture some of the strength and dynamism that can be found in the animal kingdom. One way back to our true nature is by doing exercises that emulate what animals do in their natural habitats.
In other words, train like an animal, but move like a human!