Monday, August 22, 2011

Reclaiming Play: One-Day MovNat Fundamentals Workshop

After eight hours of MovNat yesterday, I knew I was going to be a wreck this morning. And sure enough, I woke up with soreness in places I didn't even know existed. My upper arms and knees are covered with splotchy purple bruises, and my forearms are sunburnt and flecked with small scratches. My lower back is stiff, and my shoulders are sore. And to top it all off, the bottom of my left foot is still pulsing and swollen from a bee sting. (Note to self: It turns out that bees don't like being stepped on.)

But if I had to do it all over again, would I? Hell to the yes.

I first came across MovNat back in January of 2010, when -- in the same New York Times article that introduced me to Paleo eating -- I read about Erwan Le Corre and a physical fitness system he'd created called MovNat. MovNat is short for "Mouvement Naturel" or "natural movement." Inspired by Méthode Naturelle, an approach to survival fitness pioneered at the turn of the last century by Georges Hébert (a forefather of parkour and freerunning), Le Corre developed a program that re-trains people to move according to human nature. Simply put, MovNat is about moving your body as nature intended, and doing so as efficiently, safely and practically as possible.

For a good introduction to MovNat, check out Le Corre's 2009 profile in Men's Health magazine.

MovNat is founded on three "pillars" of movement: Natural, Evolutionary, and Situational. As such, it's a system that aims to respect the environment, align with our biological heritage, and have practical application to real-world challenges. Particularly with regard to its emphasis on situational adaptiveness, MovNat overlaps to a large degree with programs like CrossFit; both, after all, focus on developing well-rounded athletes who are ready at a moment's notice to tackle a broad spectrum of physical demands.

MovNat has grown in the past couple of years, with Le Corre bringing a small handful of employees on board to teach seminars and to run much of the day-to-day operations of the business. Still, he continues to be MovNat's guru (and greatest marketing asset), and at the Ancestral Health Symposium a couple of weeks ago, he delivered a terrific presentation about the benefits of natural movement:

At the Symposium, I got the chance to meet Le Corre and his U.S.-based Master Trainer, Clifton Harski, and they encouraged me to join MovNat's one-day Fundamentals Workshop in Palo Alto. I'd been curious about MovNat for almost two years, and a "primal" fitness system sounds like something that's right up my alley, so I figured: Why not? Besides, M got invited by Clif to join, too -- and we live less than two miles from the neighborhood park where the Workshop was to be held.

Before showing up yesterday, my only in-person exposure to MovNat was at a brief movement session that Clif led at UCLA at the end of the Symposium. Out on a grassy field, we did some barefoot walking and crawling in the grass, and we practiced jumping. I found the emphasis on precision of movement to be challenging, but it's not like we ran across treetops or dangled from vines or anything. I didn't feel like a character in Avatar. "This stuff doesn't seem all that special," I thought.

I was wrong.

Almost as soon as we arrived yesterday, Clif had us dive right into climbing up poles at the park. "This isn't what we'd normally start with," he noted, "but we need to finish climbing before kids come take over the playground." (See? MovNat is adaptive!)

(Click any of the photos to enlarge)

Climbing, it turns out, is incredibly fun. Keeping our arms (relatively) relaxed, we braced ourselves against poles with our feet, walked up vertically until we were able to grab a horizontal beam, swung ourselves hand-over-hand to the other side, and then climbed back down another pole. Even if I'd walked away from the Workshop with nothing more than the personal satisfaction derived from scrambling up a pole, it would have been totally worth it. It's been years since I saw a pole and had any urge to climb it, but after yesterday, I'm not sure it'll be so easy to walk past one without pausing to consider going vertical.

Next, we invaded the kids' swing sets, taking turns to pull ourselves up and over the top beam using a series of progressions. Clif taught us to rest our forearms on the horizontal bar and then -- using rotational force -- screw our arms down and outward to engage our lats and propel ourselves up and forward.

It was kind of magical -- even though I sucked at it. Clif also showed us how to hook a leg over the bar and leverage the momentum generated by our other leg to flip over the bar. I was pretty terrible at that, too, but it was a blast.

More after the jump...

As the playground started swarming with toddlers, we ceded the swing sets to the gathering mass of children and their freaked-out-looking parents. (I sensed both confusion in their eyes -- "WHY THE HELL ARE THESE BAREFOOT HIPPIES CLIMBING ALL OVER THE PLAY STRUCTURES?" -- and curiosity, too -- "THAT LOOKS...AWESOME.") 

After a brief primer on posture, we started in on some balancing drills. The first few were simple -- we spent a minute just walking on a curb with our superhero chests puffed out, eyes forward and arms relaxed -- but soon, we found ourselves squatting, pivoting, and crawling on all fours along a narrow cement curb. I discovered very quickly that my sense of balance is pretty much crap, and that even crawling can be an insanely challenging workout.

Thankfully, we soon moved on to jumping. I'm not a spectacular jumper, but taking what I'd learned at the MovNat movement session at the Symposium about sticking a proper landing, I managed to fare slightly better this time around. I nailed more landings than I missed, and they felt pretty solid, too. 

(I need to stop here and say something about Clif Harski: The guy is a gazelle. He moves with impossible grace, and makes me question whether there is such thing as gravity. And he's a damned good instructor, too, taking time to pay attention to each participant's movement quality and coaching each individual through challenges. Long story short: The guy kicks ass.)

Next to climbing, my favorite activity of the day was jumping on stuff. We hopped on grass, leaped on top of picnic tables, and attempted precision landings on curbs. Swinging our arms across our bodies, we learned to change directions mid-jump, too. 

After lunch, we spent more time on all fours. We bear-crawled and crab-walked up and down a gentle slope, getting a feel for how to load our arms and shoulders properly...

...and learning the difference between contralateral (good! natural!) and ipsilateral (bad! unnatural!) movement patterns. 

We then moved over to a wide, flat expanse of grass and went on a "walk" of sorts: Clif led us on an imaginary path, and in unison, we hunched and squatted, lunged and crawled in response to invisible obstacles. I'm sure we looked like a class of grunting, barefoot mimes-in-training. Clif recognized that this could look a little ridiculous, and warned us beforehand that some might consider this "silly." I certainly did (It's entirely possible that I may have chortled audibly and rolled my eyes) -- until he reminded us that this type of creative play is exactly what kids do, and that it lends tangibility and meaning to movement. Children move their bodies with purpose and accuracy because, in Clif's words, "they don't want to fall into the sandbox of molten lava, where there's a dragon swimming with cockroaches in its mouth." I'm not saying I'm going to get all worked up about accidentally stepping on a crack and breaking my mother's back, but he's right: Playfulness and imagination can enhance exercise -- even for super-boring adults like me.

I got a taste of this when we started romping around on the grass. I've run after my kids at the park plenty of times, but it's been a long time since I spent time with people my own age on a verdant field, throwing ourselves into a series of forward rolls, belly-crawling in the dirt, languidly stretching in the grass, and racing after each other. 

I had an especially rollicking good time with my wife. We don't spend nearly enough time sprinting to catch each other, laughing deliriously and smacking one another on the back. Before yesterday, I wouldn't have thought that running around with her on a grassy field for a few hours on a sunny day would be so enjoyable, but then again, I didn't think jumping up and down on a picnic table would be so much fun, either.

After Clif took us through a quick barefoot running lesson and a few drills, we split off into groups to play tag. Yes, TAG. I couldn't believe how much of a workout I got from just a few minutes of racing after another human being -- and then desperately zig-zagging away from them. The sprinting, stopping and starting, changing directions on a dime -- all of it was heart-poundingly, crazily fun. Seriously: WE ALL NEED TO PLAY MORE TAG.

In the final portion of the Workshop, we were introduced to manipulative skills. In other words, we lifted, carried and threw heavy stuff around. Clif brought a bunch of big-ass rocks with him (these days, who doesn't keep a trunkful of stones in their car?), and MovNat alum Nick Ruggero hauled out a pair of 80-pound bags of concrete for us to deadlift, clean and jerk.

Despite diligently practicing Olympic lifting over the past year, I found lifting and carrying asymmetrical and oddly-weighted objects to be a startling challenge. I couldn't quite manage to secure a firm grip on the duct-taped concrete bags -- my sweaty hands kept sliding off the slick surface. The rocks were easier to grip, but plopping 'em on my shoulders wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world. (I had no trouble throwing the rocks, though. I definitely need to add rock-throwing to my to-do list.) 

The point was clear: Many real-world objects don't come with convenient handles or knurled grips. They're not perfectly balanced, and their weight isn't evenly distributed. One day, we may be called upon to haul around a boulder, a log, an armoire or enormous boxes filled with pig parts, so we ought to be prepared.

Of course, it's also possible that we'll have to lug around a full-sized human being at some point in our lives. (M and I already have to lug around a couple of pint-sized people every day.) So after pairing off, we practiced lifting and dragging each other around (which was surprisingly easy once Clif instructed us on the proper technique).

And even better: We learned how to perform a Fireman's Carry by lifting a person onto our shoulders and carrying him/her around, while still keeping an arm free to manipulate other objects. It took less than a minute to learn and master.

We ended the day on the grass -- naturally! -- with Clif offering tips on how to incorporate the movements we learned into our training routines and everyday lives. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), MovNat isn't something that lends itself to strict, rigid programming. The whole point of natural movement is that it should be integrated into all of our physical activity. During my warm-ups before a CrossFit workout, I can practice rolling on the floor to get loose. Between sets of overhead squats, I can work on my posture and balance. If I'm playing with my kids at the park, we can play tag or practice jumping. And if I need a break from work, I can head down to the sidewalk and shimmy up a streetlight. (Well, okay -- perhaps that last one isn't quite as likely to happen.)

These one-day MovNat seminars are intended to re-introduce participants to many of the natural, intuitive physical skills that humans have performed for millennia: Walking, running, moving on all fours, balancing, climbing, jumping, lifting, carrying, throwing. (Not everything could be squeezed into a one-day workshop, though; given practical and timing constraints, catching, swimming and defending weren't covered.) And when all was said and done, I certainly gained a newfound appreciation for the importance of balance, flexibility, precision and efficiency of movement.

Plus, how fun was CLIMBING?

Clif is hopscotching around the U.S. and leading MovNat workshops all over the place. (There are workshops held in Canada and Europe, too.) If you're at all interested in learning how to enhance your body awareness and integrate more play into your workouts and everyday shenanigans, sign your ass up tout de suite, yo. (Click here for the current schedule.)

[Remember to also check out M's re-cap of our MovNat experience -- complete with food porn photos from our dinner with Clif, Nick and The Lazy Caveman. And don't miss Erik Cisler's account of our Sunday workshop on Mark's Daily Apple. For a summary of another one-day MovNat Fundamentals Workshop, read Dr. Emily Deans' recent post about the Venice Beach workshop.]