I love what primal fitness is trying to encourage us to do in the industry. Get back to natural movement patterns, move in different angles, positions, and postures, learn how to use our bodies.
Like anything else in the fitness industry, a good idea can go sideways very quickly, especially when it gets popular.
The idea of primal fitness was another way to get people off of machines, which I am all in favor for! However, then it has gotten a big weird. The more odd, off the wall, and many times body weight exercises are all lumped into the idea of being “primal”.
The truth is, we don’t have to guess what people were doing thousands of years ago. The reality is we only have to look back a little more than 100 years. The reality is that our society was still farming and performing manual labor quite a bit then and the idea of exercise programs were not only non-existent, but really unnecessary.
You don’t have to be a sociologist to know or have heard the legends of “farmer strength”. I remember personally experiencing this when during a summer league basketball tournament in high school we faced a team from a farming community in Illinois. We thought, “how could they be any good”, not only did they beat us, it was one of the worst beatings I had ever been a part of.
They were strong, quick, and had endurance that never seemed to stop!
What is it about “farmer strength” that we could learn and really help us clear up the whole “primal” confusion?
Senior DVRT instructor, Troy Anderson, actually grew up on a farm in Wyoming. He is usually my go to source on such things as he actually lived it. Ironically, I have heard a lot of people put their spin on what they THINK happens on the farm, but most have never actually even lived on one. That is why I asked Troy for his ideas on what makes “farmer strength” so unique, have we made it a bit more “romantic” than it truly is?
“Lots of people (wrongly) create the romanticized narrative of what “farm boy” strength is about going around ‘lifting heavy stuff’ when the reality is, it’s about who can do the most inglorious work, like shoveling nasty things for hours, days, or even weeks on end. It’s about who can do crap work the longest, when you live on the farm it’s not a choice. When you live behind a key board, change your program every other minute, and train for 30 min to 1 hr per day it consistency SOUNDS really romantic, until you are out in the midst of it all. In coach speak sub-maximal consistency wins.”
I hear Coach Anderson talk about a lot of things that are often mistaken in most modern approaches to “primal” fitness. For one, just because we workout really hard, and it can VERY hard, for 20-30 minutes it doesn’t match up to the incredibly long hours farmers go through on a daily basis.
What Coach Anderson talked about sub-maximal work consistently is probably one of THE most overlooked keys. Surprisingly there may be science to this as well.
Dr. Michael Yessis who is an expert in strength training science and the highly controversial Soviet training system states, “you want to increase your maximum strength levels but this does not mean doing maximum strength training with the weights in the 90 to 100% of maximum zone. Best are strength exercises in his 75 to 85% of maximum zone.Strength plays a major role in explosive plyometric training but by itself, is not the key quality that determines your success in speed or power (speed plus strength) oriented sports.” Actually very similar to what Coach Anderson was referring to!
Now, I am not suggesting you move out to the closest farm, but what can we learn? Primal and functional training are very similar in nature. They are about learning how to use our bodies, make connections throughout the chains that make our bodies powerful, and develop better fitness by learning how to integrate more muscles at once.
You need to use some weight, not always heavy weight, but not ridiculously low weights either. Greater “farmer strength” was about high volume of moderate loads. In other words, you have to be patient. It is easy to get carried away with the initial gains made in a program, but any real success is going to be earned over the long haul.
That means consistency is very important! Consistently using weights that challenge the body, but don’t crush it either. There is science there, not just anecdotal evidence. This very same idea is the basis of what strength scientists like Tudor Bompa called “anatomical adaptation”, or as many people have heard “general physical preparation”. No matter what the name, the goal was very similar.
Build balance among the muscles, flexibility, a baseline fitness level, all to slowly build and better tolerate greater challenges. Nowadays we try to work at our highest level early and get too specific too soon.
The lessons from the farm also tells us learning to move in many different means is really important. Yes, up and down type of exercises that are very familiar to us may serve as a foundation, but learning how to use our strength in other patterns and postures is equally as important.
How about the fact that the average bail of hay weighs around 80-100 pounds. You can’t build that “farmer strength” with 5 or 20 pound weights. You will have to build a rare combination of movement and strength!