The ‘Movement Movement’

A paradigm shifts in the fitness universe

I don’t do fitness my friend. That’s not what I do. I talk about movement. Fitness is a small, small, small world, within the universe of movement. I view it as a limited world. A world with many problems. A polluted world…But actually people who practice movement never miss anything. It was always there. It’s movement that I’m passionate about.” — Ido Portal

In the last 3 years some changes have occurred in my thinking, and my focus has shifted to movement and human play and away from the question of fitness — Rafe Kelley

Accompanying Ido Portal and Rafe Kelley are a rising chorus of voices espousing a similar refrain. Fitness is rotting, they say. Made putrescent by the collusion between equipment manufacturers, globogyms and exercise gurus giving rise to a fitness-industrial complex. A complex riddled with the evils of specificity and an overwhelming focus on strength, ignoring other vital skills such as agility, balance and coordination. It is time for a fresh start, they declare. And in fitness’s place they offer the ancient new science of movement, in myriad flavours and variants.

These different strains of movement science, each with its own distinctive characteristics be it Parkour which stresses efficiency in moving from point A to point B, or MovNat which stresses the practice and mastery of 13 fundamental human movement skills, all have their roots in the same place — the practice of locomotion or mobility skills that are specific to the human species. Building on these essential movement skills — crawling, walking, running, jumping, climbing, hanging, swimming etc, each tries to add their distinguishing bells and whistles, thus creating their unique methodologies of movement.

Amongst the various movement methodologies, we can identify three key ones. One is relatively better-known, and is gaining popularity beyond its small practitioner base. The other two are still obscure, slowly making their way into the mainstream beyond the present base of a small number of active ‘fitness’ enthusiasts and trend hunters.

The first is Parkour, created by a bunch of French youth in the ‘80s in the suburbs of Paris, that has now achieved renown and notoriety thanks to numerous youtube videos featuring massive jumps and acrobatics, movie cameos (Casino Royale prominently) and competitions such as Red Bull Art of Motion led by corporates looking for the next cool thing. At its heart, the practice of Parkour provides its practitioners (traceurs and traceuses) the ability to move between two points efficiently through skills such as vaults (jumps or quadrupedal moves), spins, wall runs etc. Parkour itself stresses economy or efficiency of movement, but a related strain Freerunning stresses expression, rather than economy of movement, with a lot more focus on flips and acrobatics.

The second of the key movement methodologies is MovNat, a portmanteau of Movement and Natural. MovNat was founded over the past decade by Erwan Le Corre, a now 42-year old Frenchman who combined his love for outdoors training, martial arts and study of historical approaches to physical training, primarily Georges Hebert’s Method Naturelle into an approach called MovNat.

MovNat is built around training and acquiring 13 fundamental movement skills, divided into

· Locomotive — walking, running, balancing, jumping, crawling, climbing, swimming

· Manipulative — lifting, carrying, throwing, catching

· Combative — striking, grappling

As stated on their website “locomotive skills are the ones that make us move, manipulative: the ones that make us move stuff around, and finally combative: the ones that help us defend ourselves”.

Why are there 13 skills? Why not more, or less? The objective of MovNat is to acquire the basis movement aptitudes that our ancestors had aplenty during the Paleolithic age, which we have lost as Zoo Humans today. Zoo Humans is a term that Erwan Le Corre uses to describe the urban creatures we have become, disconnected from the natural world outside, no longer able to climb trees, leap between boulders and interact with the environment, qualities essential for the survival of our ancestors, but one that we have gradually come to lose.

The third and final movement methodology does not have a name as such. It is closely associated with Ido Portal, an Israeli practitioner who stitched together his love for dance (capoeira), martial arts (kung fu) and gymnastics into a fitness philosophy centred around movement. The ultimate goal of Ido’s methodology is to enhance one’s own movement capabilities — across all branches of movement — and acquire what he terms self-dominance (mastery over one’s body) without getting bogged down in any one type of movement.

A key distinction that Ido has pioneered is to separate fitness and the elements of fitness from movement. As he says “It doesn’t matter how strong, how fit, how flexible, how much stamina you have. What we are interested here is how you move. And you can be all these things (i.e. strong, fit, high endurance, etc), but you can still move like shit”. According to Ido, fitness is done with specific ends in mind (losing weight, getting strong etc), while movement is done for no specific reason at all (in an example he cites, your hand doesn’t think of a reason for lifting itself to reach for a jar). It is this unconscious mastery of movement that Ido strives for and encourages his students to achieve.

In recent months I have started seeing more and more movement-oriented (vs fitness-oriented) statements emerging. Rafe Kelley’s quote apart, Ben Musholt dramatically states “Movement is my Mistress” in his book Mad Skills before going on say how the book will “give you the skills to be fit enough to pursue your love of movement, at whatever pace or vigor that you choose.” It is clear that these are the beginnings of a trend, starting at the fringe and beginning to makes its move into the mainstream.

Why is this happening? How is it that instead of pursuing movement to achieve fitness as we did thus far, we are now pursuing movement for its own sake thereby with fitness and its elements such as strength, flexibility etc., becoming byproducts of movement training?

I do not have any decisive answers to this. But I am hazarding two guesses

· Today’s crowded fitness market offers few new positioning slots. The gurus pushing their way through this market are probably finding that it is better to create an entirely new space (a la Blue Ocean Strategy) and redefine the fitness space.

· Movement training is part of an overall trend towards primal lifestyle pattern mirroring the adoption of the paleo diet, organic farming etc. In some senses movement is to fitness what the Paleo Diet is to dietary science ; through movement training we seek to hark back to the movement abilities that our paleo ancestors possessed which we have lost over the past hundreds of years of urban living.

The actual answer might perhaps lie somewhere between the two guesses that I offered from my lay perch — a happy coming together of a socio-cultural trend and a business strategy. Or maybe not.

What is the likely long-term impact of this trend? How will the spread of the ‘movement movement’ impact the traditional fitness industry? And what does the mainstreaming of the movement trend portent for the three movement philosophies that we explored at length?

Let us look at the traditional fitness industry. We have already seen the impact of the functional fitness trend impact in the rise of crossfit boxes, the rise of bodyweight gurus such as Al Kavadlo, Mike Fitch and Beast Skills’s Jim Bathurst, and increasingly the transformation of traditional gyms themselves. If movement philosophy begins to catch on we may see a new wave of gyms — not fitness centres but movement centres akin to Monkey Bar Gym, Parkour Gyms or even something akin to an obstacle course.

It is also interesting to note the phenomenal rise, in recent years, of obstacle-themed courses such as Tough Mudder or Spartan Races, in keeping with the growth of movement-orientation in the fitness world. Even as we see these transformations underway, from the traditional 10 or 21-k transform into an obstacle-run or the morphing of the traditional gym into a movement-oriented one such as Monkey Bar Gym or a Parkour-oriented one such as Tempest or Bklyn Beast, there is a parallel transformation underway in Parkour and other movement methodologies as well, interestingly enough in the reverse direction, dampening the focus on movement and stressing the fitness aspect of it.

Parkour’s popularity and the growing number of fitness enthusiasts it is drawing has meant a diverse student base, not all of whom are 16 year old, male and rangy. This has meant a reorientation in focus from pure movement (big jumps, wall climbs, traverses) towards using skills and moves in Parkour to build conditioning and all round fitness ability. If the practice of Parkour is to grow and attract a wider audience, such a dilution seems inevitable. As Parkour moves from big jumps to a mobility-oriented training regime, it is likely to join one of many mobility-driven training variants such as FreeG, Tricking, Tumbling that have emerged.

And finally how should the average fitness enthusiast view the rise of the ‘movement movement’? While I am extremely enthusiastic towards mobility training and the overall movement philosophy, I am not confident that I will see these becoming mainstream or even broadly popular as CrossFit has become. They will remain in my view much like the Paleo Diet is today, an interesting fringe lifestyle trend, popular in niches and certain segments of society but unlikely to penetrate the mainstream. I speak this a student of movement (primarily through Parkour; am 38 years old though and stocky not rangy).

To the evolved amateur fitness enthusiast however, I do think movement training has a lot to offer. These offer an intellectual framework and scaffolding to wrap one’s training and conditioning regimen around. And even for those pursuing sport-specific training regimens (such as preparing for a triathlon), mobility training provides significant variety and balance to the training regimen.

Allow me to sign off with an excerpt from an article by Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, from their website.

To wild animals, movement is not a chore, not a temporary punishment for being physically lazy and out of shape, not an optional activity just for better looks. To them it is nothing but a biological necessity. And they achieve amazing levels of fitness by moving the ways they are designed to move by nature. They move naturally. We can achieve the same level of fitness, health and freedom of movement by following nature’s design. Human beings can be absolutely amazing in the way they move, because their movement potential is so incredibly versatile. We can walk, run, balance, crawl, jump, climb, swim, lift, carry, throw and catch, strike or grapple. We can adapt our movement patterns to many environments and situations. We are not machines. We are highly evolved, beautiful organic beings, and we are meant to move the way humans move, in practical, adaptive and even creative ways.”

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This article is not meant to be an exhaustive compilation of mobility-driven training methodologies. It is meant to highlight how a new paradigm of viewing fitness, as one element of the movement space, is evolving simultaneously across the physical training universe. To illustrate this evolution, I have covered three diverse and fast-growing methodologies. In time there will be more such strains and variants such as Rafe Kelley’s Evolutionary Fitness Project, Mike Fitch’s Animal Flow etc.

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Some of the concepts in this article have been covered in Movement is the New Fitness by Jeremy McCarthy. I came across Jeremy’s blog while researching my article.

For further reading, I recommend the following articles.

Parkour

See What is Parkour? to know about Parkour’s origins. Also check out the wonderful Parkour Generations and American Parkour websites.

Ido Portal and his philosophy

Reclusive Flame Blog’s An Overview of Ido Portal and his Philosophy

Peregrine Poise blog’s The Master of Movement

The Furfiles blog’s A Look Inside Ido Portal’s Movement Camp

Primal Movers blogpost on Ido

Erwan Le Corre and Movnat

The Roots of MovNat

Greg Carver’s blogpost on Erwan Le Corre and MovNat

Men’s Health article on Erwan Le Corre

Rafe Kelley

Better Movement website’s Interview with Rafe Kelley