What is fitness for? If you were to ask the average gym member why he or she is picking things up and putting them back down, or running in place, or repeatedly jumping on and off of a wooden box, you would get a small assortment answers: To get bigger, stronger, thinner, faster, maybe more flexible, and occasionally because it makes her feel good and she just really likes it. Shake that last person’s hand and tell her to keep it up.
But less often will you hear someone say: “I’m doing this because I want to learn to move better.” The mainstream fitness industry fails when it comes to teaching people to actually learn how to move their bodies efficiently, accurately, in control, without pain, through their full potential range of motion. This industry has no incentive to teach people to move autonomously and independently.
Many of the machines you’ll find in a gym—the heavy objects, the many-armed contraptions—are not going to help people move better. They aren’t meant to. They are commercial products that sell people a feeling—a feeling that these things will help them get bigger, thinner, stronger, faster, etc.
Sure, faster, stronger, and longer movement is certainly better than slower, weaker, and short-lived movement, or no movement at all. But the limited options we have with the dozen or so movement patterns offered by standard gym equipment don’t come close to the thousands of movements our bodies are capable of performing and were built to perform.
This traditional myopic take on movement is usually also accompanied by the hype, the shaming, the fostering of unattainable expectations, the obsessive focus on body weight and shape, and the general misleading marketing techniques of the commercial fitness industry. Add it all up and it doesn’t take deep examination to realize that most of the folks who are claiming to help us get fit and healthy are doing a poor job.
But a growing number of fitness professionals and businesses are rejecting the “get-ripped, blast-belly-fat, buy-our-product” approach that has dominated the health and fitness narrative. These gyms, programs, and professionals are tapping into backgrounds in physical therapy, sports performance, medicine, martial arts, and, by golly, actual science, to help their clients learn to move, and move well.
Kevin Moore is the owner of Reembody, a Portland, Oregon-based movement-centric fitness business. “We’ve been told by the fitness industry for so long that we can separate the elements of health and buy solutions for each of them piecemeal: strength, flexibility, endurance, nutrition, stress management, beauty, social health, all of it,” Moore said.
“The fact is, these things are no more separate than one neuron is separate from another…The movement-based approach is about integrating the strength and skills of an individual into their environment. Learning how to move is learning that you can be useful, that you have power. In my experience, there is no faster path toward self-love. A person can spend years trying to lose 20 pounds. I can show them how to throw far, jump high and run fast—without pain—in 20 minutes,” Moore said.
The pain theme is common among movement-focused professionals. Dr. Christopher Raynor is an orthopedic surgeon, former professional athlete, and fitness instructor who opened his Toronto facility, Human 2.0, initially to help consolidate the injury rehabilitation process into a one-stop shop. It also serves as a place for athletes to improve performance, but most importantly, Human 2.0 is a place for everyday people to learn to move well.
“My focus is to get people to move better,” Raynor said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you are, or what level you are. If you’re an average Joe, you want to be able to go around and do your daily activities without pain.”
Moore of Reembody agrees: “One of our biggest hurdles is the acceptance of pain as a normal by-product of exercise, and it just super-isn’t.”
We don’t have to hurt. We hurt because we don’t move. And then we don’t move because we hurt. But moving can be so fun, so it’s a shame that many people think that physical activity just isn’t for them. It is. It’s in our genes—each of our bodies contains the blueprints for some truly rad stuff. Back to Moore’s self-love comment: learning to love your body doesn’t start with slogging away on a treadmill to help get rid of fat—it starts with doing really cool things with your body. And GMB Fitness, a web-based movement education system, is teaching people to do some pretty cool things.
I spoke with Jarlo Llano, a physical therapist, trainer, and managing director of GMB Fitness. I asked him why most of the images on their website are mostly just people, clearly having a ton of fun moving their bodies, rather than photoshopped images of shirtless dudes and sports bra-clad models.
“We wanted it to be a pushback to everything else,” Llano said. “About four or five years ago was that was what the marketing was, even the bodyweight and callisthenic stuff was like “blast fat!” We decided we didn’t want to do that. Those things [like promising fat loss] did well initially, but they didn’t sustain, because people would buy them then only do it for a few weeks.”
GMB started out at first teaching gymnastics-based fitness, sort of as a gimmick at first, Llano admitted, but it got people in the door. “People were thinking ‘oh I want to get bigger muscles.’ That was part of it, but it seemed that people liked that they were moving better after the program, that was our feedback. People would say ‘Wow, it showed me that I can actually use my body to do different things.’ The side effects of actually getting more muscle and getting stronger and losing weight were there eventually, but they found out that what they really wanted was just to move better,” Llano said.
MovNat is another movement-centered approach to fitness that takes the workout outside, into nature. MovNat’s founder, Erwan LeCorre stressed to me that his approach to movement emphasizes practicality. The videos on MovNat’s website show LeCorre running barefoot through woods and down mountain sides, crawling, carrying logs and throwing rocks, swimming, grappling, etc. At first these things do not seem especially practical, but if you start to ask “what is fitness really for?” Then the Movant approach starts to make more sense.
“Practicality is more than functionality,” LeCorre told me. “There’s a ton of ‘functional fitness’ out there, they put you on the Bosu to do some balancing while doing biceps curls with weights, right? And that’s called functional. To us, this is nothing. In what way does that resemble anything real?”
“You could have people who could do 20 pull-ups in a row but who couldn’t climb a rock. It’s great to have more people moving, but from the Movnat perspective, we want to see people equipped with both the physical preparedness and the movement skills,” he said. “If you grow up but you don’t have fundamental ability to do natural movements such as balancing, jumping, running, climbing, lifting, carrying, all of that, this means you did not receive a real education.”
LeCorre points to the expectations that are fostered by the fitness industry, and asks people to change their expectations about their bodies.
“What do I expect, do I expect my body to look a certain way, or do I expect my body to perform and move a certain way?” he asked. “This is the whole difference between a MovNat approach to fitness and a conventional approach to fitness. We say the way you look will have to do with how you move (and of course how you eat, and how you sleep and all aspects of your lifestyle), but this is the consequence, not the goal. The end goal is that you move well, and that you move in practical ways that are efficient and effective. And that’s what we train you for.”
Our desire to look a certain way probably stems from an evolutionary preference for mates that appear fit and healthy—capable of getting food, having and rearing children, and providing for those children and keeping them alive. All of this requires some pretty badass whole-body movement: running, carrying, fighting, climbing, navigating uneven, natural environments. But today we go to the gym and lift, throw kettle bells, run in place and use machines that isolate muscles and muscle groups—all this to look like people who do those natural movements.
So…why the hell don’t we just do those movements in the first place?
Although it’s a small portion of the fitness landscape today, the movement-based approach is catching on. “I think we’re at the crest of it,” Llano told me. “And I think it’s just gonna keep getting better.” More and more, professionals are making this obvious move towards actually training the body to do all of the movements it is meant to be able to do.
Starting with movement may not “shred” or “tone” your body, at least not at first. But in the end, your body will be more able, autonomous, independent, and pain-free. And probably, you will end up looking pretty good. Or maybe not. But that’s not the point.
Don’t let the fitness industry convince you otherwise.