The Human Challenge

I have a question for you.  

What's the difference between natural and normal?  The difference is subtle, but the consequences couldn't be larger.

See, there are a whole slew of movements that--given our evolutionary history and anatomy--are natural but no longer normal.  Some are distinctly abnormal.  We're kickass caveman thrown into a very strange modern world.  As such we have certain...limitations.  We're chair-shaped, by and large.  And we somehow think 30 minutes of intense exercise 3 times per week will counteract the deleterious effects of a sedentary lifestyle.  

Cavemen Didn't Exercise

Our primal ancestors wouldn't have a clue what yoga is, or Zumba, or even the weight room.  Movement today is relegated to hour-long chunks strewn throughout the week when we feel guilty about the food we ate.  For the cavemen, however, movement was an inescapable part of life.  There were no "exercise" time blocks.  Exercise as we do it today would actually reduce the odds of their survival.  After all, why would you expend precious calories if you aren't getting food, shelter, or a mate?  

So our movement profile today is skewed.  And we have the bodies to show it.  Our normalmovement measurements (strength, flexibility, stamina) are decidedly unnatural.  To see how you stack up, let's explore 5 tests for natural movement.

Are You (hu)Man Enough?

1. Toe Touch

The toe touch is an early set up for one of the most powerful movements in the human body: the hip-hinge.  This natural movement will show general flexibility in the posterior chain, that series of huge muscles along the back of the body.  The toe touch should be performed with both a flat back and straight legs in this test.  Expect to be humbled.  

It's far too common to find that people are unable to touch their toes, even with back or legs bent.  Blame it on a weak trunk, blame it on stiff legs, blame it on simple disuse of this pattern.  If you can't touch toes toes in standing, that's a red flag for spine health and alignment.

2. Squat

While we're on the subject of the lower body, let's take a look at the squat.  This ain't the bro's PR back squat.  The flat-footed squat is a natural human resting position.  It requires significant mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips, plus stability through the trunk.  Access to this range of motion sets you up for tremendous movement potential.  

In terms of body health it blows sitting in a chair out of the water.  Whereas sitting in a chair effectively turns off the muscles of the legs, the squat utilizes these muscles in a biologically relevant manner.   Flexibility and strength are big enough perks on their own, and we can add in the whole...ahem, elimination component.  See toilets are about as unnatural as you can get, forcing pressure in areas there isn't supposed to be pressure.  So give the pelvic floor a break; work on that squat.  A good test of a healthy squat is the ability to rest comfortably in the bottom position for 30 seconds.

3. Hang/Brachiate

Hang slash what?  

This is simply bearing your weight on your arms.  I like to call it evolutionary shoulder rehab.  See, the structure of the shoulder joint has a lot in common with our tree-dwelling ancestors, and its function is largely the same.  Arms pull & push, plain & simple.  Now, if you can brachiate well, I'm willing to bet you can handle a push-up, but the reverse is not often true.  

The ability to hang from the hands is critical to shoulder health, posture, and upper body strength.  A good bench mark to aim for is 30 seconds comfortably suspended from the hands.  Own those shoulders!  Desk jockeys beware...you'll find that this overhead position can be intense at first.  You may have a lot of stiff tissue in the front of the body, coupled with weakened muscles of the arms and back.  This will improve very quickly once you start hanging.

4. Balance

How often do you think about balance?  It likely doesn't cross your mind til you lose it.  

We're unique and lucky in the animal kingdom in that we can effectively navigate on just two feet.  This is arguably THE MOST SIGNIFICANT turning point in our lineage.  After all this ability allowed us to carry objects, gave us better sight over the tall grasses of the savannah, and was tremendously efficient at conserving energy in the heat of the sun.  Safe to say our bipedal balance is a good thing.

The ability to balance on our feet is often compromised, however.  Excessive time in shoes, walking on uniform (flat, flat, and more flat) surfaces, and sedentary lifestyles effectively turn off many of the muscles used in walking (see 1 & 2).  That's a shame because balance is crucial to our health at any and every age.  Especailly as we get older. 

As a simple test try to walk 16 feet on a 2"x4".  Think of it as practice for if you're ever pulled over : )

5. Get Up

There are more and more studies showing that one of the most effective markers of good health is the ability to get up from the floor to standing without using the hands.  There is some debate over why this is, but across the board we see lower mortality rates in groups of people who can perform this movement.  I say "this movement", but the truth is there are hundreds of ways to do this.

Getting up from the floor without the hands is a great demonstration of practical mobility and coordination.  Coupled with the other movements listed, it will show your level of natural ability.  

So...how did you do?  

These tests can be humbling.  When we're confronted with a challenge like this, it's easy to dismiss it.  We're SO good at making excuses: too old, too fat, I'd never use that.  However, these movements are integral components of natural human movement.  And you never stop being human.

How did you do?  Share your results below!