Shouldn’t I have answered this question many moons ago?
I have answered that in a few podcasts actually, the latest one from Joseph deLeo at Leo Training (link to come when it’s live)
I belong to a closed group on Facebook called the Movement Mavericks, started and monitored by Rannoch Donald and Neil Hill, who are not only huge supporters, they are also great promoters of proper movement skill and walk the walk when in comes to being all-around athletes and servicing their clients as such.
One way to explain it and make it a bit different from any answers I provided thus far is that it is simply the full development of our organism as nature intended, without excess or (whatever the opposite of excess is). Nothing unnecessary, nothing superfluous. We can all understand the notion of not having excess fat, being physically inactive, or needing to be physically active because we no longer are concerned with being part of the food chain. We don’t have to hunt and gather to survive, therefore we’re not utilizing our “naturally designed” physiology. I suspect some will potentially take offense, reject or misinterpret Georges Hébert’s vision when it comes to muscle building or strength training for what he considers to not be natural.
Hébert rejects things we now refer to as powerlifting, or bodybuilding. Training for hypertrophy is such a popular thing, especially among men, and it has been for decades (think of the Pumping Iron days and the buff look of superheroes). And while we can all value strength, how much strength do we truly need? We do like to say that strength trumps everything, that it’s a great go-to fix for most issues (and I agree), there has to be a limit, at some point. Hébert’s motto of “be strong to be useful” can also be translated as “be strong to be functional”. The subtle variation can be detected if you speak French and are familiar with both the original text and my humble translation/transliteration.
Indeed, much like I still struggle with the best English title for the book on women’s physical education, I modified the exact terminology of the original books to reflect a more current understanding of training. Terms we know and can identify quickly and currently may very well be used differently in 20 years. An example of a change I made a decision on is (and you can attack me for the stance, the choice was necessary and this blog, or any other platform like a workshop or speaking engagement can serve the purpose of further explaining my choices): utilitarian exercises, which I renamed functional exercises. Hébert calls them “utilitaires”, for utility, like a utility knife serves a purpose, or any tool. We like to call that functional today, and while utilitarian may be more appropriate, I still have to engage people in a way they understand it. I can’t break too much ground or challenge mindsets without some way to have people identify with it first.
So, reverting to utilitarian, “être fort pour être utile” has an element of functionality and because his program, his Natural Method is geared at all-around athleticism, a focus on just strength training, while it may provide one with the usefulness of being strong for a specific task, automatically eliminates other utilitarian or functional features. For instance, a strongman will usually not have the ability to run long distance, or run very quickly, yet someone who is a runner only (let’s pick an endurance runner) will not have the strength to be useful at other tasks. And because the Method originates from a military need, it all comes back to the source of what Dr Ed Thomas like to teach:
- Visual (for a harmonious development of the body)
Also, the hyper focus on strength training only, at the expense of other aspects, is a direct validation of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands).
Let us not misinterpret consequently that the Natural Method doesn’t apply to people with muscles developed beyond a natural environmental need (there is no such thing as environmental need, globally speaking, unless you’re a sherpa, a Maasai warrior or other exception). Bodybuilding has no real function, yes. But who cares? What’s important is the bodybuilder being able to have a certain level of skill in other areas: agility, coordination, basic climbing or scaling, throwing light or heavy objects, being able to run. I happen to work with bodybuilders who value the work and principles brought forth by Georges Hébert and apply them in their training while still working on developing their muscles beyond what Nature intended or daily needs call for (and I am not talking about drugs or other things, only that unless specific attention is given to hypertrophy, muscles will only grow so much from basic labors required in the wild).
There is a reason why many ‘natural’ movements (as in philosophies or fitness approaches) like to refer to our hunting and gathering ancestors looking a certain way, because no caveman would pick up a rock or tree trunk and dead-lift it for reps with the goal to get stronger or bigger. It simply didn’t exist or didn’t fit into the lifestyle. Today, it’s a choice and an interest with a health benefit, whereas fitness then was a necessity for survival. No one actually dies today directly from being unfit (heart disease will do it for you as a consequence only) because rare is the person who has a saber tooth tiger chasing them. Gazelles and lions get it, but we don’t have to. We’re not getting picked out of the herd anymore.
The Crossfit movement tries to adhere to that, actually, by pushing it to excess, though. That’s the spirit of competition (something Hébert rejected to a point, as he believes in competition among peers during training and development as a way to equalize all trainees, but not for the sake of competition and scoring). Hébert didn’t care about being Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger, but he believed in being strong, fast and harmoniously developed based on the stimulus provided by all the activities. He was a generalist, a jack of all trades, and you know what? That’s not such a bad thing to be. Consider pro athletes: their ultra specialization makes them broken, physically, sometimes mentally and there is a reason sports careers are short (the career spans depending on the damages caused by the activity on the body). They are masters at their craft, for a while, and many end up badly hurt after they retire. For the rest of us, being fit, strong, functioning individuals is a lifetime journey, its span only affected by our health and fitness.
I also believe in moderation, of course. What’s the point of being too strict if you’re miserable all the time? And how are you truly enjoying yourself if you’re unhealthy, in pain, popping pills all the time and unable to do basic tasks, be they for fun or utility? On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being totally inactive and poorly eating and 10 being gangbusters gym rat orthorexic antisocial, choose to be an 8: eat well, train, and reward yourself with a few vices that you earned. But only if you earned them. If you fall below a 6, you’re not even average or median, you’re simply far below optimal. The difference between 8 and 10 is just as big as the difference between 6 and 8, but it’s far easier to get from 6 to 8 than it is to get from 8 to 10, and the benefits of being an 8 over a 6 are vastly, vastly worth the effort. Claiming lack of time is simply stating that “it’s not a priority”.
As a friend of mine recently said on FaceBook, try to say from now on “it’s not a priority” rather than saying “I don’t have the time”, and see how you feel. Is your health not a priority? Your strength? Your bank account? Your family?