Living the Paleo Lifestyle: Training the Primal Patterns

By Kellyann Petrucci, Melissa Joulwan, Patrick Flynn, Adriana Harlan

To get the most from the Paleo lifestyle, you need to train the primal patterns. Conventional wisdom maintains that you can get most of the strength and fitness you’ll ever need from a small fraction of all the exercises you’ve ever heard of and subtle variations therein. In other words, a handful of battlefield-tested exercises offers tremendous utility — far above and beyond that of most other exercises.

This proposition is a spin on the Pareto principal, or what’s more commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule. Simply put, the 80/20 rule states that 80 percent of all effects come from 20 percent of the causes. Commonly, a pea garden illustrates this phenomenon, demonstrating that 80 percent of the peas grown in any one garden are often the result of only 20 percent of the pea pods.

The 80/20 rule can be and has been applied to increase the efficiency of tasks in multiple domains. In business, the rule commonly reveals that 20 percent of customers contribute 80 percent of the income.

As you may suspect, the 80/20 rule can even be applied to fitness, although the ratio is probably a bit more skewed — more like 95 percent of all the results you could ever want come from 5 percent of all the possible things that you could ever do. And this 5 percent consists of the fundamental primal human movements, of which there are roughly six:

  • Pushing

  • Pulling

  • Hinging

  • Squatting

  • Carrying

  • Walking and sprinting (gait)

Pushing

A push isn’t an exercise per se but rather a category of movement. It includes the push-up, the military press, and the bench press, all of which are big pushes.

Within each category of human movement, you want to do the movements that offer the highest return on investment. The push does that.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer]

Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer

The push-up in particular is perhaps the perfect primal exercise, working trunk stability and upper-body pushing strength. This classic gym class exercise strengthens the chest, shoulders, triceps, and abs.

Pulling

There’s nothing finer for a strong and muscular back than the pull-up.

Don’t fret if you’re unable to perform even one rep of the pull-up, and certainly don’t listen to the bunkum claiming that “females can’t do pull-ups.” Females most certainly can and most certainly should do pull-ups. Anyone who says otherwise has never had enough strength — or brains — to know better. Many women have progressed from zero to five pull-ups within two months’ time. That’s more than most males can do, and you can get there, too.

Hinging

Hinging — a movement horribly underpracticed — is a tremendously useful pattern. It is used in what is perhaps the most marvelous fat-chopping device ever seen: the kettlebell swing.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer]

Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer

Hinging forges an iron posterior and is, or at least should be, the default movement pattern for picking stuff up off the ground.

As an athlete, you can produce a tremendous amount of force from a hinge — think of a lineman before the snap, a sprinter before the gun, or a broad jumper before the leap; these actions are all strong and all come out of a hinged position. The dead lift is perhaps the most common hinging pattern of all. The dead lift strengthens the hips and the back. When performing the dead lift, be sure to keep the back flat and the hips below the shoulders but above the knees.

Squatting

In the category of the squat, you find a variety of options including the goblet squat, the pistol squat, and the front squat. The squat is an essential human movement pattern. It keeps the hips supple and the knees strong. It’s also a natural rest position, meaning that you should be able to get down into a squat and sit there comfortably for extended periods of time.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer]

Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer

If you have the mobility, it should feel almost effortless to sit in the bottom position of this squat. You want to try to accumulate as much time as you can in the bottom of a squat position throughout the day. Doing so will work wonders for your hips, knees, and back.

Carrying

No single movement pattern is more primal — or more useful — than the basic carrying of heavy objects. You do it every day, so it’s quite important.

Carrying, as strength coach Dan John would say, “fills in the gaps.” It’s something that everyone should do, but most people don’t.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer]

Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer

Carrying helps reinforce proper posture (which is often neglected) and strengthens the grip (finger and forearm strength is also paid very little attention).

Walking and sprinting

Gait, or the manner of moving on foot, includes walking and sprinting. Jogging, especially for long distances, is not optimally effective for increasing your fitness. Instead, you should steep yourself primarily in the two ends of the force-velocity spectrum. You should move slowly very often and move very fast occasionally. There’s little benefit to playing around in the middle (jogging).

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer]

Credit: Photo courtesy of Rebekah Ulmer