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FOR MOST OF human history, “working out” wasn’t really a thing. Sure, athletes and warriors conditioned their bodies to excel in the arena and battlefield, but everyday men and women simply didn’t “train” in the modern sense of the word. There was no need. Daily life was already a nonstop gauntlet of physical challenges, ranging from heaving grain sacks, hauling logs, and building shelters to chasing game, tilling land, and wrestling livestock. Indeed, the very idea of performing a farmer’s walk for fitness would have been ludicrous, since you already did that countless times a day just to complete your chores.

In short, until about a hundred years ago, exercise was often blended into everyday living—and, generally speaking, we were fitter for it. That’s one reason why so many people are now embracing the “primal movement” trend.

It’s a call to train more purposefully in the fundamental movements that used to more frequently populate our lives. Perfecting these staples can help you excel both in the gym and beyond—but there’s likely no reason to totally overhaul your workout. The good news: Primal movement exercises are likely already the bedrock of your weekly routine.

What Is Primal Movement?

The term “primal movement” refers to the idea that there are a handful of foundational movement patterns that humans are hardwired to perform. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely seen your son or daughter master each one as he or she develops from infancy to childhood. First, they’re able to pull on anything within grasp. Next, it’s twisting (usually in an effort roll over), followed all too quickly by pushing off the ground (to observe better), squatting (to assume a standing position or pick something up from that position), and then hinging at the hips to reach for something that doesn’t necessarily require stooping all of the way to the floor. Finally, they’re able to walk and, once they develop a bit more coordination, lunge.

And there you have the seven primal movements (in no specific order): push, pull, twist, squat, hinge, lunge, and gait (e.g., walk, run, etc.).

As mentioned above, you likely perform most of these movements during the course of your weekly training (not to mention daily life). To that end, the whole concept of “primal movement” is a bit meaningless—its patterns are ingrained in the exercises and actions that most of us perform regularly. But how well do you perform them? That’s the real question.

The Benefits of Practicing Primal Movements

Form is everything. Anyone who’s at all serious about strength training specifically or working out in general already understands that, and by focusing more intently and purposefully on how you execute the seven primal movement patterns, you can elevate literally every physical action you perform. You’ll put more force into every rep of the squat and lunge, more strength into every rep of the bench press and push up, and more power into every rep of the classic deadlift and its countless variations.

You’ll run faster and more efficiently. You’ll throw a punch and swing a kettlebell more effectively. Just as important, you’ll reduce your risk of injury, because you’ll be performing all of these movements with (you guessed it) better form. You can think of this as a concept similar to functional training—with even more emphasis on the basics.

So how do you go about becoming more proficient at the primal movements? Start with these seven exercises.

The Basic Primal Movement Exercises

Pushup

Why: Here’s your push movement. The pushup is one of the most common (and effective) bodyweight exercises, since you’re working to move yourself against gravity and hitting your chest, triceps, shoulders, and (with good form) core and mid-back, too.

How to Do It:

  • Start in a high plank position, with your palms flat on the floor, stacked directly below your shoulders.

  • Squeeze your shoulders, glutes, and core to create full-body tension. Your spine should form a straight line, with a neutral spine. Keep your gaze on the floor instead of looking up to do this.

  • Bend your elbows to descend to the floor, stopping with your chest just above the ground. Your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle relative to the torso.

  • Press back up off the floor, raising up to the top position with your elbows fully extended.

Sets and Reps: Start by working up to 15 to 20 reps at a time


Inverted Row

Why: Pulling movements that don’t rely on an external load can be tough, especially for beginners, since the pullup can have a high barrier for entry. The inverted row allows you to adjust the lever you’re working with (the angle of your body) to ratchet up or down the difficulty.

How to Do It:

  • Start by positioning yourself under a barbell in a rack or Smith machine. The height will depend on the level of difficulty you’re looking to work with—higher will be easier, lower will be harder.

  • Once the bar is in position, reach up and grab it with an overhand grip, with your hands a just wider than shoulder width apart.

  • Pull your body up with your elbows fully extended so your shoulders, back, glutes, and calves are off the ground. Only your heels should be touching the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes, working to keep a straight line.

  • Pull your body up, aiming to pull the bar to your chest. Squeeze at the top of the rep, keeping your torso position solid, then release back down to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps


Spiderman Lunge with Thoracic Rotation

Why: This superhero-sounding move is a mobility must, since you’ll rotate your thoracic spine—taking care of that ‘twist’ pattern.

How to Do It:

  • Get in pushup position, hands directly below your shoulders, abs and glutes tight. Shift your right leg up so your foot is planted just outside your right hand, or as close as you can manage given your mobility.

  • Tighten your abs, then lift your left hand off the ground. Reach through across your body, then rotate your torso to raise your left hand to the ceiling, keeping your gaze on your extended fingertips.

  • Return your left hand to the ground. Step back to the start, then repeat on the opposite side.

Sets and Reps: Perform 3 minute-long rounds, with 30 seconds rest in between.


Air Squat

Why: Yes, you can load the squat in all manner of ways, but start without any external implements to master the movement pattern.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing slightly out. You’ll find the most comfortable stance for you as you get more accustomed to the movement. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes.

  • Push your butt back, then bend your knees to descend into the movement. You can extend your arms out in front of you for a counterbalance.

  • Lower down until your butt is just lower than your knees, or as far as your mobility allows.

  • Stand back up and squeeze your glutes, extending your hips.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 rounds of 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off


Romanian Deadlift

Why: Proper hinge mechanics are important for more than just building your hamstrings and glutes. You’ll also be better at lifting and picking things up off the ground, whether you’re doing yard work or hoisting your kids.

How to Do It:

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells from a bench or box, then stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in the knee. Squeeze you shoulder blades, abs, and glutes, holding the dumbbells at your sides.

  • Push your butt back as far as possible as you begin lowering your torso. Think about taking two seconds with the lowering phase. The goal is to get to about a 45-degree angle, depending on your personal mobility. Keep the dumbbells close to your shins.

  • Pause at the bottom, then stand back up, squeezing your glutes.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps


Lunge

Why: Lunges allow you to train your lower body unilaterally, which can help to correct muscle imbalances. You can also start moving with the lunge, which can develop coordination and athleticism.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes, and, and shoulder blades, keeping your gaze neutral at a point straight ahead of you.

  • Step forward and slightly out with one leg, landing with your heel first. Don’t slam your knee into the ground. Keep your chest in an upright position, bending your knees to form right angles with both of your legs. Turn on your forward glute muscle to help protect your knees.

  • Drive off the ground with your front heel to step back into the starting position. Keep your torso in a solid upright position by squeezing your core to stay balanced.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg


Farmer’s Walk

Why: You’ll do more than get moving here—the farmer’s walk also reinforces good posture and provides an underrated core challenge if you’re doing it the right way.

How to Do It:

  • Grasp a heavy pair of dumbbells tightly at your sides. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension. Focus your gaze just ahead of you and slightly down to keep your neck in a neutral position.

  • Step forward deliberately, keeping your strong, upright posture and a firm grip on the dumbbells. Continue striding forward without losing your form.

Sets and Reps: 4 rounds of 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off

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