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6 Pillars of Useful Fitness

6 Pillars of Useful Fitness

Training for the outdoors is likely best for overall health, longevity, and utility.

You’ll learn: Four important lower body exercises; how to think of and leverage “zone 2” cardio; my favorite core exercise; a case for being supermedium; and more …


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  • On Wednesday, I’ll break down the details of an epic Misogi retreat I’m planning with GORUCK. It’s in Costa Rica in January. It will be hard and we won’t die.

  • I recently posted some quick thoughts on last month’s Burn the Ships for those interested.

Now let’s get on with it …

Fall is coming, and fall outdoors is *the best* kind of outdoors. Temperatures are cool but not cold. Elk are calling. Trails are dry. Leaves are turning red and yellow and orange (why? Chlorophyll.)

In August, many of us scramble to get physically ready to take advantage of the season—hunting, hiking, rucking, mountain biking, and trail running among the turning leaves.

Today we’ll tackle a few top-level fundamentals of outdoor fitness.

  • The concepts are important for everyone, even if the wildest thing you do is ruck in Central Park.
  • That’s because training for the outdoors likely has the most carryover to general health and longevity compared to other types of focused training.

Outdoor fitness indeed hits all the skills humans need to be physically useful and resilient—relative strength, cardio, mobility, and physical and psychological resilience. It makes you useful.

There’s also strong evidence that outdoor exercise has significant cognitive and mental health benefits over exercise indoors or in the built environment (more on that later).

Let’s roll …

  • P.S. This story may or may not have something to do with August’s Burn the Ships Workout, which is dropping Friday.

1. Feed the Wolf

In short

Build more lower-body strength than upper.

The details

The 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team coach Herb Brooks allegedly used to run his players through endless lateral skating drills—which, I imagine, might make your legs feel as if they’re taking a bath in a vat of acid.

As the players skated and suffered, Brooks would allegedly shout, “The legs feed the wolf.”

Brooks knew that the US could never be as skilled as the Russians—but we could be fitter than them. And it all started with building legs like pistons.

Outdoor sports require that you produce force with your legs over and over and over because you’re covering ground and changing elevation.

Even rock climbing requires long hikes to crags in wild places while hauling heavy gear.

And you can literally “see” this phenomenon among top outdoor athletes across disciplines. Most are disproportionately shaped, with a relatively larger and more muscular lower body than upper.

How to use it

A simple, effective way to approach lower body training is to hit the “front” and “back” of your legs with exercises that requiring one and two legs.

I do a few sets of exercises that fall into these patterns at least once each week. Here are examples. I’ve included moves anyone can do with anything that weighs something (e.g., a ruck).

There is, of course, crossover. All those exercises work both the “front” and “back” of your legs, but the emphasis is different for each.

2. Build An Engine

In short

Do lots of easy cardio to build more endurance.

The details

Getting your body from one point on the map to another takes a good set of lungs.

The problem is that many people think going really hard for short time periods—i.e. intervals—is enough to build great endurance.

  • Intervals help. But improving your endurance requires spending lots of time in the slow and steady zone.

You may have seen different intensities of cardio classified by “zones” (E.g. “zone 2”).

Zones are a useful directive for research and personal rabbit holes (listen to Peter Attia’s conversation with researcher Iñigo San-Millán if you’d like to go down one).

But don’t get too married to the idea of zones. As the running guru and author Steve Magness wrote, zones are just “a way to classify and categorize training. They distinguish between variations of hard and easy. That’s it … Zones and the borders between them are arbitrary … (they’re) classifications/categories that allow us to roughly organize training. They aren’t rigid. They aren’t even tied to precise training adaptations. There are no magic zones, or magic paces … everything is a stimulus that can lead to a potential adaptation.”

Read the full thread here.

How to use it:

Cardio Rule One

Spend most of your cardio time going relatively easy, at a pace you can hold a conversation at or breathe through your nose during (nothing magic about breathing through your nose, either, it just works as a governor).

This is where rucking shines—it keeps you at the ideal pace, plus you get a strength benefit and likely more fat loss.

Cardio Rule Two

Go hard less often.

Cardio Rule Three

Go exceedingly hard even less often.

That’s it. That’s the whole program. Here’s Steve, being all poetic about it:

3. Forge the Mental Edge

In short

A good attitude is sometimes more important outdoors than physical fitness.

The details

I recently spoke with Dustin Deifenderfer of MTNTOUGH, a training facility and app specializing in mountain fitness.

“Our major pillar that we are going to run everything through is mental toughness,” he said. “Our philosophy is mental toughness trumps physical—someone who is more mentally tough and has better resilience and adaptability is usually going to outperform someone who is more physically fit than them in the backcountry.”

If you crack up in bad weather, get frustrated when the day gets long, are overly paranoid about bears, can’t smile through mishaps, etc, it doesn’t matter how fit you are in a gym.

How to use it

I recently recorded an AMA about how the fallacies of mental toughness are also its strong suit. I’ve found that two things build what we think of as mental toughness. Listen here.

(Refer friends to 2% through the button below and you’ll get free perks.)

4. Build a Solid Core

In short

Do loaded carries and bird dogs.

The details

A stronger core reduces your risk of injury and improves your performance.

For example, a group of scientists at the University of Arizona recruited over 400 members of the Tucson fire department. Injuries were plaguing the team.

The scientists taught the firefighters a simple core-strengthening routine and asked them to regularly practice it for a year. The results:

The intervention reduced lost time due to injuries by 62% and the number of injuries by 42% over a twelve-month period as compared to a historical control group.

Core strength also boosts performance. It provides a foundation to generate force from your legs and arms. This is likely why other research suggests that core strength relates to how efficiently you can cover ground. And, of course, it’s also critical to carry weight over ground.

How to use it

In my experience, variations of loaded carries and the bird dog exercise best transfer to outdoor sports. Here’s how to do the bird dog. I usually do a few sets at least twice a week.

Excelling in vast, unforgiving landscapes like the Alaskan backcountry requires the six skills in this post.

5. Bulletproof Your Joints

In short

Do the exercises in “How to use it” once a week.

The details

When I was training to spend a month in the Arctic, the brilliant, savage Witch Doctor Doug Kechijian helped me train.

His programs included a lot of drills to make my joints more resilient against injury. This was particularly important for my situation.

If I were to roll an ankle 100 miles from civilization, it would have been a long hobble back to the landing strip. Assuming a grizzly bear didn’t find me first.

This same rule applies everywhere. Getting injured on a trail sucks, with the ratio of suckiness increasing the farther you are from the trailhead.

How to use it:

To prepare for Alaska, I did various exercises to strengthen my ankles, knees, shoulders, etc.

For example, this one helped my ankles. This one helped my knees. This one helped my hips and hamstrings. This one helped my shoulders.

I work them into warmups and do them each once a week.

6. Be Supermedium

In short

Be strong but not big.

The details

Dudes often think more muscle = more fitness. But nature doesn’t give a sh*t about your biceps.

In the outdoors, strength is important, while excess muscle is more weight you have to carry. It makes each step more effortful. You’re better off being lighter and stronger.

  • Think of it this way: A person who weighs 150 pounds and can squat 200 pounds will be better off outdoors than someone who weighs 250 and can squat 250.

This is why most elite outdoor athletes aren’t overly muscular. They’re built like Jimmy Chin, Courtney Dauwalter, or Alex Honnold.

There could be some argument for building extra muscle for a heavy hunting pack out. But I’d personally rather be 20 pounds lighter for the majority of the hunt and have the hour or two long pack out be a bit harder than carry 20 extra pounds for the other 7 days I’m in the backcountry.

How to use it

Literally just do what humans did for most of history and you’ll find it:

  • Eat whole foods.
  • Cover lots of ground outdoors.
  • Lift and carry things that weigh something.
  • Chase function not form.

Have fun, don’t die, be supermedium.


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