Discover more from 2% with Michael Easter
Four Fitness Skills Every Human Needs
The University of South Carolina Football team has become one of the fittest teams in the game by leveraging the physical skills humans evolved to have.
You’ll learn: Four movements your exercise should include to improve your performance, resilience, health, and longevity.
Catch up quick
Last week we covered:
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Also, quick heads up before we dive in: June’s Burn the Ships was incredible. People not only saw their workout times drop. Some also saw improvements in their average resting heart rate and HRV once they started adding the workout into their routine. That’s the tense of living we’re after.
July’s Burn the Ships workout for Members drops Friday. Hint: It’s based around today’s post.
Let’s get into it …
A New Approach to Elite Fitness
Last summer, I was in South Carolina, sitting on a boat on Lake Murray. I was with Bert Sorin, learning about how he filled the largest order of exercise equipment of all time when his company built all the equipment for the Army’s new fitness test.
And I hear this giant voice. “MICHAEL EASTER.”
It was Luke Day. Luke has the presence and level-11 intensity of an SEC strength coach … because he is an SEC strength coach.
Luke is the Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach for the University of South Carolina Football team. The Gamecocks play in the the most competitive conference, and consistently find themselves top-ranked.
Luke had read my book, The Comfort Crisis. And it turns out he thinks about many of the same concepts I do.
Why are humans built the way we are?
What physical skills allowed us to thrive in the past?
How can we take those lessons and apply them to exercise today?
The main difference between us:
I apply those lessons to us, a group of people with all sorts of different backgrounds and demographics who all have one thing in common: we want to be a little better and live longer, happier, healthier lives.
Luke applies the lessons to giant, 20-something football players in the most competitive conference in college football, the SEC, to win games.
Luke and I became fast friends. I recently caught up with him and Chip Morton, who coached in the NFL for 27 years. He’s now at Luke’s side helping direct the Gamecock football strength and conditioning program.
What they’re doing fundamentally differs from what most college football strength and conditioning training has been like for the last three decades.
And it’s built the Gamecocks into the fittest team in the game—players who move faster and hit harder play after play after play without gassing out.
The lesson: Their exercise ideas are exactly what the average person should be doing. They can give us lessons for how we should think about approaching our own workouts.
Where Big and Strong Goes Wrong
You should be big and strong enough for whatever you need to accomplish, but no bigger.
To understand why Luke and Chip’s approach is so interesting, we have to understand how college football has approached training for the last three decades.
When Chip entered football in 1985, players trained to be strong and have killer endurance. Stamina-building drills were a part of every training session. “When I was coaching at Penn State, we had a 15-minute runs in our training every week. The goal was to increase your distance each time. Every player had an individual distance goal to reach when they reported for camp,” Chip said.
But in the mid-90s, trainers started arguing that endurance wasn’t important because football is a series of 6-second plays with 40 seconds of rest between each play. “They said, ‘all we needed to do is make players big, powerful, strong, explosive and they’ll be great,’” Chip said.
Teams phased out endurance drills for many positions and spent hours in the weight rack with long rest breaks.
Training focused almost entirely on barbell exercises and building wild levels of strength, like squatting 600 pounds. Coaches wanted players, especially linemen, to hit arbitrary, giant scale weights, like 330 pounds.
But this came with some drawbacks.
The Problem With Strength
Chasing one fitness skill at the expense of others leads to gaps that hurt performance and can even increase injury. You need adequate endurance for performance and health.
Football players obviously need to be big and strong.
Chip put it like this, “I don’t have to sugar coat it. We want big, forceful players who can produce force again and again until their opponent cannot.”
But the problem was with that “again and again” part.
When teams spent hours in the squat rack and minimized endurance drills, cardiovascular fitness tanked. Injuries also jumped.
It doesn’t matter how much strength and power your sport requires. “The fitter you are, the more you will be able to sustain strength, power, and explosiveness across a full game,” said Luke. “If you don’t have any endurance, you’ll gas out and be more likely to get injured.”
Research indeed shows that small size and low cardio fitness are the two major risk factors for injury in contact sports. Fatigue also increases injury risk while running and weightlifting because your form tends to go to hell when you’re tired.
“Football games cover thousands of yards at high speeds for three hours at a time. Fitness for that can’t just be developed for hours inside a squat rack,” said Luke.
Look to Our Past to Exercise Better Today
Your workouts should include what Luke and Chip call The Four Horsemen of Hardship: crawling, changing levels, carrying, and covering ground.
But Luke and Chip’s great insight wasn’t to simply add back in a bunch of running drills.
They need to increase a team’s functional strength and cardio, help them build and maintain muscle, while also shedding unnecessary fat from their frame.
“When coaches started wanting players to weigh these big numbers, like 330 pounds, the players had to get there by adding a lot of fat,” said Luke. “But there’s no performance enhancement to just being fat.”
They thought back to what humans are built to do.
Chip pointed to something I wrote in The Comfort Crisis that summed up their approach:
Harvard scientists think we can find enhanced fitness by doing the physical acts we evolved to do.
“We’ve been thinking of the foundational things that make all human movement possible,” Luke explained. They identified four movements they call “The Four Horsemen of Hardship.”
In Luke and Chip’s eyes, those four movements are: crawl, carry, change levels, and cover ground.
Humans crawl before we can walk. It’s a movement that transfers energy from one limb across our torso to the opposite limb. This is called “contralateral” movement.
Think of crawling: You push off with your right leg as you move your left hand forward. Then you push off with your left leg and move your right hand forward.
As we grow up, we eventually stand upright and walk by doing the same contralateral movement pattern we learned from crawling. Push off from right leg, swing left arm. Push off from left leg, swing right arm.
“Walking, skipping, running, sprinting are all contralateral movements,” said Chip.
To do these movements, you have to link your core, shoulders, and pelvis to transfer force in an X pattern across your body.
“This movement pattern also enables rotation, throwing, striking, etc,” said Luke.
“Our ideas on this were shaped a lot by Tim Anderson from Original Strength,” said Chip.
Crawling still offers us many benefits.
How to use it
Here’s a simple warmup:
Crawl for five minutes. Go in all different directions—forward, backward, side to side. Keep your head and chest up as you do.
Strengthen your core
Get your shoulders and pelvis working together, so you can transfer more force when you lift.
Improve your posture
“The crawl strengthens you to make all other movements better,” said Chip.
If you read The Comfort Crisis, you know humans are a unique species because we can carry weight.
Other mammals can’t carry like us.
For example, most other mammals can’t carry at all. But even our closest animal relatives are no match for us. Humans can load themselves down with 15 percent of their body weight, and we still use less energy to cover the same amount of ground than other primates. We can carry more than half our body weight and still travel miles and miles in a day.
Our most radical physical skill is muscling loads great distances over rough ground. We are, in fact, “extreme” in this respect, according to a study in PLOS One.
How to use it
Rucking is a prolonged carry exercise. But I love ending my gym workouts with shorter, heavier carries.
Here’s one to try: Grab a heavy weight in each hand and walk for 100 steps. Do that three times.
Strengthen your grip, shoulders, and core.
Improve your ability to move under loads, like when you’re rucking.
But you can get creative and find all sorts of carries to end your workout with.
Humans are also uniquely good at covering great distances. Especially in the heat. We’re not particularly fast, but we can go far on hot days. We have a handful of adaptations we developed over millions of years. We stand on two legs, have springy arches in our feet, long tendons in our legs, big butt muscles, sweat glands across our body, no fur, complicated noses that humidify air before it hits our lungs, etc.
Other mammals gallop quickly for a few minutes, then need to stop and pant to release heat and cool down.
Meanwhile, we keep going. Our ability to walk upright evolved to help us cover longer distances looking for food.
How to use it
Running and rucking is one thing. But if you’ve been a long-time reader of 2%, you know we get obsessive around here about simply getting more walking throughout the day.
Walking is arguably the best, most sustainable way to maintain your health as you age.
Read this deep dive into how many steps a day is best and act accordingly.
Changing levels is basically moving our body up and down through space.
Humans are also distinct among mammals in that we stand on two feet. We start on all fours as babies. Eventually we grab a coffee table or chair and stand up—our first level change. Next we learn to cover ground while standing up.
“Getting up, getting down, jumping, squatting, it all has a metabolic demand while engaging all of our other movement skills,” said Luke. “Scaling a compound wall for a Special Forces operator is a fast level change. Climbing a mountain is a long and strong level change.”
How to use it
The sit-to-stand test is one of the best predictors of your mortality risk.
To get better at getting up off the ground, try Turkish Getups.
You don’t even need to do them in the gym. You can do them without weight or with a light weight once a day when you need a quick break from your computer screen.
A Tough Drill to Try
Every training day for Gamecock Football is a different combination of those four movements.
“We spend a very minimal amount of time using barbells in the racks now,” said Luke. Instead, they’re outside crawling, carrying, covering ground, and changing levels with tools like GORUCK Sandbags and SORINEX Center Mass Bells.
“We do fast and physical versions of those four movements and long and strong versions of those four movements. When we can make a drill have all four movements, it’s that much more difficult—and effective,” said Luke. “That’s the hardest thing we can have take place.”
He continued, “We know we’re not going to have as many five-star players on our roster as some of the teams we play,” said Luke. Remember that South Carolina is in the same conference as Alabama, LSU, and Georgia, which consistently pull the best recruits in the nation.
“So we have to build truly tough and fit players,” said Luke. “We've committed to being the fittest football team in the nation.”
And training like the Gamecocks can make you much fitter, too.
Team workouts are a mashup of different drills. But here’s one drill they do.
Grab dumbbells or kettlebells you can press overhead about 8 to 10 times. Now do this:
Stand holding the weights at your sides, then swing them up so they’re under your chin and resting on your shoulders and chest.
Now squat so your elbows touch your knees.
Stand up as fast as you can, and as you do, press the weights overhead.
Bring the weights back down to your side and repeat that motion—swing weights to shoulders, squat, press—four more times.
On your final rep, keep the weights pressed over your head. Now walk five yards.
Repeat the entire drill up to five times.
In short: Five reps of the swing-squat-press, walk five yards with weights overhead, repeat three to five times.
Here’s what it looks like (please ignore the sweaty T-shirt … I’d just finished a run lol).
When you think about building your own fitness, don’t just slap together a bunch of exercises. Or try to just get really strong or run or ruck really far.
Think about the movements humans are built to do, then work them in. That approach ticks the boxes you need to live better and age well.
Have fun, don’t die, crawl, carry, cover ground, and change levels.
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