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Train like a caveman

When it’s workout time at Core Fitness Chicago, out comes the sledgehammer. And the 80-pound bag of mulch. And the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee — for pushing across a rooftop parking lot while someone steps lightly on the brake.  

As if it even needs to be said: Don’t even bother looking for a treadmill. 

If such exercise sounds ambitiously modern, it’s not; those tools are meant to imitate the way humans stayed healthy 10,000 years ago.  

Called Paleo, primal, caveman or — the umbrella term of the moment — ancestral, the regimen replaces contemporary "working out" with real-life movements that our Paleolithic ancestors used to survive: pushing, pulling, lifting, squatting, bending, walking and the occasional high-intensity sprint.  

Hence, pushing an SUV and pounding tires with a sledgehammer, both of which are central to Core Fitness Chicago’s classes. Those class offerings include "Train Like Jane" for women and "Primal Training" for men. "The first time I saw it, it just intimidated me," said Tricia Keller, 22, who has taken the "Train Like Jane" class for a year.   

Now she drags the weighted sled as fiercely as anyone. "I feel like if I went back to a regular gym, I wouldn’t see these kinds of results and I’d get burned out," she said

Ancestral exercise, which for many people includes a diet component heavy on meats and vegetables and forsaking dairy and grain, slowly has crept into the mainstream in recent years. The CrossFit exercise regimen, which includes many primal philosophies, has developed a strong national following, and the recently formed Ancestral Health Society held its first Ancestral Health Symposium during two days in August.

More than 500 people came together from across the country in Los Angeles for the symposium, which included seminars such as "Organic Fitness: How to Train Like a Hunter-Gatherer." The next Ancestral Health Symposium will be at Harvard University in August.

"There’s a natural community coming together around these ideas," said Brent Pottenger, a medical student who lives in Baltimore and is co-founder of the Ancestral Health Society.

No two adherents will agree exactly on the ideal ancestral exercise routine. For every person who swears by barefoot running (Paleolithics didn’t have shoes as we know them, after all), a handful of others will call the notion absurd. But there are mostly commonalities, and at the top of the list is that the modern notion of exercise has gone astray.

The argument is this: When humans began planting crops and building societies after nearly 2 million years of hunting and gathering, we betrayed our genetic dispositions. And as technology has improved — from elevators to email — we’ve only done ourselves a greater disservice by becoming more sedentary. We’ve made up for it with a misguided exercise industry focused on marketing rather than health.

"Forget the concept of cardio," said Mark Sisson, a former marathoner who has written four books, including “The Primal Blueprint,” and who blogs about ancestral living at

"Lacing up your shoes for a 5- to 15-mile run every day is antithetical to health," he said. "It’s a concept some people have a tough time embracing because they think they have to go to the gym and burn 450 calories on the elliptical machine or they’re a bad person."

Instead, he said, do as our Paleolithic ancestors did: walk. He suggests walking at least one to three miles a day, plus maintaining a low level of activity throughout the day.

"We were born to walk, migrate, climb, forage — all these things that are low-level aerobic activities," Sisson said. "We were not born to be carbohydrate-munching sugar burners."

Ancestral exercise also places emphasis on short bursts of weight-bearing intensity, however, such as pushing a weighted sled or pounding a tire with a sledgehammer. The most dedicated adherents create backyard gyms that can involve carrying rocks, lifting tree branches and using "adult monkey bars" for chin-ups, climbing and dips.

Keli Roberts, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based American Council on Exercise, said many of the concepts of ancestral exercise, such as interval training and natural body movements, are admirable but should not come at the expense of cardiovascular exercise.

"You’d be hard-pressed to find scientific evidence that supports interval training without cardio," Roberts said. ACE recommends low-intensity cardio exercise, such as brisk walking, five times each week for 30 minutes or high-intensity cardio, such as jogging or swimming, three times each week for 30 minutes.

At Core Fitness Chicago, little emphasis is put on classic cardio work. Dusten Nelson, who owns Core Fitness Chicago, said the primary benefit of jogging is “stress relief and fun.” In classes such as "Train Like Jane" and "Primal Training," therefore, the focus is on 45-second bursts of interval training.

"We believe in the movements of the past and anything that fits biomechanically with what we do as human beings," Nelson said. "We also believe in modern science on how weight parameters can impact your body fat, muscle density and bone density."

He does have two treadmills tucked in a remote corner of his gym but only because he rents the space to private trainers. He said he would never put his student on a treadmill. And if one of them sneaks onto the treadmill?

He punishes him with his method of cardio: extra sled pushing.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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