The Best Exercises: Historical Standards
An exercise had to fit two criteria to make this list:
- It had to be an exercise conceivably done thousands of years ago in one form or another.
- It had to be an exercise done by multiple cultures around the world, independent of each other and throughout generations.
Here are five exercises that fit:
Carry two buckets full of rocks up a hill and tell me you didn't get a massive workout. Now do it for the next eight hours. Your rest period is the time it takes to walk back down the hill and get the next two buckets.
Do this for a couple of months without a break and you'll have a new understanding of exercise. If you ever want to get in serious shape and make a few bucks along the way, become a bricklayer's or mason's assistant.
Loaded carries can be used to train the entire body, including grip strength, shoulder stability, core strength, resisted breathing, balance, gait, and conditioning. You can even do them in crowded gyms with techniques like this:
Loaded carries can involve any implement, but the more awkward, the better. While dumbbells and barbells are easier to work with in a gym setting, things like sandbags, buckets of water, rocks, or even another person can up the ante. Or get crazy and try a Zercher carry as Christian Thibaudeau does here:
Use a weight that's considered relatively heavy by most mortal men, stand tall like a proud warrior, and walk until you can't feel anything anymore. The next time, add weight and try to beat your time or distance.
In military service, hand-to-hand combat was a staple, and given the popularity of sports like boxing and MMA today, it's a worthy addition to the list. There's something visceral about throwing a punch and even more visceral about connecting.
While not everyone may want to step into the ring or octagon, they can still train with punching movements using heavy bags or speed bags, or even through vigorous shadow boxing. Train like you intend to have to fight for your life. As the old Spartan saying goes, "Come back with your shield or on it."
A fighter would likely tell you that a great punch originates in the legs and hips. However, many great coaches will take it one step further and tell you that punch strength comes from the glutes.
Get your punching-side leg ground solidly into the floor so you can generate force through knee extension and hip external rotation and extension. This can make the difference between throwing a punch that just annoys a 12-year-old and a knockout punch that can win the championship.
If you have a heavy bag, work on getting strong connections with your wrist locked in neutral and your knuckles flush to the bag. Take one punch at a time and work on getting the drive to come from the hips and legs, finishing with the arms.
If you don't want to punch anything, just do as many push-ups as possible. Want to punch harder? Try this move from self-defense instructor Alex Chrysovergis:
If you have a speed bag, work on connecting with the bag and maintaining a solid tempo without failing too badly. This is skill-based, so don't sweat it too much if you don't have the eye-hand coordination down yet.
If you have nothing to punch, shadow boxing is an option. Throw punches as if you were trying to connect with an invisible object. Try to extend your arm and pull back with speed and control.
It's tough to build pulling strength unless you're actually pulling. It's one of the great self-regulating activities. Either you climb the rope, or you don't. Either you pull the rope and whatever is attached to it toward you, or you don't.
Rope climbing is a fantastic upper-body exercise that involves a lot of core strength and leg involvement. Of course, some people can climb without using their legs, and I hate them for that.
There's a ton of grip, shoulder, back, and core strength involved. There's also a lot of technique involved, which means you're going to have to start slow and build up. Start with a hanging pull-up on a stationary rope, or just do chin-ups with mixed grips.
In a commercial gym, you can also try the rope-climb inverted row (demonstrated here by Gareth Sapstead) to get some of the same benefits:
Rope pulling can produce a lot of similar benefits, with the added fun of being rooted into the ground and producing power through the core and legs when performed standing. Or try it seated, as Charlie Gould demonstrates here:
Remember the good old days of tug of war in PE where you'd put the big kid at the back as an anchor, and then everyone would wind up pulling, sliding, falling over, and looking stupid? The guys on the winning team won because they stayed on their feet and kept pulling while the losers lost their footing and wound up in the mud. Successful rope pulling is as much about balance as anything related to strength.
Instead of standing upright, you'll have to lean back in the direction you're pulling. Your hips will have to be about 18-24 inches behind your feet, and the lower you can get your butt to the floor the better, especially if it's a heavier load.
When pulling, use a hand-over-hand approach with a short range of motion to try to keep the movement coming from the upper body. If you want to use a longer ROM, set your hands and turn it into a hip and leg-driven movement, kind of like a horizontal deadlift.
Sleds are amazing tools for rope pulls. Use a length of rope as long as possible. Get aggressive with the pulls and work on speed. If the loading is massive, unleash hell on the entire world attached to that rope.
If your gym doesn't have a sled to pull, try one of those portable, plate-loaded devices like this.
A heavy standing push is one of those fundamental movements used to get stuff from one place to another when it was heavier or bulkier than what could be carried.
Today's common gym version consists of a sled push, but if you don't have a sled you could arrange to push a car around a parking lot as long as a buddy was steering and the car was in neutral.
Heavy Ass Sled Pushes (HASP) are a staple of a lot of elite coaching programs in various sports for a good reason. The concentric-only resisted phase of the movement is easier on the joints than loaded eccentric movements.
The reciprocal unilateral movement is also very replicative of most sporting activities, and the total body tension under resisted breathing is awesome for developing cardiovascular sustainability and work output under duress. Plus, they're badass.
The walking push mechanics are quite simple. You could take a linear approach where your hands, shoulders, and hips are aligned with each other (essentially holding an overhead position while bent forward). Try to avoid letting the foot come ahead of the vertical axis of the hips to reduce the pressure on the low back, and work on getting full extension with each stride coming from the hips and knees. Or you could lean into it with your torso at a 30 or 40-degree angle from the ground.
Here's a nice overview from Andrew Coates:
If using a commercial space, pushing on turf or carpet will be massively easier than trying to push a sled on rubberized flooring. Concrete or asphalt works well for outdoor work.
For added points, try to push an object up a gradual incline like you're building the pyramids.
This one is a classic feat of strength. Guys like George Hackenschmidt, Louie Cyr, and Eugene Sandow popularized the art of strength by lifting very large and awkward weights over their heads.
Ancient Greek soldiers would do similar things with large rocks. Versions of kettlebells were used by ancient Shaolin warriors (called Shi-Suo Gong, the art of the stone padlock) many millennia before the Russians adopted them.
At the turn of the 19th century, Thomas Inch would routinely press the dumbbell bearing his name – a 2.38 inch diameter-handled 172-pound monster of a weight – with one hand. And who can forget Ultimate Warrior pressing Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI?
Depending on the load lifted and whether using one hand or two, the movement will usually begin with a modified deadlift. If it's possible to clean the weight to your shoulders in one go, do it. However, in the case of something like an atlas stone lift or continental lift, you may have to lock onto the weight with your chest and roll it up your thighs.
From there, the press can be either a strict press or jerk press, depending on whether leg drive is available or not. Some competition lifts indicate no leg movement, such as the classic Olympic press that was included in competitions until 1972. But when the load becomes significant enough, leg drive will become necessary.
Any object could conceivably be used for ground-to-overhead lifts, but again, the more awkward the better: heavy sandbags, large rocks, loaded or half-full kegs, etc. For the more commercially driven, a tough kettlebell or two will do. Rocking out a clean & jerk or atlas stone lift are also strong variations of this movement.
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