Natural Born Heroes

Uncovering the Lost Skills and Athletic Secrets of the Ancients

The Ancient Greeks believed anyone could unlock superhuman potential by mastering the three pillars of heroism: skill, strength, and compassion. And they were right. In this exclusive series based on research uncovered for his upcoming book, Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall tracks down the high priests of the lost fitness arts. His goal? Revive the skills that can reveal the hero inside everyone.

Christopher McDougall

Christopher McDougall

Outside contributor McDougall, author of the bestseller Born to Run, has written extensively about the limits of human potential.

No, Heroes Aren't Born. They're Built. And This Is How You Become One.

One of the most surprising heroes of World War II was a pint-sized shepherd nicknamed The Clown—and his fitness wisdom can change your life.

If you think heroism is an accident, you don’t know the Clown.

That was one of George Psychoundakis’ code names. Another was the Changeling, after those magical trolls who swap bodies. Yet another was "The Cretan Runner." It's this last name I kept coming across a decade ago while researching Born to Run—a mysterious Greek shepherd-turned-ultrarunner who become one of Word War II's unsung heroes. Years later, I finally had the chance to examine Psychoundakis' story in detail; I was so fascinated by what I found that I eventually travelled to Crete, researching his exploits for my next book project, Natural Born Heroes.

When World War II broke out, the Clown was a young and semi-goofy shepherd on the Greek island of Crete. Nobody thought of him as tough or especially brave; he was actually small and kind of skinny. If he was known for anything, it was for writing cornball poems, like his “Ode to an Inkspot on a Schoolteacher’s Skirt.” As with everyone else on Crete, he’d been lucky; the horrors sweeping across Europe hadn’t touched the island, leaving the Clown free to mosey along each day behind his flock. Until, early one morning, the sky went dark and an odd rumble cut through the coppery clong of the sheep bells. The Clown looked up and stared in awe as an airborne armada blocked out the sun. Hitler had decided he needed Crete and needed it bad; it was the perfect transit spot for his do-or-die assault on the Soviet Union, so he’d unleashed his elite airborne unit to conquer the island and crush even the thought of resistance.

And so, standing alone in a meadow, the Clown faced a choice: He could keep his mouth shut and put up his hands, or—with no warning, no training, and no weapons—go to war against the deadliest fighting force in human history. No one else in Europe had any trouble making that decision; after Hitler blasted through nine armies in a matter of weeks, not one country offered any spontaneous civilian resistance. None, that is, until Crete. While the Germans were still dropping from the clouds, Cretans were pouring out of their homes with axes and knives and ancient hunting rifles, banding with a ragtag crew of Allied soldiers to repel the invaders with such determination that they nearly delivered the Führer his first defeat. Once the battle was lost, the Clown took off for the wilderness and became a runner for the resistance, carrying messages some 50 miles back and forth between mountain hideouts.

Wait—was the Clown actually running on these missions? Yup. "I felt as if I were flying,” he’d say. “Running all the way from the top of the White Mountains to Mount Ida. So light and easy—just like drinking a cup of coffee." A British undercover operative described what it was like to have the Clown appear at a hideout late at night after one of his 50-mile scampers. “The job of a war-time runner in the Resistance Movement was the most exhausting and one of the most consistently dangerous,” he explained. The Clown would deliver his message, throw back a shot of moonshine—“A little petrol for the engine!”—and set right back off for his return journey. “We could see his small figure a mile away, moving across the next moonlit fold of the foothills of the White Mountains, bound for another fifty-mile journey,” the Brit recalled.

How is that even possible? How do you hammer out serial ultramarathons on a starvation diet, night after night, while dodging German patrols? For four years? The Clown wasn’t the only one, either. The island was crawling with these superathletes, I discovered—Cretans and Brits alike, all of them bounding across the peaks and bedeviling the Germans with ultra-endurance derring-do. So what did they know that the rest of us don’t? How could average people suddenly become unbreakable and thrive under challenges that would humble an Olympic athlete?

The answer was right there on Crete. For centuries, the island had been the quiet custodian of high-performance secrets of the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks didn’t just sit around hoping for heroes to appear—they built their own. They believed heroism was an art, not an accident, so they developed skills that were passed from parent to child and teacher to student. The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. They learned to unleash the tremendous sources of strength, endurance, and agility that many people don’t realize they already have. Simply to survive, early humans had to be able to flow across the landscape: bending their bodies over and around any obstacle in their path, leaping without fear, and landing with precision. Heroes learned to tap into remarkable stores of reserved energy, all of it in their bodies—and yours—and waiting to be uncorked.

For thousands of years, the Greeks perfected the three pillars of the heroic arts—paidea (skill), arete (strength), and xenia (compassion)—and then they were gone. Luckily, their techniques still exist, scattered in bits and pieces around the world, some hidden right in front of us. Take performance fuel: As a professional ballerina, Leda Meredith was taught by her canny Greek grandmother that the best energy food in the world wasn’t just free; it was growing right under her feet. Likewise for Steve Maxwell: Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters would travel to his small Philly gym for training advice because Maxwell was a student of sacred Hindu wrestlers and Golden Age boxers. “You never go wrong if you rely on the mighty men of yore,” Maxwell believes.

That’s the mission of Natural Born Heroes: to track down these custodians of the lost arts and revive the skills that can turn even a Clown into a hero.

Real Athletes Throw Knives

What can you learn by chucking tempered steel blades into a target? Performing to potential is all about trusting your instincts.

Now hold on—

Rex Applegate kept his mouth shut, but his mind was screaming. World War II had just broken out, and his Army instructors were busy teaching him and a bunch of other new grunts how to shoot, but Rex knew one thing they didn’t.

Uncle Gus never shot that way.

Rex had grown up in the backwoods of Oregon with his uncle, Gus Peret, a professional hunter and trick-shot artist. Gus was a Wild West barnstormer, one of the last of the old breed who could thunder into a ring at a full gallop and control his horse with his knees while blasting thrown bottles from the air with a big old Navy Colt in each fist. Rex used to spend his summers helping Uncle Gus keep his eye sharp by heaving bricks into the air as flying targets. The one thing Gus never did was exactly what the Army was telling Rex to do now: steady the pistol at head height and aim carefully down the barrel through the sights. Gus was just blazing away from the hip, but he was still way deadlier than any of these Army experts.

So what did Uncle Gus know that the U.S. military didn’t?

Rex was pretty hardheaded, and even though his country was in peril and drill instructors were bellowing in his face and the whole point of an army is to button your yap and follow orders, Rex couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was wrong except him. So when he spotted a chance, he grabbed it; Rex found a way to meet “Wild Bill” Donovan, the maverick industrialist appointed by Roosevelt to create America’s first black ops fighting force. Rex harangued him about Uncle Gus, and Wild Bill was intrigued. He authorized Rex to go off base and research frontier sharpshooting. And that’s how, while digging through ancient diaries and letters in a dusty Dakota mailroom, Rex made his big discovery:

Instinctive aim.

All you really have to do is point your finger. That’s it. That’s the secret that allowed Annie Oakley to split a playing card from 40 feet away and fire left- and right-handed at two hurtling clay pigeons and vaporize them both. Humans have an amazing natural ability to zero in on a target, Rex learned. Just glance at something and instantly—faster than the speed of thought—your fingertip can find it. (If you don’t feel the urge to immediately test this for yourself, see a doctor.) But not even Rex fully grasped the scope of his discovery. He wasn’t just reviving a nifty sideshow stunt; he was pulling back a shroud from one of the greatest technological advancements in human history.

Doubt it? Watch Patrick Brewster chuck a knife. You’ll change your mind.

Brewster came to my house one afternoon to teach me no-spin knife throwing. He mounted a slice of log on an easel, pulled out three knives, and—as he whipped them in from all kinds of angles and distance—demonstrated why no-spin might be the answer to one of the great riddles of modern anthropology. It goes like this:

  • Hitting a target is an amazing act of calculation, because often you’re not aiming where something is; you’re aiming where it isn’t. You have to factor angles, directions, and muscle force, all of it in a blink.
  • We’re the only animal that can pull it off, and once we did, it changed everything. Learning to throw transformed us from prey into predators. Better hunting gave us more food; more food grew us bigger brains. We also upgraded our software: Throwing taught us the kind of sequential thought that would become the human imagination and spur the creation of language, technology, medicine, and art.
  • So explain this: If humans are such natural marksmen, why are the majority of us like Shaq at the free-throw line?

“Yeah, that was me,” Brewster says. “I had all the cards stacked against me. Never played baseball, no real sports background at all. First time I threw a knife, I failed miserably.” He’d seen videos of expert throwers, the kind who send knives flipping end-over-end toward showgirls, but when he tried to copy them, he clanged all over the place. Then one day while working construction, Brewster began monkeying around with a screwdriver. If he held his finger straight up along a screwdriver’s spine, he could fling it perfectly into the ground. Every time. A quick Internet search later, Brewster found himself in the midst of an entire tribe experimenting with the same throwback throw. There was Roy Hutchinson, “The Great Throwzini,” and Xolette, a high-school science teacher in Florida who likes to no-spin butter knives across her kitchen.

Brewster explains that the spin technique—the kind of throwing you see at every circus and Vegas show—is inherently flawed. It’s not natural. Spin is terrific for long tosses, and it can be supremely accurate, but only under artificial conditions. For a spin to work, both you and the target have to be stationary, and you can only be a precise number of steps away. Shift even a little and you shank.

But with no-spin, you cash in on the fact that your index finger is neurologically wired to your eyeballs. In fact, you can learn no-spin with startling ease. You’ll need a target, naturally. Any solid chunk of wood will do. I just sawed a round slice off the end of a log and bolted it to an old picnic table turned on its side and braced with a two-by-four. (So easy, it almost took me longer to write it than do it.)

Next up: your blades. One of the beauties of no-spin is that just about anything will do. Steak knives, butter knives, screwdrivers, metal chopsticks, nails—if it’s got a point, you can fling it. For ease and safety, though, Brewster recommends a tempered-steel knife that won’t shatter or feel weird in your hand. He makes his own by hand (and sells them at FlyingSteel.com) and brought me a set of three of the simple black shanks he calls North Wind.

The best place to start is so close to the target you could almost reach out and touch it. “The nearer you are, the less you’ll try to overpower the throw,” Brewster explains. “You’ll let the knife sail on its own.” For your first throws, face the target slightly in profile with your left foot forward (opposite for lefties). Then remember these four steps:

  1. GRIP the knife lightly, with your index finger straight up.
  2. EXTEND your arm back and high over your head.
  3. Push your ELBOW forward, not your hand.
  4. RELEASE when the knife passes your ear and the point is still aimed at the sky.

As soon as you get the feel (and don’t be astonished if it only take two or three throws) you can begin stepping back, adding distance each time and experimenting with angles. With a little practice, you’ll soon be letting fly the way your ancestors did: fast, on the move, from any direction. And any gender—in Australia, indigenous girls play the same throwing games as boys, and both develop fabulous arms. Of course, we now live in an age when most high-velocity hurling has been outsourced to teenage Dominicans, so you could say, “Why bother?”

Or you could think a little harder and realize that throwing is really higher function in disguise: It’s directly linked to “temporal-sequential ordering” and “spatial cognition”—math, in other words. “Throwing is about finding order in chaos,” I was told by William Calvin, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Washington and a specialist in the evolution of the human brain. “The more you’re able to think in sequence, the more ideas you’re able to string together. You can add more words to your vocabulary, you can combine unrelated concepts, you can plan for the future, and you can keep track of social relationships.”

So, someday in the future, when Little League World Series phenom Mo’Ne Davis is designing the guidance system for your personal hovercraft, thank the mom who first slapped a ball in her hand.

The Concrete Jungle Is the World's Best Gym

Strength is useless if you don't hone your agility—the skill of translating power into meaningful movement. And it all starts with mastering the "Kong vault."

I was waiting at the checkout counter of a drugstore in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when a human cannonball sailed past the window. I glanced around. Did anyone else just…?

A second body flew by, right behind the oblivious cashier’s head, looking like it had been flung by one of those medieval catapults that hurled rotten cow carcasses over fortress walls. I swiped my card, grabbed my bag, and hustled outside to see what was going on. I could have taken my time, it turned out. The two guys were still there and totally absorbed by the handicap-ramp railings: vaulting, swinging, tightrope walking, basically wringing a crazy amount of movement out of two blue bars. When I’d spotted them through the window, they were practicing “precisions”—broad jumping back and forth between the railings and sticking precise landings on top of the bars.

“You start practicing parkour,” one of the guys told me, “and whole nights disappear.”

Technically, he’s talking about l’art du deplacement, more universally known by the funkified French version of its other name, parcours, for “obstacle course.” Parkour was born in the late 1980s when a band of mixed-race kids living in the outskirts of Paris got tired of being roughed up by bullies. They created their own “training method for warriors” and called themselves the Yamakasi. Being rebels and outsiders, they detested the idea of organized competition; even after parkour became a phenomenon, the Yamakasi never bothered cashing in with how-to stuff. They were innovators, not explainers. If you wanted to come to Paris and follow in their footsteps, fine—but that meant being yanked out of bed at 2 a.m. to train in a midwinter rainstorms. Otherwise the Yamakasi had just about zero interest in sharing their skills with the rest of the world. That left two places you could go if you wanted to learn parkour: France or YouTube.

Not surprisingly, my two new parking lot buddies got their start at YouTube U. “I got into it because I was so fat,” one of my new buddies, Neal Schaeffer, told me. He’d begun partying after high school and by age 20 had bloated up from 175 pounds to 240. One afternoon, he was in a nearby park watching some strangers “kong vault” picnic tables—they’d charge a table, plant their hands, and shoot both feet through their arms like gorillas and fly off the other side—and they talked Neal into giving it a try. He was shocked to discover that even out of shape, once he got over his fear, he could master skills that at first looked impossible.

Well, maybe not master. “You’re on this endless trajectory where you’re always getting better, but it’s never good enough,” Neal explained. “That’s what’s so exciting. As soon as you land one jump, you can’t wait to try it again. You’re always looking for ways to make it cleaner, stronger, flow into your next move.” Neal became a member of a local parkour tribe that likes to train after midnight, because after dark the city is all theirs. Whenever a police car prowls by, they drop to the ground and bang out pushups. “No matter what time it is, no one bothers you if you’re exercising.” Within a year, Neal had become so slim and nimble, he was able to scramble to the roof of a three-story building and crouch high on a flagpole. “Just like Spider-Man,” he told me.

To himself, he’d said, “You’re back.”

Two weeks later, I wiped my palms and weighed my chances against a six-foot brick wall outside a Wells Fargo bank. It was lunchtime rush in downtown Lancaster, and people swarmed past us on the sidewalk. “You’ve got to learn to shut out distractions,” Andy Keller told me. “Forget who’s watching you. Forget where you are. Just focus and go.”

Andy is one of America’s few trained-in-Europe parkour coaches, and by a bizarre twist of luck, he lives 20 miles from my house. That Spider-Man comment stuck in my mind and made me track him down. Who wouldn’t want to be able to skitter up the sides of buildings? And frankly, if a double-stuffed slacker like Neal could forge himself that quickly into an American Ninja Warrior, how hard could it be? Age ain’t on my side—I’m twice as old as Neal—but that’s another theory I wanted to test: Maybe parkour is what human strength is really all about. Because logically, the one thing we rely on for survival—the way birds rely on flight and fish depend on fins—would be the one thing we’re all good at, men and women, old and young alike. Most of the spectator and recreational sports we get excited about now are kind of phony. They were created by men, for men, to show off what men do best, and they have just about zero connection to any natural human function. They’re a guy pride parade. So is it possible that parkour, with its emphasis on agility and creativity instead of bulk and brute force, is really the tightest link we have in sports to our evolutionary past?

Georges Hébert was sure of it, and the “Movement of Three” women back him up. Hébert was a French naval officer and the philosopher king of pre-parkour. Back in the early 1900s, Hébert survived a volcano eruption in the Caribbean. Thousands of people died horribly all around him, and Hébert was scarred by the fact that many didn’t have to. They could have run, jumped, climbed, swum, and carried each other to safety—except they’d forgotten how. We’ve let our bodies become stupid, Hébert believed. We used to be really clever on our feet. We knew how to make the world our playground, instinctively creating the most animal-efficient way to fly over, around, and under the hard edges of the landscape the way monkeys tumble through the trees. Herbert went on to develop his own theory of physical education, the “Natural Method,” and helped create obstacle courses to train French marines. But his teachings have largely been forgotten. Years of sitting around have since drained away our savage gusto and brought his second golden age of natural movement to an end—and that was even before we had an app for Chunky Monkey home delivery.

But there is a way back, as three women in a North London housing project demonstrate. They’re not especially impressive looking, at least not when the “Movement of Three” video begins. They’re just giggling around in baggy sweats, looking like they’re in the mood for something pumpkin-spiced after Bikram. She told me it took a year before she could do a single pullup; the first time she tried, she just hung helplessly from the bar. Now, on camera, she muscles herself up onto a swingset and balances on top in a full squat, blowing soap bubbles. “Movement of Three” is a fast-moving masterpiece, a sort of time-lapse display of how average women can use parkour to turn themselves into an aerial urban-assault team.

“It’s not magic,” Andy Keller told me when we got together for our first parkour session. It’s ass elevation. If Georges Hébert and the Yamakasi ever have a statue erected in their honor, that beautiful breakthrough should be the inscription: “We Raised Asses.” Andy and his buddy Adam show me what they mean by getting me started on the turn vault, a basic parkour move. “Very handy for, like, jail breaks,” Adam points out. We head into an alley behind a tire repair garage and run toward a chest-high cement wall with a metal guardrail on top. Andy and Adam plant their hands on the rail, swing their legs over, then twist their hips so they 180 and land facing back the way they came. I try the same thing, clang knees on steel, and fall backward.

My problem: poor butt boost. Like most people, I’ve lost my taste for being weightless in space. We all used to love it, which is why every kid destroys his parents’ box spring at some point and would trade a sibling for rope swings, trampolines, diving boards, or sliding boards. But grown-ups keep warning you you’ll get hurt, recess monitors yell at you to cut it out, and over time you grow so nervous about falling down that you forget how to jump up. Watch anyone over age 20 attempt a cartwheel: A nine-year-old girl goes straight vertical and takes all the time in the world, while the 20-something rushes through and barely gets his feet off the ground. The higher our hips, the more anxious we get.

So Andy starts me over, this time in the kiddie pool. We plant our hands on top of the waist-high guardrail and turn ourselves into desktop drinking birds: head drops down, ass tilts up, boosting our butts higher and higher and spending longer each time supporting our weight on our hands. For a two-second maneuver, it’s got a lot of moving parts: one palm faces out, the other in, your knees press together and your elbows lock out straight. After three reps, my knees are higher than the rail; after five, I suddenly twist, swing over the rail, and execute a turn vault without even thinking. It just seemed so natural.

“Man, I could do nothing but this all day,” I said. Even that little taste of parkour was the perfect combo of kaizen and kid on a rope swing: You want to keep smoothing the move, like a sushi chef obsessing over his tuna slicing, but you don’t mind because, you know, you’re flying over walls like a fugitive. But Andy had other plans for the afternoon: the Big Wall.

Outside the Wells Fargo, Andy briefed me on technique. Then he sprinted straight for the wall, kicked hard against the bricks, and disappeared over the other side. As he trotted back, he was met with applause. An audience had formed, blocking the sidewalk.

“Impressive, isn’t he?” I said to the guy beside me.

“I knew he’d make it,” the man responded. “I’m waiting to see if you do.”

Yeah, well. Let’s just say he got a show.

Lessons from the Paleo Guru History Forgot

"Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance with the universe. This is one of the factors that allows the athlete to reach new levels of excellence." Photo: Leonard Mccombes/Getty Images

Lessons from the Paleo Guru History Forgot

More than 76 years ago, a visionary Australian coach had an epiphany that forged a generation of super-athletes: true fitness is all about translating fear into raw power.

The doctor delivers your death sentence: You’re sick, you’re incurable, you’ve got just a few months to live. What’s your next move?

Head to the racetrack, naturally. That was Percy Cerutty’s attitude. Back in 1938, Percy was a binge-drinking, chain-smoking, chronically coughing, 43-year-old Australian postal worker who was bedridden with fainting spells, blinding headaches, and a mysterious pain arcing through his legs and back. Doctors were called to his bedside, where they found him smoking four packs a day despite wheezing with pneumonia. The only debate was how much time to give him.

Mr. Cerutty, they began, pronouncing it Ser-ootee.

It’s SIR-itee, Perce spat. Like “sincerity,” without the “sin.”

Well, that was debatable. The doctors agreed on six months.

So Percy decided to spend it watching ponies. He hauled himself to the track and there, sitting in the sun and making his peace with the world, he saw something he’d never had the patience to notice before: all horses—fast or slow, colt or stallion, lean or lumpy—move the same way. They flywheel their legs, keeping their hooves low and landing always under their center of gravity. Weird. It should have been obvious, but Percy had never heard anyone mention it before. The particulars of the technique didn’t jolt Percy so much as the fact that there was a technique. This was muscular logic at work, a law of locomotion that defined the species. And what was true for horses, Percy figured, must also hold true for people. If you could zero in on the One True Way, then hallelujah; you’d be hailed as a god of fitness. Because there was no reason the human animal should be exempt from this law of nature, right?

Too bad he’d never find out, Percy mused. He’d probably be dead by Christmas. Even if he survived, who’d take health tips from a wreck like him? The irony was excruciating; with the clock running out on his miserable life, he’d suddenly found a reason to live. Percy shuffled down to the nearby beach and waded into the freezing sea. Maybe he could, sort of, shock his body back into functioning. Every day from then on, Percy returned for an icy wade. He quit smoking cold turkey, and cut out all fried and packaged foods. He began feeling a little better and resumed his visits to the track, this time early in the morning when the jockeys were working out the horses. He stripped off his shoes and shuffled along, barefoot and flinging his arms in a lunatic-looking attempt to mimic a four-limbed gait. The jockeys didn’t care; the sight of a bony old white-haired freak cantering along behind them was pretty hilarious.

But amazingly, it worked. Percy bounced back from the grave in spectacular fashion. With his bonus time, he began to jog, then run, then fly: by age 50, he could run a mile in 4:54, a marathon in 2:58, and 100 miles (yup, the dead man was now doing ultras) in 23:45. He created his own nature-based lifestyle philosophy and called himself a “Stotan”—half Spartan, half Stoic.

Which means—what, exactly?

“A Stotan is one who hardens, strengthens, toughens and beautifies the body by consistent habits and regular exercises,” Percy preached. “My philosophy is based on communication with nature, this communication takes place when the person sleeps under the stars at night, hears the birds in the morning, feels the sand between his toes, smells the flowers, hears the surf. Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance with the universe. This is one of the factors that allows the athlete to reach new levels of excellence.”

Say howdy, in other words, to the world’s first Paleo CrossFitting locavore, a role he fit right down to the box: In 1946, Percy bought himself a half-acre of no-man’s-land on Australia’s rugged southern coast and hauled a shipping crate down there to use as the bunkhouse for his “International Training Center.” He began crafting his own system of natural-movement exercises, with lots of outdoor weightlifting, sand dune sprints, and open-water swims. He was a purist about running form, but a total savage with the steel: the best way to hoist a weight, Percy felt, was whatever way you hoisted the weight. He would awkwardly wobble around under a heavy bar while straining through snatches and shoulder presses and “cheat curls,” but that, Percy insisted, was the whole damn point. Did you think Mother Nature let your ancestors be sniffy about the big-game carcasses they hauled home and the logs they had to lift? Weight lifting should be intense, so intense that five reps should blow you out. True fitness was all about unsteadiness, uncertainty, and fear; you fought for balance and recruited every single fiber in your body every single time.

“Civilization has ruined youth in the activities that his fathers and forefathers had that kept the upper body strong. No longer do they chop wood, have to do manual labor,” the Stotan Warrior groused—which is fine if your chief goal is to keep the damn kids off your lawn but not too tactful if you’re hoping teenage track stars will leave their suburban homes and come follow you into the barrens to live in a packing crate with no phone, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.

But the young hopefuls came anyway—and were transformed.

“He was not speaking theory. This guy based what he had to say to you in the practice of his own life. He knew that it worked,” recalled Herb Eliot in a later interviews with Australian media. Eliot joined Percy as a young man and became an Olympic champion and world-record holder who only lost one race—when he was 14 years old. “He started to study the great people of history and the challenges that they had. He started to read philosophy. He became incredibly well self-educated, and it was out of that that he grew into the person that he was.”

Each morning, Percy would rouse his Stotans and—since he always said, “You can only teach it if you can do it yourself”—he’d lead them into the dunes for a day like this:

7 a.m. — A five-mile run before breakfast in any direction our whim took us, followed by a dip in the ocean.
8 a.m. — Breakfast of uncooked rolled oats (without milk) sprinkled with wheat germ, walnuts, sultanas, raisins, and sliced banana. Perhaps a few potato chips to follow.
9 a.m. — Swimming and surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wood, painting and carpentry.
Noon — Training and lectures, followed by another swim.
2 p.m. — Lunch: fish and fresh fruit.
3 p.m. — Siesta
4 p.m. — Weight lifting
5 p.m. — Ten-mile run along dirt roads ending once more at the beach.
7 p.m. — Tea and a general discussion led by Percy
11p.m. — Lights out

The sweltering box on the beach became the white-hot center of an Australian distance dynasty. John Landy, another future superstar, came to train with Percy, as did the great Ron Clarke, although both eventually got tired of Percy’s guff and moved on. For decades, Percy was an unstoppable tribal chief of natural movement. At the 1952 Olympics, he banged on Emil Zátopek’s door and spent so much time praising the Czech champion for his own Stotan-like lifestyle that Zatopek finally left to go sleep under a tree. At the 1960 Games, Percy charged past soldiers guarding the track and shinnied over a spiked fence so he could wave Herb Elliott on to a new world record and a 1,500-meters gold medal. “All I saw was Percy’s towel swirling through the air,” Herb would later recall in a television interview, “and this V of gendarmes heading toward him.”

And then the lights went out. At age 80, Percy suddenly died of motor neurone disease without even being aware he was sick. His hut was boarded up, his athletes drifted away, and the mighty old Stotan was all but forgotten.

The reason I know so many details of Percy’s life? I’ve been gathering info on the fitness iconoclast for years (and shelling out painfully to Alibris for his out-of-print books with such perfectly-Percy titles as Be Fit or Be Damned! and Athletics: How to Become A Champion). That’s where I unearthed so many of these amazing anecdotes. I wanted to write about him in Born to Run and then again in my upcoming book, Natural Born Heroes, but both times he was a flavor too strong for the stew; Percy tales were so rich, they overpowered all other narratives. Luckily, the long backburnering turned out to be an advantage. Lately, there’s been a quiet but growing Percy revival and it’s turned up priceless material. Graeme Sims’ excellent biography, Why Die?, is now available in the U.S., and for the first time in 50 years, several of Percy’s own books are in re-issue. Australia media has rediscovered its forgotten national hero, airing fresh interviews with Percy’s surviving athletes and, best of all, unearthing fantastic archival footage of the Loinclothed Legend himself in action (for 10 seconds of pure joy, check out “The Amble” as Percy demonstrates his run-like-a-horse breathing exercise) Just this past July, a terrific Percy resource was launched by David Cavall on his “Living the Stotan Life” blog.

But the greatest validation of all has come from current elites who are now looking back and wondering if they shouldn’t have been paying more attention to Percy all along.

“It’'s a shame, as most of his training ideas and advice have been lost or ignored since the time of his athletes,” writes Steve Magness on “Learning from the Past,” his blog about vintage fitness wisdom. Magness is the author of The Science of Running and an elite-level coach who worked with the Nike guru Alberto Salazar. “The main reason his methods aren’t widely praised or known is that Cerutty was seen as eccentric or crazy by the public.”

Percy was really on to something, Magness is convinced. And now, bit by bit, others are starting to notice. Bet you have, too. Ever been to a CrossFit box? Watched a video by “Supple Leopard” innovator Kelly Starrett? Churned through a we’re-all-in-this-together Tough Mudder, or seethed because 50-year-old pretty boy Laird Hamilton is still surfing monsters like a 20-year-old punk? Tick any one of those categories and you have been face-to-face with the spirit of the Stotans. Percy’s creed came straight from the heroic ideal of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it was all about three things: strength, skill, and awareness.

In practice, it looks like this:

Go Wild: The worst mistake you can make is believing you’re anything except one thing—an animal. You’re not a runner, or a lifter, or a yoga pretzel. You’re a beast, and beasts aren’t specialists. They don’t limit their movements. They don’t stay inside when it’s icky, or wait for race day. All-around athleticism is the key to perpetual improvement, Percy taught, and you achieve it through natural challenges. Wet roads, leafy trails, hot sun, foot-sucking sand—everything a gym was designed to help you avoid, basically, is exactly the fiber-firing wildness your body needs to develop agility, balance, core strength, deep lungs, and poise in the face of the unpredictable.

Get Raw: Percy was both ahead of his time and way behind it when he sneered at exercise machines. Machines were created for one purpose: to make work easier. They isolate, they cushion, they stabilize. Well, forget that noise. You want to recruit, toughen, and adapt. Down in Percy’s box, the Stotans relied on gear that any Roman centurion would recognize: chin-up bars, climbing ropes, parallel bars, vaulting horses, Roman rings, and trampoline. “He emphasized doing everything the natural way,” Magness writes. “Primitive and uninhibited.”

Train Your Gut, Then Trust It: “Nothing must be dictated, fixed, or regimented,” Percy instructed. “When an athlete goes out to train, his body should dictate his needs and he runs according to its capacities and demands.” That sounds a little chamomile for a guy so leathery that he once ordered his runners to keep going after one of them passed out in the sand. (“Leave him be,” Percy commanded. “He’s not dead.”) But it’s true; ultimately, you’re wasting your time trying to persuade people to do want they don’t want to. The greatest thing you can do for anyone, athlete or not, is light a fire within and get out of the way.

“He would just inspire you and then leave you pretty much to your own devices,” Herb Elliot explained. “He’d check on the sort of intelligence of your training, to make sure that it made sense, but he just seemed to know that you were committed or you weren’t committed. And if you were committed, he walked away from it at that point.”

To the Stotan chief goes the final word:

“We train as we feel, but rarely feel lazy.”

Sitting Wrecks Your Body. More Standing Isn't the Solution.

Want to undo the damage of your desk job in 10 minutes? Crawl like a kid and start spinning like a Sufi monk.

Sink into a chair, and before long, the chair sinks into you.

That’s what Steve Maxwell has learned from people who come to him with nagging injuries—those twinging heels and sore groins, dodgy hamstrings and aching backs that just won’t go away. Maxwell has been fixing the bodies of world-class fighters—his own included—for nearly 40 years, and he’s been remarkably successful because the wisdom he taps into is even older. Ever since his days as a Division 1 college wrestling champ and throughout his career as a Brazilian jiujitsu teacher and belt holder, Maxwell has been studying ancient grappling science to see how traditional fighters managed to heal themselves and get back in the ring with no access to ultrasound, ibuprofen, or even ice. He used that knowledge to make his tough Philly gym, Maxercise, a destination for years for both federal agents and mixed martial artists (as well as the training base for his son, world-champion grappler Zak Maxwell), but it was only after he sold the business and went on the road as a consultant and traveling scholar that Maxwell made what could be his biggest discovery.

His breakthrough came when he discovered a link between the brutal training of Hindu wrestlers and the odd spinning rituals of Sufi monks known as whirling dervishes. The holy men weren’t just dancing, Maxwell realized; they were taking a page from the brawlers and rehabbing their bodies. Monks were the couch potatoes and Internet addicts of their day, spending insane amounts of time frozen in prayer and hunched over texts. All that butt time takes a toll on backs and knees and hips. Maxwell believes the monks picked up a self-healing tip from their spiritual brothers—the wrestlers—who were also considered a sacred caste.

Maxwell calls the technique “vestibular reset,” after the internal gyroscope we all have in our inner ears. Sit too long, and your vestibular system gets out of whack. You lose your sense of where your body is in relation to the ground; that’s when the fuse starts sizzling toward an injury. And why?

“Because everyone slumps in their own way,” Maxwell explains one afternoon. We’re in the shed behind the house where I work. He’s assessing the way I typically sprawl in my desk chair. “It’s not just the fact that you’re sitting that causes problems. When you stand up, the way you slump—the way your back has molded around the chair—is going to affect the way you move.”

In my case, I’m pretty much the Maxell speakers guy with a few degrees of leftward lean. Someday, Maxwell promises, that’s going to bollix my hardware and software, if it hasn’t already: My constant slump is going to throw off both my posture and my posture awareness. My inner ear will adapt to the new coordinates so that when I’m hunched over, I’ll feel like I’m ramrod straight. I won’t even know when I’m off-center. Awful will become the new normal.

“Even people who work out still end up sitting more than they move each day,” Maxwell points out. “And your body adapts to what you do most.”

Maxwell has a remedy: his own version of the vestibular reset, which he’s designed as an equally effective but less dizzying way to follow in the whirling footsteps of the dervishes and reboot healthy movement patterns. All you need is about 10 minutes a few times a week to put yourself through the same balance initiation you went through as a baby. The results, Maxwell promises, will blow your mind. He knows—he’s his own best customer.

“I carried chronic tension and pain in my mid-back for years,” he says. “Mobility and breath tension-release exercises never got rid of it. After a couple weeks of ‘baby training,’ my back has never been this tension-free. The exercises are as simple or complicated as you want to make them. They can be really easy or so challenging that even a high-level athlete would find it difficult.”

First, Maxwell wants to measure the damage. Stiffening isn’t just another part of aging, he points out; it’s a death sentence. You’re nearly seven times more likely to die within the next six years(!) if you need both hands and knees to get up from the floor. We’re creatures of mobility, so when we give up our ability to move, we’re signaling our body that it’s time to shut down. Luckily, the damage can be reversed if it’s caught in time. So Maxwell has me get out of the chair and step up against the wall. My head juts out a good four inches, and my arms torque inward as if I were still reaching for a keyboard.

“Now let’s get outside,” he says, “and take a few years off you.”

The reset, I’m shocked to discover, is a blast. I thought he was going to rack me out with all kind of grunting pretzel poses, but instead I’m rolling and crawling and generally monkeying around. “I do some form of this every single day,” Maxwell notes. “I also get up from my iPad and do the rocking, marching in place, and baby crawl as a reset to balance out the sitting on the chair.” Best of all, there’s no right or wrong way to assemble your own reset. Just pick from the menu and, baby-style, do whatever you want.


Watch Steve Maxwell explain the vestibular reset in this video:

The Vestibular Reset

Rolling Over
Roll from side to side (back to stomach and back). Do each roll eight times on both sides (16 total reps).

  1. Roll over with arm, leg, and head.
  2. Roll over with arm and head only.
  3. Roll over with leg only.
  4. Roll over with head only (don’t use your legs or arms to help).

Advanced Challenges

  1. Roll across the room without touching the floor with your arms, legs, or head!
  2. The “hard roll”: Roll left and right from the back without pushing off or assisting with your hands or feet and keeping your elbow in contact with the opposite knee. There should be no separation. Very challenging.
  3. Roll across the room on your stomach and holding your ankles (how pose position).

Commando Crawl
Crawl for three minutes total, alternating forward and backwards.

  1. Crawl forward using your forearms and thighs in a cross-crawl pattern. Keep the hips down and the head and chest high.
  2. Crawl backwards using the cross-crawl pattern of forearm and opposite knee.

Rocking
Do each move 16 times.

  1. Rock back and forth from all fours—hands and knees (head up with butt to heels, and rock forward until the hips touch the floor).
  2. Rock back and forth from all fours—elbows and knees (bring your hips back to the heels and then to the floor).
  3. Without allowing the knees to touch or moving the hands, rock from a support position on your hands and toes (butt to heels and hips to floor). Keep your head up.

Baby Crawling
On hands and knees, crawl in each direction for one minute.

  1. Crawl forward, making sure that the opposite hand and knee touch simultaneously.
  2. Crawl backwards, making sure that your opposite knee and hand touch at the same time.
  3. Crawl laterally to the left, and then to the right.
  4. Crawl in a tight square. Four “steps” forward, four right, four backwards, four left. Repeat in the reverse direction.

Crawling Challenges

  1. Leopard crawl: This is almost identical to baby crawling, but keep your knees off the floor and hips even with the shoulders. Your head stays up with the chest pushed forward. Take small steps at first—this uses every muscle in your body. Crawl forward for one minute, and then crawl backwards for one minute. Take care to keep the opposite limbs moving simultaneously.
  2. Sideways crawl: Start with knees together and hands apart, then move the knees apart and bring the hands together. The opposite hand and knee work together. Many find this pattern very challenging, but that’s what the reset patterning is all about. It stimulates the brain in a positive way. Crawl on each side for one minute.
  3. Spider-Man crawl: This is the ultimate, because it demands strength, balance, and constant attention to form. Unlike a bear crawl, which can get sloppy and allow your spine to sag, the Spider-Man Crawl requires you to keep your hips stay below the shoulders while your head and chest remain upright. Prepare to fall over a few times, but stick with it: “Your resulting fitness will be amazing,” Maxwell promises. Start with just one minute and build from there. Add a few seconds each day. Your goal is five minutes nonstop.

Marching
This is a great vestibular reset. It’s surprisingly cardio. Emphasize standing tall and lifting the opposite leg and arm. The rear hand reaches back to the thigh at waist height, as if reaching for your back pocket. Notice how the forefoot contacts the floor first, and then the heel. This is an excellent drill for teaching barefoot running. Do this at least 100 times.

Standing knee-to-elbows drill: Hold your hands behind your head. Try to touch your elbow to the opposite knee. It’s okay if you can’t touch—come as close as you can.

Vestibular reset adapted from maxwellsc.com.

How to Forage for Your Next Energy Bar

Stop that lawnmower! Your urban backyard is packed with hidden performance-enhancing plants that can be tossed together to make an ancestral wonder meal.

Step on any lawn, and chances are you’re crushing a plateful of Leda Meredith’s high-performance superfoods.

Like lady’s thumb. That stuff is everywhere, in every front yard you’ve ever seen, but until Leda told me that it’s actually a nutrient-packed cousin of buckwheat, I’d always just mowed it down and shot it out the chute along with bluegrass clippings and severed dandelions. (That’s a confession I’ll soon regret: “Not all the dandelions?” Leda asks, knowing in her heart I’m about to disappoint her. “You don’t even harvest the young ones?”)

Leda is a professional forager, a job made no easier by the fact that she lives in Queens, works in Brooklyn, and spent the better part of her life as a professional ballerina. I invited her over to see if she could find any edibles around my house, and within two steps of the back door, she’s already yanking and snipping. “Ah, look at this! Wild mustard,” she says, stuffing some weeds into a plastic grocery bag. “Here’s burdock… and lady’s thumb… and look up there!” She points toward the edge of the property, where a villainous patch of purplish stalks has been growing for years despite my attempts to wipe it out with everything short of Agent Orange. I’ve literally tried firepower, and the stuff keeps growing back right through the scorched earth.

“That’s pokeweed,” she says.

“That’s poison,” I reply. “Goats won’t even eat it, and they like poison ivy.”

Here in Lancaster County, we sons and daughters of Pennsyltucky have many differences but one common foe: pokeweed. We’ve all got it, and we all hate it.

“It’s only harmful when it’s mature,” Leda explains. “When it’s young—right when the shoots are coming up—it’s healthy and delicious, like fresh asparagus.” Pokeweed is also an ultratough perennial, as years of frustration have taught me firsthand; you can hack the crap out of it, and every spring its deep taproot will still send up new growth.

Before long, Leda has a crazy amount of greenery crammed into her foraging bags and she’s ready to whip up a meal. I lead her into the kitchen, molding my face into what I hope is a polite amount of phony enthusiasm. Leda is a whiz and this is a fun little experiment, but I know that once she’s gone, there are better odds of me eating human flesh than anything in my lawn…

Until I catch a whiff of what she’s up to at the stove, and my stomach starts changing my mind.


I first tracked down Leda because of an odd experience I had on Crete. I hiked across the island several times while researching a crazy adventure by a band of World War II Resistance fighters, and everywhere I went, I came across people plucking weeds from stone walls and sidewalks. Anywhere life could grow, some Cretan was swooping down and carrying it home.

Where, I discovered, it was all being tossed together in the ancestral island wonder food known as horta. Which is? Well, here’s how Leda puts it:

“Every spring, there came a moment when Yia-Yia Lopi, my great-grandmother, stubbed out her Kool menthol cigarette and declared that it was the right day to gather horta in the park,” she describes in her wonderful memoir, Botany, Ballet, and Dinner from Scratch. “The timing had to be just right: too soon and the leaves would be too small, too late and they’d be too bitter. Yia Yia was the expert on when to go because she’d grown up picking wild edibles in Greece.” Back in the kitchen, the women steamed their free-range pickins and mixed them with olive oil and chopped garlic. “Their eyes would gleam,” Leda notes. “The first wild greens of spring were better to them than chocolate.”

The trick to making a tastier-than-M&M’s horta is all in the assembly. You can’t just chuck in any weed or too many of one type. Crete alone has more than 100 varieties of wild-growing edibles, so the true horta artist is constantly adding and adjusting that day’s recipe by how much dandelion, purslane, lamb’s-quarter, chicory, sorrel and other varietals are available. The greens are then braised and tossed with garlic, pepper, and a citrusy squirt of lemon. Add a little olive oil for fat and flavor, and you’ve got a nutritional powerhouse of iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, plus an alphabet soup of vitamins.

“Stomach problems, skin disorders, breathing difficulties, even emotional uneasiness—you can treat them all with so-called weeds,” Leda says. Her mother was a ballerina with a Los Angeles ballet company, so Leda was mostly raised by her grandmother, a Greek immigrant who lived in San Francisco and often foraged in Golden Gate Park. Leda later followed her mother into dance, and during her years on tour, she’d often shock her fellow ballerinas by turning up for rehearsal with her arms covered in angry scratches after a morning spent rooting among nettles and greenbriers. After she retired from full-time performing, Leda went back to school to study ethnobotany and turned herself into one of America’s very few professional foragers.

Now, Leda can cruise through Brooklyn’s none-too-culinary-looking Prospect Park and scavenge together a meal in minutes. “The parks department has a limited weed-control budget, which is great for me,” she says. “People have no idea what’s right here.” One of her favorite spots, just for the irony, is right outside the fancy-pants Park Slope Food Coop. Inside, lamb’s-quarter sells for rib-eye prices of $7.50 a pound; outside, it grows free along the curb. “It’s too bad we’ve developed this mentality that if it’s free and natural, it can’t be good,” Leda says.

Horta is such a superfood that you can even fry it into fast food and it’s still more nutritious than any produce you can buy. Researchers from Austria and Greece performed a chemical analysis of a Cretan fried pie in 2006 and were struck by two things: the sheer variety of the horta filling and the sky-high levels of vitamins, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. The bite-sized crescents called kalitsounia are typically packed with a combination of fennel, wild leeks, sow thistle, hartwort, corn poppy, sorrel, and Queen Anne’s lace, all of it growing wild. “In most cases,” the researchers concluded, “the wild greens had higher micronutrient content than those cultivated.”


“These will blow your mind,” Leda says.

Out of my oven, she’s pulling a cookie tray of garlic-mustard greens baked into chips—and, good gravy, she’s right. They’re salty and tangy and perfectly crisped. On another tray are gingko nuts, those hard little kernels found in those gooshy stinkberries that litter city sidewalks. Leda shucked the mushy coating and baked the kernels, then tossed them in soy sauce. While I’m demolishing the snacks, Leda is spooning out a pesto she whizzed together from field garlic, dandelion, bishop’s weed, and black walnuts. She’s serving it over pasta, but often she’ll use it to dress a salad of roasted root vegetables: carrots, apple, red onion, potato, parsnips, and celery root. Today’s main course is a little meatier: broiled flank steak, sliced thin and sprinkled with chopped field garlic.

It’s a fabulous meal but a vexing problem: Without a chain-smoking Yia-Yia around to show me the ropes, how can I trust what I’m plucking? Books are helpful, but not enough: Wild greens in pictures all kind of look alike, and they’re usually photographed in bloom, when they’re prettiest but past their prime. If you eat the wrong greens, your best-case scenario is missing out on the nutritional and medicinal benefits you’re looking for. Worst case: Poison Control.

So Leda offers two bedrock rules:

1) First and last: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
2) Every moment in between: Let xenía be your guide. 

Xenía is Greek for compassion, and along with strength and skill, it’s one of the three key ingredients in hero training. But the ancients had a much grittier notion of compassion than we do: Deep down, they realized it has nothing to do with sweetness, or charity, or even trading favors. It’s really about saving your own ass, not someone else’s. Compassion is your social spiderweb, a protective netting of highly sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you. We like to put on our halos and think of compassion as an angelic virtue, but it really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what’s going on around us and the smartest way to respond.

Do compassion right, and you instantly detect changes in body language, voice pitch, and behavior. You hear what isn’t being said and see what isn’t being shown. Compassion demands patience, focus, and mental retention, but the payoff is self-preservation: You may look like a saint, but by helping those in need, you’re fortifying your own fortress of friends. Special Forces fighters call this “situational awareness”—a constant mental scan of your environment so you’re always up to the second on the best and worst way out of any situation.

Sounds way easier than knife throwing, Stotan training, and Parkour, right? But simple as it seems, xenía is tougher to develop than strength and skill, because it takes longer and isn’t nearly as fun. You have to dial down your focus to just one thing, paying attention to how it’s changed from yesterday to today and compares to other just-one-things you’ve studied before. The benefits can be life-changing, which explains why Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold way more copies than a book that boring really should. All 419 pages can be boiled down to one gorgeous point: Train your attention-paying muscles—your “eyes that hear and ears that see”—and they’ll serve you wherever you go, no matter what you do. Awareness is the all-access laminate, a lift ticket you can punch on any slope.

And it all begins, Leda says, with this droopy stalk in her hand.

“Start with something you see all the time, like lady’s thumb,” she tells me. She holds it up on her palm so I can see the wilted-looking leaves, the tiny red seed balls, the darkish smudge like a thumbprint that inspired its nickname. “Those are your identifiers. Soak them in, and you’ll instantly recognize lady’s thumb like a friend’s face. Then you add one more plant—like garlic-mustard— and pretty soon, you’ll be seeing friends all over the place.”

Get Strong Without Ever Going to the Gym Again

You can do this yoga-meets-wrestling series of movements anywhere, with results that put the weight machines to shame

Human evolution, you’ll be happy to hear, has officially let you off the hook: It’s normal and healthy to hate the gym. Here’s even better news: There’s a way you can never go back and still get into true Olympian shape. You just have to learn one simple movement flow: the Traveling Maxercist.

Your true enemy when it comes to fitness isn’t laziness. It’s ancestry. We’re hunter-gatherers at heart—creatures of movement—which makes us hardwired to respond to variety. Our eye is out for new frontiers, not the old terrain we’ve already picked over. It’s made us the most restless animal ever to walk the earth, so hungry for fresh hunting grounds that we’re not even satisfied with our own planet. Two million years of adaptation have developed a brain that rewards us with a burst of endorphins whenever we push into the unpredictable, even if it’s just running outside on a trail in the wind instead of on a treadmill. That glow of exhilaration that warms you from the inside out is your body’s reminder that this—the variety of pace, terrain, temperature, and strength demands—is what’s best for your body and the species.

That’s why when old-school gyms needed trainers, they hired fighters. Nobody knew natural movement better than boxers, because they either got it right or got demolished. When young Teddy Roosevelt showed up at Wood’s Gymnasium in Manhattan as a sickly teenager, “Professor” John Wood shoved Teddy right into the hands of John Long, a professional pug. Together, the fighter and the novice tackled “beautiful and effective combined exercises”: swinging on parallel bars, twirling Indian clubs, vaulting gymnastics horses, shuttle running with a medicine ball. Teddy learned about strength rings: two circles of steel that opponents grip between them. The object is to yank and twist until the other guy loses his grip or footing. “They bring into play every joint and muscle of the body,” one of Wood’s students affirmed, and it was an approach that Roosevelt never abandoned; as president, he’d invite soldiers into the White House to spar with him using cudgels. Even in his fifties, Roosevelt was strong and agile enough to swim the Potomac and climb the cliffs of Rock Creek Park—often in the same night. 

Until the 1970s, that’s what gyms were like: big, open warehouse spaces that allowed skillful movement, range of motion, and body-weight exercise. But functional movement has one major flaw, at least if you’re a gym owner. Mobility is murder on profit margins. You can have only so many clients lurching around with medicine balls and wooden clubs before they start klonking each other into the emergency room, which means you’ve got to limit how many paying customers come through the door. To really cash in, you’d have to figure out a way to make everyone stay put. You’d have to come up with something that looked enough like natural movement to get people to pay but without all the messy mobility. Something stationary. Something like…

Bodybuilding. It was perfect. Especially because, in 1976, a little indie film transformed it from weird underground cult into Hollywood gold. Before Pumping Iron, the entire audience at bodybuilding’s premier championship could fit inside a school bus. Its biggest star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was barely getting by as a pinup model for brown-wrapper men’s mags. “It was a tiny little world,” Charlie Butler, Pumping Iron’s director, would say. “So he was the king of 300 people.” 

But behind the beefcake, drama was brewing. Lou Ferrigno, the deaf and brooding Brooklyn giant with the domineering dad, was determined to dethrone Arnold, the golden prince of Venice Beach. Ferrigno was tormented, hungry, and huge. Arnold was handsome, charming, and diabolical. Surrounding them was a crazy court of knights and jesters, all oiling each others’ backs while looking for a spot to sink the knife. Butler couldn’t believe his luck. He’d stumbled across the spiciest of melodramas, a Macbeth in banana hammocks played out by a hard-partying pack of near-naked men. It made an amazing movie and a nice bit of stage magic; we saw Lou and Arnold and Franco and believed we were being shown the path to amazing fitness, when actually we were witnessing for the first time what anabolic steroids could do to the human body. 

Looking back, the fraud should have been obvious. Didn’t it seem weird that every man in the film was more developed than any other man on the planet had ever been? But that’s why Pumping Iron was such a sensation. No one had ever seen a body like Arnold’s, and for good reason: The drugs hadn’t existed. Nobody can pack that much muscle mass onto a human frame by natural means, as Harvard researcher Dr. Harrison Pope would prove in his exposés of bodybuilding techniques; it’s just not physically possible. If you really want to look like Arnold, you’d better invest in injectables and find a vein.

We weren’t shown that, of course. Pumping Iron didn’t film the furtive injections of Dianabol and estrogen, the man-breasts and shrunken testicles, the home experimentation with drugs linked to cancer, dementia, uncontrollable anger, and strokes. Instead, we were delivered a new male body fantasy—supersize me—and a new standard of fitness: What you look like is more important than what you can do.

Instead, you isolate one body part and tear it down, repeating the same movement over and over until the muscle begins to tear. Basically, you’re injuring yourself; the soreness and swelling you feel is an emergency reaction as blood rushes in to immobilize the damaged area. Pain, perversely, was now a selling point. In the short term, all you did was temporarily pump the muscle up like a balloon. In the long term, you ignored many important surrounding muscles. This leads to imbalances that will inevitably leave you injured as soon as you put your new physique into action playing an actual sport. But so what? Isolation got you huge, and that’s what mattered. Feel the burn. Get big!


The timing couldn’t have been better. Just as gyms began pushing the stay-put approach, the perfect stay-put device fell into their laps. In 1970, a bizarre character from Florida showed up at the Mr. America competition with his pet invention, the “Blue Monster.” Arthur Jones was a chain-smoking high school dropout turned big-game hunter who’d married six wives, shot 63 elephants, and spent his downtime trying to overfeed his 14-foot alligator to Guinness World Record size. He was also a self-taught mechanic who’d built an exercise machine with a kidney-shaped cam. Because the gear also resembled a seashell, Jones renamed his creation the Nautilus.

Nautilus machines were ideal for keeping people stationary. They were so compact that you could fit four people into a small space without worrying they’d smack into each other. You didn’t even need to carry a weight over from a rack; you just sat on a padded seat and reached for smooth plastic handles. “The idea of a health club really changed. It became big business. It was Arthur Jones that started that,” a Nautilus colleague would recall in an obituary after Jones died in 2007. “Mr. Jones’ invention,” the article went on to say, “led to the ‘machine environment’ that is prevalent today in health clubs.”

Okay. But given modern lifestyles, isn’t the gym better than nothing?

No—because to most people, it is nothing. That’s statistical fact. The average annual dropout rate at health clubs is astonishing. More than 60 percent of members who enroll in January are gone by April. Rather than being ashamed of offering a product that over half its clients find tedious, repetitive, and unpleasant, health clubs bank on it. Gyms routinely oversubscribe by up to 500 percent, taking money from five times as many people as could ever fit inside. Sure, it gets a little crowded after New Year’s (“cattle call” gets thrown around a lot), but every other person soon disappears. That would cripple most industries, but thanks to the power of guilt and magical thinking, people keep coming back for more. Even during the darkest days of the recession, health clubs continued making a mint off a product that the majority of its own customers hate.

Steve Maxwell isn’t shocked by the dirty secrets of gym owners, because for many years, he was one. Maxwell trained pro athletes and pudgy newcomers alike in his popular Philadelphia sweat shop, and one thing he realized is the stupidity and dishonesty of the “willpower model.” We keep blaming people for not going to the gym by saying they lack discipline, Maxwell says, but if you’re relying on willpower to get in shape, you’re doomed. “If you hate something, you ain’t doing it. You may come roaring out like a lion, and maybe even stick it out for a surprising amount of time, but the writing is on the wall.”

So quit making promises you won’t keep, he suggests. Instead, try the “Traveling Maxercist,” an exercise flow he created that works every muscle and movement chain in the body and is so well rooted in the pleasure of natural movement that willpower may no longer be an issue. For inspiration, Maxwell looked to the first and most formidable of the ancient Olympians: wrestlers.

“I originally came upon the Maxercist concept while attempting to figure out exercise combinations to simulate the stresses of a prolonged grappling or MMA fight,” he says. “It was my desire to include all elements of human movement encountered in a grappling match: pushing, pulling, static strength, strong core activation, grip, [plus] hip, spine, and shoulder mobility … all while under a high cardio stress.”

But as complicated as it sounds, the Traveling Maxercist couldn’t be simpler. The basic positions are modeled on familiar yoga poses, and the only real trick is concentration: The end of each movement is the beginning of the next, so you can’t zone out the way you would on a bicep bench. “You must focus on what you’re doing and concentrate on connecting the movements together into a super-flowing kinetic chain,” Maxwell explains. “This requires a filtering out of external stimulus—you must be here now—and that’s excellent practice for high-level athleticism.” 

Think you can survive the Traveling Maxercist? Scroll up to the video for complete instructions.

 

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