Fitness seekers across the country are finding their wild sides by crouching like cougars, leaping like leopards and crawling like crabs. Although it might seem like they’ve let silliness encroach on their fitness goals, these adventurous types might be on the right track, realizing more of the rippled muscles and exceptional agility of our four-legged complements.
“It’s getting people back into their own bodies,” says Mike Fitch, creator of Animal Flow, one of several fitness programs offered in health clubs around the country that enable participants to make the most of their inner beast. “People are tired of being injured and doing the same old workouts. They need a more well-rounded, holistic approach to their health.” Fitch, founder of Global Bodyweight Training, in Miami, Florida, incorporates fluid movement (including parkour, break dancing and gymnastics) in his routines.
Animal-related workouts are proving to be a fun form of natural bodyweight training—named a top fitness trend for 2013 by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Men and women are mimicking animals to attain stronger, leaner and more agile bodies that perform better in life. Whether building arm strength by swinging their lower bodies sideways, feet-to-hands, like a gorilla, or toning thigh muscles by stalking forward inches from the ground like a panther, animal workout converts are toning their bodies in challenging ways without the use of heavy weights or equipment.
“The bear crawl is another good example,” advises David Nordmark, author of Animal Workouts: Animal Movement Based Bodyweight Training for Everyone. With hands and feet on the ground and rear end raised in the air, the bear crawl involves scrambling quickly forward and backward—a popular high school football and karate agility drill for years. He contends, “Even if you think you are in shape and do it for a minute, you’ll be amazed at how much more of a workout your arms get.”
Neal Pire, a New Jersey-based strength trainer and ACSM fellow, agrees the movements are intense and strength building, but wonders if an evolved, two-legged animal is meant to mimic four-legged species. “It’s a very tough workout,” says Pire. “You’re loading muscles where typically you don’t have very much leverage, so your muscles are doing all of the work; yet some moves might be overloading to certain people’s joints.”
Fitch claims the overall result is increased muscle endurance. He cites a study published in the journal Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism of women that found whole-body, aerobic resistance training like what’s applied in his program supplies a cardiovascular workout similar to endurance training, but with the added benefits of increased balanced muscle strength and perceived enjoyment.
“I call it body balance, working your body as a unit,” Nordmark says, citing pushups, which activate specific muscle groups, as a more traditional example. He notes, “I think it gives people a more natural and attractive look than bodybuilding, more like dancers or even martial artists or gymnasts.”
Working out like animals keeps human cores activated, especially when combining the exercises together for a sustained routine. In addition to tightened abdominal muscles, it boosts calorie consumption and leads to enhanced core and overall strength. Fitch points to a relevant study of college football players that demonstrated the strength connection, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Pire concurs that sustained exercises at a moderate range, as with animal workouts, is an effective calorie burner. Firming up a flabby middle also works to improve balance, as another study in the same journal showed, involving sedentary women performing fitness ball exercises.
Moving the body in many directions in intense, but flowing, almost dance-like workouts, naturally improves stability, agility, flexibility and balance, as exhibited in the animal kingdom. “Challenging the body as it moves in all directions uses the body the way it was intended to be used,” maintains Fitch. Nordmark also points to similarities in yoga poses resembling animal postures that have contributed to physical and spiritual health for millennia.
Nordmark and Fitch believe that animal themes provide many more bodyweight movements that can keep workouts fresh and be mastered for life, keeping bodies strong and functional as people age. “If you meet an old bear in the woods, he’s not walking around with a walker,” Nordmark observes. “He’s still a formidable animal, and you don’t want to mess with him.” Plus, adds Fitch: “The workouts are great fun.”
Freelance journalist Debra Melani writes about health care and fitness from Lyons, CO. Connect at DebraMelani.com.