Caveman Fitness Lessons

Turns out, our caveman ancestors were a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Click here to learn tips about fitness and life from our forefathers.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #105

Caveman Fitness Lessons

In previous episodes, we discussed the various ways of working out your body and managing your diet that would help you get closer to nature, to the way things used to be for our caveman ancestors.

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For example, in What Are Paleo Exercises? you learned that ancient man did not do much exercising with his butt planted on weight machines. Exercise back then consisted primarily of  squatting, bending, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting, and walking/running (or “gait”).

In Fuel Your Workouts With the Paleo Diet, you learned about a popular diet that avoids many modern agricultural foods such as bread and cereal, along with highly processed foods, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and just about anything that our cavemen ancestors wouldn't have recognized as real food.

And recently, in We’re Still Hunter-Gatherers, you learned that, based on the results of a recent study, no matter how much you exercise, you may also want to think about your food more like a primitive hunter-gatherer.

All of these concepts are based on the idea of ancestral health, which proposes that humans suffer from numerous metabolic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease – and yet these health maladies were virtually nonexistent for our predecessors. The ancestral health movement says that post-industrial foods, combined with mostly sedentary lifestyles, have pushed our physiologies dangerously far from their adapted environments. 

I became so interested in this topic that I recently attended the Ancestral Health Symposium, which is a gathering of research scientists, physicians, and experts devoted to helping people become healthier by using clues from our genetics and ancestry.

And while I learned many new things about nutrition, diet, health, and exercise, here are some takeaway nuggets and tips for you that are directly related to “caveman fitness.”

Health vs. Performance

Keith Norris, a personal trainer from Efficient Exercise, talked about two distinct and often conflicting wellness goals – the pursuit of health and longevity, and the pursuit of better fitness through strength and overall conditioning.

Keith explained that when we focus exclusively on inordinate amounts of exercise, at high volumes and/or high intensities, we can often sacrifice our health. This is a concept that I’ve touched upon in the episode Can You Exercise Too Much? In that episode, you learned how too much exercise can cause inflammation, hormone imbalances, and high potential for injury – all of which can certainly hurt your health and longevity, no matter how good it makes your abs or butt look!

The takeaway message here is that you must achieve balance in your life – and if your exercise habits are causing you to neglect other important things, feel rundown at the end of the day, or constantly get sick, then you may need to reinvent your approach to fitness so that it is compatible with your health!


Frank Forencich, an author from Exuberant Animal, talked about a concept among primal peoples of Africa called “Ubuntu,” which places the focus of our attention outside of ourselves, and instead includes focus on relationships and community as part of the mix.

Imagine how much more likely you’d be to exercise if you had a community of support for your workouts – not just a friendly face who was there to greet you by name as you arrived, but a team of people you worked with you to conquer new challenges, solve problems, overcome obstacles, and talk to or garner support from along the way.

The nice part is that this community exists in many gyms across the country – you just have to find it! If you’re not a member of a gym, and you’re having a hard time getting the motivation to work out, then join a gym. Once you’re there, get involved with a group exercise class that you attend regularly for at least a month, and preferably more. Get to know faces and names, make new friends, and create a sense of community around your fitness program, rather than “going it alone” all the time.

And of course, be sure to join the community at the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page too!


Esther Gokhale, from the Gokhale Method Institute, outlined how posture can be a missing cornerstone in the modern understanding of health, and how foot pain, neck pain, back pain, and joint issues can all arise – just from  poor posture!

When I read the emails that I receive from Get-Fit Guy listeners, many of them are about injuries sustained while training for an event like a 5K or doing a workout at the gym. I’ll hazard a guess that many of these injuries are taking place after a long day of work – typically, 8-12 hours sitting in a chair or a car!

If you want to be able to last in your fitness routine without being disrupted by an injury, then you have to pay attention to posture. And while Esther discussed slightly more advanced concepts such as “stretchsitting,” “stacksitting,” “stretchlying,” “use of the inner corset,” “hip-hinging,” “glidewalking,” and other interesting techniques on her website, you may want to begin by simply making your workday more like a hunter-gatherer in very easy ways – stand more and don't slouch over in your chair!


Peter Gray, author and Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College, talked about the role of free play in children's education, in hunter-gatherer times and today.

You’re probably sick of your grandparents, and maybe even your parents, describing how they were free to play on their own, from dawn to dusk, every day – and they spent far less time sitting in front of the television, video games, and computers.

I’m going to have to agree on this one: We are  one of the first generations that spends the better part of the day indoors, primarily in a solo or digital environment, without acquiring many of the cultural skills, social values, and personal character traits essential to success – skills that can be attained by simply playing more.

By its very nature, play can promote cooperation, democratic relationships, decision-making, personal autonomy, and self-control – all of which were key to hunter-gatherers’ survival, and remain core keys to modern career success. Peter showed how as the level of free play has decreased while anxiety, depression, helplessness, and narcissism among young people has increased significantly.

But even non-kids like us can learn an important lesson. I go out of my way to play tennis with a group of friends at least twice per week, and during the fall and winter, I try to jump into a pickup basketball game at least once a week. These “cross-training” opportunities for free play keep fitness exciting and expose the body to new moves, but they also teach me important life lessons about getting along with others and forming healthy relationships.

If you want to talk more about caveman fitness, or if you have questions about these ancestral health concepts, then join the conversation at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy!

And check out my new book Get-Fit Guy’s Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body for the ultimate resource to get your dream body fast!

Group Jogging and Children Playing images courtesy of Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.