- If a fire broke out in your house, would you be able to escape out of a window?
- Would you be able to carry a wounded friend or family member to safety?
- Could you physically run to the aid of a stranger?
- Could you fend off someone who was trying to drag you or your girlfriend or child into a vehicle?
- How useful would you truly be when the world around you is in chaos?
In our current world, we depend upon ‘first responders’ to save us. But, they can’t always be there to be of help when needed. Have we conditioned ourselves to be helpless?
In our current age, we rely on gyms to keep us fit, but is this really what we need? Are treadmills, bench presses, and squat racks the best way to prepare our bodies for instances when they’re needed?
“Être fort pour être utile” (“Being strong to be useful”)
— Georges Hébert
Georges Hébert learned firsthand how necessary it could be to be able to answer the initial questions above with a yes. While serving in the French Navy in 1902, a town named Saint Pierre on the island of Martinique was in the path of a devastating volcanic eruption. Hébert coordinated the evacuation of the population, saving the lives of 700 people.
In his book Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall details how Hébert left his naval vessel in a row boat with a small crew of sailors and headed directly into the face of chaos while everyone was running away in terror. In a city of 30,000 people, approximately 29,000 died in the devastation. Hébert thought to himself how much of an avoidable disaster this was.
He realized that modern civilization has this idea that someone will always come to save them. They can just sit and wait for a first responder to come to their aid, when in many instances, they themselves may need to be the first responder. Nature had provided humanity with a powerful body that was capable of amazing feats of climbing, swimming, leaping, throwing, and fighting. But was modern civilization taking advantage of this?
Hébert decided to do something to combat this failure of modern civilization. He developed a philosophy called The Natural Method based around the idea of usefulness. While watching his children play, Hébert realized they were developing the abilities to deal with a forthcoming disaster. He watched them kick at things, climb, jump off of obstacles, hide from each other, and toss each other around. This wasn’t only play, he realized, this was innate practice for an emergency. Just like young lion cubs wrestle and chase to prepare themselves for hunting as adults, children naturally played out their physical response to emergencies as future adults.
Hébert decided to make his training regimen mimic how children played. It would be based on the Ten Natural Utilities:
Pursuit Abilities: Crawling, Walking, Running
Escape Abilities: Swimming, Jumping, Balancing, Climbing
Attack Abilities: Fighting, Lifting, Throwing
Hébert presented his idea to the French Navy, who gave him a group of new recruits to work with. A training facility was needed for these recruits and Hébert knew exactly what they would need. He developed an outdoor adult jungle gym for the recruits. This facility was furnished with all types of natural obstacles: towers to climb, ponds to swim through, pits filled with sand, random rocks and logs tossed about, and long poles that could be used to vault over objects. The recruits were allowed to create their own obstacle courses by combining various physical challenges on the training ground.
There was only one rule for the recruits, they could not compete against each other. The recruits would challenge themselves with these difficult physical tasks that taxed their mind and body. They would then work as a team to overcome them. If one recruit mastered a challenge, he would help his fellow recruits to overcome that challenge. This Natural Method would develop not only physical ability, but create a better and nobler person. It would develop the mind by challenging the recruit to figure out ways to use their body to accomplish odd physical tasks. The lack of competition would encourage camaraderie and selflessness, improving character.
In 1913 Hébert presented 350 recruits who were training in his Natural Method to the International Congress of Physical Education. These recruits were tested on various physical attributes and the results were shocking. The recruits scored on levels with world class decathletes. The Natural Method was a breakthrough success and the French military planned to duplicate Hébert’s outdoor training regimen across all of France. Hébert also planned to send a group of trainers around the world to demonstrate his Natural Method to all who wanted to see it.
However, the world had different ideas. Within a few months German troops crossed their border and WWI began. Carnage the likes the world had never seen ravaged Europe. It seemed everyone on continental Europe was affected by the death and destruction; Hébert and his recruits were not exempted. After 4 years, all 350 recruits had died in the fighting and Hébert was severely wounded. Mentally crushed and now trying to regain his ability to walk and speak, Hébert was no longer able to be the champion of his Natural Method. This training regimen was the last thing on anybody’s mind at this point and it was passed over and forgotten to history. Or so it seemed that way.
The Rebirth of the Natural Method
A man by the name of Erwan Le Corre, who had been a lifelong athlete, was disappointed by the standard athletics he was involved in. The more competitive sports he was involved in, the more unhappy he became. He eventually found himself traveling with a group of underground acrobats in Paris. As he was working with this group, he’d hear a name mentioned, Georges Hébert. Erwan eventually came across a training manual written by Hébert in a second hand book store. Erwan was amazed by what he read and thought the goal to be useful was a law of nature. He went about re-engineering the Natural Method out of his new home base in a Brazilian rainforest.
In addition to Erwan Le Corre, you’ll see many aspects of the Natural Method in display in the modern Parkour and free running. Georges Hébert’s name is often mentioned with reverence by these groups. You can also see the obstacle course training methodology espoused by Tough Mudder and Spartan races, on television as well by the Ninja Warrior series.
Living Example Of Being Useful Not Fit
I did not really think, I started climbing directly. As I was climbing up, I felt more and more confident.
On his way to watch a soccer match, Mamoudou Gassama had heard a commotion as he passed a building. He could hear shouting and see people pointing. As he looked up, his eyes widened, a child was hanging from a balcony overhead.
There were no police or firemen in sight. Everyone around was just shouting or staring. Mamoudou had to do something, he would have to be the first responder. The poor Malian migrant used the only thing he had, his body. In a feat that would make Georges Hébert and Erwan Le Corre smile, Mamoudou scaled the side of the building expertly. In nearly a minute he managed to scale up to a fourth level balcony where the child was hanging and pull him to safety. Mamoudou had used the power of his body and a natural climbing skill to avert a disaster.
Maybe we’ve been lied to in the modern age. Maybe a classic gym with machines, treadmills, and ellipticals isn’t the way to truly be healthy. Maybe a bench press and squat rack are the last thing that would make us useful. When you think about it, if there was an emergency and you needed help, who would you prefer to come to your aid? Would you want Hébert, Le Corre, or Mamoudou? Or perhaps you’d prefer that big guy at the gym with the excellent tan, who could bench press 500 lbs? I don’t know about you, but I’d always prefer someone from the first group.
When we exercise, perhaps we shouldn’t think about how the activity will make us look in our new pair of pants? Maybe we should think about whether this training method will make us physically useful? These chain gyms with their endless rows of treadmills really don’t care if you come to a level of fitness which would save your life; they’re more interested in your membership fee.
Your best bet might be heading to the playground with your kids and playing with them. Run, jump, and climb with them. Or at least find something that mimics that. It may even save your life one day, or maybe someone around you. Our ancestors had powerful survival skills and used their bodies to their best abilities. We may have forgotten this, but it can and should be learned again.
Thank you for reading my ramblings, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read please share.