An Evolutionary Approach to Training

By: Paul DeGregorio

Human First 

“Is what I’m doing what I was designed to do?”

Have you ever wondered that? With modern-day amenities and rapid lifestyle changes, have we forgotten what our bodies were made to do? Millions of years of evolutionary culling has produced a body finely tuned to outcompete every animal on the planet. Generally, our bodies were designed to do two things really well: move in a variety of ways and cover long distances on foot. This is the hunter-gatherer meta that sustained our species for hundreds of thousands of years. Our existence was dependent on the ability to gather sustenance (tubers, root edibles, fruit, and leafy plants) and hunt game.

Knowing this, what does our life look like now? It’s fair to say it looks NOTHING like it did thousands of years ago. This is largely a positive thing. We are no longer part of the food chain. Fewer of us are eaten by other predators, fewer of us starve, and fewer die from childbirth. Unfortunately, our biology doesn’t understand that we’ve escaped the food chain. The body is a non-discriminate piece of infinitely complex machinery that excels at hunting and gathering– and we no longer do that.

In an attempt to salvage our evolutionary brilliance, it’s important to prioritize the qualities that make us homo sapien. Having an adequate aerobic system and fundamental joint motion make us human, and allows us to do our human things: cover long distances and move in a variety of ways. Using an evolutionary approach to training puts priority on the HUMAN first and the ATHLETE second. In other words, be brilliant at what makes us human and performance will follow.

The Aerobic System

How high can you build a pyramid? As high as its base. The aerobic system is the base and it is essential for a higher functioning anaerobic and phosphagen system. Yes, even power athletes need an aerobic system. EVERYONE needs an aerobic system. Take an offensive line-man, for example. Between repeated bursts of activity the aerobic system is hard at work clearing metabolic waste and preparing the athlete for future efforts. The aerobic system is always working, constantly buffering fatigue. The longer we can operate in the aerobic system the more sustainable our activities become. Although many sporting events require rapid, ATP depleting bursts of energy, an efficient aerobic system better prepares the athlete for repeated bursts. 

How do you train the aerobic system? Easy. Perform an activity at a low intensity for a long duration. Go for an easy run, ride a bike, perform a low intensity circuit, get in the pool, go for a quick walk, go rucking. To make sure these efforts are purely aerobic, I would recommend a tracking device that can measure heart rate. Using heart rate percentages is an easy way to monitor effort and ultimately train the quality you desire. If monitoring devices aren’t an option, then follow the talk test: can you hold a conversation the entire time?

Continuing the power athlete example, I think it’s worthwhile to spend roughly 180 minutes a week doing low intensity aerobic work. Why? For all the reasons mentioned above, but also as a great way to recover between hard sessions without negatively impacting the next day’s planned work. Will this make you less explosive? Nope. Will this make you weaker? Nope. It’s weak to not have an aerobic system. You can certainly vary the amount of time spent on aerobic training. 180 minutes is a starting point, do less or do more.


We moved a lot as hunter gatherers. Not only was the quantity of movement high but the various ways in which we moved were numerous. Crouching, crawling, running, jumping, stalking, building, carrying, climbing, swimming and almost every other form of locomotive expression were part of our repertoire. These movements, especially in the quantities they were performed, demanded quality motion from our joints. The inability to complete any of these tasks likely meant death. It’s easy to extrapolate that we USED to be highly capable movers proficient in a number of skills.

Since motion only comes from bony articulations, we HAVE to value quality motion at the joint if we desire to be the most human that we can be. This starts with fundamental joint motion (FJM), or the ability for a joint to perform the motion its structure designates as primary. We can separate articulations into two categories: spine and everything else. 

Everything Else

Hips, shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles, wrists all require rotational capacity to have fundamental joint motion. Imagine the humerus moving inside the glenoid. As the humerus moves into flexion (or extension), one bone is moving relative to the other rotationally. The same thing happens in the hip; as the leg moves into flexion (or extension), the femur is moving relative to the acetabulum rotationally. Elbows and knees do the same, as do ankles and wrists. This means that the most direct tissue surrounding the joint is being put on a rotational stretch. For all motion, our joints require rotational extensibility from the joint capsules or else relative motion is not possible.

For the time being, forget about all of the superficial tissue surrounding our joints and focus on the capsule. If the capsule limits joint range of motion, then worrying about superficial tissue is a waste of time. There must be adequate “workspace” in the capsule for FJM to occur. Once FJM is established, superficial tissues exhibiting neurological or mechanical tension can be treated. For example, a shoulder that doesn’t move into flexion well should be checked for internal/external rotation capacity first. If there is not an adequate amount of rotational capacity, there is no need to worry about their “tight lats” or “serratus not firing”. Addressing superficial tissue first and ignoring the capsule will not produce the long term results you want. You can’t put a bandaid on a shark bite. Address capsular deficiencies first and superficial issues later.

The Spine 

Because of the spine’s structure FJM for the spine is flexion and extension, not rotational capacity. Often I see thoracic spine mobility drills using rotational inputs. If the goal is to create more motion, this is only crashing facet joint into facet joint. To create adequate workspace in the capsule, flexion and extension work should be prioritized. For example, if you want thoracic spine rotation to the left but see the subject has no flexion or extension in the thoracic spine, any rotational inputs will be met with boney blocks. In this case, flexion and extension take priority. Why? Because its structure dictates so.

Assessment & Creating FJM

So how do you go about creating FJM and restoring quality motion at the joint? The same way you do with everything else: an assessment. Let’s take, for example, the shoulder we used earlier. You want more flexion for overhead activities but have deemed rotational capacity as insufficient. FJM takes first priority so rotational deficits are addressed first. From there, I assess if the subject has adequate or inadequate passive range of motion. If inadequate, that is my first priority: restoring passive range of motion. The research is very clear on how to increase passive range of motion. Use long duration passive stretches (> 2 min) followed by end range isometrics to increase neurological tolerance in new ranges of motion. That’s a lot to digest so let’s unpack this a little. Why long duration passive stretching? Stretching literature clearly shows that to elicit any long term adaptations tissue must be exposed to a stretch for long duration and high frequency. A 30 second stretch doesn’t provide enough stimulus to change tissue. Instead, holding a stretch for more than 2 minutes stimulates sarcomerogenesis neurological responses. Why end range isometrics? They’re a great way to convince your nervous system that everything is OK in this new position. They temporarily dull the stretch reflex allowing additional range of motion. The systematic completion of these stretch holds and isometrics is referred to as “PAILs and RAILs” or Progressive Angular Isometric Loading and Regressive Angular Isometric Loading. So what’s the goal of PAILs and RAILs? To increase PASSIVE range of motion.

A less common presentation, but still a possibility, is a large amount of passive range of motion with very little active range. This is a problem. Passive range of motion is very important but only because it gives us the possibility to attain more active range of motion. We never want large gaps between passive and active range of motion. These gaps create “black holes” where our nervous system cannot produce or mitigate incoming forces. For those with large passive to active gaps, the process of closing those gaps involves positional isometrics starting at end range and progressively moving 10-15 degrees farther as mastery over end range of motion progresses. For example, a hip that passively flexes to 120 degrees but actively moves to 85 degrees would start with positional isometrics at 95 degrees for a time and continue to progress in 10-15 degrees increments. These are hard, actually these suck, BUT they do a great job of training the nervous system to produce force on the closing side of the joint (regressive angle).

PAILs and RAILs Protocol (hip flexion):

  1. 2 min plus passive stretch. Pull knee to chest feeling stretch in progressive angle tissue (hamstrings and adductors).
  2. 10-20 second PAILs contraction. Without losing any hip flexion, push the knee away from your chest as the hands keep the knee from moving. This should create an isometric in progressive angle tissue (hamstrings and adductors).
  3. Instantly reverse the contraction to RAILs for 10 seconds. Pull the knee toward the chest using regressive tissue (hip flexors). This, again, should be an isometric. If you create a concentric contraction here you aren’t in end-range and aren’t training the quality you want.
  4. Reset and reassess passive range of motion. You should be able to stretch further. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Sets and reps will vary like any other training protocol. PAILs and RAILs are maximal isometrics (commonly called overcoming isometrics) requiring maximal intent and effort.

Leave with this piece of guidance: respect our evolutionary brilliance. You don’t have to run for hours and hours every week or only train your joints. Instead, take a look at your current programming and assess whether you’re paying homage to your humanness. Are you allocating time to training the things that we’re designed to do? 

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