How the Environment Shapes You

By on July 7, 2021

The best way to learn a language, it transpires, is not to sit in a class and recite the different verbs and nouns. A lot of research and a lot of anecdotal evidence tell us that the best way to learn a language, is through immersion. It is to live in another country, speak and hear only that language, and let the amazing plasticity of our brains do its thing.

Training is no different.

Environmental Training

We are adaptoids. Our bodies are designed to adapt to our surroundings. And this is the key to unlocking perfect performance.

This might sound like a pleasant platitude but, in fact, I believe it is also supported by ever increasing evidence. Let’s see a few of the ways in which lifestyle trumps training.

Total Immersion Training

Firstly, no stimulus will ever be as profound as the environment. Best case scenario, you might workout for an hour or two a day. This is nothing compared to the amount of time many of us spend sitting in our seats and typing, or lying on the sofa watching TV.

See also: How Our Modern Lifestyles Affect Fitness

It should come as no surprise then, that we experience tight hip flexors, rounded shoulders, and beer bellies. As I’ve often explained, this is not maladaptive. This is functional for the lifestyle we lead.

Sitting Kyphosis

This also goes someway to explaining the seemingly inexplicable “farmer strength.” It’s why a physical laborer has a grip like a vice. It might also go some way to explaining the musculature of certain animals. They don’t train to failure, but they train all day.

Training with huge volume will always generate huge results; so long as the recovery is equal to the energy expended and overload is cautious and progressive.

Huge Volume

I think high rep calisthenics are the perfect example of this. Recently, I’ve been championing the use of high rep calisthenics with a continuous time under tension. This type of training has the ability to flood the working muscles with blood, reducing venous return, as well as maximally fatiguing all the muscle fibers. It can permanently increase blood supply to those muscles via capillarization, which additionally increases myonuclei for permanently improved hypertrophy. It builds strength endurance: the most useful type of strength that allows us to exert power for long durations without fatiguing and failing. This is also highly protective against injury.

Pull ups on tree branch

The problem? Huge repetitions of moderately challenging movements take time and don’t fit neatly into a given training program. They work best when spread through the day, like so many accounts of prisoners and legendary old-time strongmen.

The same goes for light cardio spread throughout the day. This goes along way toward explaining the seemingly superhuman feats of indigenous peoples such as the Tarahumara: known for running marathon-like distances every single day.

See also: How to Run With Perfect Form Like the Tarahumara Tribe

But it’s not just the body that benefits from this kind of total immersion. The brain also helps refine and improve movement through continuous, distributed repetition.

Greasing the Groove

One way to hack our training and learn movements more quickly is by greasing the groove. As described by Pavel Tsatsouline, this means repeating a movement intermittently throughout the day so as to reinforce neural pathways. For example, you might perform a pull up every time you pass through a doorway. Or you might practice a Turkish getup every morning and night.

See also: Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

Strength is a skill, says Pavel. Instead of focusing on muscle damage and metabolic stress, instead focus on repetition – so that you develop the most flawless technique. That way, you recruit only the necessary muscle fibers with no wasted energy. You become stronger without the fatigue.

Lizard Crawl Greasing the Groove

Spaced Learning

Training in this way has another benefit, too. This allows us to tap into something called spaced repetition, or distributed practice. Research shows us, that when you spread any form of learning throughout the day, you actually see more rapid learning and better retention. This makes sense, as each new session requires you to perform the movement “from cold.” Coincidentally, this is also how you would use that movement in real life.

See also: What is Spaced Learning – Learn Anything Faster!

Not only that, but each learning session is followed by a cool-down period, during which you will experience post-activation potentiation in the relevant neural pathways. More separate cool downs, means more total activation.

Running

Each new learning session will spike chemicals like brain derived neurotrophic factor. And, in the case of resistance training, it may also spike protein synthesis, growth hormone, testosterone, and more. You’ll raise your metabolism repeatedly, too.

(Of course, you’ll also benefit from repeatedly elevated endorphins…)

Then there’s the simple fact that any block of training will likely lead to some fatigue and loss of focus. Strategically breaking your training up means introducing more rest time, allowing you to start each new “block” fresh and with mental clarity.

The Interference Effect

What do you do during theses “rests?” You continue to learn in other ways. You continue try other types of training. You intersperse the training.

This introduces the “interference effect.” Research shows that when you mix up drills rather than performing blocks of the same type of training, you see a drop in performance during those training sessions. However, this also translates to greater performance and retention post training.

Squats vs Lunges

In other words, if you want to learn basketball, you shouldn’t practice shots in a separate block from passing and shooting. Instead, you should mix those things up in order to benefit from the spaced learning effect AND a more realistic type of training.

In real life, we are rarely required to repeat a single movement over and over without varying!

Varied Training

Keeping the Body Guessing

Likewise, we should avoid repeating movements exactly, altogether. To learn the perfect deadlift, you must practice the perfect deadlift over and over. You must ensure the movement is as identical as possible each and every time.

This is useful for competition, but not for life. There are no straight bars in real life. There are few flat surfaces. Rarely do we have the luxury of “perfect form.” If you are wrestling, climbing, or moving furniture, you will need to lift from awkward angles, with varied momentum.

Bulgarian Split Squat

It is by introducing variety and confounding variables into training that we become more “ready for anything.” This way, we develop what Nicolai Bernstein refers to as more “robust neural maps.” Movement patterns emerge from constraints: organism, environment, and goal. This is dynamical systems theory as applied to motor learning.

Movement is Medicine

Imbalances and overuse injuries are so often not the result of using muscles too often: rather, they are the result of using particular movement patterns at the exclusion of all others. Tennis elbow doesn’t occur because those movements are harmful. It occurs, very often, because the muscles of the forearm aren’t being trained equally. Kyphosis occurs because the front is stronger and tighter than the back. And IT band pain often afflicts runners because they rarely move in the frontal plane and wear thick, supporting shoes.

See also: How to Strengthen Elbows for Iron Arms

Movement is medicine. But only if it is sufficiently varied and balanced.

Continuous movement can even help to encourage recovery. If you stop moving a joint to protect it, you give the body no incentive to heal the affected area. You develop awkward compensatory movement patterns that worsen the injury. And you actively prevent blood flow, growth hormone, and protein synthesis in the affected area.

Knee thrust

This accelerates aging, hugely. A single setback often coalesces into a multitude of problems that become to entangled to unravel.

Did you know that one of the best ways to encourage rapid recovery and growth post-training is to use light jogging, or even a very light recovery set for the muscles you trained in the previous workout? The same thing applies to injuries on a grander scale.

Unfathomable Complexity

Too many functional trainers will take a reductionist approach to solving this problem. They will write training programs that they hope will offer perfect balance. Make sure you’re training external rotation for those rotator cuffs! Make sure you’re strengthening the erector spinae.

The body is far too complex for us to write a training program that strengthens every single muscle and every single movement pattern. The only solution is to subject ourselves to the kinds of environments that challenge us and that are just as complex and chaotic as we are. Then let our bodies do their thing – do what they were designed to do.

Tuck

The same goes for cognitive function, by the way. We maintain brain plasticity and healthy connectivity by challenging ourselves in varied and ever-changing ways. Novel experiences bring our brains to life and keep them young.

Nutrition is equally as complicated. There are a million supplements that claim to make you super healthy. A million ingredients that do us harm. And no one can agree on which are which.

Only by eating a highly varied, natural, and unprocessed diet can we be confident that we are getting what we need in a way our bodies can use it. We need to get back to the big picture.

Change the Environment

What we’re looking at here, is light, highly varied, non-taxing training, naturally mixed up, throughout the day. And of course, this also helps us to become physically stronger by developing the supporting muscles that are so often overlooked.

No gym session can achieve this. But our environment achieves this naturally.

You will adapt.

Barefoot Running

Organisms that survive and thrive are those that can adapt to their surroundings. This happens on a grand scale over the course of millions of years (evolution) but also within a single lifetime.

The problem is that humans, moreso than any other creature we know of, have the uncanny ability to shape their environment. And what have we aimed to do with this ability? To make everything as comfortable and safe as possible. Everything is soft, warm, and easy. The extent of this is easy to miss because we are so accustomed to it. But even our cupboards and shelves exist only to make things easier for us: to the extent that we never have to bend over or reach up high.

The Adaptation Facilitation Machine

The Future

In my book, Functional Training and Beyond, I discuss the possibility of a space specifically designed to change our bodies for the better. I call it the: Adaptation Facilitation Machine, and the aim is to design a building that makes the resident stronger, smarter, and healthier simply by virtue of existing there.

Imagine a hallway with a balance beam. Imagine if you had to push heavy doors every time you moved into another room. Imagine a climbing wall instead of stairs. Imagine if you had to hang from a pull up bar while retrieving items from kitchen cupboards that were too high to reach otherwise. Imagine if you had to crank a stiff handle to get water from a tap. Maybe your dishwasher require you to answer some simple sums before it starts.

Walking toward giant sculpture

All these changes could ensure we keep moving throughout the day and stay strong, mobile, and alert. Of course, to truly prevent desensitization, the ultimate AFM would also need to reconfigure itself to provide variety and to maintain an appropriate level of challenge.

I know it’s a goofy concept. But I would love to see this idea take shape in the way we design our homes and the way we consider living spaces, especially for the less mobile.

And to be clear, this essay is not arguing that we should “go back to the wild” for optimum health. In fact, using the knowledge we now have, I wonder if we couldn’t create a superior environment to shape the bodies we want.

Adaptive Immersion Training

For the rest of us, in the meantime, we can incorporate these ideas in other ways: by training outdoors and in the elements. By going barefoot and running off the beaten path. By training with a variety of styles and tools. And by making more effort to train throughout the day.

Observing the Brain

But ultimately: if you cannot change your environment, then you can change your relationship to that environment. Because, as in dynamical systems theory, your intent (and also your habits and your behaviors) alter the impact of that environment. You can choose to take steps two at a time. You can choose to jog, ruck, farmers’ walk, or crawl to the shops. You can choose to squat while you watch TV. It’s harder, but it’s just as effective.

I call this “Adaptive Immersion Training.” And the simple formula looks like this:

ADAPTATION = (Environment X Organism X Intent) X Plasticity

Change the environment, change the organism!

Order your copy of SuperFunctional Training - A complete training program for body and mind.





ORDER HERE



Support the Bioneer at Patreon for Exclusive Content: Click Here!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Amir Olumoroti says:

    Nice article man. I absolutely love your channel Andrew information you provide. You have drastically changed how I approached fitness as well as overall increasing my knowledge base. I just recently bought your book “Superfunctional Training”. Quick question, do you see in near future of putting out an audio version of the book?

  2. You might be interested in the work of architect Rick Bell, who addresses the same idea as your Adaptation Facilitation Machine at a community level. He calls what he does “active design,” because he’s trying to make the built environment promote rather than discourage activity.

    My wife and I went to see him speak a few years ago. He had a fun presentation with slides depicting such craziness as a second-floor fitness center that you reached by escalator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *