How to Train Wild: Tarzan Training

By on September 2, 2021

In previous videos and posts, I have explained the amazing value of training outdoors amongst nature. There are the countless additional benefits you get simply from being outside: space, fresh air, and the considerable health benefits of sunlight exposure. If it’s cold, you benefit from cold exposure to strengthen the immune system. If it’s hot, you’ll be enhancing your thermal regulation. Then there are the psychological benefits of being in a beautiful, natural location. There’s something to this Tarzan training, for sure!

Tree climb

But what’s more profound, is the chaotic nature of training outside the gym.

The bottom line is this: the body responds best to complexity. Let’s take a look at how to train like Tarzan!

The Benefits of Tarzan Training

Lift a barbell and the movement will be almost identical every single time you do it. You become extremely efficient at that movement and, of course, there will be some transfer to other real-world tasks.

See also: The Many Benefits of Training Outdoors

But ultimately, you are not training optimally for the unexpected. Because the things you need to lift outside the gym are not perfectly flat. They don’t fit neatly into your hand.

The things you lift outside the gym are not perfectly flat.

Lift a log and you’ll be training your grip at the same time as your ability to lift a heavy object off the ground. The odd shape means you may need to lap the log like an Atlas stone. Pressing it over head will likely mean one side is heavier than the other, increasing activation in the obliques and other stabilizing muscles. You’ll also need to balance the log overhead, requiring superior shoulder stability.

And if you fancy launching it across an open space, you can!

The next log you pick up will be a different shape. By training like this, you develop the supporting muscles and the neural maps to deal with unexpected shapes and terrain. Nicolai Bernstein refers to this as “repetition without repetition.” Exposing our bodies to countless different situations is how we create the many reference points to help us deal with new situations. We this way create “robust motor maps” and are less likely to injure ourselves moving awkward furniture.

Tarzan Workout Log

And all these novel experiences are what trigger plasticity and learning in the brain.

More Examples

When you perform a pull up on a tree branch, you’ll find one hand is higher than the other. The branch will vary in thickness at different points. It may have some give. You’ll probably need to leap up to get there in the first place – and if you want to you can try climbing along the branch like a monkey, or performing muscle ups. You can jump from one branch to another!

Tree branch pull up

Running on the road is a different experience from running on a treadmill, because the treadmill moves underfoot and is completely flat. Trail running through the woods, though, is yet another experience altogether that trains the stabilizing muscles, prevents IT band-pain and other issues, and more. This goes double if you train barefoot or in minimal footwear.

See also: How the Environment Shapes You – Everything is Training

Bouldering is one of the very best workouts there is. Full stop.

Training in nature provides your body with the near-limitless complexity it craves. And this translates to a body with few of the imbalances and neglected areas that arise from many traditional, modern training programs.

I explained in my recent video all the reasons that the environment you find yourself in is the single most important variable affecting your health. We have designed our environments to be as comfortable and easy as possible. And our bodies have paid the price for it.

Tree climbing Tarzan

That’s why the idea of someone like Tarzan having this incredible strength and agility really isn’t that far fetched… Especially when you think he’d be hunting his own food, swimming in cold water, and living in constant hardship.

Overcoming the Challenges of Training Outdoors

I could go on and on. The point is: training outdoors like Tarzan is awesome. But how do you do it?

Reading the comments, I see a lot of people say that it’s unrealistic to train outdoors. Some point to the lack of beautiful natural spots near them. Some argue that there’s no progressive overload. Or that they don’t know how to approach that kind of training.

Training with rings outside

So, I thought I’d help out. This is your guide to Tarzan training!

It’s Not All or Nothing

The first point I’d like to make, though, is that you don’t necessarily have to make this the only way you train. That’s not what I’m about at all. Again, the body craves complexity, so getting as much variety in your training as possible is key. You could easily add some outdoor training to an otherwise strict-powerlifting regime and get only positive results.

See also: How to Combine Training Methods (Kettlebells, Calisthenics, Bodybuilding, Powerlifting…)

That way, your progressive overload is taken care of!

Progressive Overload

But, with that said, maybe don’t worry so much about progressive overload?

I know this sounds like absolute sacrilege, but hear me out!

I’m not saying that you don’t need progressive overload. Absolutely, in order to get stronger, you need to lift heavier. And to improve endurance, you need to run further and further.

But the point is that you don’t need to anally measure every single rep.

Hanging Around Tarzan Training

Put it this way: if you can do 5 pull ups today and you can do 10 pull ups in a few months, that’s progressive overload. As long as you keep putting in max effort.

And sure, you may find that you gain or lose a few pull ups between sessions due to the variable nature of training outside. But ultimately, you’re still trending upwards.

If you pick up a log that is “quite heavy” and you manage to do 10 shoulder presses with it before you feel you are sacrificing form, and if you do that in the next session and the next, gradually you’ll be able to lift heavier logs, or you’ll be able to lift the same logs for longer. You’ve improved strength, or endurance, or some combination of the two. Either way, you have progressed.

Numbers do not define you!

So, focus more on your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and less on specific numbers. The result will be the same. Numbers do not define you!

Thinking Outside the Box

As long as you’re getting stronger and more robust, you don’t need to worry about the precise number of kilograms you can deadlift or squat. That is only required for competitive lifters.

See also: There Are Other Avenues for Progression

I’d much rather be creating a dynamic body that is less prone to injury and capable of doing cool stunts, which is exactly what this kind of training develops. I wouldn’t like to guess what my one rep max is on the squat these days, and I’m not that fussed to find out, tbh.

Tarzan workout
A wild Bioneer has appeared!

But if you’re really fussed, just keep going back to the same spot outdoors. Find a few logs or a few trees and train in that same spot to see your performance improve. That’s kind of missing the point, though.

Tarzan training should really mean treating the great outdoors like a playground.

Calisthenics in the Wild

That said, if you’re really keen to progress in a more traditional manner, you can do so by using calisthenics.

In calisthenics, you train more for skills versus heavy weights. Being able to front lever or handstand push up, or crow pose is the goal in itself. There are specific exercises and progressions you can train to build up to those movements.

You can do this just as easily on a rock or overhang.

And you can do this just as easily on a branch or a rocky overhang. The only difference is that you are now getting additional benefits like greater grip strength, shoulder stability, core stability, etc. etc. It will take a little bit longer to progress, but when you unlock the movement, you’ll be able to use it in more settings.

In truth, though, a true Tarzan workout would probably look more like movement training than strict calisthenics. It’s about expression and freedom of movement.

How to Start Tarzan Training

If I’m training outdoors, I’ll approach it by warming up and then first hitting some more complex and compound calisthenics movements while I’m fresh. Then I might try and pull off some cool stunts or fun moves that I’ve adlibbed by looking around: whether that’s doing some hand balancing on a bench, throwing rocks into a river. Maybe I’ll use a big log as a plyo box and do some jumping. Or practice parkour by jumping between two rocks.

RTO support hold

I might finish with some high rep closed chain exercises like push ups and pull ups. Or I might do some crawls or some isolation work using whatever tool I’ve brought with me, or a jog on the rough terrain.

But What if You Don’t Have an Amazing Park?

I’ve done some really cool workouts in some awesome places. The Grand Canyon, by the pyramids of Giza, under waterfalls, or on cool mountains. These were all on fun holidays, and that’s definitely one of the perks of training this way.

But this is not a requirement by any means.

Another objection I’ve had in the comments of some recent videos is that people don’t have anywhere like me to train. Here’s the thing though: some of those videos are filmed in the most basic of places.

Shadow boxing on field

My video about crawling benefits had many such comments, but actually that video was filmed opposite my house in a park that’s about 20 meters squared. It’s in the middle of a housing estate and the pond, such as it is, is constantly surrounded by bugs. I just used camera angles to disguise the less scenic aspects.

In the past, I’ve trained in trees that are on the side of the road.

The point is: as long as you have a tree, some logs, or some big rocks, you’re golden for some Tarzan training. Anything else is a bonus.

As long as you have a tree, or some big rocks, you’re golden.

A lot of my other videos are filmed a short drive away (20-30 minutes) or at the local nature reserve which is a ten minute walk and still not big by any stretch.

And if you honestly don’t have even a small local park to train in… well that doesn’t need to be a problem, either.

Adapting These Concepts

You see, it’s the concepts that matter; not the specifics.

If you want to train in a more unpredictable, varied, and natural manner, you can do just that by using a bunch of weird tools.

Sandbags, for example, are perfect for providing unaccommodating and shifting resistance. Because the sand moves inside the sandbag, every lift is different.

See also: Introducing the ATSP Hierarchy – Training for Anything & Everything

You can train with uneven weights and mix up the amounts. You can use kettlebells which provide varying resistance due to the role of momentum.

You can do pull ups from rings or a rope. In fact, you can hang pretty much anything from a pull up bar and use that as a grip.

Tarzan training

And if you can find yourself a bit of concrete, a nice rock, a discarded tire… or anything else. That works, too! You can fill up bottles of milk, or you can heave around a chair.

Don’t just do push ups: crawl, and flow, and improvise. Don’t just do pull ups, climb around and up the pull up bar and change your grip.

Stand on an unstable surface (don’t use a weight that’s too heavy). Add Fat Gripz to your pull up bar.

Don’t be a slave to numbers. Have fun with it!

The key ingredient here is complexity. That’s what creates an unstoppable body and what gets the neurons firing.

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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.

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