Train Like an Adaptoid: Why Pull Ups From Trees Are Incredible for Functional Strength and More

By on October 4, 2016


Functional strength and fitness are concepts I like in theory. The basic concept is that this is GPP (general physical preparedness) at its best. You’re not training your abs because you want to look good with your top off on the beach, you’re training them to hold your body steady when you perform a handstand, or to give you more torque when you deliver a punch. You’re not build your pecs so you can fill out a suit, you’re doing it so that you can press heavy weights – potentially free yourself from fallen debris.

In other words, functional training means training for a purpose. It means forgetting aesthetics and thinking about performance.

The problem is that to my mind, it has been misappropriated somewhat and misunderstood. Or at least, I feel that what a lot of people consider to be functional actually isn’t…

In this post, I’ll explore why deadlifts aren’t as functional as everyone presumes but doing a pull up from a tree is. And why it has more benefits for your body and brain than you probably expect.

Deadlift: Overrated

Take the deadlift for instance. Now I know that this is going to piss a lot of people off but I’m fairly certain it’s overrated.

I’m not saying it’s not useful. But I’m saying that the people who pray at the altar of deadlift, may be somewhat misguided. And those who snort in derision at the ‘non-functional bicep curl’ might want to take a closer look at what they’re doing.

For starters, the deadlift is not ideal for building aesthetic muscle. You can’t cause the same number of muscle damage or metabolic stress in any given muscle group simply because the deadlift is such a multi-joint exercise: other parts of your body will fatigue before any target group can reach maximum capacity. And as for stimulating massive growth hormone release: this is only a result of using lots of muscle groups all at once. The more muscle you use in any given workout, the more testosterone and growth hormone you release. But no one ever said that you had to train all these muscles at once. In other words, performing some leg presses and then some pull ups will likely stimulate the very same hormone release as deadlifting. So get over it.

But will it make you super strong? Will it give you explosive jumping power?

After all, the deadlift mimics one of our primal movements: the squat. Squatting is an ability that we evolved to be adept in. After all, in the wild, we wouldn’t have had chairs!

Except what we didn’t do in the wild, was lift heavy objects off the ground by squatting all that much. We certainly wouldn’t have ever needed to lift 150kg, gripping onto a perfectly round bar, using perfect squatting technique. There is no natural analogue for that. Just like we wouldn’t perform a bicep curl in the wild.


Me in the wild

And here’s the biggest misconception of all: using perfect technique is not functional.

Because if you speak to one of those high-and-mighty functional training gurus, they’ll tell you that the squat teaches you perfect form. That means keeping your back straight, it means preventing your knees from bending too far in front of your toes.

Just like we would have done in the wild… right?

Yeah of course: just like your dog uses perfect technique when he gets up and goes for a run!

Train Like an Adaptoid

Using ‘perfect form’ on any exercise is actually about the least functional thing you can do in an evolutionary sense.


This is an Adaptoid, FYI

What is functional, is having such a powerful and stable body, that you can lift things at awkward angles without using perfect form. It’s about being able to quickly adapt to any situation, even without warming up. You are designed to adapt and you thrive when you are doing so. You are an Adaptoid.

In the wild, you would never have done a bunch of ‘warm up sets’, you would never have chalked up your hands and you would never have squatted with perfect technique. Instead, you’d have suddenly bolted into action at the sign of a predator or prey, you’d have sprinted across uneven terrain, then you’d have awkwardly bent over with one arm to lift a heavy rock from the ground to wield as a weapon. Or perhaps you’d have leapt into the trees to climb up.

And if your body was truly strong, it would have had all the supporting muscles to deal with this.

A truly strong and ‘functional’ physique is one that doesn’t need perfect technique and that is able to adapt to any situation.


Scrambling/Traversing in Turkey

The weak body is one that is put through the same motion time and time again and adapts only to that motion thereby losing other functionality and adaptability.

Sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day is about the least functional thing you can do.

But lifting a weight with the exact same form every single day isn’t much better. In fact, lifting weights or doing pull ups is very limiting in general because the bar you’re gripping is the same width.

When you do a pull up from a tree branch, that tree branch is going to introduce subtle differences to every single lift. Some parts of the branch will be thicker than others, some parts will be higher than others and the grip will vary.

This utilizes different supporting muscles every single time and alters the technique necessary to perform the movement. The result is that you’ll be ready for anything and that you’ll be able to support weight from any angle, on any surface, at any time. That is true functional strength.

Take a look at someone like Koti Raj (Jyoti Raju), the ‘Monkey Man’ featured on Stan Lee’s superhumans. That is an example of true functional strength.


Koti Raj, the ‘Monkey Man’ doing what he does…

Better yet, as I discussed in my last post, this I also very good for your brain. That’s because the brain thrives on learning and particularly learning movements. When you perform the same movement over and over again, all you are doing is strengthening existing neural networks via myelination. When you throw varied movements at your body though, then the brain pays more attention, it responds to subtle changes in feedback and it uses this to reinforce new movement patterns. This results in the stimulation of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which supports enhanced neuroplasticity. And it also refines and enhances our ability to move, balance and adapt through our environment. Increased learning, increased proprioception and increased adaptability.

But Wait, Won’t This Injure You?

Yep, there’s a pretty good chance this type of training would injure you.

You can’t just start lifting weights at awkward angles, cold and expect not to snap your back in half.

Problem is, most of us have spent our whole lives repeated the same limited motions over and over and our bodies have kind of ‘set’ in those movement patterns. Deviation can therefore now lead to injury.

But there are ways you can train for this kind of adaptability and performance. The key is to ease yourself in gently.

Instead of training with very heavy weights, using the same movement; try training with lighter weights using a greater variety of movements. That might mean standing on a balance ball while lifting light weights. It might mean curling two different weights, or it might mean standing on one leg. It could mean using a dipping station and purposefully challenging your body to train in lots of positions. Or it could mean training on an assault course.


My stag party! This is harder when hungover. How’s that for functional training?

Better yet, it means rock climbing, trail running and performing other types of ‘natural’ strength training. There are a ton of other benefits to training outdoors too: relating to the benefits of fresh air and sunlight, all the way to the effect that rich, natural environments have on our brains’ awareness and focus. Your mind wanders while you stand curling dumbbells in the gym. See if it wanders when you’re performing a dyno from a tree branch in the rain…

Taking off your shoes or using something like the Vibram Five Fingers is also a good call, as this allows your foot to contour to the shape of the ground, as it was designed to do. More foot dexterity and strength, means greater power, speed, balance and performance. That’s a post for another time though…


Staged? Me?

Oh and parkour training is also particularly awesome. That’s using your body as it was really meant to be used – adapting to the environment it finds itself in currently.


You shouldn’t ever aim to lift as much on an unstable surface as you would on a flat surface but if you’re looking for strength that will translate to real-world performance, this is still preferable.

That’s not the best way to get big biceps but if you’re after true functional power and performance, then that’s a moot point. And sure, maybe you can’t deadlift 150kg this way but if you ever do get trapped under a log, you’ll have the grip, the dynamic strength and the balance to throw it off yourself.

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.

One Comment

  1. Farhan Hussain says:

    You can lift heavy stuff with improper technique and without warm up sets only if it is fairly sub-maximal to your max limit strength.

    For example, you can lift 100kg/220lb all of sudden with sloppy form if your max deadlift is around 170kg-200kg. But you can’t reach this max strength deadlift only by practicing sloppy technique right from beginning. You just can’t. Because it is inefficient at best and you shall stall way sooner than you shall ever reach 100kg/220lb; but you shall get injured at worst and your dreams of lifting heavy stuff without warm up and without efficient technique shall get shattered.

    It applies to all exercises. Secondly, you said that deadlift mimics squat. This isn’t just true. Both are similar looking but different movement patterns. Pure squat and pure deadlift are at the opposite ends of continum of triple extension pattern (simultaneous action of ankle, knee, hip to various degrees).

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