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How to create your own resilient fitness tribe around physical subculture
If you’re looking to enhance your individual health, fitness, or social status, there’s a ton of great self-improvement advice on Twitter.
But what if we’re headed for a world like the one in The Purge series, where nothing is sacred and chaos reigns supreme?
For that, you’re going to want to belong to a badass community of strong, capable people. In short, you need a tribe. Unfortunately, modern humans are no longer born into a tribe. We can either choose an existing one or build a new one.
Groups, not individuals, are best equipped to survive hard times, natural disasters, and all kinds of strife. Armies win wars. Teams build startups. Hopefully, we’re not headed toward a Purge-like scenario. But regardless, survivors and winners always have one thing in common: a culture or subculture that unifies them into something greater than the sum of individual strengths.
Working out in groups encourages excellence. We learn and improve by imitation. The process of positive mimesis stimulates us to go beyond our self-imposed limitations.
With a group, the possibilities for more advanced movements grow. You can play complex games, spar with one another, and push each other harder without even noticing how much more effort you are producing in the process of play.
If you’re not satisfied with the gyms or existing physical subcultures in your area, I encourage you to consider the second option of building a new one.
What follows are some lessons I’ve learned over the past 10+ years about what it takes to build a resilient tribe around a strong physical (sub)culture. These are based on my experience as a MovNat Master level trainer who mainly practices within a homegrown community that meets regularly to work out.
I distilled many of these lessons from a book of interview transcripts I did during COVID – The New Strongman Code – featuring six pioneer of successful physical cultures. Email me or subscribe below if you want the PDF.
Subscribe to the 50-mile man and get a free PDF of the New Strongman Code.
1. Be Consistent.
Start with one friend, who will be your co-founder. One person running around barefoot in the park is a weirdo. Two people are a movement.
Your most important assignment is to set a time and place where you will work out and show up at that place and time consistently. It can be every week, or three times a week. Just don’t mix it up too much.
I met my co-founder, Chip, through Meetup.com. He was the organizer of the East Bay Primal Movers (now called the Natural Outdoor Workout). The first time we met was at a park on a Saturday morning. He was there with his 10-year-old son, who he called his "passport to the playground."
In the early years, we met lots of newcomers via Meetup. Many of them came back once or twice, but our group lacked consistency. It certainly wasn’t the thriving tribe it is today. Whenever we would cancel our meetups a week or two in a row, those newcomers would never be seen again.
People want a discipline they can follow with regularity. They want to be able to depend on your sessions, and plan their schedules around them.
I learned this lesson from legendary strength coach Dan John, who works out every morning in his garage gym and invites anyone to work out with him. In this way, he observes that his fellow tribe members also become a source of external motivation. He knows they’re going to show up, which eliminates the need to rely on his own willpower to get his butt in the gym. Whenever I visit my inlaws in Salt Lake, I know that Dan will be just down the road, in his garage, at the specified time. This puts the responsibility for showing up squarely on my shoulders. No excuses.
2. Lead with Your Values.
As you grow from 2 to 3 to many, you must begin to define your tribe around a set of strong values, and lead with those values. Don’t just pay lip service to them, but try to embed them in every aspect of your group practice. This is what will keep people coming back. Not just any people, but the right people.
Before the COVID lockdowns, our tribe was small and we didn’t really have an ethos other than preferring natural movement in the outdoors over gyms. When the gyms closed in 2020, along with the rest of society, we disregarded shelter-in-place orders. This became a symbol of our core value of the freedom to exercise outdoors without a permission slip.
Another core value was inclusivity. We welcome all ages and skill levels. We didn’t require masks, but didn’t shun people who wore them. Most people who arrived in masks took them off before the end of the workout voluntarily. When vaccine passports arrived, we didn’t ask for them and laughed at the idea.
If you’re struggling to define your values, you can start with your inverse values. Most of the people attracted to our group during this period could be loosely described as “anti-lockdown,” as two weeks to flatten the curve morphed into months and months of isolation. From this negative value, we can derive a positive one: we were pro-immune system. We believe in the body’s ability to heal and defend itself when you feed it the right inputs like sunlight and vigorous movement. We believe that health care mostly boils down to self-care. We practice restorative movement and help troubleshoot each other’s injuries and ailments within a holistic context.
3. Craft a Vital Narrative.
Part of leading with your values is crafting a vital narrative. Frank Forencich, aka the Exuberant Animal, notes that stories are what bonded people together in the paleolithic area and have continued to unite human cultures up until the present. Today, we lack these stories to structure the meaning of our post-modern existence.
Our tribe’s vital narrative once again centered around certain truths that became obvious during COVID – namely that society has succumbed to a risk aversion that infects every part of the modern cult of safety and comfort. Perhaps the best encapsulation of this mental illness was the playground cordoned off with caution tape. We cut through more than a few of these yellow fetters to liberate slides and monkey bars in an act of civil disobedience. Being in Berkeley, we assumed the mantle of the New Radicals – the last of a dying breed.
Our narrative became about creating a safe environment for risk-taking – a place where people can feel comfortable looking foolish, which is inevitable when you’re running around barefoot (often shirtless), and getting down and dirty on all fours in the grass. True to the Free Speech movement, we encourage a free exchange of ideas. Our group communication takes place on an encrypted Signal thread – not email, Meetup, or SMS. No topic is off limits and there are no dogmas. We are united less by shared beliefs than by shared practices.
Along with narrative comes ritual. Our trademark greeting is the “warrior handshake” where you grasp each other’s forearms following the ancient tradition of ensuring that there are no knives up their sleeves. This version of the handshake also imbues the tired and overly formal handshake with power. Try it.
4. Leverage Your Local Habitat
Another piece of Wisdom or “sapience” from Frank Forencich is to make use of your local habitat and incorporate its unique geography into your workouts. This provides more variety than even the largest box gyms, and also helps you get to know your regional environment. “Health comes from Habitat,” says Frank.
Since we live near San Francisco Bay, we meet at a park near a local marina that has a small beach nearby. You can only swim there at high tide, so we plan our “cold exposure” swims according to nature’s cycles. Some 30 yards from this little beach is a magnificent tree, which hosts our games of “tree tag,” and serves as a structure for hanging, climbing, jumping, balancing, and crawling.
We borrow rocks from the jetty for lifting, carrying, and throwing, and go on parkour-style runs around the surrounding area.
A few years ago, I inaugurated an annual 50-mile march, by walking around all three bridges encircling SF Bay in a single day. The next year we walked from Point Reyes to San Francisco and experienced the coastline in a new way. Each year the event grows along with our tribe, and we all feel a deeper connection with our shared habitat.
5. Practice Muscular Bonding
It can be hard to make new friends after college, outside of work, but through muscular bonding, my tribe of natural movers has become synonymous with my closest friends.
The 50-mile march is a prime example of what historian William McNeill calls “muscular bonding” – the principle by which tribes have coordinated their movements through “dance and drill” to gain an advantage over competing groups. Rhythmic movement creates a kind of collective consciousness and cohesion that would have been essential to track down and kill large game or defeat a warring tribe in battle.
Beyond the annual march, we incorporate these principles in our weekly workouts and have created a whole category of partner exercises utilizing each other’s bodily resistance in lieu of equipment like weighted sleds or weight machines.
We meet for spur-of-the-moment potlucks, where everyone invites their friends to grow the extended community even further. Dan John also talks about shared meals as an essential component of a fitness community. On weekends, the morning workout in his garage gym is often followed by brunch.
6. Break Out of “Modes”
The Fitness Industrial Complex is defined by its obsession with discrete kinds of exercises. You’ve got your Yoga, your pilates, your weight lifting, and never the twain shall meet.
Our group has naturally emerged with a decentralized leadership model. Multiple people are designated informally as leaders, and anyone is welcome to lead a flow, or suggest a movement or a variation on an exercise. When I described this to Case Bradford (@CasBrad on Twitter), he intuitively labeled it a movement potluck.
The outdoors offers a wide open space – a blank canvas – to blend together multiple modalities. We learn from all, but swearing by none. We blend classic “MovNat” techniques with the flow of Ido Portal, the biomechanics of GOATA, the postures of Yoga, and the principles of powerlifting.
It’s important to have enough structure that people feel like they’re getting a consistently good workout, while leaving it open-ended enough for spontaneous movements to arise from the group consciousness.
There are a variety of roles members can play besides leader/organizer, from specialist in a particular mode, to cheerleader.
As Erwan LeCorre, founder of MovNat taught me, you must become a teacher but remain a student. While we may achieve a degree of mastery within certain modalities, none of us can ever claim to be a master in movement.
There is more “sapience” in the group than in the individual.
I don’t actually think that civil unrest is imminent, and I pray that it isn’t. However, I do feel more secure knowing that I have a local tribe with whom I’ve bonded in ways that are uncommon in the modern world. We practice resilience and encourage each other to step up our physical competency weekly.
If the Purge does arrive, I feel sorry for anyone that would dare come at me or any of the members of my tribe.