- May 13, 2016
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The Myths of Primal Living
Were our warrior ancestors jacked? Did cavemen have striated glutes? No and no. Here’s the truth about ancient, primal, and tribal life.
The Fraudulent King of CavemenWill living like a caveman or a tribesman score you a jacked and shredded body? If you’ve been following certain fitness and lifestyle influencers, you might start to think so. Let’s talk about the most egregious example of this: Brian “The Liver King” Johnson.
If you haven’t heard about him, here’s an overview:
- He’s the owner of a supplement company that offers desiccated liver, kidney, and bone marrow.
- He created the Liver King persona to encourage the ancestral lifestyle. His version of this includes eating almost exclusively meat or a “nose-to-tail” diet that emphasizes organs.
- He promotes eating most of his meat and organs raw. But if you can’t stomach that, no problem, you can just buy his supplements.
- He’s unbelievably jacked and charismatic, which makes him highly persuasive. People tend to follow those who appear to be walking the walk and announcing it everywhere.
- He built a humongous Instagram and Tik Tok following (yes, I’m jealous) by telling the world that his consumption of meat and offal was the secret behind his physique.
- He went on several high-profile podcasts and used his accounts to say over and over that his muscle mass was simply due to training 14 times a week and living an ancestral life.
- He did this while living in a multimillion-dollar house, having a private chef, and many other luxuries, which don’t seem super ancestral.
- He was adamant that he never took steroids, but then he was outed after writing about his PED use in a private email and asking for advice regarding his cycles.
- He then publicly apologized for his mistake but maintained that ancestral/primal living is the main reason behind his muscularity.
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Now Let’s Talk About ItIf he was doing all this – being jacked and praising ancestral living – as more of an entertainer, it wouldn’t be a problem. But he was essentially giving people the idea that his meat-only lifestyle was the key to his physique.
To be clear, ancestral and primal living has never, throughout history, led to a physique like Liver King. His whole schtick simply takes advantage of a romanticized perception of what ancestral tribes and ancient warriors looked like. It’s a vision highly influenced by movies and TV.
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Cavemen And Tribes Still Living Primitive LivesA good example of a tribe that lives exactly like what the Liver King calls “ancestral or primal” are the Maasais. They still live like humans did thousands of years ago. Their diet is mostly animal foods, they hunt, they live as a tribe, etc.
Now, Maasais are taller than most populations and very healthy. They have low incidences of diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems. And this is despite eating a very high fat, high protein diet. They pose a problem for those who claim that a high-fat, meat-filled diet is bad for your health.
They’re also among the tallest populations – on average – in the world. Their average height is almost 6’2," and they jump very high! While this is all good, none of them have a physique that could be described as big and muscular (à la Liver King). Yes, they’re lean, but they’re mostly skinny with some decent muscle definition.
So let’s go back, way back, to our original ancestor, Homo erectus, who could perfectly fit the “primal living” category. They were, on average, between 5’3" to 5’7" and their body weight varied from 88 to 143 pounds. Even the bigger cavemen were very far from the muscular body Liver King said was built by his primal living approach.
We have this image of cavemen being big and muscular. In reality, they looked more like marathon runners. In fact, from a survival perspective, having a large amount of muscle mass wasn’t an advantage. It could even be a pretty big hindrance when you have to walk all day and face time periods without food. More muscle gives you a bigger engine, which requires more fuel.
I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, but they didn’t train. Had they trained, they would have looked jacked.”
Let’s look at some “ancestral” populations (using Liver King’s own loose description of ancestral) that did train.
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We Are Sparta!We all have this image of the ripped and muscular Spartan warrior, thanks to the 300 movie franchise (and some TV shows). It influenced several modern gyms and CrossFit boxes, which are named after Sparta or its warriors.
While Spartan warriors were in great physical condition and did train pretty much all day long, they were not muscular hulks, nor did they look like their movie representation.
The average Spartan warrior was tall, a bit taller on average than most Greek citizens, but he wasn’t large. Spartan warriors valued endurance, speed, and agility a lot more than strength. These qualities were a lot more important to success in battles, especially if you needed to walk long distances to get there.
In fact, the average Spartan warrior (according to most valid historical anthropometric data) was 5’7" to 5’10" (three to six inches taller than the average Greek), but his weight ranged from 132 to 154 pounds. Even the biggest Spartan warriors, at 5’10" and 154 pounds, weren’t considered big by today’s standards.
It needs to be said that this was done on purpose: they were fed a restricted diet, often close to starvation, to keep their weight down. They also believed this would build mental fortitude.
Spartan warriors were great not because of an overpowering physique but because they were highly trained. They started training early in their childhood. They were physically resilient and had a different mindset than most other warriors. They were lean but not the hulking muscular figures we see in movies. And nowhere close to Liver King.
See You in Valhalla!But what about the mighty Vikings? Surely these men were jacked out of their minds. The Northman, Vikings, and The Last Kingdom would not lie to me!
Just like the Spartans, Vikings were taller in stature than their European counterparts. According to several studies, the average Viking height from the ninth to the sixteenth century was between 5’6" and 5’9". Some skeletal remains indicate that there were men as tall as 6’1", although they were rare.
Now, we need to put that into context: the average male height in Europe in the sixteenth century was 5’3". So, someone who was 5’9" was akin to someone being 6’5" in modern times. So yeah, Viking warriors would have looked very intimidating to European warriors.
But what about their size? Well, Vikings were bigger and more muscular than other populations of their era. And while there were bigger individuals, even up to the 275-pound range, these bigger guys were heavy because they carried more fat.
The average body weight of a Viking warrior was in the 160-180 pound range – bigger than pretty much all warriors at the time. But considering that it wasn’t a “ripped” 160-180, I wouldn’t put them in the “hugely muscular” category. But they were certainly among the strongest, if not the strongest, populations.
A lot of their size, compared to their European counterparts, was due to their high protein diet and hard physical labor: combining farm work and boating/fishing, fight training, and even some rudimentary strength training in the form of stone lifting and throwing. This was how they built a sturdier physique than Spartans, who emphasized more endurance and speed while living on a more restricted diet.
I’d say that the average Viking was a lot stronger physically than many “bros” you see in gyms nowadays, just like today’s farmers, dock workers, and lumberjacks can be a lot stronger than most people without looking that much more muscular.
I Am Gladiator!
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If you’ve seen one of my favorite movies of all time, Gladiator, you’ve seen a lot of muscular and jacked gladiators.
Well, not really. You saw jacked actors playing gladiators. Did they accurately represent reality? Not entirely.
For one thing, Gladiators were fattened on purpose. They ate a diet very rich in grains and fattened up like cows (or sumo wrestlers), but not to the same extreme. Why? Because gladiators were expensive to buy, train, feed, and treat medically. And it took time to develop a gladiator into a highly-skilled warrior.
Owners wanted to make their investment worthwhile, and that required gladiators being able to live to fight frequently. Contrary to popular belief, most gladiator fights did not end in death.
They figured that carrying a good layer of fat cushioned them against most blows. And while there would still be blood and pain, it would reduce their chance of dying so that they could participate in more fights.
According to an archeological dig of a gladiator mass grave, the average height of a gladiator was 5’7" to 5’8" with a body weight of approximately 170-175 pounds. They had more muscle than the average citizen or even Roman warrior, but also carried a decent amount of fat.
A “not lean” 170-pounds on a 5’8" frame is hardly a Liver King body despite pretty much training all day and consuming plenty of calories. But it’s a type of physique pretty common among those who train hard without steroids.
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Vini, Vidi, Vici!A bit more than two thousand years ago, the Roman army was dominating the world. It was the mightiest military force ever assembled. The quality of its individual warriors, the legionaries, was a big part of their strength.
They took military strategy and organization, training, drilling, and preparation to a level never seen before. Picture forced marches of around 15 miles while carrying 90 pounds of equipment. That was a daily practice, and so was sparring, sometimes with overweight weapons. They also did a lot of physical labor in camps. So, they must have been physical beasts, right?
Kinda, but still not muscular hulks by our standards. The average Roman soldier was between 5’6" and 5’9" with a weight between 130 and 160 pounds (just like everything else, there were exceptions that were a bit heavier). But they were also very lean.
In a sense, the Roman soldier was very similar in body type to the Spartan warrior, without the extreme personality! This would be more like the physique of a soccer player rather than a lifter or bodybuilder.
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So, What Does Any of This Mean?Living “like our ancestors” will not give you a Liver King-type physique (huge, ripped, and shaved). A true ancestral warrior physique is lean and athletic, but not big. It’s built for endurance, speed, and resilience rather than raw strength.
Don’t expect to have faster muscle growth simply by replacing all your food with raw liver and bull testes or their pill equivalent. Now, if you have too little protein in your diet, eating more meat will probably help you progress faster, but it doesn’t have to be raw.
That said, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. There’s a lot of good that can come from living closer to how previous generations did:
- Eating a diet of non-processed foods is better for overall health and well-being than eating a modern diet full of junk food and fast food.
- Increasing overall daily physical activity, not just through training, is also very good for your health. There’s a mounting pile of evidence showing the health and longevity benefits you get from walking more 217.
- There are tremendous benefits in doing more work, building stuff with your own hands, and carrying heavy things 140. This is good not only for your physical health but for your mental health. Accomplishing a goal gives you a boost in dopamine which makes you feel better.
- There’s value in overcoming true hardship, like our ancestors. We’re getting softer, weaker, more easily offended, a lot more dependent on pharmacology, and a lot less capable of accepting responsibility for our actions. The modern way of life is largely responsible for that. Truly tough times make you realize how trivial most modern problems are.