For the first time, I see doubt creep into Tito’s eyes and freeze his feet. Tito is a two-time world champion jujitsu fighter and a professional free diver who needs only a knife and a lungful of air to battle sharks. I’ve watched him scramble 40 feet up a coconut tree faster than I can run the same distance. I’ve also seen him lift a man twice his size and slam him down like a sack of cement. But now Tito is on the verge of being defeated by a wooden pole lashed between two trees in the Brazilian rain forest.
The pole, as thick as his arm, parallels the ground at roughly eye level. A man is standing on it, balancing like a tightrope walker, hopping from one bare foot to the other to amuse himself while Tito sweats his options. He’s been chasing this man for 20 minutes, sprinting around trees, leaping off boulders, and once even vaulting through the front window of a hut and back out through the rear without breaking stride.
“What are you waiting for?” asks the man on the pole. Before “you” leaves his lips, Tito is flying straight at him, grabbing the pole with two meaty fists, pivoting a foot up and…losing his balance and falling back to the ground.
Tito leaps again, and again, while the guy on the pole looks down with the thinnest of smiles. I’ve got you, big boy, that smile is saying. I’ve found your weak spot. Now I’m going to rip it wide open.
Then he winks at me, as if to say, And you’re next, bud. When Tito finally steps back, thick fists on his hips, chest heaving in fatigue and frustration, the man hops down from the pole. His name is Erwan Le Corre, a 37-year-old Frenchman who may rank as one of the most all-around physically fit men on the planet. His last name sounds exactly like the French phrase for “the body” — le corps — and his appearance lives up to the advance billing: If he grew out his sun-bleached hair and traded the board shorts for a loincloth, he’d be a perfect twin for Tarzan. Le Corre isn’t just strong and fast and explosive and nimble; he’s an athlete whose opponents are everything he sees and whose arena is anywhere he happens to be standing.
I’ve just arrived at Le Corre’s training base in the Brazilian rain forest. For the next 3 days, he’ll be teaching me one of humankind’s oldest, trickiest, and most indispensable physical disciplines. Le Corre calls it “Natural Movement” — or “MovNat” in its French abbreviation — and to explain what it is, he points at Tito.
“This guy is in amazing shape,” Le Corre says, speaking Brazilian Portuguese with an almost native accent. “He’s strong and he has great endurance. But what happened here? All he had to do was get on top of this pole, and he couldn’t. I can do it. Tito’s great-great grandfather could probably do it. At one point in time, just about every man alive could do it. But Tito can’t. And why? Because his body isn’t smart enough.”
A smart body, he explains, knows how to convert force and speed into an almost endless menu of practical movements. Hoisting yourself onto a pole may seem as trivial as a circus stunt, but if you’re ever caught in a flood or fleeing an attacking dog, elevating your body 5 feet off the ground could mean the difference between safety and sorrow.
And with that one word — “practical” — Le Corre exposes a key weakness in modern exercise: Our workouts are domesticated, while the world out there is still plenty wild. In a pinch, can a man put gym-generated biceps and tank-tread abs to any real use? Could it be that our treadmill-running, elliptical-gliding, well-oiled Cybex world has turned us into show dogs who can’t hold our own in the hunt?
“I meet men all the time who can bench 400 pounds but can’t climb up through a window to pull someone from a burning building,” Le Corre says. “I know guys who can run marathons but can’t sprint to anyone’s rescue unless they put their shoes on first. Lots of swimmers do laps every day but can’t dive deep enough to save a friend, or know how to carry him over rocks and out of the surf.”
Le Corre could rattle off dozens of other disaster and heroism scenarios, but standing still for 5 minutes has left him itchy. He interrupts his own speech to demonstrate what a smart body looks like in action. Launching himself into the air, he swings up onto the pole that stymied Tito, and then twists his knees and swiftly rises like a surfer catching a wave. Then he proceeds to jump down, light as a cat, and mount the pole two…three…six more times, in each instance using his elbows, ankles, shoulders, and neck to create new climbing combinations.
“Being fit isn’t about being able to lift a steel bar or finish an Ironman,” Le Corre says, watching with satisfaction as Tito finally makes it onto the pole and pumps a fist in the air like he’s won his third world championship. “It’s about rediscovering our biological nature and releasing the wild human animal inside.”
The best place to retrain that inner animal, Le Corre decided, is Itacare, a tiny village squeezed between the rain forest and the Atlantic Ocean. He wandered here from his home near Paris more than a year ago and instantly recognized two things: Itacare had everything he would need to teach MovNat and everything that the Master — Georges Hebert — would have loved.
In 1902, Georges Hebert was a 27-year-old French naval officer stationed on the Caribbean island of Martinique. On May 8 of that year, he was aboard a ship off the coast when an ominous plume began rising from Mont Pelee, the volcano looming over Saint-Pierre, Martinique’s largest city. Sometime around 8 a.m., Pelee erupted, raining hot ash and sizzling rocks on the horrified population. Molten lava gushed down the slope and spread through the streets in fiery streams, igniting everything in its path. Swarms of pit vipers poured off the mountain to flee the searing heat, tangling in the feet of fleeing people and biting at their legs. In minutes, the Paris of the Caribbean had turned into an absolute hell.
Into this inferno plunged Hebert. Leading his troops ashore, he scouted out viable escape routes and waded into the panicky crowds, trying to shepherd them to safety. By the time the eruptions ceased, fewer than 700 people had survived, many thanks to Hebert’s improvised rescue operation.
Hebert was celebrated as a hero, but he couldn’t help focusing on all of those who’d been lost. When he returned home to France, he looked around and was dismayed to see how many of his country-people reminded him of the victims he’d watched die in Saint-Pierre. How many of these Parisians, he wondered, would be able to carry a child on their backs? Or trust themselves to leap over a 3-foot gap? Or take an elbow to the face but manage to keep their balance and continue running for their lives?
The modern world, Hebert believed, was producing hollow men who focused on appearance and forgot about function. At the same time, they stopped exercising with the wildness of kids and instead insulated themselves from risk. The cost, he felt, was far more destructive than they might think.