Fitness Tips By Bear Grylls

Bear Grylls has forged a career from defying both convention and the odds. From gruelling SAS training to his well-documented conquering of Everest (after having broken his back), the man has an aversion to the average. In part, he can thank a hybrid training regime that blends strength, speed, stamina and endurance for giving him the physical tools to achieve these things.

At the very first Bear Grylls Survival Race in Trent Park, London, with an SAS survival manual in one hand and a whey protein shake in the other, I caught up with Bear for a chat about how he trains his body to cope with the gruelling demands of his day job. What did I discover? In short, blisters and bruises in places I didn’t know were possible and a list of training secrets you most definitely WON’T find in the gym from the man himself. Here we go.

Gym-Based Nature vs. Nurture

The British Journal of Sports Medicine states, “training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realised.” What this means is although people are genetically predisposed to be strong, big, fast and thin it’s the act of training that makes us realise this physical potential.

“I think that’s right to an extent,” Bear says. “There are of course people with amazing genetics. I had friends who were biologically gifted and born with amazing abilities. Smart gene? Yes, tick. Strength gene? Yes, tick. But I’m not one of them. Honestly I’m not.”

So if it's not down to his genes, what is it? We covered everything from Bulgarian training protocols to Kenyan running methods during our chat, but it began with a mutual respect for bodyweight mastery. A method of training Bear has practised since his childhood.

Walk Before You Can Run, Climb Before You Can Curl

Too many people in the gym are running before they can walk — or, more specifically, they’re bicep curling before they can master a pull-up. We’re basically failing to master these large, functional compound moves that form a strong, neurological foundation for all other exercises. It’s an idea preached by the old Soviet Union sporting system.

Put simply, master basic movements and all other sport, training and exercise becomes easier. Bear nods, “we have a saying in our gym. If it’s Eastern European it’s probably good, it probably works and it’s probably going to hurt.”

In his younger years, far away from Russian training systems, Bear was inadvertently laying his neurological foundations, “when I was younger I didn’t think of it like training in the strict sense. It was basically just climbing, hanging and escaping. So yes, I suppose you could say it was pretty well rounded, but not intentional at the time. Just fun.”

The key lesson here is learn to perfect your running, squatting, pressing and pull-ups first and you’re body will be better able to tackle the specialised movements (with added dumbbells) — from bicep curls and leg extensions — after.

Build a Bodyweight Base

Later in life it seems Bear’s training progressed beyond hanging and climbing. Remembering his gymnastics teacher Mr Sturgess, Bear and I talk about research published in the Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science: Gymnastics that states, “an increase in skill difficulty corresponds to the demand for higher mechanical energy.

What this means is — generally speaking — you build a more functional, well-rounded physique performing bodyweight exercises than solely attaching yourself to the previously mentioned seated-bicep machine or leg extension in the gym.

This is contrary to many glossy fitness magazines or gyms that want you to use their equipment, I know. But, for Bear, it's how he's built his body for years, “that’s the type of training I’ve done my whole life. From climbing Everest to my military training. In fact, now we’ve developed it into BG EPIC Training. It’s a series of workouts that offer a whole body approach to training. Delivering epic results in shorter periods of time, it integrates functional fitness to improve balance, coordination, power, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and endurance.”

Sit-Ups Don’t Work

Sit-ups don’t work. Yes, I know this is (again) contradictory to the advice of most “experts” but research published by the National Journal of Strength and Conditioning shows your efforts would be far better spent learning less well-publicised core exercises. This has been proven by scientists from the Department of Kinesiology at the Pennsylvania State University who compared a conventional sit-up with several plank variations. For those not familiar, the plank is an exercise where you get into a press-up position, rest on your elbows and hold for 30 to 90 seconds keeping the core tight throughout the hold. It’s that simple.

The result? Well, using surface electromyography (EMG) electrodes to monitor muscle activity they discovered there was 20% greater muscle activation in the core when performing the plank compared to the sit-up. And, with a long career of climbing and gymnastic inspired training Bear agrees, “I don’t think I’ve done a conventional sit-up in years. There’s nothing wrong with them as such, I’ve just not needed to include them in my routine”.

When it comes to the small, isolated crunching movement of a sit-up, it’s not exactly demanding on the body’s mechanical energy. It’s not encouraging all the muscles and joints in the body to work cohesively to produce a fit, functional, balanced physique.

For this reason, look to include more planks, mountain climbers and hanging leg raises into your ab routine. In summary, train your six-pack smarter and not harder. If it works for Bear...

Time to Grow

Finally, stop counting repetitions and start counting effort. This is what matters.

“Yes, benching, squatting and generally lifting big numbers is great, Bear says, but it’s completely different to putting the body under stress for a set amount of time. For instance, performing things like Turkish get-ups with perfect form, for minutes on end, taxes the body in a completely different way. It’s a great fitness ‘tool’ to add to your arsenal.”

This idea was supported by scientists from McMaster University in Canada who wanted to, “determine if the time that muscle is under loaded tension during low intensity resistance exercise affects the synthesis of specific muscle protein fractions.” In simple terms, will more time lifting the weight produce more, better quality muscle?

To test this theory they took eight athletes and had each perform three sets of knee extension exercises at 30% of one-repetition maximum. One set of participants completed the exercise slowly, lifting the weight for a total of six seconds. The other set completed the exact same exercise, with the exact same weight, but completed the action in one second.

What did they find? It was discovered that, “myofibrillar protein synthetic rate was higher in the slow condition group compared to the fast one.” Again, put simply, the muscles in the group that experienced more time under tension experienced a greater degree of protein synthesis — the repair and regrowth of the muscles. More time under tension can equal more muscle.

So, as a concluding thought, the above tips — written on a muddy notepad in a field as Marines shouted at over 10,000 people running around an obstacle course — are far from conventional. It’s also unlikely you’ll find them in most commercial gyms. However, the fact remains they work — and are supported by years of research and science-backed methodologies.

As Bear does, add just a few to your training arsenal and you’ll be amazed at the difference they make.
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