Taking part in Daniel Strange’s group movement class was unlike any other fitness class I’ve ever tried. For one, we started off with a dance-like warm-up where we were asked to roll our entire bodies from our toes to the tops of our heads, even to feel free to flop around on the floor. The room was filled with humans — slightly embarrassed — acting as anemones and earthworms, each experimenting with a body roll that felt right somehow. As the session progressed, we were dodging tennis balls tied to strings, bear crawling across the room, and throwing fancy footwork around in pairs.
Strange first came across movement training as a way to find answers: Playing in Hong Kong’s division one and Nike league shortly after university, he wanted to know ways to improve his range of movement.
“I was not as good as I should have been — I was doing strength and conditioning work, I was strong enough, probably stronger than some of the guys on the team. But my movement wasn’t good, I got blocked in the hips, so I couldn’t express my strength. I started going to chiropractors, osteopaths, I did yoga, I was looking for answers. I got frustrated because I couldn’t find any, and that’s what spiralled me down this movement journey,” said Daniel Strange. “I got lucky: I met a teacher who was introducing me to the Ido Portal method, and with that I started to regain the health of my hips.”
As such, Strange is passionate about movement philosophies, all of which began with his training under Fighting Monkey. Founded in 2002, Fighting Monkey is a school of thought created by husband and wife duo Jozef Frucek and Linda Kapetanea, in an effort to blend art and athletics into a system that helps develop and maximise our movement capacities. The idea is to prepare our bodies to react to any situation possible. “Movement combos, exercises, drills and skills can’t accommodate the Unknown because they are formalistic, specific and very predictable,” writes the official website.
Similarly, Israeli movement guru Ido Portal founded his own credo in the mid-2000s, passing on his training to thousands of devotees around the world through his regularly scheduled camps, working with the likes of office workers to NBA players to even UFC star Conor McGregor. For his fame (or notoriety), Portal reportedly gets paid six-figure sums in USD just to train star athletes one-on-one for two weeks.
Both styles take advantage of animalistic movements, balancing acts and sparring exercises that utilise the whole body, and these were finally what spoke to Strange and gave way to positive change and progression. Having taken part in countless Fighting Monkey training camps over the years that have brought him from Hong Kong to Slovakia to Denmark and back, Strange founded Natural Motion HK this year in an effort to use his experiences to help others diagnose and condition their bodies.
“A lot of the times in exercising people are looking at body parts in isolation,” said Strange. “The Ido Portal and Fighting Monkey methods look at it in collaboration. Rowing, spinning, HIIT classes, are all very isolated. It’s good, because there’s a structure and system, but then how do you take that into a collaborative setting? How can you collaborate the whole body? If it’s not moving better, what kind of movements can you do to bring back the health of the body?”
The majority of people getting into fitness these days are doing it to shed weight — unsurprising, given our indulgent urban lifestyles. Hence the explosion of popularity in recent years of exercise styles such as CrossFit, HIIT and other circuit training classes that make you sweat, work your heart rate, while also giving your muscles a tough time. Everybody is just trying to blast fat. But no matter how sculpted and cut you get, the skills you earn are still not transferable to everyday demands, let alone in achieving peak performance. At least, according to Daniel Strange. “With people who do Crossfit, if you see what they can do, it’s quite amazing. But the strength they have, they can’t translate it onto the field. No one cares about this though, because it’s all about looking good right now. Bodybuilders get super stiff, they can’t do anything with their body but they look amazing.”
To Strange, acing the CrossFit box is not enough anymore in today’s fitness landscape. If you’re seeking comprehensive health and fitness, you need both remedial movement — which encompasses building better strength to move better — and high rep exercises that blast your endurance. “If you go to a HIIT gym, you’re working out in a box. Then when people go do sports, that’s outside of it. Why don’t you train outside of the box too, so that when you go and do those things, it’s more adaptable. This is where I’m coming from, but everyone just wants to look better. But if you went backwards and thought, ‘if I could achieve all these things outside the box, I would look better as well.’ It’s a win-win.”
While a typical training session in a gym — whether in a private or group setting — can involve moves such as squats, pushups, or even pull-ups, sessions at Natural Motion are made up of much more unusual exercises. When I joined in on one of his sessions, we got into pairs, taking turns to swing a tennis ball attached to a string in circles, while the other jumps in and out to avoid the spinning ball. We linked hands with strangers, pushing and pulling each other like bucks with their antlers tangled. We held a plank while our heads and torsos twisted and turned, trying to avoid that same tennis ball. We did excruciatingly slow squats while avoiding that same ball, keeping both feet firmly planted into the ground. The grand finale was a 5-minute arm hold — with limbs spread out wide, tai chi pose style — still and graceful, but an absolute arm and shoulder scorcher.
“I thought I was strong, that my reflexes were fast, but when I tried the tennis ball squat exercise for the first time, I felt embarrassed how I got tired after three, four reps. I thought it would be easy.” He further explains, “if I tested a CrossFit guy, or a division one basketball player — and I am confident to say this — with the practice ball squat, they would also feel the burn. That line of muscle, that variation, that training is all out of the box for them. The body will adapt specifically to what you tell it to do. If you tell it to do cardio, it’s just going to get good at that, it won’t get you to do pull-ups. Skill, intensity, then volume, that’s the recipe. You need to be dynamic. Using TRX or VIPR, that’s not dynamic, it’s just silly — I know I’m going to offend people. But once they try it, they will feel it.”
When faced with plateaus, hiatuses and injuries, Strange believes that the key to building long-term successful fitness is to keep diagnosing and tweaking, and to keep massaging your body’s intensity threshold back up. It sounds awfully simple, but investing equal time in strength and movement seems to be the next big solution.
“All I’m doing is trying to offer answers. I’m trying to bridge the gap between all these things. For the guy in HIIT class who can’t get past his plateau. For the Crossfit guy who thinks his range of motion sucks. I can help them reacquire that with the movement training I’ve been doing. At the same time, I’m trying to offer something new where how you move matters most — because as you get older, when you lose that, you have nothing. After all, doesn’t everyone want a more comfortable quality of life? If you don’t move your body, why would you expect it to remember or retain those ranges?”
Strange concludes, “I think the future should be about understanding how your body works and moves to get fitter. But you can’t have one without the other: if you’re not strong enough, if you’re training in a box, you also can’t move. With the right programme, you could go back into all the different areas and start to do everything better. Allow your body to explore itself and learn where it’s strong or weak, in order to give you an idea of what you need to work on.”