Health and Fitness

Ryan Hurst: Building Functional Strength

Ever see those muscle-bound knuckleheads at the beach?

You know the type – huge biceps, weird looking back, and tiny little calves…

Too much of the wrong type of exercise leads to imbalance, injury, and silly proportions.

But strength and true fitness isn’t about big muscles, it’s about how you move.

Just ask this week’s guest, Ryan Hurst. Ryan is a certified bad mofo with multiple black belts (in Kendo, Judo, Shorinji, and Kempo) and 10+ years of experience as a competitive gymnast.

On this show, you’re about to learn:

  • The difference between beating yourself up and actually building skills
  • How to build true functional strength
  • One surprising thing about eating healthy in Japan
  • How to properly squat (and do your first backflip)
  • And much more!


Ryan Hurst is a certified bad mofo with black belts in Kendo, Judo, Shorinji, and Kempo.

He practiced for 10 years as a competitive gymnast. When he’s not slaying dragons, Ryan is a strength and movement coach who teaches people how to move their bodies better. He’s coming to us all the way from Japan. How’s it going, Ryan?  

That’s a heck of an intro! Thanks for having me on.

Let’s start with an important distinction. What’s the difference between beating yourself up in the gym and actually building skills?

People might come to our website and see some of these tricks I’m doing and say, “There’s no way I can do that.” We’re not necessarily about those tricks, we’re more interested in teaching you to have a better awareness of your body. We’re really into physical autonomy, becoming aware of your body, know what’s going on, and building your base and skills in order to do what you love.

We’re not about working out in order to become better at working out. We’re want you to build skills to help you do what you want, like stand up paddleboarding, snowboarding, running. We want you to have better comfort level in your body.


It’s about strength, flexibility, control. We’re trying to build agility and physical control, but what that means is better athletic movement, capability, and capacity to move your body better.

When we talk about skills, can you do this particular movement in a way that’s more efficient? You have to start at the very beginning and learn how to go deeper into a squat, and then see what’s going on in order to improve flexibility.

It might not be strength, it might be flexibility that’s holding you back. @GMBFit Click To Tweet

Abel: How hard is the backflip?

It’s not that hard if you have the base down. You build up to it.

Abel: I tried my first backflip as a little kid jumping on a trampoline. When I came down, my legs buckled and I kneed myself right in the nose.

Yeah, that’s probably something you don’t want to do at this age.

Abel: You talked about strength vs. flexibility. Many gym rats just focus building muscle and “getting huge.”

But you can have too much strength, and that leads to imbalance.

It’s about finding that balance. Moving back to awareness. We get so focused on something we think we need—like building strength and getting huge—The problem is that you can get so focused, you lose sight of things that are actually necessary to get better functionality. Do what you want as long as you enjoy what you’re doing.

Let’s talk about the squat. Everyone wants to improve numbers on their barbell squat. How do you do that? Just put more weight on—progressive loading? If we take a step back and look at flexibility: How are your hip flexors? Do you have proper ankle flexibility so you can load more weight on there and progress?

A lot of people look at flexibility work and know they need it, but they don’t know where to start. We are really big on assessing where you are. We have these protocols we use on a daily basis. It’s not just a matter of adding more weight to the bar every single day, because you have those days where that’s not happening.

You have to assess: “Is this a day where I can add more weight? Or should I work on my flexibility or control, so the next time I can put more weight on that bar?

Abel: Where is the weak point for most people?

Each person is different. That’s why we have those assessments—we look at strength, flexibility, and control.

Generally, if it’s a guy, flexibility is the issue.

If you’re looking at squats, it’s going to be the hip flexors and possibly the ankle. But the lower back is a big one, too. Especially for people who are sitting in front of a computer hunched over all day.

I went to college over here in Japan… when I walked in to where I was living, the toilets were just a hole in the ground. So I learned to squat deep right when I woke up in the morning.

Unfortunately, now people are sitting in chairs and sitting in particular positions and we’ve lost some of that movement ability. People are going to the gym and wanting to get better, but they need that flexibility and control.

Do you have control of your body? If you’re going to do that barbell squat, that’s great and it will make you strong, but what happens when you go outside of that movement zone? That’s usually when people get injured. It’s when things are changing and going from one position to the other.

That’s why you can throw your back out when you pick up a box of tissues.

Abel: Some cultures and environments almost guarantee that everyone is going into a deep squat at least once a day.

But in America, it’s no longer necessary to have balance, flexibility, or body awareness.

Even in Japan where you spend a lot of time sitting on the floor in seiza with legs tucked under you, now there are more western toilets and fewer kids sitting in seiza.

Here’s a white guy teaching these Japanese kids how to sit in the seiza position. This culture is changing and the kids no longer have the mobility that they once did.

While technology is a wonderful thing, it has allowed us to become lazy. @GMBFit Click To Tweet

Abel: So how can we incorporate primal and functional movement into our lives?

It’s about awareness, and creating good habits. I’m not a guy who tells people they should be working out all day long. I’m a husband and father of two, I have my workout and my business. You need to be smart in your training, and look at not just what you want, but what you need.

A lot of people don’t know what they need.

For example, flexibility: People will say they don’t have time to stretch. If you’ve got a little bit of time to watch TV, then you can stretch while you watch TV. Just take 30 seconds to a minute and focus on that one place that needs more flexibility.

Also reframe it like this: Instead of saying “I don’t have time to stretch,” say “I get to stretch, and if I do this it will help me in other areas of my life”

Ryan is a black belt in Kendo, Judo, Shorinji, and Kempo who now dedicates his life to teaching people how to move their bodies better:

It’s the small changes that turn into large wins down the road. @GMBFit Click To Tweet

Set yourself up for success. Have a plan.

I tell people “you have to set yourself up for a win.”

What do you really want out of this? Let’s just focus on that one little thing and then we can look at the next thing.

Abel: A few years ago I started doing five minutes of qigong in the morning, and I increased it a little bit over time.

After doing that for so long, you start to feel superhuman. Now, if I don’t do that in the morning, I don’t feel alive, I don’t feel awake, and it’s an kickbutt power-up that most people don’t take advantage of.

In the beginning, it might suck, and in the beginning you might suck.

We’re going to be bad in the physical and mental aspect of it at the beginning. But if we can move beyond that and keep working just a little tiny bit and do more each day in order to get to that point, we’ll feel that energy and realize how important it is.

People forget that we have this body, and there are people who physically can’t do this. You have the opportunity to do this, so use it.

Abel: I see Qigong as a gift to my future self.

But even coaches like us don’t want to do workouts sometimes, too. But we know the difference between success and failure is taking that dive every day.

I mention this with my trainers, something my Judo coach told me. Being the only non Japanese on the mat and going in every day and having them tear me up and use me to clean the mats, there were days I didn’t want to go.

My coach said, “Just step on the mat.”

Just show up for the warm up. Generally if you can show up, you’re probably going to finish a workout.

We have so many excuses. But if you just show up and start to do it, you’ll probably end up finishing it. Same goes for work.

This mindset of stepping on the mat works. People think it’s so easy for us—but there are days we don’t want to go in. But it’s a commitment.

Abel: What’s the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it?

As individuals, we are going toward ease. As humans, we want to go away from confrontation when things are going to be difficult.

The handstand is a good example. It’s not natural to be upside down. Your body is screaming at you, get close to the floor because that’s where the safe place is. Get upright. You have to fight these natural urges of wanting to get out of this position because you always think that you’re falling, it’s that constant battle.

People try and jump to a higher level too quickly or they bypass everything from the beginning. Mike Fitch of Animal Flow is a close friend. He’ll get a message from someone that says, “I watched one of your videos and tried it and I can’t do it. Why can’t I do it?”

Looking at the most basic level of something, whether it be exercise or learning a language, start at the beginning and take those baby steps. If a person tries to jump to a higher level, tries to jump into handstand, they’re going to crash down, lose confidence, and won’t want to do it again.

Do you have a plan? Do you have someone there to help you? And are you setting yourself up for success?

This might be weight because a lot of people in the workout world focus on sets and reps—but this is something we like to get away from because sometimes when you only focus on the numbers, you lose awareness.

Rather than looking at reps and sets, for example, look at time. A block of time to work on handstands. 30 seconds to perform a particular movement. Focus on the quality of your movements. That way you’re focusing on how you’re form is improving rather than saying “If I don’t hit those numbers, I fail.”

Focus on these particular elements. Start off with an amount of time, and if you’re comfortable with that, extend it a little bit to go further. It takes the pressure off and people actually do better and enjoy the process.

I don’t really care if you can do 100 pushups. I want to know how many you did with really good form.

I only care about you doing one repetition of a movement as perfectly as you can, and then move to another one.

The barbell, working out, bodybuilding, the numbers are a good thing to look at for progression. But with body weight exercises, it’s difficult to judge progress. That’s why you should focus on quality and ease of the movement.

Are you doing sloppy movements, or smooth controlled movements?

Abel: I’d love to get your take on “bodybuilding” from a fighter’s perspective.

My very last match in Judo is where I had my shoulder completely dislocated. I had shoulder surgery and have a tiny screw in here now. But I was competing in the open class at 65 kilos, I was a skinny dude. I really enjoy being in the open weight division, but this was the first time I competed at 65 kilos.

I happened to win and get up into this bracket, and my competition was 95 kilos. He was like, “I want to tear your head off.”

Well, he tore my shoulder off.

He wasn’t good at moving, and it was a flexibility issue that allowed me, when my arm was detached, to get him on his back and keep him down.

Because of this lack of mobility, I was able to win that match.

For me that’s the highlight. I’m not a great Judo guy. I just happend to compete a lot in Japan and had the ability to move. Having that strength, flexibility and control over my body, and the desire to stick with it, that triumphs many times over sheer strength. But there’s always going to be someone bigger and badder than you.

Abel: There’s something about that scrappy strength.

I don’t want to be huge. My weight right now is 74 kilos. I’ve been at 85 before and that was too big for me. I just felt blah.

Being able to do what I want to do, like parkour, flips, and right now I’m getting back into Brazilian jiu jitsu. I want to be able to move better and enjoy life. I don’t want to be in a place where I’m bound.

But if that’s what you want to do, to be a bodybuilder and get huge, do it man.

Jarlo and I started GMB together, and he absolutely loves barbells, squats, deadlifts, front lifts, and front squats. That’s his thing and they’re amazing.


Abel: What do you normally eat in Japan?

My wife is Japanese, and she’s an amazing cook. When people ask me for nutritional advice it’s difficult because I’m so accustomed to Japanese food, I know what’s what. So when I hear “you shouldn’t eat this food or that” and I think it’s such a personal thing… you need to figure out what’s good for you.

I stay away from fried stuff. It’s basically a Japanese style diet. I eat a lot of food. I like fish, and the fish that we eat isn’t fried, it’s baked or grilled. Last night we had a seafood mix.

We eat so many vegetables. This is what always blows me away, you go to the U.S. and order vegetables in a restaurant and it’s broccoli or salad and that’s it.

I only eat lunch and dinner. It’s vegetables and protein. I don’t eat breakfast, it’s not like I’m fasting. I am fasting, but I do a lot of my upside down work in the morning and if I eat a big breakfast, that’s not going to be productive.

Everybody’s like, you need to not eat breakfast because it helps with digestion and glucose and I’m like, “I’m upside down.” I wanted to learn the one arm handstand and I was doing it pretty early in the morning, so I’d drink a little bit of water and that’s it.

Abel: What vegetables do you eat?

Not just squash and cauliflower. We eat burdock root, tubers, Chinese cabbage, a lot of different kinds of spinach, carrots, and radishes like daikon. I love rice, but don’t eat pasta. I’m not a fan of noodles or wheat based things like bread. My kids will eat it once in awhile but it’s got to be from this little fresh bakery down the street.

I find balance is important. Make adjustments, and enjoy life.

I really need to be careful about what I eat. I eat and train as clean as possible and it’s easy to do that here in Japan, especially with my wife because she’s a great cook.

Abel: Many people who travel have the wrong idea about what other cultures eat.

It’s a lot more vegetables than what you see at tourist straps.

In Korea, when you go into a restaurant at the very beginning you get these local veggies that they prepare—it’s so great. Reaching out and exploring is very important.

We’ve started being uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. @GMBFit Click To Tweet

I’m open to anything. I will always try something once in regard to food. It doesn’t mean I’m going to eat the whole thing, but I’ll try it.

A lot of foreigners, especially westerners, are not open to these kind of experiences and they’re missing out.

The same applies to exercise and movement. They look at something and think there’s no way they can do that, so they don’t even try. Having that mindself limits us and creates these barriers.

There’s always a way to do something. It’s finding out how to do it. Starting at the very beginning and letting yourself know that you don’t have to do this movement right now, in fact you shouldn’t. Food is the same way.

Abel: I went to a restaurant in New York that flew in all of their seafood from Japan. I’ve never seen so many fish parts in my life. But what shocked me was how many types of veggies, how many types of fish, how many things I’d never seen before were all in the same place.

In Japan it’s about the presentation. It’s not just about putting that one thing on your plate and eating it. It’s about the whole experience. Eating foods that are seasonal, and finding which things compliment eachother, like the fish and even what you’re drinking.

With sushi, you always have the ginger, that’s to clear your palate for the next piece of sushi and it also has to do with digestion. It’s how you eat. Find that balance.

Taking pride in what you do is something I love here in Japan.

We need to take pride what we do, as individuals and in our movement, and in the way we interact with people and the world.

We’ll be better people and the people around us will enjoy being with us more. It will spread.


You can find Ryan along with articles, tutorials and other cool stuff on GMB Fitness. Check out the GMBFitness Instagram, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


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When I first overhauled my nutrition plan with a primitive version of The Wild Diet, I dropped 20 pounds in just over a month. Now we hold 30-Day Challenges for all of you in our community, and here’s what Jen has to say about it:

Just want to say Abel and Alyson, that both me and my partner have completely flipped our lifestyle and in no way look at this as a fad or quick fix!

Some of the incredible benefits I have personally received…

  • Clarity 🙂
  • Energy is through the roof!!
  • Saving on groceries
  • Ran sprints for the first time in 20 years!!!
  • Skin looks great!
  • Hair looks amazing!!
  • Down 6 pounds and my clothes are getting looser!

Ya know, life is about being joyful and thriving, not fretting about not being healthy. This past year I hit a personal milestone with loving myself unconditionally and that is what brought me in direct contact with this amazing tribe!

When I love myself I make my health a priority!

From my family to yours,

Thank You!! ?

– Jen

Fantastic progress, Jen! I love how you highlight the lifestyle benefits of eating and living Wild. It’s not just about weight loss—eating well improves the quality of your life across the board. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

So, how do you get started living Wild?

Well, right now you can 30-Days of Wild Meal Plans for free when you try our program.

You can change your life. We want to help. Join The Tribe today!

When you join the Fat-Burning Tribe, you’re going to get brand new complete 30-Day Meal Plans every month (a $47 value)!:

How do you build functional strength? Share your tips and techniques with us in the comments below!

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