A Volcano Created The Modern Fitness World



Photo by Yosh Ginsu on Unsplash

“…It was not until we had passed the nimbus of the great ash-cloud that Pelée was throwing out to sea that we began to distinguish features of recognizable land. The island in front of us was not a tropical paradise, but a withered piece of the earth that seemed to be just emerging from chaos. Everything was gray and brown, sunk behind a cloud which only the mind could penetrate; there was nothing that appealed restfully to the eye.”
— “Mont Pelée and the Tragedy of Martinique” by Angelo Heilprin

In early May 1902 one of the most devastating natural disasters in the Northern Hemisphere rocked the tranquil French island of Martinique, which was known as the “Paris of the West Indies." An eruption recorded on May 8th was so powerful it was reported to have lifted a 3 ton statue off its mount and threw it over 50 feet away.

A stream of molten mud ran down the volcano at incredible speed to the city of St. Pierre. Nearly 30,000 inhabitants were killed in the disaster. In his visit to the island after the eruption, Angelo Heilprin recounted the words of Martinique’s Vicar-General M. Parel.

“…Saint Pierre, in the morning throbbing with life, thronged with people, is no more. Its ruins stretch before us, wrapped in their shroud of smoke and ashes, gloomy and silent, a city of the dead…With that profound emotion I raise my hand above these thirty thousand souls so suddenly mowed down, buried in this terrible tomb to sleep the sleep of eternity.”

However, the inhabitants on the island weren’t totally defenseless against the onslaught. A heroic act took place which changed the world for years to come. Although most didn’t think of the ramifications at the time. During the moment, it was just a naval officer doing his duty to save people in need.

A Heroic Act And A Change In Mindset

In his book “Natural Born Heroes” Christopher McDougal tells the story of a French sailor named Georges Hébert who ran towards the disaster scene.

Hébert left his naval vessel the Suchet in a rowboat with a small crew of sailors and headed directly into the face of chaos while everyone was running away in terror. They saved about 700 people from the carnage.

However, Hébert was forever changed by the disaster. He wasn’t struck by the randomness of the event, or the unfairness. The thing that got to him was how easily avoidable the tragedy was. In particular, he was stunned by the lack of awareness of “civilized people”. The volcano had been showing signs of eruption for near a month, but the local government told everyone there was nothing to worry about and they did just that — not worry.


Georges Hébert — Wikipedia Commons Agence Rol [Public domain]

Beyond the lack of awareness, Hébert kept thinking how these people’s bodies failed them when they were needed most. He noted how many lost their lives frozen like statues, not knowing what to do. Their natural ability and instinct to run, swim, scramble, and jump weren’t present. The native islanders didn’t suffer from this stasis; they escaped by any means necessary.

McDougal notes Hébert was honored as a hero when he returned to France. But he realized his journey had just begun. He wondered to himself how many of his countrymen would be able to save themselves in an emergency.

How many could escape a fire, jump a short gap, or carry a hurt child out of danger? He needed to change this. People had to be strong enough to help themselves and their neighbors.

The Natural Method

Hébert sketched out a plan for a new fitness regime base on what he learned from the disaster. His motto was, “Être fort pour être utile”, which meant being strong to be useful.

The entire reason for fitness in his opinion was to be useful to yourself and those around you. He’d focus on developing natural abilities which could help people in a disaster or everyday life.

He called his new fitness program “The Natural Method” and one of his models for the program was his own children. As he watched them play, he realized they were developing skills that could become useful later in life, particularly in a disaster.

They ran, jumped, climbed over obstacles, wrestled, and threw each other around. It was like young lion cubs training for future hunts by play. He created 10 base skills called the Ten Natural Utilities.

Pursuit Abilities: Crawling, Walking, Running

Escape Abilities: Swimming, Jumping, Balancing, Climbing

Attack Abilities: Fighting, Lifting, Throwing

Hébert convinced the French Navy to give him recruits to experiment with. He built an outdoor jungle gym for the recruits to train in. This facility was furnished with all types of natural obstacles: towers to climb, ponds to swim through, pits filled with sand, random rocks, and logs to be tossed about, and long poles that could be used to vault over objects. The recruits could create their own obstacle courses by combining various physical challenges on the training ground.


“Athletes’ College”— Wikipedia Commons [Public domain]

They’d also attack these challenges as a team. The object wasn’t to finish first, but to complete the task together in the quickest and most efficient way. Hébert believed the Natural Method would develop not only physical ability but create a better and nobler person.

In 1913 Hébert presented 350 recruits who were training in his Natural Method to the International Congress of Physical Education. The results of his program were startling. The recruits scored on levels with world-class decathletes and the program was considered an incredible success.

The French military planned to duplicate his method and teach it to the world. Unfortunately, World War I intervened.

Death And Rebirth Of The Natural Method

In McDougal’s book he explains all the recruits tragically died in the war. Hébert was also severely wounded and could no longer champion his Natural Method.

As a result, it faded from history — at least for a time. Hébert had made books and training manuals which continued to float around, like a map to a long-lost buried treasure.

Almost 80 years later, a man by the name of Erwan Le Corre had loved athletics, but was continually disappointed by sports he engaged in. He kept searching for something that would speak to him on a different level. He eventually found himself traveling with a group of underground acrobats in Paris. As he was working with this group, he’d hear a name mentioned, Georges Hébert.

Erwan randomly came across a training manual written by Hébert in a second-hand bookstore. He was amazed by what he read and thought the goal to be useful was a law of nature. Erwan went about re-engineering the Natural Method out of his new home base in a Brazilian rain forest.

However, this wasn’t the only episode of rebirth of the Natural Method. You’ll see many aspects of the Natural Method in display in modern Parkour and free running.

Georges Hébert’s name is often mentioned with reverence by these groups. You can also see the obstacle course training methodology espoused by Tough Mudder and Spartan races, on television as well by the Ninja Warrior series.

From tire flipping at your local gym, to the countless obstacle courses listed above, Hébert’s Natural Method is ever present in today’s world. However, most may not realize the dire situation which forced the idea of “being useful” into the mind of a French sailor over 100 years ago. Hébert wasn’t merely a fitness guru; he was a hero who wanted to save the world by helping it to save itself.


Mont Pelée (1902) National Geographic — Internet Archive Book Images [Public Domain]

Comments / 0

Published by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA

More from ErikBrown

Comments / 0