Why Fitness Experts Are Obsessed With “Bulletproofing” the Body

Bulletproofers will do anything to avoid injury. Here's where to start.

June 9, 2022 6:35 am
A man stretching on a track in black and white. Here's how you can bulletproof your body.
We've come a long way since hurried pre-workout stretch routines.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

In the mid-2010s, when gonzo biohacking was first picking up steam, a team of California scientists put a form of chlorophyll into a man’s eyes. The idea was to give him “night vision,” and their experiment sort of worked. For a brief period of time, the man could reportedly see people moving 160 feet away in a pitch-black wood.

In recent years, there has been a steady stream of biohacking tests and tips, some of them somehow even crazier than applying eyedrops of a photosensitivity solution (like implanting radio transponders in necks), but most of it is mainstream and buzzy — the sort of “hacks” often touted on podcasts and featured in Instagram ads. You know the classics: nootropics, elimination diets, infrared therapy, intermittent fasting and thermoregulation.

A lot of that stuff works, in moderation, but biohackers — as is too often the case in the fitness world — have a soft spot for pseudoscience and absolutism. The DIY nature of a process intended to “[change] our chemistry and our physiology through science and self-experimentation” (a Tony Robbins quote, not mine) is fertile ground for credulous experimenters to agonize over every perceived disadvantage in the body.

One of the most famous biohackers out there, Ben Greenfield, employs over 30 different habits in his daily quest to take over his body. (That’s according to Biohack Stack, a site dedicated to tracking the proclivities of biohackers.) On top of the usual (fish oil supplements) and the unique (a system that filters air as if you’re walking outside), Greenfield also apparently injects stem cells from his own fat throughout his whole body, and regularly uses something called a penis pump.

It’s sensible to harbor a healthy skepticism for trends like biohacking, and any other wellness venture that comes along and sounds like it. But a recent movement that definitely fits that criteria, under the name “bulletproofing,” is actually worthy of your attention. While offbeat, the practice isn’t all that sexy. It advocates for slow-cooked, foundational fitness, of the sort that’s obsessed with preventing injuries.

Preemptive training might be a tough sell for Americans who can hardly be convinced to go outside for a run, let alone stretch before that run. But the regimen is far more dynamic than it sounds; while its premise (keep everything intact) sounds boring, bulletproofing is about challenging the body to do things it rarely does anymore, through movement progressions that most of us have never heard of or committed ourselves to.

In essence, the goal of bulletproofing is to gain the joint stability and mobility necessary to feel and perform explosively again. Most men past the age of 40 can’t run a 40-yard dash without fear of tearing a hamstring. They wouldn’t dream of trying to dunk a basketball or take on a high-speed batting cage again, either. But in training yourself not to get injured while attempting those feats, it’s possible to find yourself as adept as you were at them decades before. Think of it as getting fit “by accident.” A little humility shown towards Father Time could end up zipping you back to the glory days. It’s not a bad deal.

Bulletproofing is not mutually exclusive from biohacking. There are many, many fitness influencers who practice and pedal elements of both. This can make filtering through YouTube videos confusing. But the key is in identifying (and implementing in your own life, if you’re so inclined) a few choice commandments from the practice. Start slow and build up. The endgame isn’t to take control over your body, but to take control back from it, and give yourself the opportunity, as some bulletproofers like to say, “to lift forever.”

Be willing to rethink the process

Most strength or cardio regimens are preoccupied with immediate concerns: getting fit for summer, getting in shape for the upcoming season, or getting ready for a race (even marathon training, which can last months, has a hard cut once the 26.2 is finished). These patterns generally recruit a form of progressive training where the body beats itself up more and more until it attains a short-term goal. It can be an enormously gratifying process, but is a little less than ideal from a longevity perspective.

There’s a reason so many aging trainees suffer from repetitive use injuries, low back pain and seemingly inexplicable plateaus. They’re relying too heavily on the same moves and workouts they picked up years ago, when they should be prioritizing full-body, joint-friendly drills. A crucial rule of thumb? Respect the muscles you can’t see. (And the ligaments and the tendons, too.) This often means subbing traditional exercises for targeted mobility work. Think: reverse grip bench press, towel push-ups, overhead kettlebell presses. The key is to avoid the “locked in” grip that fixed plane movements so often engender — which put your joints at risk — and instead train the wrists, elbows and shoulders back to full rotational mobility.

Use resistance bands and bodyweight

Despite the hard-nosed moniker, bulletproofing doesn’t necessarily involve throwing heavy weights around. In fact, it can thrive on you using minimal weight (at first, anyway) and learning to make use of resistance bands and bodyweight. Some of us entertained a crash course in both during the pandemic, once gyms shuttered, but it’s likely that you stuck to endless repetitions of the usual suspects (bicep curls, push-ups, air squats), while neglecting some of the most unconventional and effective movements preferred by bulletproofing experts.

There are a ton of options out there on the resistance bands front, and a number of them are explicitly designed to fortify your core, which is at the nexus of any bulletproofing routine. A strong, stabilized core prevents improper swaying of hips while running — which puts undue pressure on cartilage in the kneecaps — and also makes sure you won’t feel a strain in the back every time you bend down to pick up a kettlebell…or a pile of snow while shoveling. Tie a resistance band to the wall, a door or a bar at your gym, and practice Russian twists, the Pallof press and wood chops. Reverse crunches are also fantastic.

Meanwhile, for a comprehensive look at how just a few bodyweight movements can eliminate pain and build strength, check out this clip from Graham Tuttle (commonly known as @thebarefootsprinter), a renowned bulletproofer who dislocated his shoulder nine years ago, tried to continue playing sports and exercising, but proceeded to see it pop out another 10 times in four years. He credits his bodyweight routine (snow angels, arm swings, thoracic extensions, etc.) with restoring his mobility, and getting him back to “cartwheels and jiujitsu.” Unlike conventional physical therapy, Tuttle’s M.O. relies on engaging fascia and connective tissue.

Learn to “run” backwards

Another favorite of bulletproofers — alongside farmer’s carries, plank variations, single-leg anything — is retro movement, a practice that looks and feels goofy, but is actually a dynamite workout for your lower half and core. Backwards running doesn’t compound pain from patellofemoral joint compression forces (a relationship between ground force and the vector of the knee) in the same way that forward running does. And instead of causing the area duress — a pretty common side-effect of constant running — backwards running actually strengthens the area. It does so by engaging little-known muscles and tendons such as the tibialis anterior (located along the shins) and the vastus medialis muscles (just inside of each knee).

The key appears to be mixing backwards running into your forward running regimen. Obviously, you shouldn’t give up forward running forever. Not only is that wildly impractical, but you also wouldn’t get to see all the positives that retro running can bring to your conventional routine. How do you start? Find a treadmill and try “deadmills,” a concept popularized by Ben Patrick (more commonly known as @kneesovertoesguy on Instagram) and Derek Williams (more commonly known as @mr1nf1n1ty). The duo are pioneers in the “resisted backward training” space. Both have a history of torn ligaments. Both are currently able to dunk.

Before graduating to their sleds, slant boards and straps (all used to increase range of motion at their knee joints and create more “bounce” in their legs), situate yourself atop a treadmill and hold the bars on each side. Do not turn it on (hence the deadmill nickname). Then just walk backwards, using your power and momentum to move the belt. You can hang out there as long as you like (go for three minutes if you can), or turn around, now facing the screen, and push back against it. This will feel extremely difficult and unnatural, but it’s the godsend your legs never knew they needed. See a demo here.

Stretch religiously

There’s a reason so few of us want to stretch — we’re never in stretching shape. If you’re accustomed to spending the day A) crammed into a tiny workspace, then B) going 0 to 60 in a workout class or on a Peloton, your body is just cycling through endless variations of tightness. It’s little wonder that once-in-a-while stretching feels somewhere between tedious and hopeless. A pleasant side effect of joint-friendly bulletproofing, though, is that you’re constantly performing exercises that catalyze range of motion and open up the body, which turns stretching into a more turn-key operation.

An added bonus: While bulletproofing workouts involve more dynamic and unfamiliar progressions, feel free to largely stick to the stretches you know well here (the hard part, of course, is actually sticking to them). To open up the back, perform trunk rotations, cat-camel stretches, hamstring stretches, hip flexor stretches and child’s poses. If you’re looking for a newer, bulletproof-approved stretch to play with, try out the 90-90. It’s on the more aggressive side of the stretching spectrum, but it’s very much worth shooting for. The endgame is to get your front leg at 90 degrees, relative to the knee and the hip, and the same with the rear leg, all while keeping an upright trunk position. It’s not as mind-blowing as night-vision, perhaps, but who needs that anyway?

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