Alexander Wells

The Viral Video Star Behind the Fitness Fad That May Replace CrossFit

Ido Portal teaches famous athletes how to use their bodies in entirely new ways. But is it all snake oil?

“Bro, what kind of muscles you have?” asks Ido Portal in a short video introducing his philosophy. He’s barefoot and shirtless, his long hair pulled back as he tumbles across the frame and does handstand push-ups in the rain. “No—bro, what kind of patterns you have? Can you flip? Can you invert? Can you crawl?”

Portal has spent the past few decades honing a physical credo and method that’s now practiced by thousands of people all over the world—from office workers, to former CrossFitters, to NBA players, to the ever-controversial UFC titan Conor McGregor. Known as The Ido Portal Method, or simply “movement,” his approach purports to take the “most potent” parts from a range of physical disciplines by shedding the dogmas that often accompany them. As he puts it: “I want the contents, not the container.”

Videos of Portal in motion began circulating in certain physical circles in the mid-2000s—entrancing clips in which he flows along the floor like liquid, playfully combining capoeira-inspired flips, hand-balancing, and animalistic movements. But it’s only in the past few years (in no small part thanks to McGregor’s influence) that his profile has exploded, his following has expanded, and his business has revved up.

Star athletes reportedly pay Portal six-figure sums for two weeks of in-person training. He spent chunks of the past year doing “movement design” (something akin to choreography) for a multi-million dollar Bollywood film, and is set to star in a mini-series in which he works with elite athletes in sports ranging from surfing to fighting. (Some of his closest students have landed similarly glitzy gigs, with two recently serving as advisers to the current season of Israeli Ninja Warrior.) Portal has been called a “guru” and a “movement master” more times than I can count; one interviewer even called him “the smartest man in the world.” But the question—hotly debated on Reddit and on MMA blogs—endures: Is there value in the movement, or is Portal simply slinging snake oil?

“Most people don’t have the user manual to their own machinery,” Portal told me emphatically when we connected over Skype. “Your being is a physical being. You brush your teeth everyday, you need to move everyday. It doesn’t take five minutes, and it does take a certain education.”

Portal seems like the the right guy to be dispensing such an education. He appears in control of every vertebrae and muscle fiber, he’s charismatic, and he looks the part. (“Why do all these movement teachers look like Jesus?” comedian, MMA commentator, and member of the Intellectual Dark Web Joe Rogan once joked.) For years, Portal tied his hair in a topknot and was so jacked he says he was once asked to shed muscle for a photoshoot. These days he’s ponytail-less and a bit less buff—he told me his muscles were getting in the way of evolving his movement practice in certain directions—but his body-fat percentage still hovers in the single digits and he can bust out a one-arm handstand or helicopter at will. The only clear sign he’s aging are the flecks of gray in his dark-brown beard. (Portal is, incidentally, notoriously elusive about his age. His PR team initially told me he was 47, but later said, “No one really knows.”)*

And he is, fittingly, always on the move. Born and raised in Haifa, Israel, for the past decade he’s been effectively nomadic, carrying his possessions on his back as he brings his method across the globe. A few weeks before we spoke, he’d been leading a movement camp in Phuket. The week before it was Seoul. Next up: Cyprus. In between camps, he works with elite athletes—from Olympic swimmers, to MLB players, to professional mixed martial artists—applying his broad perspective to their sport to try to give them that extra edge. That might mean focusing on spinal articulation for a swimmer, or developing a baseball pitcher’s shoulder mobility through oft-neglected hanging work. Portal described himself as an “information-and-systems broker, mobilizing knowledge from one discipline to another.”

In Tel Aviv, much of this work takes place in what looks like a CrossFit box, but with more free floor space. The walls of the Ido Portal movement school are covered in handprints, scuff marks, and phrases like isolation → integration → improvisation and Let them DIRTY the walls, motherfucker! The equipment scattered about is basic: gymnastics rings, monkey bars, wooden sticks, tennis balls. As Portal—who tends to be either barefoot or in basic canvas shoes—puts it: “The more expensive the toys, the cheaper the mover.”

Some 700 people have joined the school since it opened in late 2014, he said. Throughout the day, you’ll find muscular men and women bouncing a tennis ball against a wall with their fists, working on inversions, experimenting with different kinds of squats, or slowly swinging a dowel while a partner evades it using spinal waves and soft acrobatics. Or, to hear Portal tell it, in each session students “step into the cloud of movement and attack a subject” by doing drills or challenges, “maybe it’s coordination, or speed ... ” Training in “movement” might look or sound frivolous to outsiders, but Portal and his tribe are nothing if not serious about it. “It’s not some hippie concept as many people make it out to be,” he said. “I am a radical person, for the good and the bad.” He and his “inner tribe” train from six to ten hours a day.

“How many movements did you learn today? This week?” he challenged me. “A contemporary dancer might learn hundreds of new movements in one class ... and the neurological connections being made, the type of brain that is being developed ... ” Portal has long preached that learning new, complex movements betters the brain in ways straightforward cardio or weights do not—and some recent research supports this. One 2015 study found that adults who undertook a regime loosely based on freestyle wrestling performed better in cognitive tasks than people who spent the same amount of time performing tiresome brain-training tasks or gutting it out on a stationary bike. Similar benefits have been seen in those who practiced Tai Chi as compared with brisk walking. But Portal believes his method is superior to other forms of training. “It makes you smarter, I know it, I feel it,” he told me. “There is no more potent tool to make people sharper, more complex, more ethical, more realistic.”

Portal presents his approach as a sort of atavistic antidote to our lifestyles—a bent that aligns him with the recent “evolutionary fitness” movement. Chief among the movement is Erwan Le Corre, the former parkourist and founder of the popular “MovNat” (a portmanteau of the French term for “natural movement”). Supposedly modeled after the challenges faced by our hunter-gatherer forebears, Le Corre’s wilderness workouts involve vaulting across rivers, heaving boulders, and climbing trees. Though Portal’s approach is perhaps more palatable for the urban set, the men lament similar things: Our 9-to-5 cubicle jobs, smartphone addiction, hyperspecialization in sports, and the rising obsession with fitness for aesthetic purposes have robbed us of our capacity to truly move, leaving us empty.

At the heart of movement culture is an emphasis on play. Animals and kids play as they navigate the world, Portal often says, but as adults we channel this instinct in futile or destructive directions. “That workmate of yours who’s always clicking his pen? That’s his body screaming, ‘Let’s play! Let’s play!’” he said in a recent interview. Portal frequently cites a Dutch text from the 1930s called Homo Ludens or “Man the Player,” which argues that play preceded mankind and is central to thriving societies.“ Most people think play is juvenile” he told me, “but it’s actually a training tool of all animals and must be undertaken with utmost seriousness.” Which explains why he’s as inspired by monkeys as he is by guys who break orbital bones for a living.

Portal lizard-crawled into the popular consciousness in 2015, when he was recruited as the “movement coach” of soon-to-be UFC “champ champ” Conor McGregor. The brash Dubliner was just beginning his rapid rise from little-known fighter to the UFC’s most-bankable star when, in 2013, he tore his ACL. While recovering, he started to look at training through a new lens: He discarded his more-conventional workouts, he studied footage of predators hunting their prey (and he got the ink to match—his sprawling chest tattoo depicts a crowned gorilla devouring a human heart). “I learned a lot more about how important balance is, how important control of the body is," he told Esquire. McGregor came across videos of Portal in motion and, fascinated, sought out the Israeli.

Numerous UFC fighters had dabbled in broader training before Portal appeared on the scene, aiming to improve not just their conditioning, but those qualities that sit somewhere between striking and the ground game. Carlos Condit had been frolicking outdoors with Le Corre since 2014, and Georges St-Pierre had been training gymnastics for years. Back in 1999, jiu-jitsu-legend-turned-MMA-star Rickson Gracie showcased his own discipline-melding workouts in the documentary Choke. But Portal’s approach—thanks to his loud-mouthed star student and his own habit of calling out doubters on social media—was immediately much more polarizing.

When videos emerged of the Israeli brandishing a pool noodle to test McGregor’s reflexes, the fighter Nate Diaz taunted McGregor for “playing touch-butt with that dork in the park” and criticized Portal, “that goofball with the ponytail,” for using the exposure to promote his own schtick. (McGregor would soon suffer his first UFC loss at Diaz’s hands, by second-round rear-naked choke, before winning a bloody rematch months later.) Sports writers and keyboard warriors mocked the seriousness with which Portal spoke about silly-looking drills. “Using the chaotic trajectory of a flying card to keep [Conor McGregor] sharp” reads Portal’s caption for a video of him flinging playing cards at the Irishman in preparation for his boxing bout against all-time great Floyd Mayweather. Here’s McGregor “risking a severe paper cut as he gets ready for his megafight,” one sports blogger rejoined. McGregor’s cartoonishly loose-armed warm-up, a product of his work with Portal, was memed to no end.

Some MMA commentators have suggested that any gains Portal provides might be mental. But McGregor credits movement training with his ability to ”fight in many stances, from many different angles,” with feeling “loose but connected at the same time.”(“I’m more a squeeze of the lime at the end of the dish,” Portal said about his own influence.)

As McGregor racked up wins with Portal in his corner—most memorably knocking out longtime champ Jose Aldo in a record 13 seconds—Portal says he was inundated with coaching requests. “I got some NBA players, some NFL players reaching out,” he told SBNation. “Tony Robbins reached out.”

“Whatever you do, don’t call him a guru or a master of movement,” a couple of his students told me seriously. “He hates that.” When we spoke, Portal emphasized that movement can’t be mastered—it’s too encompassing. “When people say ‘I’ve got it,’ I think, you’ve got nothing; you didn’t get shit,” he once put it, ”That only shows me how much they didn’t get it.”

Portal may shun the “movement guru” title, but his narrative about how movement culture came to be only bolsters this image. As he tells it, his method was born of a personal quest of sorts. Growing up in the beachy city of Haifa, he was an active kid, practicing kung fu. At 15, he took up the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. Skeptical of the dance and drumming aspects of the discipline, he was dragged to his first class by a friend but quickly became hooked. “I was living it, training night and day,” he told me—not just mastering the techniques, but dressing the part and learning Portuguese. Within a couple of years, he’d earned himself the nickname “The Missionary” for his radical dedication, and had started an academy in the basement of his family home.

Feeling constrained by the limits of the martial art, Portal soon began experimenting with other disciplines. While dabbling, he came to the “epiphany” that he wasn’t satisfied with any one realm, but was obsessed with movement as a whole. So, Portal says, he embarked on a years-long journey to find a movement teacher. “After countless searches, I could not find anyone who HONESTLY could represent that title,” he writes on his website. He decided he would become the movement teacher the world lacked, by continuing his travels and curating knowledge from experts in an array of fields.

Portal’s old blog recounts stints training with former U.S. junior national gymnastics team coach Christopher Sommer, balance expert Claude Victoria, and circus performer Yuval Ayalon, as well as a “crazy year” spent working as a physical theater performer in Bangkok and Berlin. He has cited as influences “strength sensei” Charles Poliquin and paleo patriarch Robb Wolf (who, Portal told me, sent him money to keep his capoeira school afloat when funds were tight). Over the years, he’s practiced boxing, jiu jitsu, and yoga; learned from parkourists, dancers, and osteopaths. All the while, he read voraciously—about speed, coordination, “the riddle of the fight”—and documented his evolving method on a blog and, later, on Facebook and Instagram.

In the mid-2000s, Portal founded a new training space in Haifa where he and his devoted capoeira students began experimenting with movement outside of the martial art. He built a “special-ops unit” of movers, he told me, doubling the gym fees and “eliminating all the unnecessary ... the people who weren’t willing to train many hours a day, six or seven days a week.” When he began traveling frequently to teach hand-balancing workshops and perform physical theater, he closed the school. But his students weren’t content to stop training; one of his closest students, Odelia Goldschmidt, started a small training group in a local park called “The Freaks.” Shortly thereafter, with Portal’s blessing, her brother Roye opened the movement facility in Tel Aviv, and Portal started a mentorship program to pass on his methods. (Each of the 40 mentees check in with Portal regularly, receive personalized programming, and attend a couple week-long camps each year.)

Critics in the MMa sphere often attribute attribute Portal’s fame to McGregor’s star power or the Israeli’s cult of personality, rather than the substance of his ideas. But the rise of movement culture maps onto a broader shift toward more-functional approaches to fitness. Beginning in the 1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Nautilus machine helped usher in an approach to training that privileged form over function. By the 2000s, the fitness pendulum had swung so far in this direction that even kids’ figurines were more jacked—scale up a GI Joe Extreme doll from that era to the height of 5ft 10 and his chest would’ve been just three inches smaller than Schwarzenegger’s at his steroid-inflated peak. In 2003, the word “bigorexia” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, and a decade later, a condition called muscle dysmorphia—anorexia’s brawnier counterpart—abruptly entered the DSM.

A forceful countercurrent to this image mania emerged in the 2000s, led by CrossFit. Within a decade, thousands of mirrorless “boxes” had spread across the country, whose trainers touted “functional fitness” through daily workout challenges drawing from gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and sprinting. Soon, freerunning and parkour gyms began cropping up, and a number of more-traditional gyms traded machines for floor space and some battle ropes, to allow for more bodyweight work. Tough Mudders, Spartan Races, and their ilk made a take on Le Corre’s favored training format—the outdoor obstacle course—more accessible, and continued an emphasis on a more versatile body.

Then, in 2013, David Epstein’s best-selling The Sports Gene prompted fevered discussion about the “epidemic of hyperspecialization” in sports. Epstein pointed to a spate of studies showing greater rates of injury and burnout among high-school students who honed in on a single sport before their teenage years. Even more compelling, his book debunked the so-called “10,000 hours rule” to mastery, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in 2008. Epstein cited research showing that those who entered the topmost rung of their field tended to dabble across disciplines further into their teen years than those who topped out at a sub-elite level. Kids who played a range of sports for longer tended to develop “physical literacy,” Epstein explained, which meant they were quicker to pick up the skills of the sport they ultimately settled on quicker than peers with a narrower sporting background. Epstein advocated that kids and teens do the very things Portal preaches for adults: experiment with a range of disciplines, play in unstructured ways.

In Just Move, a 2017 documentary about movement culture, one of Portal’s students says the community aims “to bring movement and life and everything we do out there to as many people as possible.” And in the past couple of years, his inner tribe has begun to fulfill this prophecy. Movement schools have cropped up around the world—in Boulder, New York City, Miami; in Europe, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Australia—mostly started by the students of the Ido Portal mentorship program.

Matt Bernstein and Zack Finer were both heavily involved in CrossFit when friends sent them YouTube videos of Portal in motion. Intrigued, they reached out to him, attended camps and workshops, and quickly became hooked on his method. They started introducing elements of Portal’s method to their personal-training clients and, after a few years, left their respective jobs and cities to start a movement school together in Boulder, Colorado. They told me more than thirty people uprooted their lives so they could regularly train with them, and talked at length about the various ways Portal’s approach had impacted their lives for the better. “Ido’s nickname for me was ‘the refrigerator,’ because I had the build and athletic prowess of one,” said Finer. “The stuff I can do now, I would never have dreamed about doing years ago.” (Their Instagram profiles feature videos of them nailing inversions, working on acrobatic maneuvers, and learning to balance a soccer ball on their head for a minute, among other things.)

Bernstein added: “CrossFit is physically hard, but [Portal’s method] is physically challenging, it’s intellectually challenging, it challenges your ego ... a lot.” (This, too maps onto a larger trend: A 2015 study by students at the Harvard Divinity School noted that as feelings of loneliness have risen and young Americans have become less religiously affiliated than ever before, “spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience.”)

But such personal transformations aren’t accessible to just anyone. Portal makes no bones about the fact that involvement in the community requires a significant investment of both time and money. In a 2013 Facebook post, he wrote that his movement camps were for the “got money and a ton of motivation and willing to travel kind of person” (for the “no-money, little motivation, want to fuck around kind of person” he recommended Zumba). In 2015, he lost fans in the parkour world and beyond when he announced he wouldn’t train vegans, saying they wouldn’t be able to keep up with his meat-eating “tribe.” The dozen or so movement schools that have cropped up in these past few years have made Portal’s methods more readily available. But even now, those wishing to take part in one of his camps are required to sign non-disclosure agreements and fork over between $600 and $1000 for two to three days.

“I’m willing to elevate the crowd by providing them with some of the things I’ve found to be useful. But I’m not willing to be pulled down by them into some watered-down thing—some P90X, some CrossFit-certification weekend event,” Portal told me, when I asked if he seeks to spread his method further. “If [the public] come with me, that’s fine, but I’m not going to them.” He added: “Sometimes I think, let’s let the trend die already for God’s sake, and have only the really hardcore practitioner group.”

When we spoke, Portal kept emphasizing that his approach has to be experienced, not just described. “It sounds very vague because there is nothing that I can say beyond these descriptive words,” he said. Maybe Portal’s elusiveness is just a way to convince outsiders he’s offering something new and revolutionary, as some have argued. Maybe movement just another cultish fitness fad with a short shelf life. Maybe you could achieve similar results, and the promised “paradigm shift,” training some other discipline multiple hours per day—like dance or martial arts.

All of these “maybes” are good for business: How will you know, Portal and his followers insist, unless you try it?

* This article previously misstated Portal’s age.