by Robert Maxwell
UPDATED 25MAY2018 - A misleading idea has pervaded popular culture. Folks who don't train for strength and fitness fall victim to it in droves. What idea? That insidious notion that manual labour is just as effective for improving strength and fitness as training. Books and movies are some of the worst offenders, introducing us to densely muscled, impressively strong characters who apparently got that way through years of farm work, digging ditches, or pouring concrete. What bearing do these fictional characters have on real life? Quite a bit, as it turns out, and not for the better. I can't count the number of times I've heard someone express the idea that they don't need to train, because they work a physically active job. "My work is my gym", they'll often say when asked about their fitness regimes. I'll be the first to admit that a physically active job is far better for your body than sitting in a chair all day. I have great respect for the long, gruelling hours put in by farmers, builders and the rest. The trouble comes when these folks start to use their work as an excuse. They are no doubt stronger than most of their office working counterparts, but that doesn't mean a proper exercise training regime isn't needed. Active work is great for burning calories and improving the abilities of the worker to do their job, but it's not so great for getting strong long term. Here are four reasons why.
The movements are often unnatural
Even if your job involves lifting heavy things all day, without a proper training program chances are your body's not being worked optimally. The awkwardness of most heavy objects is one reason. Proper barbell training works your muscles in their most natural movement patterns, strengthening them without loading them in an unnatural way. The same can't be said for the heavy objects lifted on most job sites. Boxes, furniture, logs, bags of cement – they're all very difficult to lift without rounding the back, bowing the shoulders, hyperextending the spinal column or unbalancing the core. You may not have a choice in the matter if your livelihood depends on heavy lifting, but that doesn't mean you should let the unnatural, joint stressing movements of your job take the place of proper training. Regularly lifting a barbell with correct form is not only the most efficient way to gain strength – it'll also fortify your back, shoulders, hips and knees against the uncomfortable movements you do every day at work.
Progressive overload is impossible
One workout will not make you stronger. Neither will two – at least not much. Strength gains happen through progressive overload – a gradual, consistent increase of training stress over a long time. This is another reason barbell training works so well. If you can overhead press 75 pounds for 10 reps this week, you can move on to 80 pounds next week. Even if you don't achieve the same 10 reps with 80 pounds after just seven days, you eventually will if you keep trying. Then you'll get 85 pounds for 10, then 90, and so on. This is progressive overload, and it's one of the biggest advantages barbell training has over manual labour. Even if you knock yourself out laying bricks, stacking hay bales, or digging ditches every day, your work is not likely to get smoothly and consistently more difficult as you get stronger. This is not how jobs work. Your work stays the same, so after some initial improvement, your strength does too. Not so with training. If you want to keep getting stronger you've got to pick up a barbell.
Work never trains the whole body
The humble barbell can be used for many exercises: squats, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, curls, bent-over rows, and lots more. When moved in the correct patterns, this ingenious piece of equipment can work every muscle in your body, allowing your strength to build evenly from neck to feet. A day of tough manual labour might leave you feeling beat, but it can't top the barbell for working the whole body. If you spend all day framing houses, your general endurance will become quite good after a few months. Your hammer arm will probably get quite a big stronger too. You may even build a strong low back and hips from heaving wall frames up off the floor. But you'll be seriously neglecting your quads, hamstrings, deltoids, lats, biceps and triceps. Mustering the motivation to hit the gym after a gruelling day of physical work takes serious willpower. You might even decide it's too much. But whatever you do, don't fool yourself into believing you're excused from the gym because of your active job. If strength is your goal, no job will cut it. Only the right sort of training.
It isn't consistent enough
Unless your career (or chores at home) fully exercises every body part for 4 to 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year, you shouldn't forgo working out. I have yet to see a job that satisfies this requirement. Even if you work a very physical job, you'll almost certainly be performing somewhat different movements each day. The job itself may be the same, but the stresses on your body will differ slightly. Enough to matter. Specific, highly repetitive movements under load like barbell squats, presses and deadlifts are crucial for gaining serious amounts of balanced, full-body strength. Your body needs a chance to adapt to the stresses you place on it through training. If you're always changing those stresses, (as with manual labour) even a little, it'll be hard to get really strong. Modern barbell training has been developed and refined over the past 200 years for one purpose – to make human beings stronger. Manual labour was never meant for this. It's necessary in this world to get things done, and sometimes those things happen to make us a little stronger. But it's a mistake to believe active work is a great training alternative. It isn't. It was never intended to be.
A NOTE ON THE VALUE OF MANUAL LABOUR:
Despite the impression you may have after reading this article, I'm a big fan of hard physical work. I believe it has a huge number of benefits, and it's very easy to become spoiled, selfish and mentally and physically weak if you never do it. It may not be a great substitute for training in the gym, but manual labour is a fundamental human activity nonetheless. I've arranged my own life to include plenty of hard physical work, and if you're serious about being the best man you can be, I highly recommend doing the same. Here's an article on some of the benefits of manual labour.