Gym Training Doesn't Compare to the Real World: Lessons From 10 Years of Manual Labor, and 5 Tips for Breaking Free of the Gym Environment

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Do you think this guy counts calories, plans for proper post-work nutrition, or follows a perfectly periodized work program?

Construction Worker Potrait

There’s something about manual labor that really hits home with me after doing landscaping for 10 years. What started as mowing lawns in the summer for some cash, ended up becoming my own professional landscaping business in my college years. Hard physical labor has numerous lessons to teach, not all of which are physical.

Being out in the sun, working beyond the point of exhaustion will certainly teach you about the limits of the human body. If you’ve ever worked construction, or held any other “grunt” type of position, then you’ll know that the human body, if well-fueled and well-rested, is capable of so much more than what is commonly expected. I’ve read that Navy SEAL/S are known for teaching that the body can take 10 times the amount of work we think it can (with a little encouragement, of course). I tend to think the body can take quite a beating, so ten times that is really saying something.

I remember building a retaining wall at a local elementary school. We were using pre-cut blocks, each of which was 91 lbs dry. That wall was 24 feet tall, and over 130 feet long when we were finished. If our estimate was correct, it was made up of over six thousand blocks when we were finished. And it was only the first of three walls that needed to be built.

That’s 6,000 deadlifts, into a carry from the palette to the wall, into a precise shimmy to get it “just right.” – in 2 days. To count repetitions would have been useless. To do “sets” would have been silly and unproductive. It was all work that had to be done, and we were on the clock – being paid handsomely for our project. We took a 30 minute break for lunch, and the rest of the day, from 7 til 5 was spent lifting, carrying, shimmying, and dropping pins into place to hold them.

I remember the first day was brutal, and it was HOT. When you work hard all day, your energy comes in waves. The first few hours aren’t so bad, but as you get into the afternoon, when the sun is high, every step becomes difficult – and the little mind-gremlins come out to tempt you to stop moving, to “just take a little break.” We didn’t have time for breaks. We were on schedule, and our work was needed to precede other work for the school construction.

By any personal training standards we should have flat-out quit after an hour or two. By then, we had already “put in our time.” We certainly had done enough to elicit an adaptation of muscle building, fat loss, and strength. Unfortunately, even a twice-a-day session wouldn’t have been enough to finish that wall on schedule.

We certainly didn’t have the optimal post workout nutrition formula drink, either. We ate food mostly at lunch, and would sometimes devour a snack while carrying the stones – an apple, sandwich, or granola bar. Oh, we didn’t even think about nutrients either. We even ate a lot of carbs – ALL DAY LONG. Dr. Atkins would have been horrified!

As it turns out, we broke all the typical diet and fitness rules when working. If it’s a rule in the gym, we broke it on the job!

This got me thinking about “real life.” You know, this world that we live in outside of the gym. Life never plays by the rules. Things come up last minute. Nothing goes according to plans. Sometimes, we just don’t have time to do the best, ideal thing.

And yet, we try to setup an ideal environment and system for exercising our bodies. Take a trip to the gym with me, and let’s see what we’ll find, shall we…

-Smooth surfaces everywhere
-Perfectly sized hand grips on all machines and free weights
-“Motivational” Music (HA!! my local gym plays nothing of the sort!)
-Machines than do half of the work for us through leverage, pulleys, etc.
-Smoothie bar
-The gym guru’s that tell you what you should be doing
-Air Conditioning

Now, let’s step back into reality, what is the REAL WORLD really like?

Real world terrain is rough, rocky, dusty, various, and definitely only smooth where man has made it that way.

Unfortunately, we don’t have mirrors everywhere to show us if we’re using proper technique when doing something outside the gym. Well, except maybe posing in front of the mirror at home – a very practical and useful activity.

Not everything has a human-specific hand grip to make easy work of picking something heavy up. Most things are downright awkward to hold.

It really is too bad that we can’t have our favorite music flip on everytime we need to “do something serious” – that’s what iPod’s are for though, right?

Yeah, we’ve got machines to make our lives easier. I love em! (only some of them). Unfortunately, moving heavy things like furniture doesn’t involve pulley’s or leverage – you just gotta pick that piano up and don’t let go no matter what!

Even if you’ve just worked your butt off for hours, nobody is going to ask you if you want a banana berry smoothie on your way home from work.

What fascinates me is that there are even people OUTSIDE OF THE GYM who tell you what you should be doing. It’s the craziest thing… (OK, you got me!)

It’s funny, there’s no A/C outside. It’s the weirdest thing!

In the real world, our bikes actually travel when you pedal them. Rowing a boat will help you get somewhere and enjoy being on the water. The steps of stairs don’t actually move up and down – we walk over them. And no, we don’t walk on a constant conveyor belt to get to where we have to go. We can’t read a book while we ride a bike, and we don’t watch TV while walking somewhere (except maybe from the kitchen to the living room!). We don’t enjoy the luxury of gloves, chalk, or lifting belts. Our support beams aren’t covered in dense foam. The ground isn’t all rubber, either!

Hmmm, this just doesn’t add up…

So, I must ask myself, what is the gym environment preparing us for?

I think, in many respects, that the typical gym environment is preparing us for safety – a cushioned existence. It doesn’t mimic the wild, real world. The gym environment keeps us comfortable, even when one of our goals is to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

So, each of us must ask ourselves – is our current training program helping to prepare us for the real world?

Honestly ask yourself: could I carry someone out of a burning building? Could I climb over an 8 foot wall? Could I perform hard manual labor for 8 hours straight? Could I scamper up a tree while carrying a child to safety? Could I outrun an assailant? Could I survive a fight?

We need to be more prepared than the challenges we face. Even with excellent physical skills (like climbing, defending, etc.), poor conditioning will lead to your not having access to those skills. If we don’t have the conditioning to do something, then guess what? We can’t do it, no matter how willing or talented we are.

Just because you can clean and jerk a 100 kg barbell over your head, doesn’t mean you can hoist an unconscious man to your shoulder. It just doesn’t work like that.

So, it’s time for a reevaluation. The more we can align our training program with the real world demands of physical living, the better. Here are a few simple steps you can take to head in the right direction:

5 Tips for Breaking Outside of the Gym Environment

1) Take your training outdoors. This will be the single most important and positive step you can make to mimic the demands of real life in your training program. You won’t have A/C, rubber flooring, or mirrors. You’ll be out in the elements and your training will change out of necessity. (it seems going outdoors has been a common theme lately)

2) Get away from barbells and dumbbells and start using “real world” weights. This can be stones, logs, sandbags, buckets, old tires, water jugs, or even furniture. Anything that you would pick up when cleaning up the yard or house. You’d be surprised how much you can do with a few heavy rocks – deadlifts, squats, cleans, jerks, presses, rows, various throws, etc. Many traditional gym exercises can be performed with heavy and odd objects.

3) Do something you’ve never or rarely done before. This is a direct approach for getting outside of your comfort zone. Putting yourself directly into the position of novice or beginner will challenge you in new and fresh ways. It can be anything from rock climbing to ultimate frisbee. The important thing is that you seek those things which you know will be difficult for you. Facing your fears is one of the fastest routes to self-growth.

4) Test Your Limits. There’s rarely something as self-revealing as a true test of your physical limits. This can be any physical activity, but it must challenge you to your maximum threshold. For example, a one rep max strength test, a maximum repetitions within a certain time limit test, climbing a mountain under a certain time, running or cycling for time or distance. This is where you reach true HIGH INTENSITY through an extraordinary effort.

5) Train in the moment. Give up your TV, magazine, book, cell phone, mp3 player and just train. Forget the extras, and just focus on your movement and the effective execution of your training session until you are finished. Don’t stop to talk with others, don’t take an extra long rest. Stick to your plan and make the most of the time you’ve given yourself. It’s your time.

The Bottom Line

It’s ok to break the rules once in awhile. In fact, I’ve often found the most personal benefit when breaking the rules of conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to physical living. What is most important is that we find a healthy medium between balancing comfort/discomfort with adequate training stimulus and pushing to our limit. Our training MUST prepare us for the challenges we face. It’s not enough to look healthy and strong. We need to BE healthy and strong, be capable and useful for more than just average physical living. The years of looking strong at the expense of being athletically and functionally dumb are coming to an end. At least that’s what I hope, seems we haven’t learned too much in almost 2,000 years…

Why do strong arms fatigue themselves with frivolous dumbbells? To dig a vineyard is worthier exercise for men. – Marcus Valerius Martialis (40 AD – 103 AD)

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional

P.S. If you want to break free from the chains of your local health club, there’s no better way to start than by becoming completely non-dependent on strength training equipment. The Bodyweight Exercise Revolution is one of my top choices for equipment-free strength training:

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14 Responses

  1. dubbahdee

    Can’t believe there are no comments on this post.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, since I first read it. I have preferred training outside, I avoid gyms, and have been moving toward odd weights exercises, and a focus on functional strength for several years. Having said that, I think that gyms have a few purposes:

    1) getting the uninitiated into exercising in a controlled, “safe” and socially acceptable environment.
    2) Preparing for sport events that take place under controlled circumstances.
    3) Allowing people to weave a social aspect into their training, including accountability, informal advice, and shared experience.

    I started my strength training with the Body for Life program using a bench and dumbbells in my basement. Now I use kettlebells, barefoot running, and I’m making plans with a sledge hammer and tire iron. I know this; training with these tools, focusing on form and progressive workload prepares me to do real life work without injuring myself.

    Also, not every physical labor job is as intensive as your wall building. I love splitting wood, but since I do it by myself, the time it takes to place each log to split and picking up and stacking the split pieces limits the intensity. When whacking a tire with a sledge, I can get very intense.

    Since my work is not physical, I find that having a physical outlet for exercise is very useful.

    I’m planning to build a 2 course dry laid fieldstone wall next year. That will be some good work.

    • Sean kramer

      I know this is an old post. I do concrete for a living. I am very aware of this situation between gym strength and work strength. We use to get big guys on the jobs and they would fail at everything strength wise in our world. We use to make fun of them. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I was very sick about a year ago. Long story short I went from a strong 185 to a frail 130 pounds. Lost 4 grades of muscle and couple feet of intestin. Long journey back. I am in gym everyday! I feel strong now in the gym but my compound movements at work are very weak. My back hurts so bad due to my core being cut on. Not sure if I will ever get that back but I now know the difference in gym strength and work strength.

  2. John

    Thanks for your comment dubbahdee.

    I’m glad you brought up that point that there is value in the gym environment. I tend to go off on rants and forget to mention that if it wasn’t for the gym environment, I wouldn’t be who I am today. There are many lessons to be learned from the traditional training methods, and many uses for a more controlled training experiences, like physical therapy, for example.

    Have fun building your wall. I just finished helping my neighbor finish a retaining wall along the road, good stuff!

  3. Jan

    So great. After a month of spin classes, treadmills, ellipticals, the Siffy ladies have had it. Today we were back outside doing bear crawls, and lunges up the 100 yard hill. During the flu scare here we ditched the gym for a couple of weeks and exercised in my garden in the real early morning hours and saw some sunrises we normally miss. It’s amazing how different familiar exercises are when you do them on uneven surfaces or while experiencing different textures and other physical input…even smells. I agree with the comment before on the advantages of the gym enviornment, but there’s so much richness and complexity we miss out on when we don’t mix up the enviornment alongside our exercise routines…by the way, Siffy girls up to 45 seconds on the alligator on hands and toes, we’re catching up to you, oh and…the leg thread through sucks!!!! LOL we still haven’t forgiven you for that one. :-D

  4. John

    Good to hear from you Jan :)

    It’s so true how just changing your environment can change an exercise completely. That’s why I love training outdoors, it’s usually a new, fresh experience.

    Keep up the good work. I expect you and the rest of the Siffer ladies to outperform me in the alligator walk someday…

  5. bwe

    in my opinion, the best way to physicaly reach your full potential is by doing bodyweight exercises!the combination of strength and endurance you get doing these is unmatchable!and big bonus is that you cant get too big!no matter what type of advanced hardcore BWE you do, will never look like ronnie coleman or arnold!you will be able to move your body!

  6. donald

    Love this article it is completely true, and worth reading. I have been a professional management consultant for years.. no heavy lifting. I have for the last 6 month I have been taking care of my wife and am doing my masters remotely at night. I have been doing an 8 hour a day manual Labour position to create predictable days. The first few days were tough. Within a month I was an unstoppable machine. Smooth for breakfast, sandwich halfway through morning, light lunch, lots of liquids throughout day, smooth after work, mid evening supper, warm bath, full body searching, 6.5 hours sleep.

  7. Josh

    I’m now 27… I grew up on a farm and have had a job since I was the age of 15 (pushing buggies and bagging groceries in high school)… Even though I have always worked and played outdoors at one point I was almost 400 lbs… After high school I worked on drilling rigs, welding shops, and the pipeline… My weight dropped rapidly to my now weight of 250 lbs… I decided to go to college and for two years I worked at wal mart in the evenings, a hotel at night, and college during the morning…. Since then I’ve went back to manual labor (recieved a two year for IT, realized I couldn’t sit still long enough and it nearly drove me crazy lol)… Fast forward to now I work up to a 13 hr day four days a week and a half day on Fridays… I work for a company that manufactures railroad maintanence equipment brushcutters ect(everything is freakin heavy) … I do cardio (usually jog or jump rope) push-ups, sit ups, the usual… I eat healthy I mean not even a coke… And to top all of that off I live in Alabama where the heat index this week has gotten up to 107… I guess my question is why would my weight stop at 250 and fluctuate up and back down to around 250… Now granted I’m a large guy 6’2 52″ muscular chest… But why wouldn’t my belly, hips, and thighs never shrink… The smallest I’ve ever gotten was down to 230 on adderall until my eyes looked sunken in and people kept aking if I were sick… Another question I guess would be, do you think after years of manual labor that a body acclimates and conserves?

  8. Ed

    Hard physical labour is THE best exercise and the added bonus is that after the exercise you either have a bit more money if you are working for pay or you will have increased the value of your property if you are working for yourself .
    I am 70 and just finished making an extension to my driveway to park an RV . The extension is 25 ft long and 13 feet wide and the area I had to dig out was an average of 3 feet deep . The area had trees and rocks of all sizes including ones I had to drill and break just to get them small enough to lift . I had to pull stumps and either carry the soil and rocks in buckets or wheelbarrow and found uses for every bit of stuff that came out of the hole except some of the roots . I dug it down to 8 inches below the level of the driveway then went to the quarry and hand loaded 10 tons of rocks of sizes starting at fist size ,( try shovelling those for fun), and working down to traffic bond which is a mixture of granite powder and 3/8 stone to fill the hole up to driveway level when compacted to the consistency of concrete . I confess to using a power compactor because I had access to one for free.
    There is not an ounce of fat on me and I can outwork a room full of teenagers and feel great … at 70.

  9. josh

    I can agree being a landscaper myself. However I’m 27, my hands are ruined, I’m scarred all over, backs not what it was. There is no way I could do this job when I’m 50. The gym route offers specific and controlled training environments. It might be a longer process but alot better In the long run. I might be fit and strong now however in 10 years time Il be a broken man.

    • m.corrigan

      YES ,at 50 you can do it ! I am 64 and climb terraced hills ,hauling unknown lb.boulders/rolling is not forbidden.
      navigating 5 to 10 foot walls w/ rocks and plants mulch. 7 hrs aday 5 days a week ……and creating a walled garden [walls 20 feet tall and 100 years old.. Access is to and from uses every muscle ,balance and strategy…..

      do not give up . Take a break ,but do not let body atrophy………..


  10. antonio aguilar

    I believe MOST people would prefer that type of rugged outdoor training…i would love to do that.

    But the problem is, i dont have access to that type of stuff where i live. I have a gym by my house and no types of rugged outdoor environment where i could carry boulders, do tree pull ups, lift logs, etc…..

  11. Keila

    I’m saving this article as a constant reminder of my life’s goals. I’m a stay at home mom, I’m overweight, but I can’t get myself into a gym to save my life. I need to exercise desperately.

    Because I’ve always been one for efficiency, I love the concept of this article. I can kill two birds with one stone. I can plant some trees, paint a room or two, tear out the overgrown cattails in the pond myself (rather than hiring a landscaper). I would need to keep myself continually busy with labor intensive projects in and around my home. Not seeing the work as 100 squats or deadlifts can actually get me exercising regularly. Who knows, if things change for me drastically, this could lead to that active lifestyle I’ve always craved. Before you know it I’ll be rock climbing and racing my sons on our bikes.

    I know it’s not a revelation for many people, but it is to me. Thank you!!

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