Blue Collar Muscle: Training and Nutrition Considerations for the Manual Laborer
Unless you spend every day enjoying beers while you comb your toes through velvety sand as you watch the waves crash ashore, your summer probably sucks. Teachers have it made from June through September, as do the kids who are handed a credit card and told by their parents all they have to do is “concentrate on school”. Most of us still are upholding serious responsibilities – reporting to our hellhole of a job each day, where we grind out our 40+, hoping to have enough time to spare to get in the gym each day and perhaps a respite from creating Excel spreadsheets and whatever else office workers do during their day to check out Joe’s blog.
Though you may not have the summer off like your teacher friends, or your neighbor’s snotty brand new Acura sedan-pushing kid, at least you’re basking a controlled climate, unlike the blue collar folks out there who are literally baking out there in the heat. You know the people with the stained clothes, dirt under their fingernails, and weary looks on their sweat beaded faces that you scoff at in line at the convenience store. These are the same people who ensure that your electricity doesn’t deny you the opportunity to watch a lame primetime talent audition reality show, the same people who are fixing your car’s air conditioner, so you don’t have to cool off by rolling the windows down, the same people that are picking up your ghastly smelling garbage on trash day. You get the point – well many of these people, like you, have gym memberships. Unlike you, they must keep their bodies healthy and strong so they can get up for work and go at it again.
If you’re a blue collar iron warrior out there, read up – these tips will help you. If not, appreciate the fact that you can stay tucked away in your office, wrapped in a Snuggie, as you try to keep warm in your 68° office “weather”.
1. Ramp up the intensity
I know readers will inevitably ask, “Why is this nut suggesting that I train with more intensity?” Simple. For one, you’re engaging in strenuous repetitive activity for most of your work day. The last thing you want to do is repeat this stimulus in the gym via moderate to high volume protocols. If you’re going to do that, you might as well work overtime, because at least you’ll be earning money instead of further sapping yourstrength gains. A general rule that I’ve always followed when programming manual laborers is to reduce the volume of a typical program by at least a 1/3rd. This will allow the trainee to handle heavier weights and get and out of the gym sooner, or permit them time to work on corrective stuff.
2. Prioritize Corrective Exercise
While this is also important for desk jockeys, it’s vitally important for manual laborers. Back injuries are prevalent in manual laborers, stemming from repetitive stress injuries – often from doing the same thing 40 hours or greater per week. Carpenters are repeatedly in flexion throughout their workday. Yeah, they may go back out to their trucks for supplies every so often, but they are usually bent over or kneeling as they secure an object with one hand, while using the other hand to operate a tool. Since these guys are coiled up all day, their programming should entail more extension based exercises. I’d focus on core and shoulder stability work as well as hitting the posterior chain a bit harder. Work on strengthening the low back and the lateral rotators of the shoulder. Restore soft tissue extensibility by getting on the foam roller and don’t forget to stretch and perform range of motion work, prior to training or on your days that you’re off from the gym.
3. Your training frequency and volume should correlate with your week’s physical workload
If you’re operating machinery all week, surveying, taking measurements, or driving, then feel free to increase the volume. I know I might be contradicting myself due to what I said in Tip # 1, but feel free to get some extra conditioning work it, or perhaps add another set or a few reps to each set, but any excessive volume adds be detrimental. Stay conservative. I always follow the 20% rule. For instance if you’re doing ten total work sets, add two more, but no more. The same rule applies with frequency – maybe you want to throw in a conditioning session. Fine, but make sure that added day or volume doesn’t comprise more than 20% of your week’s total.
4. Eat more…
Quality food – specifically protein and carbohydrates to support your occupational performance, but also to sustain increases in strength and mass gains. Unless you have very specific nutritional needs or are trying to manage a medical condition, it pays to be a bit more liberal with your diet. Manual labor will quickly deplete your muscle glycogen stores – which is also utilized in high intensity exercise, while I’m not saying you should balloon to Lee Priest-like offseason proportions (doughnuts and Cell Tech helpful, but not required), you should always be in a carb loaded state. Infuse yourself with carbs throughout the day so you can train with vigor later. Remaining in carb loaded state will elicit a better insulin response, helping with muscle glycogen synthesis. Carbohydrates in conjunction with protein will help with recovery and will stave off the recently consumed protein from being converted into glycogen via gluconeogenesis, instead the protein will accelerate recovery between workdays and workouts – your blood’s amino acid content, specifically glutamine, will be higher, leaving you in the anabolic state you need to get stronger and gain muscle mass.
5. Meal plan and drink
In order to successfully adhere to the last tip, you need to focus to meal planning – buy in bulk and prepare all of your meals in advance on your off day. Keep nutrient dense snacks readily available and drink – I don’t mean joining the Bob the red-nosed alcoholic foreman for drinks at the bar after work, I mean consuming fluids throughout the day. Electrolyte enriched beverages will help provide you energy and if you’re more allergic to calories than Nicole Richie, which wouldn’t make sense because you’ll be burning so many during your work day, then feel free to opt for low calorie or calorie free electrolyte enriched sports drinks. This will help balance your body’s fluids and manage sweat losses better, keeping your body cooler during hot summer days.
6. It’s okay to back off sometimes
How many of us have seen the jacked construction worker dude wearing the paint-stained, acid wash, convertible jeans (jeans cut into shorts) and a pair of work boots strut into the gym and kill himself with heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses, week after week. He’s likely that way because he’s assisted, genetically gifted, or deliberately dresses in grungy clothes to look like a blue collar guy, when in actuality he’s an Audi driving financial analyst trying to earn man points. Yes, I’m sure it happens. This identity crisis isn’t nearly as problematic as guys rocking Tapout shirts and following some exercises they saw Joe Dowdell put his MMA guys through, thinking they’re an MMA fighter. Anyways, I digress. Backing off – deloading – is very acceptable. Let’s face it, no one can grind out the week roofers or concrete workers put in and expect to shatter PRs every workout. Deloads, either planned or simply deciding to take it easy that workout or week, is entirely acceptable – just remember to apply the same focus to your corrective or technique work as you would on your heavy training days.
Instead of inserting a string of PubMed abstracts, which I’ve been guilty of doing in previous articles and blogs, I kept things relatively simple. Since I’m a bigger nerd than Stephen Hawking, except not as good looking, I still had to get some numbers in here for the sake of backing my suggestions. Below is a chart which outlines the energy demand of various occupational activities per hour.
About the Author
Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, hails from a working class section of Philadelphia and is a formerly a manual laborer himself, working in warehouse and landscaping during college to pay his tuition. Joe is an avid Craigslist dater, “swag surfer”, and coupon clipper. He is an extremely private person and does not keep a blog, website, or push products, because he’s not an “expert”, instead he does what he loves – writing, training people, and deadlifting.
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