The world of manual labor is often very strenuous, and poses a high risk of injury.
This is mainly due to a rapid work pace, and lifting of awkwardly shaped and heavy objects, often with little attention given to lifting style. The physical demand in some areas of manual employment can be mentally and physically devastating.
I've known of big and strong men not accustomed to rigorous manual work, be reduced to quivering heaps after a day of heavy manual labor.
There are varying degrees of difficulty and physical exertion during manual labor, but all forms will be strenuous in one way or another. This puts a big strain on the body's recovery ability.
Couple this with the stress from training, and there's a high chance of mental and physical burnout.
The genetically typical, drug-free bodybuilder doesn't possess an above-average recovery system. It can only take a limited amount of stress from all directions in life before it gives up, leading to systemic devastation, possible injury, and feelings of frustration and negativity.
Manual labor isn't the ideal for any bodybuilder, especially drug-free, genetically typical folk. If manual labor employment is the only option in your life at present, you'll probably have to take it. No serious trainee, however, wants to sacrifice training in place of work. But with a manual labor job to do, you'll probably need to employ some big changes in order to keep the gains coming.
Adhere to the guidelines of this article, and you may be able to progress in size and strength whilst working a manual labor job. Tailor them to your individual needs.
A Personal Example
The first manual labor job I got was working for a tree surgeon when I was 17 years old. Though not the "classic" type of manual labor you may be thinking of, e.g., working on a construction site, it was about as strenuous as I would ever want any employment to be.
My boss would climb the trees with a chain saw and cut copious amounts of logs and brush wood which would fall to the ground in large, awkwardly tangled heaps.
It was my job to cut the logs to length, stack them, and clear the debris away as quickly as possible. It seemed endless.
Just as I had cleared one batch of logs and brush wood, the ground would be littered with another seemingly larger pile. These logs weren't light. They could be anything up to about 140 pounds.
This process would sometimes continue, with minimal rest, for up to three hours at a time. I gave little or no regard to lifting style—there wasn't the time, the work pace was far too rapid—but luckily I sustained little injury through this. I would probably put that down to the robustness of teenage years.
My bodybuilding progress ground to an immediate halt as a result of the manual labor. There was no progress whatsoever; in fact, regression quickly set in. At that time in my life I knew little about productive training, and the importance of a high quality diet sufficient in calories and nutrients in order to gain on and maintain health.
The training routine I followed was a three-days-per-week style split, but high volume. Each session would take about two hours minimum to complete. How I made progress even without the manual labor employment, I don't know.
The only food I consumed throughout the day was at breakfast (around 6:00 am), my lunch break (about 1:00 pm) and dinner (around 7:00 pm). There were breaks between these meal times, but usually just long enough to gulp down a cup of tea. Sometimes I would also skip dinner as I would be too exhausted from work to eat when I got home.
Even though I was working in sometimes hot conditions, I consumed little water—nowhere near as much as I should have been drinking. I became dehydrated and on several occasions got a terrible headache due to this, leaving me sick and feeling sorry for myself.
Every morning when I awoke, I felt sore and never fully rested. I would drive to work tired, aching, and hating every aspect about my work life—a depressing situation indeed.
My training was totally unsuitable; my diet was in a mess and deficient in nutrients. I lost a lot of lean mass, even more than the five or so pounds I'd gained from my training and in the end I was around 14 pounds lighter.
The job was beating my bodybuilding progress and health into the ground, but I needed the job to pay for my daily living and the inevitable costs involved in bodybuilding (mainly through frivolous spending on supplements).
Had I known the basic principles of productive training at the time, and tailored them to suit my individual needs, I may never have lost any muscle, and perhaps kept on gaining more.
When working at physically demanding employment whilst trying to gain muscle and might, there's no room for compromise with anything—be it nutrition, lifting style in the gym or at work, or the amount of sleep you're getting each night.
Here's what I should have done in order to have kept the gains coming, and what you should apply in order to keep them coming for you if you're a manual laborer.
A high-quality, healthful diet is not only essential for building muscle and might, but also for maintaining health. If you have a poor quality, junk food-filled diet, don't expect to build muscle. Eat lots of unrefined foods, including:
- Fresh Vegetables
- Meat and Fish
- Dairy Products
- Little or no refined sugars and "bad" fats (such as margarine, hydrogenated oils, and other refined vegetable oils).
Eat meals which are easily digested so that you're ready for another in no more than three hours. Your digestive tract should be able to process each meal within three hours or so, otherwise you may hinder your overall caloric and nutrient intake for the day.
Don't force feed yourself though. You must be comfortably ready for your next meal. If you try to cram more food into your stomach before you've processed your previous meal, you'll get digestive tract discomfort, which won't help your recovery. Find the quantity and combination of foods you can digest and process easily within no more than three hours or so.
While working at a physically demanding job, you'll be using more energy. It's imperative that your meals are easily assimilated—to try to avoid your body catabolizing muscle tissue for energy. It's detrimental to wait too long between feeds. You need to stay in an anabolic state.
The first effect of poor nutrition and/or an undersupply of calories and nutrients is a loss of the anabolic, or muscle-building "environment" within your body, i.e., the production of catabolism.
As soon as you're in a catabolic state, there's no way your body can develop muscle and strength. Thus, training will be rendered not only useless but an additional stress on your body.
You may be able to maintain your strength, but building additional strength will prove very difficult, and extra muscle will be a fantasy.
There are varying degrees of catabolism. The more severe it is the quicker all the negative effects are inflicted upon your body, and the more detrimental the results as regards your health and bodybuilding.
To avoid catabolism and stay in an anabolic, growth-promoting state, consume easily digested meals no more than three hours apart which (in total) supply more calories than it takes to maintain your bodyweight plus an allowance for the energy you're exerting through your employment.
You need to be in caloric surplus. Included in this intake should be at least one gram of animal protein per pound of bodyweight, plenty of healthful fats, and sufficient vitamins and minerals. It's better to be oversupplied than undersupplied.
Get a blender out and start making nutritious concoctions which you can take to work with you in a thermos. Then you can have quality nutrition every three hours with minimal hassle. I've done it, and still do it now.
Through experimentation and a little trial and error you'll discover the concoctions most suited to your digestive tract, and those which you enjoy the most.
I suggest you keep the concoctions on the simple side. For example, start with plain milk and add skim milk powder. Use this as a base and add flavor and no more than two other items. Here's one I regularly use: 300 ml semi-skim milk, 70 grams skim milk powder, and a medium banana. This yields one "meal" with about 500 calories and 35 grams of protein.
Generally, I have two liquid meals and two solid food meals whilst at work. For me this works well. You may prefer a different combination. Experiment.
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What do I mean by an "allowance" for the energy you'll be using whilst at work? As an illustration, let's say that it takes 3,800 calories for you to grow whilst you're not working a manual labor job. Then perhaps you embark upon employment within the steel industry, and shift heavy material all day.
Start by increasing your caloric intake by 200 calories per day. Stick with that for a week or so and then check your weight and body fat/single skin fold reading.
If you're not gaining any weight, and your body fat/skin fold measurements are the same—and assuming you're using a training regime which has worked for you in the past, and you're training intensively on it and resting and sleeping as much as possible—increase by another 200 calories per day, and stay with that for another week.
Then repeat the weigh-in and body fat/skin fold measurement, and so on.
Be sure to use the exact same conditions as before—note them down. If you discover that you're gaining weight whilst adding minimal or no fat, stick with your new caloric intake for the immediate future.
If you find that you're adding body fat only, cut back a little—say 100-200 calories per day.
Once you're gaining muscular bodyweight, don't put a brake on your progress by corner cutting with your diet.
Even if you're not gaining, you'll still need unwavering dedication in order to determine your needs so that you can gain muscle. No cutting corners!
With manual labor taking a heavy toll on your recovery ability, adjust your training to "make room" in your recuperative system to accommodate the additional stress from your employment.
Modify your training so that it's compatible with your working life. For example, your current routine may have squats and stiff-legged deadlifts every Friday night. If you have had a hard and heavy day of manual work on Friday, you're not going to be raring to train on heavy squats and stiff-legged deadlifts the same night.
What's more, your lower back may let you down due to fatigue, inviting injury. In this situation it would be best to give yourself a full day of rest before squatting and stiff-legged deadlifting, thus putting your workout on Saturday.
Once you've tailored your training so that it is compatible with your working schedule, you need to adjust the volume and/or frequency to accommodate the manual labor.
I suggest you start by giving yourself an extra rest of day between workouts relative to what you were doing prior to doing manual labor, and see how that helps. If your progress grinds to a halt, assuming that you're fully attending to the components of recovery, reduce the number of work sets per exercise.
For example, if you usually do three progressive warm-up sets per movement, and two hard work sets, reduce to just one work set. If you still find that you're making no progress, prune back your overall routine. For example, if you're squatting, benching, deadlifting, chinning and pressing in a single routine, cut back to just squats, benches and chins.
You would still be working all of your major musculature, but with fewer exercises. If you still see no progress, add an extra day of recovery between workouts. Keep this sort of process going until you do see progress happening.
It should go without saying that if you cut corners with your diet, rest or sleep, you won't make any progress no matter how suitable your training may be.
Don't be afraid to be radical with your training. If you need ten days of recovery between your squat sessions in order to make progress, fine. It doesn't matter how out-of-line your training may be relative to what others are doing. What should matter to you the most is your training and the results you derive from it. To train in a way that someone else recommends, but which is unsuitable for you, is madness.
Rest, Sleep, and Relaxation
Get as much rest and sleep as possible. The quality and quantity of sleep you get each night has a big impact on your training, which is amplified when you're working at a physically demanding job.
If you're sleeping poorly on a regular basis, and running a continuous sleep deficit, not only will your progress in the gym grind to a halt, but your working efficiency will be heavily compromised. But this is nothing compared to the effects it will inflict upon your health.
Sleep is a very important component of bodybuilding success, and must be taken very seriously if you're to make good progress. But it's an even bigger component of good health. Don't short-change yourself on sleep!
Most people don't realize the power of sleep when it comes to bodybuilding progress, and one's state of health in general. Due to this, how much sleep they get each night is of little concern to most people.
You need to get your full quota of sleep each night, with eight solid hours being the minimum amount for hard-training manual laborers. How do you know how much sleep you need? Go to bed when you're feeling tired, and sleep until you naturally wake up in the morning. When you awake naturally, there's a good chance that you'll have had your full quota of sleep.
If, however, you've been getting up at 6:00 am for a while, your body's internal clock will be "set" to wake you at around that time. Then you can wake up out of habit before you're fully rested. This will be evident because you'll be tired upon awakening, as opposed to the refreshed and rested state you should be in.
If this applies to you, I suggest you go to bed as early as possible each night, and gradually adjust your waking time in the morning until you're getting the sleep you need.
Going to bed as early as possible means just that, not as soon as you've got in from the pub at midnight, or back from the cinema, or whatever. You need to give your sleep priority over all non-essential activities in the evening, if you're to get enough sleep.
The irony is that most people who run a sleep deficit are their own worst enemies, because they don't have the discipline to go to bed early enough.
Merely developing this necessary discipline is all that's needed for most people to get enough sleep each night. If you have a sleeping disorder, however, I suggest you get matters corrected by visiting an appropriate doctor or sleep clinic.