Manual Labor and Exercise: should there be one without the other?

My first experience in a manual labor job brought up all sorts of questions for me as a personal trainer. Is this how it should be? Should exercising our bodies have a tangible purpose of, say, carrying a toolbox from here to there because someone needs a wrench, rather than suffering the monotonous repetition of weightlifting sets? Exercise felt pointless to me for a time, even though I knew that I was able to perform the tasks because I was in good shape. I also knew that I was tired at the end of each eight-hour day, and that the last thing I needed was a workout.

Before throwing in the sweaty towel on personal training, I wanted to talk to Bill Griffey. Bill's a personal trainer who teaches physical education in the public schools, and he coaches football and track and field. I was right: he was the one to ask. Read on for some insights on how to strike a balance in activity levels between work and the rest of life.


Bill, you and I are both trainers who worked in the same gym, but we've also shared an office and a desk job. I remember you saying that the men in your family joked about you sitting at a desk—that someday you’d get a “real” job. Can you speak to the importance of physical work to your family?

Growing up, all the men in my life worked manual labor jobs. My grandfather on my dad's side was a heavy diesel mechanic. My grandfather on my mom's side worked in a factory building parts for Navy ships. Both of my grandfathers were WWII veterans. My father's profession was a truck driver, and since he delivered locally, he was required to help unload the trucks, as well. I remember my 6’ 3”, 250lb father often coming home exhausted from a long day at work.
It was important for my father to instill a hard work ethic in his children. We were required to complete many chores around our property, such as cutting and carrying wood, lawn care and house cleaning. Along with our chores, we were expected to work a job for local farmers or anyone else who needed help. 

My first job was at 10, for a furniture-making business. I was required to load and unload flatbeds with lumber. Until I was 17, I worked for local farmers during the summers bailing hay, milking cows, carrying large rocks from fields and various other duties.

My father did not attend school beyond eighth grade, so he always felt insecure in his influence on our education. He wanted to teach his children how to grind and be proud of our work ethic and accomplishments. I will always cherish his influence.

I'm guessing that your exhausted father did not pursue recreational exercise in the way that you do today. You coach football and track, but you also advocate for exercise as an end to itself in your role as personal trainer. Thinking about your dad and people who do similar labor, what would you say is the role of exercise for those who already move all day? Does it depend on the job? And as for the rest of us, do we need exercise simply because our days do not include the unloading of trucks?

Exercise prescription for someone who performs manual labor for a living can be vastly different, yet eerily similar, to someone who sits behind a desk all day. Unfortunately, many people who work manual labor jobs suffer from chronic pain due to overuse of certain tissues. In my experience, many people who perform manual labor do so with improper form which leads to dysfunction.  

Of course, by learning how to hinge, brace, squat, and rotate efficiently, many manual laborers will avoid debilitating chronic injuries. My primary goal as a trainer for someone like my father would be to improve the primary movement patterns (squat, hinge, press, pull, lunge, rotation, gait) and improve mobility in problematic areas such as the hips, low back, and thoracic spine. The training sessions would look like a blend of physical therapy and functional strength training.

Also for those of us who are not blessed to have a job that keeps us physically active, we need exercise and N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is a fancy acronym for our need to move around more. Exercise prescription for someone who does not perform manual labor can be tricky, because you are looking for a way for them to adhere to the plan. Most movement feels unnatural and uncomfortable, so programming can be a challenge. It's an art form as well, because you the trainer need to find methods and exercises that will motivate your client to stay active even when they are not in a session.

But let's say the job is fairly balanced in its demands on the body. I recently finished my first week in a manual labor job fixing school bleachers. I climbed a ladder to reach the bolts up high, and I crawled underneath the lowest steps. I used my abs, feet, and triceps to scoot between these tight spaces. Sometimes I'd grab onto anything I could and raise my body in a pull up in order to move, and of course used external rotation of the shoulders to check and tighten thousands of bolts. The old bleachers needed to be pulled out by hand, so I'd hip hinge and drive through my feet. Pushing them back in was almost more difficult, but I remembered technique from my experience in strongman pushing trucks, and used that. We'd have to track down custodial staff in each building, and that involved a lot of walking while carrying a heavy toolbox, extension cords, lights and a ladder.

All in all, I faired pretty well, short of a little elbow strain on the arm that usually held the wrenches, and a little lower back discomfort from those spaces where I didn't need to crawl but couldn't quite stand up in, either. But that elbow often gives me trouble, anyway; it's an old boxing injury.

When I train others and when I program my own exercise, I always emphasize functional movement patterns, and these served me well in this situation, though I'm fully aware that my time working was brief and not day in and day out. I'm remembering a conversation I had with a kid who worked for a moving company. I had been thinking that such a job could keep a person very fit--you're lifting heavy things every day!--but he said that every morning he woke up and was miserable. Carrying odd-shaped heavy objects through changing spaces was taking its toll.

So my question is this: if a person has a well-balanced workload in his/her manual labor job and has a good sense of how to move and load his body, does he need exercise outside of work? Did your dad need exercise, or did he fulfill his lifting requirements at work and then loosen up by throwing a football to you?

Will someone who has a well-balanced workload have a "need" to exercise? Yes and no. I can think of a few of my uncles who have worked as general contractors their entire adult lives and have maintained a lean physique and reportedly have been given a clean bill of health from their doctors. But if one them came to me with this question, I would answer by describing how regular exercise could drastically improve their performance at work. I would also describe the mental benefits of having another physical practice outside of work.

You teach physical education to children in a very purposeful fashion: practicing the primal movement patterns to make sure their bodies move well and as designed. A kind of preventative occupational therapy for the laborers in your midst?

Yes, I teach the primal movement patterns with my elementary students. I also teach an hour at the middle school; three days per week are dedicated to a group workout highlighting a fitness component such as speed, strength, endurance or flexibility. Then I talk to my students about the lifelong benefits of having an efficient aerobic system, or balance, or strength. After each workout, the students write in a training journal about how they felt about the workout and which fitness components were emphasized. 

Over 80% of my class are non-athletes. so this may be the only education they receive about health and fitness. I'm excited about our commitment to lifelong fitness.

Me too, Bill. This is how it should be.

Find Bill on Instagram: @runningbear2


  1. Now that I've been sanding floors for a week, let me add Part 2.

    Performing a repetitive task helps me hear what Bill's saying. I had been so enamored with the well-roundedness of fixing bleachers that I didn't fully get how doing one thing can affect your body.

    Like when the bruises get so bad on your hip that you find a new, awkward place to rest the sander, in turn causing tendonitis.

    Or when you push against something for hours at a stretch, causing your back to forget how to work, and then throwing it out at the smallest task.

    I have found that many of my muscles have stopped firing in favor of allowing others to do their work. Think of the lazy guy on the crew; why should he bother when others are getting the job done? You can find him--and my glutes, and my back--playing Candy Crush in the corner. They're slacking because they can.

    Full-body exercise primes the muscles for further activity, teaching them how and when to fire. I stand by the routines I give my clients, even when they ask what happened to the curls and the tricep extensions. Those small movements aren't going to serve you well if they're not an accompaniment to functional exercises which involve the larger muscle groups (and, I'd add, primal patterns such as crawling). Doesn't matter if you'll never sand a floor. When you workout, teach your body how to move. It's practice for everything else that happens in work and at play.


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