S&C for the DIY Home Renovator

The UK’s hottest day of the year thus far was a welcome break from the bleak and miserable weather of the first 6 months of 2021.  Perfect for beers, BBQs, ice creams and all sorts of outdoor activities.  I hope everyone got their fill.

How did I spend the weekend?…

Grafting!

My girlfriend’s sister and brother-in-law are adding a rather significant extension to their already impressive detached house in the suburbs of Surrey.  As I am sure many of you have experienced, a Bank Holiday weekend offers the perfect opportunity for homeowners to draw upon cheap (free) labour in the form of family who are banking on these kinds of favours going full circle!

The main jobs were all very physical including digging foundations, lifting existing paving, destroying an old conservatory, and shifting all the old material.  Feeling rather sore after two exhausting days of manual labour, I reflected on what felt like a series of workouts.  Sort of like the CrossFit games, kind of…

The day’s work seemed to cover many bases and was reliant on many different components of fitness:

  • Strength & Power – lifting and carrying heavy loads
  • Agility & Balance – shifting bodyweight under a load, changing direction whilst carrying a load
  • Flexibility – ability to reach awkward spaces,
  • Strength Endurance – digging trenches, digging more trenches
  • Cardiovascular / Cardiorespiratory Endurance – maintaining all of the above for a full day!

This led me to decide that my first S&C focussed post would fall under the yard work/labourer/gardening umbrella.  I think this would be handy for all those that have DIY home renovations coming up, are moving house soon, or just like to spend a lot of time out in the garden generally.

Now I am not going to prescribe a specific workout programme.  Without meeting you, I cannot determine your training experiences or preferences.  What I will do is discuss a few ideas which I think will be beneficial to incorporate within one’s fitness routine.

Strength

I am a firm believer that having a solid strength foundation is key to ALL physical activity.  As I mentioned above, many of the days’ tasks involved me lifting and carrying a range of loads: rubble, tools, paving slabs, wheelbarrows of dirt, a tired girlfriend etc…  Having a decent level of full-body strength will not only help complete these tasks but regular strength-based resistance training will also aid in the prevention of injuries and stave off any next day soreness (DOMS).

There are many lifting protocols out there offering a plethora of gainz.  These programmes all generally follow the principle of progressive overload.  I am an advocate of strength training at a heavy but sub-maximal intensity*, something I share with the likes of Pavel Tsatsouline of Strong First and Jim Wendler, author and creator of 531.  I do not want to focus too heavily on the progressive overload principle (something for a future post?), so if you are interested I would recommend googling these names if you do not know them.  To keep it simple, start light and gradually add more resistance, weight, repetitions or sets as you become more competent with the movements over time.  THE WORKOUTS DO NOT NEED TO BE 100% BLOWOUTS!

*I also do not want to focus too heavily on intensities or rep ranges.  So, see this handy image I borrowed from Dr Andy Galpin (I cannot remember the exact video, but all his content is amazing!)

As for the exercises themselves, I like to consider the following movement patterns which can be trained with many different exercises:

  • Push
    • Press-Ups and the multiple variations
    • Dips (bodyweight, weighted)
    • Bench Presses (Barbell, Dumbbell, Kettlebell, Floor Press)
    • Shoulder Presses (Barbell, Dumbbell, Kettlebell)
  • Pull
    • Pull-ups/chin-ups and the multiple variations (bodyweight, weighted)
    • Bodyweight rows
    • Bent Over Rows (barbell, dumbbell, pendlay)
    • Face pulls (cable machine, bands)
    • Pulldowns
  • Squat
    • Bodyweight squats
    • Goblet squat
    • Back squat
    • Front squat
  • Hip Hinge
    • Deadlift
    • Romanian or Stiff-Legged Deadlift (similar but not the same!)
    • Kettlebell Swings – the king – (single hand, double hand)
    • Standing Good Morning
    • Seated Good Morning

Lifters amongst you may notice that this is similar to the Push/Pull/Legs split popular in weight training circles.  I like to focus on both the squat and the hip hinge separately as, although they definitely work together and recruit similar motor units (muscles fibre groups), the two movements are a separate motor pattern and have different goals and outcomes.  I will say that I am not the creator of this split, but I did come to the logical conclusion myself before hearing trainers and coaches basically saying the same thing.

Training sessions focussed around these sets of movement patterns will aid in increasing one’s full-body strength and becoming a beast of a weekend labourer. 

An easy guide would be to include one exercise from each movement pattern in a session.  I may do something similar or select a movement pattern to focus on for that session.  Please note that my exercise selection will ALWAYS be dependent on my specific goals at the time!

Strength Continued: Lifting from ‘Compromised’ Body Positions

As good as the Push, Pull, Squat, Hip Hinge split can be for developing a strong base that will allow you to dominate all forms of manual labour, the movement patterns above (and many prescribed in general strength programmes) are completed on flat ground, with the proper equipment (if using additional resistance other than body weight), and with as close to perfect form always encouraged.  In summary, a controlled environment.

Not that these things shouldn’t always be considered when exercising, but the kind of graft that comes with yardwork/home renovation/gardening will not always lend to this.  You will come across a situation where you have to lift a load from an awkward position, lift and carry a load of uneven weight distribution, having to dig deeper and deeper into a trench, hold an awkward body position, or lift a load for x amount of time.  All of this will undoubtedly cause some discomfort in your joints and muscles (lower back anyone?).

There are exercises available that can assist with preparing your body for overcoming one of these situations.  For example, the next set of movements will still provide sufficient strength training but aim to do so whilst providing a greater challenge on your motor control, mobility, flexibility, balance, and agility.

A quick caveat – although I have called this section ‘Lifting from compromised body positions’, these exercises should be performed with correct form and with all other safety considerations whilst lifting.

  • The Turkish Get-Up
    • Can be completed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, this exercise is the king of total body strength, mobility and coordination.  Tell me a muscle group that is not worked during a rep, you can’t.  Do these, your hips, core and shoulders will thank you
    • I managed to progress to a 40kg kettlebell get up and noticed that my hip and shoulder mobility improved greatly
  • The Windmill
    • I switched to these after I moved flats and had less room!
    • Similar benefits to the get-up but is its own exercise, has its place, but not as fun (in my opinion)
    • A banging exercise that targets shoulder rotation/stability, core stability, hip hinge, and hamstring lengthening (though the latter point is not the aim!)
  • Cossack Squat or Lateral Lunge or Lateral Step Up
    • Excellent assistance exercises for all-round leg development.  Will improve strength and mobility in your typical ‘groin stretch’ position and improve your single-leg balance and coordination.
  • ATG Split Squat or Split Squat or Lunges
    • Ben Patrick, the knees over toes guy, is on to something with his ATG Split Squat – a variation of the traditional split squat.  I have incorporated this and its regressions into my regular routine and have noticed improvements in my knee and hip strength and mobility.  Seems to be getting some momentum within Physical Therapy as well…
    • Split squats and lunges are brilliant exercises for single-leg strength, balance, and coordination
  • Carries
    • Farmers walks
      • Can be performed with Kettlebells, Dumbbells, rucksacks, shopping bags, the baby’s car seat
      • I would include this exercise amongst my favourites.  It is so transferable to everyday life
      • Try even weight loads, uneven weight loads, long distances, short distances
    • Suitcase carries
      • The same applies as farmers walk, but only working one side at a time
    • Cradles
      • Simple, pick up something and carry it.  A weight, a bag, a rock, your dreams.

Including some, any or all of these exercises within any fitness regime will prepare your body more than adequately for any unexpected challenges that may arise during any manual labour.

Endurance

A hard day’s labour is just that: a hard DAY.  Chances are you will not be carrying out exhaustive heavy efforts with long rests, but completing many repetitions at a lower intensity.  For example, digging with a spade for 1 repetition would be easy.  Digging a one metre and a half deep trench for a few hours is very hard.  To be able to complete this sort of work, you will need Strength and Muscular Endurance, and Cardiovascular and Cardiorespiratory Endurance.

Strength and Muscular Endurance

You will be performing many repetitions of strength-based movements.  Take my digging example and using the motor patterns I mentioned earlier, you will be performing many repetitions of a push for striking the ground with the spade, a squat/hip hinge to get into a strong position to lift, and finally the pull to remove the earth.  And repeat… for hours…

Now, take a look again at Dr Andy Galpin’s chart:

Strength endurance is best trained with low resistance and high repetitions.  The bodyweight movements I have already mentioned (press-ups, dips, squats, rows) lend themselves nicely to this and are more than adequate, particularly if one lacks equipment.

However, to really turbocharge your Strength Endurance, I would include the Kettlebell Swing and the Kettlebell Snatch.  Once you are competent in these movements, they are phenomenal full-body strength exercises for helping you last that little bit longer as the afternoon’s jobs appear to be dragging on.  Not only that, they offer a nice cross over for….

Cardio

Without preoccupying ourselves with the details of the biological energy pathways too much, there are two types of cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory endurance: anaerobic (without oxygen)** and aerobic (with oxygen).  When offering yourself out for free labour to family, you will need both.  It is a common misconception that your body will switch solely between the two depending on activity.  It doesn’t.  Think more like a sliding scale.

**Phosphagen (or Phosphocreatine) + Glycolysis are both anaerobic!

Your body will favour the anaerobic endurance pathway for shorter, more intense activity.  For example, digging the trench (I love digging), lifting a heavy paving slab and walking it to the pile of rubble, or swinging a sledgehammer to take out a wall.

Whereas, your body will favour the aerobic system for longer, less intense activity.  For example, being on your feet all day or walking to the shops to pick up a much-needed magnum ice cream during the afternoon break.

The kettlebell swings and snatches are excellent for training the anaerobic pathway and a five (or ten, for the maniacs) minute swing or snatch test will confirm this.  However, multiple sets of 10+ or 30s+ repetitions will suffice.  Personally, I would also include sessions on a rowing machine as it will add low impact, full-body exercise – try a Tabata workout on a rower.  This is best trained at around 75%+ of maximum heart rate.

You will train your aerobic pathways through your traditional low-intensity cardio – biking, jogging, walking, rucking, cross trainer etc…  This is best trained at around 50-70% of your maximum heart rate for around 30-90mins for the best results.  I normally aim for around 120bpm for 45 mins.  It should be EASY!

There you have it.  My pointers for your DIY home renovation Strength and Conditioning. 

Please let me know your thoughts.  I am always happy to discuss ideas.

To finish, I will mention that my Bank Holiday wasn’t all hard work and no play.  I still managed to end the weekend doing what I love most:

eating ice cream…

And chucking a ball around in the sun!

Ciao, MoveMoreEatMore!

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