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Farm Boy vs. Gym Boy

Farm Boy

For the first 16 years of my life, I lived on a 330-acre farm. That was a fairly large farming operation for the time and it was truly a family business. A farm kid in the late 50’s and early 60’s helped wherever they could. I was expected (and wanted) to contribute, and once I was old enough to help, the acreage that we farmed grew to over 700 acres. Not only was I working on the tractors in the fields in preparation for planting and in harvesting, but it also meant hard physical labor - lifting bales of hay, shoveling, carrying buckets of water was a daily occurrence, even for a young kid.

Farm Boy Training Vertical Core...OK, "Older
Farm Boy"

One summer evening when I was 16, I got a call from a friend of the family asking me to help bale hay on his farm the next day. Sure, a source of extra money. When I got there, his chronic back pain was worse than normal, and he asked me if I minded working in the field loading the bales on the wagon as they came out of the baler. The typical protocol for a 2-man crew working in the field was alternating loading and driving the baler, but because of his back pain I was going to do all the loading and he was driving. Of course, I didn’t mind – I was getting paid to work! It was a sunny day with temperatures in the mid 80’s, so this was a hot, dusty and bumpy job. During the course of the afternoon I loaded 10 to 12 wagon loads of hay, each wagon holding 50 or 60 bales. Those bales of hay were not light, especially when you are lifting many of them at and above shoulder height.


All through the day the man I was working for was very apologetic. It really was fine with me – I loved the challenge. I was preparing for football season. When we were finished for the day, he mentioned a nephew that was a body builder with “big muscles” but couldn’t have done nearly the amount of work that I had just done. I have no idea if that was an accurate statement but, of course, it stroked my ego a bit. It was, however, a bit confusing - it went against all I believed about strength. Big muscles mean strength and strength means ability to do work, right? Why would I be able to “out-work” another boy around my age or older who was presumably much “stronger” than me. Judging from what I knew about developing a “body builders physic” he was very motivated and worked hard? I was 6’ 3” tall and weighed about 200 pounds, athletic, but by no means “muscular” looking. Was it possible that I could out-work him? My farm background served me well later during my rowing career, but could I have been better if I was “stronger”? What is strength? This question has always intrigued me.


As I got older and earned a Masters’ Degree in Exercise Physiology and Biomechanics of Movement; and gained experience in my profession as an athletic trainer, and functional movement trainer, I began to appreciate the difference in the way our bodies were trained. It brings up an interesting contrast that is fundamental to the preparation for all athletics.

Let’s look first at Gym Boy: The few gyms that existed in ’50’s and ‘60’s were primarily set up with weight machines and a few barbells. Later, during the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and early ‘90’s the gyms grew in popularity pretty much in lock-step with the running craze. Gyms proliferated, exercise machines became the standard - rows and rows of exercise machines. When you looked at all the machines you would be impressed with all the possibilities, who wouldn’t get “strong” if you used all of these machines? Easy for the gym, teach you how to use the machine and them send you on your way. Less supervision needed, no spotting needed, reduced liability. There was always someone around to suggest a “routine”.


There were, however, limitations. Machines, by design, limit motion to a single plane, and typically isolate one muscle group. Most machines required you to do bilateral exercises (both arms or both legs at the same time). Even those gyms that had barbells and dumbbells were doing primarily exercises that were limited to one plane. Consider the bench press, military (over-head) press, squats, dead lifts - all single plane, bilateral movements. Other common exercises, bicep curls, fly’s, and knee extension/flexion all isolated one muscle group. Is this training for movement and work or is this training for muscle growth? Experience tells me that it is primarily for muscle growth. “Big Muscles”! Does it even follow, that if you increased the size of specific muscles that it will lead to more powerful, athletic movement? Experience, as well as a review of research would indicate that increasing muscular development does not insure athletic excellence. A look at many of the greatest athletes of any generation supports that thought. These athletes are rarely the most muscular, even on their own team and most would likely perform poorly in “strength” testing. Strong, powerful, quick athletic movement is dependent on a “kinetic chain” of muscles working together.



Training routines at the time were usually some form of the DeLorme method of training (3 sets of 10 repetitions). The DeLorme Method of strength training was developed for rehabilitation of injured solders in WW2 rehabilitation centers. Not a bad routine per se, but wholly inadequate for increasing work/athletic performance. As a dedicated body builder, Gym Boy was probably doing supplemental exercises in order to greater challenge each of the muscles. Even if you double the repetitions to 60 (6 X 10 reps), you’ve just loaded one load of hay. Farm Boy has at least 9 more loads to go! He is not loaded to max contractions, but he is doing multi-planer, kinetic chain, resisted movement – not a bad way to prepare for strong athletic movement.


Gym Boy’s “core” training likely consisted mostly of some variation of a sit-up which works the abdominal muscles. Tight ABS can be impressive, but they make up around 20% of the muscles that are true “core” muscles. It doesn’t challenge the core to a great extent to do a bench press, or curl. Even a double legged squat is truly a poor challenge to the core and done with a heavy weight excessively loads the back.


Frankly, the knowledge about resistance training for athletic competition was limited during that era, at least in the United States. My college text books would show you how to load each muscle and do “weight training” but little thought was given, to the carryover to athletic movement. In effect, they were outlining a “cadaver” routine based on origins and insertions of muscles not on how the body functions against gravity while dynamically resisting an opponent and at the same time dealing with the effects of multidirectional acceleration and deceleration. In reality, the biggest source of training routines were body building magazines that would feature a monthly training routine of some muscular body builder, complete with pictures. Most body-building routines are also based on cadaver anatomy – work one muscle at a time, work it to exhaustion and then go on to the next. Was there any validity to these programs? Obviously, some - they were incredibly muscular; but how much carryover was there to athletics? We now know, not a lot. Perhaps an equally pertinent question was: what type of chemical and nutritional enhancements were they using? Who knows? But you have to have a routine in order to sell a magazine every month. The dream of most teenage boys: If I had a body like that............... Well, those thoughts ran through my head at least.


Bottom line: The underlying premise of all of Gym Boy’s training is that you isolate muscle groups, work them to exhaustion and that will increase muscle size and strength. This is true, but, will this somehow transfer to more athleticism and increased ability to sustain work output. Experience in movement mechanics does not support this.


I mentioned earlier that the synergies of muscles working together causes movement. The body uses a kinetic chain of muscle contractions to create movement. Movement is multiplanar (many directions) and occurs when the muscles work together. More succinctly, some muscles contract, others stabilize, others assist, and some must relax in order to allow movement to occur. This implies that there is a neurological component that works much like a computer program that causes, guides, controls and stops movement - a neuro-driven movement pattern. This neuro component is not addressed in isolation training, nor is speed of contraction – both critical. My mantra as a sports performance trainer was: “train movements not muscles”. That directive didn’t originate with me, however, it’s very common among good trainers.


At this point it seems appropriate to point out what we all know from experience: The inverses rule of intensity points out that the number of repetitions of a movement that we can complete is inversely proportional to the resistance or intensity. In general, resistance training fits somewhere in the following continuum:


  1. a heavy resistance, by the inverse rule of intensity, means limited repetitions before muscle failure. When repeated over several training days, this training regime will lead to increased muscle strength and likely increased muscle size but not a lot of increase in endurance.

  2. By contrast, a lighter resistance, by inverse rule of intensity, means you are able do a higher number of repetitions before muscle failure (oxygen carrying capacity is sometimes the limiting factor). This type of training repeated for several training days (or work outs), will lead to increased muscle tone but not as much gain in strength. It WILL lead to gains in local muscular endurance.




Let’s contrast the above with Farm Boys’ training. If his training is truly limited to work on the farm he is not likely to have nearly the large muscular development. Farm work is primarily endurance training. Hundreds of repetitions do not provide a stimulus for major muscle size increase. It is, however, all-body training which stimulates that kinetic chain of movement. While likely smaller in muscular size, the trained kinetic chain (trained movement pattern) is conducive to power development (speed of muscle contraction). He can generate more power per body weight. Perhaps the biggest difference in the training is that Farm Boy has a much more comprehensive core development, even if he never does a sit-up. The mere act of picking up a bucket of water and carrying it is core work (especially if it’s only one bucket). When you do any type of unilateral lifting you are, in effect, doing what can be called a vertical plank. For instance, when shoveling, if you scoop up a shovel full of soil your intent is to move it somewhere, right? Because the soil has weight, lifting it requires a kinetic chain of muscle contractions. The full shovel is several inches away and to the side of the base of support. Thus, it is challenging the core. If the body doesn’t collapse from the weight, you are doing a vertical plank. The act of throwing the soil requires a “stiffening” of the core as the force generated by the legs goes through the core to the arms to accelerate the mass of the shovel full of soil in some direction. Accelerating a mass requires more force than just holding it. This is definitely all-body, power exercise.




These contractions are rarely a maximum contraction but when they are repeated over and over again it leads to a strong core, increased ability to development power and enhanced muscle endurance. Lifting, carrying, moving with some sort of resistance is a daily occurrence on the farm. It is, in effect, training. His body responds in kind.




Gyms have changed, at least the ones that are truly training athletes and people interested in improving movement. The top gyms have gotten away from reliance on machines. In their place are dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags, sleds etc. If Gym Boy was truly a

body builder, he would still be pounding away sets while isolating one muscle at a time and loading it with a heavy resistance - near complete muscle fatigue is a goal for every training session. Power (rapidly accelerating an object) is not a concern, muscle development is the underlying goal of training.


By contrast, the gyms clients who are truly motivated to increase athletic and movement performance are supervised by fitness professionals who are knowledgeable about training for improved movement. Movement with power, directional changes, acceleration and deceleration of the body and of implements are emphasized. With this equipment and a lot of creativity the trainers are doing a great job of replicating many of the movements that physical laborers do in the course of daily activities. Yes, farming has changed, too. Farms have become much more mechanized, not easier, but on average, probably less physical. Farm Boy is finding it more difficult to excel in athletics without supervision from the movement specialists. Farm Boy has become Gym Boy, and both are working toward better movement, with explosive directional changes and powerful all-body movement. Just as importantly, they both are learning/training how to control their body as it decelerates, thus reducing their likelihood of injury.



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