By Leo Babauta
This morning at 6 a.m. I took a heavy brush-cutter tool (long, thick wooden axe handle with a big curved blade at the end) and began swinging it at tall, dense swordgrass and sugar cane stalks. Hacked away until I cut most of it down, then piled it on a tarp and hauled it away. One tarp-load at a time, for more than an hour.
Then I mowed my lawn for a couple hours.
That way my workout for the day.
In recent weeks I’ve been using yardwork as my workout (on days when I’m not doing any hard marathon training), and it’s been amazing. Swinging heavy tools and hauling heavy loads is a full-body workout that is functional and strenuous.
Try lifting logs and throwing them. Try chopping wood and pushing a lawnmower at a fast pace. Try digging into dirt with a pick and shovel, or hacking at jungle with a machete. It’s hard work, and you’ll get a great workout.
While my main focus recently has been my marathon training — I run 4-5 times a week, usually between 7-14 miles, sometimes with faster intervals and sometimes with hills — my other passion in the last couple of months has been “functional” strength training.
What’s functional training? It’s doing exercises that mimic real-life movements, instead of exercises designed simply to grow a muscle bigger or to look better. So instead of doing bicep curls to isolate the biceps, you would do chinups and get more muscles and joints involved, in coordination with each other. That’s because in real life, we almost never lift anything with just the bicep — we use our entire bodies to lift things.
Picking heavy things up, throwing them, jumping, squatting … these are functional exercises. Using a weight machine is rarely a functional exercise.
The benefits of functional training is that not only do you get stronger, but you do so in a way that will be useful in other life activities, such as work or sports. Your muscles will grow bigger but also will be coordinated and work together in balance. You’ll be able to translate your exercise to real-life strength.
The workouts I’ll talk about here, similar to the bodyweight exercises I talked about last time, will all be functional exercises.
I didn’t invent yardwork workouts — they’ve been around for awhile (here’s one article and here’s a great workout video). But I’ve been enjoying them recently because I’ve been helping my mom clear the jungle at her property while getting a great workout.
Yardwork workouts are functional, almost by definition. You’re doing real-world movements, with every exercise. You can invent a million different exercises, but here are some of my favorites (note: please be careful to lift with your legs so you don’t injure your back):
- Swing an ax, sledgehammer or other tool. Use an ax to chop wood or a sledgehammer to drive in stakes or crush things or a brush-cutter to, well, cut down brush. This is a great workout because you’re swinging something heavy and using your entire body to do it. Here’s a sample sledgehammer workout and here’s another.
- Lift heavy things and carry them. Pick up rocks, logs, cinder blocks, anything heavy … then carry them to another place. Lift with your legs!
- Push or pull heavy loads. In my workout this morning, we loaded a big tarp with big piles of vegetable matter, and then I pulled the tarp and unloaded it. Great for the entire body. Pushing a heavy wheelbarrow or pulling a loaded sled works too.
- Lift heavy things and throw them. Pick up a rock or log or whatever you have handy, and throw it.
- Push a mower. I can attest that if your lawn is nice and thick, this is a great full-body exercise.
- Dig. No, this doesn’t refer to Digging a story (although you can do that with this post of course!). Use a shovel and/or pick to digg dirt. Don’t forget to switch hands so you get a balanced workout.
- Weed. While pulling weeds doesn’t often require too much strength, it is a good workout for your hands and forearms, and it involves lots of squatting, which is great for your legs.
- Add running, jumping, and bodyweight exercises. While these aren’t things you would normally consider “yardwork”, they can be great additions to a workout. Do some quick sprints, stair-climbs, jumps, bounding, pushups, jumping squats, etc.
I learned about this workout recently from my sister Katrina, and tried out the workout from Mark’s Daily Apple. You’re trying to get a functional, full-body workout with limited space and equipment. Basically, here’s the workout:
- Burpees. Do 20, rest, then do 19, rest, then do 18, rest … and so on, all the way down to 1 burpee. This alone is super tough. You might want to start with 10 and go down from there.
- Tricep dips.
- Squat jump.
- Jump lunge.
To mix it up, you could substitute other exercises as well, such as:
A Few Other Non-Traditional Workouts
- Kettlebells. Kettlebells are the darling of the fitness world right now, mainly because they offer versatility and are very functional. They’re great workouts. Check out this video for some of the basics.
- Crossfit. Several commenters in my last minimalist fitness post referred me to Crossfit, and I have to say, it’s awesome. Crossfit is all about functional exercise. The site gives you a Workout of the Day (WOD), which is usually short but very challenging. Warning: this is not for beginners. Even very fit people will have trouble with these workouts. I suggest scaling down the workouts (if they say to do 50 pullups, just do 5-10 or whatever you can handle; if they say 95 lbs., try 50) and slowly working up to the full workout (or “as Rx’d” in Crossfit terminology). The workouts incorporate bodyweight exercises, powerlifting, gymnastics, running and more, without a lot of equipment required.
- Sandbags. Basically a bag full of sand, but the fancier ones have handles and are thick so they don’t break. The sandbag allows you to add weight to bodyweight exercises. Here’s one of many videos (with very dramatic music).