I'll be going on a trip in about a year that's going to require some fairly heavy physical labor. Last time I went, I thought I was in fairly decent shape and still got knocked around. This time I'd like to be better prepared.

Only problem is I'm not super great at committing to a "workout". So here's my question: how have you gotten over the hump of getting started to build a habit of working out?

Things I've considered:

  • Graph paper, set a goal and try to reach it
  • Beeminder?
  • Forcing myself to do it (sounds inefficient...)

(I've got a plan in mind, as well, dumbells at home in the morning. Doable?)

  • Define "physical labour", what specifically are you doing? building houses, chopping wood, digging ditches?
    – user2861
    Aug 12 '13 at 23:48
  • We'll see when I get down there! Last time it was digging holes and filling them with concrete. Aug 12 '13 at 23:52
  • How about anytime you think about how to work out you do some pushups, jumping jacks, jump rope, jog, sit ups... whatever. Just do it.
    – DMoore
    Aug 13 '13 at 5:03

As much as I usually hate the term you need...

Functional strength!

Physical labour is very different to regular strength training for a few reasons:

  1. Barbells and dumbells are symetrically weighted
  2. Barbells and dumbells are static weights
  3. Barbells and dumbells are designed to be easily grabbed and safely lifted
  4. Traditional strength training has you doing fixed reps and sets

The bad news is, that when you are moving things around the weights are usually asymetric, they shift as you carry them, are unwieldy and won't move in ways you want them to. Think about a bag of cement versus a barbell, a bag of cement will weigh about 15-25kg, which is about the weight of an unladen barbell, except the bag of cement has no easy hand holds, and will move in your hands, an you'll be moving them all day long.

Rather than join a gym, I'd probably recommend looking into sandbag training. Most plans will be similar to the one just linked, but will be based on high rep kettlebell like movements. Kettlebells are fantastic for weightlifting endurance, which is why they were so revered by the Russians

By their nature, typical kettlebell exercises build strength and endurance ... in a way that mimics real world activities such as shoveling or farm work. Wikipedia

Sandbag training

Essentially you need to fill a duffel bag with some weight, like small bags of sand or lengths of chain and use that as the weight. The idea behing many small weights is so you can load and deload the bag as needed easily and cleanly.

Then you'll be looking at doing full body exercises like the following:

  • Goblet Squats (To get a weight into an easy to carry position)
  • Cleans (same as above)
  • Deadlifts / Straight leg deadlifts (To get a weight onto another platform to make it easier to lift)
  • One-arm farmers walks (To get a weight to the other side of the yard)
  • One-arm snatch (To get a weight onto your shoulder)
  • Shoulder press / push press (To get a weight well above shoulder height)

If you already have some strength training under you (weight) belt, dial the weight back when using a sandbag for two reasons:

  1. The weight will be far less stable - meaning your small stabilisers will be much more important
  2. You will want to be doing lots of reps, and I mean lots. When you are in the field, it doesn't matter if you can lift a really heavy sandbag once, you need to have the endurance to do it all day long. So train for endurance over raw power and strength.

Feel free to insert the above along side a traditional strength training program, but what will be important when you are down there is the ability to lift weights for a long time without rest.


Make it part of your routine.

  • If you're working out at home, try laying your gym clothes out the night before so that you're ready in the morning.
  • If you have a difficult time getting out of bed in the morning, an A.M. routine might not be for you. Consider working out at lunchtime or after work instead. The workout will be the first to go if you need a little extra sleep.

Personally I work out at least five times a week. Every morning I put my gym clothes into my gym bag and put it in my car as I go to work. If for some reason I don't do this, it's very difficult for me to go home and leave again to go to the gym.

Start by making short-term goals, not long-term ones.

Long-term goals are generally a bad idea when it comes to starting a workout routine. Instead focus on short-term goals such as:

  • Go to the gym today
  • Eat a healthy meal at lunch today
  • Do one more rep on my set today
  • Increase the incline slightly on the treadmill today

This will help keep your focus on doing the right thing on a day to day basis, rather than reaching for goals that may not even be attainable. This is a mistake many beginners make when starting to exercise. For example, people often set a weight loss goal (say 20 lbs in 3 months), and find they start gaining weight when they work out. This can be discouraging. Instead focus on making the right choice; make it your goal to work out today.

Forget about how you feel.

Successful people are successful because they work hard at a goal even when they don't feel like it. Be mindful of how you feel, yet still make the decision to do the work. You'll feel a greater sense of accomplishment after having done the work even when you didn't feel like it.

Get a workout buddy.

Having someone to work out with will keep you accountable. A personal trainer might do the job if you can't find anyone else.


What worked for me to get committed was to set time aside, make a concrete goal, and take notes in a notebook with a pen.

Set time aside

I decided firmly that I would work out three times a week. I figured out the days, I resolved to clear my schedule, and I didn't make plans for those days. If someone wanted to hang out, I made an appointment for after my workout. I planned ahead so that meals, dates, and work would not interfere.

Make a concrete goal

I knew exactly what I was going to do in every workout before I started. That's because I was following a program and not just farting around. I highly recommend this approach for someone starting out: pick three to six exercises, determine a set and rep scheme, and decide how often you'll add weight. Then do it. Don't waste precious minutes mid-workout doing calculations or considering whether you feel like doing pull-ups today: just follow the plan.

(This is one reason why a workout program designed by someone more experienced than you is such a good idea. Starting Strength is a solid option, since it will give you a solid base of strength to work from. Pavel's Power to the People or kettlebell workouts are fine choices too. If you are working with dumbbells, maybe just cobble together a routine out of renegade rows, clean-and-presses, dumbbell squats and one-leg deadlifts.)

Take notes in a notebook with a pen

I don't know about all this computer jibber-jabber. I record my workouts in detail using a pen in a paper notebook. I write the date, the day of the week, the time of day, how I feel, and everything I did in the workout. If something was a personal best or went particularly poorly, I make a note.

  • planning to add weight... never thought of that! Aug 13 '13 at 13:00
  • @BrianHicks In that case, if you have any thought about using a barbell, I highly recommend getting a person or book to show you how. Maybe there's a local powerlifting or CrossFit gym that can help you out? If not, any of the books mentioned in my answer would be a good idea. Aug 13 '13 at 13:02
  • I have a barbell, and am planning on a workout prescribed by a trusted source for which I will need another. That's three times I've heard "Starting Strength" so I guess I should try and find that soon. ;) Aug 13 '13 at 13:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.