What is farmer strength?
This is the name given to the functional strength developed by farmers and manual laborers in the course of their daily jobs. As these workers carry hay bales, move heavy objects, and use a variety of machine tools, they develop an enormous amount of raw strength.
This is not an intentional process. They are not like a powerlifter who will go the gym with the specific aim of increasing their one rep max on the bench press, deadlift and squat. These manual labourer just get strong as their bodies adapt to the physical demands placed on them.
As any who has worked on a farm can attest, it is a hugely physically demanding job. Heavy items need lifting: buckets and sacks of food for the livestock, bits of machinery that need repositioning and pulling out of the mud, and hay bales that need tossing.
But this isn’t a five minute activity. It continues for the entire day and as a result, these manual labours develop a kind of strength endurance: they’re capable of shifting heavy items for extended periods of time.
Farmer Strength vs Bodybuilder Type Training
In bodybuilding, the athlete will typically focus on one muscle group at a time and select a number of exercises to work it to exhaustion. Each exercise will ‘attack’ the muscle from a slightly different angle, so that the entire muscle is worked and developed to its fullest potential.
As an example, lets take the bicep muscle. A typical exercise is the bicep curl, where a dumbbell is raised and lowered for typically 8 – 12 reps.
As the exercise is performed, the muscle fibers will tire. This causes the body to recruit additional fibers to help lift the weight. This process continues until all the fibers in the muscle have been called upon. At this point, the muscle has been fully worked and it simply doesn’t have any more to give: ‘muscle failure’ has been reached – the muscle has failed to get another rep.
In bodybuilding, each set will usually be taken to, or near to, exhaustion: the point of failure where another rep cannot be performed.
There then follows a short break of around 60 seconds to allow the muscle to recover before the whole process is repeated for a further set. Usually 3-4 sets are carried out before another exercise is selected and the muscle is worked in a similar fashion with this new exercise.
Bodybuilding is very targeted sport. Each muscle is worked to exhaustion with laser like focus. It’s of no surprise that often a day after an intense training session the muscle aches, often lasting several days.
Farmer strength is not developed in this way. Farmers and manual labourers don’t deliberately carry out their jobs with the aim of getting strong; it is the result of the body trying to adapt to the demanding work that it is being subject to.
There is no isolation of the muscles in the same way as bodybuilding; the body is worked as a complete unit. For example, imagine a farmer lifting a hay bale and loading it into the back of a truck. Multiple muscle groups are involved in this movement: legs, back, arms and shoulders.
The other main difference is that each muscle is never worked to exhaustion as in bodybuilding training. No farmer has ever done max reps of throwing hay bales; they’ve never gone to complete muscle failure.
The work performed in manual labour is not as muscle isolating or as intense as in bodybuilding and this allows the activity to be carried out for a sustained period. It’s also sufficient to trigger strength gains as the body tries to adapt to cope with the demands placed on it. It won’t, however, result in the maximal muscular development so evident in a serious bodybuilder. Rather, the result will be an individual who is actually a lot stronger than they appear and certainly a lot fitter than your average bodybuilder.
Farmers who went into strongmen contests
There have been a number of farmers who have successfully entered and been successful in strongman contests. Some of the more well known ones are Mark Westaby and Bob Peoples.
Mark Westaby (born 1965) is a British farmer who has repeatedly competed in the World’s Strongest Man. He was a farmer and in 2003 entered a local strongman contest. He ended up winning and from there went on to compete in a number of strength contests.
Bob Peoples (1910 – 1992) was born in North Tennessee and was raised and worked on a farm. Much of his training equipment was home made and he is credited with developing the power rack. He started training at an early age and was noted was his exceptional deadlift prowess – in 1940 he made an official deadlift of 600 pounds.
These two strongmen went on to follow more specialist strongman training regimes specifically focussed on the events they competed in. However, it seems likely that the farmer strength they developed working on their homesteads formed a firm foundation on which to build.
How to build farmer strength
The obvious answer to how to build farmer strength would be to get a very manual job and to spend hours each day moving a heavy load.
However, for many people this isn’t practical. However, we can still incorporate many of the principles that enable farmers and manual laborers to get extremely strong.
Pavel Tsatsouline is a Russian strength trainer and is famous for bringing the kettlebell to the USA. Pavel’s approach to training was articulated by Firas Zahabi on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Perhaps the overriding principle is that you train in such a way that you never feel sore the next day.
Suppose you can perform ten pull ups and you couldn’t perform another rep even if your life depended on it. At this point you have reached muscular failure.
When you train, you should never train in a way where you’re trying to beat your rep record.
Instead, in this example, you would train and complete five reps. The next day you would perform five reps again and the same for the day after. If this was feeling easy, you would progress to six reps and again stick to this rep limit until it too felt easy.
The idea is to focus on volume over time rather than intensity.
The person who performs at full out intensity and tries to beat their pull up 10 rep record will be so sore as they recover that they won’t be able to train for the next couple of days. The maximum they could train for would be say twice a week. This would mean that they have done a total of 20 reps.
The person performing fewer reps but training everyday will perform more reps for the week: five reps on the first day, five on the second, five on the third, six on the fourth, and six on the fifth (and let’s give them the weekend off). This is a total of 27 reps.
This may seem like a small difference between these workout protocols but, overtime, this difference adds up to a significant amount.
The idea behind this approach is that you never red line the body, You do enough to challenge the body but never to stress it out.
Farmer Strength Principles applied to martial arts
Firas Zahabi, in the podcast above, outlines how Russian wrestlers adopt these principles. They will train for long sessions, for most days of the week at sub maximal intensity, focussing on technique. They will grapple and roll but it’s done in a very relaxed, almost playful, way.
In contrast, Americans will typically train on, say, Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays and will train at all out intensity and then rest for the remaining days.
Over time, the Russians accumulate a much greater volume of training. They’ve had much more time practising on the mat and they’re able to do this by training much lighter with less intensity which allows them to train more often as the recovery time needed between sessions is much shorter.
Nearer to a competition, the Russian wrestlers will up the intensity so that they experience the level of aggression that will be present in the actual tournament.
The Russians therefore have had hours and hours more training than their American counterparts. They are also used to the aggressive, all out wrestling style from their training camps.
It’s a matter of volume and consistent training over intensity and is perhaps the main reason why the Russians dominate the wrestling world.
Farmer strength workout plan
Pavel Tsatsouline’s approach to strength development is called ‘Greasing the Groove’.
This protocol treats strength development as a skill. The more often a particular movement, such as a chin up is performed, the more efficient the neuromuscular of the body becomes and the easier it feels to perform.
In order to grease the groove, a low set of reps is performed several times a day. The more you practice, the more efficient the neuromuscular system becomes and the stronger you get.
The first thing to do is to pick an exercise you want to get better at. For instance, you could pick the pull up. You’re then going to perform a short set of reps; perhaps 40 – 50% of the maximum number you can perform. You’ll take plenty of rest between sets.
One way to do this is to have a chin up bar installed somewhere in your house. Every time you walk past the chin up bar you will carry out one set of pull ups. Ensure you keep good form and keep your shoulder blades retracted. Because the sets are so spread out and so few reps are done each time, you’re not going to feel tired or worn out.
There are no prescribed number of sets to do but you should never feel fatigued at the end of a set or at the end of the day. You should certainly never feel sore the next day.
The idea is that you are practicing the movement. As your neuromuscular system adapts, you’ll be able to do more repetitions.
It’s a good idea to periodically max out on your reps for the exercise you’re practicing so that you can see if you need to increase the short set of reps you’re doing on a daily basis – remember these daily sets are with a rep range that is 40 – 50% below your maximum. Hopefully, in time, this figure goes up.
Bodyweight exercises (squats, press ups, pull ups) are particularly good for this kind of training. They don’t demand a huge amount from the nervous system which means you can recover quickly from each set.
They’re also very convenient to perform. You don’t need any specialised equipment (although you might need to find somewhere to perform the pull up) which means they can be performed almost anywhere.
One idea might be to perform a set of push ups on the hour, every hour, whilst you’re working at home. It would take seconds to perform each set and you wouldn’t get hot and sweaty as you might do with a conventional workout. Yet over time, you would get significantly better at performing push ups.
Another exercise that benefits from this type of protocol is grip strength training.
You need a pair of grippers. Not the cheap type that offers minimal resistance but the sort that a strength athlete might use. Captains of Crush are a particularly well known brand (see here on Amazon).
Start by finding the maximum number of reps you can do in each hand. Then take a number of days to fully recover.
Have the grippers on your desk whilst you work and perform a set on the hour, every hour. The reps used should be 40-50% of your maximum rep number.
This is a great way to develop your forearm grip strength.
The non-fatigue seeking style of training mimics the underlying principles that enable manual laborers to develop farmer strength.