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What the Wheelbarrow Taught Me About Movement

After 20 years in the business there is much about the Fitness Industry, or as Chip Conrad calls it the Fitness Industrial Complex, that hits my funny bone. Yeah, that’s the right metaphor, hitting the funny bone, not tickling, hitting. Like when you hit your elbow on the table and it sends that weird vibrational nerve signal up your arm and sets your teeth on edge.

One of those things is how we divorce fitness from work. In mainstream fitness we get in our cars to drive a given distance to an air conditioned, indoor facility to ride machines that mimic physical activity. Even in the most hardcore of underground style gyms we go to great lengths to engage in work that ultimately achieves nothing. We pick things up for the sole purpose of putting them back down. It begs the question, how much of an impact on our current energy concerns would we have by simply attaching a dynamo to every piece of cardio equipment and using it to generate electricity? At worst every gym in the country could offset their electric bill, at best they could generate excess electricity that’s fed back into the grid.

As a kid I spent a good part of my summers at my grandparents farm in Tennessee. I was always begging my grandfather to take me with him as he headed out to handle the various tasks and chores the farm demanded. When they were kids he worked my father and my uncle hard. Whether he had learned a lesson about child labor or my parents had forced one on him he didn’t work my brother and I like that. The result was that I found his work even more compelling. I found a way to wheedle my way in whenever I could.

And now, as a 52 year old grandfather myself, I still find it so. I take great joy in the various homestead chores I do around here knowing full well that I play at this work just like every other Cottagecore Instagrammer and TikTokker. It is a privilege and a luxury I don’t take for granted.

As a gym owner and fitness guy who has dabbled in just about every imaginable genre of movement I see my chores in the same light as I do any other movement. Yesterday, while hauling loads of mulch to various spots around the yard and outdoor gym space I was struck by this.

All movement begins with the core. This was a fundamental lesson I learned from Tai Chi Chuan as I began my movement journey. For years I only thought of this in terms of my Tai Chi or other martial arts. But it’s a truth that applies to all efficient movement. Yes, you can move without your core and in fact most of us do. That’s partially evidenced by how difficult it is to teach proper bracing.

Think about it. Let’s take a simple, two dimensional movement like the Bench Press. Yes, you can take your whole body out of the movement and focus solely on your arms pushing the bar off of your chest. But every powerlifter knows that if you arch your back, brace your abdomen, and drive your feet into the floor you can add a lot more weight to that lift.

Work, as in yard chores like gardening and landscaping, offer a unique opportunity for taking those gym lessons and putting them into practical application. Let’s look at my work from yesterday.

Job 1. Shoveling mulch into the wheelbarrow. A novice, when shoveling will rely heavily on their arms and upper back. They use their arms to drive the shovel into the pile, maybe using a foot to help drive the shovel in. They then leverage the shovel up to pick up a load of mulch and use their biceps to pick up the load. There may be some rotational work as they turn to dump said load into the barrow but that’s about it.

An experienced laborer knows this is a quick recipe for exhaustion. It’s more efficient to keep your arms long. Start with a braced core. Bend at the knees and use your legs to drive the shovel into the pile. Then stand with the load to lift it out of the pile. Since your core is already braced it’s a safer, stronger movement to rotate towards the barrow and you can use the force couple of a push and pull with your arms to dump the load. The biceps are still at play but they operate at the end of a movement chain with full body integration to do the work as opposed to being the main drivers of movement.

Job 2. Transporting the mulch with the wheelbarrow. Once again, it’s easy to rely too much on the arms. We tend to use the biceps (again!) to lift the handle end of the barrow which leads to quickly fatigued arms and low back. Instead, leave the arms long and lead with your hips. Unless your arms are ridiculously long and your legs are super short this should sufficiently lift the handle end of the barrow to get you moving. By standing tall and leading with your hips you use you skeletal structure to carry the load and create a much more efficient movement.

And, yes, I can hear the Gym Bros and my fellow trainers now, “isn’t inefficient movement the cornerstone of the gym? Doesn’t that burn more calories and thereby get us closer to our goals?” To which I answer, “Yeah, I guess?” If your only goal is to burn more calories then by all means ignore what I have written here. But before you do, consider, can your gym time offer more than just burning up excess calories? Is it possible that we could use this time to make all aspects of our lives better? That perhaps we could learn valuable lessons about ourselves, about how we move, how we interact with our environment and even each other?

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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Great advice buddy!

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