How to Develop Rugged, All-Purpose, "Farm Boy" Strength and Power—Without Setting Foot on a Farm
By Josh Henkin, Senior RKC, CSCS
"In accepting the concept of progressive resistance training with weights, the coaching profession in the English speaking countries, particularly America and Canada, were faced with cultural problems. With machines doing most of the work, the majority of young men entering athletics were not drawn from a background of labor work in the mines, on the farms, in the forests or on the docks. With increasing affluence, urbanization and mechanization, children were losing the philosophy of hard work and patience to attain a goal."
These aren’t strong words from a new article or website, they’re quoted from what author, coach, and athlete, John Jesse wrote in 1974! Early on, Jesse realized that athletes with farming and manual labor backgrounds had a special kind of rugged strength and endurance.
You don’t have to be a historian of physical culture to have heard "farm boy" or "old man strength" stories. I remember my father having that kind of strength. He grew up hating exercise, but loved to build things with his hands. I remember the vice-like grip he always had, and how he could beat us in any arm wrestling match well into our 20’s. For a man that despised any notion of working out, he truly had "old man strength" developed from years of stressing and building his body with methods that will never appear in any fitness magazine.
I would see this interesting type of strength in many ways over the years. I remember playing in a basketball tournament with inner city schools. We thought they would be the toughest, yet our worst beat down was from a small Illinois school from the corn fields. Their endurance, strength, and physical play was far beyond anything we’d ever seen!
Thinking back, we shouldn’t have been surprised by their strength and endurance. Iceland is small with a population of about 320,000 people. In comparison, the city where I live, Scottsdale, has a population of about 220,00. How does Iceland have such a wonderful history of developing many great strength athletes?
"What makes Iceland such a breeding ground for strength is open to interpretation. With no public railways and the vast majority of the island being volcanic desert, Icelanders have grown accustomed to doing things the hard way. Farming used to be the national job…"
I didn’t have to go to Iceland to see this type of great strength and endurance for myself! My good friend and DVRT Master Instructor, Troy Anderson, grew up on a farm in Wyoming. While his performance wasn’t overwhelming in the weight room, he possesses another form of strength. In strongman tire flip contests, he absolutely destroys the competition—guys who were much stronger in the weight room. Similarly, he was able to prepare himself to snatch a 32 kg kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes within just a few weeks. And he can adapt to just about any sport in a short amount of time. I had to know his secret.
I knew that part of his unique strength was attributed to growing up on a farm. I had seen this unique strength in enough athletes to know that the "country kids" were different. Troy had several ideas about why country kids were strong in such a different way, and these ideas have influenced the DVRT.
Hours and Hours of Work
Troy explained that working on the farm wasn’t about working up to a maximal lift then calling it a day. It was hours upon hours of work, year after year. And, the work would vary quite a bit. I realized that part of the equation involved building a base of work capacity, plus tendon/ligament strength from moderate intensity work performed frequently and with purpose.
Loading bails of hay for hours wasn’t the same as doing burpees and jumping jacks. The bails could vary in weight from 50-120 pounds. Imagine moving these weights over and over again. Laying pipe, building fences—none of it was just one "bad whoopin’" on the body, but consistent work over time.
The DVRT Connection: How do these ideas translate to DVRT? I’m not suggesting you move out of your home and go to the farm! Instead, DVRT teaches a foundation of correct movement in a wide variety of ways. With over 11 different Ultimate Sandbag holding positions, our bodies learn to stabilize, brace, and move in ways that would normally be very difficult to replicate in the gym.
An implement like the Ultimate Sandbag makes the body "smarter". People are often shocked when they can’t just out-muscle an Ultimate Sandbag—even though they’re used to lifting substantially heavier traditional weights.
It Didn’t Go Just Up and Down
On the farm, tasks usually require complex movements—very rarely did this involve simply lifting something up and down. Farm tasks almost never resembled movements made with the perfect workout implement—the barbell. Whether it was bails of hay, or cattle branding—brace yourself for Troy’s legendary story—objects on the farm rarely moved with the body or were easy to lift.
Troy had a favorite example of lifting "odd objects" that required strength most gym goers wouldn’t have or know how to use. Troy’s story wasn’t meant to shock—he was speaking to three die-hard animal lovers—it was just his real-life experience. He said that while trying to brand young cattle, he had to literally power clean them on to their sides! Our mouths hung open when we heard this. He promised us they weren’t hurt, but we learned that his life experiences were definitely different than ours!
The DVRT Connection: You can breathe a sigh of relief—we won’t ask you to power clean any large animals. However, understanding how to manipulate stability in a wide variety of ways allows us to build the "farm strength" which can literally prepare us for anything! Whether we change the angles, positions, planes of motion, or the instability of the Ultimate Sandbag, there are so many powerful and fun ways to make our training more productive.
Getting Really Strong
When people ask me if DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training can make them strong, I have to chuckle and think back to the lessons of the farm or "old man strength". If you are expecting to join the "600 pound sandbag club", you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking to build the strength that can prepare you for any challenge, endurance that prevails, and a resilient body that won’t let you down, then DVRT is for you!