Wondering whether you can still compete or train in a strength sport while having a manual labour job is a valid concern that deserves some consideration.
Here are my top 10 tips for powerlifting with a physical job:
- Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
- Have a Flexible Approach on When You Train
- Monitor Fatigue and Progress
- Adjust Training Volume
- Adjust Training Frequency
- Take a Deload When You Need It
- Be Clear About Your Priorities
- Train Harder On Days Off From Work
- Prioritize Your Sleep
- Be Strict With Form
The extent to which you labour during the day and overall how many hours a week you spend at work vs in the gym will all have an impact on how you respond.
While some of you may work in construction, others may be lifting boxes in a warehouse while others are just on their feet all day long.
Regardless of the type of physical work you do at your job, there are measures you can take to set you up for success.
In this article, I will go over whether it’s possible to do powerlifting with a physical job. I’ll go into more detail surrounding the tips as well as address some frequently asked questions like, does your job count as exercise and how do you know when to adjust your program.
Is Powerlifting Possible with a Physical Job?
Yes, powerlifting is possible with a physical job even though it may come with its own set of challenges.
The concerns surrounding powerlifting with a physical job stem from the fact that you probably come home exhausted and the prospect of lifting heavy weight afterward may feel exceptionally difficult, especially when compared to those who sit at a desk all day.
However, the human body is an adaptive mechanism and it learns to respond to its environment and for much of human history, we weren’t particularly sedentary. Meaning, having a “physical job” was just a feature of being a productive person in society until the 20th century.
With this said, however, it’s still important to manage recovery and volume in a different way than someone who doesn’t have a physical job. It is possible you will run into obstacles that others will not and having some foresight will help you in the long run.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
10 Lifting Tips If You Have a Physical Job
The following 10 tips are a combination of both things you can do proactively and avoid running into issues when powerlifting with a physically demanding job, as well as some reactive strategies for if or when you hit roadblocks.
1. Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
The first thing to understand about having a physically demanding job is that you are moving far more in your day than your more sedentary family and friends. Even without going to the gym it’s likely that you are burning as many calories, if not more, than those who go to the gym but sit around the rest of the day.
With this in mind, it’s extremely crucial that you are fuelling both your daily living as well as your training. Especially if your goals are to build muscle along the way, getting enough nutrients will not only help facilitate that but will also ensure you have a smooth recovery.
Consequences of not eating enough food can be increased chances of aches and pain in the joints, lack of progress and fatigue. While eating enough is important for everyone, it may pose an added challenge for those with a physical job since you may have limited opportunities to sit down and have a snack or a meal throughout your day and it will require intentional planning.
2. Have a Flexible Approach on When You Train
Some people naturally prefer mornings while others love training in the evening, but when you have a physical job your preference will likely have more to do with your work schedule than your natural preference.
It’s important to have a flexible mindset when it comes to choosing your training days and times because you are likely susceptible to some both physical and mental fatigue that could compromise training.
An example of being flexible is acknowledging when you may have lost some sleep one week and choosing to move your training to the next day or to the evening because you need to catch up. As someone who does a physically demanding job, it will be a bit tougher to push through something like sleep deprivation or poor nutrition and so adjusting which days you take as off days would be an optimal approach.
Another example is if your work has you do some extra tasks one day and you end up being particularly exhausted by the evening, choosing to go home instead of the gym and then training once you’re refreshed can mean a lot for your performance.
Learn what the differences are between a deload week vs week off.
3. Monitor Fatigue and Progress
Something proactive you should do to ensure everything is going well is monitoring your fatigue and progress. While progress slows down for everyone, if it has been months and you seem to be stuck doing the same exercises with the same weight, there may be a recovery issue at play.
If you write your exercises in a journal or an app on your phone, take note of how you felt during training and whether any aches and pains continue to nag you. This may be a result of choosing a poor time to train or just simply not recovering.
By monitoring these more subjective variables in addition to the actual exercises you are doing you will be able to evaluate whether your current programming is hurting or helping you.
4. Adjust Training Volume
Volume is the total amount of challenging sets you do per muscle group, per week, and one way to change your program is by adjusting volume.
This can be particularly important if you repeatedly use the same muscles at your job and they may be predisposed to more fatigue and may not need as much extra exercise to keep them conditioned and strong.
An example of how to approach this would be if you are consistently using your upper body to lift heavy boxes and objects, you can keep all your regular bench press sets but reduce the amount of accessories you do for your upper body. Another option is doing all your accessories but doing 2 sets instead of 3 or 4.
Alternatively, for someone who is on their feet all day or climbing stairs and using their legs, they may be okay to keep their upper body training volume but may want to reduce their lower body accessory volume.
This is why I like using a Daily Undulated Periodization approach when managing volume for powerlifters who have physical jobs.
5. Adjust Training Frequency
Aside from addressing volume and how many sets you do, you can also adjust the frequency of training in order to help you manage stress.
While, I, for example, tend to thrive bench pressing 3-4 times a week, that may be far too much for someone who already does so much work with their shoulders and back throughout the day. Instead of such high frequency, you may be able to get away with just benching 2 times a week and making great progress.
Another option is by stretching out your training days over more days. An example is, if your program calls for lifting 5 days a week, instead of doing them all within a 7 day period, you can complete the 5 days within a 10 day cycle.
There is no rule that says you have to do all your training from monday to sunday and this extra small half week stretch will allow for more rest days in between and will reduce your weekly frequency of training and help you manage your stress and recovery.
Take a look at my other articles on training frequency:
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Squat?
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Bench Press?
- How Many Times Per Week Should You Deadlift?
6. Take a Deload When You Need It
One simple way to reactively address any creeping training stress, loss of motivation and lack of progress can be to throw in a deload week from time to time.
A deload is used by many athletes in powerlifting and outside of powerlifting in order to give them a little break and re-energize them for another block of training. Some people choose to never deload, but as someone who does a physically demanding job you may find that it is more important for you to implement them.
There are several ways to approach a deload. You have the option of keeping the load really high and still lifting heavy but significantly cutting down accessories in addition to sets and reps.
Another option is to keep a moderate amount of sets and reps but significantly cut down the weight you are lifting and stick to around RPE 6.
In terms of frequency of deloading, you can either proactively place one into your program every 4-8 weeks or you can keep it in your back pocket as a reactive strategy for when you notice you need a little break.
7. Be Clear About Your Priorities
Everyone has a ranked list of priorities in their head, whether they realize it or not. When you are trying to balance something like powerlifting training, a physically demanding job and everything else in life, it’s important to be clear about these priorities.
The ranking on your list may look very different than mine would and different from one of your friends, but it’s important you know what yours looks like. This will help you make decisions regarding training without any guilt or regrets.
For example, if your boss is asking you to take on extra work but you know it will make you extra tired and affect your ability to train hard, deciding what to do in that situation comes down to your priorities.
Striking a balance that makes the most sense for you will be important because at the end of the day you will sometimes need to make tradeoffs.
8. Train Harder on Days Off From Work
Assuming you don’t work 7 days a week you should have some days off where you are not labouring at work. A great proactive strategy to implement into your training is to program your heaviest or most volume-heavy days on your days off from work.
That way you can have lighter volume or less intense training that you need to do on your most active days of the week, resulting in a well balanced weekly schedule.
9. Prioritize Your Sleep
Sleep is obviously important for all, athletes are not, however it is a key component to recovery from stress and athletes carry an extra layer of physical stress. This is then even further amplified when you have both a physical job and are training in the gym.
In order for your body to go into the next day feeling its best and in order for you to progress well week over week, you will need to ensure you are getting a good quantity and quality of sleep.
Some strategies to help you out if you’re struggling is to set a bedtime reminder where you give yourself a heads up to start winding down for sleep. Create a routine and stick to it and start viewing that bed time as seriously as you would view the time you have to be in for work or what time you’re heading to the gym to lift.
While it may not impact you immediately, accumulation of sleep debt over time will only end up hurting you in the long run (I wrote about this in my article Does Powerlifting Make You Fat?)
10. Be Strict with Form
When you have a physically demanding job your muscles are being used all day long and you’re likely going to go into the gym feeling a little spent. While it’s possible to adapt and to still push through workouts, it’s important that you are not trading off intensity for poor form.
Your chance of injury is likely to increase once you are already tired and your muscles are already a little fatigued and so being a stickler for back positioning, shoulder retraction and keeping your head in neutral are even more important.
Therefore, if you are a beginner spend lots of quality time learning the right technique and even as an intermediate start to notice at what points your form starts to break down and make sure you are not training in that range on a regular basis.
Need some advice? Check out any of these articles to help you correct the mistakes you make be making:
Top 17 Squat Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
Top 19 Bench Press Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
Top 19 Deadlift Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
Frequently Asked Questions
Does a Physical Job Count as Exercise?
Having a physical job doesn’t technically count as “exercise” since it isn’t done with the intention of improving fitness; but, it definitely will always count towards your daily non-exercise activity and increase your total energy expenditure significantly which will help you maintain your fitness.
How Do You Exercise With A Physically Demanding Job?
Exercising with a physically demanding job can be done so long as you time your training to be on days when you expect to have more energy, manage recovery and make adjustments to volume, load and frequency based on what type of physical demands your job places on you.
How Do You Know If You Need to Adjust Your Powerlifting Program?
Some signs of overtraining or under-recovering are that you are tired and sleepy all the time, are not seeing strength progress after months of training, your ability to perform at work declines, are constantly sore, getting injured frequently or just lose all motivation to train.
Does Manual Labour Help Build Muscle?
Muscle building comes from a result of placing a demand on the muscle over time meaning those with jobs that require constant lifting should expect their muscles to react. However, these gains will plateau as your body adapts and gets used to the daily demands.
While having a physically demanding job can make exercising difficult, it is definitely possible to still train as a powerlifter so long as you pay attention to your progress and how your body is responding.
In addition, working on becoming stronger in your time outside of work may even improve your performance at work and reduce your overall risk of injury since your muscles will be developed and conditioned to withstand any labour that may come your way. If you strike the perfect balance it will be a win-win for both your strength goals and your long term health at your job.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.