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Q&A: Manual Labor, Shift Work and Bodybuilding


Q: I’m a fireman, and sometimes I work different shifts. Even if I work the same shift, though, my job is still exhausting. How can I make bodybuilding progress regardless of my job? I’m only 155 pounds and need to build at least 25 pounds of muscle.

A: What I’m about to propose is extremely radical relative to conventional bodybuilding methods, but it has worked wonders for bodybuilders who have been unable to make any progress whatsoever on other programs. If what you’re doing at present isn’t working, you have nothing to lose by trying an alternative approach.

To make good progress at bodybuilding, it’s imperative that you work hard on a training program that’s appropriate for you, and that you recuperate fully between workouts.

Doing that is challenging under any circumstances for a natural, genetically normal bodybuilder, but it’s much more challenging if you work at a job that’s highly demanding physically. It’s even more challenging if you work at a highly physically demanding job that also involves varying shifts.

The impact of your job on your bodybuilding progress is affected by several considerations: 1) the severity of the physical demands of your job, 2) the type of bodybuilding program you follow, 3) how well you attend to the components of recuperation—sleep, rest in general and nutrition—and 4) your genetic potential for bodybuilding.

Of course, you could have excellent potential for bodybuilding, but if you don’t train well and don’t give sufficient attention to your sleep and nutrition, you won’t get far.

Excellent potential for bodybuilding, plus consistent training that’s effective, plus excellent attention to the components of recuperation—which includes not having a lifestyle and type of job that are tremendously exhausting—plus great dedication yields outstanding bodybuilding progress. That’s the type of situation that professional bodybuilders have, together with the assistance of steroids.

Even so, that’s in a different world—no, a different solar system—to that of drug-free, genetically normal bodybuilders who have extremely demanding lives. So don’t look to the pros for assistance with your training.

If you’re a fireman at the front line of fire fighting almost every work day—or you have another extremely demanding job—your work will take much more out of you than if you spend your day at a desk, for example.

If you return home from each day’s work crushed from its physical rigors, you’ll not be in good condition to train well, and your body will be so exhausted from your work that the demands on your recuperation system will be severe even without the demands of bodybuilding training.

If you work on fixed hours, which could be a night shift, it’s possible to have consistent waking and sleeping hours, but if your shift changes regularly, that’s likely to prohibit good sleeping habits because you’ll be unable to settle on a single, consistent routine. The most gifted bodybuilders can usually cut corners on the requirements for bodybuilding success and still make some progress; however, most typical bodybuilders can’t tolerate any corner cutting if they are to make any progress of consequence.

So, if you’re naturally gifted for bodybuilding, you’ll probably still be able to make some progress with a conventional program despite the exhausting demands of working at a manual job with irregular shifts. Your progress will be much greater, though, if you modify your approach to bodybuilding along the lines of what I’m promoting here.

If, like most people, you don’t have a well-above-average natural ability for bodybuilding, a manual-labor job (especially if combined with shift work) is likely to prevent progress unless you overhaul your approach to bodybuilding. Here’s how: 1) reduce your training volume, 2) reduce your training frequency, 3) give even greater attention to eating well every day—get some high-quality nourishment at least every three hours when you’re awake, 4) give even greater attention to sleeping well every day—sleep in two sessions if shift working makes it impossible to get all your daily sleep requirement in one, and 5) give even greater attention to taking it easy when you’re not working at your job and when you’re not in the gym.

Train on just three major compound exercises twice a week—warmups plus two or three work sets of five reps for each exercise. For example, day one could be the squat, bench press and chinup. Day two could be the conventional  deadlift, dip or overhead press, and a row with chest support.

If that’s still too much for you to prosper on, reduce the training frequency to once every four or five days. If possible, schedule your workouts for your off days.

In extreme cases train just once a week, on an off day. Use correct exercise technique, train hard but briefly, recuperate fully between workouts, add a little weight to each exercise whenever you can, and be patient. Progress will happen.

—Stuart McRobert

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1:
How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or www

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