There is something about the first cold weather front in October that makes me want to collect firewood. It is an almost unconscious move from the deep marrow, something like the “nesting instinct” that many women report late in pregnancy.

I do not own a wood burner or real fireplace. My wife calls our efficient, clean gas fireplace “The Lamp.” Something seems plain wrong about making a fire with the flip of a light switch.

My parents never had to seriously farm or scramble to get by on back-country living. But thirty or so years ago when I became of age, my father asked me to help cut, split, haul, and stack firewood. Two or even three times per year, I drug myself through the boring menial task that stole a few hours of basketball, hanging out, and video games. Being young and foolish, I viewed this task as a barrier to getting to the gym for a real “work out.”

No matter the season, by the time we were sweating in the middle of our labor, dad would repeat what his father told him, and has likely been handed down through generations of our ancestors.

“Firewood warms you twice.”

I often wonder what my great great grandfathers would think of “functional training,” the chops, lifts, lunges, and reaches that I prescribe and demonstrate to my physical therapy clients. Dealing with a downed tree trunk is real work that demands total body strength and balance. Splitting, lifting, carrying, and stacking firewood requires core stability, hip flexibility, balance, and overall endurance.

Imagine doing this type of work daily, without pre-workout protein smoothies, bragging about gains, or posting photos on social media!

Swing, lift, carry, toss, for 10 sets of 20 reps. Perform this on uneven or graded terrain for added proprioceptive challenge. My obvious next step as a small business owner is to create the Lumberjack Training System, complete with various blunt-tipped training implements, blue-tooth compatible composite “wood” blocks, red and black flannel performance apparel, and a 2-day seminar for those who want to officially become certified in LTS.

But in all seriousness, there are a few relevant avenues of perspective here.

Our forefathers had plenty of functional training. But on the whole, they probably did not live better than us. Technology and innovation affords comforts, opportunities, and life expectancy nearly unimaginable in old times. Of course, with progress comes new problems.

Imagine the old-timers response to modern day claims and complaints about sitting.  Most of us would gladly choose a back ache from too much time in a car or computer chair over that from days, weeks, and months of farming. A few days of swinging a heavy ax can easily cause months of stubborn epicondylitis (forearm pain) in even the most physically fit adult.

Moderation was not an option for them. But it is for most of us. And the limited time that we attend to our health and fitness should not be spent sitting on exercise machines. We should be up on our feet, on the ground, and moving in between. Anything but more sitting and leaning on things.

I often encourage my clients to stay away from exercise contraptions in favor of open ended activities that helps us learn to use the body well.  Functional exercise, done well, allows you to simultaneously work on strength, flexibility, and balance. This can usually be accomplished at home with minimal gear and a little creativity. Ease of access is critical, as cost and time are the most often cited barriers to maintaining a regular exercise program.

Functional training does require some know-how, and like anything else, has risks. Most on-line and DVD home workout programs incorporate functional but high impact exercises like scissor jumps, high kicks, and burpees. They encourage you to push yourself with intensity and repetition.

Exercise form easily breaks down when doing high impact activities in a state of fatigue. Even with perfect form, it is entirely possible to do too much too soon. It should be no surprise when the aches and pains arrive. In focusing so much on intense effort and burning calories and feeling the burn, we lose out on what the most valuable aspects of exercise; the brain training that goes along with rehearsing good body control, improving the quality of how we move, and understanding reasonable, progressive challenges.

I’m sure the idea of movement quality is nothing new. In their years of manual labor, did my great grandfathers intuitively hip hinge (lift heavier objects using the legs and maintaining a neutral spine)? Did they grab moderate size branches with a palms up, elbows in arm position to save stress to their rotator cuff and forearms? I’m sure my mantra of “Learn to do it well before doing it a lot” applied to work life back then just as much as it applies to exercising now.

Fitness training should translate to better quality of life outside of the gym. This requires a subtle but important shift in mindset. Your exercise program should be challenging and uncomfortable, but not painful and exhausting. Do not look at exercise simply as a way to burn calories. See it as an opportunity to make you a safer, more effective and resilient human. When you are physically well, more capable, and confident, you will naturally be inclined to do more, to move more, and yes, burn more calories, out in the real world.

Just like fire wood, a good exercise program warms you twice: Once during the workout, and again when you are a physically engaged participant, applying the fruits of your training to the real world.

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