Long before I was training for the challenges of Crossfit and training functional lifts I was performing feats of functional strength. My father believed in a strong work ethic, discipline, and to understand where your money came from. The summer that followed my 12th birthday was my first chance to understand how hard it was to earn a buck. My father's friend owned a farm and he had decided that it would be the perfect place for me to start work. I did not know this until many years later but this had generational significance. When my father was younger he was sent to a work farm for his entire Summer break. There he had to cut hay by hand, stack and bale it, and then pitch fork it into wagons. He had many other jobs that he had to complete on any given day but the bottom line was that he used all the strength and functional movements his body could muster every day. Now let's jump back to my experience.
I can still remember that first day like it was yesterday. It was a Monday morning 6am and my father drove me to the farm. We met his friend by the chow hall and I began work. My father drove off and left me there and I had no idea what was going to be asked of me. That summer I was excited because I broke the 70lb mark and was going to be playing 8th grade football that fall and needed to weight at least 75lbs to be on the roster. I knew I needed to gain weight but that was a huge challenge for me and hoped the long days on the farm would put past the 75lb mark. By the end of the summer I was up to 76lbs and could play football. How did I gain that 6lbs? It wasn't from a poor diet or trying to eat a lot....it was from 12hr days of functional movements.
There were three hay and alfalfa harvests in the summer. During each harvest there would be an entire week that consisted of baling and stacking the hay and alfalfa. I am not sure how many of you have had to do this but it is hot, itchy, painful, and difficult. Each bale of hay or alfalfa weighed 75lbs and there was 180 bales to a wagon. We loaded up to 10 wagons a day. The baler would pick up the cut hay or alfalfa pack it into a bale and tie it off with twine and then shoot it into the wagon. Our job was to catch the bale and stack it. The challenge was that bales came out every 30 seconds to 45 seconds until the wagon could not hold anymore. There tended to be gifts every once in a while like a snake that had been packed into a bale. The twine would dig into and cut your hands, the hay was sharp and would get lodged under your finger nails, and your arms looked like they had barbwire drug across them. Let's not forget the Maryland summers 90 to 100 degree days on end with so much humidity that it looked foggy outside. Once the wagon was full it needed to be unloaded...what a joy and challenge this was. You needed to throw each bale up and out of the wagon into the hay loft which was 15 feet above the ground...imagine a 75lb wall ball that has to hit a 15 foot target. Now at 70lbs this required me to throw this 75lb bale 15 feet in the air...how the heck did I do this?
HIP DRIVE AND EXPLOSION!
I did not realize it then but I was doing my first clean an jerks! I had to drive my hips, catch the bale as high as I could, and then jerk/throw the weight as high and fast as I could over my head. I got lots of practice with this.
There were many other jobs that summer that required functional strength. We would cut down dead timber and hauled it back to various areas of the farm to be split and stacked. The farm used wood burning stoves to heat most of the lodging for the farm hands during the winter so this required a great deal of wood. We were lucky to have a hydraulic splitter in addition to our axes which made splitting larger logs a great deal easier. In order to use the splitter to break apart the logs each log needed to be lifted on to the splitter. The splitter was about 2 1/2 to 3 feet above the ground which meant we needed to deadlift the logs up to the splitter. I was doing my first deadlifts...picking heavy stuff off the ground all summer long.
I am very glad that I had this experience. My father did more for me that summer than any other summer that I experienced until processing through Officer Candidate School for the United States Marine Corps. I learned to work exceptionally hard in a difficult environment. I learned that in order to do this work over long periods of time the most efficient way was the best way. Doing this work efficiently meant that I could do more of it for longer and the outcome was always better.
I see people from time to time in crossfit gyms just muscling movements or lifts because they happen to be strong enough to do it. We all know that at some point the weight will be too heavy to just muscle it and technique will be the only way to lift that weight. How can you expect to all the sudden have perfect technique with a lift and to be extremely efficient with the weight if you never practice it?
Technique beats size and strength any day. No matter the weight, PVC pipe or 500lbs always attack the lift with the best technique you can. If you don't have perfect technique practice it and become a student of it. Once you develop your technique and efficiency with a movement your PR's will sky rocket. I would love to see all of us practice complicated lifts with PVC pipes or empty bars because it reinforces the movements and muscle memory that you will need at heavy lifts. I practice with broom poles in my house. If I know the next day we are going to train snatches or cleans I go into the kitchen and I got through the Burgener warm up, download snatch progressions, and read articles on the Crossfit Journal.
I could never have lifted logs that were my body weight for 10hrs a day if I did not have mechanically sound deadlift. The same goes for my cleans. I could not clean 260lbs if I did not have a mechanically sound clean. Work hard from the bottom up. Take time to focus in on the little things and work hard at them.
Never give up, never stop trying, and always question your potential. There is always more in you than you think.
"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." - Thomas Edison
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