Top Menu

What I Learned About Training at My Summer Job

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Muscle

It was the summer of ’88.

School had just gotten out a few days earlier and I was up at 6am getting ready for my first day of hard manual labor.

I was a skinny punk with my hat tilted and my shorts sagging.

Even though I was going to the gym regularly I had no idea what kind of workload I was about to encounter.

From 7am till 4:30pm we hoisted heavy bags of concrete and piles of plywood, dug ditches, cleaned garbage and loaded dumpsters.

At night I would go to the gym and do my 80’s body part split, hitting the guns with fifty sets in two hours.

Of course, I never gained an ounce of size but it wasn’t necessarily because the job I had was over training me, as I would think a few years later.

The human body is very resilient and can tolerate a very large work load… as long as you gradually build up to it over the course of many months and years.

While I was just a lowly laborer I always admired the skillful work done by the masons who were at the construction sites along side me each day.

The other thing I noticed was that all of them were strong as shit. They all had huge forearms , thick upper arms, and pretty jacked upper backs.

Those dudes could walk pallets of bricks across a muddy, unpaved driveway like nobody’s’ business.  The craziest part about it is they barely ate all day and usually drank at least a six-pack of beer each, if not a case.

The roofers were exactly the same. I particularly remember two of them named Bob and Marty.

They were some big boys and had a reputation that they were not to be messed with. I remember trying to pick up some of those humongous wooden planks those guys would hoist overhead with ease and I couldn’t budge them off the ground.

I also remember them all laughing at me and joking about how I go to the gym all the time and apparently had gotten nothing out of it.

High Frequency Training = Hypertrophy

The reason the masons and roofers possessed such incredible strength and far more muscle than the average guy is because of their enormous, high frequency work load.

The body can and will adapt to most challenges you throw at it. If you lift a ton of weights (or do advanced bodyweight stuff) with high frequency, be it in the gym or at the construction site heaving bricks, you will build muscle.

Sometimes, even in a caloric deficit. Like I said, the masons barely ate all day yet they still defied logic and grew.

Teenage female gymnasts don’t purposely go on a Ronnie Coleman bulking diet yet they all build significant amounts of muscle mass despite having the testosterone levels of, well, a teenage girl.

If I had to bet I’d say that most teenage females, regardless of what they do, would choose to eat below maintenance calories each day rather than significantly higher than that.

Soccer players build big calves simply due to high frequency loading. Cyclists and speed skaters usually have quite well developed quads for the same reason. And wrestlers have thick necks from all the bridging they do.

That said, I think you should still make sure you are in a slightly hypercaloric state if your goal is to gain muscle. That much should be fairly obvious.

Even though I’ve listed examples of people growing without an excess of calories you will still reach your goals faster if you provide your body with the fuel it needs. Just remember not to go overboard and turn into a fat slob either.

Eat what you need to make slow, consistent lean muscle gains and not a huge amount more than that.

When it comes to building high performance muscle, high frequency training reigns supreme.

That’s why my Minimalist Training program has you training each muscle group three times per week and in Body Weight Body Building everything gets trained four times per week. Same deal with Yoked, an upper back specialization program that hits that area four times per week.

It’s why a lot of the best results I’ve gotten throughout the years with many of my clients have been with high frequency programs.

Often times that means training 5-6 times per week, if their schedule allows it.

(NOTE: I am NOT saying that you should or have to train 5-6 times per week. Three days is fine. I’m just making a point.)

Even when we do upper/lower splits there is still a purposeful amount of overlap. The upper back gets worked every day and the legs get hit quite often with all the sled drags and sprints.

Take It Slow

Now, before you abandon your current routine and decide to start doing double sessions seven days per week you need to realize that this type of volume and frequency takes quite a while to work up to.  In some cases that could mean years.

If you have never done a minute of hard labor before and then you go work with the masons for a full eight-hour day tomorrow you will be crippled the next day.

But if you needed to feed your family you couldn’t quit. So you’d soldier back in the next day and battle through. Eventually you would adapt. Just like all athletes and members of the military do.

When it comes to training, the smart approach is to slowly build your work capacity up over time. Add an extra set here, another there then hold that work load steady for a while. When you have adapted to it add a little bit more.

Maybe on the weekends you take the sled out and do two sets each of forward and backward dragging along with some presses and rows. Since there is no eccentric component it won’t be difficult to recover from and may help you build muscle and stay lean.

With every single person I have ever worked with I always prescribe low volume training to get started. If you are starting at zero sets per week there is no need to go straight to seventy sets.

One set is more than you were doing so it should theoretically be enough. Only increase volume when what you are doing is no longer working.

Even when a guy who has been training for a while comes to me I always cut volume at first. That’s because I usually want to increase frequency and get him off of whatever type of split he is on.

In either case I usually prescribe three full body workouts per week and then we take it from there.  Even if we eventually move to an upper/lower split we will still be training each muscle group an average of three times per week.

Over time we will build up his work capacity and add more total training volume throughout the week, but ONLY if it is going to help build more muscle.

Never add more just for the sake of adding more. It has to be well thought out and you need to be sure it’s helping. If it’s not, don’t do it just for the sake of doing it.

But remember that Olympic lifters, gymnasts and the dudes on YouTube who can do 500 muscle ups in 30 seconds all train every day. So do the masons and roofers.

But they worked up to that level of volume and frequency over the course of many months and years.

Start slow, with low volume and a three-time-per-week frequency and gradually increase your work load from there.

A Final Lesson From the Masons

Over the course of a few years I got to know some of the masons a bit better and learned about their families and personal lives. They finished working each day around 4 or 4:30 and headed home for dinner and some quiet time with their wives and kids.

They weren’t jerking around on Facebook till all hours of the night or texting their buddies, and it really didn’t seem like they were getting too stressed out about too much.

They had a big family dinner, drank another six-pack, played with the kids and crashed for a solid 7-8 hour, stress free night of sleep before starting over again the next day.

In other words, these Portuguese powerhouses lived quite the opposite existence of most high strung Americans.

If your cortisol is through the roof and you don’t relax or get any sleep you probably won’t build muscle too rapidly.

I learned a lot working summers alongside those masons. It just took me two plus decades to realize it.

Leave a Reply

21 Responses to What I Learned About Training at My Summer Job

  1. Armando March 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Hey Jason, this article was great. I also worked many summers with my dad in construction and as you stated these guys were machines. I was an athlete and couldn’t hang. This was a little demoralizing since they all had guts. The good news is just as you stated after an entire summer I was hanging with the big boys. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the great content.
    PS- looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Robyn Sherring March 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Hi Jason,
    I have really enjoyed reading this article – a very valid lesson as I now commence working in the gym to build strength and muscle due to suffering chronic nerve damage throughout my body over this past three years. Yesterday was my first day, and just to do a 5 min warm up on the cross trainer was incredibly hard, but as you say in your article, low volume training to get started.
    With my condition there has been a lot of muscle wastage, so have to rebuild them and this will be a huge battle as I have not got feeling from the knees down, but will do gradually, increasing the reps every three days and see how I go.
    Thank you for encouragement and sound advice:)

  3. Josh T. March 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    I have found lower volume, higher frequency training builds strength (for me) better than anything else. I train almost exclusively gymnastic movements now (front lever, back lever, planche progressions, etc), with squatting and Deadlifting thrown in for the legs. Typically train each movement 4-5 times a week and the results are freakin’ awesome.

    Loved the post,

  4. Till March 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Excellent point. I think it’s also important to note that ‘overtraining’ is very hard to do – usually, people train a bit to much and need a few days off – not a month.

  5. Eugene March 6, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Hey Jason

    Awesome post, but I’m a little confused… Training each muscle group 4-5-6 times a week? Does that mean your using really low volume for each workout? I was always under the assumption that you advocated not training with weights more then 3-4 times a week with low volume? Also I thought the stronger one gets the less working sets one can tolerate without over-training? I have no idea how such a program would even look like?
    Anymore info would be awesome.


  6. peter March 6, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    awesome post Jason and very timely for me as I am about to hit the road traveling for 5 months and have started to train more frequently with a bodyweight routine as opposed to the twice weekly high intensity total body routine I’ve been using in recent years.I won’t have access to gyms while hiking through Scotland but figured I can still make some gains training with my suspension trainer…..fortunately they do have trees.Thanks for another great post.

  7. Michael M March 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Great article.

    Hey, just curious, when did you announce the winners for the last contest your ran for the Renegade Diet? I never saw a follow post or email.

  8. Kevin March 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Summer, Summer…Summertime. Yeah I got on sneaks but I need a new pair, cause basketball courts in the summer got girls there.

    Great article brutha!


  9. Brad G. March 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    Eugene’s post got me thinking. Beginning lifters do not possess a developed nervous system capable of stimulating a high percentage of muscle. For this reason, it has been theorized that younger athletes could handle higher workloads and volume.

    That being said, sometimes I think we get to caught up in the science aspect of training.If something works, it works. Even if we can’t find ways to explain or back it up. As Jason previously stated, great gains can be made without, “proper” dietary choices and intake.

    In addition, look at the amount of work professional athletes do in a typical workday. No one would ever suspect them of over-training, and they possess some of the best physiques in the world.

  10. Chris the Kiwi March 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Hey mate,

    A great article! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this over a meal of quail eggs, ribs, and a monster salad bar. Funny how many gym rats learn how strong and hard they are NOT when faced with a day of manual labor. Most impressive for me was the semester I spent training at 5.30am daily with a bunch of absolute nut bags who would go off and start their day as laborers at 7am and pick heavy shit up ALL day after handing me my ass in them gym for 90 mins.

    I would go sit in down in exercise phys and biochem classes all day, feeling exhausted, and humbled. A great lesson.

    Thank you for the reminder.



  11. Craig L. March 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    I too worked as a laborer during the summer of ’99. I was not at all prepared for lifting massive pieces of scrap wood, moving huge packages of siding and transporting hundreds of pounds of dirt via wheelbarrow. I could handle it in short spurts, but I was doing this non-stop for 10+ hours a day. I was an athlete and my body adapted quick, but I dreaded going to work every morning for the first month or so.

    Like you, I remember being impressed with the massive forearms and shoulders on some of the guys hanging drywall and installing siding. Not to mention how they would move a piece of 1/4″ thick drywall around like it was nothing!

    Almost 13 years later I still carry a heavy amount of respect for those who put in that kind of work day in day out for 20, 30 or 40 years. It is not for the feint of heart!

  12. matt March 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Ha,i cant believe how timely or relevant this currently is (at least to me). I worked alot of construction when i left school and into my early twenties(im 42 in a few days)and i must say i get alot sorer now doing labouring than i did back then-BUT my lifts are going up in the gym.Im labouring for a friend that builds pools and have been for the last month.Its a temporary thing as he needed help and i happened to be taking a break from my usual gig which is a chef(which also entails alot of hard physical work).the first week nearly destroyed me,but now i come home,have a shake then head to the gym.ive had to back off on some exercises alittle,but am pushing some good weight in the gym.The funny thing is last week a young roid boy turned up onsite.22yrs old,big unit,walking like he was pushing an invisible wheelbarrow .Less than 30 min on site,shirt is off,lats are flared,he’s good to go.hes got pretty good abs,but a double chin and some pretty awesome backne to boot!The problem is,hes not good at all,in fact pretty bloody useless!!We load up the wheel barrow with concrete bags,he goes to walk with it and tips it straight over!!Of course everyone is watching him cause they assume hes gonna run down the path being so built!!By god did he cop some flak.I help him put the bags back in the barrow but leave a couple out to help him(hes a fellow gym head after all).He gets a few feet and tips it again!the whole site is ripping him a new ass at this point-“hey hercules.. are your muscles plastic.”. etc…(ALOT worse from some of them)An old tiler whos prob early 60’s comes over cursing, reloads the barrow and tells the completely humiliated lad to F@#$ OFF then trots down the path with the barrow like its nothing…
    Young muscles then defiantly announces he benches 350lb and the the crew just crack up.F@$$#% good that obviously does you son,but we dont lie on our backs and press the F@#%$ WHEEL BARROW says the foreman.Poor bastard looks like he’s gonna cry,and unsuprisingly after morning tea is no were to be found!!hopefully a little humility was his to be learned that day,but the guys on site are still laughing about it when they are moving something that requires effort!…..

  13. Jesse March 7, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    Good post on volume. Reminds of a previous post of yours in which you state something like “don’t be in a hurry to get to an advanced state”, I’m paraphrasing. Essentially do what is required to get stronger or bigger (if that is your goal) and no more.

    Is Jacked 2012=Muscle Gaining Secrets 2.0?

  14. Alex March 7, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    Finally i see somebody saying something good about my country and my people, we portuguese are hard working, stress free good people..
    We also have one of the best diets in the world, the mediterranian diet consists of a lot of meat, fish, eggs, tons of vegetables, a lot of olive oil and nuts..
    The guys you met might not eat much during the day but if you cheked their large breakfast and huge dinner you would realize where te size came from, most of us eat like that, most of the calories come at night, and because we eat a lot of good fats, and i mean a lot, it doesnt take much to have a surplus..
    The lack of stress, good diet, traditiond and less technological dependance might be the cause of higher testosterone too..
    Oh yes, and we love our beer..
    Solid advice, keep it up !!

    • vic richardson March 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      i thought the mediterranean diet did not have much meat in it ..

      • Alex March 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

        It does Vic.. altough it has a lot of fish too, its 50/50.. mainly the protein comes from meat, fish and eggs, some milk too..
        Most of the meat is still grass fed and the fish is wild caught..
        It is very easy to find good vegetables too and the way we eat is a big part of our tradition..
        Fast food is still recent here, so, only the kids are hooked on it yet.. thank god

  15. nick March 7, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    This really resonates with me, simply because I have found it to be true personally. Currently I do various bodyweight exercises daily with a very slow progression. I know that I can only get in a couple of dedicated training sesssions a week, but I always have 5 or 10 minutes here and there throughout the day. I’m certainly in a lot better shape now than I was 10 years ago when I was afraid of overtraining if I carried anything heavy outside of the gym! We live and learn I suppose.


  16. Jason March 7, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Interesting post. It is amazing what we can learn from people and situations far removed from what we consider the experts on the subject.

    I use to do landscaping back in the day myself for a sumer or two. There was on guy there that was a monster. He could lift the back end of a Bobcat out of the mud. I was a kid at the time and hadn’t seen anything like that.

    Now this guy would eat. He would have a cooler full of food everyday. Like you I didn’t really learn anything from him, instead i stuck with my muscle and fitness magazines. Sure I grew, I was 17 or 18 years old, nature is going to help me out there but I never put on any real size.

    I am about to sound like an old man, “if only I knew then what I know now”

  17. zach even - esh March 8, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    Damn dude, I LOVED this blog post. I too remember when I was in my early teens, my dad had our front stairs redone, there were 30 something stairs in front of our house and the Mason had these BIG freaking’ biceps and gnarly looking forearms.

    In the 60s and early 70s, LOTS of the golden era bodybuilders worked manual labor jobs before hitting the gym late at night.

    I agree w/the higher frequency of workouts. Rather than doing the 20 sets in one workout it gets spread out, etc. – I’ve noticed this to be awesome for muscle building


  18. balo March 13, 2012 at 1:21 am #

    love the post! But I don’t agree entirely with it. In fact I think training with a high frequency does you more harm then good.
    I worked too some summers & winters in construction. And damm these guys are freaking strong!
    And probably kick most pretty gym guys including mine.

    But, statistically the 2 job types that have the most early disability retirement do to stress or injury are teachers (mental stress) and construction workers.
    So yes if you wanna get fast strong. Design your training in a high frequency fashion… If you want to be healthy, DON’T even think about it ;)
    I personally train after the HIT method ala bodybyscience. And have better progress with training 1’s a week compered to 3 times per week before. And that the last one is more healthy is obvious…
    And now I have more time for fun stuff, Kayaking, Hiking… Playing whatever

  19. Dale April 9, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Jason –

    My instincts tell me that high-frequency (but not too strenuous) work is key for getting jacked. Currently, I’m doing one of your Minimalist templates three days a week.

    Question: would a simple bodyweight circuit on off-days suffice for the sort of volume you envision here ? I’m thinking about a push/pull/squat circuit predicated on my weakest movement: inverted rows. In other words, get the number of rows I can comfortably get, then do that number of pushups and, say, prisoner squats. Maybe three circuits in all.

    Thanks for all you contribute to the field. I can tell you that you are a go-to resource for me.