How Functional Training Can Improve Farming Performance and Health by Cristina Cosentino & Jesse Lapiana
I’ve never seen a farming job description that didn’t feature “must be able to repeatedly lift 50 pounds” in its qualifications. Growing veggies is one of the most physically demanding, strenuous jobs. In fact, I don’t know a single farmer without back pain. While agricultural apprenticeships are growing, education on farming ergonomics is still few and far between. Many farm organically to enjoy the wholesome, rewarding lifestyle and ensure the health of our soil and communities. But what about the sustainability of our own bodies? Why not practice a farming style that is not only financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable, but also physically functional?
Like the evolution of modern agriculture, the fitness industry has slowly gotten away from its true purpose: to make people healthier and stronger and make daily life tasks easier. The focus has shifted to aesthetics while the beneficial effects have taken more of a backseat. Enter functional training, the missing tool in every farmer’s tool box. Rather than performance based or aesthetically driven, functional training describes a type of fitness with the purpose of developing the mobility and movement patterns of muscles involved in daily tasks like lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling movements.
More fitness professionals are becoming aware of the benefits of functional training. But what does a fitness philosophy have to do with farming? Certified strength and conditioning coach (CSCS) Jesse Lapiana, organic farmer, B.S. in Exercise Science, former Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Boston Red Sox, and athletic performance and functional training coach at Infiniti Performance in Long Island, New York recommends functional training to anyone who has a physically demanding job. “Your job will become much easier once you begin functional training. The gym is like a laboratory where we can control all the variables, unlike in the field.” Not only are farmers lifting heavy, but we’re often on uneven terrain, lifting with an unideal center of gravity relative to our bodies with difficulty achieving proper grip. “Unaddressed weaknesses can lead to injury, which can stop you from farming. When your body has limitations, it will compensate and create pain,” Jesse explains.
Thanks to individuals like Lydia Irons of The Flexible Farmer, the seed for awareness of farming ergonomics has been planted. Most farmers I know don’t exercise because farming is physically demanding enough. But in the same way athletes must “earn” the demanding movements they perform by preparing with proper form in training, farmers should prepare our bodies for the physical demands of our jobs. Who has time to go to the chiropractor and physical therapy in July when there is garlic to pull and rows to weed?
One of the easiest ways to begin practicing functional farm training is by adopting a dynamic warm up, what Coach Jesse describes as “the key to body preparation.” He emphasizes the importance of mobility, range of motion (movement potential) and increasing blood flow to muscles in a proper warm up. Do you know a farmer that “warms up” before deadlifting a 60 pound crate of potatoes? Probably not, but like professional athletes, farmers need a warm up before hitting the field (literally).
Let’s start with a quick, simple warm up for a task most small scale organic vegetable growers are all too familiar with: weeding. The position our bodies are in when weeding is essentially a form of squatting. Though time is precious this time of year, it’s worth it to take 5-10 minutes to warm up and activate the body before getting started. It can be done on the fly and is relevant to many other daily tasks we do too, like harvesting. It may seem like an extra chore at first, but it’s worth taking the time sooner, rather than spending more time going to doctors or physical therapy later.
Like veggies, a good warm up should always start from the ground up. Coach Lapiana’s “Weeding Warm Up” intends to “create mobility in the ankles and hips, working our way up to the thoracic spine and shoulders. When the body doesn’t have mobility in these areas, it searches for range of motion in places where it shouldn’t, like the low back for farmers.” He designed the following warm up that can be done anywhere on the farm to prepare for the most common fundamental movements we do in everything from weeding to harvesting.
Every farmer should be able to rest comfortably in a squatting position. This should be one of the first places the farmer checks into before starting their day. Traditionally the squat position is an expression of adequate ankle and hip mobility and is inherently a position of rest.
(Sidenote: Always consult your health professional before adopting any exercise routine).
Exercise 1- Ankle Warm Up: In a squatting position with a straight spine, shoulders down and core tight, make small clocklike circles within the squat pattern moving from the ankles. Do 5 reps on the left and right to increase range needed in the ankle joint for long-term squatting.
Exercise 2- Hip Warm up: In a squatting position take the elbows to the inside of the knees and bring the palms together at your chest. Inhale and slowly press the palms together, which pushes the elbows against the hips to open and stretch. Exhale fully, release the elbows and repeat 10 times.
Exercise 3- Hanging to Lengthen and Decompress the Spine: Find a barn beam, greenhouse frame or tree branch to grab onto and hang from. Slowly breathe, maintaining some tension in the shoulders. Gradually allow gravity to take over and feel your spine decompressing. 3-5 minutes per day.
Once we’ve created space in our joints it is time for activation to prepare our muscles for movement.
Exercise 4- Body Weight Squats: Raise the arms in front at shoulder height. Squeeze the butt cheeks and core abdomen by pulling the belly button towards the spine. Exhale, slowly shifting the weight into your heels, bend the knees to lower into a squat. Keep the belly pulled in and back straight with the shoulders down. Slowly come back up to the top, pause and repeat 10 times. Disclaimer: if you experience knee pain with this, only squat to a depth that feels good and hold onto a bench or ledge for assistance.
Exercise 5- Plank: This braces the lower back and abdomen before bending over for long periods of time. There are four progressions: push-up plank on knees, forearm plank on knees, push up plank on toes, and forearm plank on toes. Start where you feel comfortable. Squeeze the butt cheeks and suck the belly button into the spine so the navel is taken inwards. Your head should be over your hands or elbows, with elbows at ninety degrees for forearm planks and the spine in a straight line. Try for 30-60 seconds.
Exercise 6- Total Body Blood Flow: This will get you warmed up and moving in a more dynamic fashion, stimulating blood flow in the lower half of the body. Lightly bounce on your toes staying extremely relaxed in your upper body and shoulders. Keep your legs straight and only flex your ankles. Try for 30-60 seconds.
Exercise 7- Farmer’s Walk Core Shoulder Activation: Grab a bucket of zucchini or a bundle of hay in each hand. Standing tall, pull your shoulders back and squeeze your abdomen by pulling your belly button in towards your spine. Start with 20 steps, staying relaxed throughout the upper body. Try to limit swaying back and forth and keep the shoulders down. This will stimulate the core and hip stabilizers to engage and develop grip strength.
Sometimes it’s hard enough to cook dinner, take care of family members, and even clean up during the busy part of the season. However, as farmers our bodies are our most valuable tools and we should always make time to take care of ourselves. These functional training exercises can help get you started, even if beginning with just 10 minutes a day. Sustainable agriculture is about satisfying human, animal, and environmental needs in an integrated way that will last over time. Let’s integrate strong, healthy farmers into this high standard.
Jesse Lapiana is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Infiniti Performance on Long Island, NY. He previously worked with the Boston Red Sox organization as a strength coach. He holds a degree in Exercise Science from Florida Gulf Coast University and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He farms organically in Huntington, NY.
Cristina Cosentinois the Director of Farm Operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, an educational non-profit farm on Long Island raising diversified vegetables and livestock for the community of Shelter Island, New York.