Are You Fisherman Strong?

Ships are freaking amazing. If you read the newsletter I mentioned the Battle of Lepanto, the largest galley-led sea battle.

Imagine over 400 warships going to battle in the Ionian sea. Not sailboats but ships that were built like staging platforms and ready for a land battle on sea.

It was a battle that would be fought between maritime Catholic countries, unified under what was called the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire in the year 1571.

That’s 100,000 sailors, soldiers, and oarsmen AS WELL as over 20,000 artillery pieces, mounted on galleys; ship designs that were in use since classical antiquity.

In the history of naval warfare, Lepanto marks the last major engagement in the Western world to be fought almost entirely between rowing vessels.

Eventually, the galley was slowly phased out and more and more sail-based ships were developed.

These sailing ships were more powerful, could travel more distances, and could carry MORE guns. You can learn more about the history of sail here.

And along with more numerous quality of men, and more guns, they overcame the more numerous ships of the Ottomans.

After it, began a revolution in shipbuilding, leading to the dominance of huge sailing ships. We’re talking giant ships that could travel across ocean.

I was reading on this battle and I couldn’t help but think of how amazing (both physically and mentally) the ship designers/shipwrights had to have been to create these monster ships.

And not just how shipbuilding transitioned from rowing ships to sail but the overall progression of shipbuilding. It was really cool to learn how the mortise and tenon woodworking joint gained popularity in the Roman Era as away of building a ships outer frame.

The strength of a joint like that was really cool to learn about. “Why is this so strong? And is it really that strong?”

In fact, I got interested in learning about woodworking and I started my own project: A work bench.

It’s gotten me to try woodworking- a really physical but mental trade — And let me tell you, you haven’t done ‘core stability’ or ‘shoulder stability’ until you’ve done woodworking. Holding wood together with clamps, drilling, working around issues, is its own form of fitness.

You can do as much planks and push ups and shoulder presses but its not the same as actually doing the job of woodworking.

That’s not to say that those things are not important. I mean, how else would I get stronger? But part of it is learning new movement and new techniques which only comes from practicing what you’re trying to get good at.

Sort of like, General Physical Preparedness versus Specific Physical Preparedness.

Life of Shipwright/Physicality

Now, I was just doing a simple woodworking project. Imagine making your living in a shipyard as a shipwright!

Shipwrights were crucial as you can imagine for trade, warfare, and expansion of enterprise. Having the physical and mental capabilities to design ships for different environments made successful shipwrights valued craftsmen.

Accurate measurements and a mix of physical sweat and new technology, allowed some amazing ship designs to be created.

The University of South Hampton has a cool re-creation of shipbuilding techniques from English history to give us a visual as to the design of ships from forests to fleet.

Shipbuilding and Woodworking for Training Inspiration

Reading about shipbuilding and trying woodworking reminded me of something big in strength training: The importance of having a strong posterior chain. Everything from shoulders to neck to glutes to hamstrings to calves.

But say we’re in this same situation of trying woodworking. I know that I’m not cut out physically (yet) for the craft. I’ve got weak shoulders and a weak core for this job.

What can I do?

One of the leaders in the weightlifting community, David Tate, has said that you can boil down how to create a workout program with the following rules:

  1. Knowing what you are trying to improve
  2. what traits it takes to improve on it,
  3. and what activities that you can do to improve on those traits

Pretty straight forward.

So, I figure, for getting my body stronger for woodworking (apart from learning the craft and techniques), I can improve my strength in the following areas:

Building Shoulder Strength to Hammer any Nail

Rowing more, has been the main way I’ve increased my shoulder strength.

Now you might think, why back? Isn’t it that the muscles that are pressing weight, like screwing in a power-drill, or the force that pushes a hammer to smash nails more about whats on the front?

Trust me, when someone told me this, it started to make more sense. Your shoulder is very mobile and muscles from all angles act/pull on it.

The ones that are regularly contracting to generate force are also coupled with ones that are holding/stabilizing the joint in place to create force.

The clinicians at Form and Function Clinic, the clinic I volunteered a few years back, said that its like comparing shooting a cannon from a canoe on water versus off of land; you need the stability to generate force.

And pretty much people before the Industrial Revolution lived such vigorous lives that I’m sure they got a lot of practice strengthening their backs.

Its just how their lifestyles were.

Yeah, they got hurt too but compare yours and my sedentary lives to THEIRS: they’d carry pots, pans, armour, and a full tent kit over harsh terrain, like Roman Legionnaires had to.

And then build an entire fortification afterwards to protect themselves.

If you worked as part of a shipyard, you were probably constantly bending and cutting wood, and carrying weights across distances.

So what to do? Increase the volume of back work that you do in a training program.

Here’s a link to some back training variations by Dr. John Rusin.

Experiencing Back Discomfort from Dumbbell Rows?

On this theme of woodworking and shipbuilding, funny enough, I came across a video by Lee Boyce on a modified one arm dumbbell row.

Its called the Fisherman Row. How great is that?

It has two benefits that those with lower back discomfort might find appealing as they can continue to one-arm row while working on improving their back issue off the field.

You still require a bench but keep both knees on it at a 45-degree angle.

Next, you row off of the floor with each repetition.

As a cue, literally think of pulling a fish from your fishing line in the water and if you want to have improved back activation in the lats, think about that fishing net being a few inches in front of you so you have a bit of an arc-like motion as you row towards your hip.

There’s a big juicy, rainbow trout.

Developing a Grip that Won’t Let Anything Slip

While working on making a workbench, the constant hammering, squeezing and pushing of a power drill (I know weak) had my palms shaking within minutes. I had to take breaks to complete the damn thing.

My grip was shot.

So I sat down and thought of ways to improve grip strength.

Plate pinches, and doing forearms curls are awesome, as this way you cover both hold something and challenging your forearms isometrically (without moving the forearms) as well as challenging the forearms through movement.

That’s great.

But its tough to manage extra exercises when you have a bunch of isolation exercises. You end up with a huge list of things to do, and most of us, including our shipwrights, didn’t and don’t have that much free time to consistently train.

A solution, is to include exercises that compound movements.

What trains ‘xxx’ + your grip?

Plate Pinches Forearm Curls

Any type of rowing (Hey! We’re hitting two birds with one stone)

Just to name a few.

Core training is about resisting spinal bending and with woodworking, I found you really have to strengthen this because you’re also being creative with the resources and space you have in order to build a project.

For instance, I was kneeling on our garage floor while trying to brace two 2-by-4s as I drilled wood-screws through the two pieces.

It took a lot of core strength to hold all of these moving parts in alignment while still pushing the screw in.

After a dozen screws, I was cramping-even after switching positions and finding different ways to setup the pieces of wood.

To get stronger and be able to have greater endurance in the potential positions that I’ll be in, I’ve got to improve my core strength.

Like a Mortis and Tenon joint, one of the strongest joints in ancient shipbuilding. One that made Roman galleys very strong for their time.

A cool tip on bracing; BUTT, BRACE, BREATHE…. this has helped me a lot for lifting heavy things or for staying ‘tight’ for a period of time.

Side Planks

Carries (farmer’s carries, overhead carries, offset carries, etc)

Cable Crunches

A mix of something that resists extension (think bending back), flexion (bending forward), lateral (side to side), rotation (…..rotating), or moving the limbs while the spine stays erect, and even controlled movement of the spine.

How much of each would obviously depend on what area you need to work more on.

But, for woodworking and really most real-life activities, resisting spine movement is the most practical.

A Sample Strength Workout (something I’m doing right now)

DAY 1: PULLING

Prone Y-Raises (4 sets of 10–15) super-set with reverse plank (4 sets of 30–45s)

Pull-ups/assisted 5 sets of 10

Fisherman rows 3 sets of 8–12

Angled Cable row s 4 sets of 15–20

Bodyweight Back Extensions 3 sets of 20–30

Double Kettlebell Swings 5 sets of 10

DAY 2: PUSHING

Inverted Row 5 sets of 10

Reverse Dumbbell Flyes 5 sets of 10

Side-Deltoid Machine 5 sets of 12

Incline Dumbbell Press or Paused Chest Dips 4 sets of 6–8

Pushups on a Medicine Ball 6 sets of 8–12

DAY 3: POSTURE

Band Pull Aparts 1 set of 100

Farmers Walks 3 sets of 30s or specific distance

Hammer Curls 5 sets of 10

Glute Ham Raises or 45-degree back extensions 2 sets of 30

Turkish Getup 3 sets of 10 each arm

DAY 4: LEGS

Bodyweight Leg Curls on yoga ball OR Glute Ham Raises 5 sets of 10

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 4 sets of 10–12

Dumbbell Walking Lunge 3 sets of 10 each leg

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge (Alternating) 3 sets of 8 reps each leg

Side Planks 3 sets for 60–90s

What about A High Intensity Workout?

You know, I want to improve this too!

And I can incorporate a lot of these same target areas in a HIIT workout, that allows me to also work on my high intensity endurance.

An example is:

“Crossing the Bridge” HIIT Circuit

Push-ups (1 to 7 repetitions)

Dumbbell Farmers carries for 30 meters

Burpees (1 to 7 repetitions)

Farmers carries for 30 meters

Rest 30 seconds

Here, you will do 1 push up and then do the farmer’s carry 30 meters and put the weights down. Then, you will immediately do 1 burpee.

As soon as the burpee is done you will carry the weights back to your initial position and rest 30 seconds.

Then, you will 2 push-ups, followed by another trip with the weights for 30 meters, then do 2 burpees.

Following those 2 burpees, you will return with the weights to start and rest 30 seconds.

You will go up in this way to 7 push-ups and 7 burpees, maintaining 30 seconds rest on your return trip.

The weight for their farmer’s carry should be anywhere from 25–40% of your bodyweight in each hand. So, if you weight 150 lbs, you would carry anywhere from 35–60 lbs in each hand.

In the circuit, pretty much half of the time you’re working on your grip and resisting excessive bending in the spine.

However, all strength/endurance comes at the limit of your work capacity.

Woodworking and Working out to a New Level of Fitness

I’ve shared new variations to rowing in this article as well as how a simple history lesson can get you interested in a new form of fitness: woodworking. And by doing this, we can both expand our fitness and get more fit to perform in our daily lives.

If you have any questions, leave a comment below.

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Yusuf Ahmed

Yusuf Ahmed

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