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ITS Tactical Editor-in-Chief’s note: This post was written by Brett McKay and originally ran on The Art of Manliness.
Last week, my family and I went on a much needed vacation to our adopted home of Montpelier, Vermont. Kate and I have been going there about once a year since we’ve been married, and we even lived there for six months after I graduated law school. Vermont’s natural beauty really renews my man spirit. I try to get out and enjoy the Green Mountains as much as I can during my short visits. One of my favorite places in Montpelier is Hubbard Park – it’s 134 acres of nothing but beautiful Vermont woods and perfect little trails for rambling.
While Montpelier has a small, not-so-great gym, most Vermonters stay in shape like Kate’s uncle, the famous Uncle Buzz, does – by doing household chores and walking their ubiquitous canine companions. While I don’t own a VT homestead that needs tending, I was able to stay in shape using only things I found in the woods of Hubbard Park (and a trusty maul). Exercising outside with simply the equipment found in Mother Nature’s Gym pushes your body, boosts your manly vigor, and, as you can clearly see in the pictures below, aids you in growing a really sweet mustache.
Below I share my Vermont exercise routine. So wolf down your flapjacks, put on your flannel shirt and boots, grab your axe, and head outside. It’s time to do the Woodsman Workout.
Begin your Woodsman Workout with some deep breathing exercises to clear the mind and oxygenate your blood for the vigorous activity you’re about to take part in. A proper breath originates in the diaphragm. Slowly breathe in the fresh forest air through your nose. As you inhale, imagine your lungs filling up from the bottom to the top. Exhale through your mouth. Imagine the air in your lungs emptying from the top to the bottom. You’ll know if you’re breathing correctly if your belly moves in and out and your chest and shoulders stay still.
Take 20 deep breaths. Focus on the sound of your breath and the bubbling brook beside you.
Hiking serves as the foundation of the Woodsman Workout. In between the various exercises, we’re constantly moving because we’re constantly hiking. During my stay in Vermont, I tried to hike about 5K every morning in Hubbard Park. Keep a brisk pace while you hike, but make sure to take some breaks to really soak in the scenery. Perform each of the exercises below whenever nature moves you to do so, and as soon as you finish an exercise, start hiking again immediately.
Front Squat With a Log
As you’re hiking and taking in the view, be on the lookout for logs for hefting and hoisting. I found a fantastic log from a white birch tree on the side of one of the trails in Hubbard Park that was perfect for lifting. It weighed a good 75 pounds. If you can’t find a proper lifting log, earn extra woodsman points by felling a tree and bucking a log.
Squats are a great way to develop the lower body strength needed for powering through long hikes and putting unruly moose in leglocks. While the back squat (with the weight on the back of your shoulders) is the best squat exercise to activate all the muscles in your lower body, I opted for a front squat in my Woodsman Workout because 1) I didn’t have a squat rack and 2) I wanted to focus on my core and quads, which the front squat does.
- Hoist your log from the ground and into your arms. The log should be resting as high up on your arms as it can.
- Slowly squat until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Because your hamstrings are less taut during the front squat, you’re actually able to get a deeper squat with less strain, so feel free to “break parallel” if you want. While you’re squatting, focus on keeping your torso straight. Do 3 sets of 8 reps, resting a minute between each set.
Overhead Press With a Log
The shoulder press is one of my favorite exercises; it’s even awesomer when performed with a giant birch tree log. The overhead press works your entire body: shoulders, upper-chest, core, and legs. The log’s girth makes the lift a bit more difficult because you have to activate different muscles to maintain hold of the log during the lift.
- Hoist your log to the top of your chest. Grip the log about an inch or two outside shoulder-width. Feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Look straight ahead.
- Press the log over your head. As you lift, exhale. When the log passes your forehead, shift your torso forward and continue lifting the log. Lock your elbows when you reach the end of the lift and hold for a second. Slowly lower the log back to the starting position, inhaling as you do so. That’s one rep. Do 3 sets of 8 reps, resting one minute between each set.
- I harnessed the power of my animal spirit guide, the noble bear, by performing bear crawls through the woods. There’s nothing much to them. Just get down on all fours and crawl like a bear, making sure your knees don’t touch the ground. Perform the bear crawl in one minute spurts whenever you feel like it during your hike. Shoot for 5 crawls during your hike.
You’ve probably seen people tossing medicine balls in the gym. The equivalent of that in the Woodsman Workout is boulder tossing. Tossing heavy boulders is a full body workout. You work your back, chest, legs, arms, shoulders, and core. Best of all, it’s fun to throw heavy things around in the woods.
- Select a good sized boulder. Mine weighed about 50 pounds, give or take. Bend down with your legs to pick up the rock and lift it to your chest.
- Hurl the rock up and out by pushing your arms up from your chest as fast as you can. Enjoy watching your boulder hurtle through the air and land on the ground with a big thud. Pick it back up and throw it again. Do 3 sets of 5 throws, resting 1-2 minutes between each set.
Walking Lunges With a Log
We worked our quads with the front squat, so now we need to hit our hammies and glutes. Lunging through the woods with a log hoisted above your head will do the trick.
- Begin with log hoisted above head.
- Lunge forward with your right leg until your right thigh is perpendicular with the ground. Your left knee should come close to touching the ground. Push up with your left leg and without hesitating lunge forward with your left leg until your left thigh is perpendicular with the ground. Keep alternating like this for about a minute. Rest for a minute, then repeat two more times.
I first learned about the lumberjack press from Canadian AoM fitness contributor Chad Howse. It was only fitting that I include an exercise called the “Lumberjack Press” in the Woodsman Workout. The lumberjack press is a great shoulder exercise. It also activates your core muscles in order to keep the log straight and balanced during the lift.
- Begin by hoisting your log lengthwise onto your right shoulder. Grip the log in the center with both hands – the left hand in front, the right behind – so the log is nice and balanced.
- Lift the log above your head, making sure it remains straight during the lift. It’s harder than you think it would be.
- Lower the log onto your left shoulder. Yes, the expression on my face does indeed make it appear as if I’m strenuously pushing out a beaver-sized B.M. But that, my friends, is the face of a man who successfully completed one rep of a lumberjack press. Just four more to go! Lift the log again and rest it on your right shoulder. Complete 2 sets of 5 reps. When you finish the first set, switch your hands so that your right hand is in front and your left is in the back. That will work your left shoulder more.
A Woodsman Workout wouldn’t be complete without a session of wood splitting. Splitting a stack of wood is a tremendous workout. You work your arms, back, and core swinging the maul around. It’s also a great cardio workout.
- Place your log on a larger log. Start off with your non-dominant hand near the butt of the maul handle and your dominant hand placed near the maul’s head. Bring the maul head above your head.
- Swing down. As you swing, slide your dominant hand down the shaft of the maul for extra power.
- Aim for the center of the log. Follow through on your swing until your maul completely splits the wood. Get another log and keep splitting. Be sure to switch up your hand placement during wood splitting sessions to work the different sides of your body.
Photos by Deborah Johnson-Surwilo
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gotta love that natural equipment training. as a CrossFitter, I'm jelly of those who live near the woods- all this potential out there for training and equipment. a boulder or rock becomes a medicine ball, a log turns into your barbell, swinging an axe gets you pumping like swinging a kettlebell and so much more. truly a cool and manly endeavor.
To add a little extra something to the workout you have to sing Monty Python's lumberjack song while do all of these exercises.
Welome to my world here in northern MI. All spring is spent seeking and fellign proper trees and felling them, All summer is spent cutting splitting and stacking firewood, all fall we drag deer out of the woods and in the winter its on whith the snowshoes to check traps. Great workout and much more enjoyable than being in a sweaty nasty gym.
I'm not gonna lie. I'm pretty envious. I actually have a friend in Wisconsin that does about the same thing and he invited me up to help prepare for winter. I really want even though I'm certain it would crush me in a day or two, hahah! But then after a couple weeks, I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment you get from seeing how your work as paid off with a bunch of stacked firewood... gotta be something.
I would add to use proper foot positioning when using the maul, feet facing the log to be split, with the log centered between the feet. The reason for this is *if* you miss, the maul does not go into your leg. Another way to approach this workout might be to perform the above in a circuit resting between rounds. Either way, not a bad way to spend some time in the woods.
I absolutely love every bit of this. I haven't found a gym that I like and I tend to like the unconventional approaches to things... this is perfect for that. Just a couple weeks back, I bought a sledge hammer (to hit logs, tires, etc.) to mimic the chopping motion of an axe. Maybe there's some dead trees nearby that I can just start chopping up and selling the wood...
As someone who's has to treat axe wounds in the Canadian bush, I should point out that your hands should stay roughly parallel with the axe head as it descends. When your hands are above the axe head, it can deflect off the wood and right into your foot.