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Many arborists make the mistake of assuming that the work we perform will improve our fitness, when instead we should make the effort to stay fit so that we can continue to work efficiently and effectively in and with trees. A practical approach to fitness conditioning for arborists will help prevent injuries while fitting into the arborist’s busy schedule.

Fitness Conditioning for Arborists, Part 1

By John Amtmann


Many arborists make the mistake of assuming that the work we perform will improve our fitness, when instead we should make the effort to stay fit so that we can continue to work efficiently and effectively in and with trees. A practical approach to fitness conditioning for arborists will help prevent injuries while fitting into the arborist’s busy schedule.

The fitness components that a comprehensive fitness program should address include cardiorespiratory fitness, musculoskeletal fitness and musculoskeletal flexibility. In order to make physical fitness improvements, some basic principles of exercise physiology must be followed. The principle of overload states that the system targeted (cardiovascular or musculoskeletal) must be exposed to a controlled stress that the body is not accustomed to in order to improve fitness.

The arborist profession requires good physical fitness and the activity required on the job will improve physical fitness to a degree. But continued improvements in physical fitness as a result of tree work would only come if intensity was high enough to cause an overload on a consistent basis, and this is not a guarantee because of the varied and prolonged nature of tree work. So, well-planned supplemental fitness training is required to improve fitness for the arborist, and this improvement in fitness will allow us to make it through the work day with less overall physical stress.

Just as your arbor skills improve through experience and practice, your stamina will improve as overall strength and fitness improves. Any submaximal activity (working or exercising below your maximum effort), which is common throughout the arborist’s work day, becomes physically easier with overall fitness improvements. Think about it: If you work at an average intensity of five units of strength throughout the day when your maximal strength and endurance is 10, then working at that same intensity becomes proportionately easier when your maximal strength and endurance is increased to, say, 12 units of strength. When working at your normal intensity becomes easier, you’ll be less likely to sustain injury, and you’ll be more likely to have the necessary energy or strength to deal with unforeseen and unpredictable events.

For cardiorespiratory fitness, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends activities that can be sustained for a prolonged period of time, including walking, jogging, stationary cycling, rope-jumping, or swimming, 3 to 5 days per week for 20 to 60 minutes per session. Exercise intensity should be anywhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of maximum heart rate. The simplest way to predict maximum heart rate is to subtract age from 220. Multiply this, the age predicted maximum heart rate, by 55 percent and 90 percent to calculate the lower and upper limits of target heart rate. See Table 1 for an example of how to calculate target heart rate range for a 50 year old individual.

Table 1: Calculating Target Heart Rate Range
220-50 = 170
170 x .60 = 102
170 x .90 = 153


During the last 15 years, researchers have become more aware of the benefits of strength training for non-athletes. According to the ACSM participation in strength training can cause following benefits:

Improvements in body composition
Increases in lean body mass
Increases in basal metabolic rate
Improvements in bone mineral density
Improvements in glucose tolerance
Improvements in blood lipid profiles

Strength training is especially advantageous for arborists because balanced improvements in strength will reduce your chance of injuries and accidents in trees.

For musculoskeletal fitness, the ACSM recommends performing eight to 10 separate exercises that train the major muscle groups. A major goal should be to develop the body in a balanced manner, rather than just exercising a few select muscle groups. Performing one set of eight to 15 repetitions to the point of volitional fatigue, two to three days per week is effective in developing musculoskeletal fitness (see Table 2).

Table 2, Sample Strength Training Routine*
Leg Press                     Hips/Thighs
4-Way Neck                Neck
Abdominal Curls           Abdominals
Back Extensions           Lower Back
Lat Pull Down              Upper Back
External Rotation          Rotator Cuff
Bench Press                 Chest
Curls                            Biceps
Triceps Extension         Triceps
Wrist Curls                   Forearms

*1 set of 8-15 repetitions, to volitional fatigue


Musculoskeletal flexibility is something that is often ignored. Lack of flexibility in the lower back and posterior thigh regions may be associated with an increased risk for the development of chronic low back pain, and may hinder performance of climbing and arbor skills. Therefore, a program that will promote flexibility in not only these regions but for the entire body, is encouraged. The ACSM recommends participation in a general stretching routine that focuses on all the major muscle groups a minimum of two to three days per week. Each stretch should be held for 10 to 30 seconds, and should be repeated three to four times. It is best to complete the flexibility program after the body is completely warmed up. A good time to do this is after the cardiovascular training program or the strength training program.

I know, most of you are saying, “I don’t have time to exercise!” But for three days per week, consider implementing this 55-minute session:

Strength train using the program outlined above for 20 minutes.
Cardiovascular training following the guidelines above for 20 minutes.
Stretch for 15 minutes.

If you committed yourself to this program, I guarantee your fitness and energy levels would rise, you would improve your on-the-job effectiveness, and you would lower your risk of injury and accidents on the job — making it possible for you to have more enjoyable and energetic time off the job as well.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the tree work you perform will maintain your physical fitness. These general guidelines will help the arborist stay fit to be able to continue working in the field.


John Amtmann is a professor in his twenty-second year teaching for the Applied Health Science program at Montana Tech in Butte, Mont. He works in the summer for Alpine Tree Services in Butte, and can be reached via e-mail at jamtmann@mtech.edu.


In part 2 of this special focus on fitness conditioning for arborists, the author will detail the exercises mentioned here. For additional information, consider going to your local health club, YMCA or gym and consult with a certified fitness instructor.



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* American College of Sports Medicine. [ital>ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription.<ital] Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

* Brzycki, Matt. [ital>A Practical Approach To Strength Training.<ital] Indianapolis: Masters Press.

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