Martin “Farmer” Burns was made quite a bit more famous in recent times by Matt Furey. That’s how I first heard about him, and when I first came across the book Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture. Farmer Burns was a phenomenal wrestler in the catch-as-catch-can style and taught many champions like Frank Gotch.

Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture

This book was originally sold as a mail order course with six different “books” in the book. And each “book” has two different lessons, one one health and fitness, the other on wrestling.

As my expertise is not in wrestling, and it’s not the focus of this website, I’ll be focusing on the lessons covering health and exercise for this article. That being said if you’re looking for a great book with many techniques, although this style isn’t in use anymore, it’s still a great place to get a foundation.

On Exercise

The book covers a number of freehand exercises as well as using light dumbbells. I’ve pulled out some specific points rather than taking about the individual exercises for the most part.

“The great secret of becoming a superior athlete lies in the attention to the LITTLE THINGS.”

I would agree whole heartedly with this statement. To get good requires not just looking at the big picture, but the fine details as well.

“Slow, feeble movements do little good. Snappy, energetic work is what causes the blood to run free, the lungs draw in great quantities of life-giving option, and the muscles to build themselves up into strong, flexible and well-trained sinews.”

This is something I’ve written about before. I prefer fast movements to slow ones. Sure, there are times for artificially slowing down your movement, but if you want to flow, like a wrestler needs to, with speed and explosiveness your training should reflect that.

“Exercise tends to make a man perfect in his proportions.”

Back in Farmer Burns day they didn’t really have the gigantic bodybuilders today. (Of course a large part of that is drug use.) Natural exercise, without over specialization on certain things, for instance like a power lifter does with three exercises, will tend to make someone have a natural, “good” build. That may be losing fat and/or gaining muscle. So overall, this statement is good, but a little of an over-generalization, more true in his day than ours.

“The best of all exercises are those that furnish amusement, and competitive interest.”

farmer burns“If you are taking the course of develop a fine physical body, and do not care to be a wrestler, then I say, TAKE WRESTLING TO HELP YOU DEVELOP A STRONGER AND HEALTHIER BODY…WRESTLING IS THE GREATEST SYSTEM OF PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT POSSIBLE FOR ANYONE TO TAKE UP. It cleanses the skin, brightens the eye, and makes it man broader, nobler and gentler.”

I frequently wish I had wrestled in high school as I do agree with this statement, at least the first part. He ends up giving lots of benefits to wrestling which I can’t fully believe liking making someone more noble.

Wrestling itself is some of the best strengthening exercise you can do. You take up so many different positions and exert strength, often isometrically, against an opponent. If you have the opportunity, including some wrestling in your training can be worth it just for these benefits alone, even if you have no desire to be a wrestler.

Other Forms of Exercise

“I believe the abnormal development brought about by the heavyweights is harmful.”

Of course, this is one statement I disagree with completely. Farmer Burns talks about the same myths many others have said, saying weights would make you slow, which we know isn’t true. It does depend on how you train with weights to some degree as well.

“Two persons are required when exercising with the ball. It is merely thrown back and forth from one to another, but his throne and caught in a great variety of positions.”

Just thinking about all I’ve done with kettlebell juggling, including the partner stuff, this was the first time I’ve thought about a medicine ball in a long time. I’m going to go out and have some fun tossing one around with a friend soon.

“For improving speed and when you should jump at the rate of from 300 to 500 jumps per minute.”

I haven’t seen in other places what numbers you should shoot for in jumping rope. This number seems quite quick. I’d be curious to see what I could do right now and how fast I could approach that upper number with training. That’s 8 1/3 skips per second!

“In training for important contest, from 4 to 6 weeks are required to put a man in perfect form.”

This is something I’ve found to be true for myself in my own training, obviously not getting in “fighting shape” as he was referring too. With most of my feats, since I don’t train everything all the time, I find in about that time of 4 to 6 weeks I can get back to the top of my game. Of course, depending on how far you go with something it could take longer, but it’s a good rule of thumb for many things.


“The morning air contains more vitality than at any other time of day.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this spelled out as such in other places but in my experience Farmer Burns is right. If you do anything like the deep breathing exercises shown in this book, or something like qi gong, doing it outside in the morning is best. Of course, if you can’t actually do that, anytime is better than no time, but it’s something to keep in mind.

“Breathing exercises alone, if done RIGHT, will make many a weak man strong in many a sick man well.”

This is the most famous quote of Burns, although it’s missing out on the part that says “if done right”. Breath is truly powerful and anyone starting out on any exercise program would be wise to start with dedicated time doing deep breathing exercises.

In recent years, I’ve got away from doing this specifically, with on purpose deep breathing, so maybe it’s time to go back. Still my prior practice from years ago has allowed me to naturally, without effort, breath deeply which most people do not do.

“Raising and lowering the diaphragm and stomach by rapid contraction and relaxing the muscles of the abdomen WHILE YOU’RE HOLDING THE LUNGS FULL OF AIR.”

Several deep breathing exercises are listed in this book. Somehow this one always escaped my attention. Give it a try and let me know what you think about it below.

“The value of INTERNAL EXERCISE has never been properly recognized. I’m sure that the INTERNAL MASSAGE BY DEEP BREATHING means more from the standpoint of HEALTH, STRENGTH and EFFICIENCY than any other single exercise ever devised in health culture.”

A big point mentioned by many of the oldtime strongmen, on the area of health in the internal organs, and how deep breathing is really the only way to “exercise” these.

Keeping Healthy

“Sweating is a part of physical culture.”

This is something that people seem to forget at times. There is lots of value in keeping your strength training at a point where you’re always fresh, don’t get out of breath and don’t sweat. But you can’t do this exclusively. Sweating is good for you, so make sure you’re getting some of it in, if not daily, then several times a weak.

One other option is to do a sauna or other type of sweat lodge. The great thing about this is you can relax while it’s happening which will allow your body to release more toxins through the skin, which is a big part of the benefit from sweating.

“The question of what to eat is not so important as what NOT to eat.”

Amazing that this was true 100 years ago. It’s even more so now. While you can get away with a certain amount of eating “bad” things, if you just avoid certain foods (and that’s using the term food loosely) then your health will be much better off.

Still I think there’s as much benefit on eating and consuming certain things that are important, such as Chinese Tonic herbs which supply things you can’t find anywhere else. So in the end I’d say it’s about what you do eat and what you don’t eat too.

“Cleanliness and health go hand in hand… By cleanliness and mean far more than mere surface cleanliness. I refer to INTERIOR CLEANLINESS. I mean by this, cleanliness of the PERSPIRATORY (SWEAT) GLANDS AND PORES and of the INTESTINES and STOMACH.”

This goes back to the importance of sweating and breathing. I really liked how he points out the difference in the book between surface cleanliness and internal cleanliness. Too many people don’t think about the insides of their body simply because it can’t be seen.

“Do not drug yourself for common little ailments.”

Another rule that I try to live by. I haven’t had any sort of pain killer in many years except when I had Lasik eye surgery. I tried to avoid it then but it was too much. Reaching for a pill to pop, something that only works on symptoms not causes, is not the first choice you should go for. There are times when it’s necessary and beneficial of course, but that’s fewer than what most people do, and a lot less than what the drug companies would like.

“ROLLING AND KNEADING. This treatment and is of great value to any person attempting to improve his physical condition.”

Again this is a commonality among many of the oldtimers as well as many people today. I haven’t done as much as I would like in doing this. With this reminder I plan on adding more in. It’s a great option of what I can spend my time in when sitting in the sauna.


So that wraps it up for Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture by Martin “Farmer” Burns. There’s a bunch more in the book itself so I would highly recommend you read it yourself if you haven’t already.

Please write in your questions, comments and what you found most fascinating about this book below.


  1. I agree with almost everything he says except the part about eating a steak before a wrestling match. A good steak cooked rare does give me a serious feeling of energy, but it’s only short-lived and I doubt I could last an hour-long match with that in my belly. Then again, people probably ate smaller portions back then. His abdominal exercise and his neck rolling exercise are the two that stood out to me most, in my opinion the other exercises to be performed alone are decent for general conditioning but aren’t all that different froma lot of what other people have written, I’ve not had the chance to try out the partner exercises.
    The level of fitness his training provides was obviously enoguh at the time, but it’s important to remember that most people worked manual jobs and if you wanted to seriousy give his methods a shot, you should try and do plenty labour on the side so as to put things in context. Again we have the sterotypical conflation of bodybuilding and weight training, but while it’s hard to believe that an athlete like Karelin would be out-wrestled by Gotch, it’s interesting to note how far you can get without weights and it’s worth reconsidering how big a role heavy training needs to take in athletic pursuits.

    1. Author

      @Mark: Without weights you can still build lots of strength if you use the kind of bodyweight exercises I teach. Still it’s important to be able to handle not just your own weight but outside weight. Wrestling will give you that strength because it’s basically a mix of isometrics and odd object lifting!

  2. Greetings from Montreal. I only recently studied the Farmer Burns Workout (although I had heard of it from Furey 10 years ago). Fascinating, no?

    Just as in ‘spiritual’ matters, there is still a lot of overlooked Wisdom in this ‘old school’ material.

    The first thing that struck me when reading Burns’ biography, was how much HARD LABOR the man did in his youth. It reminds me of when I did my paratrooper course up in Edmonton in 1982, and the school Sargeant Major (a scary-looking, former Hitler Youth guy) warned everybody at the welcoming- ‘I know you guys are tough, but during the weekend, don’t go looking for trouble in bars…there are guys there in rubber boots and coveralls who can knock the shit out of you at the drop of a dime!’

    Even though I am overly habituated to either Calisthenics (pushups, pullups, dips, etc) or barbell and dumbbell routines, I will try this Burns workout for a few weeks and see. Maybe try with 10-lbs dumbbells?

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