Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oldtime Strength: It Wasn't Broke, Why Did We "Fix" It?

People are, in general, creatures of habit. We become attached to that which we habitually do, get comfortable, and dislike/fear the unknown and lack of familiarity that accompanies new things. For the most part, innovation is good. It staves off stagnation, and keeps us constantly improving in the various areas of our lives. Being willing to take that leap into the unknown allows us to discover a new type of food that we didn't know we would LOVE, driving a new brand of car that turns out to be an excellent investment, or even taking a chance on a lady/gentleman who turns out to be your soul mate. The trend for innovation is usually smaller, tighter, faster, more efficient. My iPod is a technical marvel beyond the wildest dreams of consumers in the 1950s. The Fitness industry has also followed this trend. Physical fitness has evolved towards making the workout experience more pleasant, and more accessible to the general public. Our workout experience has become standardized, cookie cutter, and people pleasing. Gyms across the country play the same music, have the same equipment, and are staffed with "personal trainers" prescribing the same workout routines for the same clientelle who sweat and toil on shiny well oiled exercise machinery. The grand majority of gym goers buy a "turn-key" solution for fitness, but don't really OWN the process. There's no real intimacy with the exercise process, they just think if they do X-work, they will receive Y-results.

Sometimes the old ways are better. Take a look at oldtime Physical Culture. Oldtime strongmen were motivated by strength primarily, and their physiques were amazing as a consequence. And that emphasis on functional strength was carried forward into the gym equipment used for the everyday joe. You wouldn't see a strongman performing endless Smith Machine exercises, they needed functional strength that could stand up to real world demands. I know "functional" is an overused buzzword nowadays, but if you can't carry your strength gains from the gym to the outside world, your training isn't "functional."

During a recent vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of touring the Biltmore Estate. This amazing mansion displayed immense wealth, even by todays standards, and boasted a gym that was considered "state of the art" at the time. Modern gym-goers would scoff at the small space and archaic equipment, but I guarantee I can get a better workout in that gym if given a chance to use it than most can have in the most well stocked modern gym.

Take a look at the full rack of Indian Clubs of various sizes and weights. Those unfamiliar with Indian Clubs would do well to research Circular Strength Training popularized by Scott Sonnon. This type of training has fallen out of favor since the time this gym was in use, but is fantastic for shoulder mobility, endurance, strength, and general fitness. Also, note the simple rowing machine. This is a fantastic metabolic conditioning tool. Just these two pieces can provide an excellent full body workout.

This shot includes a set of parallel bars with a crash pad to either side for safety. This piece of equipment allows you to work on a variety of movements, including the L-Sit, the Planche, Dips, and depending on athleticism, even handstands! There is also a climbing ladder, which can provide a good workout if one doesn't use their feet. The two showers in the back serve an obvious purpose and thankfully at least showering hasn't fallen out of favor in modern fitness.

In this shot is a rack with a series of globe-style dumbbells and on the floor, a globe-style barbell. Note that in this example it appears that both the dumbbells and barbell are wooden replicas, but the real ones were generally shot-filled and adjustable. Modern plate loaded barbells and dumbbells are more easily adjustable and probably a bit more efficient, but the old globe-style sometimes sported very thick handles, offering a fantastic grip workout that isn't present using modern bars.

If you are interested in this kind of training, here is a series of links that I enjoy:

  • http://www.clubbell.tv/ - Scott Sonnons site on his new modern Indian Club strength training system
  • http://www.oldtimestrongman.com/ - Great site with old strength training books, equipment, and memorabilia on sale. Their blog has excellent information on it that is always thought provoking and inspiring.
  • BodyTribe Fitness - Awesome gym with an oldtime strongman philosophy. My kind of gym, and their site is action-packed with content.
  • Steve Maxwell's Blog - Steve Maxwell is, in my opinion, the quintessential modern physical culturist. I enjoy his blog and his approach to fitness immensely.
What do you all think?


  1. Wow, what an interesting place to see. I would love to visit this place personally at some point. Thanks for taking me back in time. I also checked out the websites/blogs that you mentioned, they are definitely great resources on untraditional training! I like learning about this stuff.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hey Anna,

    Thanks for checking out the blog. Asheville, NC was beautiful that time of year. Pleasantly cool, but not freezing cold, and the Biltmore Estate was simply jaw-dropping. I was unreasonably excited by the gym there, haha. I'm also very interested in new (and very old) ways of working out.

    Good to hear from you,