Early records of strength training date back to 3600 BC when Chinese emperors made their subjects exercise daily (Webster 1976). During the Chou Dynasty subjects were required to pass weight- lifting tests before entering the military. There is large amount of evidence that indicates weight training was part of life in ancient Greece and India. In fact, the Greeks built numerous sculptures of people lifting stone weights.
Numerous systems of training have been proposed over the years. The accumulation of experience and different philosophies has led us to the current training methods utilized today. Keep in mind; many authorities have varied greatly from the original purpose of strength and conditioning. Hard work and dedication formed the foundation of earlier training methods. Today the opposite has occurred in numerous settings as easy work and quick fixes form the foundation of most people’s regimens.
During the 16th century in Europe books on weight training began to surface. Sir Thomas Elyot’s book on the topic was published in England in 1531. Joachim Camerius, a lecturer at Leipzig University, wrote several books in 1544 recommending that weight training should be a key activity offered in the model school. John Paugh published a book in 1728 titled A Physiological, Theoretic and Practical Treatise on the Utility of Muscular Exercise for Restoring the Power to the limbs, which pointed out the benefits offered by weight training for rehab purposes. In the 1860’s, Archibald Maclaren, devised the first formal system of physical training with dumbbells and barbells for the British Army.
The showmen and strongman entertainers of the 19th Century heavily contributed to methods used today in the fitness and Sports Conditioning industry. From extensive research iron game historian David Webster credits Italian circus and fairground performer, Felice Napoli as the one who popularized strongman performances on an international scale. Disciples of Napoli include Professor Attila (Louis Durlacher) and Eugen Sandow (Frederick Muller). Attila became well known and he attracted some of the world’s most well known physical culturists and many rulers of Europe. His list of students included King George of Greece, King Edward of England, Crown Prince Frederick who became King Haakon of Norway, the six children of King Christian of Denmark, the Queen Mother Alexandra of England, Princess Dagmar (Empress of Russia and mother of Tsar Nicholas), and the Duchess of Cumberland.
At the time training the wealthy was a much respected occupation. We have what we call personal trainers today. The current protocols used by the majority of today’s trainers are a far cry from the original teachings and benefits provided by trainers. The fame and notoriety of trainers of those days was a result of the public displays of extraordinary physical feats. These events were often attended by royalty and were highly acclaimed for their promotion of physical well-being.
Eugen Sandow, born in Koningsberg in East Russia in 1867, was recruited for his teachings by presidents and rulers from around the world. Nine kings and queens and many princes of Europe, as well as US presidents William Taft and Woodrow Wilson endorsed Sandow’s book Life is Movement. Sandow was a successful strongman as well as a promoter of formal fitness and health management. He emphasized that physical education and sport should be an integral part of the school system. He also toured the world lecturing and promoting physical culture as a means of improving the quality of life.
Most authorities recognize Sandow, as one of the most important figures in the history of fitness, with the history of his work revealing that the modern phenomenon of science based fitness training is not a novel invention. Sandow promoted the importance of strength and skill as being the cornerstone of fitness. A half a century later Dr Kenneth Cooper proposed that being fit was primarily dependent on aerobic conditioning. Approximately 25 years later the important role of strength training has once again been recognized by the academia.
In Russia during the same period Vladislav Krayevsky founded the St Petersburg Amateur Weightlifting Society (1885). Many respected scientists, athletes; artists became his students, including famous strongman George Hackenschmidt, who credited Krayevsky for teaching him all he knew. Hackenschmidt mentioned in his book The Way To Live that some of the world’s strongest men of the era, including Sandow were trained using Krayevsky’s system.
Krayevsky’s work and the popularity of his students had a major effect on weightlifting in Russia. Not only was he a renowned teacher, but he also achieved significant numbers in barbell lifts himself. He was the president of the jury at the first world championships in Vienna in 1898.
Krayevsky wrote two of his fundamental works during the period of 1896-1899. The writings were titled The Catechism of Health-Rules for Athletes and The Development of Physical Strength with Kettlebells and without Kettlebells. The Catechism of Health-Rules for Athletes was sent to press December 9th 1899, but was never published and is now preserved in manuscript form. His other book was published in 1900 and reprinted three times (1902, 1909, 1916) after his death (1901).
Krayevsky was well studied on the history of physical culture and all forms of gymnastics. He was knowledgeable about Swedish gymnastics and noted its therapeutic benefits, but his concern with the lack of scientific data of the Swedish system led him to recruit experimentalists to research it.
Many of Krayevsky’s recommendations are still used today. His recommendations include medical control of an athlete’s health, consistent training and varying load patterns, full spectrum physical development, psychological development and avoidance of smoking and alcohol.
The early strength pioneers developed numerous devices in regards to strength training including cable machines, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, odd-shaped bars, thick grip bars, weighted boots, isolation machines and various throwing devices. Yet 50 years later there are numerous people who claim to have invented this machinery. In today’s industry there are many systems and people promoting their new systems, which are not really new at all.
The development of different scientific and educational cultures split the West and East as their promotion of physical activity was vaguely different. During the years following the World Wars Russia and Europe still continued to promote various elements of physical strength, power and skill while the West primarily promoted aerobics. Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics was popular at the time as well as Swedish endurance exercise research. According to Cooper and the Swedish researchers cardiac and general health depended primarily on prolonged endurance work. Supporters of the endurance doctrine heavily protested strength training. Cooper told the world strength training promoted a beautiful body but did nothing for health.
During the same period that the aerobics craze was running wild in the West Russians and Eastern Europeans accumulated extensive international information on strength and sports training while developing comprehensive educational programs to promote their findings. Most schools offered weightlifting and within a few decades there were approximately 1 million weightlifters in the USSR. Strength training became a key element in all sports training programs in the USSR while the attitude in the West was that weight training would slow athletes down and limit their range of motion. Consequently Russia dominated the Olympic Games, especially in Olympic Weightlifting, at the same time the aerobic doctrine became gospel in the West.
The Russian dominance has often been attributed to the use of anabolic-androgenic drugs, but the sporting use of these drugs was actually introduced in by the West first. It is probably more accurate to say that the Eastern nations dominated due to their special strength science and understanding of comprehensive sports conditioning. On the topic of drug usage no one uses more drugs than Pro bodybuilders, which are predominantly Americans.
In the West today the majority of gyms, trainers, academia and coaches are still ill informed when it comes to fitness and Sports Conditioning. The aerobic endurance crazes still dominates in most cases, yet this makes up a minor portion of fitness. All one needs to do is study the science and abundant evidence that supports the numerous health and fitness benefits of a proper strength-training program to realize its importance.
Siff, M.C (2000) Supertraining. Mel Siff.
Copyright 2005 Jamie Hale
jamie Hale is the owner of maxcondition.com, gym owner, fitnes and nutrition consulant and writer. He is also a member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame.