The fitness industry is filled with weird inventions like the shake-weight, competitions of athletic performance like Netflix’s Ultimate Beastmaster, and of course – the traditional gym. The history of physical training, however, starts long before Billy Blank’s Tae Bo or Jane Fonda’s “Abs, Buns, and Thighs” workouts.
Ancient Civilizations Used Physical Training for Warriors and Early Athletes
Physical fitness, and training to be more physically fit, was an important part of many ancient civilizations. In China, the martial arts, as well as the lifting of very heavy, symbolic objects were important parts of their culture. Being physically fit and very strong made ancient Chinese men incredibly valuable on the battlefield.
In India, their warriors also practiced various forms of physical training. The gada, or Indian club, was commonly used to improve the strength of warriors dating back to 400BCE. Even one of the most important Hindu deities, Vishnu, has been thought to have forged the first gada, making it a symbol of power and reverence. Fun Fact: the gada is having a modern-day revival as functional fitness enthusiasts are finding ways to add this to their functional workouts.
Moving west to Egypt, it is believed that both men and women were training to improve their physical fitness. Dating all the way back to 3500BC, Egyptians would engage in activities such as running, climbing, and running with carts loaded with materials. As with the Chinese and the Indians, Egyptians who showed great strength and speed were revered as great warriors.
The last of the ancient cultures to have used physical training is the Greeks. Many people see Greece as the beginning of the history of physical training. This is likely because Greece is where gymnastics and the Olympics were created and practiced for many, many years. Exceptional athletes would compete in the Olympics, and fight in battles.
Physical fitness was an asset to each culture’s military efforts. Physical fitness was also a symbol of superiority in these cultures. Being physically fit meant that you not only had an attractive appearance, but it also showed that you were able to harness the body’s ability to adapt.
Ancient civilizations valued intelligence and discovery. For one to understand that the body could adapt was one thing. To understand how to train the body to adapt and get stronger was another. This value is seen in the 600 BCE prescription of exercise as medicine by Susruta, which shows that to train the body was to also improve the wellbeing of the body.
So how did we get from swinging Indian Clubs and throwing the discus to the world of fitness we know today?
The Dawn of Commercial Training Centers – 1800’s
In North America, European styles of training were beginning to take hold. In 1823, George Bancroft and Joseph Cogswell opened the first gymnastics gym in Northampton, Massachusetts. They hired a German immigrant to teach and coach callisthenics to their community.
Later in the 1950s, a Harvard Medical Grad by the name of George Barker Windship presented the idea that heavy-lifting exercises would promote a larger ideology that “strength is health”.
Back in Europe, a man by the name of Hippolyte Triat, a french strongman, was the first to commercialize the training experience on the European continent. He created a large gym in France that welcomed the aristocrats and youth of 1840 France to come and train.
By the late 1800s, gyms were popping up everywhere to help strengthen (mostly) the young men and to prepare them for competitions and the battlefield. Training at a gym was, in some cases, a symbol of prestige and wealth. For example, the Prince of Wales opened the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) gym in 1888. (pictured below)
Personal Training and the “Fitness Industry”
As with many industries, the 20th century changed physical training drastically. This was really when physical training and health moved from training warriors to creating and capitalizing on the obsessions with vanity.
The 1900s began with legendary strongman, Eugen Sandow of Prussia, staging the first physique competition in 1901 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was here that Eugen made the public see physical training as a means to look like Mr. Olympia.
Eugen Sandow also opened the London Institue of Physical Culture where clients of the gym trained just like Mr. Olympia. This included progressive overload training using equipment that many of us are familiar with today like dumbbells and barbells.
Although most personal trainers were training the athletes and warriors, as time went on, personal trainers became more accessible to the general public.
One man who is credited for bringing physical training to the non-athletes and soldiers was Jack Lalanne. He was superhuman in strength as it is said that he swam handcuffed from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, and set a world record at age 42 for doing over 1,000 pushups in 23 minutes.
Crazy physical feats aside, Jack Lalanne also opened the first community gym in California in 1936. He made training accessible to everyone and encouraged everyone to train like the athletes and soldiers.
Jack Lalanne used his platform to encourage women to join gyms and lift weights too. He believed that everyone could benefit from physical training using a combination of traditional training methods like running, and weight lifting.
He was also one of the first to link, and educate the public, on the importance of physical training and proper nutrition in order to achieve optimal fitness levels.
Personal Training Today
Building on the methods of the ancient civilizations, the popularizing of modern fitness in Europe, and the trailblazers of the 20th century, personal training is more accessible and well researched than ever before.
The emergence of exercise science and nutrition sciences has equipped the modern personal trainer with a wealth of information to help anyone reach a variety of health and fitness goals. Now we can even access personal trainers online, and bring them with us wherever we go.
Personal training, from it’s origins in the ancient civilizations, has always been rooted in the idea that humans have an amazing ability to adapt. Give someone the right set of tools and information, and we can achieve just about any fitness goal we have.