old dumbbells

Strength History: Eugen Sandow’s System of Physical Training

By: Barbell Logic Team

A short walk from the epicenter of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, on stage at the Trocadero theater, Eugen Sandow set the course of modern physical culture as we know it. Sandow, like the White City, struck a chord with the masses. One researcher writes that through Sandow’s performances, “People became convinced of the perfectibility of their own bodies. Whether they would augment their physique for reasons of power, shape, or pleasure, they had a say in their appearance.” This is part of the pendulum swing following the industrial revolution and advent of technology that imbued the growing middle class with disposable income and leisure. This was a period of time that Mark Twain coined the “Gilded Age” in America, a time that set the course for the next 100 years of art, architecture, ingenuity, and even the physical culture of the nation.

Strength History: Sandow and the Rise of the Physical Culture Movement

For six months in 1893, Chicago was the cultural center of the world. The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, celebrated the 400th year since Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It was an opportune time for American nationalism to redeem itself after a lackluster showing a few years earlier at the World’s Fair in Paris. In design, engineering, and setting, the Americans’ sprawling “White City”—an architectural collaboration of vast buildings, reflecting (mostly) the Beaux-Arts ideal of symmetry and classical imagery—attempted to “out-Eiffel” Eiffel through the sheer magnitude of its great domed buildings, whitewashed pavilions, and marblesque statuary. [1]

A short walk from the Fair’s epicenter, on stage at the Trocadero theater, a similarly whitewashed, marblesque man set the course of modern physical culture as we know it.

Eugen Sandow was already famous in Europe before he came to the Chicago World’s Fair, having been brought to the Trocadero by Florenz Ziegfeld, an aspiring promoter and master showman, to help benefit his father’s theater. Sandow was a circus strongman, whose feats of strength combined with his aesthetic physique made him popular. He traveled Europe challenging and beating other strongmen of the time, building a legend that would carry him overseas to the United States. The previous year, he designed exercises for the British Army and participated in important lectures about strength and military fitness. A report on this lecture outlined Sandow’s “System of Training” that he would later codify:

Sandow’s development had been attained by constant and systematic use of the muscles, and especially by the employment of 5 lb. dumb-bells, each exercise being designed to increase the power of some particular muscle or group of muscles. Sandow had modeled his system of training on that in fashion with the Greeks and Romans. He had not employed any modern gymnastic apparatus, but had attained his marvelous muscular development mainly by use of light dumb-bells in connection with observations on the anatomical arrangement and disposition of his muscles. [2]

Following the Chicago Fair, Sandow became a Vaudeville star. For the next four years, he would perform regularly at the Trocadero and would travel the United States and Canada performing a combined aesthetic and Strongman routine. His typical show would begin with him posing for the audience, usually having been primed by Ziegfeld and set up with careful lighting against a black backdrop giving the illusion that Sandow was hewn of marble rather than flesh. Sandow had perfected the ability to show off his already impressive physique, even demonstrating his posing routine in one of the earliest movies, filmed by Thomas Edison:

He’d often begin his routine with arms crossed, feet together and head turned to one side, looking away from the main audience. Usually dressed only in a loin cloth or silk shorts, he would move through a series of poses, each a caricature of classical Greek or Roman sculptures. One interviewer described Sandow’s muscles as “Nothing but solid adamantine . . . and not one ounce of superfluous flesh is apparent.” [2] (quoting vide “Answers,” December 20, 1981). He would complete his routine with an easy backflip, sometimes holding dumbbells he claimed weighed 56-pounds each, and finish again with arms crossed. Sandow was an impressive human specimen in the 1890’s at the height of his career, made even more intriguing by Ziegfeld, a man who once sold his friends a bowl full of invisible fish.

The Gilded Age

Sandow, like the White City, struck a chord with the masses. One researcher writes that through Sandow’s performances, “People became convinced of the perfectibility of their own bodies. Whether they would augment their physique for reasons of power, shape, or pleasure, they had a say in their appearance.” [3] This is part of the pendulum swing following the industrial revolution and advent of technology that imbued the growing middle class with disposable income and leisure. Mark Twain wrote about this period of time in American history, which he coined the Gilded Age in America:

Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark: ‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’ [3]

Part of the “human promises” he spoke of wasn’t just the advent of credit, but of celebrity as well. For the first time, performers became national and international celebrities. And their primary starting place was the traveling variety showVaudeville and the Circus. Among these celebrities were people like Harry Houdini, General Tom Thumb of the P.T. Barnum Circus, and Buffalo Bill and his traveling show. And, a staple of the traveling variety show was the Strongmen and -women who astounded audiences with their feats of strength, rivalries, and showmanship.

In the same way that Twain saw credit as a shaky foundation for identity, others saw leisure and the offered docility of the mechanized urban life as a threat to American nationalism. Theodore Roosevelt, in particular, began his campaign for “the strenuous life,” an active pursuit of physical development and refining hardship.

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph. [4] (Roosevelt during a speech before the Hamilton Club (Chicago 1899)).

Sandow’s strength, physique, and showmanship fit the beaux ideal result of this message, becoming the poster child for the transforming power of physical hardship.

The fair had been an incredible success. Over twenty-seven million visitors during its six-month run, including 750,000 on one record day; forty-six participating countries; and a showcase of American innovation, exceeding all expectations. In that mix, were also two other young men would be influenced by Sandow and would help change physical culture worldwide: Alan Calvert, the inventor of the loadable barbell, and Bernarr Macfadden, the father of American bodybuilding.

old dumbbellsStrength, From Hero to Curio

Sandow occupies an interesting place in strength history. Before Sandow and the circus strongman performers, strength had been a part of most cultural traditions. You can see this in the traditional games and rites of passage around the world. As cultures became less dependant on physical fitness for survival (as technology replaced labor), strength became less of a cultural imperative and more of a spectacle. These performers shifted the image of the strongman from hero to curiosity:

They existed on the fringes of American culture. What is more, neither competitive weightlifters nor bodybuilders were regarded as athletes in the same way that other sportsmen were, and because of these attitudes, the general public failed to realize the benefits that weight training could bring to a person’s life. Although there were a number of magazines published in the field broadly defined as ‘physical culture,’ these magazines were rarely purchased by city or university libraries. Because these were not included in most research libraries, the field was academically marginalized. [6]

Sandow did not change that; he highlighted it. Most modern weight-based sports and fitness can be traced directly to bodybuilding, and bodybuilding can be traced directly to Sandow. And, neither bodybuilding nor traditional weight training has quite lost its side-show stigma, despite the growing popularity of barbell training for general health and fitness.

Sandow’s System of Physical Training

Below are some excerpts from Sandow’s System of Physical Training. The system starts, of course, with the bicep curl:

Light Weight Exercises

Exercise 1.

TAKE a dumb-bell in each hand [5 pounds each], and come to the position of attention …. Now, bend the knees slightly, and turn the inner side of the arms full to the front. In all exercises with the light-weight dumb-bells, the knees must be bent, that the muscles of the leg may feel the strain of the movements of the upper limbs. Tighten the grip of the hands on the dumb-bells, and make tense the muscles of the arms; then alternately flex or bend each arm at the elbow inwards and upwards, till the dumb-bell is in line with the shoulder, back of the hand to the front, shoulders and elbows well drawn down, and the upper arms close to the sides. In lowering the dumb-bells, straighten the arm to its full length, and repeat the alternate movements till the muscles ache. This exercise will develop chiefly the flexor biceps muscle, and the triceps extensor muscle, of the upper arm.

The system includes 17 Light-Weight exercises, and though these only use 5-pound dumbbells, Sandow set out a plan for a gradual increase in the number of repetitions performed for each:

NOTE—It has been thought well to append here, by way of suggestion, the following table giving the number of times the movements in each of the foregoing exercises are to be practiced daily, and the ratio of increase on each occasion afterwards, as the pupil may feel himself able to bear the strain of the more heavily-imposed task. Women and children should try to do one-fifth, or one-fourth, the number of movements indicated for men.

He then gives a collection of “Heavy Weight Exercises” that are not for everyone. Rather, “it must here be said, chiefly by way of caution, [the Heavy Weight Exercises] are designed for those only who desire, and have the necessary strength, to become athletes.” These exercises are each performed with dumbbells:

  • HOW TO LIFT BY ONE HAND FROM THE GROUND TO THE SHOULDER.
  • ONE-HANDED SLOW-PRESS FROM THE SHOULDER.
  • ONE-HAND SWING LIFT FROM THE GROUND OVER THE HEAD.
  • SLOW LIFT FROM THE GROUND TO THE SHOULDER.
  • SWING RING-AND-BALL LIFT FROM THE GROUND OVER HEAD.
  • TWO-HANDED LIFT FROM THE GROUND TO THE SHOULDER.
  • HOLDING OUT AT ARM’S LENGTH WITH BOTH HANDS.

Finally, he includes the “Bar-Bell Exercises” along with a note on the method of progression:

  • ONE-HANDED BAR-BELL SNATCHING LIFT FROM THE GROUND OVER HEAD.
  • SLOW BAR-BELL LIFT FOR DEVELOPING THE MUSCLES OF THE FOREARM AND WRIST.
  • ONE-HANDED BAR-BELL LIFT, UPRIGHT POSITION.
  • TWO-HANDED BAR-BELL LIFT TO THE SHOULDER, UPRIGHT POSITION.
  • FINGER-LIFT FROM THE GROUND.
  • ONE AND TWO HAND STONE LIFTS FROM THE GROUND.
  • HARNESS-AND-CHAIN LIFT FROM THE GROUND.

Each series of exercises is followed by NSFW images of an almost nude Sandow demonstrating each movement.  Sandow includes an important note on barbell training in his system: “Bar-bell exercises should be performed with progressively increasing weights, according to the strength and dexterity of the pupil.

Good advice!

**Note that if you like Strength History, this is the first article in a recurring series. For those of you strength historians out there, let us know your favorite Strongmen and -women. And stay tuned in for more. [5] [6] [7]

References:

[1] “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” Eric Larson (Vintage 2004).

[2] Sandow’s System of Physical Training, compiled and edited, under Mr. Sandow’s Direction, by G. Mercer Adam, Ex-Capt., Queen’s Own Rifles, C.M (1894).

[3] “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” by Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain (1871).

[4] Tehodore Roosevelt, Speech Before the Hamilton Club (Chicago, April 10, 1899) (https://www.bartleby.com/58/1.html)

[5] A Chronology of Significant Events in the Life of Eugen Sandow, by David Webster (Nov. 1992) Iron Game History Vol. 2 Num. 4 (https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v2/igh-v2-n4/igh0204f.pdf).

[6] Building Strength: Alan Calvert, The Milo Barbell Company, and the Modernization of American Weight Training, Kimberly Ayn Beckwith (2006) (Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin) (see also http://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v10/igh-v10-n4/igh1004p22.pdf).

[7] For all your Strength History interests, check out the Iron Game History archive at the Stark Center (http://www.starkcenter.org/article-archive/)

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