This afternoon I have plenty of free time, as I'm resting up for my strongman competition on Saturday and am not at the gym. Of course I can't stay away from the iron culture for too long. So I started browsing through my personal collection of strength-training books. I came across a book I bought when I was writing my senior thesis for my Sociology degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. My thesis focused on the shifting societal view of the "ideal male physique" and one of the past examples I highlighted was Eugen Sandow. The book is called Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form by Eugen Sandow and G. Mercer Adam and it was published in 1894. As I read through it, I couldn't believe the similarities he recommended for training and diet methodology; as well as the general lack of public knowledge, and abundance of misconception on the subject of strength training. It felt like I was reading a blog post published yesterday (except for the fancy 19th century lingo). From 1894 to 2013 we as a nation, in our collective minds, have learned so little in the ways of diet and exercise. Don't believe me? Well sit tight.
The book is full of interviews where Sandow is questioned about his lifestyle and training methods. When asked if he thought the ancient Greeks were superior specimens to modern humans, he replied, "My notion about the ancients is that they were not a bit better men than there are now living, but that occasionally they found a man incomparably better than his fellows. The classical statues are all idealized--the complete dream of the artist who found in individuals some perfect parts, and shaped a form in which no ingenuity could pick a flaw. Of course, a Hercules or Venus may not have been, is not, impossible: in beauty or strength nothing is impossible, but we don't see such men or women everywhere."
In the same interview he was asked about his diet. The reporter said, "You said, Mr. Sandow, that you didn't believe in the rough school of training which fed men on raw meat, etc?"
He replied, "No; a man should be denied nothing which he desires within certain limits. I never refuse myself anything--I take wine, beer, smoke, and take a turn all round as other men who make the most of life." (pg. 134)
A few paragraphs later, when asked if athletes are obliged to obey very severe diet restrictions, he says, "Ah! that is not my case. I just eat and drink what I want, when I want. Good, wholesome, plain food I find to be best." (pg. 135)
Training and Strength Development
Reporter: "How long did it take you to fully develop your strength?"
"Sandow: "That is a hard question to decide. I do not think that I have fully developed my strength yet; but it took two years' hard study to find out just where the power came from. Of course, I am finding out new things all the time, and it is quite possible that I may discover some new muscle, which will enable me still further to increase my lifting power." (pg. 135)
That part really resonated with me because I've had a hunch for the past couple of years that it doesn't matter how much you read or watch or listen to others, the quest for strength is one that each individual must ultimately figure out on their own. Until you actually apply principles and methods to your own body, consistently, for a long time, you'll never know what truly works for you. Sandow wouldn't have jumped onto the bandwagon of whatever exercise method became popular. He was a scientist and an artist who performed experiments and sculpted his own body through trial and error.
In one of my favorite of his responses that so excellently parallels the modern health and fitness industry, he was asked if he "approved of the customary drill with the dumbbells taught in modern gymnasiums. His answer was an emphatic 'No; half the motions don't affect the muscles a bit, and there are dozens of muscles which are not brought into action at all, and practically lie dormant and untrained.....My faith is pinned to dumbbells, and I do all my training with their aid, supplemented by weight-lifting." (by "weight-lifting" he's referring to Olympic Weight Lifting with barbells). This is EXACTLY how I feel about today's "fitness centers" and group exercise jazzaerobic-zumbayogi-spin-in-place classes where people are encouraged to use teensy tiny dumbbells coated in neon rubber. It's. not. working!
Okay. Glad I got that out. Back to Sandow.
Other select quotes about life and training
"Besides concentrating my mind on my work, I have assiduously thought out for myself the best, and, as I have said, the simplest and most effective, modes of training. I have never fancied, nor found need for, the elaborate equipment of the modern gymnasium." (pg. 141)
He said that in 1894!!
This one is for everyone who's tried lifting for awhile, but has given up for one reason or another.
"Muscle-culture, of course, should not be taken up spasmodically, or without an object in view, or it will fail of its effect. Nor should the object in view be to develop the muscles merely for adoration or display. Regard ought always to be had to the hygienic benefits to be derived from the exercise. If this be not the purpose of the trainer, the novelty will soon pass and interest will become evanescent." (pg. 146)
And in a final blow to all the modern "exercise systems", Planet Fatness/24 Hour Box Gyms, and only-certified-on-paper trainers out there, he had this to say about "Ineffective and vicious systems of training."
"In engaging in muscular exercise, or, indeed in any exercise whatever, much that is beneficial to health is lost for want of an intelligent and well-trained instructor. Even with what is supposed to be a competent instructor, systems of training are frequently adopted that are ineffective, and sometimes vicious (*cough crossfit*cough). Sometimes too, exercises are indulged in so fatuously as to overstrain the muscles, and, at times, put them to wrong uses....Here, as in other things, the old adage is true, that what is one man's meat is another man's poison. The man who taxes his brain all day and leads a sedentary life needs an exercise quite different than that suited to the artisan or mechanic. Both will benefit by a change of occupation, but the brain worker should have an exercise that animates and exhilarates, and does not fatigue, the mind. For the jaded mind, the best antidotes are sleep and rest." (pg. 147)
There's over 250 pages of this sort of thing, complete with pictures, diagrams, and training programs used by Sandow himself. So there you have it, a lesson from my personal Yoda figure, the late great, Mr. Eugen Sandow.
School's out. You're free to go.