Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Complete History Of Fitness - Part 1- from paleo to pole dancing

The Complete History Of Fitness – Part 1- from paleo to pole dancing

Note: Of course, no history can be complete. And pre-history is a matter of guess work. Everything, however, mentioned in this article is true, except the mythical bits and the bits I made up,

In The Beginning

Somewhere in the Paleolithic era some cavemen were trying to stay warm, as no one had figured out how to light a fire yet. One cave guy was doing jumping jacks, but no one called them that back then. And then another cave dude picked up a big rock and held it over his head to try and impress one of the cave women.

Everyone eat raw food because that’s all there was until someone figured out how to light a fire and cook stuff. And everyone ate paleo, because that’s all there was back then, until it became the Neolithic period, so I guess they ate ‘neo’ then. They pretty much ate whatever they could and didn’t worry about macro nutrient ratios and whether seeds and nuts were good for them, if meat was around they ate it, if they only had fish they ate it. You get the picture.

And everyone walked everywhere, because that’s all there was. No one had invented the wheel yet, and even when they did, it took a while for them to figure out how to make a cart and make an animal pull it for you. And it was literally aeons before someone invented the bicycle. Everyone was barefoot as they tramped across the super continent. When the Pleistocene came along it got pretty cold all the time, that was the time for footwear and skis.

Back in the Paleolithic, as they were hunting and gathering, every so often they would come across some water, and then someone probably invented swimming, but it’s unlikely anyone invented the butterfly stroke as it is so ridiculously hard and not user friendly.

Then they hit the sea and someone probably made a kayak out of a some tree bark and then before you know it they were rowing too and spreading out across the world. No one had invented the indoor rowing machine as of yet because there was no need for it

The Film 2001 A Space Odyssey: I like to think it started like this, but it probably didn't
Train like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptians did a lot of things quite a few thousand years ago. One of the things they did was invent sand bag training, as the picture below shows. They liked to wave the bags overhead. Mostly though the Egyptians were pretty busy building pyramids and mummifying people, so they didn't have much time to exercise.

Egyptian sand bag training

Greece – things get classical

The Greeks really got things going, they liked sport and fitness, so much so they invented the Olympics and set the template for many of the western ideas of fitness.

The word gymnasium comes from the Greek gymnasia, a training facility and place to hang out – literally. The Greek word Gymnos means naked, as competitors in Greek sports were naked and it was men only. They also oiled up before training and competing, much like the modern day competing bodybuilders, except the ancients used a lot less fake tan and didn’t have dynabands to pump up pre-contest.

The Greeks had three weighted implements - javelin, discus and halteres. The halteres are hand held weights that they use during jumping exercises and drills, sometimes this was to music, flute driven music no less, sadly the jazz flute did not exist back then. Halteres can be considered the ancient dumbbell.

Halteres - ancient dumbbells

Milo of Croton

Not only did Milo have a cool name and come from a place with a cool name, he was really strong. He lived  in the 6th century BC and supposedly got strong by lifting a calf as a child, as Milo got older the calf got older and bigger and he kept lifting it until he could lift an adult bull. Thus he invented linear progression and progressive overload. If only he’d known about Westside and conjugated periodization he would have lifted a small sheep on dynamic effort days and de-load weeks and attached some chains to the bull to create accommodating resistance; (Well that's what an internet fitness expert would have told him to if they existed in ancient Greece). He was a 6 times Olympic champ in wrestling between 540 and 520 BC. He also ate loads of meat and bread and wine, thus setting the template for modern powerlifters.


In 490 BC Pheidippides ran from to Sparta and covered about 240km in two days, and immediately invented mutli day ultra running without even wanting too. Then more famously he ran from a battlefield near Marathon to Athens, about 40k or 25 miles, and invented the marathon. Unfortunately, no one had yet invented the energy gel or recovery drink, so he immediately dropped dead from exhaustion.

The marathon distance continued to be about 40k/ 25 miles until the 1908 Olympics when it was officially set at a bizarre 26 miles and 385 yards – so the queen at the time could see the finish. Marathon runners ever since curse this extra distance as they limp the extra yards of pain.

Let’s get mythical (to be sung to the tune of Olivia Newton Johns Let’s Get Physical)

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again, and then push it back up again for eternity. Sisyphus is therefore widely regarded as the mythical inventor of The Prowler, eccentric-less training and GPP Hill training and conditioning.

GPP hill training

Achilles became the first person to suffer from an Achilles heel problem and he didn’t even wear trainers.

Heracles/Hercules was really strong, but he was half god, so it doesn’t really count, like anabolic steroids, it wasn’t a level playing field, having a dad whose a god is considered cheating for sure.

Go tell the Spartans

Sparta was a city state in ancient Greece. The Spartans were hardcore, they trained for war all the time. At aged 7 young boys had to enter The Agoge – a permanent military bootcamp/ school.

This military bootcamp format has survived through the ages. Little did the Spartan know that thousands of years later this would result in people paying trainers £10 an hour to shout at them in the park while they do burpees.

Also, without the Spartans Mens Health or whoever couldn’t have invented the 300 workout and spawned a myriad of random workouts based on 300 reps.

Sparta is really the first time we see fitness women as well. Women had quite a few rights in Sparta, they could wear revealing clothing. Both girls and boys exercised nude, mainly as it was thought to promote fitness, which is probably more feasible in the Mediterranean climate than in northern Europe.

They had women who were sporting celebrities, but they weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in Athens

Apparently in the comedy ( I don’t know if it’s actually funny, I’ve never read it) Lysistrata by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, some Athenian women say to a Spartan women called Lampito . 'What healthy skin, what firmness of physique.' And then one says, 'I've never seen a pair of breasts like that.' To which Lampitos comes back with, 'I go to the gym. I make my buttocks hard.'

This seems to be the first example in history of a female fitness athlete/ gym goer.

Spartan woman: Doing a rotational lunge (probably)

The Romans

There’s a lot of crossover between the Romans and the Greeks. The Romans liked chariot racing, marching places and gladiators. Gladiatorial battles are the ultimate cage fighting, no holds barred, with the advantage that no one is wearing ‘Tap Out’ clothing.

Roman women were allowed to train and use halteres/dumbbells. Check out the mosaic below, no one had yet decided that dumbbells for women had to be pink.

'Bikini Girls Mosaic' 4 century AD. The worlds first figure athlete picture

Everyone was eating the Mediterranean diet as well, because that's were they lived, except those poor Romans who got stationed up on Hadrians wall, they were probably eating a bit more paleo as the Scottish hadn't discovered the battered Mars Bar yet.

Western culture is slightly obsessed with Greek & Roman history, but lets not forget…

Meanwhile In India

The Indians had been doing there own thing for quite a while. Yoga has been around a long time, maybe 4000 or 5000 years! Which means while in Europe we were figuring out how to eat nettles the Indians were doing down dogs and working on their fitness and mind body connections. The first corrective exercise.

Without yoga there is no pilates or bodybalance or err yoga. It’s one of the few things that has stayed constant

The Indians also invented the Indian Clubs. Except they didn’t call them that. These probably developed from Gada or war clubs. These were as the name implied heavy clubs for hitting people with during battle. Swinging a club around for fitness had been practiced in the Middle East and and ancient Egypt. Eventually in India the war club became a fitness device. There were two types of clubs a light one for speed and a heavy one for strength. During the British colonial period in the 19th Century some British military personnel noticed how muscular and built some of the Indian soldiers were. They put it down to their Indian club training, exported it to England and it became the most popular type of training in the 19th century. The Brits only used the light clubs. They should have kept the name 'war clubs' though, it is a lot cooler. (This will be covered in more detail in part 2).

Light Indian Clubs

They also invented a gymnastic sport called Mallakhamb somewhere  possibly back in the 12th Century and for definite in the 19th century. You can see from the video below that this is like some crazy pole dancing. However much I watch that clip I still can’t see how the guy gets on the pole without permanent injury.
Anyway, this takes phenomenal amounts of core strength & balance.

Don't attempt this without some 'No More Nails' and a safety harness

It also justifies my attempts to attend those pole dancing classes; women only, pah! What you talking about, I want to work on more core strength like those Indian guys and nothing more. And I want to wear traditional pants like those Indian guys and will not be looking at you in your hot pants.

Pole Dancing: Great for core strength, it really is!

And while ‘researching’ this I found this link. Yes, it seems someone has set up pole classes for guys, it’s called Vertical Pole. I am so going to be there in my orange pants dominating with my core strength!

Meanwhile over in China – Shaolin

Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk was born in India, and then decided to make his way to China to spread the word. Back then you couldn’t go overland, so he went by sea and arrived in China in about 475 AD. Long story short, the guy then becomes the mythical patriarch of Zen Buddhism and makes his way to Shaolin.
It’s probable that having come from India he already knew yoga and some martial arts. When he gets to Shaolin he finds the monks are weak and sets about showing them some fitness moves, maybe some yoga, or qi gong type stuff. Before you know, kung fu is invented and Bodhidharma walks off into the sunset carrying one sandal.

Without Bodhidharma, there’s no Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan and to stretch the plausibility even more, there’s no bodycombat either, though the Shaolin monks probably don’t know who Les Mills is.

That’s it for part 1, in part 2 I’ll jump forward to the 18th & 19th century and cover barbells, kettlebells, strength training, aerobics, Arnie, Jane Fonda, health clubs and everything else in between.

From Milo to Milo - A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs by Jan Todd. Iron Game History