Odd Bed Fellows – A brief account on the origins and history of exercise

Within the sphere of physical work that I occupy – and indeed most people who are engaged in some form of modern strength training – we use a panoply of different exercises that traces themselves to a many different places. And no, I am not talking about Russian, Bulgarian or any rather modern exercises baptized to a country. By and large the physical techniques and exercises that we use in modern strength training is an odd admixture of an older origin. The use case and style of application may be somewhat unique to us, but most of the movements are hardly modern.

Firstly, the terms we most frequently use to describe training with body weight are rather telling gymnastics and calisthenics are both Greek terms and as such hint at the rather ancient nature of this type of training. The names themselves suggest that it is indeed from the Greeks that we got many of the most basic bodyweight movements. Jumping had unquestionably been done before, but the Greek systematized the use specifically to increase physical capacities.

In our modern context we certainly have bodyweight movements does not originate in Greece. Think of the various body weight movements popularized by Modern (Swedish) Gymnastics, Physiotherapy, Pilates and anglophone yoga.

One problem, of course, is that it is difficult to entirely separate out where a movement originate and further whether it is fair to claim to state an origin if the use of it a later point emphasizes quite different qualities.

As a case in point the type of yoga that is practiced widely in the west at present, largely came about from the cross pollination of western (Anglo-centric) gymnastics and physical culture. As these met and mingled with yoga in the late 1800’s first in India and subsequently in Great Britain, Continental Europe and later in the US. (For a detailed description of this unfoldment see Yoga Body by Mark Singleton).

If we disregard the context of application for a second, then it is quite apparent that the meeting of East and West generated a whole host of new techniques that had hitherto been unknown in the West.

At this point it should be pointed out for the sake of clarity and fairness, that some of the things we, perhaps unquestioningly, attest to India have a background that is not strictly Indian. The wooden club is a good example, we know it as the Indian club, while it is known as the meel in Persia and here its argued that the Indian club originated with travelling pahlevani (champion wrestlers) who visited Northern India.

If we look at weight training more specifically, barbells are a modern invention. Whereas halteres (smallish dumbbells) were around in ancient Rome and Greece. Barbells, however, and with them the movements that they afford only found widespread use in the later part of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The plate loaded barbell was only invented in 1905 – the modern Olympic barbell is still under 100 years old – being invented in 1928.

The Greeks certainly used external loading, such as repeatedly picking up rocks as a way of conditioning for wrestling – using a partner for exercise resistance and so forth. But the use of iron weights may be the one aspect of modern strength training that is most specific and unique in our present day context.

[This blog was first published on dreamwidth.org] 

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