Your System or Mine? The ‘Battle of the Systems’


Free Weights or Machines? Cardio or Weight Training? TRX or Crossfit? These days the fitness enthusiast seems to be bombarded with a wealth of choices to keep themselves fit and agile. Training systems may seem relatively benign and a matter of personal choice, but scholars often raises uncomfortable questions about why people do what they do.

Training systems are often taken to reflect economic, social and moral statements. In 2005, for example, Carl Stempel, in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argued that upper middle class Americans avoided “excessive displays of strength.” This meant that upper middle class Americans viewed the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. As a result of this, upper middle class Americans were seen to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports rather than physical dominance. This would equate more towards marathon or triathlon training. Such a revulsion towards muscles is not new. Chapman in his biography of Physical Culture aficionado Eugene Sandow documented how in the late 1800s muscles were often reviled, as they were associated with the working class. While this changed somewhat during the heyday of Sandow, McFadden and others, perceptions about what constituted health affected how people trained. From Stempel’s research, it is arguable that it still affects how people train.

This has meant that there always been a fierce debate in the fitness world over the correct way to train. Take for example the ‘Battle of the Systems’ debate from the 1830s to 1920s, the focus of our piece today. The debate centred on the most effective system of exercise and callisthenics in the United States education system. This was a time when many States were mandating how Physical Education would be taught to students in schools. Why did it matter how American men and women would be trained?

Fitness is never a benign topic and many American educators during the 19th and early 20th century saw fitness as an indication of moral upstanding. We must remember that muscular Christianity, discussed in last week’s piece, was not confined to Great Britain. Fitness and health were of great importance in educating Americans about how to behave and hold oneself. Take, for example, William Augustus Stearn, the President of Amherst College, who in 1859 explained

“If a moderate amount of physical exercise could be secured to every student daily, I have a deep conviction . . . that not only would lives and health be preserved, but animation and cheerfulness, and higher order of efficient study and intellectual life would be secured.” (Leonard & McKenzie, 1927, p. 275)

Coupled with concerns over personality and upbringing, fitness was also a matter of survival in the US in the mid-19th century. From 1861-1865, the American Civil War raised questions over the fitness of America’s troops. Such discourse affected the higher rungs of US politics as is evident in the passing of the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862, which required that all colleges built under the Act provide military drills to male students. The impetus for such the Act was the initially poor performance of Northern troops during the American Civil War. The North’s poor performance was understood in terms of fitness and training. The South had more military schools and was producing fitter recruits. The North needed to catch up, hence the Morrill-Land Act. Such was the legacy of the North’s initial poor beginnings in the American Civil War that following the end of the war, American leaders decided that at least one school in each state should provide some martial training.

Fitness was important but which system would provide the best means of encouraging health? Should Physical Education centre on European methods of gymnastics or sports and games? The debate raged for nearly a century.

Initially it appeared that gymnastics were the answer. American physical education and military physical training in the early 1860s were both influenced by German and Swedish gymnastics. As a result of this, P.E. in schools and military fitness systems often appeared identical. In 1943 Cobb reflecting on the use of training systems noted:

“Since physical education programs were very largely centered around formal gymnastics, it is quite easy to see how educators and the lay public might regard military drill and formal gymnastics (the physical education program of that day) as very similar in purpose as well as in program. Colleges that offered both physical education and military drill frequently excused men from required physical education if they selected military programs.” (p. 105)

Such conformity was not to last. Soon a schism emerged in the training world between militarists who called for training designed around military needs, and physical educators who focused on games, exercises, and sports (Zeigler, 1975).

Eventually it appears that the physical educators won, at least in American schools. The new method of “Physical Education” that emerged in the early 1900s placed a heavy emphasis on sports and games. The popularity of this sports and games approach soon became evident to US educators. Children and teachers alike appeared more comfortable with this slightly more informal method of keeping healthy. Eventually this system would replace the formal gymnastics of the German and Swedish methods. The German and Swedish systems “focused on corrective and postural exercises that concentrated on developing the physical body” (Weston, 1962, pp. 48-52). In contrast the new US approach seems to have been at least somewhat concerned with promoting health in a fun way. These European gymnastic systems were very militaristic in their approach and it is interesting to note that as American diplomacy became more peaceful, at least internally, that we find a shift away from military fitness towards sports and games. Such a shift was for a while temporary.

World War I revived the debate in America regarding the “disgracefully low state of health and physical fitness among the prime youth of the country” (Weston, 1962, p. 71). Military fitness became in vogue once more. The National Defense Acts of 1916 and 1920 brought Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs to American universities, and P.E. departments again competed with military training for space, resources, and respect. War brought military training back into the American psyche. Proponents of the German and Swedish systems appeared to have gained a vital victory. But alas it proved pyrrhic. Once the guns went silent in Europe, America’s interest in military methods of training waned. By the early 1920s the “Battle of the Systems” was over. Sadly for proponents of the European method of gymnastics, this system  eventually faded from America’s educational systems, and sports emerged as the key element in American physical education. This emphasis on sports continues to this day in America.

How we train is not a benign decision, regardless of what many of us may think. The ‘Battle of the Systems’ debate in the US is testament to the fact that health and fitness are matters of moral and military importance for many elites. It was true in the 1800s and it is arguably all the more true today.

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