The Health Lift, the greatest machine you’ve never heard of!

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Imagine if there was just one exercise you needed to obtain the perfect physique. What’s more, you would only need to do it two or three times a week. Pretty good right? Well you’re in luck. The ‘Health Lift’ provides everything you need and more.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a fitness machine swept across the United States. Costing over $100, roughly $2,500 in today’s money, the ‘Health Lift’ marketed itself as the world’s most complete exercise, capable of restoring health, building muscles and increasing attractiveness. So what was this wonderful machine? Who used it and why have I never heard about it before?

The Health Lift

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As is perhaps evident from the above photograph, the ‘Health Lift’ was very similar to a partial deadlift, whereby a weight was taken at about shin height and brought to waist height.

What made the ‘Health Lift’ somewhat unique was that the lifter grasped the weights at the sides, rather than in front of him, making the lift a somewhat hybrid squat/deadlift motion.

Whilst it is difficult to say conclusively what prompted the creation of the health lift, Jan Todd’s 1993 article on American strength apostle George Barker Windship provides some indications.

George Barker Windship (1834-1876) was a US doctor and preacher of strength. In accounts of the MD, it’s noted that he had a gymnasium built next to his surgery and was found of telling clients that if they spent more time in his gym, they’d spend less time in his offices. Aside from preaching to the sick, Windship was also an inventor and strongman of sorts. Often times he would demonstrate his massive strength to audiences, followed by a lecture on how they too could improve their health.

Returning to Jan Todd’s article, we have some indication of what WIndship’s talks consisted of

The body should be made as strong as possible, he contended, with no weak points. It should be balanced and symmetrical with the muscles full and round and strong… [H]eavy weights and short workouts were the secret to health and longevity. Training should be systematic, he argued with the intensity of the exercise gradually increasing over time. He maintained that workout sessions should never last more than an hour and that proper rest must be obtained before the next day’s training.

After coming across a weightlifting machine in New York based on the deadlift, Windship set about designing his own device, capable of matching his strength. The doctor had been disappointed that the maximum weight on the New York device was a ‘paltry’ 420 pounds.  He soon set about constructing his own machine. By “sinking a hogshead in the ground and placing inside it a barrel, filled with rocks and sand (to which he attached a rope and handle)”, Windship then erected a platform above the barrel. The picture below gives a nice indication of Windship’s creation.
In doing so, Windship managed to mimic the lifting platforms of other strongmen from this period. Using this device, Windship allegedly pulled 2,600 pounds! Not a bad lift by anyone’s standards.

Unsurprisingly word soon spread about the doctor’s invention and his amazing feats of strength and by the 1860s, copy-cat devices known as ‘Health Lifts’ were spreading all around the USA. Some, such as those advocated by American health guru Orson S. Fowler, ranged from a couple of dollars. Others, like the Mann’s Health Lift Machine were priced in the hundreds of dollars. Quite a disparity!

This leads us neatly onto our second question…

Who used the Health Lift machine?

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Judging by the advertisements of the era, the ‘Health Lift’ was marketed and used predominantly by middle class American men and women. These machines were found in offices, private homes and exclusive ‘Health Lift’ clubs across the USA. Indeed, Jan Todd has argued that the dispersal of ‘Health Lift’ clubs around North American demonstrates their popularity.

What’s more, people seem to have achieved great results with the ‘Health Lift’. In his book, ‘How to Get Strong and How to Stay So‘ (1879), American physical culturist William Blaikie admitted to using the machine for several years to great effect before moving on free weights. Likewise testimonials from the producers of such machines reveal the thoughts of happy users:

“My three months’ experience of the Health Lift has been entirely satisfactory. It furnishes a concentrated form of exercise which I have found salutary, agreeable and exhilarating. It calls the blood into the muscles and leaves them ready for further action, so that I have found myself more disposed to take a long walk after four or five lifts than before. I may add that the particular apparatus used at your rooms, ‘The Reactionary Lifter,’ is a most ingenious, convenient, compact and serviceable arrangement, by which the lifter’s own weight is made to do service, and by an easy and simple adjustment of leverage, to furnish a resistance to be overcome, all the way from 20 to 1000 pounds and more.”

 So it was used by men and women across the US and was discussed by William Blaikie as recently as the late as the 1870s.

Why then haven’t I heard of it before?

Remember Windship? The strong doctor credited with popularising the Health Lift?

Well he’s also the man who in many ways, was responsible for its demise. In 1876, the Doctor, aged just 42, people began to talk. If ‘Health is strength’ as the good doctor was so found of saying, then why did he die so young? Soon people began to shy away from heavy lifting, and the ‘Health Lift’.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the ‘Health Lift’ was a relic of times gone by and many physical culturists, including Eugen Sandow, were advising people to shy away from heavy weights.

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