Forgotten Exercises: The Roman Column

While many exercises, such as the squat, appear to be timeless in the lore of exercise history, there are many movements and machines that fall away with the sands of time.

Today’s post looks at the Roman Column, an inverted strongman exercise created in the mid-eighteenth century and used by famous performers such as Eugen Sandow and his mentor, Professor Atilla.

What is the Roman Column?


As the above photograph indicates, the column was something of an odd exercise. Wrapping one’s feet around a sturdy pole, the athlete would hook their knees into additional straps for support and then begin exercising. While the Column was traditionally used for strongman shows and spectacles, it was also seen as a highly advanced ab exercise.

Regarding performer’s use of the Column, Eugen Sandow’s favorite stunt with the column was to bring his body perfectly upright while holding a barbell or member of the audience! Such a showing displayed the Prussian’s remarkable upper body strength and was by all accounts, a crowd favorite.

Within the early gymnasiums of the twentieth-century, it appears that the column was primarily used for abdominal work or rehabilitation work. Given that steep declined sit ups can be a formidable tests for most modern muscle trainees, one can only imagine the difficulty involved in performing strict sit ups with the Roman Column.

The most common use of the Column however was undoubtedly for rehabilitation exercises. Both lay physical culturists and chiropractors to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. While many would express skepticism about the merits of inversion therapy, thousands have found relief from it suggesting there is some method to the madness.

Who Created the Column?

 Though Sandow was perhaps the most famous user of the column, at least in the early years of bodybuilding, scholars tend to credit Sandow’s mentor Professor Atilla, with the creation of the column. This perhaps stems from the fact that Atilla was known for his innovative abilities, having popularized several lifts such as the Roman Chair and plate loaded barbells.

That being said however, more recent work has suggested that it was in fact Felice Napoli, the great Italian strongman who created the Column. Given that Napoli trained Atilla in the early years of Attila’s career gives credence to this theory.

When and Why Did the Column Fall Out of Use? 

 Sampson, the nineteenth century strongman, demonstrating the Column

Attempting to discover when the Column exercise fell out of favor has been something of an exercise in futility. While the exercise never appeared to be directly within the mainstream of bodybuilding, it was used be several notable strength athletes in the first half of the twentieth century. The great weightlifter and bodybuilding John Grimek, pictured below was known to be a fan of the exercise. Similarly Sig Klein’s gym in New York had a column like machine for several decades.


Every now and then one still encounters inversion or ‘moon boots’ in the gym, suggesting that although forgotten, the principles of the Column have remained somewhere in the bodybuilding psyche.

Nevertheless the exercise has dropped out of favor, presumably owing to the difficulty of the Column itself and the sill required to master exercises on it. Given that many saw the Column as a trick and nothing more, it was unlikely to capture the hearts of strength trainees.



Chapman, David L. Sandow the magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the beginnings of bodybuilding. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Pearl, Bill, and Richard Golueke. Getting Stronger: Weight Training for Sports. Shelter Publications, Inc., 2005.

Roach, Randy, Muscle Smoke and Mirrors Volume One. Authorhouse 2008.


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