Tricks and Tests of the Muscles (Health and Strength, 1908)

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Recently I had the privilege of going through the British Library’s fantastic collection of physical culture books, workout courses and magazines as part of my PhD research. Though this was work, in the lightest sense of the word, I made a point of reading as much as the great institution had to offer.

One book which caught my eye is the subject of today’s post and I’m sure in a few moments you’ll understand why. Published in 1908 by Health & Strength magazine, the famed British physical culture magazine, Tricks and Tests of the Muscles is an incredibly detailed and imaginative way of testing one’s own strength. Of course, we’ll be attaching the book in its entirety at the end of the post but before that I want to run through some of the more interesting tests.

Why Bother?

Upon returning back home and telling my friends about the book with the enthusiasm of a giddy schoolchild, I was confronted with the simple question: why would I bother with these tests? Nowadays measures of strength are often made in pounds, kilos or abstract calculations.

After all, how many of us have been told that strength means a double body weight bench press, squat, dead lift etc. Or better yet, that it is a 1000 pound powerlifting total. While all of that is undoubtedly true to an extent, what makes Tricks and Tests so much fun is that many of the tests focus solely on body weight exercises or close to it.

This book was published at a time when the vast majority of gym goers did not have access to the heavy weights currently laden across countless gym floors. Indeed, we have to remember that regardless of how they themselves trained, many physical culturists promoted exercise systems comprising of 5 – 10 lbs. dumbbells. This indeed by the way, Eugen Sandow and his mentor, Professor Attila.

While Tricks and Tests was aimed at an audience that was perhaps not as familiar with heavy lifting than our  good selves, the tests of strength were nonetheless difficult. To demonstrate as much, we’re going to run through three of my favourite ones. And no before anyone asks, I did not try these out in the British Library. I waited until I got back to the hotel room so any civilised lifter would…

1) Grip and Arm Muscle Test

See who can hold out at arm’s length the heaviest chair in the way illustrated below. This test is one of the oldest tricks in the strongman’s repertoire and for any Arthur Miller fans, it is the feat Marco uses to emasculate Eddie in A View from the Bridge. Incidentally did anyone else see the 2015 version of Miller’s play featuring Mark Strong? I was lucky enough to watch it through the National Theatre’s cinema deal, absolutely stunning. Sorry, I digress.

There are several manners in which to do this trick, the easiest being to grab the chair leg nearest to you. You can thus progress by working towards the back chair legs.

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Having struggled with this test for several minutes I can attest to its difficulty. Interesting, Sandow’s earlier Physical Culture magazines cited this trick as a marvelous test of strength although the great Prussian noted that many cheat in this exercise by slighting rocking the chair back and forward first and then using the momentum to lift it upward.

None of us would be so underhanded I’m sure.

2) Combined Arms and Leg Tests

Sit on a chair and hold the legs horizontally as shown. Place your hands on the sides of the chair and lift the body off the seat. The competitor doing this the most times, or remaining supported on the hands alone for the longest time, is the winner.

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Again this seems a relatively straightforward and easy lift but once you try it out you’ll find it anything but. While our gymnastic readers will probably find this lift to be old hat, I found that the pressure exerted on the arms and in particular the abdominals was a true test of strength. In my first go I counted 20 ‘reps’ in about 90 seconds. Then I realized I had effectively been jumping upward to cheat. Once I used strict form the number of reps plummeted. Not one for the ego.

3) Leg Muscle Tests

Grasp one leg round the ankle as illustrated, and lower body on other leg until you touch the floor with knee of leg held by hand. The one doing this feat the most times is the winner.

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Effectively this is a one-legged squat but with added resistance. Having mastered the one-legged squat, and a very shaky one at that, only recently, I found this test to be particularly tricky. As you’re holding the opposite leg, the upper body is forced to stay relatively upright. A position which places the burden of the lift on the quads. It’s thus a rather nasty means of progressing on the one legged squat, one I’ll begrudgingly try in future.

Other Noticeable Tests

Though I have yet to try all the tests outlined by Health & Strength, I have thumbed through the book several times now at this stage. Aside from the tests listed above other notable tests include one arm pull ups, push ups, one legged squats and a series of flexibility, grip and balance tests.

So without further adieu, the book can be found, for free I hasten, by clicking here to get it in zip format. I must apologies for the somewhat grainy imagery as my camera decided to be difficult during my travels. Nevertheless I think you’ll all be able to get the gist of the trials of strength.

So why not give it a try and let us know how you get on. In my own experience the tests are bloody difficult and a breath of fresh air from the usual methods of testing one’s strength.

As always…Happy Lifting! Or in this case I suppose I should say testing!