Eugen Sandow on Heavy Weightlifting

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A point previously discussed on this website was the regularity with which early physical culturists promoted light weight training as opposed to heavy lifting. The reasons for this are numerous. In the first instance, light weightlifting is easier to promote to the general public than heavy weightlifting. It requires less equipment, can be done in the comfort of one’s own home and can be done with relative ease. It was for this reason that individuals like Eugen Sandow, Professor Attila and a host of other physical culturists promoted light weightlifting for their followers. A few, like Arthur Saxon, bucked the trend and argued that heavy lifting was needed to build a strong physique.

With that in mind, today’s brief post examines the brief words Eugen Sandow gave to heavy weightlifting in his seminal book, Strength and How to Obtain It. Published by Sandow first in 1897, Strength was, for many, Sandow’s most important work. It came at the height of his popularity, sold widely and was more accessible than some of his later works which were far more medical in composition. Thanks to the British Library in London, I was able to consult Sandow’s 1897 edition, as well as his third edition published in 1905. Sandow did not expand greatly on how to lift heavy but nevertheless provided an insight into the progressive training practices of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

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So to kick things off, Sandow’s 1897 edition, his first edition, was largely conservative when it came to comments on heavy weightlifting.

It is not my purpose in this book to give anything beyond general directions for lifting heavy weights. You can become thoroughly strong and enjoy perfect health by means of the series of exercises already described. Heavy weight lifting requires personal instruction. That instruction will be given to those who may desire it at my school of training. Under qualified instructors it may be pursued without the risk of danger.

Generally, however, it may be observed that to lift heavy weights it is desirable first to see what weight can be used without undue strain. Slowly raise this weight from your shoulder over your head ; or, if from the ground, raise it somewhat more quickly. See how many times you are able  to raise the weight first selected, and when you can perform the exercise with comparative ease raising it, say, ten times, increase the weight for the next day’s exercise by five pounds. Continue this increase day by day, remembering always to bring the left hand into play as well as the right.

There are many other more specific directions, but they depend so much on individual requirements that it is not  wise to put the rules on paper. Each pupil must be personally instructed.

Source: Eugen Sandow, Strength and How to Obtain It (First Edition, London, 1901), p. 34.

Here we can see the care Sandow took to present heavy weightlifting as something unnecessary. To lift heavy people needed access to a gymnasium and a personal instructor. Why do that, when Sandow’s own dumbbells would build your body at a fraction of the cost and the effort?

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As more and more strongmen began publishing biographies and training monographs, Sandow did, begrudgingly, modify his comments on heavy lifting. Although the change was rather small, he did highlight a clear progressive training programme.

It is not my purpose in this book to give anything beyond general directions for lifting heavy objects. You can become thoroughly strong and enjoy perfect health by means of the series of exercises already described. Heavy weight-lifting requires personal instruction ; that instruction will be given to those who may desire it at my schools. Under qualified instructors it may be pursued without the risk of danger.

Generally, however, it may be observed that to lift heavy weights it is desirable at first to see what weight can be used without undue strain. Slowly raise this weight from your shoulder over your head, or if from the ground, raise it somewhat more quickly. See how many times you are able to raise the weight first selected, and when you can perform the exercise with comparative ease, raising it, say ten times up to 40 lbs., six times from 40-60, and afterwards three times, continue a gradual increase as you grow more capable, remembering always to bring the left hand into play as well as the right ; at the same time, though it should not be neglected, avoid overlaxing the left side.

The great thing to remember is to go slowly. Avoid anything like spasmodic efforts, and endeavour before trying to lift to thoroughly think out the different movements. Weight-lifting should never be practised in a confined space or where the weight cannot be readily dropped. To attempt to hold on to a weight after the balance has been lost may result in serious strains and other injuries ; the pupil should practise dropping the weight from any position safely and gracefully.

If the pupil bear these few hints in mind he will come to no harm, but, as I have said, weight-lifting is best left alone until it can be practised under the personal supervision of an experienced instructor.

Source: Eugen Sandow, Strength and How to Obtain It (Third Edition, London, 1905), pp. 74-75.

The next question of course, is why does any of this matter?

Despite the numerous writings and articles produced by Sandow, we have very little idea of how exactly he built his body. Given his strength, muscularity and agility, it is unlikely, indeed very unlikely, that Sandow solely concentrated on lightweight dumbbells and an intense mind-muscle connection. That Sandow trained exclusively under Professor Attila in his Brussels gymnasium in the 1880s, it is likely that he, like many other physical culturists, lifted heavy weights. Unfortunately we will never know his exact system, hence my interest in the above comments.

We see that Sandow was aware, and I would argue, most likely used, a system of progressive training whereby heavier and heavier weights were lifted for less weights. What lessons can modern lifters take from the above passages? First that we need to be vigilant against fitness promoters who may endorse one system or diet while using another themselves. Sandow almost disavowed heavy lifting, presenting it as a strange practice. This was despite the fact that he himself most likely used it. Beware!