Covid 19 and the Return to Physical Culture

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Randy Roach’s Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors series has had a profound influence on my life. It was of the first historical books on fitness I stumbled across during my college days and it’s probably, in part, one of the reasons why I became so interested in the history of fitness. Having read, and reread the series several times, there’s one passage which I’ve never truly understood until recent events brought the issue to light.

In dealing with the first batch of physical culturists, the men and women who took to gym culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Roach commented that these were the individuals who lifted for the pure love of it. Explaining this to twenty-first century readers, Roach came up with a thought experiment. Imagine if all the gyms in the world were closed, the physical culturists would be the ones who still found a way to lift weights, even if it meant using odd objects found in everyday life.

At the time of writing, Roach’s thought experiment has, independently of Roach, come to fruition. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced gyms to close their doors to members meaning that many of us, myself included, have been forced to improvise when it comes to their lifting interests.

While some are able to afford barbell and dumbbell sets now being sold at two, or three times, their original price (which I assure you is a different article for a different day – and likely one filled with expletives), it is interesting to reflect on this enforced return to the Iron Game’s past when gyms were a luxury, few and far between.

Stuck in my apartment, with limited space and a handful of options, my experience is not unique and indeed many of you will have improvised far more creatively than I have. Nevertheless, I find that there is a profound joy in figuring out new and more intricate ways of increasing the weights available to me at home.

Such an opportunity reminds me of Bob Peoples, the amazing Tennessee deadlifter from the mid-century who trained using a wooden barbell he created himself, which he loaded with rocks from a nearby quarry. It likewise reminds me of Bobby Pandour, the physical culturists from the early 1900s whose physique rivalled Eugen Sandow’s.

When asked how he developed his thigh muscles, Pandour responded that his leg training consisted almost exclusively of carrying his brother up a flight of stairs ad nauseam.  This is to say nothing of the barbells, sacks of lime and other odd objects that the German strongman Arthur Saxon played with during the 1900s.

Speaking of Saxon, a favoured trick of his was to increase the weight of any barbell by tying kettlebells and whatever else he could find to make lifts more difficult. Whether or not I should try this in my forth story apartment is a different matter. Others incorporated pets or animals into their routines, like the famed Louis Cyr, who could hold back four horses at once.

There were also those physical culturists who eschewed weightlifting entirely in favour of callisthenics or bodyweight exercises. Charles Atlas is perhaps the most famous, and popular, example of a physical culturist who claimed not to use weights. His ‘dynamic tension’ system pitted muscles of the body against one another to build strength and vigor.

Atlas’ claims never to have used a barbell were suspect, and indeed Bob Hoffman of York Barbell called his system ‘dynamic hooey’, but the point stands that not everyone needed, or claimed to need, access to dumbbells and barbells.

One of my favourite physical culturists is Max Sick, a turn of the century German bodybuilder and performer. Along with Monte Saldo, he developed a system of muscle control that required no equipment at all. This involved remarkable feats of abdominal and upper body movement which equally impressed and delighted.

These are the stories and reminders which sustain me during the current period. When it became apparent that I only had access to 5 lb. and 10 lb. dumbbells, I turned to Eugen Sandow and Professor Attila, both of whom promoted the use of light weight dumbbells.

Now I’m not deluded enough to believe that you can build a body like Sandow or the strength or Attila through 5 lb. weights but I am convinced that there was something to their systems, at least in times of desperation such as these.

Like many others, I began the quarantine looking jealously at my friends, colleges and relatives who either had access to a home gym, or at least access to heavy weights. This, for a brief period, turned to despair when I realised that I simply cannot afford, in terms of money, space or security in my marriage, to turn my apartment into a gym.

As time has gone on, I, like many others, have begun to experiment and actually have fun in the process itself. Now training sessions are defined by sandbag carries or squats, gallon water bottles filled with stones, dips done on kitchen countertops and suitcases deadlifts done with, unsurprisingly, my suitcases.

Online I’ve seen wooden squat racks which would have made Bob Peoples’ proud. I’ve seen concrete barbells and makeshift dumbbells made from welding together steel rods found on building sites. Not all of this is advisable, and I do have several safety concerns about some of the implements shown online, but it speaks to that purity of interest written about by Randy Roach.

The other great weightlifting influence on my life is Dan John, the athletics coach and shot-putter whose down to Earth writings are reminiscent of John McCallum’s stories about his daughter’s no good boyfriend addicted to twenty rep squats.

In a different life I was a largely unsuccessful rugby player more interested in conditioning work than actually playing the game. During summer pre-season workouts we used to religiously run through Dan John’s writings, which largely consisted of using the strangest and heaviest object possible, to guide our workouts.

At a time when even high school sport was being taken over by sport science, John’s writings were a nice distraction for a group of eighteen year olds who didn’t care about hip hinge and explosiveness in the squat, but sure did want to lift heavy and for time.

These ideals, which largely guided my early training, have slowly but surely disappeared in recent years. To use the dreaded ‘C word’, my training has become comfortable. The workouts may have been difficult but my imagination and creativity had evaporated. Leg days revolved around three to four lifts, done with varying rep ranges.

Taken together, a week’s worth of exercise probably revealed around twenty lifts which I’ve now done for years. This is not to say that every exercise should be tried – I’m still scared by a youth defined by ‘functional fitness’ – but rather that training should never become so robotic.

Looking back on my initial despondency I realised that some of it stemmed from the disappointment that I couldn’t do those exercises that I’ve become accustomed to. I now had to think for myself after several years of being on auto-pilot. In short, I was focusing on what I couldn’t do, rather than what I could.

This simple switch in outlook has brought me back to the early years of the Iron Game, the time when lifting sandbags, carts, train wheels and any other number if fantastical objects was not only common, but encouraged.

I may not become the Vaudeville strongman I always wanted to be when this finishes, but I will be returning to the creative, old school ways that previously escaped me. On that one front, the gym closures have brought myself, and many others, closer to the activity’s true roots.

Silver linings exist in all.

As always … Happy Lifting!