Guest Post: The Evolution of the Gymnasium Over 3,000 Years

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Today, everyone knows what a gym looks like whether they go to one or not. However, if someone had to walk into a gymnasium in Athens 2,500 years ago, there would exist striking differences from a modern-day gym. For the most part, it was an open-air space, unlike a four-walled facility. With no fixed equipment, only men could work out at the gym. Olympic sports such as discus, javelin, running, and wrestling was practiced making it resemble more with an athletics venue.

The author of The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, Eric Chaline, points out that the similarities between the ancient and the modern gym lie in the motivation for training. With fights for freedom and individual rights, people began to develop an interest in their physical embodiment and fitness.

The history of the gym discontinues around the time of the Greco-Roman civilization. Centuries later, the gym resurfaced as a cultural institution. Even though the libraries across Europe had preserved the ancient texts about the gym, the space dedicated to physical training completely vanished during the medieval period. The Renaissance period became responsible for when these overlooked writings were rediscovered. They resuscitated an enthusiasm for the old gym but not a recovery of its practices. Doctors read these texts and recommended exercise for health benefits.

The devastating destruction of the Prussian armed force by Napoleon at the clash of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806 was the reason for the revival of the gymnasium in 1811 in Berlin. Ignited by the urge to reestablish national pride and thrash the French, a Prussian schoolmaster called Friedrich Jahn set up an outside gym at Hasenheide. He named it the Turnplatz, or exercise field. He merged the Greek ancient games – discus, javelin, and running – with the equipment use that became the basis for the gymnasium sports.

By the mid-19th century, the gym also rose as a commercial enterprise. Fitness entrepreneur, Hippolyta Triat is given the credit with being the first to open commercial exercise centers, the first in Brussels, and afterward in Paris in the late 1840s. Triat’s The Gymnase embraced aesthetic training as its fundamental basis to transform its members into the physiques of ancient athletes. Sandow was another progressive gym established by the end of the 19th century. It was an example of weight training with barbells, free weights, and dumbbells. The members used to do a wide range of weight training exercises that today we do in the gym.

Triat and Sandow capitalized on the commercialism of the gyms. The two strands of gym culture emerged in the US after the First World War was due to their remarkable physiques. One is what is said to be “fantasy gyms” crowded by hyper-muscular men, while the other, “real gym”, took into account amateur men and women who were not bodybuilders.

What brought women to the gym was the intention of getting fit and losing weight. Rather than weight training, their participation in the gym was for the aerobics dance revolution hyped by Jane Fonda at the beginning of the 1980s.

Following the aerobics revolution, gyms needed to have cardio equipment like treadmills and bikes and cross trainers just as group exercise studios for aerobics classes and yoga, which established their place alongside the more conventional exercises, for example, weight training.

Today, workout culture has become evidently ingrained in our lives. The gyms are not the only place where people go to exercise for their abs, cardio, and weight training. People are looking for ab workout ideas for home as well as ideas for other fitness-related activities.