G. Frank Lydston, ‘Muscle Building as Illustrated by the Modern Samson, Sandow,’ Journal of the American Medical Association, 1893, 419-422

It has frequently been remarked that men of the present day are not so strong as those of times past, and there are many reasons for this assertion. An inspection of ancient arbor is sufficient to convince one of the truth of this statement. In looking at specimens of ancient armor, we are at once impressed with their great weight and comparatively small size.

It would distress John L. Sullivan, I have no doubt, to force himself into one of the largest suits of amor that have thus far been exhibited. Once he had succeeded in arraying himself in the suit, he would doubtless feel more like reposing peacefully upon the ground than vaulting into a sad and running a tilt in a tourney. One thing is certain, viz: that the soldier of ancient times although by no means a Sullivan in physique, could put the average modern athlete to the blush in point of strength and physical endurance. It is obvious that the men of former days must have made up in the quality of their muscular fibre what they lacked in bulk.

Of all the living modern examples of muscular possibilities Sandow is probably the finest specimen. Screenshot 2020-07-14 at 11.34.23.png

This man shows in a very marked degree the wonderful results which can be obtained by a systematic and philosophical method of muscle building. Sandow is by no means a large man, being but 5 feet 8 1/2 inches in height. To see him arrayed in evening dress, the uninitiated would hardly believe the tales of physical prowess which can be told of Sandow. Sandow was born in Prussia, and is now 26 years of age. He weights – stripped to the buff – 186 pounds. The measurements which he claims are: Chest, 46 inches; waist, 29 inches; biceps 19 1/4 inches; thigh 27 inches; forearm, 19 inches; calf 17 1/2 inches; under axilla and over deltoid, 17 inches; under axilla and over the shoulder, 21 inches. The maximum chest expansion is said to be 14 inches.

I have not had the opportunity of verifying these measurements and am inclined to believe that they are somewhat exaggerated. Especially am I inclined to doubt the chest expansion, which although simply wonderful would, I think, show somewhat differently from the published estimates.

To the student of anatomy Sandow is an object lesson worthy of study; a more beautiful demonstration of the superficial and more important muscles than this man presents could hardly be imagined.

This demonstration is made possible by the perfect control which Sandow possesses over even those muscles which, however excellent the natural development of the individual, are never under very perfect volitional control in the average subject. In an experience and observation of physical training and its results, extending over a period of twenty years, the writer has never seen an athlete who has attained a degree of perfection in this respect which could be compared with that attained by Sandow. A glance at the pictures which have been reproduced from the photographs which Mr. Sandow kindly presented me, will well illustrate some of the points in his development which are most noteworthy. It has often been said by scientific iconoclasts, that ancient painting and sculpture is very unreliable in anatomical details. Especial stress has been laid upon the ‘checkerboard’ appearance of the abdomen seen in various heroic works of art by the old masters, as an illustration of this defect.

If the reader will glance at the front view of Sandow, he will observe a division of the abdomen into rectangular areas of muscular eminences which are more prominent than those of any painting or statue with which I am familiar. This extraordinary development of the recti is, however, by no means disproportionate to the development of the other muscles of this remarkable man. On inspecting the back, as seen in the cut, a clear distinct outline of the various muscles  is observed. Attention is especially directed to the scapular muscles and the trapeze. The muscles of the limbs are equally well developed. The pectorals and that usually poorly developed muscle, the serrates magnus, are of phenomenal development.

When at rest, Sandow’s muscles and skin are soft and pliable, but when the muscles are contracted from voluntary effort, it is well-nigh impossible to pinch up the superlying tissues.

It is a striking fact that Sandow belongs to a family no other member of which was ever noted for great strength; or, even a taste of athletics. Sandow, himself, until he was 18 years of age, was of rather frail build. At that age he began a systematic course of training by a method peculiarly his own. His system consisted essentially in the acquirement of perfect voluntary control over the various groups of muscles, and where possible of single muscles.

By thus specialising he was enabled to localise his muscle building where it appeared to him to be most needed. Having acquired a fair degree of development and control of the group selected, he then devoted his attention to another, and so on until he had succeeded in acquiring the foundation of the remarkable general development which he now presents. According to Sandow, the only apparatus used in his preliminary training was a pair of five pound dumb bells. It was not until he had attained an approximately perfect general development that he began those wonderful feats of strength which are now his daily avocation. To those who have not seen him at work, Sandow’s exploits sound like a fairy tale. He plays with fifty-six pound dumb bells as though they were marbles, and with eyes blindfolded, his feet tied together and one of these heavy bells in each hands, turns a back somersault as gracefully as could any empty-handed gymnast. After this preliminary warming up, a huge dumb bell, each end of which is formed by a hollow glove containing a man, is brought in, and our modern Hercules gracefully lifts it up from the floor and pushes it straight up with one hand at full arm’s length above his head with apparent ease, letting his burden down again without shaking up his living dumb bell to any great extent. the weight of this bell and its contents is 305 pounds.

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A still more wonderful feat is his exhibition on the Roman column. Strapping his feet to an iron upright at some distance above the floor, he supports his weight by a couple of straps attached to his knees. Leaning down backward from his horizontally extended position he then picks up two men, one after the other, and places them upon his knees. The strain upon the back, thighs and arms in this feat can be readily imagined. As a climax for his exhibition Sandow next supports a platform upon his chest and knees while resting upon his feet and hands, and upon this platform three trained horses are balanced. The combined weight of the platform and horses is about 2,800 pounds.

Much curiosity has been exhibited regarding Sandow’s system of training, especially as regards his diet and mode of life. It is noteworthy that he eats, drinks and smokes as he pleases, the old fashioned idea of dietetic restrictions for athletes evidently having very little weight with him. It is astonishing that he is not compelled to be more abstemious, but he is apparently quite as capable of immense muscular effort after a course of dinner and a liberal supply of wine, followed by one or more cigars, as at any other time. After his performances is ended Sandow takes a cold sponge bath and a rub, as does every well informed athlete.

According to Sandow, the minutes exercise with five pound bells night and morning is all that is necessary to attain a superb muscular development. In proof of this, he exhibits a pupil in whom three months training has produced marvellous results.

Irrespective of my own opinion regarding the disastrous effects of such severe strains as those imposed by Sandow upon himself, I am compelled to confess that I have rarely examined so perfect a type of good health as this man presents.

A heart perfectly normal in size and action, and lungs free from emphysema are hardly to be expected in one whose daily work comprises such a series of severe muscular strains as those to which Sandow subjects himself, yet these organs are apparently sound. The heart is not disproportionally developed and its action is perfectly normal. Even under severe strain the respiration and heart’s action are but little disturbed. I found that the respiratory movements numbered 20 per minute and the pulse 80 before our subject went upon the stage.

On examination about half an hour after the regular performance —during which time Sandow occupied him¬ self in displaying his muscular development to a select audience in his dressing room,—the pulse was 90 and the respiration 20. It is worthy of remark that he had partaken of a hearty meal with a liberal supply of champagne shortly before the performance and had been smoking freely during the evening. The average athlete would hardly dare to go through such preliminaries even when ordinary feats were to be attempted.

By far the most interesting feature in Sandow’s work is his method of muscle building. He begins as already remarked, by cultivating volitional control over the several muscular groups.

This is especially interesting to me as it is precisely the same system that I have advocated in several articles upon physical training, and is essentially the same as that which I put in practice in gymnastic classes some years ago. The principle involved in proper muscular training is exemplified by those individuals who by practice are enabled to acquire great volitional control over such muscles as the auricular and occipito frontalis.

As is well known, the platysma myoides is poorly developed in the human subject, being a remnant of the panniculus carnosus. It will be found that it is possible to acquire a marked degree of development and control of this thin and unimportant sheet of muscular fibres. If this can be accomplished in such muscles as those mentioned, it is certainly reasonable to suppose that more perfect results can be accomplished in the case of the more important muscular groups. By systematic practice in this direction one is enabled to get sufficient exercise without any apparatus whatever.

It is the relative degree of control which the individual acquires over his various muscles, rather than their bulk, that determines their strength. Such enormous development as that of Sandow, is by no means necessary nor even advisable. Feats of strength do not constitute the aim of ideal athletics, i.e., athletics for health. Given a bulky muscle, and we usually have a slow muscle….

2 thoughts on “G. Frank Lydston, ‘Muscle Building as Illustrated by the Modern Samson, Sandow,’ Journal of the American Medical Association, 1893, 419-422

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  1. A great review from this doctor, but we cannot agree with his diagnosis and conclusions against weight training.

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