Book Review: Strength coaching in America: a history of the innovation that transformed sports by Jason P. Shurley, Jan Todd, and Terry Todd, Austin

Strength coaching in America: a history of the innovation that transformed sports by Jason P. Shurley, Jan Todd, and Terry Todd, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2019, 348 pp., $40.00 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-4773-1979-6

American culture is, in part, defined by a love of sport. From multi-million-dollar contracts to billion-dollar stadiums, it is impossible to deny sport’s cultural and, at times, political importance. On the field, athletes have, in recent decades, grown bigger, stronger and faster. The focus on the athlete’s body, and how they train, has reached something of a fever pitch. In fact, the size and athleticism of athletes has been one of the most obvious developments in sport over the past two decades. Strength Coaching in America by Jason Shurley, Jan Todd and Terry Todd reveals that this was not always the case. In fact, the modern obsession with the athlete’s body, and how to improve it, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Written to explore the historical, social and scientific factors which led to the growth of strength coaching, the book marks a fascinating insight into the previously explored area of strength and conditioning. The result of several years of research from all three scholars, Strength Coaching tracks the development of strength coaching from Ancient Greece and the early eighteenth to the present day. This path was neither clear nor straightforward.

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing for over a hundred years was the pervasive, and ultimately wrong, theory that strength coaching could harm athletes’ sporting performance. The claim that lifting weights, in particular, made athletes ‘muscle bound’, damaged their heart or slowed them down persuaded many away from the gym. This meant that for many years and for many teams, sports conditioning meant mundane calisthenics sessions or laps around a field. While some pioneers did exist, it was not until the 1930s that traces of a revolution began to emerge.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, sports conditioning and strength training for athletes was promoted not by exercise physiologists but rather by physical culture entrepreneurs like Joe Weider and Bob Hoffman. The reason for this was simple: many physiologists were hampered by the belief that weight training was damaging and caused a dreaded ‘muscle bound’ condition in athletes. Few coaches would risk experimenting on their charges for this very reason. Weider and B were, on the other hand, two of America’s most influential barbell and nutrition entrepreneurs. They were knowledgeable about the value of weight training and sought to share this knowledge as best they could. Through magazines like Strength and Health, Mr. America and All-American Athlete, they encouraged countless athletes to take up weight training of their own accord. Illustrative of this fact was the growth of sports scientists and early strength and conditioning coaches in the 1960s, many of whom were once athletes who first took up weight training thanks to Hoffman and Weider.

By the end of the 1960s, the first wave of strength and conditioning coaches, led by individuals like Boyd Epley, was fully in effect. Still met with skepticism and warnings that if athletic performances suffered they would lose their jobs, Epley and others proved the value of weight training. As teams won matches, coaches took notice and strength and conditioning coaches began to be recruited. Only one problem remained: the lack of accreditation. It was here too, that Epley and the first generation of strength and conditioning coaches proved their value. Over the course of several years, efforts were made to establish a respected and distinct coaching association that would, in time, become an accreditation body.

The result was the National Strength Coaches’ Association founded in 1978. The only coaching and accreditation body for several years the NSCA, later retitled the National Strength and Conditioning Association, overcame the final obstacle facing strength coaches, respectability. Through the NSCA coaches could learn new approaches, keep in contact with others and also gain official accreditation of their expertise. As is inevitable in a growing field, the NSCA’s relative monopoly was eventually overthrown by a series of new groups but, as the book shows, the group helped to galvanise the field.

Strength Coaching in America is a book written for the historian, the exercise physiologist, the coach and the ordinary gym-goer. The book’s strength lies in the effortless way in which the untold stories, the contentious figures and the scientific dogma which influenced the development of strength coaching are told. Strength coaching, as the authors continually remind us, is one of the major developments in sport over the last fifty years. Weight training has underpinned the success of our sporting heroes and their achievements. The men and women behind those achievements, those who spend countless hours in the gym preparing teams for victory, finally have a history. Shurley, Todd and Todd have produced a book that serves simultaneously as a reference guide for future works and a challenge for more research. As has been shown again and again, barbells and dumbbells mean much more than muscle and strength. They are vessels for much broader societal and scientific aspirations or, indeed, fears.

Book Available Here.

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  1. Interesting stuff here: I have long been aware that most of the old-time heavyweight boxing champions–including Jim Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, even Joe Louis–really didn’t have physiques that would be considered noteworthy or at all outstanding by contemporary standards. An exception would be Jim Jefferies, “The Boilermaker,” who would still have a very powerful-looking physique even by today’s standards. Not a boxer but one of the greatest athletes of his era, swimming champion and quintessential screen “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller was hailed in his day as “the perfect man” (physically, I presume). On scrutinizing some pictures of him, the proprietor of a nearby gym remarked, “Today he’d be nothing!”

    I never could figure out what “muscle bound” actually meant.

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