What Have We Done Wrong? Athletic Fitness in 2008

What have we done wrong?

(Thanks to Anthony DiLuglio)

There’s been a bit of a restoration going on at Punch Kettlebell Gym over the past couple of weeks.  Long hours are being spent fixing, polishing and building, all in an effort to bring old back to new and I’m proud to say with some blood, sweat and tears our members are getting the job done.  I know it seems harsh to put our members to work this way but trust me they’re better off for it and none of them seem to mind.  This restoration that I’m speaking of is not necessarily being done to the gym rather it’s being done at the gym, see, we’ve decided to restore fitness itself.   
I think we can all agree that gone are the days of isolation movements, that’s something we tore apart about 5 or 6 years ago, lets face it, unless you find yourself in a profession where it’s necessary to push a 225 pound object off your chest on a daily basis what good is the bench press anyway.  Do three sets of leg extensions really make you fit?…leg curls?  Where did we go wrong?

Arthur Saxon, in 1910, was photographed lifting 334lbs over his head…one handed, Arthur Saxon weighed 204lbs.  Somewhere along the way, from that moment in 1910, to the present there has been a great disconnect as to what physical fitness really is.  What has become of weight lifting and why is it now called body building?  If you walk into a gym, sit on a bench and bang out 3 sets of chest presses followed by 3 sets of incline presses topped off with a few sets of flies trust me you’re not weight lifting – you’re body building.  And listen carefully, if you walk out of the gym thinking you’ve just gotten a workout because your hairline is slightly damp with perspiration you’re most certainly in denial, and this is the part that I need you to pay attention to…YOU…ARE NOT…FIT.

So where did we go wrong or better yet why did we go wrong?  The answer is most certainly opened for debate but modern “body building” probably came out of a desire to get bigger faster.  Do most people have the determination to achieve the goal of becoming a “strong man”?  Not if there’s an easier way to do it.  Modern body building was borne of a desire to be bigger faster, all at the expense of physical fitness.  Granted, the loss of physical fitness was not intentional rather it was accidental and most certainly unbeknownst for many years.   Weight lifting, or the “strong man” routines where developed in such a way that the entire body was enlisted to perform the task.  Nothing was being isolated, nothing was being left out, the exercises required not only great physical strength but a tremendous amount of cardio vascular strength.  It is this cardio vascular strength that was the greatest loss in the transition from weight lifting to body building.  In his book “The Development of Physical Power” Arthur Saxon wrote:

“I shall teach you to judge a man by his capabilities as an athlete, whether a weightlifter, wrestler or not, and not by the measurement of his biceps or chest. … My idea will be, and always has been, to leave the muscles to look after themselves, but I place a premium upon the possession of untiring energy, great staminal (sic) and vital power, and a sound constitution.”

Later, Edward Aston (Britain’s Strongest Man) writing for The Superman Magazine in December 1930 wrote of a “muscle cultivator” named Percy Whittaker who by his account “looked big enough and powerful enough to beat any Professional Strong Man”, but was hard pressed to beat Aston at even some of the simplest weight-lifting tests despite the rather obvious size advantage Whittaker had over Aston.  “Whittaker had cultivated muscle at the expense of strength”, he said.  Aston also went on to say, “…here I would point out that these ‘muscle cultivators’ are the men who have given Physical Culture such a bad name as it possesses and who have, to no small extent, retarded the progress of weight-lifting as a sport.”

One of our clients at Punch Kettlebell Gym, a man in his mid 60’s to this day still claims the high school shot put record he set nearly 50 years prior.  Why is this?  Why is it that with today’s advanced training equipment and machines that a 50 year old record can’t be beat?  Is it because we don’t run fast enough on treadmills or don’t do enough leg extensions, perhaps we need more lat pull-downs?  Or is it something a bit more basic than that…perhaps we need to start over, go back to the beginning, when body building was weight lifting and strong men where truly strong.

Chris Barr is a 17 year old high school junior here in providence, ri.  He’s the captain of his football team and star of his track and field team.  Recently he set his school record for the deadlift.  At 165lbs Chris deadlifted 365lbs – 100 pounds heavier than the previous record.  If you don’t find anything impressive about that then perhaps you’ll be surprised to know that Chris never, never, practices the deadlift.  As a matter of fact, it was the first time he had ever even attempted it, and it was only at the request of his coach that he even tried.  Chris, since the age of 13, has worked out exclusively with kettlebells.  He’s been with us for almost 5 years and has more strength built into his 165lb frame than someone twice his weight.  This combined with his extraordinary stamina (something built with kettlebells) and speed is what has made him the star of his track and field team, a sport he tried out for for the first time this season.

So what is the answer?  What have we done wrong?  Have we somehow regressed into a lesser species than that of our predecessors or is it that in our effort to make things easier we have made them worse?  Think of it like this, while in college I knew of a guy who on every Thursday and Friday night could be found outside one of the city’s hottest night clubs.  He drove a white Ferrari and on the aforementioned nights would be seen leaning up against his car strategically parked in the only spot that was visible from the long line of patrons that waited outside the door.  He would get there early, like 3 hours before opening, so he could get that most coveted of all spots. There he leaned night after night attracting ladies like flies to…well, you know.  But people didn’t realize that his “Ferrari” was actually a “kit car”, a catalog ordered Ferrari body knock off sitting on what was rumored to be a Pontiac Feirro chassis.  It was always breaking down.  If those ladies only knew the extreme effort that was undertook night after night just to get his car into that spot.  Most times it was pushed in place by the clubs bouncers who for some reason or another took pity on him.  And at night, after the bar closed, he had to wait until everyone left just so they wouldn’t see the bouncers pushing him up the road hoping to gain enough speed to pop his clutch.  Pathetic.  So why the long story?  Because what we’ve created is a race of Ferraris sitting on Pontiac chassis.  All show with no go!  Sure you might look great but are you truly fit?  Are you a strong man, or do you just look like one?
It was with this in mind that we set out on our restoration project.  We’ve launched a new training regimen called “Authentic Strength” to go along with our “Strength in Motion” kettlebell routines.  We’re taking workouts done by Charles Atlas, the Saxon Brothers, Edward Aston and of course Eugene Sandow among others and are implementing them into our personal and group personal settings with a few of those routines being incorporated into our regular kettlebell circuit classes.   Walking in on one of our classes is like stepping back in time.  We’ve recreated the old Sandow dumbbells and barbells and using some of the exact workouts, begun training like the strongmen of old.  It’s quite a sight watching a 50 year old woman perform the “one-hand anyhow lift” or how about a “bent press” with nearly 100 pounds.  It’s about quality of muscle not quantity of muscle.  It’s something that we’ve always believed in and have strived to instill in our members.  It’s time to bring things back to the beginning, to fix the wrongs that we’ve created.  Listen, we had it right in the beginning, but because of our need to make things easier we managed to make it worse.  This is not easy, it shouldn’t be, and it can’t be.  This takes effort, it takes sweat and determination it takes time but so does everything else that’s worth doing.  Gone are the days of muscle cultivation…lets all be strong men and women.  Let’s be as fit as we look.


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