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From 1879 to Today, Nothing has Changed

by Chad Landers | Follow on Twitter

We found evidence from 1879 that shows that nothing is new in the fitness World. You won’t believe this…

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I bought my first training book, Robert Kennedy’s “Hardcore Bodybuilding: The Blood, Sweat and Tears of Pumping Iron” during my freshman year of high school in 1983.

Toiling in the basement of the rural Illinois farmhouse of my youth, that book laid the foundation for a lifelong passion (and ultimately an amazing career).

It also became the first of many, many books I would read and collect over the years dedicated to all things muscle!

But of all the books I own, I think one called “How To Get Strong and How To Stay So” by William Blaikie, is perhaps the most important!

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The book begins:

“Probably more men walk past the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, in New York City, in the course of one year, than any other point in America—men of all nations and ages, heights and weights. Look at them carefully as they pass, and you will see that scarcely one in ten is…thoroughly well-built. Some slouch their shoulders and double in at the waist;…this one has one shoulder higher than the other and that one both too high; some have heavy bodies and light legs; others the reverse; and so on, each with his own peculiarities. A thoroughly…well-proportioned man, easy and graceful in his movements, is far from a frequent site.”

I know what you’re thinking… Nothing earth shattering there, Landers. In fact, this could be the opening to just about any fitness book! And what the hell is up with that cover anyway?”

Of course, you’d be right, that paragraph could be from any fitness book…but the reason it’s perhaps the most important fitness book in my collection is this: IT WAS PUBLISHED IN 1879!!

Ironically, Harper & Brothers published the book. Yes, that’s the same Harper of today’s HarperCollins who signed John Romaniello and Adam Bornstein’s recent blockbuster book deal.

Over 100 years before  “The 4 Hour Body” and classics like “Pumping Iron” and “Aerobics”, William Blaikie was extolling the virtues of getting strong, fit and healthy!

Long before TV, radio, the airplane and the automobile even existed, Blaikie was writing about fitness. Love your new iPhone?  Blaikie wrote his book just 3 short years after the telephone was INVENTED!

Not coincidentally, reading this classic text first inspired pioneering health and fitness legend Bernarr MacFadden to take up the lifestyle of  “physical culture”!

But surely a book written in the decade following the Civil War (seriously, this shit blows my mind) would have no bearing on our modern, high tech society? For gods sakes, this book was written 34 years before Jack LaLanne was even BORN, so how could it possibly be relevant today?!

What’s It All About?

While there aren’t any chapters on Intermittent Fasting or Barefoot Training, and not a word about Crossfit or P90X or Insanity, old Mr. Blaikie does lay out some pretty darned sound advice.

He has the requisite exercise chapters  like “Special Exercise for Any Given Muscle”; and it should come as no surprise that Blaikie extols the virtues of pretty much the same damn stuff any trainer worth his salt today would. (But nothing about muscle confusion or kipping pull-ups!)

Blaikie promotes squats and presses and pullups. He recommends running over walking…and highly recommends jumping…and no, he doesn’t call it “plyometrics”…but that doesn’t make it any less “cool”.

But beyond the exercises, I think the most fascinating thing about “How to Get Strong” is Blaikie’s plea to get the reader to begin working out at all.

And surprisingly in 1879, it’s not just a plea aimed at men! Yes ladies, nearly a century and a half before the Girls Gone Strong movement, Blaikie was making his case for the fairer sex to train hard!

Girls Will Be Girls

Similar to the opening paragraph describing the unfit New York male, Blaikie describes the then state of female fitness as such:

“Observe the girls in and of our cities or towns, as they pass to and from school, and see how few of them are at once blooming, shapely, and strong….Instead of high chests, plump arms, comely figures, and a graceful and handsome mien, you constantly see flat chests, angular shoulders, often round and warped forward, with scrawny necks, pipe-stem arms, narrow backs, and a weak walk.”

Everything Old is New Again

For both men and women, boys and girls, Blaikie  promotes the same virtues of fitness we  still do today. The obvious physical benefits and also improved “mental work” after “unbending the bow for a little while, taking the tension from the brain for a few minutes”.

He also discusses the plight of physical education at all levels of academia. Blaikie even quotes then Harvard president, President Eliot, as saying that upon coming to the university, most students had “undeveloped muscles, a bad carriage, and an impaired digestion, without skill in out-of-door games, and unable to ride, row, swim and shoot.”

Sounds exactly like our current video game obsessed, obese youth, no?

In all, from exercise programming to health benefits to hand-wringing over the state of American fitness, Blaikie’s book is every bit as relevant, if not more so than it was in 1879.

The fact that he was so on point not only for his time, but also to this day, is both testament to Blaikie’s mastery of his craft and a horribly depressing revelation about our ineffectiveness at motivating people to train over the last century and a half.

Tilting at Windmills

While I’ve seen my share of inept, if not downright dangerous trainers over the years, by and large today’s trainers are well-educated, enthusiastic and better capable of helping clients achieve better results and in less time than at any other point in history.

But, truth be told, today’s trainer could just as easily get a client in shape simply by following Blaikie’s 134 year-old advice.

We already know enough exercises. Do we really need another book or dvd to tell us about another exercise or apparatus or dietary strategy? No…though I’ll admit I’ll still be the first to buy them!

Do we really need another book or dvd to tell us about another exercise, apparatus, or diet? – Click to Tweet

The bigger picture is that we face the exact same problem Blaikie did…making people give a shit.

Although the recent explosion of evidence-based training and nutrition advice should have clients knocking down our doors to train with us, for many trainers this simply isn’t happening.

The Baby and the Bathwater

If there is a lesson to learn from Crossfit, P90X and the like, as well as the explosion in popularity of mud runs like Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, it’s that people today do in fact crave movement, discipline, and a challenge.

As much as most of us would agree that there are programming, technique, and injury issues inherent in some of the popular programs today the fact still stands, it’s getting asses in the gym (or home gym).

The thing I’ve learned over the last 20+ years as a personal trainer is that I am a motivator first and foremost. Yes, the degrees and certifications are a mandatory base, but other than giving me a bit of credibility when first meeting a client, it has very little to do with them coming back to train beyond the first session.

In order to be successful, you have to have the ability to reach into a client’s soul and find out what pain has led them to seek out your services. Understand the benefits of the workouts, not the features (read this for more)

Make no mistake about it, most people will come see you because they just can’t stand themselves anymore. It’s your job to listen to their pain.  They’ll lead you to exactly why they are standing in front of you in the first place. Don’t get in their way by over-selling yourself.

Be a good listener first and then you’ll know what they want and need to hear from you…and it’s probably not the alphabet soup of initials after your name.

As the owner of a personal training studio in Los Angeles, the competition is fierce. Trainers and gyms are everywhere. If you can’t articulate in very short order how you will relieve that client’s underlying pain, they’ll move on and find someone else to work with. (Or worse yet, stop trying to workout at all.)

And of course, getting the client is only half of the battle, you need to keep them coming in if you really want to make a steady income.

Moves Like Blaikie

So for at least 134 years, the best minds in fitness have had to come to grips with these same problems of motivating and inspiring a sometimes enthusiastic and other times apathetic public.

I used to believe that my Kinesiology degree or my 30 years of training made me a great trainer…but I was wrong.

I’ve evolved into a true coach and mentor to my clients (and my training staff), and there are 3 important principles to getting and keeping good clients (and trainers):

1.  The clients well-being comes first
2.  Keep your ears open and your mouth shut
3.  Be Interested and Interesting

I won’t elaborate on my reasoning behind these 3 things in this post, but I think they are pretty self-explanatory. But I’m curious if anyone else thinks the same way?

What principles do you have that guide you in your career? Do you think another certification is what its going to take to get clients to see how great you are, or do you need to work on your people skills?

Note: Huge thanks to Don Bentley for finding that the entire Blaikie books can be read online for free – http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Library/Blaikie/howto-intro.htm

photo credits: Thiophene_Guy Ed Yourdon

About the Author
Chad Landers

Chad Landers is a 1991 graduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology. Chad is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Most recently, Chad became the first (and at the time, only) American to graduate with a Diploma in Sports Nutrition with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Chad has owned a personal training business in Los Angeles since 1993. In 2003, he opened Push Private Fitness, a 2400 sq.ft. personal training only gym. He curently competes in Masters Raw Powerlifting competitions. Chad lives in Studio City, CA and is married to Oscar-winning Supervising Sound Editor Karen Baker Landers.