The History of Fitness Project

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What’s the plan for 2010? How about a documentary series on the history of this nonsense we do? Well, the above video was a rough test run of telling the stories of the past.

Call me old fashioned, but truly embracing a lifestyle, like a passion for movement, might lack complete recognition without understanding the roots of the culture. The booty shaking, bright lights and fake vocabulary of modern marketing seems to have us convinced that ‘science’ has evolved fitness and training into little pills and…well…the Shake Weight.

Yet we’d be challenged to find many folks who have dynamically changed their lives through the modern fitness industrial complex (as Sara calls it). In the business of fitness, actually getting fit is a rare and surprising outcome.

Before fitness was an ‘industry,’ people were getting fit. In fact ‘fitness’ worked its way into common vernacular because THAT IS WHAT FOLKS BECAME through hard training.


“Hey, all this exercise is increasing their fitness for tasks, sports and life in general.”
“Perhaps the pursuit of this result from training should be called ‘Fitness?'”

Maybe a little dose of the history of training, movement and strength might help us as a culture return to actual ‘fitness.’ My buddy Tyler in Wisconsin agrees with this premise and the two of us are embarking on a big mission. With no budget, limited equipment and a strong commitment to our ‘real’ jobs, we’re filming a pilot for a documentary series on the history of fitness.


Our mission statement, thanks to Tyler, reads a little like this:

The History of Fitness: a documentary series.

Is there a slightly biased premise to our documentary concept? You bet.

Fitness in the new millennium is an industry driven by a media-fed aesthetic ideal: endless gadgets and gizmos eking out every “pump” and “burn,” allowing users to (supposedly) “tone,” tighten and target problem areas. Gone are the days of health and ability for health and ability’s sake, now replaced with constant striving for ripped abs, pert bottoms and “defined” arms.

There was a time when muscles and bodies were built for use, not just for show; when training called for strength and ability of the entire body, used to conquer obstacles and prove might – not just to swell muscles full of blood.


These were the days of Physical Culture, a bygone era, a relic of the past that seems wholly unfamiliar and irrelevant to gym members of the twenty-first century, but was in fact the foundation for everything we know about fitness.

Physical Culture is something in and of itself – not merely a performance aid or assistant to improved body composition. It is not a just sport or a training method. It is a world comprised of movement, obstacle, burden, success and perseverance; a philosophy that stresses strength, empowerment, self-improvement and personal victory.

With roots in ancient Greek philosophy (with elements borrowed from Eastern thought and movement), Physical Culture drew its influence from the developing arts of gymnastics, wrestling and dance. It has a much richer history, though, in the deepest roots of human motivation: the desire to push against the un-pushable, move the immovable and become victorious over the unconquerable.


The development of tools throughout the ages, from Indian clubs to dumbbells, to bicycles, barbells, kettlebells and more, has added to the evolution of movement and training. Physical Culture has been the toolbox for survival, an expression of national pride and a means for developing the body (for strength, sports and otherwise).

It found its name in the late 1800s at the hands of such Physical Culture luminaries as Bernarr McFadden, Professor Attila and perhaps most famously, Eugene Sandow. But the path had been laid generations before in the ancient Greek Olympics, in the Turnverins and YMCA’s of the early 19th century, and by health and fitness legends like Catherine Beecher, Edmund Desbonnet and Johan Guts Muths.

We wish to revive and reanimate the study of Physical Culture, excavating its ancient history, breath life into its antiquated countenance and uncover the hidden history of fitness. Perhaps a look into the roots of modern fitness will bring the current physical culture underground a bit more into the popular forefront.


Central to the division between modern fitness and Physical Culture are the development/evolution of three concepts: gender, the aesthetic and the physical body in the age of mechanical reproduction. The desire to emulate the physical ideal embraced by the ancient Greeks has progressed so far that now culture strives not to fulfill the feats of strength that mold that ideal, but instead circumvent the real hard work and only appear as powerful, able-bodied or healthy as the mighty men and women of history.

Within this forgotten history of fitness are not only stories of physical endeavors but great lessons in political, sociological and cultural boundaries that were pushed, destroyed or rearranged repeatedly as eras changed and stereotypes came and went.

These are also the stories we’re looking for, and with your help we’d like to tell the detailed and colorful history of the modern fitness movement.



Workshops coming up:

Oh, there’s a bunch…

WINTER STRENGTH CAMP, 2010! A great opportunity for strength and performance education will be happening at Bodytribe in January. Saturday and Sunday, January 30th and 31st, from 10 am – 5 pm. Simply put, this will be the most exciting Strength Camp we’ve ever had… and that’s saying something.

Then, for the Saturday Tune Ups:

1/16/2010 Kettlebell Basics: movements exclusive to the kettlebell.
1/23/2010 Olympic Lifting Basics, Part 1: the Snatch.
2/06/2010 Brutal Recess: Intense Mobility
2/13/2010 Olympic Lifting Basics, Part 2: The Clean and Jerk
Then there will be 5 weeks of THE SINGLE TOOL SERIES, each week delving into the uses of a single toy here at the tribe. Barbells, clubs, dumbbells and more, every week something different.

All the info on all the workshops is here!


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Showing 8 comments
  • Jay

    hey chip,
    first and foremost, happy 2010! good health, fitness, strength and success for the new year to you and all of the tribe members.

    next, i’d like say thanks and take the opportunity to tip my hat off to you, as you’ve inspired the HELL out of me as a human/trainer/coach/kinesiologist/insert fancy moniker here, in inspiring me to not only seek my own rituals through movement, develop my own training philosophy, but also to help my own tribe members/clients here where i live, to seek their own paths.

    “Lift With Your Head” was purchased by me roughly a year ago and it takes its deserving place in my library of an ikea bookcase right next to the likes of Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, Ross Enamait’s “Infinite Intensity”, Mel Siff’s “Facts and Fallacies of Fitness” and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure (Book of The Samurai)”. it truly is an excellent read and a source of new knowledge with every return visit. the same can be said about your “Strength Rituals” DVD, but enough of the butt-kissing here, plain and simple: thank you.

    as for this post and the “History of Fitness”, i look forward to following the series. it took me right back to a first year university course of mine entitled, “foundations of kinesology” where my prof. Dr. Greg Malszecki took us on a journey through themes of ancient sport, the Olympic games of Athens, gender and sport, physical education curricula over the years and many vital elements of human movement that have now become lost through time.

    you truly have a passion for movement that is undeniable and a way to spark the same passion in others. keep doing what you do.

    Young Jedi from Toronto

  • chip

    Hi Jay,

    Ya made me blush. Thanks for the kudos. Your ‘foundations’ class had a similar itinerary to our project, although being a documentary, I can only hope we can go into enough depth to make the modern physical culturalists happy. I’ll keep everyone updated on our DIY adventure.

  • Craig in Seattle

    Very nice! Per Rip’s suggestion I have been reading around in “The Super Athletes” by David Willoughby and thinking on all of this. Weird to think of what has been done that seems impossible to do….

  • chip

    Craig!! We’re coming up to Seattle the first week in Feb. I’ll email you with more details.

  • Craig in Sacramento

    Excellent start to the series. Watching it reminded me of an interview of ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes I saw some time ago. I look forward to watching future installments.

  • Zac

    Awesome video – I look forward to future installments.

  • Craig in Seattle

    Look forward to seeing you.

  • Tyler

    And me too, Craig!

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