Strength and History

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(Former Olympic Weightlifting Coach Jim Schmitz making Sara giggle at her snatch)

The stories are piling up yet they need telling. The last bards to sing the tales of the end of the golden age of Physical Culture are, one by one, led away from this mortal coil. Not even real strength is immortal.

(Weightlifting at the first modern Olympics)

The generation after them are thankful to share from sagacity’s trove, filled with hours of sweat, grunts, intensity and accomplishment. And the generation after that?

(Sacramento High weightlifting coach Paul Doherty, with one of his champion lifters behind him)

Blessed be, there are a few that avoid the curse of what has become modern fitness, the siren song of gadgets, fads and trends meant to suck the wallet dry in the comfort of your three easy payments or monthly membership dues. They, too, want to open dialog about how and why movement and strength build a better world, and possibly hand the keys of strength to the current crop of kids who might wanna play as well.

(Coach Doherty teaches a wide range of students and skill levels)

To collect these stories is a task of passion, like Pliny the Elder, but with worse funding. As anticipated, as the questions are answered, so many more arise. Like cultivating thought weeds, each collected seed of knowledge simply turns into another healthy batch of inquiries. Trains of thought don’t always follow timelines; instead their scheduled stops are often forgotten or sped past.

(Sara interviewing Dr. Susan Zieff, professor of sports and exercise culture and history at San Francisco State)

(Barbell Get Ups are nothing new, as this mid-century Barbell book shows us)

What’s the nutty wanna-be documentarian getting at? Point A to Point B is no longer the accepted geometry for a film about a history that is far more than just physical. A timeline is easy to tell, but an idea line is a bit harder to chart. Oh, but the journey is fun.

(Jim Schmitz at his infamous basement dungeon, the Sports Palace)

In the upcoming months we’ll be squeezing history out of more authors, historians, professors and athletes from around the country, working on building our History of Fitness documentary. Along the way, there might appear small mini-documentaries like the one below to remind folks what we’re doing, and hone our skills at the same time.

Some of my favorite stories are of filmmakers producing worthwhile projects on minimal budgets. Yet I’d sell an organ (I’m not telling which one) to generate the amount of ‘minimal budget’ these folks had. Heck, my bank account groans a little when I buy a packet of mini-DV film, and the luxury of actually owning any of the equipment I’m filming on currently escapes me.

There are those who are helping, whether they know it or not. I suggest lending these folks your support…

If you’re anywhere near Portland the first weekend of February, come to the Portland Brutal Recess Workshop that the folks at Recreate Fitness have put together. There will be more info posted on the Bodytribe website tomorrow.

If you’re in the Bay Area, contact Jim Schmitz and get some training in what many consider the most athletic lifts in the world, the clean and jerk and snatch. The sport of weightlifting is his specialty, and he’s a willing teacher.


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Showing 10 comments
  • Justin_P

    Jim made Sara giggle at her snatch?

    Don’t you think that detail might be TMI?

    Good luck with all of the mini-docs. The first one was very interesting.

  • LittleSisyphus


    I’m intrigued with your ambivalence about capitalism and its’ relationship to the fitness industry — this is after all the business you are in. I recall a wall chart that looked like the one you show here with Barbell Get ups, that came with a set of barbells my step dad purchased in the 60’s and which I used in the 80’s — that is this isn’t a sacred text, but, a sales brochure. When I read about Bernarr Macfadden I’m left with the impression that in the end he too was hustling something — starting “churches” of fitness is a fully loaded activity after all. Perhaps, in telling the story of fitness in feudal Japan one has to account for duty. When studying fitness in Ancient Greece, issues of religion and civic duty motivated people and need to be accounted. So, likewise, in American history of fitness, capitalism looms large like it or not and that is fascinating in what it says about us. How is it that some folks will cover 100 miles in 24 hours for a belt buckle, and others, will make millions of dollars, entire careers, playing sports that most of us understand as appropriate for youthful pass time? We used to say the American dream was based on hard work, but, the opportunity to improve ourselves, now we say it is to win the lottery and so a life of leisure — how do professional athletes mirror and re-enforce this notion of the “home run”.

    As an aside, do I as a trainer, really care if a person comes to me with vanity as their motivation — the wrong motivation as it were? They have gotten off the couch and they stand there ready to go to work. Is wrong motivation better than no motivation? Slapping them into wakefulness perhaps borders on rudeness, and very probably drives them to take their money (there it is again) to another gym, one that offers what they recognize as fitness. Perhaps a soft sell, some compromises, even some white lies are warranted — at least till the person experiences for themselves some of what it is we have learned? I recall stories of Zen Masters tricking their students into enlightenment.

  • chip

    I’m not in the service industry, nor should any trainer be. We are educators and ambassadors of movement. If someone comes to us out of vanity, why not teach them that there are big underlining reasons supporting that vanity, and addressing THOSE can lead to personal growth. It isn’t hard to do, nor does it take tricking or slapping. I like the optimism of hoping they’ll understand it for themselves, but that’s like hoping someone will show up at high school to hang out with their friends and somehow pick up an education. Some might. Most won’t.

    Calling my view of capitalism ‘ambivalent’ is an interesting observation. That’s like calling someone questioning the government unpatriotic. Not accepting the business-as-usual model doesn’t mean a desire to abandon the entire model. The model is tainted though, and believing that there is a better way, culturally and moralistically, is far from being ambivalent.

  • Patricia Sessa

    Love the pedestrian video. You always make me laugh Chip. Nice job.

  • LittleSisyphus

    Hmmm. Perhaps I was too polite in using the term “ambivalent” perhaps instead “conflicted” but, I’m not certain you are conflicted, rather I worry a little that this inquiry seems too certain that “good” is good and there is a purity to fitness — perhaps “Fitness” is a Platonic form?… I may well be mis-reading you, sorry if I am.

    I too, think it is very wise to call the status quo into question, but, perhaps it is important to reflect those same questions back on our own constructions in order to call them into question too. Perhaps it is different for you, but, embedded in this culture, as I am, it is very hard to not re-create it over and over. I find the discipline of subjecting my thought to the criticism I levy at others a healthy practice. It keeps my inquiry at arms distance and makes me skeptical of my own certainty. As you point out nicely: “Point A to Point B is no longer the accepted geometry for a film about a history that is far more than just physical. A time line is easy to tell, but an idea line is a bit harder to chart.” And that is what I was trying to get at here. Is it possible to tell the history of fitness in America without accounting for capitalism? Pedestrianism as you point out supported prize money and betting, for example, and was part of the popular culture, that is, it had “sports hero’s”. Perhaps there was a parallel phenomenon informed by eccentric individuals who walked for the purity of walking, but this is also informed by capitalism, albeit the negation of it. Maybe it is the dialectic between the two that is fascinating, and tells us more about what being American means?

    You ask: “If someone comes to us out of vanity, why not teach them that there are big underlining reasons supporting that vanity, and addressing THOSE can lead to personal growth.” Given my experience with American education, I think we need a different trope here too. That is I don’t think you really want the role of “teacher” any more than you want the role of “service provider”. As I fuss above we risk re-creating the culture we aim to criticize if we just exchange tropes/roles. If we are going for a radical re-invention why not be a mid-wife to personal fitness?

  • chip

    Capitalism will indeed be considered when discussing history. It’s actually interesting learning about the paradoxes, as you mentioned, of folks like McFadden and Hoffman, who truly had a passion for movement, yet let their greed and egos sort of muddy up the pool. Today it’s Weider and the likes of Tony Little and that Jake guy teaching lessons in the dollar trumping actual ability.

    But one thing I definitely want to differentiate between is fitness and sports. At a professional level, sports has little to do with fitness, and therefore my focus will not touch upon it much (and that’s a rant all it’s own, which I believe I’ve delved into in past blogs).

    One of the intriguing bits of all this research does deal with education at the children’s level, and how different a society can be when the emphasis of movement as health, not just movement as competition (back to sports again), is made a priority.

  • sara and dr d

    what DIY created project, in and of itself, is not- by its very nature- discreetly anticapitalistic? furthermore, the use of the term “fitness industrial complex” in the previous blog directly addresses the capitalistic underpinnings of the fitness industry.


    sorry is the trainer who makes a buck off of someone else’s emotional pain. vanity. is. pain.

  • Steven

    My take is that capitalism, consumerism, and hucksterism have always been present in the fitness world. The problem today is that society is becoming so sedentary and separate from the physical world that people see only the hype. The industry promotes gimmickry and BS, and people not knowing any better seek it out. I’d say Chip’s emphasis on education is much needed.

    A hundred years ago pedestrianism may have been a money-making sport for a few, but everyone also walked themselves. Now, most people would watch the pros on TV and marvel at the athletic prowess of someone able to walk. A small number of adventuresome folks would drive to a gym and spend 20 minutes on a Walk-O-Matic 2000 with bucket seats and built in TV.

    The point I think is that fitness was a part of our culture in the past and now it has either twisted into professional sports, or an artificial and money tainted activity separate from everyday life.

    Positive Massage Therapy Blog

  • Craig In Seattle

    I think that strength and fitness are at their core spiritual pursuits.

    But I’m weird like that.


  • Ed Pierini

    Good to see Sara in action. Sara if Jim is your Olympic coach making you giggle at your snatch, let me be your coach too. I’ll let you clean and jerk me.

    Hope to see you one day soon. Be safe!

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