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History Repeats Itself Until You are You

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

dumbbells gymnasiums 1800s
Apparently disco dumbbells were the thing.

A case could be made that the first notable schism in the exercise world, at least here in the U.S., began in the mid 1800s. Training was something one did for vitality, which was a vague blanket term that could've been (and was) marketed with words like healthy glow or youthful energy. Vibrance was often synergistic with athleticism, and throw in the word robust while you're at, old chap. Not unlike how we use the word intensity in fitness copy today. We all sorta know what it means... right? Vitality was finite, though, according to the experts. As industrialism and urbanism began to soften the American physiques, who, until then, were pasture-raised and free-ranged, the exercise folks began pushing for increasing your vitality through proper training, since city life could deplete one's vitality batteries. BUT, let's not go crazy. Keep those dumbbells and indian clubs light, lest your newly gained vitality began to drain into those bigger, parasitic muscles.

Yes, big muscles were parasites, since they required more energy just to sustain themselves, so they leeched it right from the host organism, the body itself. Exercise, therefore, was meant to be moderate, or your muscles would bulk up into physiological vampires. You became your own portable vitality-sucking machine. You had to fast forward 100 years before there was a very public effort to create some strong enough counterpoint to this belief for anyone to really listen. By then, the ideology changed tactics, from muscles being parasites, to muscles being boa constrictors, binding a person up so they became far less mobile. "Muscle-bound" is still a term we might hear today, as we see larger and larger bodies being produced from rigorous training, and often, shall we call it, scientific accompaniment. Muscles in themselves aren't slowing anyone down. Often quite the contrary. But tension sure can. Do large muscles automatically harbor greater tension? Nope. But often the habits of motion to create those muscles, if not properly applied and countered, can. If someone is "muscle-bound," it may be more accurate to call them habit-bound. Which is why highly muscled folks have very similar tension patterns (that "binding") as couch-potatoes. The body binds itself from the habits of both unchecked repetitive movement, and the lack of movement. This is why, when I work with a new client, their history of exercise doesn't really matter to me when I begin the programming. The outcome of the previous training for whoever I'm working with at that moment might be the same. Whether high level athlete or fresh from a lifetime of Netflix binging, the habits can produce the same results, in terms of being bound up. A lot of modern workout protocols can create the same tension patterns in the body as non-movement. The tightnesses and weaknesses are often identical.

Do big weights actually create those big muscles anyway? Yes, but not by the alchemy of being an external tool with magic powers. Big weights automatically create a larger force upon the body, particularly the muscles, nerves, and accompanying tissues directly involved with moving that weight. If the science folks tell us that Force is mass times acceleration, than adding weight simply ups the "mass" part of the equation. More mass, more force. More force can mean more muscle. Aha. More force CAN mean more muscle. But is the addition of a heavier external weight the only way to bump up the force? Heck no! Which is why the initial division between the exercise clans of bodyweight stuff versus heavy weights was a bit silly to begin with, and is still silly to this day.

Have you seen what a gymnast can do? That was the training protocol of the day. Even some of the very basic gymnastic movements, like getting yourself up and onto things, swinging from things, jumping to and fro, landing and tumbling... these all require tremendous amounts of force development. Those movements were often part of the "moderate" exercise programs of the anti-heavy weights crowd, yet those movements can create, at times, far greater force than lifting a weight can. So why weren't the practitioners of these programs jacked right out of their puffy blouse shirts? The "moderate" part of the ideology. They trained these movements sometimes from a young age, without considerable intensity. The workouts, therefore, were often easy, despite being what we might consider highly skilled. Some good range of motion, a nice flush of the cheeks, and the Vitality was charged back up. Which, of course, has some serious merit. But complete programs these were not.

dumbbell adjustable dumbbell george barker winship
George Barker Windship's adjustable dumbbell

When a few brave souls decided to lift some objects heavier than the wooden dumbbells most were swinging around, would it surprise any of us that they might've got a bit of an accomplishment high off of their endeavors? Wanting to see what is possible is a common human trait, but imagine the time when there were no websites, videos, or manuals on what this could mean in the gym. No one had gone there yet. Fast forward again, maybe not quite as far. The other human trait, called investment, has created an industry in selling exercise. Not capital investment, but the investment of the self, where we put time, energy, and yes, money, into an identity. So prevalent now as to be almost overlooked, we buy our identities today with glee. Our brands and labels, from fashions to gym programs to political fist pumping, we invest in our identities.

indian clubs, ymca
YMCA, late 1800s.

Once people began realizing they could sell the schism between exercise polarities, the divisions got greater in intensity and number, with a massive upswing in the last 25 years. Now you're a Crossfitter, or Powerlifter, or you Do Yoga, or you practice Unconventional Training, or Functional Training. These are all simply branches on a tree of force development, with the original split beginning with moderate exercise versus heavy lifting. And they mostly exist because someone wants to sell them to you. Movement is sold as investments in categories, parading as investments in yourself. Once movement becomes a label or brand name, you end up buying its limitations. But wash away the packaging, and it's all just force development.

Truly invest in yourself by discovering what training within your value system looks like. Then you'll be free to find the aspects of force development that work best to in benefit your movement and strength practice as an extension of your value system. I'm guessing there's some stuff in all those categories that you can borrow from, since, before they were categories, they were just movements.

bodytribe chip conrad pullups
One of several Bodytribe possibilities.

Is there an irony that I'm talking about this on a site where some of the real meat is hidden behind the walls of a membership? I'm well aware. The BodyTribe goal, though is not to sell you exercises wrapped up in a package, but to help you explore your relationship to movement and exercise. Yes, there are programs behind those walls (and available to the public), but the ultimate goal is to guide you towards building your own movement and strength journey.

___________________________________ Meanwhile, on YouTube, we sample protein bars, and I train in 4 gyms in 4 states in 1 week.


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