T Nation

Late 1800s/Early 1900s Training

Anyone have any info on how bodybuilders trained before they had squat racks, machines, even benches? I remember looking at a list of weird exercises but, can not seem to find it anymore.

Most of the really old timers were strength focused… especially at odd lifts. Performance was the primary concern while appearance was secondary. To be honest back then they were more in line of being strongman opposed to what most would considered bodybuilders by today’s definition. There are websites dedicated to it…

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There’s a million ewe tube videos of people using old timey Eugene Sandow(“the father of bodybuilding” routines from that time period.

At the gym I used to go to there was this old guy who was a pro football player and bodybuilder back in the 60’s and 70’s, he was telling me that for bench you had to do a pullover and press off the floor unless you had two guys who could lift the bar up for you and stuff like that. If you didn’t have any sort of squat rack or platform to support the bar you could have to clean it off the floor and do front squats.

The thing is that it wouldn’t have been that complicated to build a wooden rack, lots of people did that after gyms shut down for COVID.

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Welcome to my world. That’s what I do now. I don’t really have room for a rack. So for floor press, I do a hip thrust to get it into position. For front squats, I do a power clean first. Once advantage is that I’m getting better at cleans

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I bet you could fit a home made one, if there is room for a bar there is room for a rack.

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Looks a little sketchy to me.

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The health lift i believe was one of the first strength devices made, goes back to the civil war.

This Is My Wheelhouse

Not to nitpick, but define “bodybuilders”. In the late-19th/early-20th century, it was physical culture. There was no bodybuilding.

There were some great-looking physical culturists, but for the most part they all basically found a ton of different ways to move pretty heavy weights mostly with barbells and dumbbells, and some kettlebells; often supplemented the heavy lifting with much, much lighter weights used for different exercises; and some did gymnastic-type bodyweight stuff as well.

Bodybuilding was a thing that gained momentum unto itself in the 1930s and '40s, pretty much in line with the availability of a wider variety of equipment that separated itself from strength-focused lifting, as contests got more specifically organized as physique competitions.

In general, the principles from back then were basically the same as we have now. I covered that in the 5 Timeless Lessons article, drawing parallels between what they used to do and what’s being done now.

I also covered Alan Calvert’s 1924 book Super Strength that covered a truly ridiculous amount of training concepts that are still being done today:

“A small sample of the advice Calvert talked about in the 1920s includes the importance of barbell squats and deadlift variations; doing farmer’s walks and kettlebell swings; using heavy, low-rep compound lifts as well as targeted isolation exercises for moderate reps; lifting with thick bars for grip strength and forearm size; starting with fundamental bodyweight training like push-ups (called floor dips at the time) and bodyweight squats (called deep knee bends back in the day); the benefits of a hook grip; and the idea of “looking like you lift.””

Everything in that list, we’re all still focused on now. Ev-er-y-thing.


To be fair, not everything they did was great. Arthur Saxon advocated this as a grip and forearm exercise. (Basically a triceps extension from that position)

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Hadn’t found that article of yours yet Chris. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The main points of, lift heavy, listen to your body, and build all around mass are as relevant today as ever.

Got an ego boost thanks to your article - you mention great arms in the upper teens in inches (45 cm ~ 17.75 inches) - must be getting somewhere now my arms have exceeded that. Thanks for making my afternoon.

Further ego boost: In the 1930s, Sig Klein kept track of an exclusive club at his famous NY gym - the rare accomplishment was having a 15-inch arm while being lean.

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Got a little work to go here yet…

There’s a YouTube channel called “Golden Era Bookworm” which I watch from time to time. He covers a fair amount of stuff from that sort of era, might be worth a watch if that sort of thing interests you.

Finally a club I can get behind

I’ve been listening to the Iron Culture podcast, hosted by Eric Helms and Omar Isuf. If you go back to episode 2, it’s on the history of lifting (1700s - 1900s). Dr. Dominic Morais and Dr. Ben Pollack are the guests. It’s a good listen.