At the risk of going back to the well once too often, here’s another installment of why the early physical culturists can show us the way when it comes to working out in times of scarcity.
First of all, we should look at why and how they exercised. The reason why they exercised is the very best reason of all — because they loved it! Evidence of their love and commitment is in the ridiculous lengths to which they would go to find a way to train. Renting vacant storefronts for workout spaces, digging through their basement foundations for adequate overhead clearance for weightlifting, contriving and constructing homemade equipment, and doing dangerous versions of present-day exercises.
The health and economic implications of what’s going on should not be taken lightly, but griping about the petty inconveniences is a bit much. A perpetual bad hair day and watching reruns of the ‘94 Beanpot tournament are not major problems. When it comes to gym closures and working out at home, let’s try to put things in perspective.
When I think of the crisis/opportunity platitude, my thoughts turn to Tommy Kono, arguably the greatest American weightlifter who learned how to lift weights in a Japanese internment camp. It’s hard to imagine a more disheartening and inauspicious beginning to what would become such a highly decorated and celebrated athletic career.
When I think of training in less than ideal conditions, my thoughts turn to the early Olympic teams who had to travel by ship to the Olympic games. Can you imagine getting your last workouts in before the most important competition of your life, stuck at sea on a slow-moving ocean liner? There are accounts of the U.S. team traveling with weights and getting their lifts in on a ship, swaying and rocking throughout the journey. That’s a big-time, home-court advantage in my view.
When I think of improvising and doing whatever it takes to get the job done, my thoughts turn to Henry Steinborn. This guy is a strongman folk hero, part human, and part mythical beast. He is credited with popularizing the modern-day squat, in part introducing the flat-foot style to the U.S. in the early 20th century. They didn’t have squat racks back then, and so he would stand the bar up vertically, then bend down while tipping and pulling the bar into proper horizontal position on his shoulders, and then proceed to squat. He shouldered over 500 pounds this way, a hell of a squat in and of itself, nevermind the outlandish extra steps just to get to the starting line.
The early benches didn’t have upright racks either. To perform bench presses a couple of spotters would give you a handoff or you would start with the bar on your thighs and lie back with it. Another common method was to do a pullover from the floor to get it into position.
Another admirable yet psychotic, old-school move was doing leg presses without the benefit of a leg-press machine. You would lie down on your back with your feet to the sky, have some spotters place the bar on the soles of your shoes, and do vertical leg presses while balancing the bar on the bottom of your feet. The grizzly old warriors sarcastically quipped, “That’s what ERs are for.” I’m a huge fan of those golden-agers who paved the way for the modern scene, but it behooves us all to avoid the ER, especially these days and probably always.
I was fortunate enough to have started in a gym that was to some extent a holdover from times past. It wasn’t antiquated, but rather a perfect link between the old ways and the present. I’m still picking splinters out of my back from that gym’s homemade leg-press machine that could have very well doubled as a medieval torture device. I learned a lot of vintage practices along with the new and improved methods.
So much of what we do today is the same, or at least derivative of things that were going on a long time ago. Why not borrow from the physical culturists’ playbook? They’re the ones who set the stage for modern-day exercise trends and they’re the ones who figured out how to do without. They made barbells and dumbbells out of cement-filled cans and a piece of pipe. It was a cheap way out and it worked. They filled gunny sacks with sand and used these heavy bags for carrying and shouldering drills. I’ve made my fair share of sandbags out of truck-tire inner tubes, sand, and tape. Just cut the thing open, fill with sand, and then twist and tape the ends as handles. Throw it on your back and, voila, your squat jumps and lunges become that much more fun. A poor man’s DYI adjustable sandbag is also a pretty easy project. Portion sand out accordingly into several packets, reinforce them so they don’t leak (I use duct tape), and those separate inserts can serve as adjustable weight for something like a duffel bag, hockey bag or soft luggage.
Some physical culturists strength-trained by lifting public signs with concrete footings. And I just recently learned of some inmates doing lateral raises with plastic chairs when they were denied exercise equipment. You never know where your next good idea is going to come from: one day from a credentialed expert and another day from a prisoner whose dumbbells got confiscated.
Without access to our usual exercise trappings, the low-hanging fruit is running, push-ups, lunges and so forth. But we also have the ability to replicate most gym versions of an exercise, in some way or another, at home with limited resources. Try to reinvent the wheel! If you have a truly clever idea you may become the next muscle millionaire. Someone a hundred years from now may be doing some reps of an exercise named after you, just like the Henry Steinborn.
We squatted without squat racks, we did leg presses without leg-press machines, and we benched on stuff that wasn’t designed for the task at hand… If we’ve learned anything from the physical culturists it is this: Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
— Certified strength and conditioning coach Norman Meltzer, the owner/operator of MW Strength and Conditioning in New Bedford, was known during his competitive weight-lifting career as “the Muscless Wonder” for his lean, mean physique lacking in the traditional bulk associated with strength training. Meltzer’s experience and knowledge has helped pro, college and high school athletes and teams and even regular people improve their strength and performance.
Schvitz’n with Norm
By Norm Meltzer