February 29, 2024 4 min read

By Shane Robert

Despite the common turn of phrase, history does not, in fact, repeat itself. But it does leave echoes. That’s what people smarter than me say, at any rate. From my narrow perspective of the world, the fitness industry proves this point better than just about anything else in our culture.

From fasting, barefoot walking, and earthing to high-intensity training, frequency training, and volume training, all have come and gone multiple times over the decades. Diet fads are even more numerous and new iterations of old concepts seem to pop up every few decades. Though it is funny to watch these old concepts being sold in a new package, I can’t be totally mad at it. Some of them were legitimate and fell out of fashion for whatever reason. With the training programs, it’s safe to say that people got bored or burned out and discovered new gains when they changed the stimulus. (Presumably, that means that the previous system was lacking, rather than that it had simply run its course.) It’s probably similar to the diet stuff, although there is so much snake oil on the side of things, likely, it never worked. Those that work come around in slightly different forms, where the BS stuff never really comes back…I hope (I’m looking at you Fletcherizers).

Over the last 25 years or so, research has shown how powerfully beneficial exercise, of all kinds, is to just about every medical condition we know of. So much so, that many medical researchers have said if exercise could be sold as a pill, it would be the single most beneficial thing you could take and make the pharmaceutical industry trillions of dollars. Though science and medicine are finally catching up, this has been known for a long time.

One of the earliest references that I know of to this idea is from Dr. George Barker Windship (sometimes spelled without the D as Winship), a Harvard-trained medical doctor from the middle of the 19th century. He started life as a thin, sickly child before devoting himself to hours of gymnastics training in the Harvard gym, finishing his studies as the “strongest man at Harvard.” Of course, the training he undertook was entirely bodyweight — chin-ups, dips, ring & pommel horse work, etc. It wasn’t until after leaving school and seeing a strongman show that Windship was inspired into weight training when he tried his hand at one of the feats being performed. Though he put forth a valiant effort, the strongman performer beat him handily. For the “strongest man at Harvard,” this was an incredible embarrassment. 

Windship left the show and returned home, where he built a contraption in his yard that closely mimicked the one he attempted at the strongman show, and devoted himself to lifting with a similar fervor to what he had done with gymnastics. The machine he built allowed him to perform what resembled a shortened-range deadlift, or, an above-the-knee rack/block pull (for simplicity, we will call them rack pull). When he wasn’t lifting, he was back at Harvard where he started studying medicine in an attempt to understand the human body better. By the time he finished his studies, he was rack pulling over 1200 pounds! 

No one trick pony, George also worked with heavy dumbbells and Indian clubs, purportedly pressing two 100-pound dumbbells overhead simultaneously, while weighing a mere 150 pounds. He was so enamored with lifting dumbbells that he invented the first adjustable dumbbell that went from 8-101 pounds. It was the combination of heavy rack pulls, aka the “Health Lift,” and heavy dumbbell training to stimulate the whole body that Dr. Windship would evangelize to eager audience members around the country. Thanks to his outspoken efforts, heavy lifting caught on and became something of a moment in the anti- and post-bellum years of American culture.

Back in Boston, when Windship wasn’t giving lectures and lifting demonstrations, he opened a medical office/training studio gymnasium, creating what was likely the first sports medicine practice recorded (with apologies to Galen). In 1861, George wrote of his belief in the power of resistance training for more than merely building a beautiful body, “I discovered that with every day’s development of my strength, there was an increase of my ability to resist and overcome all fleshly ailments, pains and infirmities,— a discovery which subsequent experience has so amply confirmed, that, if I were called on to condense the proposition which sums it up into a formula, it would be in these words: Strength is Health.“

Strength is health. These three simple words would become the prototype for many gurus and charlatans to come. Unfortunately, the general population lost their enthusiasm for heavy lifting after Windship died of a stroke at age 42 in 1876, blaming lifting as the cause. Sadly, nothing was learned and exercise would continue to go through waves of popularity before, once again, being blamed as the cause of everything from deviancy and lowered IQ to inflexibility and homosexuality in the years between George’s death and today. 

This time, hopefully, the echo has been muted.

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