John Grimek. Eugen Sandow. Marvin Eder. George Hackenschmidt.
What do these men all have in common? Muscle and Might.
These are names from the era of physical culture, when exercising specifically to get big and strong had just started to become widespread. Previously, strength and size were widely considered to be a byproduct of your occupation. For example, working in a steel mill in the 1920s was extremely difficult on the body, so it should be no surprise that in a town with a steel mill any traveling passerby could easily determine which men worked in the mill.All of the men listed above were not only training during the physical culture era, but at its zenith, a period when weightlifting as a system of physical improvement had become widely accepted. On top of that, these men helped to shape how the era would be interpreted by future generations. They had muscular physiques that cause envy even today, they were big, proportioned, symmetrical, and they often won bodybuilding competitions with ease.
What you may not know, however, is that these men were also record setters. Eugen Sandow, the father of modern bodybuilding, was known for traveling and performing incredible feats of strength for audiences around the world, often day after day. John Grimek set records in the overhead press that still drop jaws. Marvin Eder could do dips for multiple sets and reps with two men holding on to his waist, we’re talking upwards of four hundred pounds. George Hackenschmidt was a heavyweight wrestling champion, a feat of strength in itself.
Why look so far back in history when there are so many modern weightlifters? Not to take anything away from the new guys, but looking so far back we can see what the human body is capable of without any trace of steroids and with limited understanding of human physiological systems. That’s right, Marvin Eder was strapping 400 lbs to his waist and repping out dips without the aid of steroids. Back in those days strict bodybuilding was viewed as a lesser pursuit than pure strength, this viewpoint ultimately lent itself to bodybuilders of the time to developing function with their muscles, or strength with size.
We also get to see something else that may challenge many modern preconceptions about weightlifting, which is that you have to choose to be a bodybuilder with pretty muscles or a powerlifter with strong, but less than shapely muscles. The truth is that the big names from the physical culture era were winning bodybuilding competitions and olympic weightlifting events across the world, the perfect combination of muscle and might.
Modern gyms have lots of new fancy equipment and some of it is quite useful and scientifically proven to be more effective than some older equipment, but the fact still stands that with nothing more than barbells, dumbbells, and some good coaching anybody can build a body that is both appealing to look at and strong as an ox.
Next time you’re trying to choose a program, consider simplifying and going old school. Odds are, you’re gonna like what you see.