The New Gymnastics

My object is to submit, for the consideration of the readers of the "Atlantic," a new system of physical training, adapted to both sexes, and to persons of all ages and degrees of strength.


I HAVE selected the dumb-bell as perhaps the happiest means by which to illustrate the mischievous consequences of "heavy weights." Thoughtful physiologists deeply regret the lifting mania. In every possible case, lifting is an inferior means of physical training, and for women and children, in short for nine-tenths of the people, it is positively mischievous. I introduce the dumb-bell exercises to illustrate and enforce this doctrine.

Heretofore dumb-bells have been made of metal. The weight in this country has usually been considerable. The general policy at present is to employ those as heavy as the health-seeker can "put up." In the great German gymnastic institutes dumb-bells were formerly employed weighing from fifty to one hundred pounds; but now Kloss and other distinguished authors condemn such weights, and advocate those weighing from two to five pounds. I think those weighing two pounds are heavy enough for any man; and as it is important that they be of considerable size, I introduced, some years ago, dumb-bells made of wood. Every year my faith grows stronger in their superiority.

Some years since, before I had seen the work of Professor Kloss on the Dumb-Bell, I published a paper upon the use of this piece of apparatus, in which I stated the best weight for men as from two to five pounds, and gave at length the reasons for the employment of such light weights, and the objections to heavy ones. 1 was filled, not with pride, but with profound satisfaction, while engaged in translating Kloss's work recently, to find, as fundamental with this great author, identically the same weights and reasons.

In my early experience as a teacher of gymnastics I advocated the use of heavy dumb-bells, prescribing those weighing one hundred pounds for persons who could put up that weight. As my success had always been with heavy weights, pride led me to continue their use long after I had begun to doubt the wisdom of such a course.

I know it will be said that dumb-bells of two pounds' weight will do for women and children, but cannot answer the requirements of strong men.

The weight of the dumb-bell is to be determined entirely by the manner in which it is used. If only lifted over the head, one or two pounds would be absurdly light; but if used as we employ them, then one weighing ten pounds is beyond the strength of the strongest. No man can enter one of my classes of little girls even, and go through the exercises with dumb-bells weighing ten pounds each.

We had a good opportunity to laugh at a class of young men, last year, who, upon entering the gymnasium, organized an insurrection against the wooden dumbbells, and through a committee asked me to procure iron ones; I ordered a quantity, weighing three pounds each; they used them part of one evening, and when asked the following evening which they would have, replied, "The wooden ones will do."

A just statement of the issue is this: If you only lift the dumb-bell from the floor, put it up, and then put it down again, of course it should be heavy, or there is no exercise; but if you would use it in a great variety of ways, assuming a hundred graceful attitudes, and bringing the muscles into exercise in every direction, requiring skill and followed by an harmonious development, the dumbbell must be light.

There need be no controversy between the light-weight and the heavy-weight party on this point. We of the lightweight party agree, that, if the dumb-bell is to be used as the heavy-weight party uses it, it must be heavy; but if as we use it, then it must be light. If they of the heavy-weight party think not, we ask them to try it.

The only remaining question is that which lies between all heavy and light gymnastics, namely, whether strength or flexibility is to be preferred. Without entering upon a discussion of the physiological principles underlying this subject, I will simply say that I prefer the latter. The Hanlon brothers and Heenan are, physiologically considered, greatly superior to heavy-lifters.

But here I ought to say that no man can be flexible without a good degree of strength. It is not, however, the kind of strength involved in heavy-lifting. Heenan is a very strong man, can strike a blow twice as hard as Windship, but cannot lift seven hundred pounds nor put up a ninety-pound dumb-bell. William Hanlon, who is probably the finest gymnast, with the exception of Blondin, ever seen on this contiflent, cannot lift six hundred pounds. Such men have a great fear of lifting. They know, almost by instinct, that it spoils the muscles.

One of the finest gymnasts in the country told me that in several attempts to lift five hundred pounds he failed, and that be should never try it again. This same gymnast owns a fine horse. Ask him to lend that horse to draw before a cart and he will refuse, because such labor would make the animal stiff, and unfit him for light, graceful movements before the carriage.

The same physiological law holds true of man: lifting great weights affects him as drawing heavy loads affects the horse. So far from man's body being an exception to this law, it bears with peculiar force upon him. Moving great weights through small spaces produces a slow, inelastic, inflexible man. No matter how flexible a young man may be, let him join a circus-company, and lift the cannon twice a day for two or three years, and he will become as inflexible as a cart-horse. No matter how elastic the colt is when first harnessed to the cart, he will soon become so inelastic as to be unfit to serve before the carriage.

If it be suspected that I have any personal feeling against Dr. Windship or other heavy-lifters, I will say that I regard all personal motives in a work of such magnitude and beneficence as simply contemptible. On the contrary, I am exceedingly grateful to this class of gymnasts for their noble illustration of the possibilities in one department of physical development.

Men, women, and children should be strong, but it should be the strength of grace, flexibility, agility, and endurance; it should not be the strength of a great lifter. I have alluded to the gymnastics of the circus. Let all who are curious in regard to the point I am discussing visit it. Permit me to call special attention to three perforrners,--to the man who lifts the cannon, to the India-rubber man, and to the general performer. The lifter and the India-rubber man constitute the two mischievous extremes. It is impossible that in either there should be the highest physiological conditions; but in the persons of the Hanlon brothers, who are general performers, are found the model gymnasts. They can neither lift great weights nor tie themselves into knots, but they occupy a position between these two extremes. They possess both strength and flexibility, and resemble fine, active, agile vigorous carriage horses, which stand intermediate between the slow carthorse and the long-legged, loose-jointed animal.

"Strength is health" has become a favorite phrase. But, like many common saws, it is an error. Visit the first half-dozen circuses that may come to town, and ask the managers whether the cannon-lifter or the general performer has the better health. You will find in every case it is the latter. Ask the doctors whether the cartmen, who are the strongest men in the city, have better health than other classes, who, like them, work in the open air, but with light and varied labor. You will not find that the measure of strength is the measure of health. Flexibility has far more to do with it.

Suppose we undertake the training of two persons, of average condition. They have equal strength,--can lift four hundred pounds. Each has the usual stiff shoulders, back, and limbs. One lifts heavy weights until he can raise eight hundred pounds. Inevitably he has become still more inflexible. The other engages in such exercises as will remove all stiffness from every part of the body, attaining not only the greatest flexibility, but the most complete activity. Does any intelligent physiologist doubt that the latter will have done most for the promotion of his health? that he will have secured the most equable and complete circulation of the fluids, which is essentially what we mean by health, and have added most to the beauty and effectiveness of his physical action?

With heavy dumb-bells the extent of motion is very limited, and of course the range and freedom of action will be correspondingly so. This is a point of great importance. The limbs, and indeed the entire body, should have the widest and freest range of motion. It is only thus that our performances in the business or pleasures of life become most effective.

A complete, equable circulation of the blood is thereby most perfectly secured. And this, I may remark, is in one aspect the physiological purpose of all exercise. The race-horse has a much more vigorous circulation than the cart-horse. It is a fact not unfamiliar to horsemen, that, when a horse is transferred from slow, heavy work to the carriage, the surface veins about the neck and legs begin at once to enlarge; when the change is made from the carriage to the cart, the reverse is the result.

And when we consider that the principal object of all physical training is an elastic, vigorous condition of the nervous system, the superiority of light gymnastics becomes still more obvious. The nervous system is the fundamental fact of our earthly life. All other parts of the organism exist and work for it. It controls all, and is the seat of pain and pleasure. The impressions upon the stomach, for example, resulting in a better or worse digestion, must be made through the nerves. This supreme control of the nervous system is forcibly illustrated in the change made by joyful or sad tidings. The overdue ship is believed to have gone down with her valuable, uninsured cargo. Her owner paces the wharf, sallow and wan,--appetite and digestion gone. She heaves insight! She lies at the wharf! The happy man goes aboard, hears all is safe, and, taking the officers to a hotel, devours with them a dozen monstrous compounds, with the keenest appetite, and without a subsequent pang.

I am confident that the loyal people of this country have eaten and digested, since Roanoke and Donelson, as they had not before since Sumter.

Could we have an unbroken succession of good news, we should all have good digestion without a gymnasium. But in a world of vexation and disappointment, we are driven to the necessity ot studied and unusual muscle-culture, and other hygienic expedients, to give the nervous system that support and vitality which our fitful surroundings deny.

If we would make our muscle-training contributive in the highest degree to the healthful elasticity of our nerves, the exercises must be such as will bring into varied combinations and play all our muscles and nerves. Those exercises which require great accuracy, skill, and dash are just those which secure this happy and complete intermarriage of nerve and muscle. If any one doubts that boxing and small-sword will do more to give elasticity and tone to the nervous systern than lifting kegs of nails, then I will give him over to the heavy-lifters.

Another point I take the liberty to urge. Without accuracy in the performance of the feats, the interest must be transient. This principle is strikingly exemplified in military training. Those who have studied our infantry drill have been struck with its simplicity, and have wondered that men could go through with its details every day for years without disgust. If the drill-master permit carelessness, then, authority alone can force the men through the evolutions; but if he insist on the greatest precision, they return to their task every morning, for twenty years, with fresh and increasing interest.

What precision, permit me to ask, is possible in "putting up" a heavy dumb-bell? But in the new dumb-bell exercises there is opportunity and necessity for all the accuracy and skill which are found in the most elaborate military drills.

I have had experience in boxing and fencing, and I say with confidence, that in neither nor both is there such a field for fine posturing, wide, graceful action, and studied accuracy, as is to be found in the new series of dumb-bell exercises

But, it is said, if you use dumb-bells weighing only two pounds, you must work an hour to obtain the exercise which the heavy ones would furnish in five minutes. I need not inform those who have practised the new series with the light dumb-bells that this objection is made in ignorance. If you simply "put up" the light implement, it is true; but if you use it as in the new system, it is not true. On the contrary, in less than five minutes, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders, neck, lungs, and heart will each and all make the most emphatic remonstrance against even a quarter of an hour's practice of such feats.

At this point it may be urged that those exercises which quicken the action of the thoracic viscera, to any considerable degree, are simply exhaustive. This is another blunder of the "big-muscle" men. They seem to think you can determine every man's constitution and health by the tape-line; and that all exercises whose results are not determinable by measurement are worthless.

I need scarcely say, there are certain conditions of brain, muscle, and every tissue, far more important than size; but what I desire to urge more particularIy in this connection is the importance, the great physiological advantages, of just those exercises in which the lungs and heart are brought into active play. Those organs are no exceptions to the law that exercise is the principal condition of development. Their vigorous training adds more to the stock of vitality than that of other organs. A man may stand still and lift kegs of nails and heavy dumb-bells until his shoulders and arms are Samsonian, it will contribute far less to his health and longevity than a daily run of a mile or two.

Speaking in a general way, those exercises in which the lungs and heart are made to go at a vigorous pace are to be ranked among the most useful. The "double-quick" of the soldier contributes more in five minutes to his digestion and endurance than the ordinary drill in two hours.

I have said an elastic tone of the nervous system is the physiological purpose of all physical training. If one may be allowed such an analysis, I would add that we exercise our muscles to invigorate thoracic an abdominal viscera. These in their turn support and invigorate the nervous system. All exercises which operate more directly upon these internal organs—as, for example, laughing, deep breathing and running-contribute most effectively to the stamina of the brain and nerves. It is only the popular mania for monstrous arms and shoulders that could have misled the intelligent gymnast on this point.

But finally, it is said, you certainly cannot deny that rapid motions with great sweep exhaust more than slow motions through limited spaces. A great lifter said to me the other day,--

"Do you pretend to deny that a locomotive with a light train, flying at the rate of forty miles an hour, consumes more fuel than one with a heavy train, moving at the rate of five miles?"

I did not attempt to deny it.

"Well, then," he added, with an air of triumph, "what have you to say now about these great sweeping feats with your light dumb-bells, as compared with the slow putting up of heavy ones?"

1 replied by asking him another question.

"Do you pretend to deny, that, when you drive your horse ten miles within an hour, before a light carriage, he is more exhausted than by drawing a load two miles an hour?"

"That 's my doctrine exactly," he said.

Then I asked,--

"Why don't you always drive two miles an hour?"

"But my patients would all die," replied my friend.

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