Ever wondered what our ancestors' perspective on fitness was?
Could they have chugged protein supplements and hit the gym daily after office hours like some of us do?
Were they working out to look fit and sexy?
Or how about when it came to Calisthenics? Did our Ancestors get a smashing good time doing human flags and muscle-ups?
In this blog, all jokes aside, let me take you through how fitness was back then and how it had evolved with time.
Why Did People Train to be Fit?
To further illustrate the history and evolution of our Fitness Industry as a whole, we will first explore how fitness training first came to be and its adaptation into modern practice.
In the beginning, folks doing fitness didn't have much of a say on whether they liked working out as a lifestyle choice.
Working for a living mostly involved in manual labor. Wars were frequent, and training to be able-bodied was necessary or part of their livelihood.
In ancient Greece, the forms of training that people did for military purposes usually consisted of:
The training was frequently done naked for convenience. Hence it was called gymnazo, which means "to exercise naked."
This term is the origin word for Gymnastics. The place where people did their training was by association called the "gymnasium."
Gymnastics, Gym Training, and Calisthenics Share Similar Roots
In ancient times, Gymnastics involved various practices. People back then did a whole range of activities, which we have discussed above, as part of this one broad practice.
All of those activities were functional for people who had to go to war. But it had since been adapted to become more than a wartime training routine.
At some point, the people who used to train hard to fight wars thought it was good to use the training as a form of friendly competition. People from all over the region could gather to display their physical prowess in honor of the Greek gods.
This meant that training did not have to be purely for war. Having peacetime competitions allowed the practices to gradually become recreational sporting activities.
I suppose they found sports fun enough as they kept playing what is later known as the Olympics, which continues to be organized to this day.
Although the event has lost its religious roots, the Games continue to be played. It is symbolic in the way it unites and allows people to strive for excellence and achievement.
With the Modern Olympics in 1896, the event slowly matured over the years and evolved to become a platform where countries set aside their differences, gather, and compete in the spirit of sportsmanship.
To make the event a multi-disciplinary competition, the different sports played started distinguishing themselves from ancient Gymnastics.
The bodyweight parts of ancient Gymnastics were assigned to Artistic Gymnastics and Rhythmic Gymnastics, in order to distinguish them from Olympic Weightlifting, Swimming, and other activities.
As a homage to the past, the places where people train eventually came to be called “Gyms.” But to train so with the root word in mind would be public indecency in today’s societal norms.
The History of Gym Training and Culture
"As a means to measure strength and power, weightlifting was practiced both by the ancient Egyptian and Greek societies," states the official site of the Olympics. "It developed as an international sport primarily in the 19th century and is one of the few sports to have featured at the 1896 Athens Games."
That being said, weightlifting went on to be added to the 1896 Modern Olympic Games as a unique sport.
Around the 1970s, following the Olympics, multiple gyms were set up to ride the wave created by the people's desire to be fit, have fun, and improve themselves. This led to the rapid commercialization of fitness.
Many gyms started to sprout all over the US – and then to other parts of the world – as the identity of gym training and culture began to take shape.
Within the decade, other influences emerged that also shaped the fitness scene:
These events played a huge role in influencing people's perception of fitness. As such, most gyms started to play to these trends by:
The results were mostly successful, as you can still observe today in various gyms around you.
Impact of Gym Culture on the Fitness Industry
Ironically, the commercialization of fitness did not actually lead to more people pursuing fitness and health.
On the contrary, a larger percentage of society became even more unhealthy and obese. This is because commercialized gyms tended to focus on the physique and social status rather than functionality or health.
This is anything but subtle, especially when you consider that most marketing done by commercial gyms primarily focuses on fitness trends, celebrities, or extremely muscular people to promote their business.
"Join us to look like this!"
"We're offering this new trendy routine which everyone's into these days!"
"We have way more specialised fitness equipment than that other gym!"
The gym industry has diverted its focus from fitness and health. It instead markets any method that generates revenue.
Bodybuilding is born of concepts in chasing an idealized physique, trying to get as big as physically possible, and using whatever means necessary.
The participants frequently go on bulking stages, aiming to get their bodies as big as possible at any cost, and trying to dehydrate to look “dry” for the next physique show or photoshoot.
This body image that is far from healthy is the same image of health marketed to us by many gyms, even with the availability of better education and information in this age of information.
Why? Because it sells gym memberships and personal training packages.
People also began to view fitness as something institutionalised, which means one has to formally become part of a group or purchase a membership in order to be fit.
Essentially, the idea of going to the gym to have a proper workout traps us in the mentality that the gym is the only place for working out and that other alternatives are less effective.
Some may also be turned off by the idea of needing to sign up for a costly monthly gym membership just for the sake of looking good.
In addition, before the internet was a thing, many heavily relied on word of mouth, magazines, and the media to get information on how to get fit.
This also resulted in a lot of mixed messages and lack of clarity on what an effective workout is.
There's the following of fads, too. All these were observed in the overall gym culture, even nowadays.
Over time, we could become less motivated to work out on our own outside of the gym, as social concepts of fitness and health have become distorted.
Vanity increasingly seems to be the end goal instead of health and fitness.
From the original aim of working out to be strong and able-bodied (and look good as a result), people now tend to work out with the goal of looking as good as possible and, hopefully, be fit and healthy as a “side effect.”
Think of all the gyms you know which have adopted aerobics, yoga, kickboxing, and spinning classes. Whatever sells is simply adopted to drive up membership rates.
To date, the places where people lift weights may still be called “gyms” (from the gymnasium). Yet, the business model has significantly branched off into its own culture at this point.
History of Calisthenics
"Returning to 'first principles,' we find one useful exercise more or less within reach of all, without preparation or expense. We mean walking" - The Atlantic Magazine, 2012.
I love the internet, don't you? It's how you came across us. It's how we have all this information for free, being communicated, being peer-reviewed, and cited.
The same may be said of Calisthenics, which can explain why it has been gaining traction as an ideal workout regimen compared to the more popular gym training.
Calisthenics comes from two ancient Greek words: kalos (beautiful) and sthenos (strength). This practice requires using one's body weight for resistance in order to develop athleticism, which showcases the combination of beauty (of the body as a result of the repeated exertions) and strength (power and determination grew from the practice).
The practice requires using one's body weight for resistance to develop athleticism.
The closest thing to Calisthenics that you may find in the Olympics will be Gymnastics. It requires many years of training, starting from a young age to condition the body and develops good spatial awareness.
As many may point out, Gymnastics seems similar to Calisthenics (I hear you). That's because Calisthenics may very well be your friendly, easily accessible neighborhood Gymnastics.
As much as Calisthenics’ roots are in Gymnastics, their philosophies are very very different, and akin to comparisons between racket sports.
Your Gymnastics gym may have equipment like a whole space for tumbling, with trampolines, a pommel horse, and a vault horse. All these are used to perhaps go competitive someday.
On the contrary, your typical Calisthenics practitioners would probably head over to nearby parks and fitness corners, which usually has necessary stations like pull-up bars or dip bars. They may bring along Gymnastics rings as an option.
Competitions for Calisthenics events are mostly community-funded and organised, and are not formal events in any significant games. As such, not many people train with competition in mind as Calisthenics practitioners do it to acquire new skills or get strong and fit.
Furthermore, there’s no fitness centre to subscribe to or pay for, little to no competitions to set as an end goal, and less pressure to look good and dress nice. All you do is go to a park and grind—just you and a simple plan of doing some pull-ups, pushups, and the like.
It is as real as fitness and health gets. No need to find yourself in a facility with a hundred and one equipment and learn how each one works in order to be fit.
In fact right now you can already do so! Get a free e-book- "Beginner's programme for Calisthenics - A complete 6 weeks step-by-step guide to get you started" as a gift from us!
You engage in fitness for the right goal and work on what you wish to achieve through strength, endurance, and body awareness training via Calisthenics. You also look good as a natural side effect of this practice. This makes it less of a product being sold to you and more of a personal fitness practice.
As such, it beautifully ties everything back to you having a sustainable and health-focused journey, rather than a temporary vanity project.
Do check out "Calisthenics Vs Gym Workouts: Which Is Better?" which is scheduled to be released soon, for a direct comparison between the two. You can also take a look at How to Get Started with Calisthenics to get right into it through an extremely simple, yet effective, routine.
Gymnastics may have brought forth gym culture and Calisthenics, but gym training became much more mainstream and commercial. Calisthenics became a personal practice that few people knew about.
Gym culture may have profited from fitness fads. Still, Calisthenics started turning the fitness model back into something that was more about working on yourself with what you have, instead of buying a dream.
With this, the bodyweight fitness workout started to gain enough traction for it to be incorporated into so many gym classes in the form of Bootcamp workouts with other weighted elements.
I hope you have gotten a broader perspective and appreciation of how our fitness culture came to be. With this information, you will be able to better decide on the lifestyle choices you will make for yourself in the future.
It contains all the necessary exercises which we highly recommend for beginners and, at the same time, are also a moderately good challenge for seasoned calisthenics practitioners.