The history of the gym- If you go to the gym, you’re participating in an institution that dates back three millennia. The word ‘gymnasium’ means a place to exercise naked. It’s not commonplace to work out in the nude these days, but the gym is still where you go to transform your body through exercise.
The first gyms nothing like today
The history of the gym is a long one, but it’s a discontinuous one. Everyone knows what a modern gym looks like, whether you go to one or not. If you could walk into a gymnasium in Athens 2,500 years ago, though, what would be similar and what would be different about it?
For one thing, it was largely an open-air space. It had no fixed equipment and was only for men. The ancient Olympic sports of running, discus, javelin and wrestling were practiced at the gymnasium, so to modern eyes it would most closely resemble an athletics venue.
The Greeks trained for sports and to improve their military skills, but they also trained to attain and maintain an idealized body shape, what we would call aesthetic training or training for the body beautiful. That is an important similarity and something that the ancient Greeks gave to us, and an important part of the history of the gym.
While modern gyms have power-packed names like Fit ‘n’ Fast and Motivation, the two best known ancient gymnasia in Athens during the classical period were the Academy and the Lyceum.
Gyms were social institutions
The gymnasium was one of the most important social institutions in the ancient Greek world, a place where Athenian men of all ages mixed, and where younger men were trained to become the citizen rulers of the world’s first democracy.
In Athens, two of the most famous public gymnasia were associated with important philosophers: the Academy with Plato, which has given us the association of a gym in ancient Athens with academics and with all scholarly endeavors, and the Lyceum was the home of the school run by Aristotle.
After the collapse of the Greco-Roman civilization, many centuries passed before the gym re-emerged as a cultural institution. During the medieval period, the gym as a physical space dedicated to training the body completely disappeared, although ancient texts about the gymnasium were preserved in monastic libraries across Europe.
When these forgotten manuscripts were rediscovered during the Renaissance, they revived an interest in the ancient gymnasium, although not a revival of its practices.
The texts were studied by doctors mainly, who recommended exercise for its health benefits. However, it’s unlikely that the people they were writing for, the aristocracy, ever did practice ancient athletics. The revival of interest in physical training at the gymnasium during the Renaissance was purely academic.
The re-emergence of gyms
Another turning point of the history of the gym was the re-emergence of the gymnasium occurred in Berlin in 1811. The crushing defeat of the Prussian army by Napoleon at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806 was part of the reason. The militaristic Prussian state prided itself on having the finest professional army in 19th century Europe.
Their defeat by a conscript French army was seen as a national humiliation on par with the defeat of France by Hitler in 1940 or of the US by the Viet Cong in 1975.
Fired by a desire to restore national pride and defeat the French, a Prussian schoolmaster called Friedrich Jahn established an open-air gymnasium at Hasenheide, a suburb of Berlin. He called it the Turnplatz, or exercise field.
He combined the practice of ancient Greek sports—running and discus and javelin—with the use of equipment of his own design that would become the basis for the sport of gymnastics— the parallel bars, the vaulting horse, the high bar.
In the ancient gyms, the Greeks trained for competitions where you won personal glory, and also for aesthetic reasons, an individual goal. But the motivation for training at the Turnplatz was a communal civic aim to improve the physical fitness of the Prussian people, to make them better soldiers who would avenge Prussia’s humiliating defeat.
By the middle of the 19th century, however, the gym as a commercial enterprise also began to emerge.
The first commercial gym
Vaudeville-strongman-turned-fitness-entrepreneur Hippolyte Triat, a Frenchman, is usually credited with being the first to open commercial gyms, the first in Brussels, and then in Paris in the late 1840s. Unlike the outdoor Turnplatz, Triat’s Grand Gymnase was a vast covered space of cast iron and glass. Without doubt an important point in the history of the gym.
It was architecture which we would associate now with railway stations, where he taught what we would now call circuit classes which combined callisthenic movements with light weight training with dumbbells, barbells and Indian clubs, all done to the beat of a drum and followed by a vigorous rubdown given by Triat himself, The Gymnase unashamedly embraced aesthetic training as its main aim, to transform its members, giving them the physiques of ancient athletes.
At the end of the 19th century another gym was established by an entrepreneurial music hall strongman, Eugen Sandow. London’s Institute of Physical Culture was modelled on a gentlemen’s club, with wood paneling, potted aspidistras and Persian rugs marking each exercise station.
Sandow was an early exponent of progressive weight training with free weights, barbells and dumbbells, and his clients would perform a full range of weight training exercises that they would do in the gym, under the supervision of Sandow himself or of his staff of personal trainers.
What accounts for the shift from state-run gymnasia in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century to commercial gyms?
The Turnplatz in Prussia became the model for later school and military gyms, where standards of physical fitness were imposed by the state to create fitter workers for the factories and fitter conscripts to fight the state’s wars.
However, he also notes that the appearance of the first state-run gyms also coincided with the overthrow of the Ancient Régime in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
The commercial gym became an unintended consequence of the fight for greater individual rights. As the citizen became more autonomous as a political entity, every aspect of the individual became more important, including his body.
As people began to fight for greater freedom and individual rights, they also developed an interest in their own physical embodiment, how their body appeared, how fit they were.
Business-minded strongmen such as Triat and Sandow capitalized on this. Their remarkable physiques influenced one of the two strands of gym culture that emerged in the US after World War One: described as ‘fantasy gyms’ populated by hyper-muscular men. The other strand was the ‘real gym’, which catered to amateur male exercisers who were not bodybuilders, and to women.
The former is represented by Gold’s Gym in Venice, California in the 1960s and ’70s, which was the hangout of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other pro bodybuilders who were taking part in the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contests. The other gyms, the real gyms, were the corporate health clubs that have since been exported all over the world.
Women were never excluded from the 19th and early 20th century gymnasia, but they weren’t specifically catered for either, or basically did a cut-down version of what the men did.
In Triat’s Grand Gymnase in Paris they did the same group exercise class, and in Sandow’s institute and in the early corporate gyms in the US they worked out with free weights. Few women, however, wanted to emulate male body builders and become hyper-muscular superwomen. They wanted to get fit and possibly lose weight, so what brought them into the gym in large numbers was not weight training, but the aerobics dance revolution popularized by Jane Fonda in the early 1980s.
Modern day gyms are more than gyms
After the aerobics revolution, gyms had to have cardio equipment like bikes and treadmills and cross trainers as well as group exercise studios for aerobics classes, yoga, whatever, which took their place alongside the more traditional activities such as weight training.
What the long but discontinuous history of the gymnasium suggests is that its existence as a cultural institution is not fixed. A problem for gyms nowadays is to appeal to a wider range of people than just the slim and the fit.
Those who already have a background in exercise and sport, who continue to train throughout their lives who enjoy sweating it out in a circuit class or with a killer weight’s workout, but that ethos is actually off-putting to the increasingly inactive and obese 60 to 70 per cent of the remainder of the population.
The history of the gym nowadays offer way more than working out with weights, such as swimming pools, saunas, massages, movie rooms etc. it`s big business, usually with a fairly low monthly fee, even if people don’t go, it can be seen as a trendy status item to have a membership at a big name gym, displaying a membership card on their key ring exercises their egos more than anything else. Or fashionable to walk around wearing gym clothing advertising the gyms name.
Most gyms nowadays seem to have two types of members; one, the physically fit diehards (gym rats) who take their work outs very seriously and two, those who are actually put off by the whole gym competitive ethos and the muscle heads, but rather see the gym as a social gathering. I mean, how many times have you seen ladies made up like they’re out on the town? But they pay their money and make their choice and the modern-day gyms cater to everyone’s needs.
I’m sure you’ll agree, the history of the gym, both ancient and modern is fascinating to say the least. Take a look at my own gym…