The History of Weight Training in America

The American subculture of physical fitness is relatively new. This can be difficult to imagine with images of physically fit people so common now. However, pictures of models from the 40s and 50s reveal ideals of health and beauty that diverge substantially from current ones. This article helps explain how these changes came about.

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Private Health Clubs

It was not until 1894 that the first private health club in the United States by Louis Attila. The drawings from those times are mustachioed men in full body outfits with a strange array of pulleys, barbells, and those bowling pin-like things called Indian clubs. It wasn’t called “fitness,” but “physical culture.” From what we can tell, it really was considered as close to a cult and was largely scoffed at by the general population.

Joe Weider’s Influence

Then, in the early 1950s, Joe Weider started the magazine Strength & Health. Though lifting weights for the sake of appearance continued to be considered narcissistic and strange, the publication presented images of good-looking people with good-looking bodies. In the 1960s, Strength & Health changed its name to Muscle & Fitness. That’s when the trend started to catch on. “Charles Atlas” advertised that readers of comic books could impress the girls by muscling up and teaching bullies not to kick sand in their faces. Guys who grew up in the 50s and 60s know this well. Muscle & Fitness remains one of the best-selling magazines to this day.

Bodybuilding Goes Mainstream?

Joe Weider wasn’t done. He brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the U.S. from Austria in the 70s to compete in bodybuilding contests and appear in his magazine. It was becoming a lot less odd to be strong and fit. However, bodybuilding was still seen as being done by strange men in vaguely threatening out-of-the-way places.

Arthur Jones Invents the Nautilus Machine

Later in the same decade, Arthur Jones invented the Nautilus machine. What was new was the spreading of resistance evenly over a full range of movement. His timing was perfect, but he was also a great salesman. He presented his invention as a “thinking man’s barbell.” The notion that someone could both think and weights at the same time was groundbreaking! An industry was born. Great strides in strength training equipment followed and have continued to this day.

The phenomenon of health clubs caught on in the 80’s. Then in the 90’s, the economics and technology of exercise equipment; improved to the point where many people were able to afford high quality equipment of their own. The privacy and time savings provided by home gyms suggests that fitness is here to stay.

Robert Braun

VP of Sales at Treadmill World

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