Marc S. Schneider, M.D.
“If you have worked in a manner worthy of coming to Olympia, and have done nothing in an offhand or base way, proceed with good courage; but as for those who have not so exercised, go away wherever you like.”
– Introduction to the Athletes of the Ancient Olympic Games
Which came first the bench press or the squat? Or maybe it was the military press? Truth be told who really knows! So where did it all begin? Let’s take the bench press. Maybe back in the day, some poor cave dweller on a stroll decided to take a nap beneath a tree. The nap was interrupted by a tree branch crashing down upon his chest. What if instead of letting the branch finish him off he instead pushed his arms up under the branch and with a mighty war cry pressed it off his chest like a boss! He then went back to the caveboys and told him “I almost took a dirt nap story.” After this, he rounded them up, took them to the scene of his near demise and the very first bench press competition happened on that day. Results were etched into the tree for all to see. Truth is no one can give a definitive answer as to when mankind began to develop the plethora of exercises millions perform religiously like robots each day.
Milo of Croton is credited as being the first resistant trained athlete. Milo, a Crotoniate war hero won 32 wrestling competitions in the Olympics. His training regimen as it is described consisted of carrying a calf daily up until it became a full grown Ox.
As most of us do today, the ancient Olympians trained at a formal gymnasium. It included locker rooms, covered training tracks, and other open-air facilities. The athletes trained unclothed and anointed in olive oil. Warm-ups were accompanied by flutists, their version of training with Dr. Dre’s beats on their heads. Coaches were critical for the ancients and oversaw all of the athletes training. Equipment was utilized depending upon the sport the athlete competed in. Runners adorned weights to build strength while they sprinted and boxers used a variety of implements and bags for their skill development.
There were no prizes for second or third place and thought of a “participant” award would have been met with waves of hysterical laughter. The competitions were important for both the athlete and the coach. If an athlete won an Olympic competition, he and his coach would be set for life by the accolades and financial benefits awarded by the games and their home city-states. Coaches used all types of physical and psychological means to motivate their clients. One ancient coach stabbed an athlete who gave up during a boxing match. The ancient poet Pindar stated the importance of the coach: “not to be prepared beforehand is stupidity, for the minds of the unpracticed are insubstantial things.” Most coaches were former athletes who not only instructed an athlete on his sport routines, but also focused on diet, hygiene, and physical therapy.
Athletic training in the United States began in 1881. The first book of athletic training “The Trainer’s Bible” was written in 1917 by Dr. S. E. Bilik and the first supplement for athletic training, liniment for sore muscles and sprains, was produced in 1920. Athletic trainers grew substantially, and in 1938 attempts were made for a national association of athletic trainers. The first meeting of the NATA was held in Kansas City in 1950, and 20 years later the NATA administered their first certification examination.
Most scholars point to Robert C. Hoffman as the godfather of American strength training. He purchased the Milo Barbell Company in bankruptcy in 1935 and turned it into York Barbell. He was a strong participant and financial advocate for Olympic weightlifting. Weightlifting took off in the United States in the 50’s and 60’s as it became clear that the pedagogy of resistance exercise would make athletes “muscle bound”, was a bunch of crap. In the late 60’s and 70’s most successful “explosive” athletes were using resistance training to leap ahead of their competition. Coach Boyd Epley and others formed the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Epley, who was from Nebraska, was first given the opportunity to work with the University of Nebraska Football Team and Tom Osborne in 1969 while he was a student. Epley was warned, “if any of my players get slower, you’re fired”. Epley and his trainees prospered and Nebraska turned into a powerhouse program.
There are many methods and many “modern” systems claiming to offer “the way” to ultimate strength and power. Each athlete has to constantly look for new ways to improve themselves. My opinion is as athletes and strength coaches we should always be seeking to venture out on new strength gain journeys, passionately exploring new techniques and movements. The complexity of the human body demands diversity in our training so that we may perpetually progress onward in our journey of ultimate athletic performance. Although we cannot confirm the time and place when each exercise was performed for the very first time, we can choose to fearlessly seek new methods to make us bigger, faster, meaner, leaner and stronger. Just remember in the realm of athletics diversity often leads to domination!