A History of Self-Resistance Exercise


Self-Resistance exercise has been with us since time immemorial. There is documented evidence of this form of exercise having been used by various cultures throughout history. The ancient Greeks classified isometrics as "soft exercise". The word isometric comes from the Greek isos, which means "the same", and metron which means "size". Thus, isometric contraction means tensing the muscle without the muscle itself changing length. In the Orient, self-resistance exercise has been practiced in the martial arts and in yoga for centuries. In the twelfth century, the Bhuddist monk, Bodhidharma, developed a series of twelve basic tensing exercises, the Yi Jin Jing, which he brought from India and introduced to the monks of the Shaolin Temple in China. Variations of these exercises were adopted to Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and Ki Gong, and have been practiced over the centuries, in one form or another, by martial artists the world over. In Tibet, the monks there developed a system of exercise known as The Five Rites. In modern times, the renown martial artist, Harry Wong, has written a book entitled Dynamic Strength which is a comprehensive compilation of self-resistance exercises geared towards strengthening practitioners of the martial arts.


"Weituo Presenting Jingangchu"
Form 1 of Yi Jin Jing



Eugen Sandow





Eugen Sandow

It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, that self-resistance exercise began to be formally documented and published for the general public. The reason for this is because, as the nineteenth century neared its close, communication in the form of newspapers and published books emerged as a means of spreading information throughout all areas of an increasingly literate population. Leisure was also beginning to emerge as living standards increased and the general populace could turn its attention toward amusements and pursuing personal desires.

One of those amusements that became popular during this period was Vaudeville. With a bit of additional time and money to spend, people were drawn to the many shows and acts that made their way around Europe and America. One spectacle that became popular was that of the strongman. One of the first and most famous of these strongmen was Eugen Sandow who not only amazed audiences with his incredible feats of strength but also drew the admiration of both men and women with his superb Herculean physique. In his day, Eugen Sandow was a very well known and popular figure as he 'wowed' audiences throughout out America, Great Britain, and the Continent.

With Sandow’s success, other strongmen appeared, some becoming as famous as Sandow, himself, and the strongman act emerged as a regular feature of Vaudeville. The amazing feats of strength which no ordinary man could duplicate were just part of the show. What also drew audiences was the opportunity to view these powerhouses with their gigantic proportions and rippling muscles. Knowing this, these early strongmen trained rigorously and adhered to a healthy and nutritious lifestyle in order to keep the 'goods' in top condition. As would be expected, men in the audiences were struck with a burning desire to emulate these muscular marvels and to learn how they, too, could build the kinds of bodies that women ogled and swooned over. Indeed, Sandow, not famous for any sort of modesty, would charge women money for the privilege of feeling his flexed 18” biceps! Thus, the fitness industry was born.


Charles Atlas





Charles Atlas

Now, for the most part, these early strongmen were experts in human anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and bodybuilding, and there arose a ready market for their vast knowledge. Many of them published excellent books of exercise programs and others found an outlet through mail order courses that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Of course, heavy and expensive equipment sent through the mail was impractical, and those with access to gyms, which were beginning to sprout up in urban areas, were few and far in between, so these physical culture experts developed muscle building programs which required little or no equipment. In fact, this system of exercise was regularly used by these men in the first place, so their systems of self-resistance exercise were tried and proven. The great Sandow, himself, maintained his strength and muscularity exclusively with self-resistance exercise while traveling. The most famous and successful of the mail order courses was that of Charles Atlas, which was a staple in magazines and comic books from the 1920’s on through the 1970’s. Charles Atlas, through the marketing genius of his business partner, Charles Roman, capitalized on his having been proclaimed "The World's Most perfectly Developed Man" in 1922. The classic Greek form of Charles Atlas was a sculptor's dream, and statues of Charles Atlas abound! He is Thomas Jefferson in front of the Federal Building in Washington, D.C. He is George Washington in New York City's Washington Park. His muscular frame can be seen in New York City's Central Park and in front of the Brooklyn museum, the same museum where, as a skinny, underdeveloped teenager, he once admired a statue of Hercules.

The story of Charles Atlas is a true American success story. Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano in Calabria, Italy in 1893. In 1905 his family immigrated to America. Growing up, the skinny, underdeveloped young Angelo was an easy target for street toughs of turn of the century New York City. The story goes that one day while at Coney Island, a bully kicked sand in his face in front of a very attractive girl, and the skinny little Angelo could do nothing about it. This act of humiliation was the last straw, and Angelo determined that he would do something about his pathetic physical condition. But he didn’t quite know what to do. And then, while on a tour of the Brooklyn Museum with his school class, Angelo was awestruck by a statue of Hercules. He asked his teacher if it were truly possible for anyone to be built like that, and his teacher told him that exercising with weights was the means to developing a strong, muscular physique. Being too poor to afford membership in a gym, young Angelo went to gyms to observe what types of equipment were being used and how people there were exercising. He would then run home and make his own makeshift equipment based upon what he had observed, such as tying rocks to the ends of sticks for barbells. After months of religiously working out, Angelo felt that he wasn’t getting anywhere and felt that he was driving himself to exhaustion. And then one day while touring the Bronx Zoo, he stopped to observe a lion. He noticed the power of the lion with his huge muscles rippling beneath his fur as he paced back and forth. Angelo wondered how this lion was able to develop such powerful muscles while being caged and with no access to exercise equipment. And then he noticed that the lion was continuously stretching and straining and pitting one paw against another. Inspired, Angelo began developing his own self-resistance exercises based upon the principles that he perceived had endowed the lion with such power and muscularity. To his great delight his experimentation began producing results, and, purportedly, he came close to doubling his bodyweight with solid muscle in the space of a year. A few years later Angelo embarked upon a career as a Coney Island strongman and one of the most sought after sculptor’s models in the Northeast. From there he established his own business selling his system of exercise. Around this time Angelo Siciliano legally changed his name to Charles Atlas - "Charles", because, growing up, he had been nicknamed "Charlie", and "Atlas", because a friend of his once remarked that he looked like the statue of Atlas atop a New York building. His business met with moderate success until he offered equal partnership to a young marketer named Charles Roman, if Roman could get his business up and moving. And move it did! “Dynamic Tension” became the most successful mail order bodybuilding course of all time and made both Charles Atlas and Charles Roman millionaires many times over!

In the final analysis, Charles Atlas was actually blessed with exceptional genes and is still considered by many to be the most perfectly developed man to have ever lived. Today’s generations may not have heard much about Charles Atlas, or even know who he was, but in his day, Charles Atlas was world renown and and one of America's most celebrated citizens. In fact, the Charles Atlas course still exists today and can be found on the Web right here: Charles Atlas, Inc.


Bernarr McFadden





Bernarr McFadden

Bernarr MacFadden is known as the “Father of Modern Physical Culture”. Born in Mill Spring, Missouri in 1868, MacFadden was a weak and sickly child. Having lost both parents at a young age, he lived a miserable existence being bounced back and forth between uncaring relatives and an orphange. In what seemed to be a continuous state of ill health, those caring for him were certain that Bernarr would die at a young age. Aware of what was being said about him, the unhappy child determined that he would overcome his ailments and strive for health. The means to this end came in the form of a farmer who needed help on his farm and adopted young Bernarr to work his fields and tend to his animals. Bernarr relished the robust and vigorous work in the outdoor air and it wasn’t long before his tendencies towards sickness were replaced by growing strength and health. Both the experience of sickliness and the experience of vibrant health made a deep impression on MacFadden and he decided early on to devote his life to spreading the gospel of proper living and physical exercise. In 1899 he published the magazine PhysicalCulture, the first of its kind, which quickly gained a large readership, and soon thereafter, Bernarr MacFadden became widely known as a fitness authority who toured America and England lecturing on the value of exercise and living a healthy lifestyle. To further promote bodybuilding, he began organizing physique contests - also a first, the most well known of which was the "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" competition won by Charles Atlas in 1922. McFadden and his organizers decided not to hold anymore of that particular competition, as they felt that Atlas would just continue winning it again and again. In 1906, MacFadden published a lavishly illustrated book, Muscular Power and Beauty - the first ever to be entirely devoted to self-resistance exercise.


Alexander Zass





Alexander Zass

Self-resistance is, in fact, an extremely effective means of building strength and muscle. As stated, those early body builders perfected this form of exercise and used it as a mainstay in their own workouts, achieving spectacular results. There was once even a man by the name of Alexander Zass, who, as a Russian prisoner of war held in Austrian prison camps during World War I, developed a powerful physique and tremendous strength by pulling on his prison bars and chains. He had been a strong man prior to the war, having worked-out religiously as a young man, but as a prisoner, he discovered the means by which extraordinary strength could be achieved. At one point, Alexander Zass found himself shackled in solitary confinement. He was concerned that, being unable to exercise properly, he would deteriorate and loose the strength and physique he had spent so many years developing. It was then that he experimented with maintaining his strength by pulling on his chains and prison bars. To his great delight, he discovered that this type of training actually increased his strength. Finally, when the time was right, he bent the bars to his prison window, snapped the chains of his manacles, bent one of the bars clear around to be used as a j-hook for scaling a wall, and made good his escape! After the war, he went on the road as a strongman and gained fame throughout Europe and England as "The Amazing Samson" . He also sold a course of strength-building utilizing the methods he had developed as a prisoner of war, and which he, himself, practiced throughout his illustrious career.



In 1953 two young German physicians by the name of Müller and Hettinger researched isometrics. They discovered that the leg of a frog attached to an unmovable object grew stronger than the other leg which was attached to a moveable weight. And then in the early 1960's isometrics suddenly appeared everywhere! Isometric exercises were adapted by high school athletic programs, little isometric workout books could be found at grocery check-out stands, and isometric exercises appeared on the backs of cereal boxes. The fad quickly came and went along with bouffant hairdos and telephone booth stuffing. The reason the isometrics craze disappeared as quickly as it had appeared is because the general public discarded isometrics when it was discovered that no one could be transformed into a gargantuan overnight. As is the case in any physical development program, time, effort, and fortitude are essential ingredients.

So, why isn’t self-resistance exercise widely used or even widely known today? It’s because exercise equipment is so readily available and aggressively marketed. You can’t turn on the television without seeing another new device to tone your tummy and can be yours in 3 easy payments by just calling a toll-free number, with operators standing by to take your order. Quality gyms with state-of-the-art equipment are located on every other corner throughout the free world. Discount stores are stocked with home gyms and other fitness items. With just a credit card and a click of a mouse button, an entire health spa can be delivered to your door step within a week.

The fact remains, though, that self-resistance exercise is just as viable and effective a means of building strength and muscle today as it was when the great strongmen of yesteryear were amazing audiences with feats of strength, some of which have never been duplicated, and awing audiences with their powerful and muscular physiques. There exists on the Web the most comprehensive and complete site dedicated to the early Iron Men, Sandow . Roger Fillary and Gil Waldron deserve enormous credit and thanks for their hard work in collecting and documenting the photos, biographies, and exercise programs of these pioneers in physical fitness! Roger and Gil’s site is the definitive site on this subject and their contribution to posterity is incalculable! This was one of my major sources for developing the program that has served me and others so well. Gil and Roger also own a related site dedicated to “Maxalding”, a system of body building through muscle control developed by two early strongmen, Maxick and Monte Saldo. These sites are well worth visiting.

- Bruce Tackett, 2003



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