HOW THE BODIES OF ANCIENT ART ARE TRANSFORMING MODERN GYM CULTURE
HOW THE BODIES OF ANCIENT ART ARE TRANSFORMING MODERN GYM CULTURE
What's old is new again.
The physiques depicted in millennia-old art are still standards people strive for today. For example, we have all heard of the 'Greek ideal.' What continues to fascinate people about those bodily ideals, even though so much about the world has changed?
Honestly, I think it’s the potential of the human body, and in many of those ancient depictions, the body wasn’t necessarily just getting coveted. Instead, it was framed by a standard of what bodies did, such as training for military purposes or the Olympics, which came from military training.
When you look at a body like that, you see health, vigor and overall vitality. As a trainer myself, I see that people today want a body that is not necessarily the type a professional bodybuilder would have, with its unrealistic proportions. But those older ideals were very athletic, and they are what we see in an athletic body type today—one that many people could imagine themselves having. They are lifting weights, getting strong, and doing some endurance work. As such, that is the kind of body that results.
And do you think there's anything in particular about today's climate that makes that same body type particularly compelling to people?
I believe so because we live in a time where we talk a lot about whether or not someone is “natty.” And natty means being natural in a steroid age where professional athletes and bodybuilders obviously use them. And I’m not judging that. I think that the more natural body type, where you look good in clothes and on the beach, is something people will be satisfied owning. When it comes to the professional bodybuilder's body type, people know it will take maybe 15 to 20 years to achieve that body, so it has to become your entire life. I think the appeal of older depictions is mostly that if you do your exercise and your body ends up looking that way, that goes hand in hand with overall health. It's really a depiction of health.
Beyond bodies, we see so many things in works of art from around the world, particularly the different tools used to achieve fitness. And you train using many different implements with ancient roots that the average, modern gym goer might not know. Could you speak about some of those?
Of course. More conventional training was my history. I grew up playing American football. We lifted weights with the barbell and did lifts like the barbell bench press, back squat, deadlift, and power clean. There's a lot of good stuff that comes from that traditional background. I was also a history major in college in addition to studying training, so I've always been fascinated with historical training. For me, having an interest in fitness is a part of my life. It is what I practice, read about, and want to know the philosophies of—not only strength training and conditioning but also training sports.
I got into an implement called Indian clubs in 2017. I had seen some people using them; they were very fringe at the time. I saw it as such a magical implement for healing my own shoulders from the damage that lifting barbells had created. They look like bowling pins you swing around your body in rhythmic ways. Typically and historically, it was always done to music. I dug into all this stuff and realized it was an Olympic event until 1912, and athletes would gain endurance by swinging these clubs.
They worked beautifully to repair my shoulders and improve my grip strength. But then I got more into club training, specifically, and I looked into the historical roots. I learned how they used large wooden clubs called Persian meel from the Persian culture and Indian jori from the Indian tradition. In Persia, athletes trained with them for sword strikes and holding shields for the Persian army, while in India, wrestlers trained with them, as they have a rich wrestling spirit.
These clubs look giant compared to the frame of the athlete swinging them like they would tear their shoulder off. But I became fascinated with them and learned how much grip strength, focus on a breathing pattern, and flexibility they require. It's almost like a moving meditation, and you soon start to see all the benefits that kept them around for so long. My passion for club swinging led me to think: this was, in fact, one of the first instruments humans used as a blunt weapon and then as a tool. It's been around as long as we have.
This topic leapfrogs into another question: When it comes to the clubs you just described and other methodologies or tools with ancient roots, what do they offer modern-day humans that contemporary equipment doesn’t?
That's an easy question to answer. What they offer is feel. If you’ve felt metal versus wood, they are both natural materials. But for someone like me, who had been ripping metal barbells my entire life, when you switch to the wood, it has such a different feel in comparison. It offers a grounding effect. And one thing I like about these Indian clubs or Persian meel or Indian jori is that they are all completely different; they might weigh 20 kilograms or 9. They are constantly changing, so the center of gravity is changing. Additionally, they were crafted by one artisan and one wood shop, so they are all a little different. In fact, they are so customized they are like works of art worth preserving.
Over the past few years, the broader gym culture has become more familiar with the kinds of tools you mentioned and others, like kettlebells. What do you think sparked this renewed interest?
I am a kettlebell trainer predominantly, and they are what I use for a lot of my strength and conditioning. It was so fringe, but we in the United States get so caught up with the thing that has become popular. Today, it is gym culture, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. And all of that is fantastic. But when you see something like the kettlebell, which has been around for thousands of years—it is just a weight with a handle on it—people seem to become interested in the health benefits, and it has quickly become more popular. But what draws me to them is the reliance on technique, and every time you train with a kettlebell, you learn something about yourself and how your body moves.
Returning to a phrase I used—moving meditation—and training as opposed to working out, training implies you are doing it for a purpose. And when you do it for a purpose, that is different from “working out.” You are constantly learning, and your body is always improving. It's not just about how much weight you can lift but how you lift it.
One of the ways I see progression in a fitness routine with something like a kettlebell, is through the necessary attention you pay to it. And I think, a lot of times, fitness is: “Oh, I'm going to go to the gym.” Someone may have their program or may simply jump on a machine as a mindless activity. There is nothing wrong with that. There is still a benefit to it. But getting deeper into your practice almost always has beneficial results. That is what I love about kettlebells and some of these more fringe pieces of equipment—although it feels funny to describe them as fringe because they are not fringe at all. They just become more well-known, and I think that will continue over the next decade in a very, very positive way.
Do you think part of the resurgence of these tools and the bodies they produce is a reaction to the '70s, '80s, and '90s gym cultures that were so machine-focused?
Yes. I think with those machines are similar to the food pyramid or saturated fat and all these things that have been disproven over time. Old trends die hard, and they persist today. The machine movement, which has been around for a long time, still undoubtedly has its place. But one thing I think about as a trainer is the old bodybuilding culture and methods that were once used and brought into college weight rooms. For instance, you have a skill like Olympic weightlifting, which has also been around for a very long time. But what do people see today? Mostly you see videos on social media that are all about gym culture, which is bodybuilding-focused and hits one muscle group a day as your body part split.
Whereas something I'm talking about and promoting, like kettlebell training, is a combination of movements that works your entire body every time you train. And I believe when you're doing something so focused on technique, you're getting into your body and your brain simultaneously, making your training much more beneficial because you are connecting. It's almost like a mind-body-spirit thing every time you train. It's a ritual you look forward to while improving your technique over time. Again, just doing machines or bodybuilding has its place, but it's not the same.
This question is a two-parter and springboards off what you just mentioned: Do you think these tools and methods are helping A) fitness, but also B) peoples' relationship with fitness evolve in different ways?
I do. On my personal social media, I post the training I do and believe in most. Every time I decide to post a video about clubs, I get people coming out of the woodwork, asking what they are and what they do. One common question is what body part they work, which always makes me chuckle because they aren't about what body part it works. They are just about doing the movement while differentiating movement from “exercise.” But we also talked about the historical impact of clubs, and when I swing my Persian meels in the park, for instance, I always get older men from Iran talking about them and how they used to see someone swinging clubs like that when they were boys.
I think it brings more types of people into the mix. Many people will say: “I hate going to the gym.” You aren't sure why they hate going to the gym; it's just an association they have made, possibly due to some discomfort or suffering they acquired there. So it is important to let people know: “Hey, you can do a lot of different things for your movement and your overall exercise," which is a really great place to be. When we get away from bodybuilding and machine work, we open up movement possibilities, which is always beneficial.