The Wall Street Journal has a piece up, The Greek Hero at the Gym, which is adapted from a new book, Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors. A lot of the argument seems straight out of the kind of things I’ve heard from friends involved in CrossFit. Much of the piece disparages machines:
By contrast, traditional gym movements are geared to the lowest cognitive denominator: bicep curls, crunches, reading Us Weekly while plying the elliptical. Weight machines, by design, entirely remove skill from the equation: They are intended to offer the untaught user a way to lift.
I think machines are fine for some people. I have a friend who likes to work out on machines in a solitary fashion, and that’s what’s sustainable for him. It’s definitely better than nothing. For me, the transition to body weight exercises has been transformative in terms of maintaining a basal level of fitness. I work a lot so getting to the gym is not something I’ve found time for in a while, but I regularly do pull ups before work and when I come home. In fact I have my pull up stand right next to my front door so that I see it every day.
It is interesting that the author focuses on the ancient Greeks and their body ideals. In the 1980s, as noted in the piece, there was a focused on extreme size, as you might find among body builders, especially in action films. Today the focus is on a lean look.
In past decades there wasn’t as much focus on fitness in American culture. I think part of this probably had to do with the fact that so many people worked on the farm. They engaged in physical labor as a matter of course. And there are cross-cultural differences as well. Traditionally the civilian Chinese elite class avoided strenuous exercise. In contrast, the militarized ruling classes of Greek and Rome idealized a more rugged physique.
And of course the United States has a schizophrenic attitude on this issue. There is a whole cult of fitness, where few manage to hit their targets, but most aspire to. And then there is also a movement toward “body acceptance,” which is basically a backlash.