Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors

Lately I’ve been reading a book entitled Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors. I’m only around a fifth the way through, but I already love it. I’m fascinated by anything related to strength training, and the author of this book does an excellent job of describing the origins of “physical culture,” nutrition, and bodybuilding.

On page 82, there’s a description of a compilation of instructions put together in 1911 by Alan Calvert, the founder of Milo Barbell company, entitled, “The World’s First Course in Body-Building and Muscle Development Exercises.” The system involved a progressive-overload program that recommended training either on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or every 48 hours (whichever one preferred). Workouts were to last 45 minutes, consisting of exercises for the entire body. Repetitions were between 5 and 10. The exerciser started with 5 reps. Every third workout the exerciser would add a rep until 10 reps were reached. At this point, 10 lbs was added to the bar, and the reps started over at 5. This was coined the double progression method.”

Sadly, I believe that the world’s first official system is better than what I see today in gyms across the world. Unless you’re a stranger to commercial gyms, then you know that most individuals just show up without a plan. They wander aimlessly from one exercise to the next and arbitrarily choose the number of sets and repetitions they perform. Most just use the same weight over time and do not utilize the principle of progressive overload.”

Now it’s exactly 100 years after the first bodybuilding program appeared, and it’s still a good system. Start out with a low number of repetitions (say 5 sets of 3 or 3 sets of 5). Build your way up to a higher number of repetitions over time (say 5 sets of 5 or 3 sets of 8). Once you reach a certain number (say 25 total reps), add some weight (say 10 lbs) and drop the number of repetitions back down (say to 15 total reps). Then repeat the process. I reckon you could stay on this type of system for quite some time and achieve great results.

If you’re interested in learning about the history of the strength game, then I highly recommend this book (even though I’m only a fifth of the way in).

4 thoughts on “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors

  1. Teri

    That does sound like a good book. I didn’t think that starting to lift weights would result in a fuller bookshelf; unexpected side effect.

  2. Stephen Clipp

    I first got interested in the early strongmen after reading ‘Dinosaur Training,’ like a lot of people, and was very impressed by the feats the old-timers were capable of; back then, you weren’t a strongman unless you could both shift heavy weight, and do various kinds of endurance work, both with weights (like max reps of the clean and press for 10 minutes) and in other athletic pursuits.
    I now collect books from the early 20th century on physical culture, and it’s interesting how all of them harp on not going to failure. This is in rather stark contrast to Kubik, who was all about the screaming, puking, and passing out. There used to be a lot of talk about the nervous system, ‘nerve force,’ pretty analogous to the Chinese concept of ‘jing,’ and how over-exertion used it up and you’d die early.
    Calvert’s book ‘Super Strength’ is an entertaining and informative read.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>