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).