Throwback Thursday! There Is Nothing New Under The Sun, Part 2
Before I get cracking on the next installment of what I should hope is proving to be a thoroughly elucidative series on the cyclical nature of training fads, there is an issue with the previous installment’s accuracy. While I am well-known for possessing Shakyamuni Buddha-esqe omniscience, I do occasionally fall prey to the myriad myths and mistruths about certain subjects. One such folly was my belief in the myths regarding the Middle Ages as a hellhole rivaling modern Sudan in its suicide-inspiring suckitude, which as it turns out is pretty much entirely untrue. Medieval peasants got more time off than the average American wage slave, people had plenty of sex (and possibly more than most of us), knights were not the hyper-noble bronies we generally think of them as having been, but were rather homicidal maniacs, Europeans were more obsessed with bathing than many modern Americans are, and the diets of most people in Europe were not as bereft of meat as one might be led to believe (Kolenberg).
For allegedly half-starved backwoods tribesmen, these Scots are pretty goddamned swole.
Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that the medieval era boasted some thoroughly jacked dudes. The Vikings, who apparently all filed their teeth to look more fearsome (Lovgren), ate a diet incredibly heavy in meats. Even their slaves ate an incredibly protein-rich diet, though their consisted mostly of fish (Kildahl). Between those facts and the fact that the Vikings were, according to archaeologists, “unusually large… [and] an examination of the muscle-attachment areas of their bones revealed extremely robust physiques”, the idea that the people of the Medieval era were sickly, weak, and scrawny can probably be laid to rest. As the picture above shows, the Scots regularly competed in the hammer throw and were renown for their brute strength as well, so it’s unlikely that the depictions in Mercurialis’s book were mere fantasy- dudes in the Middle Ages may well have been in better shape than your average gym rat, and they almost certainly had more sex and had more time off work (try eight weeks of vacation a year on for size).
Sand Bag Training- A Hell of a Lot Older than You’d Think
Prior to perhaps 2002, I was unaware that sandbag training was even a thing that people outside of war-torn nations or military bases did. It was, to me, the way poor people would lift if they happened to see a yellowed newspaper article with Arnold in it- the way Oliver Twist would have lifted if Dickens decided to actually write a Death Wish-style revenge novel rather than the wordy dogcrap he churned out as a matter of course. Having learned of it from the book Dinosaur Training, however, I proceeded to purchase a duffel bag and fill it with sand. I messed around with it for a couple of months and lost interest when it seemed that cleaning up the mess of playing with the sandbag outweighed its benefits. I’ve periodically returned to sandbag training over the years for a change of pace, but never realize the incredible pedigree of the implement. Had I, I might have kept it as a regular accessory lift rather than relegating it to the “to hell with it, I’m bored as hell, don’t feel like training, and might want to wear a one piece jumpsuit with a stereotypical Mexican first name on it for half of the day while I clean up the disaster that sandbag training seems to create” pantheon of implements and exercises.
As it happens, sandbag training might in fact be the oldest implement utilized in codified training programs, as the ancient Egyptians performed most weight lifting training with sand bags (Booth 147). The utility of this training could not be understated for martial combatants, as it requires the use of an incredible amount of stabilizing muscles, allows for rotational training, and does not allow one to develop a “groove” for a given lift (Henkin “Sandbags”). Basically, it’s a must have implement for anyone who plans on filming hardcore porn on a small boat in a storm tossed sea. According to avowed sandbag expert Josh Henkin, the “use of heavy sandbags and their large circumference forces the lifter to do his lifting with a round back instead of the traditional straight back lifting with a barbell. It is this type of lifting that truly develops a strong back. It develops the back and side muscles in movements that are identical to the lifting and pulling movements of wrestling”(Henkin “Rise”).
It seems, according to the literature, that sandbag training fell out of favor for some time, replaced by the use of either dumbbells or metal or stone tablets, but it pops back into the public eye again in the late 18th century. Interestingly, this seems to be the case with most of the implements and exercises- they enjoy a brief moment in the sun, and then are discarded for the exercise du jour… not unlike what we’ve seen in current training with the back squat and the bench press.
Sandbags sprang back into public view in the late 18th century when schoolmaster Johann Jacob Du Toit had his young students at the German secondary school the Philanthropinium hold sandbags out to the sides of their bodies while he walked among them and counted the time as their arms fell (presumably while they cursed his existence and prayed for death). While it didn’t remain in vogue, that is seen as one of the seminal movements in strength training due to the fact that it brought back an implement that had faded in and out of favor back into the mainstream and kept it there for the 5 or so years Du Toit was in charge of the school’s phys ed.
Later, turn of the century strongman Arthur Saxon and his strongman troupe would crush all comers lifting a flour sack of varying weights (and often loaded with a couple of blocks of iron to make the sack even harder to lift). This was one of their main show feats, and a lift they practiced religiously in the gym. According to Saxon’s rivals, his success in the lift relied on the Andre the Giant size hands he boasted, in addition to the fact that Saxon’s grip strength was apparently unparalleled. According to Kurt Saxon, here is how the lift went down:
“We had a standing challenge and offered four hundred dollars reward to anyone who could lift our sack of flour the way we did, as illustrated by my brother’s drawings. The first step is to grab hold of the sack as shown and bring it to the knees. The second stage finds the sack at shoulder height, and from there it was turned and supported on one shoulder. The heaviest sack with which we performed this feat was loaded to 424 lbs. and was packed as tight as stone, with nothing to grip, no slack sacking or corner ears, really more like an unwieldy ponderous ball. No one ever succeeded in hoisting it the way we did. One of us lifted it to the shoulder in just 4 seconds! When performing this feat as part of the act we always finished by carrying it off stage. All three of us succeeded in mastering this lift. It was often comical to see the expressions on the faces of large powerful men who failed with our huge sack after seeing Hermann and myself perform the lift, because both of us were small by comparison in size, and we often looked like boys alongside these enormous men.
Hermann, Kurt, and Arthur Saxon. OG Harder Than You Crew.
Never as part of our show, but merely as exercise, we used to jerk the sack overhead after moving it from one shoulder to a position across the back of the neck. However, none of us ever succeeded in doing this with the full 424 lbs. in the sack. Jerking such a sack was one of our favorite exercises. At times we would do as many as 30 repetitions with a heavy sack just to keep in form and to improve our lifting ability with it” (Saxon).
Sandbag lifting again fell out of favor until the modern era, where it’s been revived mostly by Dragon Door’s writers and coach Zach Evan Esh. While it will never enjoy the ultimate status sandbag lifting had under the watchful eye of the Egyptian gods, it’s unlikely that sandbag lifting will ever be dropped entirely from the mind of the lifting public again.
One of the oddest implements that enjoyed a lengthy period of popularity but is likely currently never used outside of a Diesel Crew training facility or a USAWA meet is the Weaver Stick. Various mentions of it are salted throughout treatises on 19th Century weight lifting, which I find fairly curious because the only time I’d seen anything like it was in the movie The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, wherein one of the tests Gordon Liu had to pass was to ring a bell all day long with a weight attached to a long pole. It looked hard as hell in the movie and briefly inspired me to train grip, but grip training is boring as all hell and I quickly abandoned it for anything else at all.
The Weaver Stick, however, seems to be a slightly different animal, and while I doubt it will ever enjoy a true resurgence in popularity, it probably should. Though it predated the person for whom it was named by at the very least 100 years, the Weaver stick, as it came to be called, is nothing more than a long stick with a bit of twine hung from its end with a weight attached. According to the USAWA, it’s specifically a wooden broomstick with a handle 5 ½ inches in length, a 1/2 inch marking designating the end of the handle, and another 36 inches of nice hard shaft to make a tumescent pole 42″ glorious inches in length. At the end, a cord of any length may be attached, to which weights are then attached. To do the actual lift, the lifter must, with a completely straight arm held tightly to the side, lift the pole off the platform and hold it parallel to the ground, motionless. This lift can be done from the front of the back, and the records in the lift are as follows:
Forward Lift, right hand – Paul Von Boeckmann, 10¾ lbs.
Forward Lift, left hand – John Grimek, 10 pounds.
Backward Lift, right hand – John Protasel, 12½ lbs.
Backward Lift, left hand – John Grimek, 11 ½lbs. (Weaver)
If you think this lift is completely preposterous, consider the following- using a similar pole, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, grew to match the size and weight of his heavenly staff (dat hypertrophy), then used to to beat the brakes off everything the other gods in heaven could throw at him, eventually kicking the hell out of the entire pantheon of Chinese gods single handedly. If a Chinese stone monkey born from an egg can pack on mass lifting a stick, it stands to reason you could too.
This lift, though it lacked a real name, actually became popular in the same school system that repopularized sandbag training, the Philanthropic schools. One of them had its physical training program run for over 50 years by Johann Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839), who came to his position in 1786. By 1794, Gutsmuths had kids doing the sort of awesome recreational activities that will be allowed in modern school right about the time they allow kids to carry loaded pistols in school and drink liquor in class- “rope climbing, throwing the discus or quoits, climbing poles, jumping over a rope, and ‘lifting a weight hung on a rod and moved toward or from the hands according to the strength of the individual’”(Todd).
“We are weak because it does not occur to us that we could be strong if we would.”
– Johann Friedrich GutsMuths
From institutionalized implementation of the lift, strongmen in Europe began experimenting with similar movements, noting that it was damn near impossible for the strongest of them to move a comparatively tiny weight. When John Grimek’s only hitting 11 lbs on a lift, you know the majority of us are looking at 3-5 lbs at best. Strangely, Weaver himself noted that neither wrist strength nor overall strength appeared to be a good indicator of who would be good at the lift. According to Weaver,
“Steve Gob, who can lift extraordinary weights in the flat-footed squat, was unable to lift 5 lbs. on the Weaver Stick. More remarkable yet, Warren Lincoln Travis, who was not only exceptional in Back Lifting with a platform but who also possessed great ability in feats of grip strength, was unable to lift more than 4½ lbs. on the Weaver Stick. Lou Leonard, wrestling instructor at Bothner’s Gymnasium, could not budge 3 lbs. One fascinating thing about this lift is that you never can tell in advance whether any particular person is going to be wonderful at it or very poor. Testing people is full of surprises. Tony Sansone, for instance, lifted more with his right hand than did the mighty Henry Steinborn, famous weight-lifting champion of the Alan Calvert era”(Weaver).
Looking for all the world like the least masculine physique competitor in history, Tony Sansone would make you his punk bitch at the Weaver Stick.
Nevertheless, this became the sort of “The Aristocrats” of strongman, whereby turn of the century strongmen would test their strength against one another informally by lifting a broom by the handle horizontally from the floor with a light weight placed on the straw of the broom. Later, the dude who still holds the record above, Paul Von Boeckman, decided a better test of comparative strength would be to standardize the lift to the format the USAWA is still using today. Will it become an overnight sensation again? Highly doubtful, unless a lot of us get very, very bored. Nevertheless, it’s one more example of old stuff becoming new again.
Up next- Indian Club Bells, Kettlebells, and the mighty progenitor of the deadlift, which was hilariously referred to as the “health lift” (my left bicep calls bullshit).
Booth, Charlotte. The Ancient Egyptians for Dummies. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2007.
Henkin, Josh. The rise of sandbag training. Mahler’s Aggressive Strength. Web. 10 Jan 2013. http://www.mikemahler.com/online-library/articles/sandbag-training/rise-of-sandbag-training.html
Henkin, Josh. Sandbags: an expert’s opinion. Altrincham Martial Arts Club. 3 Jan 2012. Web. 10 Jan 2014. http://altrinchamclub.blogspot.com/2012/01/sandbags-experts-opinion-by-josh-henkin.html
Keys, David. A viking mystery. Smithsonian. Oct 2010. Web. 13 Jan 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-viking-mystery-59648019/#ixzz2qMhAKPAX
Kildahl, Mari. Isotope analysis reveals diet of beheaded Viking slaves. Archaeology News Network. 5 Dec 2013. Web. 13 Jan 2014. http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2013/12/isotope-analysis-reveals-diet-of.html#.UtUFlvRDuSo
Kolenberg, Steve. 6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes. Cracked. 13 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jan 2014. http://www.cracked.com/article_20186_6-ridiculous-myths-about-middle-ages-everyone-believes_p2.html#ixzz2qMXcHDo8
Lovgren, Stefan. Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows. National Geographic News. 3 Feb 2006. Web. 14 Jan 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0203_060203_viking_teeth.html
Saxon, Kurt. Saxon remembers. The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 18 Nov 2008. Web. 13 Jan 2013. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2008/11/saxon-remembers-kurt-saxon.html
Todd, Jan. The classical ideal and its mpact on the search for suitable exercise: 1774-1830. Iron Game History. Nov 1992. Web. 14 Jan 2014. https://www.academia.edu/3009398/The_Classical_Ideal_and_Its_Impact_on_the_Search_for_Suitable_Exercise_1774-1830
Weaver, George, R. The weaver stick. The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 9 Aug 2009. Web. 14 Jan 2014. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2009/08/weaver-stick-george-r-weaver.html