Culture

The Brains of Brawn

AmericanBody

If you’re a skeptical gym rat — someone who likes to stay fit, but raises an eyebrow at flash-in-the-pan fitness trends — your curiosity will be piqued by a new book on the history of fitness and exercise in America.

Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Jonathan Black is a fascinating whirlwind tour through fitness history, starting with a brief review of ancient Greece and the first Olympics before fast-forwarding to the Chicago World’s Fair.

I went into this book expecting to learn many damning things about gurus who offer false promises of health and pleasure with one hand while taking all your money with the other. What surprised and encouraged me, as I read, was that many fitness pioneers seemed genuinely interested in making people healthier, and helping them to feel more confident and empowered. Mixed with that impulse was, of course, the desire to sell something to those people, and pressure to achieve body image goals — for the bulk of fitness trends, that meant simply fitting into fashionable clothes, but for some of the larger than life (literally) it meant sculpting a body that would make a Greek god quake in his sandals.

The most rewarding strands of the book told the stories of the great bodybuilding pioneers — men (and a few women) who took big muscle out of the circus ring and onto the beach. The personalities that created the American bodybuilding scene were as epic as the muscles they grew. The feuds between lifters, posers, dopers, and hopers is as thrilling as the rush of endorphins after a heavy lift (at least, I think so, remembering that one time I tried it).

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Black remains relatively nonjudgmental of the trends he describes — his general attitude seems to be that if it got people up and moving, then the relative wackiness of the routine that inspired them is forgiven. And there’s something to be said for that — the biggest challenge to America’s health today seems to be just getting people off the couch, and if a reality TV celebrity or a fusion dance class will do it, bring them on. I have to remind myself of that often when I turn my nose up at certain fitness trends — after all, I’m not immune, either. I may call CrossFit a cult, but I also regularly do 90 minutes of yoga in a 105 degree room with a bunch of other people who are utterly convinced that this is not only good for us, but perhaps enlightening. I guess I should just leave those CrossFit kids alone.

Two flaws stood out to me in the book: I wanted to learn more specifics about each exercise routine mentioned, and I often got lost in the chronology. Black often makes mention of important new ideas and routines, such as the invention and popularization of isometric isolation by Charles Atlas, without really pausing to explain exactly what they are. I got the sense he was so steeped in fitness and the fitness community that he forgot that not all his readers will know what all these terms mean. A short, simple description of the exercises named would have helped a great deal in differentiating each wave of fitness trends in my imagination. Secondly, the book often shuffles forward and back in time — the chapters are grouped roughly by decade, but often the life story of a single fitness icon will take the reader through most of a century, and then the next section will land us back at the beginning again — without always being entirely clear where in history we are.

Despite those flaws, I thought Making the American Body was a fascinating, enjoyable, and inspiring read. It even goaded me to head back to the gym. Well, maybe when I’m done with this review. And I’ve watched another few episodes of Buffy. Can you pass the peanut butter pretzels?

Making the American Body by Jonathan Black is now available through the University of Nebraska Press.

Also read: Why You Should Not Be Running