Culture  /  Book Excerpt

Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America's Exercise Obsession

A century ago, physical fitness was part of a strange subculture, where strong bodies were extraordinary and meant to placed on pedestals for people to observe.

Intentionally cultivating one’s strength, strongman Eugen Sandow argued, separated men like him from savages. Or so he hoped, given how emphatically he belabored this point with one outlandish anecdote after another, from describing the tailored finery he fancied offstage to the aristocrats who attended his shows and lavished him with luxurious gifts. No story made this distinction between the civilized cultivation of strength and unrefined brute force clearer than a trip Sandow took through Germany, in the course of which he met Karl Westphal, a hulking quarryman with a head “so huge and grotesque as that of any pantomime mask, and a nose as big as [Sandow’s] fist.” The man’s own fists were three times the size of Sandow’s, and his boots so enormous that the enterprising and comparatively agile strongman hopped inside one with both feet and “turned entirely round inside.” Keenly entrepreneurial, Sandow sensed opportunity in this chance meeting. He hired this man, dubbed him Goliath, and excitedly began planning his career as a strongman in England. Sandow grew even more thrilled about the fortunes that awaited them when he paraded “Goliath” from Charing Cross to Piccadilly after his meaty limbs proved too large to fit into a cab, and thousands of Londoners abandoned their midday work to gape at a sight Sandow could compare only to spotting a “white elephant.”

The animal analogy is telling. Before long, Sandow was sorely disappointed with the obtuseness of his would-be protégé. Westphal could hoist enormous loads, but having never deliberately trained his muscles, could do little else, and demonstrated little interest in learning the stunts Sandow knew would please a paying crowd. After seven fruitless weeks under Sandow’s tutelage, Westphal had made no progress toward refining his technique, due, Sandow believed, to his idleness. Westphal’s apathy may have been despondency due to Sandow’s keeping “this rare creature” in captivity, unwilling to let this adult man roam the streets unchaperoned. Ultimately, the two parted ways, but not before they performed together one last time, in a number choreographed by Sandow that unsurprisingly cast Westphal as a hapless lout bested by the more intellectually and corporeally superior Sandow. The show began with Goliath intimidating Sandow but concluded with the relatively slight Sandow lifting Westphal with one hand before dragging him off the stage. The lesson Sandow imparted onstage that night and later in his memoir was that a “strongman” who deliberately trains his body as a form of self-improvement has little in common with a mere “breaker of stones... who uses his muscles to earn his daily bread.” True strength, he averred, is intentional, impossible without mental acuity, and always trumps brute force.