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Why do we Exercise the way we do? A Brief Lesson from History.

I recommend you rethink your purpose for going to the gym, but before I explain why, we need to start with a bit of a history lesson about how gyms came into being and why we exercise the way we do in them.

The first gyms actually cropped-up about 3000 years ago in Ancient Persia, not where most people think, as I'm sure most people when asked would say Greece. However, the Greeks - a few hundred years later - did famously develop them further as places to educate young men in physical prowess and in order for athletes to train for the Olympics.

The Greeks held physical training in much higher esteem than we do now. These days most see going to the gym as a means to get a, 'beach ready body' - as can be noted by the sudden increase in gym-goers in Spring getting ready for summer - or something they should do to lose weight or get healthy as part of a New Year's resolution . The ancient Greeks on the other hand considered physical fitness and the science behind it as important as the study of medicine, even encouraging physicians to train in order to understand the body better. Training brought together physiology, biology, physics, and medicine and was very much part of the philosophy and politics.

City states would provide gymnasiums ('gymna' actually means naked, as men used to go to such places in the nude) and personal trainers for (male only) citizens to use. Sparta being the only city state to allow women, who they beasted in military-style bootcamps in the same way as the men. The Spartans were hardcore.

Much like today, there was great debate about how best to train, with trainers and philosophers like Aristotle favouring some methods over others and heavily criticising other trainers. Perhaps the one area of agreement was the need for a structured warm-up, main session, and cool down, and just like today this is still one of the few areas of agreement proponents of different forms of training have.

There were, however, many elements of their workouts that did not match what we commonly see today. The warm-up typically started with a massage and some gentle movements to boost blood flow and prepare the muscles for more intense exercise. Gym-goers were then oiled by a professional called an 'aleiptes'.

The main body of the sessions included a variety of exercises and activities. Wrestling and boxing (not always fighting; punching bags, and shadow boxing, for example) made up a large part, but routine practice exercises included the following:

* Running in sand for leg strength and high intensity aerobic fitness.

* A variety of jumping exercises.

* Weight lifting

* Throwing

* Rope climbing

* Digging

* Horse riding

Again, much like today, the Greeks had the concept of high intensity and low intensity training and understood the principles of interval training, and trained the average Joe differently than they did professional athletes.

Their cool down was very different; starting with breathing exercises and then the application of more oil and sand - mixed in with their sweat - which they then scraped off using a metal implement called a strigil. Once this gunk was all gone, they had a massage followed by a bath, which could be hot or cold, in a natural spring, river, or purpose-built facility.

I firmly believe that the ancient Greeks worked-out better than we do today, with their philosophy, along with the importance they placed on exercise, being the reason behind this. They had the correct motivations for training (i.e. to improve functionality and health) that we don't have today, but more about that later. Let's look at how our modern way of training came about.

After the fall of the ancient Greek civilisations and the Roman Empire, gyms disappeared for hundreds of years until the 19th century where schools and colleges started building them in mainly Europe and America. These were mostly based around sport and games, however, rather than regimented training programs. This was then followed in the 1930s by specialist boxing gyms, which first sprang up in the USA.

Gyms and training, in the form we currently know of, came into existence between the 1960s and 70s. In 1965, the first Gold's Gym was opened in Venice, California and was mainly frequented by bodybuilders. Other gym chains followed, and took on the same model and were based around weight training and building muscle for an aesthetically pleasing body.

Gyms haven't changed much since those days, the only difference being their promotion to the general public which began in the 80s and then continued in earnest into the 90s. Cardio equipment, and ever-fancier machine weights were introduced to appeal to the average person, but the underlying theory of exercise and motivation for it stayed pretty much exactly the same, i.e. to look good in the mirror and to show-off your body.

A typical looking gymnasium, with weights packed-in and little space to move freely in.

Now obviously, people go to the gym for different reasons, including; general health and well-being, building strength, improving stamina, improving fitness for a sport, or training for an event or adventure. However, the exercises they perform are still based around the exercises bodybuilders do to increase muscle mass and highlight their physiques, especially in the realm of resistance training. As a trainer in a gym myself, also, I can tell you that the overwhelming reason people go to the gym is to look better, either by losing weight and/or putting on muscle. Others, especially the older generation, go for health reasons, but importantly they essentially train in the same way (or at least have the same base exercises) as everyone else.

The Greeks had an obsession for aesthetics, much like we have today, but it appears that their reasons for training and their regard for physical fitness came from a much deeper and more intellectual place. Yes, looking good was part of it, but performance and a deep integration with their culture was much more fundamental to how and why they trained. We can learn a great deal from them, yet it appears we aren't.

All those mirrors in the average gym and we aren't using them for their true purpose; to check our form, and most importantly, our gait cycle. Going to the gym is an opportunity to check and perfect how you move. It can be used as a tool to truly improve your health and fitness. Right now it is only serving half that purpose. Moving with more efficiency for better performance in life is the absolute key to maintaining good health and avoiding chronic pain as you age and also helping you prevent injuries and optimise performance in sport. We are so stuck in the tired old exercises inspired by bodybuilders and Olympic weightlifters that most people's minds are closed to the obvious; these exercises are not in sync with how we have evolved to move.

The next major problem is the tendency for most exercises to be in isolation. This comes directly from bodybuilding, as you can focus on certain areas of the body and sculpt them to the look you want. Isolation exercises like, bicep curls, triceps dips, seated flys, and leg extensions are terrible for function. It literally switches-off beneficial functional connections between muscle groups, making you a less efficient mover, and therefore placing you at greater risk of injury.

Lastly, conventional static stretching is another bad way to go about things, for much the same reason as the isolationist exercises above. It destroys length-tension relationships between different areas of the body and makes you hyper-flaccid, meaning that when you want to eccentrically load (load a muscle when it is lengthened) and create that potential energy for the concentric (muscle shortening) phase of muscle contraction, you can't do it because the stretches you were doing were passive, not under tension and not done in a manner that respected the functional relationships with other areas of the body. I go into this in more detail in the blog post, 'The Trouble with Stretching'. But in summary I'm afraid to say the way most people stretch causes a disturbing lack of support for joints, which makes injury more likely, not less.

I have focussed much of my attention at Western forms of exercise so far, but we shouldn't forget Eastern culture and their take on what is best for the body. Far Eastern culture has placed most of the emphasis on martial arts and this is where historically they have a great advantage because as martial arts primarily prioritise function and optimal production of power for fighting, they are encouraging a much better form of exercise. Personally, I think older Asians who do Tai Chi, for example, move much more fluidly than older Westerners. There are some problems with how martial arts are trained, especially when it comes to flexibility, but in general it respects human movement much better.

To South East Asia, and yoga. Yoga is a real bug-bear for the people at Functional Patterns, and if you follow their work, you'll see that they criticise it often, and for good reason. Even done well, by a good instructor, it basically does a great job of destroying beneficial relationships between different areas of your body in general functional movement. In my experience as a trainer also, I have heard of more injuries from people doing yoga than any other activity. You may think I am exaggerating, but I'm not. This is what my clients usually tell me; (after week one of yoga) "I'm feeling great at the moment, I've just started doing yoga. I feel strong and flexible, it is such a great workout". (Week 4 of Yoga) "You'll have to be careful with me, I went to the physio the other day, I hurt my back/shoulder doing yoga". I reckon I hear this once every couple of months in my gym.

Yoga obviously has a good mental effect, but I think that comes from the meditative and breathing side of the practice. As a system of exercise, however, I recommend to steer clear.

So what should we be focusing on in the gym? I think the gait cycle is all important. It is the fundamental area of human movement and if you get it wrong - and you will with all the pressures of everyday life - you'll suffer for it. I marvel daily at the ability of the human body to adapt to the stresses and strains put on it. For the past few years I have been watching people move day-in-day-out, and to be frank, they suck at it (and I include my past self in this also, and even my present self to a lesser degree). I am amazed people aren't in more pain and getting more injuries given they way they are moving. The human body is a master a compensating and learning to move in different ways, but they will be sub-optimal and ultimately lead to inefficiency, and therefore pain, injury, or at least lower performance.

As well as the foundation of efficient walking and running, and good posture, the next step would also be to optimise 3-dimensional movement. Humans also tend to produce force contra-laterally or unilaterally, involving rotation, like punching, kicking, throwing, running, etc. This needs to be trained and traditional gym exercises look nothing like these kind of movements (the Funtional Patterns video above explains this concept very well).

The focus should be on the body as a system working as a whole, not in isolated parts. This is another area in which I think Eastern culture has a slight advantage over Western culture. Western culture is very good at isolating problems, individualising and categorising them, hence the development of science, and has played a large role in it's success. I do think it has rather hamstrung us in looking at the broader picture when it comes to the human body, however. Everything is connected, and this isn't some alternative medicine mumbo-jumbo, it's fact and a fact that more and more physicians studying human anatomy are coming to realise.

If there is one take-home from this article, it's this; all that stuff people do in the gym has no scientific base to it. It is either completely arbitrary or based on exercises not meant for average people or sports people outside of Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders. All personal trainers do is prevent you doing a dysfunctional lift so badly that it will hurt you in that moment. This is based on biomechanics and physics of levers, force vectors, and pressure points, which is right, but this has never (until recently) been applied to the body as a whole system to predict the potential injury risk of moving and exercising in certain ways over the long term. As I have mentioned before in other blogs, this is not merely down to bloody-minded ignorance, greedy capitalists, and charlatans, it is mostly down to the sheer difficulty in testing on human subjects, narrowing-down the variables and following their progress long-term.

Moving upwards from personal trainers to physios and doctors; the problem they have when prescribing exercise to someone who needs it, is that the library of exercises in their arsenal is limited to the old weightlifting and bodybuilding framework - not to mention they are terrified of rotational exercises, especially for people with back problems, but more on that another time. The best exercises and practical ability in being able to train people how to do them simply doesn't exist in mainstream, recognised scientific literature and practice.

Without all the evidence, all we can do is give things our best, most well thought-out shot, and I think this comes from the combination of evolutionary theory, human anatomy, biomechanics, and raw physics. This is the basis of how I practice and coach people how to exercise.

To find out more, as always check out the people at and have a look at my website.

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