Why We Prefer Old-School Gyms, Not Fitness Centers


No electricity needed. Very little sitting. Strength, power, cardio, balance, stability, mobility, and gracefulness all blended into one. (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Back in August 2011, I went to the Perform Better Summit in Long Beach, CA, hoping to exchange a few ideas and soak up some enlightenment from the fitness industry’s greatest leaders and teachers, including Gray Cook, Robert dos Remedios, and Vern Gambetta. As I was walking toward the “Big Room” where most of the shopping are done, I heard a very familiar voice at the inversion table demonstration. I paused and I saw this guy.

Ed Thomas

(Source: Worldteamfitness.com)

This is no other than Dr. Ed Thomas, Health and Physical Education Consultant of Iowa Department of Education and Gray Cook’s mentor. The hour I spent in his presence was more inspiring and educational than any workshop that was offered at the Summit. Before I left, Dr. Thomas gave me a CD that contained his PowerPoint presentation that contained the history of physical education in the United States.

After looking at his presentation, I see the value of old-school gyms and training that didn’t require expensive and fancy gadgets to get stronger and durable. In fact, a lot of the things I learned from Gray, Robert, and Vern all fits well with the philosophies of old-school training, such as synchronization of breathing and movement, strength from the ground up, and multi-planar movement.

The training environment in the gym from the late 19th century to the 1920s resemble very little to the modern “fitness center”.


Courtesy of Dr. Ed Thomas.

Most exercises were what is called “self-limiting exercises.” According to Gray, self-limiting exercises “demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.”

We can further expand the concept of self-limiting exercise by addressing the lack of external support or assistance — that everything you do is based on your internal support. There is no seat to support your back and butt. There are no cables or levers that dictates where you move. Oftentimes, it’s just you and gravity.

Many self-limiting exercises are illustrated here.


Courtesy of Dr. Ed Thomas.

Poor techniques cannot generate better performance. Even if better performance is developed via poor techniques, most likely it stems from compensation. When you compensate a movement pattern, you are creating excessive and unnecessary stress to your body to move. Sure, your body may adapt to this stress, but is the compensation worth the risk? Common examples that you may have seen are people doing push-ups with their neck sticking forward or doing kettlebell swings with a weak hip drive.

Most modern gyms and fitness centers have scores of equipment that is supposed to be safer to use and improves strength, balance, and movement. Even some national exercise certification bodies, like ACE and ACSM, agree to this dogmatic idea. Where is the evidence and research to back the idea up?

This idea that fitness centers uphold is by training different muscle groups independently, you will gain overall strength. While this method does help combat obesity, muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, and muscular weakness, they do next to nothing to improve movement and body awareness three-dimensionally. Even though there is a research that was done to prove that exercising with “fitness machines” can improve muscle strength, there is nothing to compare the modality with, thus the data presented is pretty meaningless. It’s like having a study that states that eating veggies is good for your health, but there’s nothing to compare veggies with. Also, having better muscle strength does not correlate to better movement.

Empirically, there are evidence showing that such modern equipment are not necessary to improve balance, strength, and movement. Yoga practitioners, dancers, and martial artists are the prime examples, using their body weight to move, relying on very little or no external force to help them move. Consider wing chun Grandmaster Ip Chun, who still teaches kung fu in Hong Kong in his 80s.

Sure, modern “fitness” machines may be used for those who are doing bodybuilding or coming out of physical rehabilitation, but this method shouldn’t be the foundation of movement training. By teaching people how to move with their body weight and within their environment, they will develop their own inner foundation necessary to produce a variety of movement patterns, which could transfer to more complex movement patterns and skills. People don’t need to be motivated with 20 instructions to do a squat or a bicep curl. They just need a few cues that they can relate to in order to learn.

Fitness professional Nick Winkelman couldn’t have said it better:

“Our central nervous system likes information that relates back to things we already know. This means that coaches and teachers should provide information in a way that gives context to the learner and athlete. This is the reason that cuing an athlete in terms of the environment (i.e. Snap off the ground) helps connect the movement, movement goal, and movement effect on the environment.”

Exercise philosophies and modalities do not need to be complex, regimental, or expensive. The training environment should be playful, open, and full of creativity and possibilities, much like a children’s playground.

Even though times have changed since the 1900s, the core values and philosophies of health, fitness, and movement have not.

That was then.


Early 20th century women’s gym. (Courtesy of Dr. Ed Thomas.)

 This is now.


(Courtesy of David Kittner, of The Youth Fitness Guy.)


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