Back in Fashion: The Origins Behind the ‘Latest’ Fitness Trends

Dean Hodgkin | 30 Jul 2020
Heads up - this is a different blog for me with lighter content that probably won’t change the way you work, but you will be able to impress your clients with your depth of knowledge. More importantly, though, hopefully you’ll find it as interesting to read as I found it to write!

Personal Training
The PT world as we now know it is relatively nascent, following the boom in the fitness industry growth stimulated by the Jane Fonda group exercise phenomenon. Indeed, the PT market is still growing both in and out of the gym, as more Fit Pros move into online training. However, it’s thought a Greek Doctor, Galen, was the first to prescribe a specific strength training program, sometime in the 2nd century AD. This concept was built in the early 19th century when Swedish physical therapist, Per Henrik Ling recognized that exercise programs should be designed around individual differences.

Strong is the New Skinny
The mainstream media would have us believe strength training, particularly for females, is the latest wave in fitness. However, the walls of a tomb near Al-Minya, in Egypt, are decorated with images of people holding bags above their heads, thought to be the first ever example of resistance training. Now when you consider these paintings are thought to be around 4500 years old, it’s hard to justify ‘picking things up and putting them down’ as a new concept.

Strongest Man
The Celtic Highland games date back to the 11th century and a number of the events testing dynamic strength, such as throwing a heavy weight over a high bar, can be seen mirrored in the popular strongest man competitions that now take place the world over.

I was lucky enough to be in Las Vegas at the same time as the huge phenomenon that is Mr. Olympia. So, I can personally vouch for how popular the sport currently is. But again, its origins go back a lot further than you might imagine. In the late 19th century, Frederick Muller was probably the most famous strongman, regularly appearing at fairs, including one in Chicago in 1893 earning what, for the time, was a significant amount of money. However, his manager noticed the audience seemed more interested in his physique rather than what he lifted, so posing routines were introduced and the sport of bodybuilding was born.

The rise of the boutique studio, most often with high intensity interval training at the core of its programming, has put this workout style right in the public eye. Although most participants sweating through their classes are probably unaware this is far from being a new fitness training technique. Probably the first report of an athlete using interval training relates to Joe Binks who set a then mile record of 4 minutes and 16 seconds in 1902.  He trained for only 30 minutes in each session, but this included repeated sprints. A few years later, Finnish coach Lauri Pikhala created a more structured approach to interval training, resulting in Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen achieving much competitive success in middle- and long-distance events, again incorporating sprint sessions in preparation for races. The ultimate flag-bearer for HIIT, however, has to be Roger Bannister who, in breaking the 4 minute barrier in 1954, achieved what many suggested the human body was incapable of, but his coach, Franz Stampfl, knew could be done through HIIT.

Sports Science
Today we’re familiar with the pathway of new developments in fitness training methodology via a research study being published and reviewed by a peer group. Surprisingly, early in the 18th century, Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers studied the amazing physical prowess of a London strongman, Thomas Topham, thought to be the first scientific research into strength training techniques.

When it was first born in 2000, even its creator, Greg Gassman, could not have imagined how the movement would grow, spawning training boxes and events worldwide and creating its own superstars, some of who have gone on to become household names. While the concept of WODs ensures workout routines are constantly fresh and challenging, they are all based on the circuit training format that was first developed by Morgan and Anderson in 1953 at the University of Leeds, England. Originally, it was designed to challenge both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, but also to enable participants to exercise at their own intensity while training with others.

Obstacle Races
Not satisfied with just running, these events have exploded onto activity calendars in recent years. This popular individual and team pursuit with names that include Tough Mudder, Rough Runner, Spartan, Rugged Maniac and Warrior Dash have their roots in ancient civilizations preparing their people for battle. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all taught their soldiers skills such as running on uneven terrains, jumping, crawling, climbing, and carrying heavy things to prepare for their conquests.

Training in a Fasted State
Skipping breakfast and heading straight for a cardio workout is a common tactic used in pursuit of weight loss goals. However, winding back to the dawn of history, primitive tribes survived by hunting and gathering of food for survival, often making long journeys to find it. Successful outings were then followed by a feast, but once the food was gone and bellies were empty, it was time to venture out again, often covering long distances to find suitable prey, even though low on fuel.

Clean Eating
“Train mean and eat clean” is the well-used mantra adopted by many a fitness influencer on social media, but it’s far from the latest thinking in the health and fitness domain. In the late 19th century, one of the first self-proclaimed fitness gurus, Bernarr Macfadden advocated a minimalist lifestyle centered on regular vigorous exercise and the elimination of alcohol, tea, coffee, and white bread.

Childhood Obesity
With both fitness and public health sectors rightly devoting a lot of attention to what has been referred to as a growing epidemic, it’s easy to think this is a present day malaise caused by easily accessible fast food options and too much time spent on smartphones and tablets instead of in active play. And although that is indeed a contributing factor, a 1954 study by Kraus and Hirschland found that a significant majority of US children failed physical performance assessments. This led to President Eisenhower creating the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (later changed to the President’s Council on Sport, Fitness and Nutrition) to promote fitness levels among the young.

Sitting Disease
Texts written by Indian physician Sushruta, often referred to as The Father of Surgery, dates back to the 6th century BC and included mention of the relationship between lack of physical activity and poor health. While in recent years the medical and fitness words have combined to warn the public at large of the serious health risks associated with spending too much time on one’s backside, Sushruta appears to have warned of the negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle a long time ago.

It’s interesting to note that working out to improve general health and the currently red-hot topic of wellness was appreciated as early as the 18th century. An example of this being a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to his son expressing his pleasure that his son was exercising regularly as it was important to prevent disease.

Celebrity Fitness Trainers
From Shaun T to Joe Wicks, Jillian Michaels to Gunnar Peterson, fitness personalities on our screens is not a new concept. Check out some old television clips of Jack Lalanne from the 1950s and you’ll be surprised by how much of his content still holds water today. 

Fitness Festivals
Live Well, Lovefit, Balance, Movement Fest and Propel Co:Labs feel like a new, fresh way to totally immerse yourself in different fitness flavors and motivational talks for a weekend. However, as far back as 1912, the Sokol movement held a slet (festival) that attracted 30,000 who joined in outdoor calisthenics sessions.

Dumbbell Exercises

While we now have fixed and even variable resistance dumbbells, this equipment is far from a recent development. The ancient Greeks used stones with a form of handle carved into them, known as halteres. They even came in different shapes and sizes, proving they already understood the concept of progressive overload to improve strength.

Medicine Ball Training
This training mode has been around for an incredibly long time, with the first reference to wrestlers training with sand filled bladders appearing in Persia around 3000 years ago. Even the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, had them sewn out of animal skins and stuffed with sand, challenging his patients to throw them back and forth for injury rehabilitation. 

Kettlebell Swinging
With origins dating back to military training in Russia in the early 18th century, the unique design allows for swinging moves and working with momentum to stimulate a different neuromuscular response than the body experiences with other resistance tools. 

Resistance Bands
Thought to be first designed for gymnastic activity in Switzerland in 1895, it wasn’t until the 1960s they were used regularly, mostly in the physical therapy domain. By the early 80s, the booming fitness industry capitalized on the versatility of resistance bands, and with many manufacturers springing up, they were soon seen in most gyms and many homes worldwide. 

Vibration Plates
In addition to being found in most gyms, a quick look at the television shopping channels will reveal how popular this piece of equipment is in the home exercise market. While the addition of resistance bands and a multitude of speed and amplitude settings, the basic technology dates back to the 1950s when vibration technology was developed by NASA to overcome the dramatic muscle mass and bone mineral density loss experienced by astronauts during prolonged periods in space.


Yoga has never been more popular. Often considered a panacea for all maladies associated with 21st century living, it does indeed offer many different solutions for many different people. However, despite the repackaging, rebranding and marketing messages that dress up the pastime as the ultimate fitness present, it was developed by Hindu priests in India an amazing 5000 years ago. Similar to Far Eastern disciplines, they observed and mirrored the movement patterns of animals in the hope of attaining the balance with nature that many animals appeared to have.

Hopefully after reading this, you feel as empowered as I that you’re not just making your clients sweat and helping them to lose a few pounds, but you’re taking on the baton for an industry steeped within the long, rich history of man.

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Dean Hodgkin

About the author: Dean Hodgkin

A truly international fitness ambassador, having appeared at both consumer and trade fitness events in 36 countries resulting in being voted Best International Fitness Presenter at the 1 Body 1 World awards in New York. In addition, he recently received the Lifetime Achievement award at the International Fitness Showcase, Europe’s largest group fitness event. Dean has been teaching sport and fitness since 1981, is renowned for delivering a wide range of master-classes and seminars covering many themes and has accumulated a wealth of experience that reaches into several domains.

He has appeared as a guest expert on a large number of television and radio programmes both in the UK and overseas and in trying to preach the fitness gospel to as wide an audience as possible he has filmed workouts on a boat in the middle of Lake Windermere, on the set of Coronation Street, on the end of Blackpool pier, in Times Square, on the roof of a Mumbai skyscraper, in a busy hotel lobby in Taipei and in an Amsterdam park with a Dutch soap opera star. Leading a mass workout in London’s Battersea Park, standing in front of the accompanying Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is a particular highlight.

Dean has created two unique products for The Great Courses that combine education and exercise to help the viewer to better understand how the body works and how physical activity can positively affect it in so many ways. He has also co-authored two fitness books and regularly writes features for mainstream newspapers and magazines with a list that includes The Times, Sunday Times, GQ, FHM, Men’s Health, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Health & Fitness, Zest, Women’s Fitness, Slimming and Bodyfit.

His unique ability to create diverse lifestyle programmes also led to him working with major brand names including Reebok, Marks & Spencer, Weight Watchers, RAC, Nike, Remington, David Lloyd, British Dental Association, 3 Mobile, Boots, Aviva and Whitbread.

As a sportsman, he was 3-times World and 2-times European Karate Champion. Coaching experience includes working with basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and American football players.

Dean is currently retained as a consultant by both multi-award winning spa resort Ragdale Hall and Energie Global Brand Management, the leading fitness industry franchise operator.

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