Many of us devote hours of our lives to the gym, performing the most awkward things, often painfully, in these hell holes. We pump out these ridiculous exercises, panting wildly in close proximity to strangers. All grunting and flailing about in the hall of mirrors.  How did it ever come to this? We treat it as such a normal thing, but is it? It all seems so strange, it seems like some kind of mistake. 

Since the middle of the 20th century, the world of fitness has become a daunting tower, a labyrinthian puzzle. If you’re just starting out or even if you’ve been at it for years, it can still leave you with a special brand of bewilderment. What kind of exercises should you do? Should you buy all those weird little powders and supplements? And what about all the alien health food and that awful feeling you get when you walk into a gym?

In order to clear up the confusion surrounding the modern fitness industry, it helps to peel back the years. It’s important to understand that life wasn’t always like this. The modern health club as we know it is still a relatively new invention.

The Greeks


A Greco-Roman style gymnasium in Pompeii

Like so many things in Western culture, it starts with the Greeks. Particularly the Ancient Greek gymnasium. These gymnasiums were originally formed as a public place where men were trained in various physical exercises, namely gymnastics. The name  itself comes from the greek gymnos, meaning naked. The practice of exercising in the nude has its origins some time in the seventh century BCE. Guys exercised naked in these things, their bodies oiled down constantly, the oil itself being the biggest expense of running the gymnasium. 

The Greeks believed in the strong connection between the intellect and fitness. The cultivation of the body was just as important as the cultivation of the mind. The gymnasiums also played a prominent role in Greek culture. Boys received most of their education there. Philosophers and sophists would lecture there.

As the Romans began to take over the Greek world, Greek gymnasiums lost their esteem, though they kept on. The Romans felt that field marches and other military-related exercises made for better physical training than the gymnasiums could provide. The old mind-body concept the Greeks had held dear began to fade. Physical fitness was primarily seen as a way of being ready for war. Emperors like Nero and Commodus still had gymnasiums built during their reigns, but the heyday of the old Greek gymnasium was over.

The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in the Greek idea of the duality of physical fitness and intellectual learning. This would set the groundwork for the changes that would sweep continental Europe in subsequent centuries. At this time, as it was in much of Ancient Greece, these workouts were gymnastics-based. Gymnastics became wildly popular in Germany and Denmark.

The early turnverein

This is where we see the birth of the great gymnasiums called turnvereins throughout Germany. These were large facilities equipped with gear for balancing, climbing, vaulting and running. Sweden and Great Britain got in on the act and started to come up with their own gymnastic programs. Europe had seemed to always be in the midst of war and gymnastics was seen as way to keep the population in a state where it could fend for itself if need be.  


Gymnastics didn’t take off in the United States like it had in Europe. The US was much less vulnerable to attack than the European countries and the German and Swedish gymnastics programs that had made their way to the United States failed to catch on the way they had done in Europe, until Friedrich Jahn came along.

The Napoleonic Wars had a lasting effect on the population of Germany and Europe as a whole. Because of that, many Germans became obsessed with physical fitness. As more and more Germans emigrated to the United States, the spread of gymnastics would eventually become inevitable. Friedrich Jahn was a German gymnast known as “The Father of Gymnastics.” He began spreading his ideas on physical education throughout Europe and the United States in the early 19th century.

Friedrich Jahn

Friedrich Jahn

Jahn opened and an open-air gymnasium in Berlin in 1811 and would go on to develop a popular gymnastics system, publishing books on the subject. He popularized the use of gymnastic rings as well as inventing now-ubiquitous gymnastics equipment including the parallel bars, the pommel horse and the horizontal bars.

This is where we start to see European gymnastics really starting to take root in America. German instructors who used Jahn’s system called themselves turners, after all, they called their gyms turnvereins. As more emigrated to the United States, they began to open more turnvereins. The first open-air turnverein in the country was established in Massachusetts, back in 1824.

Birth of the health club

In 1841, Sir George Williams founded the YMCA in London. It was created when the idea of Muscular Christianity was taking hold. Adherents to Muscular Christianity believed that the body was a temple which housed the Holy Spirit and physical exercise was the best means of keeping it together. This is also a time of extreme poverty in London with many young boys living on the street. The YMCA was created as a place for them to go for prayer, Bible study, and a little shelter for a while. The YMCA of course would go on to become an incredibly successful institution worldwide, democratizing fitness. 

Sir George Williams

Sir George Williams

Muscular Christianity in America came to mean something different. It took root in collegiate sports. Sports were seen at the time to be militaristic and it was thought that they developed skills that were conducive to the world of business. So a national obsession with college sports was born, thanks to Muscular Christianity. 

In 1847, Hippolyte Triat opened his gymnasium in Paris. It was the first gym that actually required a membership fee, the first true health club. Triat had been a vaudevillian strongman. His reputation helped to sell gym memberships to men, women and children, who were all charged different rates. The membership fees weren’t cheap and so the gym became a place for aristocrats, the antithesis of Sir George Williams’ YMCA.

Triat's gym

Many of our modern weight machines are also a product of this time, though it would take far longer for them to be improved and elaborated upon, they would not exist without the work of Dr. Jonas Gustav Wilhelm Zander. While attending medical school in the early 1860s, Zander realized it was resistance that built muscles. It was Zander who came up with the idea that the systematic exertion of the muscles could build them over time. 

Some of Zander's machines.

Some of Zander’s machines

Zander made machines that mimicked every day work for the emerging ranks of sedentary workers. He operated a gym called the Zander Institute off of 59th Street in New York during the late 19th century. Zander’s machines were the precursor to the modern mechanized gym equipment that boggles the minds of newcomers to this day. His machines were among the first to draw the line between actual work and exercise, making physical activity a choice for white collar types, rather than a necessity.

From here on out, things get really confusing in the world of fitness. This is where we start to see all the fads, weird home equipment that doesn’t really work, and the countless periodicals and pills promising everything you could ever imagine yourself to look like. And it is true, they really did sell tapeworms as a weight loss aid.


The modern gym

In the 1920s, acrobats, vaudevillian strongmen and gymnasts started to base themselves out of Santa Monica, California. By the 1930s, Muscle Beach had built a name for itself there. This is where the first modern gyms in the country would all mushroom out of.

Vic Tanny and his brother Armand opened one of those early gyms in 1940 and a second in Long Beach in 1941, but then the war came and the Tannys had to close up shop for a while, as did many other gyms. Though the war had the effect of shutting down the gyms, it also had a way of employing the trainers and bodybuilders who would go on to train new recruits.


After the war, the enthusiasm for bodybuilding really took off. Vic Tanny was back in the gym business, starting in 1947 with a few gyms in Southern California. He changed the aesthetics of the gym. Before Tanny came along, gyms were cavernous, sweaty grunt dungeons. Like working out in the basement of hell. Equipment was always falling apart and of course, they stunk. A dark dungeon of dead sweat, a place you wouldn’t look forward to showing up to. The Tannys turned that around and actually made the gyms a nice place to go, so you’d actually want to stick around and join. By the time Vic retired in 1963, he had 84 gyms around the country.

A former employee and friend of Vic Tanny called Joe Gold opened up the first Gold’s Gym in 1964, a year after Tanny’s retirement. Gold was the first to implement skylights in the gym to brighten the place up and concrete floors that could withstand guys dropping their weights and grunting like caged beasts. In the 1950s and 1960s, American gyms started to model themselves more and more on the old European health club traditions, and almost all of them would fail. Consolidation and creation of new chains would become common. The gym chain, Bally’s is one of these creations of consolidated gym chains. Bally’s was once a gaming equipment company that bought up many of Vic Tanny’s and fitness guru, Jack Lalanne’s old gyms then transformed them into blocks of corporate gym-in-a-boxes.

The first Gold's Gym location

The first Gold’s Gym location

And naturally, a gym-in-a-box wouldn’t be a gym-in-a-box without weight machines. Though the exercise machines had been around since Zander, they hadn’t really been improved upon and faded from popularity until the 1970s, when Arthor Jones came along. Arthor Jones invented the Nautilus machine, which came about at the dawn of the aerobics craze and was embraced as something to counteract it. Jones’ machines gave strength training a lighter touch.

The Nautilus machine made weight lifting easy. All you had to do was shift a pin on the weight stacks. The machines revolutionized the home workout. Many extra calories were burned while having to dust them off as they sat in a corner somewhere unused.  After Jones was able to get his machines into the weight rooms of pro sports teams and health clubs, he made a fortune. He had improved upon those weird old 19th century Zander machines. Though purists still scoff at the things. But nobody said you have to use them.

Today’s health clubs are big money. In order to make that money, they have had to employ some dirty tricks. Most modern health clubs make their money by selling as many memberships as they can. They can then cram as many members into the facility as possible, making the experience miserable. Working out is hard enough without the place being packed and some weird guy breathing down your neck to see when he can get on the machine you’re using, so members don’t return as frequently. Yet they still keep paying the membership fee every month. Many gyms also deliberately make canceling a membership a particularly miserable and tedious experience in an effort to get the member to give up and retain the membership. Some health clubs don’t do this, but these tend to be higher-end clubs where they make their profit from high membership fees.

This is what our gyms have come to. Thousands of years of ideas on physical fitness bred with the vulgarity of capitalism has given birth to the modern mirrored sweat caves of LA Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness and the garish purple nightmare of Planet Fitness. After seeing what my own options were in the world of fitness, I regretfully and sadly embraced the gym. I’m there almost every day. I hate the place. It’s a miserable place, but I’m comfortable and at home there. Like a tired relationship you should have left long ago but didn’t.

In my heart, I still believe in the intellectual and physical fitness duality of the Ancient Greeks. I do feel that cultivating the body goes along with cultivating the mind. When I find myself focusing too much on either one, I instinctively feel the need to balance out. An unchained mind with a soft body is a shame. A solid body with a chained mind is a waste. A soft body and a chained mind is exactly what they want out of a consumer. We should strive to be none of those things. Our gyms can help us.

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About Ryan Fabian

New England writer and lover of knowledge.

Latest Posts By Ryan Fabian


essay, Fitness, Fitness industry, gym, health clubs, History, history of fitness, history of gyms


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