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Starting Strength in the Real World

Health and Strength Training: Thoughts on The Way to Live in Health and Physical Fitness

by ​Corey O’Malley | July 12, 2022

training the squat in a starting strength gym

I had the opportunity to dust off my copy of The Way to Live during a recent flight. It provides unique insight for folks like myself who ruminate on the state of health, fitness, and effectively applying useful principles to help others. “Health can never be divorced from Strength.” wrote George Hackenschmidt in 1908.

A century passes. In modern times, proceedings have begun. He describes the beginnings of a world plagued by diseases of the comfortable, sedentary modern life. Modern reality would be like Cthulu to poor old Hack; absurd, incomprehensible, mind shattering. Disease and disorder of mind and body running rampant with its victims soaked in the blue light of all human knowledge, yet they feel powerless. Constantly redefining their health while taking no meaningful action to improve it.

Maladies of the mind were evident to Hackenschmidt. As was gross neglect of the marvelous machine of muscles, bones, and sinews via the pressures of life and individual circumstance. Physicians and scientists had long noted that there are benefits to a healthy strong body. Yet in his time, Hackenschmidt describes an almost contemporary view of exercise: it's good, but few do it. The benefits of physical activity are noted, the effects of exercise described – he was reaching for a means to improve the physical body and discovered that it is inseparable from the mind. An early method of training emerged. Hack knew Strength, with a capital S, and he knew what it can bring to an individual regardless of circumstance.

A century has passed. Libraries can no longer contain physical copies of all of the published literature on the benefits of even the most modest physical activity. Endlessly redundant, recycled, and reusable concepts on exercise are rolled into newly published research, methods questionable, raw data hidden. Still, truth emerges. Slowly. Despite the benefits, consistent exercise in the population remains shockingly rare. Many are physically active, but less and less with each generation. Training is the way to fight against decay. On the increase in chronic health problems Hack observes, “The reason is not far to seek. There is an universal urban immigration, a vast increase in the numbers of those who are engaged in indoor and sedentary occupation, and only here and there is any attempt made to combat the consequent unhealthy conditions of life with the only satisfactory weapon, Rational Physical Exercise.” Hack coined RPE in 1908.

A century later, definitions and diagnoses are in vogue. Specialization stifles communication. Islands of specialization lacking bridges or boats will invariably result in different languages. With the inability to communicate, declining health is nobody’s fault. Right? Yet each individual’s health will inevitably be tested – the magnitude of the test is a combination of luck and living. One hundred years of Western research confirming over and over that one must move the body to be healthy.

Strength training is the RPE of which Hackenschmidt spoke. Consistency, exercise selection, intensity, frequency, volume, rest, and observations about the specificity of imposed demands are described by the Russian Lion. Each of these topics has enough published research to fill a library. It is not all good.

The Way to Live is not lacking in pure absurdity either. At the end of his section of exercises for athletes there is a list of reminders. Hackenschmidt writes with pure brilliance such as, “Overwork, like laziness, spells disease.” Followed shortly by “Avoid tight clothing when indoors, even dispensing with collar and coat if practicable,” and “Don’t wear a tight belt.” Perhaps wearing early 20th century clothing was a truly torturesome and traumatic experience for health. George Hackenschmidt did not like cold drinks, or hot ones. A century passes. Imagine his shock if he could see yoga-pants-wearing iced-coffee-toting ladies strolling downtown – his cosmic horror at witnessing the seething mass of people who want to be sick, defining themselves according to their diagnoses, since it means exculpation from blame over failure to thrive.

A miasma of thought occupies the public’s perception of their health. Good healthcare providers teach their patients during treatment, and learn more about how to help the next person who trusts them enough to be their responsibility. Improving quality of life in those who have injuries, diseases, disorders, and limitations in their activities is most rewarding. When the patient improves his strength, engages in the process of systematic and logical increases in difficulty, he will improve. This improvement will manifest itself in the ability to participate in those devices which produce satisfaction and joy. Health will never be divorced from Strength – countless centuries will pass yet they will always be inseparably bonded from our experience as a species.

George Hackenschmidt was 30 when he wrote The Way to Live, as I am now. He lived to be 90 years old; I’ll do my best. He wrote the book prior to his famed rematch with Frank Gotch. A sense of bitterness and awful pride are apparent, but not damning, since in everything except losing he is completely humble in his writing. I assume he was a ferocious competitor, the type that hates losing more than they enjoy winning. He was born in Russia, modern Estonia, and was active at a very young age lifting weights. There is documentation throughout of circumferential measurements and feats of strength. A 2-hand jerk at 330lbx1 in the year 1899, and anabolics had yet to be synthesized. Over and over again he details his wrestling bouts, competitors he fought, and lifting numbers. The repetition indicates the obsession of a champion athlete.

My ruminations on health and strength are bound to continue. The insights Hack provided in The Way to Live resonate strongly with the current concerns of modern health. Hackenschmidt was an athlete and lifter of the old kind, educated by experience. He is connected to many other lifters and authors that have advanced Strength Training. His name resonates throughout the halls of gyms in the world through his namesake exercises and machines. It is fortunate for him, since in his time he was still the Russian Lion, but to most folks now he is the inventor of the Hack Squat, and it bears his name, George Hackenschmidt.  

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