07 May 2019

The History of Personal Training

Fitness and workout advice

Physical training (also referred to as exercise, personal training, physical activity, strength training, weight training, and performance training) has a long, rich history.

Some of the earliest records of physical training are drawings on the walls of a funerary chapel in Beni-Hassan in Egypt (estimated at 4500 years ago).

In the sixth century, there were competitions between athletes lifting heavy stones. Formal weight training originated with the Romans, who developed a much-feared army.

Records were discovered as early as 1896 B.C. about the feats of strength practised in what is known as the British Isles as well as far back to the Neolithic era (the beginning of agriculture beyond the practices of the hunter-gathers). Strength or Weight training (an integral part of personal training) has its origins as far back as ancient Greece and China. The Homeric poems also present early instances of weight throwing.

According to the historian Norman Gardinier:

“Throwing the diskos is one of the most popular diversions in Homer…Odysseus proved his might by hurling a diskos (discus) heavier and farther than any that the Phaeacians could hurl…Greece was a land of stones, and they provided a natural weapon in war and a natural test of strength…”

Gardinier also wrote:

“The characteristic of the sixth century is strength. The typical athlete of the period is the strong man, the boxer, or the wrestler. The object of the old gymnasts, says Philostratus, was to produce strength only, and in consequence of their healthy life the old athletes maintained their strength for eight or even nine Olympiads.”

One of the most famous of these ancient strength athletes was Milo, born in Crotone, in the district of Calabria in Southern Italy around 558 B.C.

Milo is credited for inventing progressive resistance training because of his shouldering and carrying a calf the full length of the stadium at Olympia, and doing so until the cow had grown to four years old. Of course, he did not do this for four years consecutively.

You Can See it in the Art

Art from the ancient Greeks showed us their infatuation with strength and physique, with works often depicting muscular heroes at their physical prime.

Throughout Greece and their islands, nude statues were distributed all sharing a similar style that emphasises the muscles of the body.

The typical figure of the 6th century was that of Hercules, a figure recognisable even to us.

Much archaeological evidence suggests that strength was revered and that weightlifting was a regular occurrence during the Greek period. One discovery found is the red sandstone bearing the 6th-century inscription to the effect that one Bybon, with one hand, threw it over his head. Another such block has been found weighing 480 kilos. This block has an inscription stating “Eumastas the son of Critobulus lifted me from the ground.”

More evidence shows us that objects such as the discus, the javelin, and halteres were used to enhance one's health and strength. The halteres varied in shape and size, but to us, we would call them dumbbells. Often made of stone or metal they came in a variety of weights, commonly used for jumping events, there is much evidence of them being used for lifting.

The Introduction of Specialized Systems

Galen was a celebrated physician of the 2nd century, A.D. and an integral part in developing systematic strength training exercises, through using implements such as the halteres. Think of these as workout routines or strength programs nowadays. His systems included what modern coaches refer to as heavy lifting and isometric exercises. Galen also recommended many exercises to improve athletic power, strength and speed.

While Greek culture’s emphasis was on enhancing the mind or strengthening the body and spirit, the Romans had different applications in mind. Any types of strength training would be exclusively utilised strengthen their militaries. Of course, the Greeks saw this benefit too, but they would compete against one another in sport. The Romans even had gladiators train to bump the entertainment factor. Think of how modern actors and actresses often need a physique resembling that of a superhero to play one on the silver screen. Similar logic can be applied to people watching the gladiators fight, the more muscle-bound, the more physically imposing the better.

Instead of sledgehammers bouncing off old truck tyres, it would be weapons. These were far more substantial than what would be used in combat being swung against trees for reps on end.

Interestingly enough, many of these training principles were lost when the Roman Empire fell. Due to the philosophy of Christian asceticism prominent during the Dark Ages, all physical training had its skill in warfare only. This went on for about one thousand years until the Renaissance. And Galen’s systems of training were rediscovered. Much of this period promoted that young boys should hang from bars, climb ropes, lift weights, and compete against one another in wrestling matches.

19th Century

By the middle of the 19th Century, the gym as a commercial enterprise began to emerge. A French strongman turned fitness entrepreneur Hippolyte Triat, is often credited with being the earliest to open commercial gyms with the first in Brussels, and then in Paris sometime during the 1840s. Towards the end of the 19th Century, another icon of the fitness and training industry appeared with his gym. Many consider him the first bodybuilder. His name was Eugene Sandow. The Mr Olympia Statue is called the Sandow, as it is modelled after him.

His gym was called the London Institute of Physical Culture, looked more gentlemen’s club than iron paradise. However, his clients adopted his training philosophy, or progressive weight training, with free weights, barbells and dumbbells. Much of the training was conducted under Sandow’s supervision or his staff of personal trainers. But again, these establishments were for the well-to-do or those looking for physical perfection.

It was not until the 20th Century where gyms became far more accessible.

20th Century

So we have identified the foundation of physical training and the benefits. It seemed as though many of the ’PTs’ of that period were dedicated to improving their more supreme athletes, or improving a fighting force. Whether they were certified personal trainers are subject to our interpretation, but there is no doubt that they are the ones who started a fitness movement.

It was the 20th Century that saw the introduction of more conventional fitness programs and physical education classes. However, even at this time most exercises for regular civilian life were made up of callisthenics, running, jumping and sports. There was one man who wanted to push away the notion that the gym was for bodybuilders, weightlifters and the military.

This man was Jack Lalanne. Now some of you may recognise the name, but his impact cannot be understated as what he has done can be felt today. He too was an exceptional athlete, having conquered physical challenge after physical challenge. Examples of these are:

- He swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco while wearing handcuffs.

- At age 42, he set the world record for pushups by doing over 1,000 in 23 minutes.

- At age 45, he did 1,000 jumping jacks and 1,000 pull-ups in 1 hour and 22 minutes.

- At age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf for the second time. This time he not only wore handcuffs but also towed a 1,000-pound boat.

It was this man who brought health clubs and gyms to the masses. He opened his first health club in the United States in 1936 in Oakland, California. He also emphasised weightlifting as a form of exercise for all people, not just athletes and bodybuilders. He did more than just that. He is credited with inventing the first leg extension machine, the first cable machine and the early weight selector versions of these. You can see these in any gym across the globe, in fact, may have indeed used one.

Through his television show and gyms, he also advocated for women to join the gym to get regular exercise and lift weights, just like anybody else.

He was also the first, who had such a large platform, to not just talk about the merits of exercise. He would tell his clients and the world that for the best results you must couple your efforts in the gym with a healthy diet. Of course, we know this is critical to all fitness programs nowadays, but most did not back then.


As with all things, there is a beginning, and there are trailblazers who pave the way for others to follow and improve. To become a Personal Trainer now, you need the knowledge and skills to be able to change a client’s mindset, train them with the right techniques and change their lives for the better. If you are passionate about fitness training, then it is time to follow in the footsteps of those who came before you.

You can do all of this through us, choose your qualification, study mode and jump into the fitness industry. You may develop the next program used by fitness professionals around the world, or perhaps even work with somebody who finds their way to the Olympic Games. The original fitness trainers have laid a foundation for you to build on, but you do not know what you can do until you start!

Equip yourself with everything you need to begin your future in fitness with AIPT’s Complete Personal Training Course. Enquire now or call 1300 616 180 today.

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