When we dig into the history of exercise names, we begin to learn about the evolution of the fitness industry in general. Some name origins are easy to figure out — many moves are typically named after the inventor or, at the very least, the country where the exercise became popular. While others have a much more complicated backstory that only adds to the mythology of fitness culture today.
And below, we’ve rounded up the origins behind seven exercises (and one bonus fitness term), some of which are straightforward, while others are far more obscure. But either way, they’re all fascinating in their own right.
The Origins Behind 7 Exercise Names
- The Jumping Jack
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Romanian Deadlifts
- CrossFit Benchmark Workouts
- Bonus: Gym
If you ever thought that jumping jacks felt like a punishment, well, you might be right. The first movement on our list gained popularity, partly, as a way to condition (and possibly punish) military cadets in the United States. General John J. Pershing originally championed this simple but effective exercise back in 1885 at West Point, according to one biography about his life.
The book says that Pershing lined up troops of men up and assigned odd and even numbers to each cadet. He would then pull an imaginary string in the air, at which point all the odd-numbered men threw their arms out at right angles. When he dropped his arm, the evens would jump their legs out to make a V, ostensibly turning the men into human marionettes, as the book explains.
While it’s unclear if Pershing definitively invented the move, it is likely — if not certain — that he was inspired by jumping jack toys which were first sold in the 1700s. These were small wooden figures attached to a string, and when you pulled the string, the figures’ arms and legs jolted out, akin to the exercise movement.
So while popular fitness lore attributes the name “jumping jack” to Pershing (his nickname was “Black Jack,” after all), its origin actually comes from the toy. Since then, the move has become a fitness staple used by everyone from elementary school students to pro athletes.
Contrary to what you might have believed, burpees weren’t named for any sort of gastronomical distress you may experience while performing this much-loathed exercise. Instead, they were simply named after their inventor, Royal H. Burpee, a graduate student at Columbia’s Teachers College in the 1930s.
The origin of the move came about as Burpee perfected his Ph.D. thesis in Applied Physiology, which was centered around physical fitness and, more importantly, how to adequately test it. This was an important point as physical education teachers rarely, if ever, have access to the scientific equipment often used in testing fitness. This meant that fitness tests for teachers needed to be relatively simple and, ideally, require little more than a stopwatch.
One of Burpee’s fitness measures was the move that would eventually bare his name. Initially, the exercise was divided into four movements:
- Squat down and put both hands on the floor in front of you
- Pop your feet backward into a plank position
- Bring your feet back forward.
- Stand back up.
Note: The push-up at the bottom of the movement was added later.
Where Burpee got lucky was with his timing. In December 1941, the United States formally entered the Second World War, and the military was looking for a way to whip its servicemen into shape.
Faced with testing thousands and thousands of men, the military introduced the burpee in 1944 as a means of quickly evaluating men’s fitness. The original test involved seeing how many burpees a soldier could do in 20 seconds — eight or less was considered poor, while 13 or more was considered excellent.
Calisthenics, or bodyweight-only exercise systems, have enjoyed something of a resurgence in the past decade. While dips and pull-ups ensure that most trainees engage in some calisthenic work, many individuals now train solely using their body weight.
And the origin of the name calisthenics goes back to ancient Greece. Specifically, the term is an amalgamation of two ancient Greek words: kállos (κάλλος), which means beauty, and sthenos (σθένος), meaning strength. We could then define it as beautiful strength or beauty in strength (depending on how poetic one likes to be).
While calisthenic programs date to the ancient world, the term’s popularity increased dramatically in the 19th century when early physical educationalists and gymnasts began to apply it to their training systems. Indeed, many books from the 1820s on physical education contain the word calisthenics in the title.
One of the most influential voices to use the phrase was P.H. Clias, an American-born gymnast who taught physical education in both mainland Europe and Great Britain. In 1829, Clias published Kalisthenie oder Uebungen zur Schoenheit und Kraft fuer Maedchen, which roughly translates to Calisthenics or Exercises of Beauty and Strength for Girls.
In 1996, Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata published a study centered on a few simple questions: What would happen if brief but intense periods of exercise were used for a short duration? Would it be possible to improve fitness in a relatively short period of time? And what, if any, value would this system hold for athletes?
Studying the impact of this system on both male physical education college students and Japanese speed skaters, Tabata and his team put together a simple but effective program. Using a stationary bike, participants would perform explosive bouts of exercise for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and then resume again. The goal was to “exhaust subjects during the 7th or 8th sets.”
The results were groundbreaking, as it appeared that the Tabata system improved both cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength simultaneously. Initially published in academic journals, the “Tabata” system quickly caught the attention of coaches and fitness pros around the world.
This, as Dr. Tabata made clear in 2019, has had some unforeseen consequences. According to Dr. Tabata, the best results (as found in the literature) come from using stationary bicycles or equipment that can stimulate a high intensity as fast cycling. Thus, many trainees who use it for walking, weight training, or even running are oftentimes not following the designed protocol.
Does this mean that Tabata’s system isn’t effective for those other exercises? Not necessarily. But it is an interesting look at how quickly exercise trends and systems can change.
Bulgarian split squats, one of the most punishing quads exercises a trainee can do, got their name from former Bulgarian weightlifting coach Angel Spassov. That is a simple statement for what is an incredibly contentious backstory.
Spassov was the head coach of the Bulgarian National Weightlifting team for six separate Olympic games from 1968-1996. During the 1980s, he toured the United States and published influential articles in bodybuilding magazines, preaching an incredible message: the Bulgarian weightlifting team did not use back squats whatsoever in their training. Instead, they were said to have relied on split squats and step-ups.
The idea that the successful Bulgarian and Soviet weightlifters had completely dropped the back squat instigated the inclusion of the split squat and step-ups in countless programs in America and elsewhere.
However, according to an article by American weightlifting coach and author Kim Goss, Spassov’s claims that the Bulgarians never utilized back squats were simply untrue. Not only did another legendary Bulgarian weightlifting coach, Ivan Abadjiev, outright deny Spassov’s claims, according to Goss, but Bulgarian weightlifters from the 1990s claimed to have never done step-ups.
Though the details around the move are murky, the name will forever be linked to the Bulgarian weightlifting team, and, more specifically, to Spassov.
In 1990, famed 100kg Olympic weightlifter Nicu Vlad and his coach Dragomir Cioroslan, traveled from their base in Romania to the United States, where Vlad was going to compete in the Goodwill Games.
During his trip, Vlad and Cioroslan were asked to conduct coaching clinics for USA Weightlifting. One of these clinics was at the gym of Jim Schmitz, one of the most respected and high-profile American weightlifting coaches.
As Schmitz later wrote about the clinic:
“Part of the clinic was Nicu doing a workout where he cleaned and jerked around 220 kg to 230 kg, and then he proceeded to do this lift, a combination stiff-leg deadlift and regular deadlift, but actually neither. He did several sets, working up to 250 for triples.”
This exercise fascinated Schmitz and the American athletes, but when an observer asked what the movement was called, Vlad and Cioroslan didn’t have a name in mind. It was simply a move Vlad did. After a bit, Schmitz wrote that he suggested “Romanian deadlift or RDL for short” in front of the group, and it’s stuck ever since.
CrossFit burst onto the fitness scene in the early 2000s, thanks to founders Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai. Promising holistic fitness, and a huge amount of variety, CrossFit offered strength tests and training techniques that were unlike anything being offered at that time.
For those unaware, one of CrossFit’s early mystiques was the creation of WODs or workouts of the day. Each day, workouts were posted to measure the trainee’s strength and progress, with the most hallowed of these being the benchmark WODs.
Put simply, these are workouts, done for time, which can be used to measure someone’s progress. And early on, many of these benchmark WODs were given traditional women’s names, like Angie, Linda, Cindy, or Grace.
And among the best-known of these workouts is Fran, which breaks down like this:
Beginners are expected to finish Fran in seven to nine minutes, while Elite trainees can achieve it in under three.
One question you may have — aside from why anyone would do this willingly — is why the original benchmark WODs were named after women.
The answer comes directly from CrossFit co-founder Greg Glassman in a 2003 CrossFit Journal article [PDF]. He apparently took cues from how hurricanes and tropical storms were given women’s names in the United States starting in 1953.
According to the National Hurricane Center, “the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods.”
The previous method involved designating storms “by year and the order in which they occurred during that year.” Giving them common names made it easier to track multiple storms at once, and could be conveyed to the public with less confusion.
But just as the U.S. began utilizing traditional male names for storms in the 1970s, so, too, did CrossFit, eventually. Now, WOD names run the gamut, including a series of workouts named in honor of fallen servicemen and women. There’s even one named after everybody’s favorite ape-run-amok, King Kong.
Have you ever thought about the word gym? Like, really thought about it? Sure, you probably know that it comes from gymnasium. But its roots go back to the ancient Greece verb gumnazo, meaning “to exercise,” and gumnos, which means “naked or loin-clothed,” as PBS points out.
This gave birth to the “gymnasia,” an ancient exercise complex with a track, fields, and other areas for men to compete against one another — and as you probably guessed, they weren’t particularly clothed while doing so. In short, the word itself basically translates to “a place for naked exercise.”
This entry might be a little bit of a cheat since it’s not an exercise, but it’s too good of an anecdote to leave out on a technicality.
Featured Image: tsyhun via Shutterstock