The History of How the Modern Day Gym Came to Be

It's a story of knights, Roman soldiers, and a man named Jack.

Whether you work out in a CrossFit Box, a commercial gym, or in a home gym, there is little denying the importance of a dedicated space to train. It is a place where the body is tested, strengthened, and changed. It is a place where athletes train for competition, others train to recover from illness, and some train to achieve the body of their dreams. In short, there is no denying the weird but important place that the gym holds in many of our lives.

It seems somewhat silly to remark on the importance of the gym in the fitness industry, especially in current times. As many of us discovered, or are still experiencing thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to go to the gym makes working out and maintaining one’s strength goals a trickier proposition. This is not to say that it is impossible to work out at home or outdoors, and indeed BarBend has several articles to that end, but rather that the gym is the place we look to for strength and muscle gains. When the gym is taken away, many of us struggle for motivation. 

One of the few constants in strength training history is the seemingly innate desire men and women have to exercise, lift heavy objects, and exhibit their athleticism. For that reason, gyms have existed for centuries. In Ancient Greece, the gym was a place where young men trained their bodies and mind. In California during the 1960s, the gym was a place where men and women trained to win bodybuilding contests. Same space, different motivations.  

Studying the history of the gym from the Ancient World to the present day, today’s post reflects the evolution of the fitness industry itself. As we will see, the gym’s changing nature mirrors the kinds of exercises we do, the reasons we do them, and how we do them. 

The Ancient Gym

Lifting heavy weights was a popular activity in Ancient India, Persia, Egypt, China, and Greece, among other regions. Of these areas, we are going to focus exclusively on Ancient Greece and India. 

It is thanks to Ancient Athens that we have the very word gymnasium. The word’s origins are derived from the Greek terms gumnazo (exercise) and gumnos (naked or loin-clothed). (1)Taken literally, the word means naked exercise, which provides a hint as to the kind of exercise undertaken in the gymnasium. 

Despite their somewhat sordid clothing policy, gymnasiums in Ancient Athens were a mixture between a university and municipal gym. At the gymnasium, men — just men — could bathe, get massages, exercise, and even attend lectures from philosophy heavyweights such as Plato or Aristotle. 

Writing in 1945, the classicist Clarence A. Forbes described the Athenian gymnasium as “a headquarters of higher and adult education.” (2) It was the Sophist school of philosophy that began to use the gymnasium as a lecture hall in the fifth and fourth century BCE, but it wasn’t long before other philosophical schools followed suit. 

In other Greek city-states, gymnasiums were used as training camps for athletes but, more commonly, as military barracks. For example, we know that in Ancient Sparta, the gymnasium was almost exclusively reserved for soldiers in training. This explains, in part, why Spartan troops were so feared — they had been working out from the age of seven.

When the Romans conquered Ancient Greece in the second and third centuries, they adopted both styles of gymnasiums. (3) Wealthy elites would train and learn in the private gymnasium inspired by Athens, while gladiators and soldiers would train in military barracks. 

A clear lineage exists between the gymnasiums of Ancient Greece and Rome to the present day. This does not mean, however, that only one style of gymnasium existed. In Ancient India, soldiers and wrestlers would come together to train in akharas or gyms. 

Anthropologist Joseph Alter has spent a great deal of his career detailing both the longevity and the importance of the akhara. Unlike the gymnasium, which has undergone a great deal of transformation, the akhara’s structure and significance have remained relatively unchanged. (4

Situated in the akhara are statues of deities, oftentimes the Hindu God Hanuman, a half-ape half-human being with Hercules’ strength. In the akhara lies a clay field in which exercisers will run through their workouts before rubbing the clay over their bodies to cleanse themselves. 

It is an entirely different style of training and gymnasium, but it showcases the variety within the fitness industry’s early origins. The video below, taken from the 2010s, shows the still ancient undertones of training in India. While the rest of the article will focus more on Western gymnasiums, there is no denying the importance and uniqueness of the Indian akhara

After the Greeks

Gymnasium culture played a vital part in Greek life and, by virtue of conquest, Roman life. When those cultures disappeared, so too did the gymnasium — at least in Europe. The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ (the fifth to 15th-century) witnessed a reversal of the Greco-Roman appreciation for the body. As Murray Phillips and Alexander Paul Roper — the authors of the Handbook of Physical Education — explained, it was during this decade that religious doctrine from the Catholic Church, which viewed the body as an object of sin, meant that the gymnasium cultures found previously were now problematic. (5

This is not to say, however, that people stopped training their bodies. War happened, and regularly. Soldiers trained, and systems of military physical exercise began to be refined. This was especially the case during the Crusades, the series of religious wars that waged between Christian and Muslim armies from 1096 to 1271 AD. Soldiers preparing for the Crusades valued the use of physicality in battle. 

One such instance was Jean le Maingre, a 14th-century French knight who would perform feats of strength, like somersaulting in his armour, to impress others and increase his strength. (6)

Such instances make for great anecdotes but aren’t very impressive when it comes to the overall history of the gym. It was not until the Renaissance that actual gym cultures reemerged. The relevance of the Renaissance, the transitional period between the ‘Middle Ages’ and the ‘Modern’ age, regarding the progression of the gymnasium is simple — people began to reread Greek texts on exercise.

One such individual was the Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale whose 1569 book De Arte Gymnastica helped revive interest in gym cultures. (7) De Arte’s impact stemmed from its information and the drawings it contained muscular men working out. 

Historian of physical culture Jan Todd made clear the importance of Mercuriale’s creation, calling it a ‘bible’ for those interested in physical activity for several centuries. (8) The 16th and 17th centuries, inspired by Mercuriale and his acolytes, witnessed a gradual interest in physical education and gymnasiums. Further expansion was coming, and it came in perhaps the most unlikely of places.

Civilizing the Gymnasium 

It’s unlikely that the name Jean Jacques Rousseau is thrown around the gym these days, but the French philosopher’s influence on the fitness industry should not be underestimated. In addition to giving us one of the greatest lines in politics — “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” — and wrote about the importance of physical activity. (9

In 1762 Rousseau wrote Emile, or On Education, a multi-volume rumination on education’s role in boy’s and girl’s lives. In it, Rousseau advanced the idea that physical activity and sport was important for children. 

Rousseau was one of the most influential writers of his age. Learned, controversial, and entertaining, his support for physical education grabbed people’s attention. It encouraged individuals to include physical education in their schools, which, by proxy, meant a growing interest in gymnasiums. 

Such interest became deeply connected with European militaries. Many of the first physical educationalists to include gymnastics in their schools, individuals like the German physical educationalist Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths (1759–1839), also wrote on the importance of strengthening children’s bodies to ensure strong soldiers in the future.

This was true of GutsMuths, known as the “Grandfather of Gymnastics,” and another German physical educationist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852), known as the “Father of Gymnastics.” Along with a Swedish educationalist Pehr Henrik Ling (1776–1839), Jahn helped revolutionize European gymnastics. (10)

Jahn’s Turner system was so popular that it encouraged copy-cats in England, France, Italy, Spain, and, in time, the United States. Turner gyms were defined by pommel horses, calisthenics, and in some cases, dumbbells. Jahn’s system promised to strengthen bodies and, as Jahn made clear in his own writings, would increase the patriotism and fighting prowess of participants. 

Conversely, Pehr Henrik Ling devised a system of gymnastics, later known as “Swedish gymnastics,” which promised that gymnastic training would improve people’s health. Ling took the ethos of De Arte and furthered its promise by arguing that exercise could be seen as medicine. From the mid-nineteenth century to the opening decades of the 20th, Swedish and Turner gymnastics were the most popular systems in gymnasiums.

The Early Modern Gym

Although the Swedish and Turner systems were popular and helped advance gymnasiums in Europe and the United States, they weren’t gyms as we know them today. They tended to be light on equipment, aside from balancing beams, pommel horses, climbing ropes, and, maybe, very light dumbbells. 

What was missing were the heavy barbells, heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, benches, and, eventually, machines. Some progress in this direction was found in the latter half of the 19th-century when American entrepreneurs like George Barker Windship began to market new strength machines.

BarBend’s former Training Editor Jake Boly previously wrote on Windship’s “health lift,” a strange-looking device that mimicked a hip-belt squat. In the 1860s, Windship marketed this machine and, more importantly, encouraged the spread of health lift gymnasiums around the United States, which promised a quick and effective workout for men and women alike.

Sadly when Windship died unexpectedly in 1876 from a heart attack, many of his contemporaries blamed his exercise system. Health lifts disappeared from the United States, but their brief popularity hinted that gymnasiums were on their way as we would understand the term.

In 1889, an unknown circus performer and sometimes art model Friedrich Wilhelm Müller traveled to London to compete against a fellow strongman named Sampson. Accepting Sampson’s weightlifting challenge, Müller bested the entertainer, and his assistant, Cyclops. Announcing himself to the world as ‘Eugen Sandow,” Müller inadvertently kickstarted the modern gym craze under the guise of ‘physical culture.’

Known by contemporaries as the ‘world’s most perfectly developed specimen’ and an incredibly shrewd entrepreneur, Sandow opened a gymnasium in London in 1897 for those interested in Sandow’s system. This was done during a time when YMCA gymnasiums were emerging in Britain and the United States, independent gyms sprung up, and the idea of going to the gym was becoming respectable. (11

In many instances, the gym owners and managers from the 1900s to the 1940s tended to be physical culturists in their own right. Those possessing remarkable strength, or enviable physiques, became the authority. Thus “Professor Attila,” Sandow’s mentor, ran a gymnasium in New York which came to be run for several decades by his son-in-law Sig Klein. (12)

This first wave of gymnasiums was similar to todays. They contained dumbbells, some form of barbells, and kettlebells. They held relevance for roughly 40 years before new developments in the industry changed the face of the market forever.

Gyms for All? 

Sandow, Attila, and others who ran gymnasiums in the first half of the 20th century were adept at targeting the general public as members, but they were not always successful. Many of the members of these gymnasiums were those individuals completely enthralled with the idea of working out.

What was needed were individuals run explicitly for those individuals who did not look like Eugen Sandow, who didn’t want to, but who simply wished to improve their appearance. More friendly gyms were needed, and entrepreneurs began to take notice.

One such instance was the famous exercise enthusiast Jack LaLanne who, in 1936, opened a Physical Culture Studio. LaLanne’s studio has been credited by many as one of the first modern fitness centers. LaLanne’s genius was that his studio was opened to ordinary men and women who weren’t necessarily interested in being overly muscular or strong but were just interested in becoming healthier. 

Targeting this group meant that LaLanne increased his potential customer base. Equally important was the inspiration it gave to others. LaLanne later commented that fellow bodybuilder Vic Tanny visited his gym during the late 1930s. Tanny’s ‘Vic Tanny Recreation Centers’ were the first large-scale health centers in America during the 1950s and 1960s. (13

However, it must be said that gyms and fitness centers still tended to be rather obscure things. For the Iron Game itself, the period from the 1940s to 1960s saw some of the most iconic gyms emerge. Places like Gold’s Gym, Vince Gironda’s studio, or the Mid-City Gym in New York had their golden period during this time.

For the general public, however, the gym was not a place they routinely frequented. One study taken in 1961 found that less than 25% of all Americans exercised regularly. The gym was, generally speaking, seen as an area shut off for the general public — Vic Tanny’s Recreational Centers aside. (14

It took a much broader societal interest in physical activity to create any sustained change, and, surprisingly, given the suspicion many lifters have for cardio, jogging came to the rescue. Alan Latham, a history faculty member at the University College London, has previously described how American society in the 1960s and 1970s became obsessed with jogging. (15)

For Anchorman fans, you’ll undoubtedly remember a scene in which Ron Burgundy and his co-workers discuss the practice of “running for prolonged periods of time,” aka jogging. Before the obesity epidemic, American policymakers fretted about the heart disease problem facing the nation. Jogging, as introduced by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, was offered as one possible antidote.

Thus the 1960s and 1970s saw thousands of Americans take to the streets to improve their cardiovascular health. The ‘aerobics’ boom, as it became known, had rather important ramifications for the health industry as a whole. Fitness centers — similar to Vic Tanny’s revolutionary Recreation Centers — began emerging across the country. 

More importantly, they began to cater to both men and women. Concurrent then, with the gym of bodybuilding and strength gyms in the 1960s, were those aimed at the man and woman content with running on a treadmill and, maybe, exercising with dumbbells.

Not Your Average Gym — Boutiques, Hotels, and Chains

The late 1960s were a pivotal moment in the fitness industry, in that more and more people came to be interested in some form of exercise. For this reason, the following two decades saw more and more diversity when it came to health studios, gyms, and fitness centers.

Arthur Jones and his Nautilus system helped initiate a new interest in exercising with machines rather than free weights. Oftentimes individuals interested in using Jones’ machines were faced with one choice only — train in an exclusive Nautilus studio. 

While this was not the beginning of the boutique studio — the gym dedicated to a single exercise modality — it was a significant development. Jones’ Nautilus studios helped bring thousands of men and women to the gym, oftentimes for the first time. 

The success of his studio franchises, and those inspired by them, was a precursor to the boutique gym phenomenon of modern times, which sees yoga studios, OrangeTheory Fitness Centers, and CrossFit Boxes located in the same neighborhoods. 

Jones’ studios had to contend with dance studios, cycling workshops, aerobics classes, and a host of other gyms. On Nov 2, 1981, Time magazine noted the prevalence of fitness classes and studios across the United States. (16) For this reason, new chains like 24 Hour Fitness and LA Fitness were founded during this decade. 

Where 24 Hour Fitness and other large gyms succeeded was in offering facilities that catered to all interests. At one of these larger gyms, you could participate in exercise classes, lift weights, swim, play basketball, and more. 

But what of bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, or weightlifting gyms? During the 1980s, Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, CA, the famous bodybuilding mecca, began to franchise its name around the world. Similarly, the 1980s saw Joe Gold, the man responsible for creating Gold’s Gym, open a rival gym, World’s Gym. (17) Between Gold’s and World’s, the bodybuilding world kept its eyes fixed on the West Coast of America.

In powerlifting, now famous gyms like Westside Barbell came to prominence during the 1980s, as did several others around the East and West coasts. The specialization found in boutique gyms was found in other parts of the iron game.

The end of the 1980s largely mirrored then, the gym industry of today. Smaller, boutique gyms existed. As did large chains, specialist bodybuilding and/or powerlifting spaces and gyms spread across college campuses and hotels around the world. The gym’s importance was all but secured. Was it happy ever after? Not exactly. 

What Next? The Future of the Gym

The COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated the fragility of the gym industry. Over the past year, many lifters have experienced gym closures, some of which are sadly permanent. While it is easy to blame many of these problems solely on the pandemic, the truth is that before COVID, the future of the gym was by no means secure.

Since the 1980s, more and more entrepreneurs have entered the gym industry. While this has brought some very cool developments — CrossFit being an obvious example — it has not been without its problems. As more and more boutique gyms emerged, they competed with new home workout courses, outside exercise classes, and a host of other options. 

Competition before 2020 had never been higher. This was great for the consumer but awful for the gym owner. In particular, competition created a strange race to the bottom between boutique and large gyms. 

Before COVID-19, I was fortunate enough to speak with Thomas Todd, a former gym owner, and fitness manager from Colorado. (18) Speaking on broader trends in the fitness industry, Thomas made clear the structural problems facing many gym owners. 

Simply put, more and more boutique gyms were entering the market. As more boutique gyms opened, be they CrossFit boxes or yoga studios, they siphoned customers away from traditionally large gyms. The larger gym chains were now closing because they were no longer profitable — hence the closures of Gold’s Gyms or 24 Hour Fitnesses around America.

While some may argue that this was a natural evolution in the market, the issue is that a boutique gym’s average lifespan can be less than five years. (19) Large gyms were closing because smaller gyms were eating into their client base. Unfortunately, smaller gyms don’t seem to have the longevity of larger ones.

Thomas was not prophesying doom and gloom for the gym but was highlighting a potentially dangerous trend within the industry. COVID-19 has arguably intensified this trend, leaving gym owners in a terrible situation. 

As lifters, we often take the presence of the gym for granted. COVID-19 made it clear that that is no longer an option. More lifters have created home gyms, favorite neighborhood gyms are struggling, and many gyms have closed altogether in different parts of the world. 

There is room for reflection, but also space for optimism. Many franchises have now redeveloped their business models, gyms in many parts of the world now offer COVID safety protocols, and, I suspect, the post-COVID age will see many of us rush to the gym to address our own personal ‘poundemics.’ 

When looking at the future of the gym, as we know it, the best guess one can make is that it will no doubt be eventful.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.


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Featured image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock