Why Jack LaLanne Is One of the Most Influential Athletes of All Time

Speaking to reporters in the late 1990s, a then vibrant eighty-three-year-old Jack LaLanne told his bemused audience, ‘I can’t afford to die, it’d ruin my image.’(1)

Earlier that morning, LaLanne had engaged in his daily exercise regimen of swimming and lifting weights before indulging in a light breakfast. Later that day he would go about his affairs, exercise once more and, if rumors are to be believed, hold a generally positive demeanor throughout all of this. Lifters born in the mid-twentieth century will be familiar with LaLanne as the TV personality whose show spoke to generations. Younger fitness fanatics know him for his juice promotions and perhaps a few physical culture buffs know him as one of the longest serving and most influential trainers America has ever produced. Whether you know it or not, LaLanne, a man who exercised every day until his ‘untimely’ death aged ninety-six, helping to transform the entire fitness industry: from the places we train to the foods we eat.

What’s more, LaLanne proved that vibrant health was possible at any age. Aged 47, Jack swam across the Golden Gate Channel, towing a 2,500-pound cabin. At 60 he swam, handcuffed, from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf. Heck, at age 70 he towed 70 row boats for the mile-long swim from Long Beach Harbor to the Queensway Bridge.(2) Perhaps even more impressive for those of us with a sweet tooth, LaLanne professed that he last ate dessert in 1929, thereby going 82 years without the sweet stuff.(3)

So who was Jack LaLanne and why does everyone say he fundamentally transformed the fitness industry?

Early Beginnings

Much of LaLanne’s mystique and zeal for life stemmed from a childhood conversion of biblical proportions. Just as Charles Atlas was a ‘98-pound weakling’ growing up, LaLanne’s transformation began as a sugar addict.(4) Covered in acne, low on confidence and bereft of energy, young Jack was a sickly teen whose physical and mental health appeared to be on a downward trajectory.

Hope appeared however in the form of Paul Bragg, who we recently touched upon in our article on the history of lifting supplements. Dragged somewhat reluctantly by his mother to one of Bragg’s public lectures, LaLanne recounted leaving the lecture with a sense of awe and a renewed determination to reform his diet. Motivated by Bragg’s claim that through diet and determination anyone could physically transform their bodies, LaLanne shunned sugar and junk foods from there on out.(5)

As his body changed, LaLanne became more and more immersed in health. Following high school, LaLanne, armed with his copy of Grey’s Anatomy, enrolled in Oakland Community College to become a registered chiropractor. As detailed by Whorton in his wonderful study of alternative medicine in America, chiropractic medicine was viewed with great suspicion during this period, with many of its leading lights labelled as charlatans and quacks by traditional practitioners.(6) It was not the first nor the last time that LaLanne would choose a controversial path.

Fully qualified, LaLanne set about converting as many people to clean eating and continued exercising, and it’s at this point that his influence in the fitness industry began to be felt. In 1936, aged 21, LaLanne opened up the first of his Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studios in Oakland.(7) Though health clubs and fitness centers had long been in existence, dating from Sandow’s time in the early 1900s if not earlier, LaLanne’s studios have been credited as pioneers for modern clubs.(8) Targeted at both the dedicated gym goer and the weekend warrior, LaLanne quickly gained attention for his flamboyant style.

[Learn more about Eugen Sandow, the godfather of bodybuilding, in our breakdown of his life.]

In the first instance, LaLanne’s club targeted both male and female lifters. While some women had begun to join the Iron Game in 1930s America, most notably Pudgy Stockton, their numbers were few and far between.(9) In targeting women interested in exercise, an approach he repeated at numerous points in the next several decades, LaLanne incurred the ire of commentators and medical professionals who objected to women engaging in vigorous activity.(10) Common words used to describe LaLanne at this time were rarely flattering, but insults did little to stop his pioneering ways.

LaLanne’s gym was also notable for its accompanying juice bar, where Jack’s clients could finish their day with a vegetable juice of their choice. Finally, Jack’s gym featured a host of weight training machines.(11) Now in later years many would claim that Jack actually invented a host of pulleys, lat pulldowns and leg extensions.(12) While anyone with a knowledge of chest expanders or Dr. Gustav Zander would take exception to these claims, it is clear that LaLanne was hugely influential in promoting such equipment for a wider audience.(13) Aside from LaLanne, Sig Klein and a handful of others, gymnasiums at this time were generally filled with dumbbells, barbells and Indian clubs.(14) LaLanne’s open, friendly and alternative health club opened up a new and inviting space for the public.

The 1930s and 1940s also marked the peak of LaLanne’s bodybuilding career. While physique contests were still in their infancy, men could still earn renown for their physiques through bodybuilding and physical culture magazines.(15) As detailed by Palella in his doctoral research, LaLanne’s popularity as a bodybuilder grew exponentially during the Second World War when he enlisted with the US Navy and served in the South Pacific.(16) Depicted as a patriot with an enviable body, Jack became a poster boy for a new kind of American man who was strong, heroic and possessed with boundless energy.(17) During this time, LaLanne engaged in some rather strange dietary habits during his bodybuilding days. While many are aware of Armand Tanny’s raw meat diet during the 1940s, LaLanne was known to drink cow’s blood during this time in a bid to imitate the famed Masai tribe from Kenya.(18)  Recounting his experiences many decades later, LaLanne revealed that after a blood clot got caught in his throat he decided to revise his dietary habits!(19)

[Read more from the author: The Fascinating Story of the First Bodybuilding Show.]

As peace returned to the World (or at least parts of it), LaLanne’s business enterprises continued to grow. In 1951, LaLanne began hosting a local fitness program, which unbeknownst to him at the time, would last for over thirty years. Filmed in San Francisco but eventually spreading across the United States, the Jack LaLanne Show came during a renewed American interest in fitness.(20) This wasn’t a fitness forged in the gymnasium, but one that could be done at home and in the convenience of one’s home. Three full decades before Jane Fonda revolutionized female exercise, LaLanne’s daytime TV show encouraged mothers and their children to get off the couch and engage in some good old fashioned calisthenics.(21) Again, LaLanne was not the first physical culturist to engage such a medium. Radio exercise programs had existed since the 1920s, LaLanne simply brought them to another level.(22) Accompanied by his German Shepard, ‘Happy’, LaLanne’s programme covered diet, exercise and mental health. His advice on the importance of smiling, a clip I find myself regularly returning to, is just one example of this.

Now The Jack LaLanne Show propelled LaLanne’s fame and influence within the fitness industry. From the mid-1950s, LaLanne began promoting a series of innovations ranging from supplements to equipment. Recognising the need for meal and vitamin supplements for the average citizen, LaLanne began promoting an ‘Instant Breakfast’ formula as well as his own multi-vitamin and cookbook.(23) While promoted for both men and women, LaLanne’s primary market was the stay at home housewife, a previously ignored demographic within the fitness industry.(24) Now for gym goers, LaLanne helped promote a series of machines still in use today.

In the first instance, LaLanne helped to improve a number of pulley devices, similar to the cable machines used today. While he did not invent these machines as is often claimed, Jack, through trial and error, improved upon their design.(25) More importantly (or more annoyingly depending on your disposition), Jack, along with Rudy Smith, helped to design and popularise the Smith Machine. During a dinner meeting between the two in the mid-1950s, the pair came together to form a machine capable of allowing lifters to use heavy weights without spotters. Though Smith eventually ran with the design and created the Smith Machine, the concept owed something to Jack.(26)

Age No Object

While at the height of his popularity during the 1950s, Jack discovered something rather frightening: he was growing older. Though others may have shied away from this fact, LaLanne, in stereotypical fashion, resolved to fight back. From 1954, LaLanne engaged in a series of feats whose sole purpose was to prove to others that age should never excuse one from exercising. Thus from 1954 to 1984, LaLanne swam handcuffed, towed rowboats, and engaged in other remarkable feats of endurance and strength.(27) My favorite example of this came in 1959 when a 49-year-old LaLanne completed 1,000 push ups and 1,000 pull ups in an hour and twenty-two minutes. Now just for fun, LaLanne would accept challenges from the audience in between these planned stunts.(28) So at the behest of his fans Jack would do fingertip push ups (now known as LaLanne Push Ups), do those bodyweight challenges and whatever else was needed to convince his audience that exercise and diet were always part of the answer.

Jack’s Juices

All good things must sadly end and so too did Jack’s television program. Did that stop him? What do you think? After the network put an end to his show in 1985, LaLanne devoted the bulk of his energies to the private fitness market. Returning to the health studio business, LaLanne oversaw a gym empire that grew to 200 hundred individual outlets before the new millennium.(29) He sold exercise videos or books and began marketing his own ‘Power Juicer.’ In a fitness industry largely infiltrated by steroids, especially in the bodybuilding world, Jack’s favored form of juicing was good old fashioned fruits and vegetables.(30) Speaking to Playboy Magazine in 1984, LaLanne revealed his patented ‘power drink’

I have about 400 vitamin supplements for breakfast right after I work out. I put them in a blender and make a high protein drink. I use a quart of carrot and celery juice, half and half, then put in two heaping tablespoons of wheat germ, two more of high strain brewer’s yeast, then a heaping tablespoon of bone meal and a banana. Then I put in one hundred liver-yeast tablets, fifteen thousand milligrams of vitamin C, two thousand units of B, some boron and some zinc, also seventy five alfalfa and kelp tablets. Then I blend and drink it.

It’s one of the worst tasting health drinks you could have, but I still drink it, because it’s the perfect breakfast. It’s got about forty grams of protein, all the B-complex vitamins, everything that’s natural from the carrot and celery juices, the enzymes, the trace elements, calcium and potassium form the bone meal. And it’s very low in calories, after you work out like me, you’re not hungry, you’re thirsty.(31)

When LaLanne says it tastes awful, chances are it’s the truth. Despite his questionable recipes, LaLanne’s own brand juices helped encourage a new generation to try out vegetable juices.

Closing Act

Moving into the new millennium, Jack’s life underwent further changes. His LaLanne gym chains became Bally Total Fitness in the mid 1980s but his presence in the public eye remained.(32) Every few months an astonished reporter would comment on an eighty or ninety year old LaLanne whose daily two hour workout put to shame those half his age. Jack continued to publish a series of books and celebrated every birthday with fruit for dessert.(33) Throughout all of this, LaLanne continued to exercise. His ritual was simple. Weight training and swimming, regardless of excuses. The day before he died of pneumonia aged ninety-six, LaLanne was in his home gym. Dedicated to the very end.(34)

[How do you work swimming into a strength cycle? We’ve got your guide right here.]

LaLanne: A Life?

So what to make of LaLanne’s life? The cynic will point to the myths surrounding LaLanne and disparage his influence. Through ill research and poor journalism, LaLanne has been credited with inventing the leg extension machine, the jumping jack and the lat pulldown.(35) This was not the case. Similarly, others have said that longevity simply ran in LaLanne’s family: his mother did die aged eighty-nine, after all.(36) 

For those who still hold wonder in their hearts, LaLanne’s story does not need embellishment. When he started his journey, in his own words, he was “a walking trash can.” Yet through determination and enthusiasm, LaLanne resolved his ways. He introduced generations of mothers and children to exercise, promoted gymnasiums throughout the United States and made juicing an acceptable behavior. LaLanne did not create these things, but he increased their popularity. His legacy is found nowadays in the increased presence of women in gyms, the regular sight of office workers carrying green juices as they frantically run into meetings, and the grandparent still pumping iron in the gym.

What can one learn from LaLanne? Eat well, move more and smile often. Whatever else changed in his life, LaLanne never strayed from these core tenets.

Featured image via @jackandelaine_lalanne on Instagram.

Acknowledgements

This article greatly benefitted from Barbend’s own Dr. Ben Pollack, whose doctoral work explores LaLanne’s career in much greater detail. Similarly Ben’s generosity when it comes to my annoying email requests and his willingness to help with past enquiries greatly aided the present work. In a sign that the universe has a sense of humour, Ben’s dissertation became available online right before the present article’s publication. Check it out here.

References

1. Pamela Liuzzo, ‘Jack LaLanne: “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.’  The Daily Courier, 06 February 2011, accessed 03 December 2018.
2. ‘Jack LaLanne Feats and Honors.’ Jack LaLanne, accessed 01 December 2018.
3. Haroon Siddique, ‘Jack LaLanne: US fitness guru who last ate dessert in 1929 dies aged 96’, The Guardian, 24 January 2011. Accessed 29 November, 2018.
4. David Ezra, Asterisk: Home runs, steroids, and the rush to judgment (Triumph Books, 2008), 91.
5. Ibid.
6. James C. Whorton,  Nature cures: The history of alternative medicine in America (Oxford University Press, 2004). See also Greg Anderson, Living Life on Purpose: A Guide to Creating a Life of Success and Significance (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 81.
7. Eric Chaline, The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym (Reaktion Books, 2015), 155.
8. For a fantastic indepth discussion of LaLanne’s first studios see Ben Pollack, ‘Becoming Jack LaLanne’ (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2018), pp. 100-114.
9. Valerie Steele, Encyclopedia of clothing and fashion (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005), pp. 156-165.
10.Susan Willis, ‘Work (ing) out’,  Cultural Studies 4.1 (1990), pp. 1-8.
11. Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, Volume 1 (Bloomington, 2008), pp. 111-113.
12. Donald Spiderman Thomas,  New Jump Swing Healthy Aging & Athletic Nutrition Program (Xlibris, Corp, 2011), p. 110.
13. For a fantastic dissertation on early weight training machines see Ellen Roney Hughes, ‘Machines for better bodies: A cultural history of exercise machines in America, 1830–1950.’ (University of Maryland, 2004).
14. Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, Volume 1, pp. 21-27.
15. John D. Fair,  Mr. America: The tragic history of a bodybuilding icon (University of Texas Press, 2015), pp. 1-16.
16. John M. Palella,  ‘For a Love of Beauty and Strength: “A History of Muscularity, Masculinities, & American Culture, 1880-1973’ (University at Albany, State University of New York, 2016), pp. 112-130.
17. Ibid.
18. On Armand Tanny see Conor Heffernan, ‘Armand Tanny and Raw Meat Bodybuilding’, Physical Culture Study, 02 August, 2016, accessed 05 December 2018. 
19. Jonathan Black, Making the American body: The remarkable saga of the men and women whose feats, feuds, and passions shaped fitness history (U of Nebraska Press, 2013), p. 40.
20. Bill Starr, ‘Jack LaLanne – A Life Well Lived’, Starting Strength, 17 February 2011, accessed 02 December 2018.
21. Ibid; Willis, ‘Work (ing) out’, pp. 6-8.
22. Charlotte Macdonald, Strong, beautiful and modern: national fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960 (UBC Press, 2013), p. 78.
23. Ibid.
24. Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, pp. 463-464.
25. Andrew F. Smith,  Food in America: The past, present, and future of food, farming, and the family meal (ABC-CLIO, 2017), p. 34.
26. Black, Making the American body, p. 49.
27. ‘Jack LaLanne Feats and Honors.’
28. Ibid.
29. Chaline, The Temple of Perfection, p. 155.
30. This is covered well in J. Andreasson & T. Johansson, ‘The fitness revolution. Historical transformations in the global gym and fitness culture’, Sport science review, 23:3-4 (2014), pp. 91-111.
31. Conor Heffernan, ‘Jack LaLanne’s Power Drink’, Physical Culture Study, 16 February, 2018, accessed 02 December 2018.
32. Chaline, The Temple of Perfection, p. 155.
33. Kelly Ferrin, What’s Age Got to Do with It: Secrets to Aging in Extraordinary Ways (Red Zone Publishing, 2004), p. 214.
34.See ‘Fitness guru Jack LaLanne dies at 96’, CNN International, 24 January 2011, accessed 29 November 2018.
35.Thomas,  New Jump Swing Healthy Aging & Athletic Nutrition Program, p. 110.
36. Jennie LaLanne: Historical Records’, My Heritage, 05 December 2018, accessed 05 December 2018.

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