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Book Review: System of Physical Training by Eugene Sandow

System of Physical Training was Eugene Sandow’s first book. It actually wasn’t written by Sandow, or not completely, but put together by an associate of his. I have to say it’s not my favorite of the books we’ve read in the book club so far. It’s long and redundant in many places. Still there are some interesting things in there.

Eugene SandowFirst let’s talk about how its laid out. It starts off with a bunch of stories of Sandow’s career. Many of these are quite entertaining. Like the story of him gaining noteriety by destroying all the strength testing machines in a town, or when he was up against Samson and Cyclops. Many of these stories are quoted from newspapers of the time. About half the book is of this biographical nature.

From there it goes into Sandow’s philosophy of training and health. And it finishes up with light weight training and heavy weight lifting. Like George Hackenschmidt and a number of other strongmen, Sandow believed light exercises would be sufficient for most people, and that heavy weight lifting should only be done by weight lifters.

Let’s move into discussing some of the quotes from the book.

Muscle Control

“Another distinguishing characteristic is his voluntary control of his muscles. He can relax and contract them at will, and the fact that he is able to relax antagonizing muscles is a great aid in performing feats of strength. He is able to employ only such muscles as are necessary, and there is thus very little wasted energy.”

“An interesting feature of Sandow’s method of training is that he can train very well sitting on a chair. He can sit down and read a paper and keep his muscles working all the while, so that all development of fat is rendered impossible and his strength is kept up to the highest pitch.”

When people think of muscle control it’s usually guys like Maxick, Otto Arco and Monte Saldo that come to mind. But Sandow came before them and was just as big a proponent. He said he got all his training from doing the above plus his daily performances for long periods.

And truthfully if you look at his five pound dumbbell training, it is a form of muscle control far more then weight lifting. In fact in the Master Muscle Control course I discuss the use of light weights as one form that is rarely used but highly effective.

Eugen Sandow Back Shot“It taught me not only the points of localization and functions of the muscles, and their manifold connecting ligatures and tissues, but emphasized, as no desultory or unscientific study could, the physiological effects of the human frame of active and intelligent exercise.”

If you want to become excellent at muscle control it is wise to study in depth the anatomy of the body. This will allow you to know exactly where you should be focusing your intention and get down into the details.

Training Tools


“The ancient Greeks and Romans would have laughed at our extensive array of apparatus,- the appurtenances of our modern gymnasia- on which we foolishly lavish large sums of money, often only to be looked at, or used for harm rather than for good. Another point is this: see that your training be not only simple but effective. In its scope let it be thorough.”

Wow, if they thought it was bad back before the turn of the 20th century what would they say now?

“My faith is pinned to dumb-bells, and I do all my training with their aid, supplemented by weight-lifting.”

“I consider 5-lb. dumb-bells quite sufficient for any one.”

“Nothing, in my opinion, however, is better than the use of the dumb-bell, for developing the whole system.”

As already discussed this dumbbell training is more muscle control then anything else. These weights aren’t enough to really tax the major muscles of the body, especially for a strong person unless will power and/or really high reps are used and even then.

I’m not saying that this wouldn’t work for the average person. However by itself I don’t think it will build true strength. Of course, Sandow was an advocate of heavy lifting as well and did that himself.

It’s possible that with his system he didn’t really want to create more competition for himself. There are those who “hide the gold” so to speak.

The Quality of Muscle

“His muscles, when flexed, are as unyielding to the touch as iron. When Sandow strikes himself on a muscle with his hand, it gives forth a sound like wood.”

“When relaxed his arms is as soft as a child’s, but when contracted it feels like steel.”

If you want the ultimate in strength and flexibility (the two sides of the coins with tension and relaxation), this is the quality of muscle that you want. It should be completely soft when relaxed yet hard as steel when flexed.

Truthfully I don’t think you can attain this quality (the relaxation part) through weight lifting alone as the quote below illustrates. This is one of the great benefits of muscle control, learning how to relax the muscles completely.

“The radical mistake is also made of over-training, and of developing the muscles till they feel like iron, forgetting that flexibility rather than hardness is the symbol and condition of health.”

Concentration

“HE PUT HIS MIND INTO HIS EXERCISES…The difference is great, as every learner knows or ought to know, between going through certain exercises in a perfunctory and mechanical manner, and putting the muscles to the strain by concentrating the mind and will-power upon the manipulation of the weights, or whatever muscular exercise is being attempted.”

I feel like this is a large reason that people don’t get the results. I see examples of one person who does the same as another, yet what their mind focuses on while doing the exercises, will lead to different results. The question to ask yourself is are you just going through the motions are are you focused on your goal? In everything you do in the gym you will achieve better results with the latter. Yet at times we also slip into the former (myself included).

“(1) Upon the concentration of the will-power on the muscles of muscle chiefly concerned in an exercise ; and (2), the importance you attach to energy and dash, accompanied by the most rigid attention to the minutest details, in the actual carrying out of any and every exercise.”

Not only do you want to concentrate but with this concentration you focus on every detail. This is important for finding what can be improved upon. Also “energy and dash” I believe refers to using speed with the movements as well as intention behind all the movements you do.

“The spinal cord, which is primarily a conductor of movements initiated by the brain, seems to have a memory, and, after a certain habituation to the work to be performed, is able to repeat the movements without much, if any, intervention of the will.”

This happens due to the coding of nerves with myelin sheath. You get to a point where you don’t need to think about the exercises and they become automatic. But in training this is not something you want to have happen. Remember to concentrate.

“As an aid to cerebral movements and to the strengthening and clarifying of the mental faculties, no better specific can be suggested than muscular exercise.”

Not only can you build your mental skills through physical training, but exercise by itself is great for brain health.

Being Strong

“It is something to be one’s own law-enforcer.”

I just really liked this quote. It refers to a story where Sandow went after a couple of people who stole from him. It also speaks to self-reliance. After all this is part of the reason for training. Not just to look good and be healthy but to have strength, athleticism, and martial skills when you need them.

I’m no suggesting you become a vigilante, but should you need to for whatever reason, it’s good to no you’re in shape and have the skills to do so.

“Test his strength WITH ACROBATS, WRESTLERS, AND HEAVY-WEIGHT LIFTERS.”

If you want to be all around strong this would be a great way to go about it. If you covered the three areas of acrobatics, wrestling and weight lifting, and could perform well in each I think you would easily be called a Physical Culture Renaissance Man. Many, but not all of the old-time strongmen, were like this. It seems in today’s day and age it’s ever rarer to find.

“The chief secret of being able to bear great burdens is this, that they know how to distribute the strain of the heavy weights they lift over the whole organism, calling into aid not only the muscles of the arm, but those of the trunk and legs, as well as utilising the main framework of the body, the vertebral column, pelvis, and bones of the lower limbs.”

Any would be strong man or weight lifter needs to understand this. Strength and endurance are often not just merely a muscular test but knowing how to use the body in the most advantageous ways.

As for the weight lifting exercises Sandow recommended they were much in line with what Arthur Saxon and many of the other strongmen of the day did.

“At the outset, any one exercise should not be prolonged beyond the point when the muscles tire, though every exercise should be continued until they ache, and the mind should be put into the work, that the muscles may feel the strain and receive the full benefit of the toning and building-up process.”

Here is Sandow’s idea on how hard to work in your training. Not to failure but still working hard until you feel it. Of course with his 5 lb. dumbbells there may not quite be a failure point, but with the mind concentrated on the movements, you work them for some time, feeling the exercise and concentrating on what you want to come of it.

Conclusion

Sandow was one, if not the most, well-known strongman of his time. More then his feats, it was how he looked that captured the public’s eye. He was not the strongest at many feats, nor was this book one of the best available.

But the truth is strength training would quite probably not be what it was today without his influence.

Your Turn

Sure you can just read this article and gain from it. But I hope you will read the full book of System of Physical Training. Then it’s your turn to comment. For us to get the most of this book club it must be interactive.

Use the form below to write your comments. What questions do you have? What did you learn from this book? What do you plan on applying that you’ve learned? What do you like? What do you disagree with?

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