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Book Review: The Way to Live by George Hackenschmidt

The Way to Live by George Hackenschmidt is one of the classic, and often quoted, books in any physical culturists library. The Russian Lion as he came to be known, or Hack, was a phenomenal strongman and wrestler. This book really comes in two parts, first the instructional, then the biographical and we’ll deal with each in turn.

Hack was a all around strongmen as exemplified by his weightlifting feats and wrestling prowess. All of this required not only strength but agility and speed. One of the feats mentioned early in the book was turning a forward somersault with a pair of 50 lb. dumbbells in his hands. That sounds like something fun to try!

George Hackenschmidt

Health and Diet

“Health can never be divorced from strength.”

While never is too strong of a word, as there are cases where I would say it has been divorced from strength, for the average as well as super human person, this as a general precept is great to follow. Your strength and health should be built up at the same time. This will give you longevity as well as aid each other.

“I have come to the distinct conclusion, that the physical constitution of the human frame never was intended merely for study, but rather for manual and bodily exercise. I have found that those who have lived an active outdoor life have retained and enjoyed brightness born of health far longer than others.”

Unfortunately in this day and age, of computers and office working, fewer and fewer people live this sort of life, myself included. Can a half hour workout each day, really make up for all the time spent sitting in an office chair, driving, or at home watching TV? Just some food for thought. Although I am on my computer for much of what I do I am seeking more and daily activities beyond just working out, that simulate the outdoor life as best as I possibly can.

“Man is born without frying-pan or stewpot. The purest natural food for human beings would, therefore, be fresh, uncooked food and nuts.”

This is one of the earlier books to point out that raw food may be best. Of course, Hack was no compete raw foodist, but advised what could be called a High-Raw Diet today.

“My experience has taught me that foodstuffs are of secondary importance.”

If you have your mindset right and the training right, then yes nutrition is of lesser importance. You can become crazy strong eat crap food. That being said, in his time, there was not the level of junk and processed food we have today. His point was vegetarians or meat eaters can both become strong. He also advocated finding what worked well for you, and eating plain and natural food.

“I maintain that it is absolutely a mistake to eat a great deal. Excess is harmful, as all food which the stomach only partly digests.”

Since reading the Maxalding book I’ve been experimenting more with this idea. Smaller meals. Over the past years I tended to eat a lot usually once per day, with other smaller meals. Now I’m working to keep that big meal, usually dinner, a bit smaller, not eating to the point of being full, and I’ve noticed my digestion is better from it.

“Four channels, the lungs, the skin, the kidneys, and the intestines. If these four channels are in good working order, the man is healthy.”

Elimination is one of the biggest aspects of our health. If it is not working properly then things get backed up, and our bodies deal with more toxicity then they may be able to handle. Look at your life, and do you seem to have great elimination in each of the four channels?

The Russian Lion

Will

“An essential point is, that the candidate puts his life and soul into the study of proper training; enduring will power is the mightiest factor for good results”

I like this quote which is actually from Adolph Andruschkewitzsch in the book. What its saying is that anyone can become truly great and strong. But in order to become so will take a lifetime, a complete commitment to doing so. This holds true not just for physical training but any area you wish to excel in. Enduring will power is persistence to go for what you desire.

“The will I should call that incessant inward impulse which spurs one on to the goal.”

I recently did a module on what I called Volition for my Think and Grow Strong members. This is exactly what is talked about there. If you understand the words “incessant inward impulse” and you have that, then attaining your goal is merely a matter of time.

Excuses which a man may advance such as, “I am too old,” “I have not sufficient time,” “My position or my business does not permit,” etc., are all mere subterfuges to cover a weak will power.

This is the flip side of the above. If you do not have the drive you’re going to come up with an excuse so you can at least feel good about the fact. By having the excuse you take the blame off of yourself and put it on to some external thing. The truth of the matter is though that its all within your power and your choice.

Mental Attitude

“If, therefore, you wish to become healthy and strong, you must give your thoughts to the full and without restriction in this direction, even to the most insignificant performances of your daily life. Concentrate your mind upon the idea of acquiring health and strength!

“The ordinary mortal may be reading his daily paper or book while taking his meals; his mind is occupied with what he is reading, instead of being bent on acquiring nourishment.”

How often do you spend thinking about your goals. The example of eating food mindfully or mindlessly is the perfect example. Your intention while doing things can take them from the mechanical to having even greater impacts towards what you are trying to accomplish.

It’s easy to go through the motions when you’re working out, and especially when eating food. But the results you get won’t be nearly as great as if you keep your mind focused on how what you are doing will help you to reach your goal.

To back this up a couple paragraphs later he mentions “it has been proved by experiments that thought can influence a livelier rush of blood to certain parts of the body.”

Training

“For it is only by exercising with heavy weights that any man can hope to develop really great strength. He should of course combine these exercises with skipping, running, jumping and gymnastics of every description in order to similarly develop his activity and agility, but, unless he sedulously carries out the barbell and dumb-bell exercises as well, he can never acquire really great physical powers.”

Here is a call to be well rounded. While there is no doubt that the barbell and dumbbells are probably the best tools for developing the greatest levels of strength, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally valid ways. Bodyweight exercises, beyond what he listed here, can be made so difficult to match many, but not all barbell feats. That being said, I’m in complete agreement with his statement that people should seek to build all levels of “fitness” using multiple methods.

“If for any kind of work the breath through the nose ceases to be sufficient, one ought to either discontinue the work or restrict the movement until breathing has again become normal.”

I don’t agree that you should stop if you have to breathe from your mouth. There are times when you need to push your conditioning and for all out sprints. That being said I have been experimenting with this more and more. What can you do while keeping rhythmic breathing done all through the nose? How far can you push your abilities while maintaining this and not switching to mouth breathing?

“Man is a creature of light and air, and I should therefore recommend little or no clothing when training.”

I just like how this one is worded. And I try to do it as much as possible (without resorting to the whole naked training thing). I usually just wear workout shorts, even in colder weather. This allows the skin to breathe more and if you’re outside to collect the much needed Vitamin D.

“As a principal rule I should stipulate for regularity of training.”
“There are only two principal means of acquiring strength – exercise and perseverance.

Once again we get to the idea of perseverance in training. This and nothing else will get you to your goals. While I of course think there are certain ways to train that are much better then others, just about any method works to some degree, as long as it is done with regularity for a period of time. Yet without this, not even the best training in the world will get you to your goals.

“Never on any account continue the exercises until exhaustion sets in and always relax your muscles afterwards.”

The Russian Lion was not an advocate of training to failure. In addition the relaxing of muscles afterwards will not only speed recovery, but goes back to the principle of mindfulness discussed earlier.

I’ve noticed this trend among a number of his contemporaries. They caution that young people shouldn’t lift weights as it could interfere with growth. This idea is still in wide spread use today. But then they go on to say basically “but it worked for me.” Though anything could easily be overdone, I’m no longer going to ever say kids shouldn’t lift weights. I mean just look at Noah Jeffries. He was never forced to lift, but did, even doing heavy partials. And look how strong he is today at a young age.

Exercises

The training is broken up into three sections: Exercises Without Weights, Muscle Exercises with Weights, and Exercises for Athletes. Most people familiar with training will be familiar with many if not all of the exercises found in this section. That doesn’t mean they should be discounted at all, because these are many of the best exercises available.

What I really like about this book is his schedules for working out. He actually talks about the differences in people that can devote all their time to training and those that have limited time. In fact, I believe this is the only book I’ve seen that addresses this. For instance here is one daily schedule and workout plan.

7 a.m. – Rise, short cold rub or bath (this can be changed to tepid in winter if desired), drying preferably by exercise afterwards, but failing this by vigorous application of a rough towel. In any event, fifteen to twenty minutes’ light exercises to follow the path.
8 a.m. – Breakfast, followed by long walk till 11 a.m.
11 till 12 noon. – Vigorous exercises of any kind.
1:30 p.m. – Luncheon, and if needed, one hour’s sleep to follow.
5 to 6 p.m. – Vigorous exercise for all muscles.
7:30 p.m. – Dinner, and after rest or recreation out of doors as far as possible.
11 p.m. – Bed-time.
(Sundays, no exercises, but a good brisk walk or walks.)

And overall I’d have to say its pretty good. Perhaps I’ll try something like this and go back to twice per day workouts, of course with moderated intensity.

Biography

The Way to Live ends with a biography of Hackenschmidt’s life. It lists many of his record lifts as well as the opponents in his wrestling career. In fact, it reads like parts of the bible, so and so begat so and so, in much of his wrestling career, with I threw so and so in x minutes. Still its a pretty quick read and worth reading.

The only problem with this is that Hack does not detail his fight with Frank Gotch. He says everyone is aware of what happened, yet 100 years later, I don’t believe this was true. For that reason I pulled up this section from Wikipedia:

Wrestling historian Mike Chapman wrote, “In all of athletic history, there are a mere handful of rivalries between individual stars that have become almost as large as the sport itself. In boxing, such matchups as Sullivan-Corbett, Dempsey-Tunney, Louis-Conn and Ali-Frazier are a part of boxing folklore. In wrestling, there is only one: Gotch-Hackenschmidt.”[7]

After defeating Jenkins in 1905, Hackenschmidt held the world title and remained undefeated until he and Gotch finally squared off on April 3, 1908, at the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago. Showing his contempt for Gotch and for American wrestling in general, Hackenschmidt was not in the best condition. Refusing to train publicly at the Chicago Athletic Club in spite of arrangements having been made for him to do so, he was barred from the club and spent his time either in his hotel room or taking long morning and evening walks along Lake Michigan. By neglecting his training, he lost his endurance, which had never been a factor in his previous matches because he ended them so quickly. Against Gotch, who was in peak condition, it would be decisive.[8]

The American used his speed, defense and rough tactics to wear the champion down and then assume the attack. The wrestlers stood on their feet for two full hours before Gotch was able to get behind Hackenschmidt and take him down. While on their feet, Gotch made sure to lean on Hackenschmidt to wear him down. He bullied him around the ring, and his thumbing and butting left Hackenschmidt covered in blood. At one time, Gotch also punched Hackenschmidt on the nose.[9] Hackenschmidt complained to the referee of Gotch’s foul tactics and asked that Gotch be forced to take a hot shower to rid his body of an abundance of oil, but the referee ignored the complaints and told Hackenschmidt he should have noticed the oil before the match began. The match continued. At the two-hour mark, Hackenschmidt was forced against the ropes. Gotch tore him off the ropes, threw Hackenschmidt down and rode him hard for three minutes, working for his dreaded toe hold. Hackenschmidt had trained to avoid this hold, which he did, but the effort took his last remaining strength. Hackenschmidt quit the fall. “I surrender the championship of the world to Mr. Gotch,” he said, and stood up and shook Gotch’s hand. The wrestlers then retired to their dressing rooms before coming out for the second fall, but Hackenschmidt refused to return to the ring, telling the referee to declare Gotch the winner, thereby relinquishing his title to the American.[10]

Although he at first called Gotch “the greatest man by far I ever met,” and explained how his muscles had become stale and his feet had given out, and that he knew he could not win and therefore conceded the match, Hackenschmidt later reversed his opinion of Gotch and Americans in general, claiming to have been fouled by Gotch and victimized in America, and calling for a rematch in Europe.[11]

Hackenschmidt and Gotch met again on September 4, 1911, at the newly opened Comiskey Park in Chicago, which drew a crowd of nearly 30,000 spectators and a record gate of $87,000. The rematch is one of the most controversial and talked about matches in wrestling history, as Hackenschmidt injured his knee against Roller, his chief training partner. Years later, wrestler Ad Santel told Lou Thesz that he was paid $5000 by Gotch’s backers to cripple Hackenschmidt in training, and make it look like an accident.[12] However, according to Hackenschmidt himself, the injury was accidentally inflicted by his sparring partner, Roller, when trying to hold Hackenschmidt down onto his knees in the down position. Roller’s right foot struck Hackenschmidt’s right knee, which in 1904 had developed “Housemaid’s Knee,” requiring treatment, and had acted up again in 1907. According to Hackenschmidt, his sparring partners for this match were Americus (Gus Schoenlein), Jacobus Koch, Wladek Zbyszko and Dr. Roller. Ad Santel is not mentioned in any account of Hackehschmidt’s training by either Hackenschmidt or Roller, both of whom offered their insights and accounts.[13]

Whatever the case may be, Dr. Roller did not consider the injury to be serious and referee Ed Smith dismissed it as inconsequential. Hackenschmidt himself ignored it completely in declaring, the day before the match, that he was “fit to wrestle for my life” and was “satisfied with my condition and confident of the outcome.” However, Gotch, tearing into Hackenschmidt with a vengeance, discovered the weakness quickly and took advantage of it. The Russian Lion was easy prey for the champion, losing in straight falls in only 20 minutes. Gotch clinched the match with his feared Toe Hold, which forced Hackenschmidt to quit.

Your Turn

Sure you can just read this article and gain from it. But I hope you will read the full book of The Way to Live. 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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