In the physical culture book club I may have saved the best for last. The Key to Might and Muscle by George F. Jowett is one of the best books overall for learning what it takes to become very strong and build up a great body. I’ve read it in the past and was pleased to go through it again.
By looking through this listing of chapters you can see he not only pays attention to every area of the body but really covers just about all basis when it comes to training and building strength.
1 – A Few Chapters From the Story of My Life
2 – The Truth About Exercise
3 – Defining the Mystery of Strength
4 – Curative Exercises
5 – Building a Mighty Chest
6 – Is There Such a Thing As Bone Strength?
7 – What is the Bogey in Forearm and Calf Development?
8 – Thickening the Wrist by Strengthening the Grip
9 – The Value of Finger Strength and How It Is Acquired
10 – Famous Men of Might and Muscle
11 – How a Columnar Neck Creates Nerve Force
12 – Strengthening the Weakest Link in the Spinal Chain
13 – Creating Intense Vitality By Abdominal Development
14 – Banishing Round Shoulders & Protruding Shoulder Blades
15 – Some Fascinating Facts and Figures
16 – How to Develop Superb Hips and Thighs
17 – Where is the Science of Lifting Weights?
18 – Building a Shapely Arm
19 – How Specialization Destroys the Jinx Of Stubborn Muscles
20 – What is Man’s Limit in Weight-Lifting?
21 – Why Home Exercise is the Best
22 – Do You Know the Sources of Your Vitality?
23 – The Standard That Determines the Ideal Shape
24 – Some Actual Results of Practical Exercise
This book is far too large to cover everything in detail so I’ll just be covering some of the ideas and quotes from it. For the most part I won’t be focusing on the exercises that Jowett describes. Many are well known and regularly practiced. Others are not and literally I never see them done even though some are claimed as the best. I’ve decided to film one example regarding calve development.
After discussing why the calves are hard to develop he comes to the conclusion that the calf muscles are of denser muscular tissue thus being harder to breakdown. Also the main muscle, the gastrocnemius doesn’t actually work that much in most exercises. Finally he comes to the conclusion that knee position has a lot to do with it and details some exercises. Here are 4 of the best calf exercises according to his suggestions:
The book opens with a story of what propelled Jowett to become a strong man.
“Somehow it dawned in his youthful mind that the right kind of exercise would provide the means best suited to enable him to lick his tormentor. This settled in his mind, he pitched into his training with a vengeance, studying the methods and devices that would grow muscle.”
In all cases of oldtime strongmen people either seem to be born strong or born weak. The first obviously has benefit. But the second is equally powerful. By suffering through being beat up, illness, and weakness, the volition to become strong is sometimes born. This was the case for Jowett, for the Mighty Atom, and many others. I’m reminded of Brooks Kubik and his asthma too. I certainly wasn’t one of the people to be born strong either. By spending the time to identify your propulsion system for why you want strength you can better harness it.
Training Ideas and Principles
“I have often wondered to myself if the many who hesitate to take up physical training, ever stop to realize how the various senses of fear and cowardliness give place to fortitude and confidence in the process of reconstructing the body.”
“Perseverance, patience and determination will be repaid in untold wealth, health, strength, self-reliance and fortitude.”
I like these quotes (as well as many others). And I’ve found it to be true myself. Building your body up instills confidence in other areas of your life. I believe that if it weren’t for my physical training I wouldn’t have had the balls to start my business in the first place. As I get stronger, and also better in every area of my life, it all helps everything else. The easiest thing to start with in any case is physical training. Start there but don’t stop.
“The truth of exercise lies in the value it accumulates, and like a steadily growing bank account, it develops and earning power.”
This is a simple analogy that speaks to the importance of consistent work. Also like money that earns I’ve found that the stronger and better skilled I get the faster I can make progress too.
“Medicine will do a lot of things, but it will not rebuild weakened tissue.”
Only proper training can do that.
“Money cannot buy health and strength. Nature sets too high a value on these gifts and will not barter them for gold.”
Too true. I really like how he put this one.
How to Train
“I cannot see the value of training two or three hours every night, or making every bodily movement a physical exercise, when intensive training for about thirty minutes every other night will do better.”
Simple yet very straightforward idea on how much training you need.
“It is wrong to work on an exercise until you are tired out.”
Jowett is of the camp that you don’t need to train to failure in order to grow, in fact he advises against it, even including his scientific reasons why.
“A better method to select two or three parts of the body for specialization at the same time, but with the first consideration given to the one part specially desired.”
For many people the topic of specialization is a common training idea. I haven’t thought of it in a long time and when I have its always been in terms of the exercises I want to do rather than muscles or body parts. Still I think there is some value here and this may be something I look at experimenting with in the new year.
The advice regarding specializing on one thing or two or three is sound though. I do that with my training, again targeting specific exercises rather than body parts. You can specialize and spend more time on two or three things, while spending less time for overall bodily strength and fitness.
On Ligaments and Bone Strength
“Ligaments always exhibit their quality by their thickness.”
This is NOT the case with muscles. Muscles can be big without being so strong but according to Jowett strength in ligament size is indicative of their strength.
“It is a positive fact that healthy bones are bound to have healthy strong attachments.”
So by strengthening your bones through heavy load bearing exercises you’ll also be training the tendons of the muscles, which will prevent injuries.
“People who have sustained a broken arm or leg should not worry. A broken hip, or joint, is entirely different.”
I like this distinction. The body will repair a broken bone as stronger then before. With a joint though, there will be complications as it requires mobility not just more strength. Its probably in trying to strengthen it for protection that much of the lack of mobility comes into play.
“There is a world of difference in lifting weights, holding weights, and supporting feats of strength…In all these feats there is a certain amount of muscular force required. If the arm triceps are not strong, the elbows will unlock under the pressure, just the same as the feet slip away if the biceps of the thighs are not strong enough.”
This is something that is not realized to this day among many people. Weight lifting is done primarily with the muscles. A support is done primarily by the bones, though the muscles must act to support those bones. By holding weights I believe he is referring to doing things like holding at arms length, where the action is statically on the muscles and not so much the bones.
“We might say that bone strength is a rigid force resisting gravity, and muscular strength an active force resisting gravity.”
Both are important. The question is are you training these different ways as they do confer different benefits?
“I have found that anything that has a very large diameter should not be gripped too tightly. If this is done, the object is forced out of the hand. A grip that is inclined to be loose is the best.”
I’ve noticed this sometimes myself when training the hands. It seems to depend on what you’re lifting. Give it a shot and see how it works for you.
“It causes the muscle to tense rather than give a full contraction. As I have always remarked, if you want to get the most out of your muscles, you will have to give them full contraction, which means the same exercise must give them equally full extension.”
He is speaking of contraction in terms of using the muscle across a full range of motion along with tension. This is different from tensing the muscle in one position. Contraction vs. tension. And the value is in working across a full range of motion. I would say both are useful but the former is what should be worked on more of for more overall strength and for muscle building purposes.
“A man who has trained himself to bend slightly in this one lift (press), finds it very difficult not to do so; while a man who has accustomed himself to the rigid style can perform either way.”
Unfortunately I have found he is correct in this. In pressing I regularly employ some or a lot of side bend. And having done so for a long time I find it very tough not to do so. Perhaps I’ll go to a strict military press style the next time I begin pressing weights (as I’ve just been doing lots of handstand push ups lately).
“Seldom do we see a man actually imitate another in style. The change of a foot, or some other little thing, on which the success of the lifter has depended, make the slight variation. Emphatically, I say for every would-be lifter, to accept the general principle by all means, but apply your intelligence to locate your point of control. Educate yourself to the principles, but employ your intelligence. It is the intelligence of the generations that has accumulated the science of weight lifting, and by its genius created the formula of education, which makes it possible to grasp the fundamentals, once properly learned.”
This is a great explanation of the value in technique, yet not in trying to replicate 100% what another person does. Those general principles with may include some very specific things form your base. From there you can find what works for you (realizing that just because it works for you, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way). To see the truth in this just look at the differences in top powerlifters or Olympic lifters.
“The cambered bar is very helpful in one and two hand dead lifting, and in the bent press.”
Never tried this but the next time I have access to one I think it would be worth trying out. It would give another variation to play with.
The Most Important Parts of the Body
“In both men and the other male beasts, the neck has always been the true indication of a quality and quantity of his concentrated nerve power. A strong healthy man always has a powerful neck, and he always will have one.”
This stresses the importance of neck training. I remember this quote from the first time I read this book and that’s why for a long time I’ve focused on bridging exercises. In fact, some of my ideas on training that came from his neck training chapter.
“Greater neck power can be employed by lifting the head in a spiral movement than in a straight, backward movement.”
This is because other muscles get involved. I wonder how I can use this for doing more weight in neck exercises?
“You are just as old as your back…A weak back weakens all of your natural resources, and you become a living wreck.”
Having just recovered (yes I consider myself fully recovered at this point) from a back injury I remember how true this statement is.
“If I asked ten men on the street to place their finger on what they considered to be the weakest part of the spine, nine would instinctively name the small of the back.”
If it’s the natural weak spot of the spine and body it makes sense to train it to become super strong.
“When the back is flattened, just notice the difference. Why; the erector spinae muscles bulge like pillars of steel as they contract to fulfill their duty, which their names explains – “erect the spine.” This is as it should be. Also, instead of a vertebral separation, the vertebrae close together into one apparent solid column, which positively prevents any such thing as a vertebral displacement.”
I enjoyed his descriptions of how the back muscles and spine work together in Chapter 12 – Strengthening the Weakest Link in the Spinal Chain. I don’t recall if I mentioned this when discussing my back injury but what the chiropractor told me was my lower spine is straight, and doesn’t have the curve most people have. This is probably the reason why I can get away with round back deadlifting when others can’t. I have no doubt my spinal erectors are working as mine are fairly large.
A Cool Handstand Feat
“Joe Nordquest not only does a one-hand stand, but in the disengaged hand he holds out a one hundred pound dumb-bell, with not a waver to his stand.”
I just had to mention this one. I’ll be working on this feat at some point in the future. Great combo of bodyweight skill with heavy weight lifting.
Regarding Practicing Muscle Control
“I would much rather see a body culturist concentrate on building up the muscles of his abdomen rather than put the same amount of time in learning these controls. Take the abdominal development of Siegmund Klein, or Ottley Coulter. There is something very impressive in the ridges of muscle that ripple over either of their abdomens. It is far more worth while to secure these results first. The controls will come easily afterwards.”
Jowett gives his opinion on muscle control here. Overall I would say that I agree. I think muscle control comes easier after you’ve been lifting or exercises. And by having good muscle tone with low fat you can certainly see any controls better. Although I would say the vacuum exercise is worth doing for just about everyone including beginners for the healthful effects of it.
“Take the one hand swing for another example of applied science. Here is a lift that calls for many changes and a lightning coordination of all the forces, that result in making it bewildering to the novice.”
I’ve done the dumbbell swing some in the past. It’s a fun lift and as stated requires a lot of strength and coordination. Sometime in the near future I’m going to work on it once again. A bodyweight swing would be quite the achievement.
Speaking of forgotten lifts, back in Jowett’s day weight lifting included a lot more than the two Olympic lifts. Competitions of the following eight lifts should be brought back. Maybe even a few more. Who’s with me?
- Two Hands Continental Jerk
- Two Hands Clean and Jerk
- Two Hands Snatch
- Two Hands Anyhow
- One Hand Clean and Jerk
- One Hand Snatch
- One Hand Swing
- One Hand Anyhow
This wraps up the review of The Key to Might and Muscle. If you only read this article but didn’t get this book and read it in it’s entirety I highly recommend you do so (pick up a copy on Amazon here). Of all the oldtime strongmen books this is probably my second favorite (my favorite being Goerner the Mighty).
And not only that but the entire year of the Physical Culture Book Club. I debated doing it again and will continue to do book reviews but not in the structured monthly format. If you’d like to see me do a specific book please let me know in the comments below.
Also while reading this book I realized there are a lot of great yet uncommon exercises in it, the calve workout just being a small example. Would you be interested in seeing more, perhaps even a Key to Might and Muscle video course?