“Gymnasium” …A brief history (cont..)

The modern day gym didnt come into being until the 19th century. The origins of which are traced back to Germany in the 1800’s where Germans would frequent athletics halls both to improve physical fitness and as a symbol of their patriotism. This gym culture was carried with German imigrants as they migrated to America and established gym halls throughout the country in the mid 1800’s. Most of the gymnastic apparatus that exists today including parallel bars, rings, and vaults all originated in these German gyms.

German gymnastic club

German gymnastic club

German gymnastics hall

German gymnastics hall

At around the same time gyms were beginning to open throughout America, there was a man named Hippolyte Triat who began to open a series of gyms through Europe. These gyms are credited as being the first that allowed a paid membership, opening them to the public at a price. Where other gym operators at the time saw gyms as a facility for the manufacturing of athletes and strongmen, Hippolyte saw an opportunity to both make money and spread the influence of gymnastics outside of the gyms. He did this by turning gymnastics into a sort of theatrical spectacle. As the architect Renard’ s rendering of Triat’ s gymnasium shows, his workout sessions were always popular even with nonparticipants since spectators were encouraged to stand in the galleries at the side of the vast room and to watch the show on the gym floor. There, they could see columns of barechested, uniformed men stamping out their rhythmical exercises to the sound of a rolling snare drum. In this way Triat had managed to combine elements of the theater and ballet in an impressive display of athletic skill.

Hippolyte Triat's Gym, Central France

Hippolyte Triat’s Gym, Central France. A rendering by the architect Renard

This “gymnastic theatre” took place in a huge vaulted building in Central France that was the largest gym in the world at the time. The energetic shows were conducted in the middle of the floor and were very similar to a modern day aerobics class. Triat discovered that his customers enjoyed working together as a group, moving to the same rhythm following their leader. These floor shows blurred the line between dance, excercise and theatre and its easy to see the exhibitionism that was on display, as the customers got better and fitter they wanted more and more attention.

Towards the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, weight training really started to become popular. Because of this gyms started to focus on weights more and more, with less emphasis on the gymnastic apparatus. This created a situation were gyms were now not used as a singular building that housed everything, instead they began to be built as specialised facilities for an intended purpose. At the same time gyms were being built alongside schools relating back to their Ancient Greek roots of having a symbiotic relationship with academia. Around the 1930’s a new form of gym started to appear known as the “boxing gym”. These were places with a singular purpose of training fighters.

1930's Boxing gym

1930’s Boxing gym

Through the 60’s and 70’s gym “chains” started opening up. The most famous of which was Golds gym in the US. It opened its first gym in 1965 on Venice Beach. Despite the dirty state of the equipment it became a landmark for the bodybuilding culture that was on the rise. As steroids began to make their way into professional sport and into gym culture, bodybuilding exploded, and weights gyms like Gold’s became places overrun with muscle men.

Golds Gym

Golds Gym

Arnold in Gold's Gym, 1975

Arnold in Gold’s Gym, 1975

Following on from the trend of the 70’s, the 80’s saw gyms continue to grow as franchise businesses, creating a lucrative market. This trend of commercialisation continued through to the 2000’s when a new form of workout style was born in the form of ‘boot camps’. The boot camps emphasised the pack mentality of the gym, with small groups of people training together for moral support and motivation. The boot camps continue today coexisting with the large corporate gyms. They fill a need in the market that existed with people preferring to train outside in company of others.


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