Physical Training Aug 2002

Old-Time Physical Culture

By Raymond Brennan
Copyright © Raymond Brennan 2002. All rights reserved.

Humour me for a moment and suppose you have just hit your thirty-fifth birthday.  You’re not getting any younger, but who is? You struggle out of bed while trying to remember a time when getting up in the morning wasn’t such a struggle, or you may struggle to remember anything at all at that time of morning. You may stretch a bit , because you feel stiff, or you may not because you just feel too groggy. Your mouth feels like the inside of an old shoe. When you try to walk, your  joints crack or else you have a slight twinge here and there, which was never there before. Old and recently acquired injuries seem to feel sore for much longer and recovery time is a lot longer also than it used to be.  Shuffling to the bathroom, you look at the tired eyes, loose skin and stained teeth in the mirror. You ask yourself, “ How come I feel like this? I train three times a week, I run and I lift weights. What is the matter with me?”

Well, there is nothing wrong with your motivation or your desire to be fit and strong, whether for martial arts or just to enhance the quality of your life in general. However, there is definitely something wrong.

The above paragraph could also describe someone in his or her early twenties. It could describe a male or a female equally well. Please bear this in mind if you choose to read the rest of this article.

So what is the problem?


Let’s look at the reasons why the person above should feel better than they do-after all, they train three times a week, the run and they lift weights. For their sake, I hope that they are sufficiently well off not to have to work for a living and also that they are single and with no kids. Why? Because with that amount of time devoted to training, there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to hold down a job or spend any time with one’s family. Even if a person were a professional martial artist of some sort or boxer or grappler whose income depended on being fit and strong and honing the skills required to stay at (or get to) the top of their game, they would more than likely feel the same way i.e. awful.

 A person is more than just a body.  A person has a mind and heart, both of which need exercise and relaxation just as much as the body does. Spending too much time on one aspect of the self at the expense of the other two leads to imbalance and (if they don’t end up as nervous wrecks or drooling at the mouth with exhaustion) unhappiness at a deep level.

A career and family take time and energy and you only have so much of both. If you devote too much of either to training, you won’t have enough left over for the important things of life and the family and career will suffer because of it.

Do you train three times a week in the dojo or the ring or on the wrestling mat? Do you train really hard? Are you exhausted at the end of a session? Do you then get up the next morning and run three miles, or go to the gym the following evening and lift near-maximal weights? If you do, then you must have noticed that sometimes your strength, balance and endurance just isn’t “there”. Your balance gives out at odd moments. Your strength (whether for strikes, throws or holds) gives out every now and again for no apparent reason. Your memory for the finer points of an intricate form, kata or pattern eludes you at random. Strangely, you seem to catch cold more often than you used to. Your lower back sometimes feels weak and, if you are sitting in a particular position for too long, it begins to ache. Of course, you can run faster and longer than you ever could before. Of course, you can lift more iron and for more reps than you ever could before. That soft belt of flab around your middle is a shadow of its former self and your body is a lot more toned than it would be if you didn’t train. And yet, why do you feel run down and not at ease? Why is your performance on the job suffering? Why can’t you seem to think laterally and “outside the box” as much as you used to ? Why does your family seem to be acquiring an ever-expanding body of memories and in-jokes of which you are not a part?

Here are nine possible answers to these questions. Some or all of them may apply to you, or none of them may apply. Only you know whether they do or not. You are an individual-just like everyone else.

Reason 1: You’re Overtraining

If you are entering the next Olympics, then I wish you the best of luck in your competition and I also most sincerely wish you the best of luck in your old age-because you are going to need it. Your training is damaging the basic structure of your body. If you have to weight-train and run (and I am not for a minute suggesting you don’t), why do you have to do both in the same week? Also, how much sleep do you get? Sleep is every bit as important for health, strength and a toned body as any form of exercise. If you are driving yourself this hard, then how many hours of extra sleep are you getting to make up for it and to give yourself a chance to rest?

Reason 2 : You are a Victim of Hype

Maybe you have bought into one of the many hype-factories (many of which peddle their wares on the Internet) who warn against every else’s brand of training except theirs? Maybe you do hundreds of repetitions of calisthenics, believing that bodyweight exercises alone are the way to salvation, or else you lift near-maximal weights for low reps, believing that huge loads of iron are the way to go and that bodyweight exercises are a waste of time? At the risk of sounding patronising, let me state something blindingly obvious: All forms of exercise can be beneficial, provided they are done rationally, built up to gradually and don’t conflict with your own basic physical makeup and aptitudes. For example, some people can do hundreds of pushups several times a week and find them to be the best thing since sliced bread. Other people do them for a month and then find that their joints (especially the shoulders and elbows) begin to show the signs of strain-joint pain, swelling, stiffness, lethargy etc. Similarly, some people lift heavy iron three times a week, enjoy it and derive great benefit from it. Other people do it for a month or two, grow no new muscle and suddenly develop lower back pain.

Why is this? It is because each person is an individual. What suits one person very well may not suit another at all, and may in fact be detrimental. Variety is the spice of life and nowhere is this more so than in physical exercise.

Reason 3: You are Asymmetrical

A lot of people train the upper body at the expense of the lower body. Curls in particular are a common site in most gyms. Biceps the size of watermelons are OK to look at, I suppose, but what good are they if you have legs like matchsticks? Strength comes at base from the back muscles and the core of the abdomen. A good grip is never a bad idea, either, but useless if your lower back is weak and prone to nagging pain.  Also, a well-developed upper body and a poorly developed lower body is a gift to any judoka , sombo practitioner or any grappler, because a top-heavy opponent is much easier to topple, regardless of the size of the opponent’s biceps.

Reason 4 : You believe functional strength is not conducive to an aesthetically pleasing body

A lot of people today seem to have swallowed this one hook line and sinker, possibly because it is often tied into Reason 2 above. A large number of people believe that you can train for strength and fitness or you can train for good muscular definition, but you cannot train for both. Again, sorry to burst your bubble, but you couldn’t be more wrong. I believe it was Sig Klein, one of the great old-timers, who said, “Train for shape and strength will follow”.  Next time you are surfing the net, have a look at the careers of old-timers such as Charles Atlas, Maxick and Lionel Strongfort. Atlas could tear phone books in half and bend steel spikes, yet he also ran regularly in bare feet for seven miles at a stretch and was a keen tennis player and swimmer. Maxick had one of the best-developed physiques ever photographed. He was a weightlifter who set records in the early twentieth century, which remain unbroken to this day. Yet, he also was a champion gymnast who regularly entertained music hall crowds by doing gymnastic routines while holding two chain-ends. He didn’t use gymnastic rings at all. In his later years, he was a renowned wrestling coach in South America. Lionel Strongfort set a number of weight-lifting records in other lifts which remain extant to this day, while also winning a number of boxing titles in New York and wrestling with the Turkish National Team, at that time (early twentieth century) the premier wrestling team on earth.  He was also the premier model for sculptors in both America and Europe.

These men (and there are many more like them in the annals of history) were all-rounders. They had great strength, well-proportioned bodies and were also very athletic.

Reason 5: Diet-Quality and Quantity

Yes, diet. In the first paragraph, no mention was made of diet, which tells a lot. Exercise is one half of the equation and diet is the other. No one can be healthy, strong and fit if they eat rubbish. It is the old formula-“Rubbish in, rubbish out”.  Also, there is the question of quantity to consider. Do you actually know how much a fully-grown adult (male or female) really needs over the course of an average day?  Amazingly little. Yet, most of us eat way more than we need. Why is this? Because we don’t chew our food enough and a lot of us drink with our meals.

Reason 6: Water, Cool Clear Water

I recently saw something on the net which brought a faint smile to my face (a rare event): a website which was advising whatever hapless victim had actually managed to land at this site, on how to manufacture water capsules. Apparently, if you take two or three of these capsules a day, there is no need for you to drink any water at all. Why on earth someone would want to avoid drinking water is beyond me. I also point out in connection with this that the internal digestive and eliminative systems between them throw off over a quart of water a day. It has to replace that from somewhere and if you don’t drink it, it will have to call on your kidneys and reabsorb it from them.

Reason 7: You believe your joints are manufactured from plutonium

Or else someone has decided they are on your behalf, for the purpose of parting you from the contents of your wallet. Try doing 250 pushups a day every day for a while. How are your elbows and shoulders? Is your neck stiff? Never take a day off. After all, you need extreme endurance. Never vary it with any other exercise. Specificity is the key, after all. Always do it at the same time of day. Minor details like family and career are secondary compared to blindly following the vague (and often badly written) dictates of some self-appointed exercise guru, aren’t they?

Do you know what is waiting for you? Can I tactfully mention frozen shoulders, arthritic elbows and wrists, loss of motion and sensation in the fingers…I think you get the picture.
OK, how about your legs? Pushups don’t do much for the legs, or do they? The first guru says they do (in fact, they are the single best exercise ever for all your needs) , but a new kid in town with a great-looking website  has pronounced that pushups are not enough. You need to target the legs specifically, he says, or else countless thousands of faceless strangers will pull ahead of you in the race for physical supremacy.

Fine-try doing 400 deep knee bends every day, with no variety and never missing a day. All I can say is that you must place very little value on your knees and hips, as a few years of this will finish them off.

If you really want to wreck yourself, do both sets of exercises. Try to please both gurus.
You may object here, “Yes, but Indian wrestlers do hundreds of calisthenics every day and it doesn’t bother them”. Please bear  in mind that these Indian wrestlers are the product of centuries of arranged marriages and have been carefully bred to produce ideal specimens for wrestling. Also, if you can find maybe a dozen of them, ask them whether they have knee and other joint problems, and the answer will be a resounding “Yes”.

Let’s take a different road. How about lifting huge amounts of iron every week regularly? I assume you have perfect form on all your lifts, because if you don’t, even one lift done with bad technique could dislocate a shoulder, damage your rotator cuff muscles, blow out a disc in your lower back, result in dropping one end of a barbell on your toes…at the very least, the lumbar region of your spine will almost certainly become compressed over time and the discs themselves become brittle and thus susceptible to a whole laundry-list of problems.

Reason 8: You believe there is a magic form of exercise which renders all others obsolete

They why isn’t everyone doing it? Are so many members of the human race really so stupid ?
Again, say you do 250 pushups a day for a year. Well done! Your self discipline and determination as well as your work ethic is commendable to say the least. However, say I have been running every day for a year. Which one of us would finish a mile the fastest? Alternatively, say we challenge each other to do 100 pushups and the fastest in the winner.  Which one of us would win?

The obvious answer is the one who has been practising the exercise in question. Pushups will develop my chest and build endurance, but they not make me better at running. Similarly, running will give me great endurance and strip away body-fat, but it will not do me much good when it comes to pressups.

For any activity which requires control of one’s body and which requires one to move at all sorts of angles, the best form of exercise is one which exercises all the muscle groups and at many different angles. From an aesthetic point of view, this also has the added bonus of symmetrical development.  On the other hand, if you want biceps and thighs like old dishcloths, then keep doing nothing else except those seated curls.

Most martial arts require that the body of the artist move speedily, smoothly and with precision and balance in a wide variety of directions and across many ranges of resistance.

Reason 9: Why are you squandering your energy?

This may sound like a silly question, but think about it for a moment. If your primary aim is to be, say, better at your chosen martial art, then you are going to need lots of energy for practising, concentrating on instructions, moving with balance and precision and learning from your teacher and fellow students.  This would be sensible, wouldn’t it? If you are out running every evening or in the gym every afternoon pumping iron, is it any wonder you are so tired in the dojo, you find new techniques or kata so difficult to master and you are near to collapse, even at the end of a light practice session?

The bulk of your energy should be conserved for your primary activity. The rest of your energy should be allocated to training methods which enable you to perform better at that activity-which is why it is primary to you by definition.

Maxick (Max Sick)


At this point, you may well be thinking, “Oh no, here we go. This man I have never heard of before has attacked a lot of different kinds of training and now has my wallet in his sights”.  At this point, you may well be breathing lightly and rapidly, waiting for the inevitable sales pitch…

Sorry to disappoint you, but I am selling nothing. I have no interest in the contents of your wallet. My only wish is that you keep your wallet closed. I also have no desire for anyone to be injured or weakened as a result of adopting any of the training and lifestyle suggestions I delineate below.  If you managed to get this far in this article, take comfort from the fact that there isn’t much further to go. I am no magician and I don’t have anything up my sleeve except skin and hair.

Also, none of the following is original to me in any way. Each item is something I have applied in my own life with positive benefits, often over and above my performance in martial arts.  They have all been gleaned from studying the life stories, habits and training systems of the old-time physical culturalists of the early twentieth century. I have drawn heavily from two in particular-Maxick and Lionel Strongfort.

Lionel Strongfort (Max Unger)
Lionel Strongfort

One thing I dislike is vagueness and wilful lack of clarity, so I have grouped the suggestions as they apply to an average day or week in a life. I have tried to make them as simple as possible to follow by writing them in plain English-another increasingly rare commodity in this modern age…


  1. It is better to eat twice a day than three times a day.
  2. Chew your food well. This extracts all the goodness and nutrients out of them, as well as making it easier for your digestive system to process them. By chewing food well, the quantity needed is considerably reduced.
  3. After finishing eating, remain seated for a few minutes and relax. Don’t get straight up and start doing something else. This is so that your digestive system has first call on your blood supply.
  4. Anything fibrous or stringy should be ejected, if it cannot be broken down by chewing.
  5. Eliminate all fried foods from your diet. As well as being coated in oil which will make your waist grow before your very eyes, the attendant grease means that both the digestive and eliminative systems have to work very hard to process it. Your internal systems are just like your joints i.e. they shouldn’t be needlessly overused.
  6. Never drink with your meals, as it interferes with mastication and digestion. Up to half an hour either side of a meal, liquids can be taken.
  7. Spicey food should be either steamed or boiled and not so spicy that it is harsh on the digestive tract in particular. Your own judgement as to what constitutes “harsh” is best for you here.
  8. Try to eat at least one green thing each day, the darker in colour the better. Cucumber is better than lettuce, for instance, but not as good as the leaf from spring onion.
  9. Eat tomatoes at least three times a week
  10. The last meal should be taken at least three hours before you go to sleep.
  11. Have a preference for vegetables that grow above ground as opposed to those that grow below.
  12. Have a preference for obtaining your nourishment from real food as opposed to capsules or powders. Having said that, modern farming practices ensure that a lot of the natural goodness is long gone before the food gets anywhere near our tables. If this is a concern, then a daily multi-vitamin capsule is recommended.
  13. Eat some citrus fruits in the evening. These are good for the internal systems and also help to clear the skin of impurities. I eat at least two apples or pears each evening.
  14. Tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco are all toxins and poison the system. If you can, do without them. If not, then at least limit their intake as much as you can. There is nothing wrong with one or two cups of tea or coffee per day.
  15. Avoid white bread and white rice , as they consist of nothing except stodge. Brown bread is far tastier and brown rice is far more versatile anyway.
  16. Needless to day, all cakes and pastries will do for you are to expand your waist. Eliminate them from your daily intake.
  17. NB :  It is what you do every day that counts, that what you do sometimes. Crash diets do more harm than good, due to the amount of stress they put the system under. No-one ever got fat in one day. If you are at a family gathering for instance, then by all means drink and eat what you like and enjoy the day. The next day, however, you can resume your sensible, rational method of eating and drinking. One day of indulgence will not kill you-remember, it is what you do every day that counts. Consistency is all.

One thing that surprised me about the old-time physical culturalists was how many of them were vegetarian. Lionel Strongfort was a lifelong vegetarian and was without doubt one of the strongest men who ever lived. He lived till he was ninety-two years old and was physically active for most of it. Charles Atlas was known to enjoy a good steak most evenings for his evening meal and regarded vegetarianism as an exotic quirk at best.

Whether or not to be a vegetarian is an individual matter and (these days) is determined more often than not by spiritual and economic reasons as much as it is by reasons of health. Suffice it to say that both camps have produced great strongmen and athletes. Eating meat doesn’t appear to do any harm to one’s heath and strength and neither does vegetarianism.

Personally, I am a meat-eater. However, I have followed Strongfort in one thing here : I limit my intake of red meat to twice a week. I eat oily fish twice or three times a week and the same with poultry.  Oily fish is good for the joints, skin and hair. Red meat is a great source of protein, but the digestive system has to do a lot of work to process it. Since reducing my intake of red meat to twice a week, I feel much better on several levels and really enjoy read meat much more when I do eat it.


  1. Drink plenty of water every day. The figure of two quarts is mentioned elsewhere in this article. If you live in a warm climate and run a lot, then two quarts may not be enough for you. If, on the other hand, you live in a more temperate climate, two quarts may seem excessive. Personally, I aim for two glasses of water in the morning and the same in the afternoon. These are at room temperature (nothing too hot or too cold inside, please) and are sipped, not hurriedly gulped.
  2. Last thing at night, a glass of milk before going to bed soothes the stomach and relaxes the nervous system. It is a great aid to sleep. “What!” I hear someone say, “Milk! But everyone knows that is pure fat!”  So it is. However, despite what you may have been led to believe,  you do need some fat. Most people have heard the phrase “fat burning”, but you can’t burn it if you haven’t got it. Fat is energy for the body and a glass of milk last thing at night is harmless.
  3. Strongfort in particulat is a big fan of buttermilk. Personally, I find it revolting. However, if you stomach the sight and taste of it, a half glass in the early evening settles the stomach and digestive tract fairly well.

Sorry to bring up a subject of this nature, but the old-timers believed constipation to be the single greatest source of misery and weakness and wrote about it a lot

  1. Strongfort advises self-administered enemas once a fortnight using something called a “fountain syringe”. I have no idea what a fountain syringe is, nor do I care to.  The above tips on diet should keep you regular. I have never given myself an enema, nor will I. What I would look into, however, is colonic irrigation and/or an enema under medical supervision.
  2. Avoid all oiling lotions or pills, which claim to relieve constipation, unless you are severely constipated. Such lotions and pills treat the effect, not the cause. Digestion and elimination are muscular actions, as is breathing, running, swimming and so on. By artificially aiding the process of elimination, you keep the internal muscles weak. A much better way to loosen up the internal tracts is regular, moderate exercise centred on the lower abdomen. Also, regularly drinking water will help to keep the faeces loose.
  3. Answer the call of nature as soon as is practical in any given situation. Don’t “hold onto it” as the saying goes, or else “it will hold onto you”.
  4. If the dietary suggestions are implemented, it will be found over time that the use of toilet paper is unnecessary, as the faeces will resemble that of animals in the wild. I have found this to be the case. This in turn means that the occurrence of urinary and other infections will greatly decrease and (for most people) vanish altogether.
  5. No straining should be necessary, if the above dietary suggestions are implemented. This means in turn that haemorrhoids and associated discomforts, if present, should vanish rapidly.
  6. Aim for one or two regular movements a day. If you go a day without a movement, then partake of lots of water and up the amount of fruit you consume.
  7. Urine should be clear for the most part. If it is not, then you should drink more water until it becomes clear.
Skin Care
  1. No, this is not only an area of concern to women, but to men also. The skin is the largest single organ in the human body. It is used not just to cover the muscles, but also as a means of disposing of waste material. The skin should be scrubbed using a dry friction rub three times a week with a rough towel or sponge. This should not be done such that the skin is irritated. The aim is to clear away dead skin and stimulate blood flow near the surface of the skin-an important element in muscle tone for men in particular and a  great aid to muscle-building in conjunction with resistance training. For women, this helps to give a smooth glow to the skin and promotes a visibly clear and healthy complexion.
  2. A tepid shower should be taken once a day. Some people advocate really hot showers, while others advocate freezing cold showers. Both groups will probably end up as nervous wrecks that are constantly catching cold and I want nothing to do with either of them. Extreme cold toughens the muscles and “locks” them in place-which means reduced blood flow. Extreme heat loosens them up excessively-which means loss of tone and power and increased likelihood of injury. The middle of the road is the best place to be here. Blood flow is stimulated which helps tone, yet suppleness and flexibility is maintained.
  3. Once or twice a week, a hot bath should be taken. After remaining in the water for around ten minutes, try rubbing one patch of skin. I have found that I can clean my skin this way better than soap can.
  4. Clean up your bathroom. Men, what is in your aftershave? Ladies, what is in your mascara? Whatever is in these products, if toxic, will enter your body through the skin and affect your blood quality in particular. Read the labels and, where possible, stick with products containing natural ingredients only. It may prove more expensive, but then a visit to the doctor is not cheap these days either.

Walking is advocated as the best, most gentle and most natural form of exercise there is. Strongfort advises that a brisk walk of half an hour or so per day is enough for most people. I have found many benefits to this over and above the exercise element. It gets me out in the fresh air and gives me some quiet time to think. I walk just before lunch (half my lunchbreak is taken up walking) and it sets me up nicely for the afternoon.  I do this five days a week.

Last but not least, physical exercise

The vast majority of old-timer’s training systems are freely available on the Internet. However, I personally have had the best results from two in particular. They are the systems of Lionel Strongfort and Maxick. Contrary to what you might expect, Strongfort’s system uses light dumbbells (the heaviest being 8LB) while Maxick’s system uses no apparatus at all. The keynote with both is gentleness, gradual and moderate increase in difficulty and resistance, consistency and lightness. They both advocate training six days a week, but neither are fans of training to failure or straining. Both repeatedly emphasise that the best results are those that come without forcing, Both view physical exercise as just one element in a larger picture of a lifestyle aimed at developing the individual to be the best that they can be.  The dietary and skin care elements are just as important. Neither are down on heavy weight-lifting or running, but they are both big advocates of  balance. Strongfort recommends running, bag punching and swimming, while Maxick recommends weight lifting in conjunction with their respective systems of exercise.
For my own part, having gone along mindlessly with a lot of the modern-day hype, it was like a breath of fresh air to at last find rational, sensible systems of training which build up the body and mind instead of breaking them down and causing injury rather than well-being. I have obtained great results from old-time physical culture and believe that anyone who implements these few simple suggestions into their daily life will see the benefits very soon indeed.

Links: For writings from Maxick see and for writings from Lionel Strongfort see:

Ray Brennan was born in Northern Ireland and has been involved in martial arts, mostly aikido and aiki-jutsu for a number of years. He is currently studying Zen Judo and Canadian Combato. Ray has been doing strength training for almost a decade.

Physical Training Aug 2002