Physical culture  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
male physique

Physical culture is a term applied to health and strength training regimens, particularly those that originated during the 19th century. During the mid-late 20th century, the term "physical culture" became largely outmoded in most English-speaking countries, being replaced by terms such as "physical education", "fitness training" or simply "exercise".



The physical culture movement of the 1800s owed its origins to several cultural trends.

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, there arose a perception that members of the middle classes were suffering from various "diseases of affluence" that were partially attributed to their increasingly sedentary lifestyles. In consequence, numerous exercise systems were developed, typically drawing from a range of traditional folk games, dances and sports, military training and medical calisthenics. Many of these systems drew inspiration from the classical Greek and Roman models of athletic training and were organized according to more-or-less scientific methods.

Physical culture programs were promoted through the education system, particularly at military academies, as well as via public and private gymnasiums.

Increasing levels of literacy, the increasing democratization of printing and the relative affluence of the middle classes spurred the growth of a genre of magazines and books detailing these systems of physical culture. Mass production techniques also allowed the manufacture and commercial sale of various items of exercise equipment. During the early and mid-1800s, these printed works and items of apparatus generally addressed exercise as a form of remedial physical therapy.

Certain items of equipment and types of exercise were common to several different physical culture systems, including exercises with Indian clubs, medicine balls, wooden or iron wands and dumbbells. Combat sports such as fencing, boxing and wrestling were also widely practiced in physical culture schools, and were touted as forms of physical culture in their own right.

By the later 19th century, the ethos of physical culture had expanded to include exercise as recreation, education, as preparation for competitive sport and as an adjunct to various political, social, moral and religious causes. The Muscular Christianity movement is an example of the latter approach, advocating a fusion of energetic Christian activism and rigorous physical culture training.

"The Battle of the Systems"

As physical culture became increasingly popular and profitable, there arose intense national and then international competition amongst the founders and/or promoters of various systems. This rivalry became informally known as "the Battle of the Systems". Both public gyms and educational institutions tended to take an eclectic approach, whereas private physical culture clubs and organizations often promoted particular exercise systems according to nationalistic loyalties.

The German Turnverein promoted a system of what became known as "heavy gymnastics", meaning strenuous exercises performed with the use of elaborate equipment such as pommel horses, parallel bars and climbing structures. The Turnverein philosophy combined physical training with intellectual pursuits and with a strong emphasis upon German culture. Numerous events in modern competitive gymnastics originated in, or were popularized by the Turnverein system.

The Czech Sokol physical culture movement was largely inspired by the Turnverein.

By contrast with the German and Czech systems, the "Swedish System" founded by Per Henrik Ling promoted "light gymnastics", employing little, if any apparatus and focusing on calisthenics, breathing and stretching exercises as well as massage.

At the turn of the 20th century, bodybuilder and showman Eugen Sandow's system, based upon weight lifting, enjoyed considerable international popularity, while Edmond Desbonnet and George Hebert popularized their own systems within France and French-speaking countries. Bernarr Macfadden's system became especially popular within the USA, via the promotion carried out through his publishing empire.

Hans Bjelke-Petersen founded the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture in Hobart, Australia in 1892. This version of physical culture, often informally referred to as "Physie" (pronounced "fizzy"), is generally performed by girls and women and has evolved into a combination of gymnastics, ballet, and aerobics.

Contemporary interest in 19th century physical culture

Considerable academic research into 19th century physical culture has been undertaken since the 1980s and numerous articles, theses and books have been produced addressing the topic from various historical and sociocultural perspectives.

A number of contemporary strength and health training programs are based directly upon, or draw inspiration from various physical culture systems.

The historic Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle, Illinois features a gymnasium that is believed to be a uniquely preserved example of a late-19th century physical culture training facility. As of 2008, a project is underway to restore the Hegeler Carus gymnasium as a museum of physical culture training and apparatus.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Physical culture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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