Brilliant chronicle of the history of the gym from ancient Greece till today

G. Louis Heath, Ph.D.[1]
Ashford University, Clinton, Iowa

Eric Chaline The Temple Of Perfection: A History of the Gym 272 pages, h/c, ill. London: Reaktion Books 2015 ISBN 978-1-78023-449-6
Eric Chaline
The Temple Of Perfection: A History of the Gym
272 pages, h/c, ill.
London: Reaktion Books 2015
ISBN 978-1-78023-449-6

Caveat: This is a fine book, but it’s not a light read. It delves deeply into the history of the gym in great detail with much documentation of largely secondary sources. For the sports history buff, this book may be a breezy read. The rest of us will have to work at it a bit.

That said, the writing is of a very high quality, very scholarly and concise. The Temple of Perfection contains personable anecdotes from London gyms that the author, Eric Chaline, has visited. His book is well worth reading for anyone interested in gyms. It belongs in every public and higher education library.

Chaline drives home the point that the gym is not just a gym; it’s foremost an institution at the ongoing nexus of major historical and socio-cultural forces that have created, shaped and expanded it to its current exalted status. It has become not only another important “man cave” but also a “woman cave,” not de jure segregated but de facto so as men predominate on weights and women in group exercises.

The history of the gym is also the history of the human body, a long neglected topic in social science. However, in the past decade, scholars of every stripe have studied the psychological, social and political significance of the body. Chaline expatiates on this trend at some length.

The book divides gym-based training into four types:

  1. Functional Training – designed to develop skills for another physical activity such as military training;
  2. Aesthetic Training to transform the shape of the body by increasing muscle mass and/or decreasing avoirdupois;
  3. Therapeutic Training that may use the same methods as Aesthetic Training but targets one or more facets of an individual’s health;
  4. Alternative Training that includes exercises drawn from other physical disciplines or non-Western fitness cultures (yoga, martial arts, classical dance, boxing, Pilates).

Chaline notes that there is considerable overlap among the four above.

Some go to the gym with the zeal and regularity of devout church goers. Like the modern church, the gym incorporates entertainment via modern technology, some even with theatre-size screens. This is a cultural phenomenon that the book explores in some depth.

Central to the gym, the ancient Greek concept of arete has endured as a core theme over the centuries to some degree, now in a very modified format. Where the Greeks sought physical, social, moral and intellectual perfection, today fitness, muscle and endurance rule (though the social side of the gym is coming to the fore some recently; to wit, “health clubs.”) Indeed, never have the hunks and chunks at the Anytime Fitness gym in Clinton, Iowa where I live ever referred to moral and intellectual perfection as a personal goal. In fact, they are often on social media as they work out, arranging their next secular activity or exchanging gossip.

Chapter 1, The Pursuit of Arete is comprised of 34 pages on the role of ancient Greece in the development of the gymnasium, a staple of elite life in the Greek city states. The individualism of that epoch also resonates in today’s gyms.

Chapter 2, The Rebirth of Vitruvian Man (23 pages), titled after Galileo’s geometric drawing of a naked man, focusses on the Romans who disliked the ancient Greek view of the body and even more their athletic contests like the Olympics, opting instead for bloody spectacles such as gladiatorial contests. (Certainly the NFL owes much to Rome!).

The medieval era stressed renunciation of the flesh, hardly a fillip to athletics and gymnasia. In fact, the gym totally disappeared in those “dark ages.”

The Renaissance rediscovered the beauty of the body as attested to by the work of Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. In Germany, the advent of Protestantism brought not only a schism from Rome but eventually a break from the historic meaning of the gymnasium as a physical space; it became instead a place of learning, a school, foreshadowing the Calvinist asceticism that rendered sports in early America anathema.

Chapter 3, The Health of Nations (31 pages) looks at the turnvereine (“turners”) in the 19th century German states; the systematic teaching of physical education in 1800s Scandinavia; and, the French Gymnase Normale, a late-comer, but also a 19th century phenomenon. The Anglo-Saxon contribution is surveyed as the nation-state begins to exert full muscle power on physical culture.

Chapter 4, The World’s Strongest Man (27 pages) tells the story of Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), tying his prowess to the pursuit of happiness and success as cultural themes. The author adduces him as part of the showmanship of those times; to wit, the Ziegfeld Theater at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Chapter 5, Pumping Iron (41 pages) takes us to the pro bodybuilder and serial Mr. Olympia winner, Ronnie Coleman, and the larger professionalization of strength athletes advantaged by better nutrition, science-based training, and often performance-enhancing drugs. It was a real eye shock for me to witness how relatively puny 1800s Sandow looks in his photo compared to Coleman in his 20th century photo. This chapter also includes Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach in its 1950s heyday and the birth of the U.S. health club (Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne, Bob Delmonteque).

Chapter 6, Let’s Get Physical (23 pages) includes Jane Fonda and her 1981 Workout Book as well as other workout gurus; media stereotypes of the female body; the ban of women from the Olympics (till recently); and the philosophical influences of Locke, Rousseau and Pestalozzi (the latter should be familiar to thousands of Education College graduates at Illinois State University where Pestalozzi’s educational philosophy held sway for decades and where I taught for quite a few years. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi advanced a child-centered method of teaching that offered more physical education than the traditional education of his times).

Chapter 7, Macho Man (19 pages) includes a consideration of the ideal “fitness body” used to sell products to both male and female consumers; gay muscle boys (“Muscle Marys”) who emerged from the closet into the locker room; pop cultural phenomena such as the performance group Village People (signature song, “Y.M.C.A.”); and, New York, San Francisco and London gay communities as linked to gyms and HIV-AIDS.

Chapter 8, Consuming Fitness (34 pages) takes us to the modern gym with its machine weights, CV (cardiovascular) machines, cardio areas, burpees (a type of exercise), and spinning and circuit classes. Also covered are the obesity epidemic, junk food (“obesogenic environment”), chain gyms, group exercise classes, music videos, step aerobics and the use of iPods, smartphones and the Internet in the gym.

All of the above are ostensibly in search of a 21st century arete at your local gym.

Eric Chaline has published an impressive book. He has managed artfully to contain the sweep of gym history from the ancient Greeks to me and you today in 272 well-written pages. If you seek one excellent book on the gym that is concise and authoritative, you need look no further than The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym.

The book concludes with a useful three page Select Bibliography.

Copyright © G. Louis Heath 2015


[1] Gary Heath spent the academic year of 1964-65 at the University of Uppsala, and taught a course at Ashford University for several years titled “Scandinavian Thought and Culture.” Both his grandparents on his mother’s side emigrated from Scandinavia. He has also taught the course “Sociology of Sport” at Ashford for the past 28 years.
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