The first concept of a gym comes to us from the Greeks. The Ancient History Encyclopedia mentions that these areas would usually be wide open spaces, originally open to the elements. Their primary purpose would be to train young men in fitness activities that would make them better soldiers.
The activities included running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, and discus. More battlefield-friendly sports such as archery, javelin, and simulations of armed combat would be included as well. The ruins of the Pompeii Palestra above shows evidence of a similar thought process. It’s believed the depression in the ground was a pool where mock naval battles and swimming could be trained.
Amanda Smith in an article for ABC Australia, interviews Eric Chaline, the author of The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym. He indicates the Greeks also were a bit vain as we are today. They also exercised to achieve an aesthetic look and eventually combined exercise with education. Two of the most famous gymnasiums in Athens were connected with Plato and Aristotle.
Chaline explains after the fall of Greco-Roman culture, the concept of the gymnasium disappeared until a modern recreation in Berlin in 1811. After the Prussians got crushed by a conscript army put together by Napoleon, Friedrich Jahn would create an outdoor gym called the Turnplatz or exercise field.
The Turnplatz would recreate some of the Greek fitness regimens and also add modern gymnastic equipment like parallel bars, vaulting horses, and high bars. These institutions would eventually move indoors, but as you can see from the illustration of the Oxford Gymnasium above, it was still a wide-open space. While progressive weights were added and concepts of circuit training, bodyweight was a major part of what was being done.
“Être fort pour être utile” (“Be strong to be useful”)
Another pioneer of fitness named Georges Hébert would find examples of fitness in people far from normal civilization. While employed by the French Navy and serving on Martinique in 1902, a volcano would erupt and devastate the island. In a city of 30,000, it was believed 29,000 died. Hébert would find the “civilized Europeans” on the island were the majority of the victims.
The natives on the island didn’t wait for someone to save them. They took care of themselves, and their bodies were fit enough to escape the disaster. Hébert would create an exercise plan called the Natural Method based on fitness that would make one’s body and mind useful.
Hébert would look at what made the natives on Martinique fit: climbing, running, jumping, throwing, and lifting odd heavy loads. He’d also realize his children did the same everything every day — their little bodies would do things that would send the average adult to the doctor. He’d set up a new type of training venue, that actually wasn’t that new, as you’ll soon discover.
It was a large wide-open outdoor venue that mimicked a jungle gym. The French Navy would give Hébert hundreds of recruits to experiment with. These recruits would swim, climb, move logs, and traverse various obstacles in cooperative teams. The recruits would eventually be tested by the International Congress of Physical Education and be shown to have fitness levels that matched world-class decathletes.