A Brief History of the Gymnasium

It was Greg Glassman, co-founder and head coach of CrossFit, who first brought my attention to the radical de-evolution of the architecture and hence meaning of the concept of the gymnasium.  The word gymnasium is rooted in two greek words: gymnos - meaning naked and gymnazein - meaning to do physical exercise.  The Greeks, always lovers of the male aesthetic, exercised in the nude as a way to show off the physical prowess of the male body.

It it worth noting that for the Greeks, the purpose of the gymnasium extended beyond physical activity. The gymnasium also was a space of scholarly study and rumination. But the nakedness and scholarly pursuits of the gymnasium are really just a side note for this blog.  What I really want to examine is just how radically different the gymnasiums of the early 20th century were compared to the big box gyms of today. Take a look at the photo on the left that Ryan came across. This is a photo from the New York Sports Club in 1927. There is a total simplicity to this gym. Notice the kettlebells? The focus at these gyms was pretty much the same as at flux CrossFit - Bodyweight exercises or gymnastics and strength training through multi-joint, compound exercises. Gyms were equipped with rings, parallel bars and pull-up bars, kettlebells, barbells and plates. How is it that the Western world and more specifically North America went from this sort of architecture and social space, with its focus on kinesthetic awareness and real functional strength, to a space where the body is butchered and compartmentalized into distinct and unrelated units? Nothing about the New York Sports Club as it existed in 1927  lends itself to thinking of the body in terms of biceps, triceps and quads. What the space does promote is a focus on agility, balance, coordination, strength, etc.