“Perfect health is a consciousness of full vitality, of exhilaration, keen enjoyment of life, and strength to perform any task, and it is a melancholy reflection that not one in a thousand men and women of middle-age has it.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Over the years diet fads have come and gone leaving in their wake a long list of people who bought into them, and maybe lost a few pounds only to gain it back later. Exercise equipment, promising an easy path to a six-pack has seen its moments as well, and still there are new gizmos popping up that will end up unused, in a closet and eventually a yard sale. For the guys that want to gain serious mass there are a number of popular protocols they must follow: Eat lots of protein, High reps low weight, Low reps high weight, eat more protein, Drink a ton of water, eat more protein, oh, maybe stake some steroids, lift again late at night…you get the idea. All of this leads people to believe that they need a product to get in shape. While Sandow did eventually sell his fair share of equipment and supplements, he showed the world what a man could achieve by a change of lifestyle and a strict adherence to muscular development and a moderate diet.
Eugen Sandow on Diet
“I am myself no believer in a special diet, still less in a rigid one, as necessary while training. The old nonsense on this subject, about raw eggs and underdone meat, seems to be passing away, and more rational views now prevail. I eat whatever I have a taste for, without stinting myself unduly; nor do I restrict myself seriously in what I drink. Commonly, I abjure anything intoxicating, confining myself mostly to beer and light wines. Tea and coffee I never suffer myself to touch. All I impose upon my appetites is that they shall be temperately indulged.” – Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
What’s that you say Mr. Sandow? You don’t eat a flock of chickens each morning? Surely he is leaving out the part about the protein shakes, right? They key is here “All I impose upon my appetites is that they shall be temperately indulged.” Moderation, that is the key Sandow continues to refer to in his writings. Not only moderation in diet but in exercise as well (as we will see shortly).
Sandow on the American Diet
Reading through Sandow’s books there was a common theme regarding diet: people eat too much. Keep in mind this is the late 1800’s. There wasn’t the plethora of restaurants as there is now and the food they did eat was less modified (no corn syrup and fewer preservatives). If you go back and look at pictures from those times you would be hard pressed to find a fat man or woman. Yet, his assessment is that we still ate too much. He had a particular thought about the American diet in his day:
“What has struck me, in the case of American living, is its generousness – a quality which however good in its way, is not always wise in itself, or fairly dealt with by those who are permitted to minister to it. In matters of the table, the popular habit appears to be, to get the best that money can buy, and have lots of it; forgetting that the dearer meats are often not the most nourishing, and that the plainer foods are the wholesomest, and, where moderately partaken of, are easiest of digestion, as well as the most strengthening.” Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
Obviously not much has changed in the case of American living except that we now have dangers regarding food that were unseen in Sandow’s day, namely poor quality foods, processed foods, loads of sugar, genetically modified food (who knows what that stuff will do), not to mention an absolute abundance of cheap crap that is just everywhere you turn. It really is a fight to keep away from that stuff, but it is absolutely necessary for the health and vitality that every man seeks.
Eugen Sandow on Exercise
“The secret of success in physical development lies not in the construction of the apparatus, nor in its regular use; it lies in the brain, which directs the exercises. It may be summed up in a brief sentence – It is not HOW MUCH you exercise, but HOW you exercise.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Eugen Sandow believed in strength as a skill. Just as a swimmer must learn proper technique — and will excel over his more muscular competitors if he does — so must a man of muscular-culture must learn to put his mind first into his exercises. Otherwise, he will overwork and overstrain his muscles, leading to poor development, an imbalance of the muscular system, and often injuries, some of which may severely limit his exercises for life. Here is a great quote of his on this subject:
“The radical mistake is also made of over-training, and of developing the muscles till they feel like iron, forgetting that flexibility rather than hardness is the symbol and condition of health.” – Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
How to Exercise
“It is possible for any man to follow my example. It is what I live a teach. It is the mind – all a matter of the mind. The muscles really have a secondary place. If you lift a pair of dumb-bells a hundred times with your attention fixed on some object away over in Kamtschatka, it will do you very little good. If, however, you concentrate your mind upon a single muscle, or set of muscles, for three minutes each day, and say, ‘Do thus and so,’ and they respond, there will be immediate development.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
We tend to think that guys who are muscular are also strong and that they became that way by pounding it out in the gym until they came to a state of near muscle fatigue. After all, we have all heard that you have to tear your muscles to add new muscle, right? And the more you tear and repair the larger your muscles will become? While there is certainly some truth to that, Sandow would say that we shouldn’t work ourselves to exhaustion. Instead, if your goal is to become strong, not just bulky, then you should work with lightweights that are easy to maintain proper form and balance, gradually working your way to heavier weights; very gradually. He actually considers 5 lb. dumbbells sufficient for anyone that wants to get into general shape, not herculean as he is, of course.
“The morning exercise should be honest work – the whole mind should be bent upon each movement, and you should leave off warm, if not perspiring, and happily tired for the time being.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Exercise Should not be for Mere Vanity
“Muscle-culture, of course, should not be taken up spasmodically, or without an object in view, or it will fail of its effect. Nor should the object in view be to develop the muscles merely for adoration or display . Regard ought always to be had to the hygienic benefits to be derived from the exercise. If this be not the purpose of the trainer, the novelty will soon pass and interest will become evanescent.” – Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
I like how Sandow recognized the overall health benefits of muscular development. While he was quite the sex symbol, his preaching of Physical Culture always had overall health and social benefits at the center. We can see how the mindset has shifted drastically over the years in this regard. So many of us get on an exercise regimen until we lose a few pounds or reach some vain goal, then we are off it and soon in the position we started from or worse. Or, we become so obsessed with our appearance we buy into anything that we think will lead us to a perfect body, rather than slowing down and focusing on the main goal of health.
There is much more to Sandow’s thoughts on diet and exercise than can be covered here. He talks about the benefits of a cold bath, nose breathing, fresh air, and much more. If you have bought into the modern fitness hype, whatever it may be, I strongly recommend taking a step back and looking at what Sandow has to say about the subject.
More on Sandow
Read more on Eugen Sandow in the books he published. Most, if not all, are available on Kindle for a small fee, though you can find many of them in PDF for free, online.