How To Get Buff, According to an 1889 Book on Fitness

You may be strong, but are you 1880s strong? Ask yourself:

– When an “occasion arises for some special muscular extraction, or taxing the action of some organ,” do you find said action organ coming up short?

– If you take "a sharp run of two or three hundred yards, or even less,” do you realize your “lungs are not to be trusted”?

– Do you get tired after a “day’s rowing or tricycling"?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may be out of shape according to Richard Anthony Proctor, author of 1889's Strength: How to Get Strong and Keep Strong. His guide is chock full of sound strength advice that professional trainers still use today. He urges rowing, dips, pull-ups, and other time-tested workouts to get pumped up.

However, he also offers some fitness tips that you just don't come across any more. Follow his advice, he promises, and "you will be puffing and panting like the conventional grampus."


According to Proctor, pectoral muscles “often are so developed as to suggest the idea of splendid chest development, when in reality the chest is flat and small.” Working out, he theorizes, doesn't make one's bones grow. To buttress this argument, Proctor relays the thoughts of a fellow strength trainer, Mr. W. Blackie, who says, “Whoever knows many gymnasts, and has seen them stripped, or in exercising costume, must occasionally have observed that, while they had worked at exercises which brought up their pectoral muscles until they were almost huge, their chests under their muscles had somehow not advanced accordingly…the man looked as though, should you scrape all those great muscles completely off, leaving the bare framework, he would have actually a small chest, much smaller than many a fellow who had not much muscle.”

Proctor advises that one can develop strong chest through bell-ringing, but warns, "I have never taken part in bell-ringing, but I can now very well understand how this exercise, combined with the pleasant noise of well-matched bells, should have been regarded by the Puritans as sinful recreation.” As a way around this, he spends multiple pages instructing the reader on the construction and use of this special apparatus that doesn't produce any actual sound:

As a final note, he urges, "In regard to the arrangement described above, I wish it to be understood that in no case do I suggest the construction of special apparatus." So, uh, don't do all that stuff he said. But also don't ring bells, sinner.

Proctor has an ace up his sleeve when it comes to exercising the chest: "There is an excellent and too much neglected exercise for the chest which requires no apparatus at all, and can be taken without leaving your room, or even your seat. It is simply the steady inhaling of air.” By now it should be apparent that Proctor occasionally conflates lung capacity with pectoral strength.


Everyone wants great abs, and Proctor gives some advice about posture and offers a few sit-up routines. He also relays what he knows about other techniques: “I am told that mowing acts very effectively to strengthen and harden the abdominal muscles, and I can well believe it; but, as I have never mowed a square yard in my life, I cannot answer from experience.” And he doesn't plan on mowing, so stop mentioning it.


“Probably there is no set of muscles telling more on the strength of the body as a whole than those of the loins," insists Proctor. The guy is loins crazy. And who can blame him? Given the examples of what can happen to someone with weak loins, their strengthening must be made a priority:

“Some one falls in a swoon, perhaps, and must be lifted; but in the effort to lift even the light form of a delicate girl the muscles of the loins, if at all weak, are severely taxed. Or you may be obliged in traveling to haul a heavily-loaded valise into a railway carriage, or out of it, or across a platform, or up steps, no porter being about who will do the work for you."

But how does one work out one's loins? Simple: “The best steady exercise for the loins is one which most of us have 'handy by'—gardening. Digging, especially, is splendid work for the loins, though trying if they are weak. Best begin with lighter work,—raking, hoeing, dibbling, planting, any work in the garden almost, for nearly all garden work involves leaning over and moving that which one has to stoop, more or less, to reach." Naturally, this is the perfect workout, as "This exercise may be made interesting by studying floriculture a little; and skill in gardening work gives by no means slight pleasure.”

Should you not have a garden available, or if your existing garden isn't in need of attention, there are other strategies. “Bowling is also excellent exercise for the loins," adds Proctor.


Strong, muscular arms have been the goal of weightlifters for centuries, but over-focus on them is often detrimental to other parts of the body. Luckily, Proctor lists a sensible and easy way to tell if you are working your arms too much. “If the captain of a boat finds that any member of his crew is developing the biceps muscle too rapidly," he writes, "he may be tolerably sure that there has been too much arm work on the part of that oarsman at any rate." It is now more important than ever to listen to your boat captain when he says to take it easy.


Skipping leg day is a gym no-no, and Proctor knew this even in 1889. “In the street and on the lawn, in the parlor and in the dancing-hall, the owner of active and lissome legs has a marked advantage over stiff and weak-legged beings. You will note the difference even in the way in which one or the other will stoop to pick up—let us say—a lady’s fallen handkerchief.”

To achieve powerful legs that will allow you to lift a handkerchief up off the ground with ease, Protor recommends delicately walking up the stairs:

“The average servant, if you notice, goes up stairs as if kicking through the top of the step were the object to be specially aimed at…I would have the art of getting up stairs taught at school before drilling and the average absurdity known as calisthenics. What can be more pleasing than the springy gait of an intelligent person on his or her way up the stairs...But my own constant practice for the last twenty years, and the practice I mean to follow till gravity begins to get the better of me, is to go up stairs (as well as down) two steps at a time…Going up stairs this way is capital exercise, and is satisfactory to the intelligence, as well as pleasing to the understanding.”

When it comes to calves, Proctor goes off the rails a little bit. “There is good reason for the common prejudice in favour of a well developed calf (or preferably a pair)," he writes. "Although footmen and ballet-dancers shame most of us as regards this particular development, and yet are not the most esteemed products of civilization, there can be no doubt that the shapely calf indicates a racial advance.” Okay, we’re going to skip the rest of the calf section here because Proctor uses it as a springboard to discuss eugenics.

The Ultimate Proctor Workout

According to Proctor, "the best method of at once improving the health and reducing the weight by increasing the action of the skin is one which involves no expense and properly followed out supplies as much exercise in itself as one could get from a small gymnasium."

What is this magic workout? In laymen's terms, it's called "drying off after a bath." But as Proctor explains (in great detail), if you towel off like a madman, you will achieve results...and fast:

1. "Every morning, after washing and thoroughly drying the head and neck, sponge with cold water (and a little soap, but not much if this is done every day) the arms, shoulders, chest, and back, to the waist, carefully rinsing."

2. "Then with a moderately rough, large towel, commence steady but brisk and energetic friction. Tire the right arm in drying and rubbing the left, then tire the left arm in doing the same by the right."

3. "Next tire both arms in drying and rubbing the chest."

4. "Now fling the towel over the right shoulder, and, holding it with the right hand in front (over arm), and with the left hand behind (under arm), draw it steadily backwards and forwards across the neck, right shoulder, and upper back, till both arms are again tired. Do the like with the neck, left shoulder, and upper back, interchanging hands."

5. "Throw the towel over both shoulders, and alternately pull with right hand and left hand."

6. "Keeping the towel still behind, let it fall to a little above the waist, and repeat the steady, alternate hauling with right and left hands and arms. You now want a little rest."

Got enough rest, sissy boy? Good, we're not even close to being done drying off.

7. "Take it while you sponge with cold water and a little soap from the waist to the knees, and carefully rinse. Tire both arms drying, rubbing, and polishing from waist to knees in front."

8. "Pass the towel behind the back, as in the last movement of the former series, and haul away alternately with right and left hand, till the back from waist to 'small,' is glowing and almost burning."

If you aren't glowing or burning, repeat steps 1-7.

9. "Next, let the towel hang under the right thigh, and haul alternately upwards with right and left hands till the back of the right thigh, from seat to knee, is as nearly red hot as possible. Do the like with the left thigh. Again a rest is wanted."

Make this breather count. By this time, you have likely been drying yourself off for nearly three hours and will need it.

10. "So take it while you sponge and rinse both legs from knee to foot Then, lastly, tire thoroughly both arms in drying, rubbing, and polishing both legs from knee to heels and toes."

11. "You can now dress at your leisure."

Congratulations, you are now in great shape. But wait, Proctor has one more piece of advice: "In the evening just before going to bed, it is a capital plan to repeat the rubbing."

On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

This Water Bottle Doubles as a Foam Roller

It hydrates and it massages. The MOBOT bottle, as spotted by Outside magazine, is being billed as “the world’s first and only foam roller water bottle,” and many outdoor and adventure enthusiasts swear by it.

The stainless steel bottle is wrapped in non-toxic EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam, which can be rolled along your calves, hamstrings, glutes, or arms to soothe sore muscles and relieve joint paint. It was designed with athletes in mind, but we could see it being used by stressed-out office workers with stiff muscles who could benefit from a little self-care. Plus, the lightweight bottle is great for keeping your beverage cold all day, whether you’re at work, at an amusement park, or at the beach. A top loop allows it to be hooked onto a backpack or beach bag.

The bottle is available in three sizes: the 40-ounce “Big Bertha,” the 18-ounce “Firecracker,” and the 27-ounce “Grace.” There’s a range of colors and patterns to choose from, including neon-colored camouflage for those moments when you can’t decide whether you want to stand out or blend in.

You can order it on Amazon, but some styles have already sold out. Check out MOBOT's video below to see different ways of using the bottle.

[h/t Outside]


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