The Handstand: Old-School Functional Fitness

Every sport has its old-school heroes: the greats of a time gone by, forgotten in the shadows of ESPN and Instagram. It’s hard to even imagine Wilt Chamberlain dropping 100 points in a single game in the days before Michael Jordan; or Johnny Unitas passing for over 40,000 yards before Peyton Manning was even born. But without the history created by those early champions, our modern sports just wouldn’t be the same.

You’ve probably heard of Chamberlain, and Unitas, but maybe you haven’t heard of John Grimek or Jack LaLanne. That’s a shame, because in their day, Grimek and LaLanne shocked the world with feats of fitness performed in a time before fancy training methods and performance-enhancing drugs. Grimek was a national champion in weightlifting and represented the United States at the Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany in 1936. And he had such a great body that when he took his shirt off, women literally screamed in delight. In 1955, LaLanne escaped from Alcatraz Island by swimming from there to the mainland. The water was ice-cold, there was a strong current, and, oh yeah — Jack was handcuffed the entire time.

What was their secret? No one taught Grimek or LaLanne how to lift huge weights or swim handcuffed. Back in those days, people worried that if you exercised too hard, you’d have a heart attack, or that your muscles would grow so big that you couldn’t move. So the old-school guys (and sometimes gals, although women were even less likely to work out) had to figure their training out for themselves.

And because there were so few gyms back before World War II, a lot of that old-school training happened out of doors, and without any special equipment. Both Grimek and LaLanne regularly practiced handbalancing — basically, performing stunts like push-ups, distance walks, and timed holds all while in a handstand. All that time upside-down helped them build chiseled shoulders and arms and strong, tight abs, which obviously helped them in any athletic endeavor. In fact, handbalancing worked so well that lots of bodybuilders and weightlifters practiced it. Pudgy Stockton (one of America’s first female weightlifters), Joe Gold (founded Gold’s Gym), Steve Reeves (literally Hercules), and others like Bert Goodrich, Jimmy Payne, and George Redpath all tried handbalancing at one point in their careers.

  • Grimek
  • LaLanne
  • Pudgy
  • Reeves

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