Contemporary fitness culture is just now beginning to rediscover gymnastics. For decades gymnastics has been considered a niche sport reserved for teenage girls willing to sacrifice an ordinary life for gold medals and back flips. Admirable as this is, most individuals don’t realize the historical importance of gymnastics in physical culture, as well as its evolving role in the future of movement practice.
Early evidences of gymnastics are found in the records of ancient Greek historians like Heroditus. Before the famed Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans performed calisthenic routines similar to what is commonly referred to as body-weight training. Olympians of stripes used calisthenic regimens for cross-training purposes. This tradition continued through the Roman Empire by the gladiators. Beyond the Greco-Roman era, European soldiers used gymnastic methodologies, which, among many accolades, brought English longbowmen acclaim as superior archers.
The Birth of Modern Gymnastics
In 19th century Prussia, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn introduced horizontal and parallel bars, the vaulting horse and the balance beam. These innovations lead to the birth of modern gymnastics, activities that challenged the upper body and core with complex scapular patterns. In turn, these developments lead to the birth of large open-air gymnasiums. From here the methodology immigrated to the United States in the 1830s.
Modern Olympic Gymnastics
Modern gymnastics debuted at the 1896 Olympic games, with Germany winning a men’s only competition consisting of modern gymnastics mainstays — the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings and vault. The women’s competition debuted at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, with the Netherlands winning the all-around competition. Although this first women’s event didn’t offer medals in individual events, women can now win individual medals in the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise.
The Cross-Training Mutation
The history of gymnastics doesn’t end with its Olympic inclusion. As it was gaining international prominence, various techniques were being assimilated into modern athletics. Early 20th-century strongmen made calisthenics the foundation of their training. Weighing in at 240 pounds, Bert Assirati was renowned for performing one-armed handstands, but the development of plate-loaded barbells and smaller, portable dumbbells shifted focus away from gymnastics training, slowly giving way to the muscle beach aesthetic of contemporary bodybuilding.
Rediscovery and Renaissance
Gymnastics and calisthenic work are experiencing a rebirth, thanks largely to several groups. Emphasizing basic body-weight training and complex moves like the muscle-up, Crossfit gyms have repopularized gymnastics as a means of metabolic conditioning. Body-weight systems like Convict Conditioning mark a return to calisthenics as a strength development program. Meanwhile, Ido Portal is exploding the concept, redefining gymnastics in terms of movement and using calisthenics to create movers: people who do instead of prepare. The history of gymnastics is storied, but the best is yet to come. The future remains bright for the oldest training system on the planet.