The point of this post is not to serve as an encyclopedia on the history of fitness & sport specific training, instead its to offer a general overview of the timelines and the evolution of what in general is referred to as “exercise”, to present a starting point for upcoming posts on training concepts… past, present and future.

The 1970s – Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding got its official start in the 1960s but it was Arnold who brought it mainstream and to the masses. The 70s belonged to Arnold Schwarzenegger: he won the title of Mr Olympia 7x (1970-1975 & 1980). With Arnold training out in the open air of Muscle Beach, California brought spectators by the boatload. The fitness craze had not yet come to the forefront, but bodybuilding created the gateway.

The 1980s – “Let’s Get Physical”

The fitness craze of the ’80s began with everyone starting to get “physical” thanks to Olivia Newton-John and a cast of men sporting little more than coconut tanning oil and banana hammocks (which came from the world of bodybuilding where competitors posed in nothing more than an itty bitty teeny weeny loin cloth). Thanks to bodybuilding, a toned down version of training was presented to the population: strength training. Everyone could now get buff like a bodybuilder but without the bulk.

The ’80s also saw the first major evolution of gyms: enter the health & racquet club. Prior to the ’80s the typical gym was a bodybuilding gym full of free weights (dumbbells, barbells and plate weights) requiring experience as to what, and how, and when to train each muscle and/or muscle group. In the ’80s with Nautilus introducing its first pieces of gym equipment, weight lifting was simplified to pulling or pushing on the bar of a piece of gym equipment. With many pieces of equipment and each one designed to replicate the exercises bodybuilders performed, the learning curve for strength training was eliminated. Now you didn’t have to study Schwarzenegger training secrets ahead of heading off to the gym, you could show up and still workout like a pro. Chains of health clubs sprang up as the fitness craze gained momentum.

Up until the 80s, the training performed by athletes (i.e. non-bodybuilders) was predominantly if not exclusively sport specific training. Swimmers swam. Cyclists rode. Runners ran, and so on. Few athletes stepped foot into a gym because that’s not how you trained for a sport. Besides, imagine a runner in the ’70s with wool socks, waffle iron shoes, and short shorts stepping into a Golds Gym… what would they lift? The bar? That would go over well with bodybuilders whose arm would out-weigh an entire runner.

To train for sport, you trained the sport and nothing but the sport. It wasn’t until the late 80s that the concept of strength training being used by actual athletes started to catch on. Strength training pioneers such as Tim Grover who started to work with Michael Jordan in the late 80s was one of the first to take an athlete away from their sport, and into the gym to build strength, strength-endurance, and speed-strength. The payoff for these early adopters was enormous, case in point: Jordan.

The 1990s – Cross Training

Bodybuilding was a great starting point, but not everyone was interested in a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. It was also still a time when femininity espoused smallness, thinness, toned not bulky muscles, and so the fitness craze unfolded further with cardio training. With cardio came an entire new line up of gym equipment: steppers, treadmills, and rowers joined the primary piece of cardio equipment… stationary bikes.

This was also the time when the pursuit of heart health came into vogue. The research from the ’50s and ’60s regarding heart health made its way into the condemnation of all things fat, with low and no fat diets coming of age. The timing for cardio to take centre stage could not have been better as research tied cardiovascular exercise directly to heart health and the prevention of heart attacks.

Cross training became the catch phrase for blending a bit of everything… play a racquet sport, sit in the sauna or steam room, then take in a step class before heading to the gym to do a circuit using universal strength training system of the club.

The 2000s – Personal Trainers

Although it was in the ’90s that Can Fit Pro started with its conference which led to ‘trainers’ becoming ordained in the course of a 48hr conference, it took a while until trainers became widespread. Can Fit Pro arose from the opportunity that GoodLife gym saw in teaching the everyday person how to exercise, and in its need for instructors for the growing interest in exercise classes (e.g. step classes). The annual conference allowed anyone with an interest in health, fitness, and wellness to become a personal trainer simply by sitting through a handful of 1 and 2hr seminars on a variety of topics. With less education and less experience than a lifeguard receives, an entirely new profession was unleashed onto the public proclaiming themselves as professionals teaching all things health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.

The 2010s – DIY / Do It Yourself Health & Fitness

Technology exploded leading to the availability of equipment that used to be exclusively available to exercise physiologists to everyone. Heart rate monitors became a consumer product, no longer just in research labs, everyone could access the tools and the data that researchers used. Heart rate monitors were the beginning, and then there were power meters, and sleeves measuring blood oxygenation and lactic acid levels without even a pin prick being required. Platforms for analyzing all the data became available allowing the average athlete the ability to analyze their training in ways that only peak performance labs could a couple decades ago.

Technology allowed anyone to believe that they could ‘do it themselves’ (that is train and coach themselves).

Technology allowed average athletes to proclaim themselves as coaches.

And with that, the role of trainers diminished as the belief was that with technology making physiological data available to all, there was little that a trainer could offer in value. Why? Because everyone now has everything they need – or think they need – on their smartphone of course.