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Arthur Saxon’s The Development of Physical Power: The Healthy Skeptic Book Review

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One of the best books written on the subject of physical fitness was written well before anyone ever heard of Joe Weider or “Arnold.” Heck, the book, titled The Development of Physical Power, was written by legendary strongman Arthur Saxon in 1906 before either of these two were even born! This book is the fitness equivalent of an archeological dig.

Famous before the turn of the nineteenth century, German Arthur Saxon was considered to be the strongest man in the world. At 5’ 10” and 204 pounds, Saxon personified the ideal of the strongman at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century. Mustachioed, muscular, and lean, Saxon performed feats of strength that men heavier and more muscular couldn’t come close to matching. The juiced-up, phony-muscled bodybuilders of today who weigh 250-300 pounds couldn’t come close to performing the lifts, let alone lift the actual weights, that this mighty German could perform.

The pumped-up pretty boys who frequent body building competitions these days would buckle under the weights lifted by Saxon. Mr. Olympia and all the rest of the body building crowd should be embarrassed by what they have done to the concept of “physical culture.” Saxon was able to snatch 193 lbs, double-hand press/military press 252 lbs (with no jerk or leg movement, heels together and after holding the weight at the chin for four seconds before pressing) and one-hand slow press 370 lbs. Saxon also did something called the “double-handed anyhow” where he raised a 336 lb barbell overhead with his right hand and then bent over, picked up a ring weight weighing 112 lbs that he lifted to his shoulder and then overhead for a world record total of 448 lbs.

But back to the book…Saxon wrote The Development of Physical Power in 1906 and the simplicity of his approach is beautiful and the beauty of his program is the simplicity. His observations regarding those who took an interest in “physical culture” and his philosophy, which is based purely on anecdotal evidence, are right on. As a matter of fact, without spending a dime on research and without wasting a moment conducting studies in the name of exercise science, Saxon was able to grasp the essence of proper training methods. All of the nonsense that’s been thrown around for the past 50 years should be forgotten, and more attention and credence should be given to the ways of Saxon and his contemporaries.

Here’s a sample of Saxon’s observations and you make up your mind as to the prescience of this man.

From the Introduction,

I shall teach you to judge a man by his capabilities as an athlete, whether a weightlifter, wrestler or not, and not by the measurement of his biceps or chest. … My idea will be, and always has been, to leave the muscles to look after themselves, but I place a premium upon the possession of untiring energy, great staminal (sic) and vital power, and a sound constitution.”

From the chapter “On Strength,”

“Genuine strength should include not only momentary strength, as proved by the ability to lift a heavy weight once, but also the far more valuable kind of strength for endurance. … “Neither do I consider a man a really strong man if he is in certain parts developed out of proportion to others. If a man has tremendous arms and chest and weak legs then he is only half a strong man…and some day the inevitable breakdown will occur which will cause carping critics to blame ‘physical culture.’”

From the chapter “Weight in Relation to Lifting” where Saxon points out that size doesn’t necessarily matter he writes,

“A man with 15 inch biceps and a strong wrist will raise a heavier weight in any position than another man with a 16 inch biceps who (sic) has a small and weak wrist.”

And finally from the chapter “Routine of Training,”

“Do not make the mistake of limiting your practices to any one set of lifts…Practice everything.”

Saxon provides countless other gems throughout this most excellent book. From training routines to the kinds of lifts, from nutrition and rest to the proper shoes to wear to “practice,” Saxon’s recommendations provide us with a soothing tonic to counter the nonsense that comes from today’s fitness hucksters. And the book contains some awesome pictures, to boot.

The Development of Physical Culture was reprinted by Wm F. Hinbern in 1997, and can be ordered, along with other great old-school books by visiting this site, Super Strength Books.

Anyone who is truly interested in getting the most out of their workouts and is turned off by what they see in the mainstream fitness media needs to check out this book.

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About Sal Marinello

  • Harry

    Hey Sal,
    I too have read everything I could on Arthur Saxon. He is a personal inspiration for me. I would like to ask you a couple of questions regarding his training methods and on performing the ‘bent-press’.
    1. How did he train EXACTLY? Especially the bent-press. Did he train 3 days a week? How many reps? How many sets? Did he cycle? I am actually looking for details.
    2. Are there any videos on the correct performance of the bent-press? I would like to perfect my technique.

    Thanks,
    Harry

  • sal m

    Harry:
    In this book in the chapter titled “routine of training” saxon basically lays out his very simple, intuitive routine. he calls it “practice” – which i love – and recommends a 2x per week schedule during which you should start light and build up slowly as you warm up.

    he had light and heavy days, recommmeded using dumbbells and barbells and listened to his body, in that if on a given day you don’t feel like you “have it” you shouldn’t push it.

    here’s a link to the bent press you can also go to dragondoor.com and buy the basic kettlebell instructional dvd for a great way to learn about the bent press and other related lifts.