In the mid-1800’s, strength training and fitness began to emerge both in business and popular culture in America.
By the late 1880s, Dudley Sargent, an assistant professor of physical education at Harvard University, had designed several free-standing pulley machines to exercise the back, chest and abdominal muscles. These machines relied primarily on weight stacks, making the resistance level adjustable. But the machines were large and didn’t gain wide use beyond Harvard’s gym.
In 1894, Alexander Whitely unveiled a pulley-driven exercise machine for the masses. With just a single pulley that could be attached to a wall or doorframe, it was suitable for in-home use. By changing the position of the pulley, the Whitely Exerciser allowed users to perform a full-body workout—one that purportedly could be completed in less than an hour.
Since the device was portable, the Whitely was marketed to business folks and travelers, and to those subjected to stress or “nervous energy.” It was also aimed at women, proclaiming itself capable of “making weak women strong” and suitable “for every member of the family,” young and old.
With its two handles attached to a wall, the Whitely in some ways resembled today’s TRX suspension trainers, though the TRX is simpler (it requires no pulleys) and lighter. Some of the exercises performed on the Whitely by fitness-minded men and women of the Industrial Age look very much like moves modern athletes perform on the TRX today. Each device uses gravity, instability and the user’s body weight to create resistance for a challenging workout.
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For example, the Whitely’s “chest expander” was designed to strengthen the pectorals in much the same way as the TRX Clock Press.
The Whitely “Chest Expander” (left) and today’s TRX Clock Press
Another Whitely move was a Squat with arms extended overhead, which can be seen as a precursor to today’s TRX-assisted Squat.
Whitely Squat with arms extended (left) and TRX Assisted Squat
The Whitely also allowed users to perform “throwing,” which is basically a diagonal TRX Power Pull.
“Throwing” on the Whitely (left) and TRX Power Pull
Another move, then called “bowing” mimicked the action of a traditional rowing machine.
In 1897, Alexander Whitely teamed up with Eugene Sandow, considered by many to be the “father of bodybuilding.” Sandow acted as an agent and performed demonstrations as he travelled around promoting the product. Sandow then collaborated with Whitely to make a new machine, the Sandow-Whitely Improved Exerciser. But after a year, Sandow quit to start his own rival business in France. His new product, the Sandow Combined Developer, took out the pulley system and attached removable weights to the handles.
Although there is reason to believe that Whitely filed for bankruptcy in 1898, advertisements for the Whitely Exerciser show the device was available for sale well into the 1900s.
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