Old School Workout: Daily Exercises for Young Men From 1883

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 20, 2009 · 41 comments

in Health & Sports


In 1883, physical culture enthusiast William Blaikie wrote a book entitled “How to Get Strong, and How to Stay So.” In it, he gives a primer on strength training. One of my favorite sections is a sample physical fitness routine for young men. What I like about the routine Blaikie proposes is its simplicity. The only thing needed is a set of dumbbells. That’s it.

While this workout won’t get you washboard abs or huge delts, it will help a man develop the strength and stamina they need to carry out their day with vim and vigor.

Morning Strength Training

1. On rising, let him stand erect, brace his chest firmly out, and, breathing deeply, curl dumb-bells (each of about one-fifteenth of his own weight) fifty times without stopping. This is biceps work enough for the early morning.

2. Then, placing the bells on the floor at his feet, and bending his knees a little, and his arms none at all, rise to an upright position with them fifty times. The loins and back have had their turn now.

3. After another minute’s rest, standing erect, let him lift the bells fifty times as far up and out behind him as he can, keeping elbows straight, and taking care, when the bells reach the highest point behind, to -hold them still there a moment. Now the under side of his arms, and about the whole of the upper back, have had their work.

4. Next, starting with the bells at the shoulders, push them up high over the head, and lower fifty times continuously. Now the outer part of the upper arms, the corners of the shoulders, and the waist have all had active duty.

5. Finally, after another minute’s rest, start with the bells high over the head, and lower slowly until the arms are about the position they would be on a cross, the elbows being always kept unbent, liaise the bells to height again, then lower, and so continue until you have done ten, care being taken to hold the head six or more inches back of the perpendicular, and to steadily face the ceiling directly overhead, while the chest is swelled out- to its uttermost, Rest half a minute after doing ten, then do ten more, and so on till you have accomplished fifty. This last exercise is one of the best-known chest-expanders.

Now that these five sorts of work are over, few muscles above the waist have not had vigorous and ample work, the lungs themselves have had a splendid stretch, and you have not spent over fifteen minutes on the whole operation. If you want to add a little hand and fore-arm work, catch a broomstick or stout cane at or near the middle, and, holding it at arm’s-length, twist it rapidly from side to side a hundred times with one hand, and then with the other.

Afternoon Cardio Workout


In the late afternoon a five-mile walk on the road, at a four-mile pace, with the step inclined to be short, the knees bent but little, and the foot pushing harder than usual as it leaves the ground—this will be found to bring the leafs and loins no inconsiderable exercise; all, in fact, that they will probably need. If, shortly before bedtime each evening, the youth, after he has been working as above, say for a month, will, in light clothes and any old and easy shoes, run a mile in about seven minutes and a half, and, a little later, under the seven minutes, or, three nights a week, make the distance two miles each night, there will soon be a life and vigor in his legs which used to be unknown; and if six months of this work brings a whole inch more on thigh and calf, it is only what might have been expected.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steve Doran Trail Boss August 20, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Well the guy, understands work outs move movement eat less or eat well and you on your way to good health. I prefer the Kettle bell and walking with a weighted vest and hand weights. But getting off your butt and just doing something is best . Every adventure and change in your life begins with the first step.

2 Hey August 21, 2009 at 3:32 am

So you’re supposed to be deadlifting the same weight you are curling and overhead pressing? Doesn’t sound right to me.

3 Beat Attitude August 21, 2009 at 7:15 am


For Step two: surely make sure your ass is sticking out and your lower back unstressed!

4 Jason Lefkowitz August 21, 2009 at 9:35 am

If, shortly before bedtime each evening, the youth, after he has been working as above, say for a month, will, in light clothes and any old and easy shoes, run a mile in about seven minutes and a half, and, a little later, under the seven minutes, or, three nights a week, make the distance two miles each night, there will soon be a life and vigor in his legs which used to be unknown; and if six months of this work brings a whole inch more on thigh and calf, it is only what might have been expected.

I love how, in olden days, writers never felt the need, to end, their sentences; preferring instead, to string together mind-bogglingly huge quantities of clauses, seemingly without end, until the writer ran out of oxygen and collapsed on the floor.

5 Frank August 21, 2009 at 9:45 am

Ha ha ha! This is pretty funny, but I think I might have to give this a try. I’m not doing anything right now and this looks like its pretty fast. I could have my workout done in 20 minutes!

6 Justin B. August 21, 2009 at 9:52 am

Where do you guys find all this cool vintage stuff? Anyways, I think the author is on to something here. Yeah, it’s not P90X, but if someone were to do this little routine every morning, they would be in pretty decent shape. No ripped, but in pretty decent shape.

7 JMM August 21, 2009 at 10:06 am
8 Brett Mckay August 21, 2009 at 11:06 am

@ Jason- very true. Writing has definitely improved since those days. When I was in law school, there would be entire cases written without a period. I’m talking two pages, no period. Just semicolons.

9 Joey August 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

I’m a little confused by number 2. Is this saying you should be lifting with your back? I thought that was a big no-no, or am I not reading it correctly?

10 Brett McKay August 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm


I think he’s talking about doing a deadlift there.

11 Keith August 21, 2009 at 4:38 pm

@Hey, Joey, Brett

Yea, a 1.06*BW deadlift isn’t impressive. However, FIFTY of them is a reasonable challenge. Keep in mind that this is targetting your heart/lungs as well. I remember when I was in decent shape (ha!) and would nigh on collapse after 20 squats.

50 of anything is usually challenging.

12 Chris | Martial Development August 21, 2009 at 7:59 pm

I am curious about the motivation for posting this exercise routine. Is it supposed to be better, or just as good as any modern variation? Or just old and therefore fascinating?

Yes, I can draw my own conclusions…but what does the poster think?

13 Brett McKay August 21, 2009 at 9:04 pm


Both reasons really. I think it’s a good simple workout for men to try. And I also just like old vintage stuff and find it interesting. So this was a two-fer for me.

14 Nik August 21, 2009 at 9:10 pm

@Beat Attitude

Hilarious and good advice. Although, I don’t think it’s going to matter much when you’re lifting 2/15 your bodyweight.


I don’t think you normally include your bodyweight in the amount of your deadlift, but fair enough. Also, you’re forgetting the impressive .06BW you’re holding in your other hand. ;-)

Anyway, it’s pretty obvious this deadlift is more about moving your own bodyweight than about the dumbbells. The dumbbells are probably really only there to keep you from really losing form.

I think the only exercises that might be at all challenging with this weight are the shoulder lowering/raising. But it’s certainly better than nothing, especially if you just use the 1/15 bw as a starting point.

15 Nik August 21, 2009 at 9:11 pm

I meant challenging for someone who never lifts weights, by the way.

16 Zach B August 22, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Thank you JMM for posting the link to the full article. It is full of great information.

I tried this workout this morning using 2 15lb db’s. It is a total smoker. If you read the full article, the author is after the full package: strength, size, stamina, etc. He writes about simple, hard work with minimal equipment. I found the section on fire/police dept. employees to be dead-on, too. Who would have thought we had overweight cops in the 1800′s? ;) (When was the donut invented????)

If you don’t think this looks challenging, try exercise #3 in this post. Get 2 15lb db’s and get them up to the highest point (illustrated by the picture in this post), squeeze the movement at the top, and lower them. If you can go through this workout utilizing the prescribed weight and rest periods, you probably flew to Earth from somewhere else.

17 ACTUALLYLIFTSREALWEIGHT August 23, 2009 at 1:59 am

I really enjoy this website, but I do have to say that that type of workout is virtually useless. Thats why no one with a decent amount of muscle has gotten like that with the use of 1/15 their bodyweight. You might as well be picking up nothing. Sure 50 reps is kind of hard to do, but thats from lactic acid, not muscle teardown. I can hold my arm out to my side and rotate it in a circle as fast as I can for 2 minutes and it will burn like crazy, that doesn’t mean I’m getting a good workout. Just sayin, this workout is uninformed and outdated. I do think its cool though from an old timey standpoint.

18 BlueKayak August 23, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Looks great, I’ll work some of the advice into my P90X and Insanity workout. Thanks BK

19 Nik August 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Definitely agree that even though this will feel difficult, you’re better off using a range of weights for which you can only do 3-20 reps, and then mixing it up and always increasing the weight as you get stronger.

@Zach B
I’m also not sure you’re supposed to bend over on exercise #3. If you are, the author doesn’t include it in the description. It sounds like you’re just supposed to be standing tall with arms jutting out straight behind you. I thought the picture might actually be deceptively taken from a different source.

20 Eric August 24, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I enjoyed the article, but comments are always more entertaining. Please notice that wieght lifting evovles as do other aspects of life. In the late 18 and early 1900s, stamina was a more important part of life than impressive lifts with few reps. (Not eveyone likes bulk in modern life, too.) A good basic routine, but like diets and interests, work outs need to be custom designed to make the individual happy.

21 Zach B August 24, 2009 at 4:50 pm

@Nik: Thank you, sir. Excellent observation. I tell you what though: either way, the movement will light up your upper back!

@Eric: Thank you for your comments. Different strokes for different folks.

22 Michael August 25, 2009 at 2:26 am

@ACTUALLYLIFTSREALWEIGHT: Sure, workout technology has improved over time, but done swiftly with low weight (“one-fifteenth his own weight” is a good start) and good form, this would actually be a good overall cardio/endurance workout, a la the CrossFit “girls.”

Then, taking these same moves but subtracting reps and adding weight, they could be done for strength. Alternate the two types of workouts and the run, and you almost have a complete routine.

23 MIKEY August 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm

“leafs and loins” okay I know what a loin is… but not sure what a leaf is… and hey guys notice this workout is addressed specifically to “youth”… nevertheless even an old fossil like myself could probably do this one… not as quick as i useta be… but doable!

here’s one i haven’t tried yet:

60 jumping jacks
10-15 spiderman pushups
10-15 walking lunges each leg
10-15 spiderman climbs
squat hold on wall 45 seconds
plank hold 60 seconds
burpees (til you drop i guess)
run in place with high knees 25 per side
rest 60 secs do 2X more… then run 2.0 miles… or as many as you can hu-manly can stand..

for stamina and more of a mental exercise… i get on a treadmill set it at 8mph and do that for that 3 minutes without stopping… work like a dog, sweat like a pig, suffer like a saint!

24 Phillip August 25, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I’m sorry to say, but most of these exercises are either not veyr functional, not safe, or done with so little weight as to be of much service. If you want to make maximum gains with very few exercises and equipment, use a kettebell or dumbbell of sufficient weight, and perform 5 sets of 5-10 kettlebell/dumbbell swings, perform 5 sets of pulls ups, and then 5 sets of kettlebell/dumbbell,standing over head press. You’ll work a large majority of your muscles, and work on developing some power, and if you do it in a circuit, you’ll be done in about 15 minutes and get cardio benefits too

25 Jackie_Treehorn August 25, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I don’t understand #2. How am I supposed to lift the weights without bending my arms or my knees?

26 Zach B August 28, 2009 at 8:56 am

@Jackie Treehorn

You hold the dumbbells at your sides – and you DO bend your knees. It’s a weighted deadlift/squat.

27 Marc August 30, 2009 at 11:31 pm

I like doing some morning exercise for 20-30 minutes or so, (especially in the winter time). I like body-weight exercises, jogging on the spot, jumping jacks, etc.

But most of the year I use simple bicycle commuting to get a work out. Its a half hour ride at a brisk pace (5.5 miles) to my work on my old commuter bike. I do this most days of the week eight months of the year. When I lived closer, I walked to work and back. Many men could be much fitter if they got to work using human power. Saves time of going to the gym. I then can do muscle-toning stuff in the evenings or go for a nice long walk with my dog. Or my family and I go to the pool for a swim.

Many opportunities to stay fit….more opportunites than exuses I say.

28 Gentlerider September 15, 2009 at 7:30 pm

On returning home, by bicycle, totaling 5 miles at a brisk pace (half hour), I braced myself, stripped off my clothes and lifted one-fifteenth (30lb dumbells, each of about).
I did them of my own order and started the whole routine off with pushups. I found it challenging, especially number 3 (barely could I complete 10), since I am not even sure I did it of a right way. I was imitating the photo. I consider myself to be of vigorous shape having regularly lifted, cycled, scrambled, calistheticised and played tennis.

29 Redrum September 23, 2009 at 3:12 pm

What is a 5 mile walk at a 4 mile pace?

30 Alex September 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm

@ Redrum: walk 5 miles at 4 miles per hour, so walk 5 miles in an hour and 15 minutes.

31 Michael October 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm

All: I’d like to share workouts, specifically those involving a KettleBell (16kg)
I have files to share as well.


32 LB December 9, 2009 at 12:22 am

I’ve been doing these exercises for the past few days, and I’ve already noticed improvements in movement, flexibility, stamina and strength. Admittedly I’ve been starting at a much lower base due to pre-existing fitness levels, and using lighter weights, but it is so much easier to actually get exercise done when I don’t have to go to some damned gym.
Much more manly, I think, using only ones body and a set of dumbbells. I don’t want bodybuilder type muscle size anyway, it has always struck me as unnecessary (one of the strongest men I know is almost a waif, metalworker by trade) and incredibly vulgar.

33 Dan February 17, 2010 at 9:20 am

I like the fact that its quick. I don’t work out to get huge anymore, but to envigorate my body in the morning. It pulls me out of that zombie phase quicker than a shower or anything and then I feel great the rest of the day.

34 Curt March 2, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Great article. It’s always great to ready articles about simple yet effective ways to train. Some other exercises I like from the ‘past’ are: Good Mornings, Hack Squats, and Kettlebell Swings.

35 Hugh March 31, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Looked easy but I found that I had to start with 10lb dumbbells. Even then I could only get 30 reps (sad). It’s a good basic quick workout with minimal equipment. I love the simplicity of old workouts but this one could be brought into the 21st century if desired. It could be done in circuits, periodized, done with kettlebells, or screwed up in any number
of ways. I say enjoy it for what it gives you, a good basic quick workout with minimal equipment. Grandpa could appreciate something simple and effective that lacked paralysis from analysis.

36 Will Charpentier March 31, 2010 at 8:57 pm

@Jason & Brett:

Writing isn’t better; rather it seems more purposed for the Internet, in short sound bites instead of a sentence that follows the structure of the writer’s thought. Our culture has moved toward that short, if no less evocative manner of communicating and the written word, in so many formats, has followed suit–web writers will tell you that it’s based on the attention span of an 8th grader. Admittedly, American English is more prescriptive in its grammar than other languages; that’s long been acknowledged. I wonder, though, if the movement to the staccato style of communications now present in text messaging and the abbreviations (LOL) that one sees scattered throughout other media aren’t a cry for help, issuing from the shades of the grammarians in our past….

37 Michael April 23, 2010 at 2:13 am

@Will Charpentier

I don’t have the way with words that you do, so I will just say ‘bravo’, ‘well put’ and ‘I couldn’t agree more’.

38 Reggi May 4, 2010 at 3:54 am

That is a good workout that will get you shape, Remember working out back in vintage time was for a purpose not for show.

39 Jeff June 22, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Brett wrote, “Writing has improved since those days.” I disagree. Their sentences were sonorous, intricately developed, and forceful, primarily due to the influence of Latin and Greek. In fact, ours is also the more artificial, since we, for fear of producing a run on sentence, split things which by logic ought to be connected. I would take a Burke, Johnson, Milton, Addison, or even Lincoln any day over anything written post-1900.

If this is the Art of Manliness, how about a post on developing a manly writing style?

40 Saad February 22, 2013 at 7:29 am

I don’t get Number 3 and 5? Which exercise is it? Here’s how I see it:

1. 50 Curling.
2. 50 Deadlines.
3. 50 – say what? I don’t get this one!
4. 50 Shoulder press.
5. 10 x 5 what? Does it have to be done while lying done?

Could anyone please elaborate?

41 Andrew December 18, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I like it! I’ll do it!
I found this too:

“With a pair of dumb-bells, at first weighing not over one-twenty-fifth of what he or she does who uses them, and gradually, as the strength increases, substituting larger ones, until they weigh, say, one-tenth of his or her weight, there is scarcely a muscle above the belt which cannot, by steady and systematic work of never over half an hour daily, be rounded and strengthened up to what it ought to be in a thoroughly developed, strong, and efficient person of its owner’s sex, size, and age”.

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