Party Like It’s 1899: Physical Culture Interview with Craig Staufenberg

Craig Staufenberg is an author and illustrator who’s just released an ebook titled How to Live: A Manual of Sensible Physical Culture that focuses on the history and lessons of the originators of the modern health, strength and fitness movement.

He’s not a personal trainer. He doesn’t work in a sports-science lab. In fact, he’s never participated in athletics in most traditional senses of the word.

His daily professional life and mission doesn’t revolve around physical culture.

In short, he’s probably one of the best people to give the “outsider-within” perspective — and a role model for the rest of us desk monkeys who got picked last for every team.

Physical culture

In his book, Staufenberg explores the history and development of “physical culture” — a loosely organized movement of deep immersion in the pursuit of health, strength, and top physical performance.

Physical culture is a lived practice; devotees seek mastery over self and skill rather than a “look” or a particular athletic feat (although they can perform pretty well and they usually look good naked). As Staufenberg writes:

The most important aspect of Physical Culture does not lie in training, mechanics, apparatus, or diets; neither the measurements of your biceps nor the poundage you can lift are the most crucial component. Rather, in sensible Physical Culture, education reigns supreme.

Physical culture, then, is a set of behaviours and a method — a profound and lifelong engagement with the wondrous powers of the human body — rather than a “workout plan” or “goal” in and of itself.

Although it emphasizes participating and becoming adept in a wide range of sports and activities, physical culture is closely linked to the so-called “iron game” — aka weight lifting. The term “iron game” connotes the sense of play and focus-without-outcome spirit that characterizes the overall physical culture project as a whole.

Here, Staufenberg shares his thoughts on physical culture and why it’s still important today.

When did you get interested in physical culture?

I didn’t actually have any interest in physical culture until college. My dad lifted weights in our basement and I had a lot of friends who played sports, but it didn’t interest me growing up. When I got to college I took up some interest in my health and fitness and employed the usual haphazard approach to gym life: I took some classes, did some yoga, pedaled a stationary bike most days of the week and played with the weight machines.

I did this for a couple of years without having much interest in educating myself further on the matter. I was in better health and more fit than I ever was before then, so I didn’t see the need.

I only began to take a real intellectual interest in health, strength and fitness when I started eating meat again right before my final semester at school. I started to read a lot more about diet, which took me to reading about exercise, which lead me to reading Vince Gironda’s materials.

I remember I ordered an old copy of Unleashing the Wild Physique and used it religiously. For the first time in my life I was employing my brain when it came to developing my body and I immediately put on 15 pounds of muscle and leaned out further. For someone who was previously about 130 pounds and “skinny-fat”, this was a big deal and enough to get me hooked on the culture.

Because I started out reading Gironda’s material and interviews with people who took an interest in his material I naturally kept looking at older material instead of more recent materials. I remember reading an interview with Randy Roach (author of Muscle Smoke and Mirrors), in which he talked about the original physical culturists, the old timers from the turn of the century. They sounded interesting to me so I started reading all of their books that I could find.

What do you continue to find compelling, attractive, and/or intriguing about physical culture?

I think it’s really compelling and interesting to know the history of where the modern health, strength and fitness industry came from, but also why it sprang up when and where it did.

Film studies was one of my passions. I already had a background in the history and intellectual climate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries from studying film history, and when I began to read the old timers’ books I couldn’t help but start drawing conclusions about why physical culture happened when and where it did, and basically why physical culture had to emerge in this time and place.

People who are already immersed in the health and fitness world will find it interesting to learn how physical culture originated, and why we continue to need it to this day. This understanding can be a good entry point for people who’ve never really seen the point of taking an interest in their body.

In the modern world we can’t afford to be ignorant of physical culture. It’s that simple, and looking at the history there are compelling reasons why that’s true.

Just as the person of sedentary habits and weak body possesses a correspondingly sluggish mind and lack of energy, so those who assiduously pursue a physical development gain not only that desired government of their organs, but in marked degree obtains a thorough mastery of their will and, consequently, an easy and contented mind.
– George Hackenschmidt – The Way to Live

Through pure spectacle and striking imagery, the bodies of the men of Physical Culture evoked
the imagination and desires within those who viewed them.

How did you find this source material?

I’d love to entertain and spread the notion that the material was difficult to track down, that I hunted for years at great danger and expense to myself to find it, but I’d just be lying to make myself sound cooler and more dedicated than I am.

The truth is a lot of this material is freely out there and available to anyone with the interest to check it out.

I found most of the materials used for the book on the website, which is an invaluable resource for those interested in reading some of the source texts. I found other manuals and books that I used through online searches as well. I know that there are some people who sell printed copies of some of the old manuals as well, and eBay is a decent place to find some original printings and magazines. But if you’re just interested in reading a lot of the physical culturists’ materials you can find them online for free.

Now just because the material is free and readily available doesn’t mean that it’s all very accessible.

The more recent material like Tony Sansone’s book sounds more modern and is very easy to read, but a lot of the earlier work can be difficult to work your way through. The language can be hard to understand, and most of the books aren’t particularly well illustrated.

We take for granted how clearly most exercise, diet and health books are laid out these days and how clearly their material is presented. The old timers’ books were a lot more literary and can be comparatively dense.

However, these books take on a more explicitly philosophical character than most modern books in the field. It’s not all bad.

Some of the older books remain incredibly easy to find and read. You just need to start with the right ones.

I recommend beginning with George Hackenschmidt’s The Way to Live, which I clearly cribbed my title from. It’s a great introduction to the old timers, but even if you’re only planning on reading one older physical culture book it should be his.

If you’re looking to read more than I recommend moving on to Bernarr MacFadden’s work. Known as the Father of Physical Culture, Macfadden wrote an incredible amount of books on a variety of subjects relating to health, strength and fitness, and created the publishing empire that fueled the movement. His books are pretty simple and straightforward, but he writes with a personal flair that makes them enjoyable as well as informative.

What are the most compelling messages in early physical culture?

There are three.

Message 1: Aid and assist nature.

The old timers understood that the natural way is the best way — that your body can produce anything and everything you need from it if you just follow a few natural rules.

These days people want to get certain physical results without following the rules of nature that spell out how their bodies are intended to work, so they turn to dangerous pharmaceuticals and the like.

One example of this is Viagra. If you just take care of your body, if you eat whole natural foods, if you exercise, and if you keep your mental and emotional health in good shape, than you’ll be blessed with a sex drive that will all but cause you problems. But people want to eat crap, never get off the coach, and refuse to deal with the psychological and emotional factors limiting their performance, and still prop wood whenever they want.

Now, I want to make it clear in this case I’m not talking about steroids or performance enhancing technology pharmecueticals or anything like that. I’m not talking about elite athletics and the practical demands of the modern sports world where taking anything and everything is necessary to compete, nor am I talking about people with serious medical conditions. All of that’s a discussion for another day, and one I’m probably not qualified to dive into.

Message 2: Most people don’t really want to be superhuman.

I think Sandow said it best when he explained that most people don’t need or desire the “strength of Atlas” for their lives. Most of us just want the health to live a long life devoid of serious illness, the strength and energy to get through our day and apply ourselves totally to our mission in life, the physical attractiveness to feel good about ourselves when we look in the mirror or go to the beach, and the athleticism to enjoy playing pickup sports and for having fun sex.

That’s what most of us really want out of our physical culture and the old timers knew it.

Unfortunately these days we’re assaulted via the media with the twin poles of superhuman athletes and fear-inducing messages of rampant debilitating conditions like morbid obesity, massive degenerative disease and the like.

There isn’t a lot of middle ground in the modern discourse for just having a good, healthy, human body- despite the fact that most of us fall into that middle ground when it comes to our needs and desires. The old timers’ physical culture provides a great starting point for developing that middle ground.

Message 3: Health springs from a healthy lifestyle.

The old timers knew that good health was about healthy living on a day to day basis, not about repeatedly bingeing on body recomposition. Persistence and persistence alone produces strength and good health.

In England the majority of healthy young women think nothing of a ten-mile walk. They will play lawn-tennis for hours against a well-matched opponent, row a boat up stream, and swim half a mile or so without dreaming that they are doing anything extraordinary.
–“The Physical Culture of Women”, from The Illustrated American, 1890

Instruction for women fencers, 1890

Instruction for women fencers, 1890

Why is your book important?

Aside from the above three points that I think we’ve lost in modern physical culture I also think it’s important to understand that nearly all the debates we have today about diet and exercise were being argued 100-150 years ago. The old timers debated cooked food diets versus raw food diets, vegetarianism versus meat eating, bodyweight versus iron, etc.

When you realize that these debates have been thrown about for a long time you realize that they aren’t going to be settled anytime soon, if ever.

Instead of allowing the debate to paralyze you as you wait for the definitively “right answer’” to come about, you can just pick some answers that work for you and commit to them.

Diet and exercise regimens are more about philosophy than anything else. Ultimately most people select their regimens according to how they feel about the world as a whole and then go and find the data that justifies their selection.

What about physical culture in non-Western regions?

As conceptualized in the book I’m not aware of other regions where physical culture played an important role, but my ignorance doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.

Every society has its physical culture, and all indigenous societies have an understanding of how to produce good health and strength. The difference in physical culture as described in the book was that it was intended to be applied largely to combat forces of urbanization and sedentary living.

India had a systematic form of physical culture that could translate to an urban industrialized environment, and which resembled and informed what the old-timers were creating closely enough to merit mentioning. There are physical culture books produced in India by Indians, and there were Indians who (like Prof. K.V. Iyer) were considered part of the movement.

As far as I know there weren’t any other regions outside of the US and Europe that were so directly connected to the physical culture movement.

India developed a system of physical culture thousands of years before the Europeans developed theirs because Indians valued the body as a route for ultimate meaning while Europeans saw the physical as an impediment to illumination. India wasn’t alone in their mature view of the body, but their systems translated relatively smoothly into European thought processes.

Clearly this is a massive, sweeping, over-generalized statement, but I think as a general idea it holds up.

What would an average day of PC look like?

If you followed the routines and understandings outlined and agreed upon by most of the old timers then a day would look like the following.

You wake up at a set time, the same time you wake up every day. The old timers often recommended sleeping from 11 pm to 7 am.

You then perform some light stretching in bed, or you would go for a short walk, some form of light physical activity to get your blood flowing.

A number of the old timers recommended you perform your concentrated physical exercises first thing in the morning, so you will probably perform your training routine as soon as you’re thoroughly awake. No matter what your training looked like you’d perform it in a minimum of clothing, in a room that had proper circulation and open windows.

Once you complete your training you would wash thoroughly and coarsely and vigorously towel off, as the old timers said this gave your circulation a workout. Some recommended washing with cold water, others with warm water, but few recommended bathing with hot water.

Washing and taking care of your grooming and hygiene would take at least a half hour, which gave your body time to relax after your workout to the point where you’d be ready to eat.

The old timers generally opposed eating immediately after exercise due to their focus on circulation. They felt that you blood needed to circulate through your muscles after exercise, and that eating a meal drew blood away from your muscles and into your digestive apparatus.

When your body was ready you’d eat a large breakfast of whole, natural foods that were minimally prepared and seasoned. You’d eat until you weren’t hungry any more, and you’d pay careful attention to chewing thoroughly. You wouldn’t read or do anything else that required a lot of brain power when eating. The old timers recommended you focus on your meal to optimize digestion.

After your meal you would go out and do your work or your chores for the day. Most of the old timers recommended against eating lunch, or recommended eating a lunch that was very light. Most of the old timers opposed eating more than twice a day. MacFadden even argued that the 3 meal a day plan killed more people than any other habit.

You’d go about your day and finish your work and then return home and eat a sizeable dinner. A long walk in the evening was usually recommended, and then you would relax and retire before heading to bed.

Your whole week would pretty much look like this. The old timers generally argued for as much regularity as possible in your life.

They argued a moderate, sensible and easy going lifestyle produced the best health in most people.

Strength comes not from adding, but eliminating the unhelpful, from wise reservation, highlighting the core philosophy of a balanced moderation… Your training and your life should invigorate, not drain… If after your exercise, your bath and your rub–down, you feel fit to battle for a kingdom, then your schedule is right.
How to Live

How closely does your own life mirror the principles of PC set out in the book?

There are certain specific habits that I retain from studying the old timers, but the main principle I’ve taken from my studies is the importance of the link between philosophy and physical culture.

If you wanted to you could develop good strength, energy and health by closely following any of the better books from the old timers. I’ve done so before. They work.

But from a purely results-oriented viewpoint there have absolutely been advancements in training techniques and dietary knowledge over the last century that produce larger measureable results in less time and with less effort.

Here’s the rub though: You can’t say that modern cutting edge sports science is better than the old timers’ methods without first defining the word “better”.

The old timers and the new school offer radically different views on what your relationship should be with your body, and there’s a direct link between the relationship you hold with your body and the relationship you hold with the world. The way you eat and the way you train aren’t isolated from the way you approach your life as a whole.

You can produce measurably higher physical output by approaching your body as an isolated, haphazardly developed machine that’s open to “hacking” if you want, but pause for a moment before you take that plunge and consider what kind of relationship that approach will develop between you and your body.

Is that the lens through which you want to see yourself, and by proxy the larger world? Metrics and tracking have their place, but in my opinion they exist to serve a deeper sense of purpose in life, or else these achievements ring hollow.

While they certainly held a certain mechanistic viewpoint of their bodies, the old timers ultimately didn’t see their bodies as fundamentally flawed machines open to exploitation. They revered their bodies and the natural flow that sustained and developed them.

The term “better” depends on the personal philosophy you want to adopt.

Do you want to see your body and the world as sacred and purposeful, or do you want to see your body and the world as a cold and mechanical ROI-based lab?

You can have a great looking physique, but without harmony, there is no happiness; without happiness, there will be eventual collapse on either or both the physical and mental fronts.
–Randy Roach, in How to Live

If this sounds like something that would float your boat — I certainly dig it — check out Craig’s book How to Live: A Manual of Sensible Physical Culture, available through