How To Get Buff, According to an 1889 Book on Fitness


You may be strong, but are you 1880s strong? Ask yourself:

– When an “occasion arises for some special muscular extraction, or taxing the action of some organ,” do you find said action organ coming up short?

– If you take "a sharp run of two or three hundred yards, or even less,” do you realize your “lungs are not to be trusted”?

– Do you get tired after a “day’s rowing or tricycling"?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may be out of shape according to Richard Anthony Proctor, author of 1889's Strength: How to Get Strong and Keep Strong. His guide is chock full of sound strength advice that professional trainers still use today. He urges rowing, dips, pull-ups, and other time-tested workouts to get pumped up.

However, he also offers some fitness tips that you just don't come across any more. Follow his advice, he promises, and "you will be puffing and panting like the conventional grampus."


According to Proctor, pectoral muscles “often are so developed as to suggest the idea of splendid chest development, when in reality the chest is flat and small.” Working out, he theorizes, doesn't make one's bones grow. To buttress this argument, Proctor relays the thoughts of a fellow strength trainer, Mr. W. Blackie, who says, “Whoever knows many gymnasts, and has seen them stripped, or in exercising costume, must occasionally have observed that, while they had worked at exercises which brought up their pectoral muscles until they were almost huge, their chests under their muscles had somehow not advanced accordingly…the man looked as though, should you scrape all those great muscles completely off, leaving the bare framework, he would have actually a small chest, much smaller than many a fellow who had not much muscle.”

Proctor advises that one can develop strong chest through bell-ringing, but warns, "I have never taken part in bell-ringing, but I can now very well understand how this exercise, combined with the pleasant noise of well-matched bells, should have been regarded by the Puritans as sinful recreation.” As a way around this, he spends multiple pages instructing the reader on the construction and use of this special apparatus that doesn't produce any actual sound:

As a final note, he urges, "In regard to the arrangement described above, I wish it to be understood that in no case do I suggest the construction of special apparatus." So, uh, don't do all that stuff he said. But also don't ring bells, sinner.

Proctor has an ace up his sleeve when it comes to exercising the chest: "There is an excellent and too much neglected exercise for the chest which requires no apparatus at all, and can be taken without leaving your room, or even your seat. It is simply the steady inhaling of air.” By now it should be apparent that Proctor occasionally conflates lung capacity with pectoral strength.


Everyone wants great abs, and Proctor gives some advice about posture and offers a few sit-up routines. He also relays what he knows about other techniques: “I am told that mowing acts very effectively to strengthen and harden the abdominal muscles, and I can well believe it; but, as I have never mowed a square yard in my life, I cannot answer from experience.” And he doesn't plan on mowing, so stop mentioning it.


“Probably there is no set of muscles telling more on the strength of the body as a whole than those of the loins," insists Proctor. The guy is loins crazy. And who can blame him? Given the examples of what can happen to someone with weak loins, their strengthening must be made a priority:

“Some one falls in a swoon, perhaps, and must be lifted; but in the effort to lift even the light form of a delicate girl the muscles of the loins, if at all weak, are severely taxed. Or you may be obliged in traveling to haul a heavily-loaded valise into a railway carriage, or out of it, or across a platform, or up steps, no porter being about who will do the work for you."

But how does one work out one's loins? Simple: “The best steady exercise for the loins is one which most of us have 'handy by'—gardening. Digging, especially, is splendid work for the loins, though trying if they are weak. Best begin with lighter work,—raking, hoeing, dibbling, planting, any work in the garden almost, for nearly all garden work involves leaning over and moving that which one has to stoop, more or less, to reach." Naturally, this is the perfect workout, as "This exercise may be made interesting by studying floriculture a little; and skill in gardening work gives by no means slight pleasure.”

Should you not have a garden available, or if your existing garden isn't in need of attention, there are other strategies. “Bowling is also excellent exercise for the loins," adds Proctor.


Strong, muscular arms have been the goal of weightlifters for centuries, but over-focus on them is often detrimental to other parts of the body. Luckily, Proctor lists a sensible and easy way to tell if you are working your arms too much. “If the captain of a boat finds that any member of his crew is developing the biceps muscle too rapidly," he writes, "he may be tolerably sure that there has been too much arm work on the part of that oarsman at any rate." It is now more important than ever to listen to your boat captain when he says to take it easy.


Skipping leg day is a gym no-no, and Proctor knew this even in 1889. “In the street and on the lawn, in the parlor and in the dancing-hall, the owner of active and lissome legs has a marked advantage over stiff and weak-legged beings. You will note the difference even in the way in which one or the other will stoop to pick up—let us say—a lady’s fallen handkerchief.”

To achieve powerful legs that will allow you to lift a handkerchief up off the ground with ease, Protor recommends delicately walking up the stairs:

“The average servant, if you notice, goes up stairs as if kicking through the top of the step were the object to be specially aimed at…I would have the art of getting up stairs taught at school before drilling and the average absurdity known as calisthenics. What can be more pleasing than the springy gait of an intelligent person on his or her way up the stairs...But my own constant practice for the last twenty years, and the practice I mean to follow till gravity begins to get the better of me, is to go up stairs (as well as down) two steps at a time…Going up stairs this way is capital exercise, and is satisfactory to the intelligence, as well as pleasing to the understanding.”

When it comes to calves, Proctor goes off the rails a little bit. “There is good reason for the common prejudice in favour of a well developed calf (or preferably a pair)," he writes. "Although footmen and ballet-dancers shame most of us as regards this particular development, and yet are not the most esteemed products of civilization, there can be no doubt that the shapely calf indicates a racial advance.” Okay, we’re going to skip the rest of the calf section here because Proctor uses it as a springboard to discuss eugenics.

The Ultimate Proctor Workout

According to Proctor, "the best method of at once improving the health and reducing the weight by increasing the action of the skin is one which involves no expense and properly followed out supplies as much exercise in itself as one could get from a small gymnasium."

What is this magic workout? In laymen's terms, it's called "drying off after a bath." But as Proctor explains (in great detail), if you towel off like a madman, you will achieve results...and fast:

1. "Every morning, after washing and thoroughly drying the head and neck, sponge with cold water (and a little soap, but not much if this is done every day) the arms, shoulders, chest, and back, to the waist, carefully rinsing."

2. "Then with a moderately rough, large towel, commence steady but brisk and energetic friction. Tire the right arm in drying and rubbing the left, then tire the left arm in doing the same by the right."

3. "Next tire both arms in drying and rubbing the chest."

4. "Now fling the towel over the right shoulder, and, holding it with the right hand in front (over arm), and with the left hand behind (under arm), draw it steadily backwards and forwards across the neck, right shoulder, and upper back, till both arms are again tired. Do the like with the neck, left shoulder, and upper back, interchanging hands."

5. "Throw the towel over both shoulders, and alternately pull with right hand and left hand."

6. "Keeping the towel still behind, let it fall to a little above the waist, and repeat the steady, alternate hauling with right and left hands and arms. You now want a little rest."

Got enough rest, sissy boy? Good, we're not even close to being done drying off.

7. "Take it while you sponge with cold water and a little soap from the waist to the knees, and carefully rinse. Tire both arms drying, rubbing, and polishing from waist to knees in front."

8. "Pass the towel behind the back, as in the last movement of the former series, and haul away alternately with right and left hand, till the back from waist to 'small,' is glowing and almost burning."

If you aren't glowing or burning, repeat steps 1-7.

9. "Next, let the towel hang under the right thigh, and haul alternately upwards with right and left hands till the back of the right thigh, from seat to knee, is as nearly red hot as possible. Do the like with the left thigh. Again a rest is wanted."

Make this breather count. By this time, you have likely been drying yourself off for nearly three hours and will need it.

10. "So take it while you sponge and rinse both legs from knee to foot Then, lastly, tire thoroughly both arms in drying, rubbing, and polishing both legs from knee to heels and toes."

11. "You can now dress at your leisure."

Congratulations, you are now in great shape. But wait, Proctor has one more piece of advice: "In the evening just before going to bed, it is a capital plan to repeat the rubbing."