Building strength: Alan Calvert, the Milo Bar-bell Company, and the modernization of American weight training

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Beckwith, Kimberly Ayn

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Men looking to reshape and strengthen their body in fin de siècle America (particularly after Eugen Sandow’s 1893 appearances at the Chicago Worlds Fair) discovered two major problems: the limited exercise literature available in this era almost universally espoused the use of light weight training methods which did not build the kind of muscles owned by Sandow, and those who wanted to lift heavier weights—ala Sandow and other professional strongmen—could not buy such implements from any sporting goods company in America. Enter Alan Calvert, who solved both problems for American men by opening the Milo Bar-bell Company in 1902. His promotion of progressive resistance exercise using the adjustable barbells and dumbbells he manufactured launched a new era of strength and muscularity for America. Using historians Allen Guttmann’s and Melvin Adelman’s theories on sport and modernity, this dissertation argues that Alan Calvert was the pivotal figure in the modernization of American weight training. His first book, The Truth about Weight Lifting, did more than expose the professional strongman’s tricks. It also urged Americans to create an association for the sport that would regulate competitions, create rules and standards for equipment, decide on a definitive set of lifts, and keep official records. Calvert’s suggestions resulted in the formation of the American Continental Weight-Lifters’ Association, the first national governing body for weightlifting in the United States. Modern sports according to Adelman must have a specialized literature, and Calvert also provided this for weight training by beginning Strength magazine in 1914. In his articles and editorials, Calvert introduced his readers to scientific training methods, emphasized the importance of training with heavy weights, and counseled thousands of men on the best methods to build an impressive physique. Known for his honesty and integrity, many of Calvert’s followers viewed him as a messianic character as he converted thousands of men to weight training during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although Calvert turned from lifting in his later life, his followers did not stray from the path he’d set them on—the path that led to the creation of the modern sports of bodybuilding and weightlifting.