On The Shoulders Of Giants


There is a quote, famously attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, but traceable to writings as far back as the 12th century. Newton wrote, ” If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This is similar in context and content to statements by earlier scholars. For example [from Wikipedia], “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” This quote was written in 1159, and referred to the hubris (pride) of modern scholars who fail to appreciate that their successes and insight are based upon the work of those who toiled before them.


A trend started in bodybuilding, and later the fitness industry which arose from the popularity of early bodybuilding. Allow me to backtrack a step or two, and tell you how the industry of these sports or pageants (depending upon how you view the events and training) evolved. At one time, men who lifted extreme weights or displayed their bodies were oddities. They were often sideshow talent at traveling circuses. Of course, men being men, spectators would take measure (likely the wives were close observers as well) and compare themselves to these “freaks.” Social norms of those days found it scandalous to parade in public in “short pants” and the logic of picking up something that would be too heavy for two men made no sense. Over time, technology and the urbanization of society caused men to pursue physical activity for recreation rather than labor. With the advent of organized sports, competition for physical and performance enhancement became more commonplace.

FreakShowShortly after the Second World War, nations began to seek state pride through prowess in sports. Many people do not appreciate that the root of sports is preparation and training for battle skills. Athletes became state heroes, and celebrities. However, for the average man, there was no opportunity to achieve that same admiration on a local scale. Strength tests were always part of competition, and primitive gyms began to operate. In this setting, isolated clusters of men were developing abnormally muscular physiques for the standards of those days. This was the root of bodybuilding. Crowds were awed by the weight lifted, or bizarre acrobatics; in time, the physiques of these men became mythical. They appeared as living statues of the Olympian Gods, carved in flesh instead of marble. Of course, this comparison is why the premier professional bodybuilding event is called the Mr. Olympia.

ArnoldFor decades, the industry was monopolized by brothers Joe and Ben Weider, though others certainly contributed greatly. Joe Weider was savvy enough to recognize that the reaction young men had towards bodybuilding could be commercialized. He discovered a young Austrian bodybuilder who possessed an unrivaled charisma, intelligence, and physique to become the face (and pecs, bis, lats, etc) of bodybuilding – Arnold Schwarzenegger. This dominance in the industry lasted for nearly thirty years. In addition to promoting bodybuilding events, Weider created a publishing empire and launched several supplement brands.

During the early 1990s, a small publication developed from a basement operation called Muscle Media 2000. One of the early hallmarks of this publication, which went on to create its own supplement line called EAS (Experimental & Applied Science), was to call out other publications, but in particular Weider’s magazines, for misleading articles or comments. The bodybuilders’ physiques were often promoted as being solely the result of extensive training and regimented diets supplemented with Weider products. The “dirty little secret” was that these professionals were using anabolic steroids to augment the response to their training, placing credit instead on supplements. It was not uncommon to read an article in Flex during the 1980s, discussing chest workouts for people who bench press 500 pounds – and refer to them as novices or average. That is an elite lift for anyone under 200 pounds, and rare among all but the most dedicated powerlifters.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, the power of this principle struck many as marketing gold. Much like politics, we hear more about what doesn’t work, or who is full of crap, than what is effective. The quest for part of the weight loss/bodybuilding/fitness revenue is so intense that gimmicks are coming out that seem to hold little value other than being different. Those “giants” referred to earlier in this context are the men who created the physiques that inspired so many over the years. Yes, in many (even most) cases, there are drugs involved that amplify the training- and diet- induced responses in muscle growth and fat loss. However, many recreational lifters have applied training and diet (to realistic levels, not the exaggerated loads mentioned earlier), and changed their bodies dramatically. AND, no bodybuilder or athlete achieves his/her physical development without effort and discipline. Lance Armstrong will probably go down as the most famous “cheater” for his use of performance enhancing drugs, biologics, and blood products during his dominant reign as the most accomplished cyclist in history. Yet, I remember being struck by a Nike ad (oh, did corporations profit from association as long as it was socially acceptable? U.S. Postal Service sponsored for millions of dollars despite being in a financial deficit? AND they didn’t wonder?) in which Armstrong was shown training. He voiced, “People ask me what I am on. I am on my bike.” I may not have that verbatim, but that comment is truth.

Bodybuilding knowledge is more closely akin to folklore than science, as it holds traditions handed down from those who learned through experience. Wouldn’t it be smart to ask advice from or follow the example of those who have achieved your goals from similar circumstances and available resources? Of course, it is important to temper your goals and expectations to your starting point, ability, commitment, etc. AND, realize that if you are setting your standard on someone who may be misusing anabolic steroids, that your results will not equal his/hers. Please don’t make that decision – using anabolic steroids or other drugs – trying to measure up to someone else or accelerate your own growth due to impatience, it is a decision with many consequences that few appreciate prior to making the choice. You need to be educated on the true health risks, your predisposition to rare adverse events, legal consequences (which are quite severe), job opportunity loss, reaction from family and spouse, etc. Few people are capable of making an informed decision on this, instead see only the reward.

These “big guys” in the gym, they are big in comparison to the people in the same setting. Most of these people don’t want to train you, or be bothered by your questions during their gym time. They are there to work towards their goals. Also, what you see in 60 minutes at the gym doesn’t touch what he/she does the remainder of the day. Think they drive through Mickey D’s for a mayo-burger and fries? The great majority are “big guys in the gym” through hard work and dedication to a diet and supplement program. We have become jaded by all the sports stars being caught “cheating,” and now think anyone who exceeds our expectations must be on something.

Competitive and professional bodybuilding are unique and distinct from recreational training in a gym. The person with family obligations and a 40-hour work week (or 60+ hours/week) has little in common with the single 20-something who can spend time in the gym, nap during the day, do split workouts so his/her cardio is in the morning, spend a good share of his/her disposable income on gym fees, supplements, and is willing to take the many risks associated with drug misuse. Using the term “bodybuilding” generically has caused much confusion.

Personal trainer motivating client yelling with megaphoneYou know yourself best, and if you are the type who needs guidance and hand-holding in an endeavor, you will probably make modest changes slowly on your own. In such case, hiring a personal trainer may give you insight to correcting flaws in your diet and training, and inspire you to believe in yourself. Hopefully, you will not succumb to a domineering trainer that will try to force you into a pattern of training and eating that you will not enjoy, follow, or benefit from. You will only benefit from what you will do. Ketogenic diets (real ones, another topic) work wonders, but most people fail to comply with them over time. Periodic training, cross training, alternate day fasting, etc, there are many different patterns of activity and diet, so consider what you will commit time and energy towards. Be realistic about your current state (i.e. are you obese, not just overweight; can you get up earlier in the morning to train; are you comfortable in a gym setting, etc). If you choose to do so, find a trainer who has produced results in people similar to you, at a cost that you are willing to spend. I see so many “ten workout” or “six week” programs; and the same number of people who disappear after the tenth workout or seven weeks later. That is another pet peeve, trainers that do not prepare their clients for “life on their own.” If a person spends several hundreds of dollars, and weeks with a trainer, and then stands immobile in the gym his/her first day on their own, uncertain as to how to work out, that is a failure regardless of the temporary changes that occurred during paid supervision. Don’t just do, learn. Spend the time asking how to adjust weights, reps, alternate exercises if the one machine he uses every leg day is taken, etc. Most people end up “coffee chatting” with their trainer. You are there to learn, unless you want to pay someone to stand around every workout the rest of your life.

fitness man and personal trainer in gymYou will be spending time with your trainer and addressing many personal issues. You need to be inspired by your trainer of choice, feel that you are important and not just his 12:30 client, and trust that health and personal issues you discuss will be kept private and not become “front desk chatter” at the health club. After all, the reason you need to get fitter is something in your life/environment is preventing you from following healthy habits. It may be marital stress, financial issues, problematic adolescent children (is there any other kind?), health related, etc. We have heard details about people in the gym or other facilities getting divorced, having eating disorders, drinking problems, etc. None of that should be discussed with others, unless it is beyond the comfort of the trainer. Then he should discuss it with his/her manager, or discontinue training you.

Can you go it alone? Of course, though it will seem like a blind-folded stumble if you don’t prepare yourself. You didn’t start driving by getting behind the wheel of a car, shoving a key into the key-hole thingy, and pushing the gas down to the floor. Yet, people walk into the gym with that exact mentality. Take a little time to read about how free weight lifts are performed correctly, how to choose the correct weight and rep/set program for your needs, adjust the machines (including those seats that will fly down if your don’t engage them correctly), utilize body weight movements, etc. “Newbies” always go and walk the treadmill for a while, then venture onto the weight floor. They may just move a handle on a machine that seems intuitively simple, sit on that machine, and repeat after three minutes of texting or sitting still with earbuds on. Four weeks later, after no progress, the gym is something they drive by.

It is ok to ask another member a quick question, “how do I move this seat?” or “will that work my triceps?” Don’t impose on another person for their time while they are trying to maintain a mental and physical state of training. It would be no different from them calling you at work and asking you to walk them through a recipe or how to buy clothes online at the best price.

The people who succeed in the gym enjoy it. Yes, there will be feral looking men who seem to be lifting weights that they are really angry about. Believe it or not, they may be enjoying themselves. However, if someone is lifting like a caged animal, don’t feed them or stick your fingers through the bars, just like the zoo. There will occasionally be an employee who enjoys working out and has good advice to share, but more commonly, it will be the guy/lady you see who is consistent, in shape, and enjoying the gym who has the best advice to offer at your stage. Sometimes, there will be members preparing for fitness, bodybuilding, or figure shows. While they are inspirational, their focus and routines will not be applicable for you at a less advanced starting point.

Though progress in the gym seems to be measured by the amount of weight lifted, look again. Are you drawn personally to putting three 45-pound plates on a bar, or would you rather see the shape of your triceps or a taper to your waist? Too often, people eat and lift to build muscle, when the real concern in losing body fat and toning existing muscle. Are you drawn to the people who are lifting heavy weight (outside of the fact that they can pick up small vehicles or farm animals? Is your personal look/function/goal to be seen as a fit person and move about with more grace and power? Do you want to deadlift 400 pounds, or climb the trails at the local park while looking good in a pair of capris or running shorts? Either is valid, but don’t get swayed by what is impressive in someone else in the gym setting. Eating and training as a powerlifter, from the starting point of a novice person to the gym, may result in size gain. This could be distressing, even if it is the addition of functional muscle.

In time, you will find your own rhythm. You may reach a point where your long-term goal may be to look like, or even compete in, a bodybuilding/fitness/figure show. You may find the gym becomes a nice escape where you expend time and energy on yourself, and enjoy the progress as personal growth.

gym trainer welcome customerAs a long-delayed conclusion, try to find yourself comfortable in the gym, or yoga spa, spin class, whatever. It may take a few failed attempts to find the right fit for you, but hopefully you find yourself in the near future following and enjoying a fitness-based lifestyle without conscious effort or thought. If you are fit, and learn the ins-and-outs of nutrition (based upon your personal response), you can always challenge yourself with a competition of one sort or the other. Another great advantage of the lifestyle is you will find yourself part of a community that embraces the choices that at one time were a challenge to follow. Driving by an ice cream shop or walking through the impulse aisle at the grocery will be second nature, even if now you hands are invisibly guided to sugar-laden snacks. That crowd of strangers who seem somewhat alien will become the “lunch crowd” or “after-work gang” even if you don’t interact with most of them. It will become familiar, comfortable, and encouraging. It just takes time.

OK, I deviated from the “shoulders of giants” article I started as I found myself venting about certain things that just created negativity. I got that look from my wife as I read the first version, and realized I was letting the actions or comments of others affect me. Nothing directed at me, just people either criticizing others or promoting themselves, both for self-gain. So, I dedicated this rambling article to my wife who is my guiding light. Follow examples, stay true, and one day you may become somebody’s giant.

_DSAbout the Author

Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.