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Physical Training, Part I - History, Pioneers and Manual Labor

Back in the old school days, before athletes were making millions of dollars, players would often have manual labor jobs in the off season. These jobs were productive in multiple facets. They provided ballplayers with the opportunity to put a few bucks in their pocket and it served as an off season fitness regimen.

If athletes from previous generations were participating in specific training methods, chances are it looked quite a bit different than the exercises practiced by today’s athletes. In the 20th century many training programs emerged, all promising to get an athlete into the best shape of their life in the quickest amount of time possible. These fads, including Jack LaLanne’s TV tips and juicing, Jane Fonda’s aerobics, Russell Simmons’ videos, Bowflex home gym, Thighmaster, 8 Minute Abs and Ab Rollers, Tae Bo, Pilates, Spinning, and P90X - are all effective fitness techniques in their own respect; however, they may not be conducive to training aspiring athletes, professional or amateur.

In this day and age professional players don’t need off season jobs, and if they do it’s typically a business deal or an endorsement opportunity. The modern day athlete gets their training in with personal trainers, state of the art facilities and all the newest breakthroughs in sports science. Today’s athletes have access to a wealth of information which provides many valuable opportunities; however, there is something to be said about the grit that is developed through manual labor practices.

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Sylvester Stallone took the concept of turning manual labor into physical fitness, and ran with it, in the boxing film - Rocky IV. With the odds stacked against him more than ever, Stallone's character Rocky Balboa endures an iconic training regimen in the frozen tundra of the Siberian Wilderness. The classic ‘80s montage features Rocky training in a barn, climbing mountains and doing manual labor.

Meanwhile, Rocky’s opponent - the seemingly unbeatable and indestructible Ivan Drago, is preparing for the bout in training facilities that would make a modern day athlete envious. Drago’s exercise routine consisted of a more “science based” approach, with groundbreaking high-tech sporting equipment, which was said to be “experimental and 20 years from public use.”

As the big showdown between Balboa and Drago reaches center stage, Rocky looks over matched in the early going; however, in the later rounds, the gritty and determined Rocky gains momentum. Behind the strength of his Siberian training and an unparalleled toughness, the “Italian Stallion” prevails in the fight’s final moments, beating the odds and avenging the death of his best friend, Apollo Creed.

So, why are we talking about about a boxing movie from the ‘80s that garnered a 6.9/10 rating on IMDB? It’s not because Rocky single handedly ended the Cold War conflict as the movies final scene implies. The reason we’re discussing this is because there is a lesson to be learned by the type of training Rocky endures and it’s benefits. Although movie critics were less than enthused about this installment of the series, the film was hailed for its “bona fide training methods.”

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So what was so special about those training methods? And what can a modern day athlete learn from a movie that was made 35 years ago? Apparently, quite a bit.

According to legend, the most accomplished athlete in the history of the Olympics, Michael Phelps, took a play from Rocky IV. The SIberian training scene inspired Phelps and teammate Ryan Lochte to use a cabin with training techniques resembling those the resourceful Balboa utilized in the film. Five Olympic appearances and 23 gold medals later, nobody is arguing with Phelps’ methods. 

If manual labor and basic physical training exercises worked for athletes from the past (both fictional and in real life), today’s athlete should take notice. There is something to be gained from the "old school' gritty and rigorous training techniques.

Check out Physical Training, Part II in tomorrow’s blog. We’ll continue to examine the importance of physical training and how an athlete can incorporate methods from the past with modern day practices.

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