True ‘body building’ — F. Sanfilippo (1962)

So far, FOUNDATIONS OF IRON has primarily featured examples of historic physical culture from the US, and occasionally England. Now we take a step outside of the Anglosphere for a look at the physical culture of France, with a translation of an article from the January 1962 issue of La Culture Physique, a monthly fitness magazine that seems to have been in publication for several decades from the early to mid twentieth century.


The cover masthead of La Culture Physique. Click to enlarge (will appear in new window/tab).

In the history of physical fitness, it has been common for certain individuals to enter the limelight and be lauded as teachers and gurus. French physical culture was no exception. La Culture Physique was the official publication of physical culturist Edmond Desbonnet. Even five years after Desbonnet passed away in 1957, praise for the “Desbonnet method” and for Desbonnet himself still appeared throughout this magazine, including the article below.

This article calls for a more holistic and healthful approach to physical culture, in the face of a rising trend of what the author considered to be bodybuilding purely for muscular development.

This was written by F. Sanfilippo, who was clearly an adherent of Desbonnet’s approach to fitness. There is some wordplay going on in the original French source. “Culturisme” specifically refers to the field of bodybuilding for cosmetic, aesthetic purposes, with “culturiste” referring to a bodybuilder; whereas the term “la culture physique,” or “physical culture,” is broader and more general in scope and meaning than the words directly connected to cosmetic bodybuilding. The term “culturisme” may have had its origins in “culture physique,” but it came to have a much more particular focus.

Apparently, in the earlier years of French “culture physique,” a “culturiste” was more broadly concerned with health and wellness as part of overall physical fitness, whereas the bodybuilding “culturiste,” in the time when this article was written, was intent on building muscularity by any possible means, even if it meant neglecting good health and the development of good character. And in Sanfilippo’s view, the level of muscularity that they were achieving by that time was becoming grotesque and extreme, to the detriment of their other bodily systems. One can only imagine what Sanfilippo would have thought of the “mass monster” trend in bodybuilding of the last couple of decades.

Our translation aims for clarity in expressing the ideas from the original article. While some of the chosen English phrasing may seem inelegant, hopefully the gist of Sanfilippo’s writing comes across sufficiently.

Magazine excerpt translation:

From today, we approach a series of technical parts of this rubric, which I had announced in issue 802 of our magazine.

Let us start, if you would, with bodybuilding.

Why that, before other things? I give you the following response: in our era of nervous over-excitement imposed by the overactive life of our modernism — destroyer of harmony and balance — it proves, to my sense, indispensable, indeed, imperious, to submit our body to metered, rational exercise, which brings to our muscles, our nerves, and our organs, the movement necessary to give them the balance that is broken by the intensity of modern life, with all of the poisons that it involves.


The article header as it originally appeared. Click to enlarge (will open in new window/tab).

I wish, however, to be clear, precise, and to underline with a thick line, how much we must choose our exercises, our breathing, also our relaxation; and when we train, to direct our thoughts, not toward the vanity of possessing hypertrophied muscles which amaze buddies and friends, but for the sole purpose of strengthening, improving — and even of healing — our physical state. Yes, we must train not only with barbells, dumbbells, etc., but also — and especially — with our mind devoid of vanity and bodybuilder’s deformation, as one tends to do too much, alas! And above all, please, that our gymnasium teachers not abuse their situation to deform more youth concerned with seeing their muscles augmented to colossal proportions, to the detriment of their health and structure, just to collect their membership fee.

There are, alas, many gymnasium directors who are interested more — even too much — in monetary returns, than in health, in the equilibrium of the subject who asks for muscles and nothing more. Now, bodybuilding is much more than muscular hypertrophy. With my great friend Guida, we have denounced the abuses, hypertrophies and what they bring to those who train with the goal of seeing themselves with “immense” arms, pectorals, and shoulders that put them in “full view” of buddies and girls.

The sacred duty of a teacher is, before all, that of verifying that the bodybuilding candidate presents neither deformation of the thorax, nor deviation of the vertebral column, nor respiratory insufficiency, nor hernia, weakness of the abdominal belt, etc. And then, to submit him (this clause must be rendered obligatory) to a medical entrance  examination. Thereby, he will possess the necessary guarantees for the training of the pupil.

I recorded, in recent days, the inscription of  young man of 16 years presented by his father. After examination, I said to the father, “Your son presents — see for yourself — a left dorsal scoliosis, a rather consistent thoracic deformation. You should have him cared for by Social Security by having your doctor prepare a medical certificate.” I added, “Has he ever done physical culture?” “Yes,” he responded, “last year he went for three months to the institute on M…. Street, and there he did athletics, which did not help him. I’ve known you twenty-five years. I know that you do Desbonnet; I’ve come to you for that.”

And there is a case among other similar cases that I’ve recorded since I’ve taught the method of the Maestro. This case demonstrates yet again, alas, how much the form of the pupils is ignored.

There are too many instructors who purchase their diploma abroad. You send a certain sum, and, in return, you are awarded “Diploma of Clinic X” or Y or Z. I call this “abuse of power and of confidence,” but the victims are those who put their confidence in these gentlemen. Well! This is to be revised, because everyone’s health is sacred.

But let us return to the purpose of this article, in its deep sense. Our first duty is then to ensure the condition of the future bodybuilder, but again not to put the cart before the horse: before “outrageously” muscling him, concern ourselves first with his respiratory function which must be ample, supple, and deep, whereas athletics practiced directly block the development of respiratory function. And that is primordial. All the rest will come later. Therefore we will be honest to the athletic applicant, and to our conscience.

So physical culture is proving, nowadays, indispensable in the same way as food and sleep. This is why I consider that we all need to practice it without neglecting it a single day, for it is what will ensure us superiority over non-physical culturists; it is what will turn us away from a depressing life because it keeps us away from theaters, balls, and cafes. It is what also prevents us from smoking and drinking; furthermore, it is what makes us love and appreciate the beauties of nature, makes us better and more balanced.

We must therefore envisage to practice it each day, if we want to live outside of this rising tide of general madness that threatens most humans.

If we add to bodybuilding, nutritional hygiene, that is, if we know how to balance our meals, if we know how to rest, to relax, if we know how to comprehend the suffering of others and come to their aid, if we become non-violent and fraternal, then we will have taken a great step toward unity among men. The practice of physical culture is no stranger to the evolution of the conscience, and this makes us rejoice much, for I could see that bodybuilders without other pretensions than that to live in good health, were better and more balanced than non-practitioners and competitive athletes. This is all to the honor of the pioneers of bodybuilding, of Maestro Desbonnet and his faithful disciples and collaborators.

I engage you, dear non-practicing readers, to become bodybuilders, and you, bodybuilders lost on the road of vanity which leads fatally to pride, to change your tune and become, you also, “healthists.”


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