Ten Exercises You Would Have Done If You Were A Victorian Londoner

The beneficial effects resulting from the employment of Gymnastic Exercises, as a curative agent in cases of spinal deformity, or other bodily weakness and contraction, are so generally known and appreciated

— Gustav Ernst 1861

Home exercise equipment has been around longer than you think. And although exercise clothing has come a long way from the petticoats and suits shown in Ernst’s book, the actual exercises themselves, are pretty similar to what you might do today. Of course this shouldn’t really be a surprise since the human body is the human body and movement is dictated by the shape and form we have, but it’s still interesting to see the exercise industry from the late 1800s.

Here are a few images from the book called “The portable gymnasium [electronic resource] : a manual of exercises, arranged for self instruction in the use of the portable gymnasium” by Gustav Ernst, which is in the Welcome Library.

1. Cross Trainer or Mountain Climbers

mountain climbers

Something akin to a mountain climber if you were doing it on the floor – perhaps the modern day equivalent is a cross trainer or a climb mill.

2. Lateral Extensions</h4>

lateral extensions

These look like your typical external rotation that you would do even today. Some things never change.

3. Semi Rotatory Movement

pull downs

Perhaps something akin to a stiff arm pull-down for the back? I’m not sure.

4. Horizontal Inclination


If this looks familiar, it’s because here is the Victorian version rowing. Ok, it’s missing a few bells and whistles that you would find on a modern rowing machine, but the basics are there. Rowing is one of the best whole body exercises, so it’s no wonder this one has stood the test of time.

5. Traction and Upward Extension

traction and upward extension

Perhaps something like  a deltoid exercise – it looks like some sort of rotation of the arm is being used.

6. Chest Expander

chest expander

These might be similar to today’s back flyes working the shoulders, mid back and triceps.

7. Lateral Traction

lateral traction

Your typical side bend with a cable machine – a mainstay of the core workout.

8. Neck Lateral Flexion and Extension

neck exercises

Yep, a strong neck is essential.

9. Upward Erect Traction


Working the lower back, abs and shoulders. Similar to an incline row with some added shoulder work for fun.

10. Upward Extension

upward extensionA single arm punch press for the pectorals.