Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/Precision in Physical Training

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THE high aim of science should be, definitely, the physical and moral perfectioning of man. The exercise of the cerebral functions of all ought undoubtedly to be directed from infancy by educators. It is generally agreed that physical education is a necessity of hygiene, but it is not clear to every one that physical education should be subjected to rules and to a precise directing. It is a mistake, in our opinion, to think of getting the best results while neglecting to make scientifically a comparative study of the different methods employed, and while abandoning, as is often the case, the exercises of the body to the caprice of the imagination. There result from this vague condition various currents of opinion contradictory of one another and detrimental to the final result proposed, of ameliorating the physical condition of our population, especially of the population at school, of every degree. Fortunately, the elements of physical education are tangible, its effects are measurable, and we can conduct the discussions on a positive ground on which they fall of themselves. This condition is very different from that of mental education. It is a certain motive for improvement; and we purpose to review the precise means which have contributed to the result. We shall first try to show that it is possible to form a scientific conception of physical education at the present time. We shall then see that the new processes of physiology already permit a satisfactory control of its results.

For a method of education to be established, it is necessary that the end sought be well defined, and the means employed be perfectly adapted to the proposed end and compatible with the human organization. The indisputable object of education should be the perfecting of the individual in view of the general progress; it is an economical object, having as its consequence a much greater conversion of human activity into useful work. In physical education it is necessary to apply all the general knowledge we possess concerning the relations between the function and the organ, or rather concerning the modifications endured by the organs, of which we modify the function.

All the ideas acquired by trainers are to be carefully collected; and among modifiers of species, selection must be placed in the first line. Unfortunately, we are still far from the thought of applying to ourselves* this powerful agent for improvement, although we impose it on our domestic animals; our own unions are not often made in view of the inheritance of vigor and health which we shall leave to our descendants. Selection put aside, we have recourse only to exercise and régime. The desire to make an athlete of every one must, of necessity, be abandoned. The ideal human type varies with the times; now it is intellectual activity that is in dominant force, and it is not possible to bring muscular work and cerebral work to the front with equal vigor. Physiological knowledge on this subject is extensive enough for us to account for the fact. Cerebral labor is a considerable expenditure of energy, a source of nervous exhaustion quite comparable to the expenditure of energy that accompanies the production of mechanical labor in the muscles; whence we conceive that, beyond a certain amount of physical exercise regulated by hygiene, the total sum of the expenditure of nervous and muscular energy may become excessive and entirely debilitating. It is wisdom to abandon the constant practice of violent exercises; to take deliberate measures to restore athletic brutality would be a remedy worse than the disease. It would also be wise to leave uncalled-for and useless exercises to the circus people.

All exercise which, often repeated, tends to modify the external form and adapt the human organism to abnormal machines or movements, to eccentric attitudes, belongs to the domain of the acrobat, and is of no interest in view of general education. We thus arrive, by elimination, at the point of preserving as materials of the programmes of physical education the general measures which augment the productiveness of man considered as a source of mechanical work, on the condition that those measures do not deteriorate the human machine itself, and do not change the normal relations of that which it has been agreed to call the physical and the moral. Physical education, in short, ought to confirm health, give a harmonious development to the body, and teach how best to utilize the muscular force in the different applications which are demanded in life. We should also have regard to the necessities imposed by the social medium, and try to obtain results by intensive means, requiring little time and little space, and which address a large number at once.

To these three essentials of physical education—health, harmonious development, economical utilization of muscular force—correspond a series of exercises which can not produce their maximum useful effect without being subjected to regulations of which we proceed to sketch the principal features.

Health may be with equal ease confirmed or destroyed by exercise. It is only necessary to refer to the deplorable condition of the ancient athletes, with whom the enormous mass of the muscles absorbed all the activity of the organism. Health, therefore, does not depend on the size of the muscles nor on absolute muscular force. It is the harmony of the functions, and does not exist without a certain daily expenditure of muscular labor. Many persons, it is true, enjoy perfect health without giving themselves methodically up to physical culture; but such persons are easily disturbed by departures from their regular course, or suffer fatigue disproportionate to the effect produced. They can not endure the causes of perturbation, while it is the power to endure that constitutes robust health. It is one of the great benefits of exercise and of régime that they give the organism the faculty of accommodation to the diversities of our activity and of the medium that surrounds us. From the hygienic point of view the introduction into our daily habits of exercise in the open air, in the form of various games and sports, can not be too highly commended; but all such exercises, if we wish to make them always efficacious and exempt from dangers, should be subjected to rule.

We can not prudently leave youth without direction to organize competitions, like the race, in which violent exercises figure; it is indispensable to be on guard against the excesses which unrestrained emulation and self-love induce. Without this, exercises, which are salutary when practiced with moderation, degenerate into overstrain of the most dangerous character. We have in this way to regret numerous grave accidents due to colds, troubles of the digestion and the circulation, falls and blows. Under these restrictions, exercise taken under the form of open air games presents a special attraction to all; it offers the best hygienic conditions; but, to constitute a physical education, it ought also to respond to the desiderata exposed above the harmonious development of the body and useful application. Further than this, this form of exercise offers in practice, especially in the large cities, difficulties which are often insurmountable, at least for the present. In public instruction, as now constituted, the problem of physical education is very complex; it involves finding means to exercise regularly every day a large number of pupils at once, in a narrow space and a short time. It is in this shape that the question has been put to the ministerial commission charged with revising the programme and the manual of school gymnastics. Every pupil must receive an equal portion of exercise, and often there is only one master to direct from forty to sixty subjects. Large plats of land are needed near the schools, and often they do not exist. To send the children away through narrow,streets crowded with vehicles takes much time, and is dangerous. With all this adjusted, large plats of ground are not enough; ample sheds are needed for open-air exercise. Our climate is not very mild, and if we depend upon the fair days for taking exercise we shall run a great risk of seeing the number of our meetings reduced to an insufficient minimum; for it is not occasionally, but every day, that we ought to take our portion of exercise. Even putting aside the question of time, it is not hard to show that play-hours do not constitute a complete physical education.

There is exercise in play-hours, but there is not, properly speaking, training of the movements; there is no improvement of these movements in view of a useful effect. Each one does not get the portion of exercise to which he has a right. According to the general law, the strongest or most hardy are more benefited than the weaker ones, and the mean level does not rise. Games and sports are still what they have always been an elegant means, an agreeable form of exercise, the privilege of the easy class, the pleasure of the smallest number. They can not be extended into the working class which is most interested in them, because it is, unfortunately, often obliged to live in bad hygienic conditions.

Even while it is possible, by means of more perfect facilities for communication, to give the children in our schools more frequent excursions in the open air, such excursions will always be rare—once or twice a week at the most, in the large cities. We shall be obliged on other days to have recourse to the processes of a good gymnastics, mere artificial processes, but which have the advantage of being applicable everywhere, and of producing, in the hands of experienced masters, successful results—an artificial remedy in an artificial medium, if we will call it so, and if we can define precisely the boundary between the natural and the artificial.

Let us, nevertheless, use all our efforts to multiply the public places and shelters for the sole purpose of furnishing children and individuals of every class and every age with places designed for exercise in the open air.

The essential factor of physical education is voluntary motion. From the hygienic point of view it is important to have a sufficient amount of exercise to stimulate the combustion in the interior of the organism, and to facilitate the elimination of the wastes of incomplete combustion, which develop into real poisons. From the point of view of harmonious development, not the amount alone of exercise is to be considered, but the form or nature of the movement also; not the quantity, but the quality, too, of the movement is of importance.

Nothing is more malleable than bone and muscle. Trainers, under the influence of movements frequently repeated, transform, domestic species by the action of three great modifiers—selection, alimentation, and exercise; every subject devoted to a well-characterized special calling bears the marks of its calling in its structure. We know, in a general way, that under the influence of static efforts the body of the muscles becomes thicker and more salient beneath the skin; under the influence of extended movements, on the other hand, the fleshy substance preserves its length and assumes a relation with the amplitude of the movement.

The articular surfaces are also modified by the latter style of practice, and we see how persons who preferably cultivate exercises of suppleness and quickness present a finer and more elegant form than those who develop athletic force by static contractions. With a similar constitution to begin with, those who devote themselves to practice with weights, with carrying burdens, become more massive than those who practice movements of agility, like fencing and racing. The latter come near the type of the ancient gladiator, the former that of Hercules. Which of them do we consider the more handsome?

The idea of beauty is wholly relative, and varies with places and times. Artists make beauty to consist in certain proportions of the parts of the skeleton and in the harmony of the muscular development. We might, perhaps, be more definite by saying that to be handsome at rest and in motion the man ought to present the traits of health and moderate strength, and in addition to be in possession of his means of locomotion and of natural defense. This view of beauty originates in the consideration that there is a necessary relation between vigor, skill, agility, and the outer form of the body at rest and in motion. Thus defined, the type of beauty, in a given race or medium, is an ideal which we seek to revive by physical education. It follows that a man specially devoted to any one exercise can not be handsome. This may be said of all the professions that localize muscular work in a restricted region of the body. There are, however, some sports that have the advantage of exercising equally the upper and lower limbs; such, for example, as wrestling, French boxing, swimming, and canoeing with two oars and a sliding seat. A good gymnastics includes complete exercises, and incomplete or unsymmetrical exercises, under such a condition as that they shall correct one another, and that the work shall bear upon the lower and upper limbs. An intensive gymnastics well taught produces superb subjects. Swedes, Swiss, and Germans, selected from special schools of gymnastics, and the monitors of the school at Joinville le Pont, might rival the finest types of antiquity. These facts are, unhappily, exceptions; children come to our schools with hereditary blemishes and malformations which the sedentary condition, faulty attitudes, and ill-directed exercises only tend to augment.

If we would come near to the type which we have given ourselves as the ideal one, we must make a judicious choice in gymnastic matters. The form of the curvings of the vertebral column depends on the action of the weight and of the antagonistic muscles that bend and extend it. There is an evident relation between the curves of the vertebral column and the form of the thorax; with large curvatures correspond depression of the ribs, and enfeebling of the thorax and its consequences—obstruction of the circulation and of pulmonary ventilation.

The respiratory capacity of a person does not depend on the absolute volume of the throat, but on the extent to which its volume increases between expiration and inspiration. The lung is the slave of the thoracic wall, and follows it in all its movements. It is constantly kept in contact with that wall, through the action of the atmospheric pressure, which is transmitted to the interior of the bronchise, whenever the glottis is opened. Except under stress of effort, we can not imagine the lung pushing upon the thoracic wall to dilate it; the contained has to submit to the variations of the containing. Hence, we have no reason to wonder that gymnasts are soon able, by training, to increase their respiratory capacity by giving, through the motions of the upper limbs, a great mobility to the articulations of the thorax, and thus permitting it to dilate more freely under the action of the elevator muscles of the ribs, to the effect of which is added that of the diaphragm. By strengthening the shoulder and fixing the omoplate with strong muscles, we furnish points of support, in raising the ribs and the flattened thorax. The action of the muscles of the abdominal walls counterpoises that of the extensors of the trunk, and the spine is raised by diminishing its curvatures under the effect of these two kinds of curves acting upon it as upon a bow with two curves. Thus, by perfecting the muscular powers and bringing them into equilibrium, the trunk assumes a good attitude, the chest expands, and the man bears the external indications of vigor and health. % All these observations are facts demonstrated and known by practitioners, who have obtained them through good gymnastics. They show that there is a direction to be given to exercises having a good result in view, and that the purpose of physical education will be more quickly attained as the methods are more precise. Stirring around in an indeterminate way is certainly not the shortest and most direct means of obtaining the essential modifications sought for.

We have attached so much importance to that part of the hygiene of exercise that bears upon the form, that we have had constructed at the physiological station, with the assistance of M. Otto Lund, an arsenal of instruments of measurement of a new kind. Some of these instruments give the height, weight, and outline in true size of the fore and back curvatures of the spine; others furnish complete sections of the trunk on a horizontal and on a vertical plane. The measuring-tape gives false indications of the dimensions of the thorax, for its measurements are influenced by the muscular protuberances. We have substituted for gross measurements of the circumference of the thorax those of diameters obtained with compasses and thoracometers specially constructed to give the amplification of the framework of the chest in respiration. With these exact means, and the assistance of physicians who are all interested in these questions, we hope to organize in schools a series of measurements that will cast light on many obscure points. Data are wanting for the definition of the characteristic differences in the form of different subjects whose movements have been accommodated to a special and well-defined profession; and those data in particular are wanting with which to establish the laws of the development of children according as they have or have not been subjected to physical exercise under various conditions. We have begun investigations on this point at the Collége Sainte-Barbe, with the aid of M. Rey, and at the school of Joinville le Pont, with that of M. Roblot. We have found that with growing children the increase of the respiratory capacity is parallel with that of the weight, and has no fixed relation with the stature; and we have shown that the ratio of the respiratory capacity to the weight increases regularly under training. We find also that the absolute dimensions of the thorax do not increase among adults, but that the extent of the movement of the ribs is related to the respiratory capacity. It is, for the same subject, parallel with the quantity of air breathed in. M. Marey showed, some time ago, that the thoracic movements of subjects under exercise are amplified, while their frequency diminishes. Respiration becomes fuller and remains so during rest or after intense exercise. By collating observations bearing on this point, we shall be able to constitute a kind.of experimental physiology of exercise, and shall thus have the best and only means of pronouncing without prepossession upon the value, as to the general development of the body, of different methods of education.

We now proceed to examine the tendencies of exercise in view of the economical utilization of muscular strength. The third essential point in physical education consists in establishing the rules that permit the useful and economical employment of muscular force in the various conditions of locomotion, in the management of tools and arms, and in carrying burdens. This is one of the most delicate chapters of animal mechanics. It is the one that is really entitled to be designated the education of the movements, for the educator plays the greatest part in it, and his action is indisputable. When one has devoted himself for a long time to practical exercises of the body, especially to varied exercises, his muscular sense is refined, and lie becomes aware of a series of new sensations which remain unknown to those who have never handled tools. In this way we account fairly well for important modifications which are produced in the movements by education.

Absolute muscular force, measured by the dynamometer, soon reaches its maximum, and, if we limit ourselves to this gross measure, we shall have but a false idea of physical perfectionment. It is not, in fact, in the absolute measure of muscular force that a great modification is to be found, but in the aptitude for producing a large sum of work with moderate fatigue and an economical expenditure of force. This refinement is produced in the nervous centers; through attention sustained by the will, through the frequent repetition of well-defined muscular acts, we are able to reach the point of suppressing useless contractions in the desired movement, and bringing into play only a portion of the muscles which were at first contracted in a mass. To this intelligent distribution of the central nervous excitation in the co-operating groups are added a more perfect tact in appositeness, a surer realization of the direction of the intensity and the duration of the contractions, and a greater promptitude in grasping at once all the conditions of the effort. Thus is realized a perfectionment of the motor organs which is manifested externally by address, agility, and sureness of movements, and closely touches upon the higher qualities—confidence in one's strength and courage.

Education should not only be applied to movements of precision, but it ought also to have in view economy in the expenditure of nervous excitation and mechanical labor; it ought to tend to reduce useful contractions to a minimum, and in the end to induce automatism by steadily diminishing the part played by attention, which is absolutely necessary in the beginning. Thus the performing musician is not born a virtuoso; he reaches perfection of execution on condition of frequently repeating the same exercises. To acquire perfection of skill, he seeks to obtain equality in the motions of his fingers, ease of hand, arm, and the whole body. He performs the details of a cadence slowly, quickens it progressively, and thus becomes able at last to maintain accuracy in lively movements. Associations of the nervous cells are doubtless produced in his system, which render easy and automatic certain muscular co-operations that were at first insurmountably difficult. The visual perception in the musician comes at last to be translated immediately into a movement of the fingers without any effort of the attention. In the boxer or the swordsman, the slightest manifestation of his adversary's intention produces an instinctive determination which is at once revealed in the attitude. Normal bearings, like the most complicated movements of gymnastics, are practiced and taught in the same way. There may be an exception in quick movements, such as leaping, which can not be decomposed because they can not be retarded. But skill acquired in difficult exercises creates an aptitude favorable to learning new ones; and it is well known that those who have educated their movements by gymnastics speedily, become habituated to the most varied exercises. Yet the skill of a virtuoso in any particular art is acquired only by the force of work and patience; and, according to the general law, we are inclined to prize the result of our work according to the quantity of effort it has cost us; in short, to extol the method we have chosen. This is the origin of the schools and of differences in methods, which prevail in gymnastics, as in every other matter—those of Ling, in Sweden; Jahn, in Germany; and Ameros and Triat, in France; and many others who have left various teachings.

Pupils are cultivated by imitation. A group of admirers forms around a chosen person; and among those who seek to imitate him are some who often succeed with great difficulty; the latter are then well disposed to defend their master and their school; they are gratified adepts, who will perpetuate the traditions, with their qualities and their faults. Those minds are rare which can overcome a bad habit when contracted. It is with movements as with moral activity; and that is why every teacher prefers to take his pupils from the beginning, to continuing the labors of his colleagues. It is easily comprehended that the pupil who has contracted the habit of holding his sword in a certain way will find it easier to keep up even a defective attitude, a position that will limit his further progress, than to learn a new one. The effort of attention that he has to make lest he fall back into his false ruts, and to destroy the nascent automatism, is so great that he avoids it. His self-love will not accommodate itself to the idea of becoming a novice, and he prefers going on the wrong way to resuming the toils of first lessons. On these various considerations many practitioners have come really to regard their method as the only good one, and to maintain it, with its errors. But progress in physical education is impossible if we limit ourselves to respect for traditions, to a servile imitation of former things. There can be progress only when we aim at an improvement in attitudes and movements in general. Having been called several times to give our vote in competitive physical exercises, we have been able to observe that the relative merit of the candidates was usually established on conventional bases. Many pupils, who had listened to no other rules than those of nature, and were thus naturally superior, were rated at less than they deserved by judges who were ignorant of these rules. We do not see by what right we should impose laws on the nature of which we are the resultant. If we would make a durable work, our first thought should be to learn those laws, in order to submit ourselves to them more exactly. We should regard it as an axiom that, given the human organization, there could be only one correct solution in any special case of utilization of force. The problem is to find that solution; and to reach this there is, in my opinion, no shorter way than to study in each sport those select subjects, or experts, who have succeeded by practice in excelling in some specialty. We should for that study arm ourselves with precise means of investigation, which will explain the essential principles of their movements, and take these principles as the rules of education. Although these rules have not yet been established, it is not because experts have been wanting; but the most trained eye can not perceive the subtle differences between the means which experts employ for reaching perfection of movements.

It has been necessary, in order to make a further advance in this study, to create processes which have unveiled a new world of facts. It has been the constant purpose of M. Marey to seek, besides purely subjective sensations, certain experimental data, and thus forestall eternal discussions on obscure points of physiology, in which the fundamental basis itself of discussion—facts—was wanting. The services which the photochronographic method has rendered to biology are well known; in the present case, again, it is invoked as a means of correcting errors. The photographic methods in use at the physiological station give, in short, the complete solution of the analysis of motions, however rapid and complex they may be.

By comparing photographic representations of different subjects or of the same subject at different stages of movement, we may exactly define the manner in which they proceed, seize the slightest differences that distinguish their motions, and perceive the least modifications that are produced in their turn. If these all relate to the same type in the process of perfectionment, we are authorized, after eliminating individual variations, to take and teach what Nature has revealed to us. We can thus study expert subjects under two points of view, for the qualities which they present are derived partly from their structure and partly from their education. Everybody walks, runs, and jumps; but there are few who have a passable gait unless they are trained to it. In short, we learn to walk, run, and jump, as we learn all the rest. We can not well learn alone; and it is one of the essential objects of physical education to perfect the normal gaits as well as all the movements in general. It is furthermore important to extend the individual's life of relation and to accustom it to various movements which are of indisputable utility for defense and for personal safety. We can learn to swim and climb only by exercises in swimming and climbing. It is not by running that we learn to overcome the vertigo we feel in lofty places or to extricate ourselves from danger by the strength of our arms.

These truths can and ought to be taught. A considerable portion of them are already popular; some, new or less known, form the matter of the new manual of gymnastic exercises and school plays which the Minister of Public Instruction is about to publish.

However important these tentatives in teaching may be, they are still insufficient. There should be instituted in physical education a special technical teaching in which the mechanism of the movements and their physiology shall be studied with all the development which it permits. On this condition we can raise the level and the return of physical education. We can also by this means introduce ameliorations into manual trades by seeking for a more perfect adaptation of tools to the human organization, and in general the best utilization of muscular force wherever it is called into exercise. This branch is, with hygiene, one of the most useful applications of biological science and touches at many points upon the amelioration of the condition of the laboring classes. While it requires the co-operation of a number of particular branches of knowledge necessitating specialization, its social bearing still deserves to interest special minds and exercise the sagacity of students.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

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