Jack LaLanne: 1914–2011

Monday, January 31, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Steve Edwards

Jack, you lied.

You said if you died it would ruin your image, but now that you're gone, nothing has changed.

You were THE fitness icon yesterday; you're THE fitness icon today. Without you, it's impossible to say if there would even be a fitness industry. You started it, you grew it—your influence never waned, and you are still its leader. I think it's safe to say your image is, and always will be, intact.

Jack LaLanne is my hero. I suppose that if pressed, I have others, but he's the first and only one I recognize. And even though his aforementioned famous saying, "I can't die, it would ruin my image," is challenged by his passing, this has little bearing on the validity of his life.

Because Jack's MO had nothing to do with dying. It had to do with living—getting the most out of the days you're given. He wasn't above a bit of hyperbole if it drove his cause, but he was never more straightforward than when he said, "Billy Graham preaches about the hereafter. I preach the here and now."

"My name's Jack," he told my friend Denis, who'd referred to him as Mr. LaLanne, with a look that clearly stated "save the 'mister' for old people, buddy." He was 95. I only met Jack once, but I felt like I knew him well. He was an open book when it came to what drove his existence. To all of us whose lives are a passionate pursuit of fitness, he was simply The Man.

Jack wasn't always this way. Just the last 80 or so years. A sickly childhood motivated his transformation. His mother took him to a presentation on nutrition when he was 15 that changed him. By 21, he'd opened his own health club—back when it not only wasn't trendy, it was practically unheard of.

"People thought I was a charlatan or a nut," said Jack. "The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive."

Much of the younger generation only knows Jack as "that juicer guy" from a series of infomercials he did late in life. When I tell the under-30 set about Jack's fitness achievements, I generally encounter bewilderment or simple disbelief. But Jack practically invented modern weight training. He invented the Universal Gym, an industry standard for 50 years. He invented and popularized both supplements and specific diet plans for exercise, and he was almost single-handedly responsible for the movement that had athletes train with weight for sports. Without Jack, there would be no P90X®, no INSANITY®, no Beachbody®.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how Jack got a coach to allow him to train a university football team. The coach was skeptical, thinking that weight training would make the players "muscle-bound." Jack met the team at some sand dunes, hoisted the largest player over his shoulder (Jack was 5' 6"), and sprinted up the highest dune. He got the job and never looked back.

Jack parlayed his passion into a career in television, where The Jack LaLanne Show was a daytime staple for 3 decades. His target audience of stay-at-home moms may have hurt his credibility as a serious fitness enthusiast with scientific types, but those who paid attention knew differently. Though the routines he provided were simple, he found ways to sneak in moves that no housewife—or any person except him, in many cases—could emulate, like fully extended one-arm (arm stretched above his head) fingertip dynamic push-ups.

Then, of course, there were his challenges. He explained them to Donald Katz, in a highly entertaining article in Outside magazine in 1995, this way: "I started the feats because everyone said I was just a muscle-bound charlatan. I had to show them I was an athlete."

"Maybe you don't believe in Jesus," he continued. "But was Jesus a showman? Why did he go around making the blind see and the lame walk and those kinds of things? He did it to call attention to his philosophy."

You won't see Jack's obituary in the sports pages, but that's only because he had no rival. His sports—or feats—were so far ahead of what others were doing, no one else could play. These displays of strength and fitness were so far ahead of the curve they couldn't be measured. Not one of Jack's challenges has been repeated—not one. I submit that he's the best physical specimen—the best athlete—who ever lived.

"'Come to the beach and do some chin-ups with me, Arnold,'" said Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoting Jack at the legend's 95th birthday party. "He didn't tell me that we were going to do chin-ups for 1 hour straight without stopping."

The audience all laughed, but Arnold was likely recounting an actual experience. Jack once did 1,000 chin-ups and 1,000 star jumps in 1 hour and 22 minutes. When a friend of mine was breaking the Guinness World Records® record for number of chin-ups in an hour a few years back, he began with 600 and worked his way to 719—about 25 percent less than what Jack was doing half a century earlier, before we even consider the star jumps. Jack once started doing push-ups during an hour-long TV show and kept going until it ended.

Jack's feats, often done on his birthday, were not about ego or bravado. They were simply a way to justify his training system—or philosophy. After all, it's hard to dismiss a guy as merely "muscle-bound" when you shackle his hands and feet, throw him in the water, and attach him to 70 boats (with a person in each), and then watch him tow them all more than a mile—especially when the guy in question is 70 years old.

As a spokesman, Jack pulled few punches. He had a shtick that he'd champion at any opportunity, from his "if man makes it, don't eat it" stance on nutrition to the evils of sugar and junk food, about which he said, "It destroys the B vitamins. It destroys your mind, affects your memory, your concentration. Why do you think so many of these kids today are screwed up? It's what they're eating. You know how much sugar Americans consume today in white flour, cakes, pies, candy, and ice cream? Would you get your dog up in the morning and give him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a doughnut? How many millions of Americans got up this morning with a breakfast like that? And you wonder why people are sick and obese."

On fad fitness equipment, Jack once marveled to Outside, "Have you seen some of the crap they're selling as exercise equipment now? How about that Suzanne Somers? She should have been thrown in jail for selling the piece-of-crap ThighMaster. It just develops a little muscle on the inner thigh. What good is that? And have you seen Tony Little, the guy who screams on TV? He's like an imbecile. He says you need this little thing to hold you while you do a sit-up. Why does the government let him get away with it?"

Of course a guy who's pulling boats around at 70 has some strong opinions on age: "Don't talk age! It has nothing to do with it. One of my guys who started out at my gym is 87 now, and he still does 10 bench-press reps with a 100-pound dumbbell in each hand. He's training to set a leg-pressing record. I put things in the guy's brain way back when, and now he'll never get away from it."

And on living in general, Jack said something I've tried to follow my entire life—my mantra, if you will: "I train like I'm training for the Olympics or for a Mr. America contest, the way I've always trained my whole life. You see, life is a battlefield. Life is survival of the fittest. How many healthy people do you know? How many happy people do you know? Think about it. People work at dying; they don't work at living. My workout is my obligation to life. It's my tranquilizer. It's part of the way I tell the truth—and telling the truth is what's kept me going all these years."

Jack was so good at telling the truth, he did it even when he was lying. His time on earth may have passed, but his image will loom large for eternity.

A list of his birthday challenges:
  • 1954 (age 40): Jack swam the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco underwater with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks. A world record.
  • 1955 (age 41): Jack swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco while handcuffed. When interviewed afterward, he was quoted as saying that the worst thing about the ordeal was being handcuffed, which reduced his chance to star jump significantly.
  • 1956 (age 42): Jack set a world record of 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes on You Asked For It, a television program hosted by Art Baker.
  • 1957 (age 43): Jack swam the Golden Gate channel while towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser. The swift ocean currents turned this 1-mile swim into a swimming distance of 6.5 miles.
  • 1958 (age 44): Jack maneuvered a paddleboard nonstop from Farallon Islands to the San Francisco shore. The 30-mile trip took 9.5 hours.
  • 1959 (age 45): The year The Jack LaLanne Show went nationwide, Jack did 1,000 star jumps and 1,000 chin-ups in 1 hour and 22 minutes .
  • 1974 (age 60): For the second time, Jack swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf. Again, he was handcuffed, but this time he was also shackled and towed a 1,000-pound boat.
  • 1975 (age 61): Repeating his performance of 21 years earlier, Jack again swam the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater and handcuffed, but this time he was shackled and towed a 1,000-pound boat.
  • 1976 (age 62): To commemorate the United States bicentennial, Jack swam 1 mile in Long Beach Harbor. He was handcuffed and shackled, and he towed 13 boats (representing the 13 original colonies) containing 76 people (representing the Spirit of '76).
  • 1979 (age 65): Jack towed 65 boats in Lake Ashinoko, near Tokyo, Japan. He was handcuffed and shackled, and the boats were filled with a total of 6,500 pounds of Louisiana Pacific wood pulp.
  • 1980 (age 66): Jack towed 10 boats in North Miami, Florida. The boats carried 77 people, and he towed them for more than 1 mile in less than 1 hour.
  • 1984 (age 70): Once again handcuffed and shackled, Jack fought strong winds and currents as he swam 1.5 miles while towing 70 boats (bearing a total of 70 people) from the Queen's Way Bridge in Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary.