Jack LaLanne Is Still an Animal
Those biceps! That thorax! How, after all these years, does the godfather of fitness do it? By balancing the brain with the beast--and knowing the power of a stretch jumpsuit.
By Donald Katz
Jack LaLanne, fresh from a "systematic, vigorous, and violent" two-hour workout and only a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday, rose nimbly from a couch and--as if by force of some mechanized habit--struck the pose. The godfather of physical fitness stood there within a glowing nimbus of California coastal sunlight, his feet outspread, his hands clamped to his waist, his elbows pointing wide to each side.
Though the signature Jack LaLanne health and fitness power-pose would be adopted over the years by pro wrestlers, midcentury dictators, Yul Brenner in The King and I, Mr. Clean, and any number of comic book superheroes, the aesthetics and implicit totemic power of the LaLanne stance--as with so many popular accoutrements connected to the realm that Jack still refers to as "physical culture"--was invented years ago by the grinning man standing before me in a blue jumpsuit, probably the greatest gym teacher of all time.
At the edge of an era of Victorian physiques based on stout "bay window" bellies grown as indications of a man's prosperous caste, Jack LaLanne invented a body image that looked like two equilateral triangles joined at one corner. The deeply tapered thorax that he shaped through torturous workouts every day was accentuated by the inevitable jumpsuit, the sleeves cut high enough to expose the intricacies of his bulging arms.
As I drew closer to the sunshine spotlight in which he posed, Jack reached out, grabbed my hand, and pulled me through the air like the proverbial rag doll.
"You look in fair shape to me," he said.
"That was it...the pose," I managed after Jack had freed me from his crushing grip.
"Yes," he growled happily, his great chest ballooning with each breath. "That was mine, too."
It was in 1936 that Jack Lalanne opened the nation's first health club, in Oakland, California, but for five years before that he had conducted private research on the physiological benefits of heavy exercise. Local firemen and policemen came to his backyard, where he recorded their reps and weight loads and strength changes--all for the first time.
"You wouldn't believe the ridicule I got when the gym opened," Jack said after settling back into the couch in the tiled den of his sprawling home in a village north of Santa Barbara called Morro Bay. "They said you wouldn't be able to sleep if you worked out with me. They said I'd kill you. They said you wouldn't be able to get an erection. They wrote in the newspapers that you'd get hemorrhoids if you came to my gym. That was a big one--they all brought up the damned hemorrhoids."
Working with a blacksmith he knew, Jack designed exercise machines for the patrons of his gym throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He invented the first cable-pulley machine, the first leg-extension machine, the safety system for doing squats that became the Smith machine, and an elegant weight-stack selection system much too highly wrought for the mass-production demands of today's fitness products.
Jack LaLanne stood against the thinking of his time to proclaim that there was a specific relationship between health and the foods people eat. To this day he courses across the republic promoting daily exercise, his signature fitness equipment, his various lines of nutrients and vitamins, his videos, his books, and his motivational audiotapes. He is a millionaire many times over, though everyone inside the modern business of personal fitness acknowledges that in light of the vast industry he spawned so long ago, he should be one of the richest men in the world.
Jack preached the value of preventive medical practices a half-century before the medical establishment came to agree. It was Jack who said women and old people should exercise, too, and that it was all right for men and women to exercise in the same room. Long before the current vogue in water-based calisthenics, Jack was putting his pupils through a regimen he called hydronastics. He invented protocols that would later acquire names such as aerobics and resistance training, and he was the first fitness theorist to tell athletes they should train hard with weights and work their muscles to complete failure in order to experience significant gains in strength.
"Coaches told some of the pro athletes who wanted to come to me to stay away or they'd get thrown off the team. They said I'd make athletes muscle-bound. One time," Jack said, squinting with pleasure at the memory, "it was during World War II, I took the entire University of California football team out to the sand dunes near Cliff House in San Francisco. I grabbed the heaviest guy and put him on my back, and I ran up the dunes. Then I made each of them do it. Nearly killed them!" He roared with pleasure. "They were heavin' all over the place!"
One of the many calisthenics Jack invented was the Hindu jump. The maneuver involved leaping from a full squat and trying to touch your head to the ceiling. These days the move is essential to plyometric training, and most experts will wrongly tell you that it came out of the Soviet sports culture of the 1960s.
"I did have some ball-busters," Jack said, referring to signature exercises such as the killer, the eraser, the gooser, the gut-butt-getter, and dozens of others. "Now, you listen to some of these so-called sports-medicine experts today--shit! It's just shtick. It's just something else to sell. Warming up," he scoffed, adjusting a red ascot fitted neatly into his jumpsuit, "warming up is the biggest bunch of horseshit I've ever heard in my life. Fifteen minutes to warm up! Does a lion warm up when he's hungry? 'Uh-oh, here comes an antelope. Better warm up.' No! He just goes out and eats the sucker. You gotta get the blood circulating, but shit, does the lion cool down? No, he eats the sucker and goes to sleep. And that," he concluded, folding his arms into a variation of the pose, "is the truth."
"Jack," I ventured, "did you invent the jumping jack? Is that you?"
"I'm not completely sure on that one," he said thoughtfully. "But I think so."
The first time I ever saw a jumping jack was on television. I believe the year was 1957. I still remember the big TV in the living room whining to life as I sat cross-legged before its magic. There was Mighty Mouse in his cape, Howdy Doody in his bandanna and boots. And there was Jack LaLanne in his jumpsuit, ballet slippers, and muscles. Each show began with jumping jacks, and each ended with Jack singing a hokey song. A German shepherd named Happy was often on camera with Jack, as was a wooden chair.
Jack would gaze into the lone camera in the studio and demand that Americans everywhere "scoot forward" in their chairs at home and slowly lift one knee to their chests. Then he would go a little faster and a little faster. The workout was nothing at all like the one he put himself through for several hours every morning. Until 1970 Jack offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could keep up with his personal workout, and nobody ever did.
On behalf of the "housewives of America," Jack invented a much less rigorous regimen called trimnastics. I used to relish the part of the show when Jack talked openly of women's "inner thighs." He even made mention of their "bustlines." Firmly lodged as I was in the midfifties and what Freudians would mark as a prelatency phase, I recall thinking this was thrilling beyond words.
For many of the 34 years he appeared on The Jack LaLanne Show, preaching his endlessly gleeful gospel of nutrition and fitness, Jack was joined by a onetime water ballerina out of Minnesota, a cigarette smoker and sugar addict named Elaine. Elaine LaLanne is 69 now and just as startlingly youthful-looking as her husband. Jack likes to wind Elaine's arms around her chest from behind and crack her back (he was trained as a chiropractor). He tends to refer to her as La La or Iron Buns.
Before the television show went national during the midfifties, Jack had shows in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. If Jack was in L.A., Elaine would run the workouts in San Francisco, signing off with the promise that "Jack will be back soon." Then they would switch places and do it all over again, rendezvousing on weekends as they could.
For all of my fond memories of the sheer élan that the man exuded, Jack LaLanne eventually faded from my own cultural vista amid the swirl of the sixties and seventies. But during the early eighties, a few years after the great turning of a generation to the secular religion of exercise, I rediscovered him in a remarkable interview published in Playboy. Jack was 69 then, but he reported that he still did his killer workouts every single day. He said that his chest still measured 47 inches, while his belt traveled but 27 inches around his midsection.
Jack suggested in the interview that regular cocaine snorters should take bonemeal supplements to replace the calcium loss in their nasal septums. He promoted dieting and weight loss to Playboy readers by noting that "if you have a six-inch tool and a 50-inch waistline, the thing doesn't look very big, does it?" Jack said, "When you married a beautiful girl and all of a sudden you start seeing her tits down to here and her breath stinks and she's not clean anymore and has no pride in herself, you can't love her. You may bullshit yourself, but you can't. Energy makes people beautiful. That's what charisma is. You don't want to be close to someone who's dead and crapped out all the time, who's bitching that it's a lousy fucking world and 'Christ, my ulcers are killing me.' Maybe 50 or 60 percent of all divorces are predicated on someone's being physically unfit."
It was the knee-jerk demographic assertion at the end that made me ponder once again what a great American Jack really was.
I reminded Jack of the Playboy interview when I finally got to meet him that morning in Morro Bay. He said he didn't remember where he'd found his statistics on marital dissolution, but he averred that the part about penis length was true. Then he said something about "an erection a cat couldn't scratch."
"It's all true," Jack said. "Sex is just giving, giving, giving. If I can double your energy and double your strength, aren't you going to be better at sex?"
I nodded vigorously.
"I believe it's still my job to get people to follow," Jack said after a pause. "I can help them. I can save their lives."
In 1954, when Jack was half his current age--not long after he won that year's Professional Mr. America contest and something called the Best Chest award--he began to attempt a series of midlife feats of Herculean strength and uncanny endurance that were designed to call attention to his cause. He did 100 handstand push-ups in under six minutes. He swam through the powerful currents between Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco while handcuffed. He towed a 2,000-pound boat the length of the Golden Gate Bridge while swimming underwater with air tanks but no fins, and he somehow did 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes during an appearance on TV.
In his sixties, Jack began to wear shackles on his legs as well as handcuffs for the swimming feats. He used the "flopping butterfly" stroke he developed to tow 13 boats symbolizing the original colonies across a southern California bay as a 1976 bicentennial feat, and he towed 6,500 pounds of wood pulp across a lake in Japan the year he qualified for Social Security. At the age of 70, he towed 70 friends sitting in 70 different boats across Long Beach Harbor near Los Angeles, despite heavy winds.
Jack, it should be noted, might be five-foot-six if he stretched.
He explained that he trained for the push-up feat with endless reps using 140-pound dumbbells and by climbing a 25-foot rope three times in a row with 140 pounds of extra weight strapped to his belt. When I asked why lactic acid didn't freeze him up after a while, he noted that I clearly didn't understand the value of vitamin supplements and good nutrition.
"Ask the guys who are doing serious triathlons if there are any limits to what can be done. The limit is right here," he said, pointing at the reddish curls still clinging to the side of his head. "You've got to get physically fit between the ears. Muscles don't know anything. They have to be taught.
"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," Jack continued, looking me up and down. "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."
Jack walked me out to a pool perched above a lush valley striated by rows of avocados and snow peas. On the way, we passed shadow boxes depicting some of Jack's feats of strength, a Jack LaLanne puppet or two, and the wooden surfboard Jack once paddled for nine and a half hours from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco Bay. There were dozens of sculptures of Hercules and David. Between two garage doors at the top of the driveway stood a ten-foot-high statue of the young Jack striking the pose.
There were more Davids and Herculeses in Jack's personal gym--"my cathedral," he noted--which also included 35 sets of dumbbells, a mini trampoline, and dozens of machines, each designed to work a list of 600-plus muscles Jack knows intimately and by all sorts of names. He says he does believe in letting certain muscle groups avoid complete failure from exercise for a day, but he will never--not ever--take a day off.
"My workouts," he said, "are part of what I am."
After he opened the Jack Lalanne Physical Culture Studio in 1936, Jack got clients by going around to the homes of overweight and underweight adolescents. He sold their concerned parents on memberships as a way to save their children's lives. "I checked daily on their nutritional habits and their grades in school," he said. "If they didn't show up, I'd know why. Only mistake I made was I might have worked the kids too hard."
"How did you know you'd gone too far?" I asked.
"They'd heave and pass out," he said with a nostalgic smile.
Other names became associated with the commercialization of exercise during the thirties and forties, but Jack was revered by them all. A Brooklyn boy named Angelo Sicileano changed his name to Charles Atlas and actually licensed the myth of his transformation from a "98-pound weakling" to a mail-order outfit some years before Jack burst onto the health scene. An early member of Jack's Oakland gym, Vic Tanney, covered dumbbells with chrome and copied some of Jack's gym machines for an early chain of clubs that bore his name. "Vic didn't keep the damned gyms clean," Jack told me. "I used to tell him to clean 'em up and give personal attention to his patrons. 'Aw, Jack,' he'd say. 'People don't really want to exercise. Just take their money.' The dumbass didn't listen to me, and he went bankrupt in the end. Charlie Atlas and I were friends till the day he died. I loved Charlie--but God, did he get fat. 'Jack,' he'd say when I told him to stop, 'I can't. I love to eat. I'm Italian.' "
Out near the pool, as three dogs lapped at the water, Jack pointed to a pile of neoprene straps tied to a chrome railing. "I change my program every three weeks," he said. "Out here, I've been strapping myself to the side of the pool lately and butterflying for at least an hour. You oughta try it."
Jack seemed irritated when I asked why he couldn't miss just one day's workout every now and again. The question was prompted by his report that he'd recently fallen asleep at the wheel after getting home a few hours before dawn from a speaking engagement, getting up at five o'clock to work out, and then playing golf after that.
"I would never do such a thing to myself," he said with passion. "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." Then he segued into a mantra I'm sure I heard dozens of times as a very young boy: "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."
With others, this might have been the point at which I realized I was being fed canned lines. But I welcomed them like the words of an old and almost forgotten song.
Then--thoughtlessly, perhaps, and only because I do it myself--I asked Jack LaLanne if he ever snacks before bedtime.
"Never!" he snarled. "You don't get it. I am one runaway son of a bitch! I am an animal! I want to eat everything! I want to get drunk every single night! I want to screw every woman there is! We are all wild animals. But we must learn to use our minds. We must learn to control the bestial and sensual sides of ourselves!"
Jack Lalanne is the first to admit that he could have easily become a religious fanatic instead of the prophet of physical fitness. Young Jack was skinny and introverted, and he says he had pimples. He was the kid who never got picked to play on a team. "Everyone beat me up," he recalled. "I felt like a dog, a little scrawny dog. All I ate was ice cream. That was me."
As a young teen, Jack's problems only got worse. At 14, he says he had a 105-degree fever for 14 days and was expected to die. He says his social and physical deficiencies caused him to become suicidal and homicidal, too. "I tried to kill my brother twice," Jack said as he paced the tiles of his den. "Once with an ax and once with a big butcher knife. My mind was psychotic. I had a terrible temper from all the sugar."
Jack was the son of a French immigrant and erstwhile sheep farmer who had lamentable eating habits. His mother was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist ("No lipstick, no radio, no nothin'. I was afraid to look at my penis because that was a sin") who dreamed of her skinny son becoming a doctor who would go to Africa on missions of mercy. When he didn't, Jack says, it broke her heart. After one of his bouts of attempted fratricide, his mom took him to a lecture given by a nutritionist and "health nut" who talked of the "human garbage cans" that were individuals who failed to heed "nature's laws" about wholesome foods.
As Jack listened, he felt himself reborn. He stopped eating sugar and meat. He began to take vitamins and minerals. He exercised and grew so strong that he became a gifted baseball player, football player, swimmer, track and field athlete, and wrestler. He turned down three athletic scholarships to college so he could sell health bread and teach people the whys and wherefores of his own rebirth. He started to wear tight T-shirts to show off some of the highly developed muscles he read about in Gray's Anatomy, his favorite book.
In retrospect, Jack realized that his father gorged himself to an early death by eating cheese and other poisons. When his mother had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanitarium, Jack was sure that her condition emanated from an unfortunate diet.
If Jack LaLanne had indeed become a religionist instead of America's most famous gym teacher, he would undoubtedly have been a believer of the walk-to-the-cathedral-on-your-knees-over-sharp-cobblestones or hit-me-again-with-the-cat-o'-nine-tails variety. He says so himself. To this day he remains committed to a Calvinist doctrine of health that calls for painful workouts, painful denials of pleasures, and the ingestion of concoctions that most people would find painful to eat. After his dawn-to-dark workouts, Jack will pour several hundred different vitamin supplements into a blender along with great handfuls of yeast and liver tablets, a pile of kelp, some carrot and celery juice, a few pieces of fruit, some egg whites, and a splash of half-and-half. He says it's the worst-tasting stuff in the whole world, but he drinks it down every day. He says that the secret of his endurance swims through cold and treacherous waters is a massive infusion of "B complex, liver, and defatted government-inspected yeast."
The first product Jack thought to trademark was a somewhat less noxious variation on his breakfast drink called Instant Breakfast. After Carnation came out with a product with the same name, he battled the corporation in court for four years. He says they paid him off in the end, after he agreed to change the name of his drink to Reduce. On television, he sold LaLanne nutrition bars and vitamins. He sold thousands of Jack LaLanne Bike-ettes (rubber bands that allowed you to pretend to pedal a bike while sitting in a chair) and more than six million "glamour stretchers," decades before rubberized bands achieved their current health-club vogue. But he never thought to patent any of the machines lining the walls of his little exercise museum, and for all of the foods, devices, and television appearances--for all of the weight benches and health clubs bearing his name and a logo indicating the famous LaLanne pose--Jack remains comfortable though not as rich as he might have been if he hadn't been too trusting and naive along the way.
"The clubs and the machines are other peoples' businesses. They just pay a royalty for my name, and I don't get what I should," he said, the rat-a-tat pace of his talk slowing as he reflected. "I made a lot of people millionaires. When yogurt was just coming out, I made some guys millionaires in two years. I took a lot of screwings. I probably lost five million in the Jack LaLanne spa deal, and I lost big on a health trailer park because I trusted a guy."
"Jack never thinks about money. He's never thought much about it," said Elaine as we stood in front of the exercise museum. "He's dedicated to people instead."
"They all thank me--Arnold, Jane Fonda, Jake, Richard Simmons," Jack noted with a smile. "Richard Simmons gave me a big kiss on his show once and started to cry, saying he wouldn't be where he is if it hadn't been for Jack LaLanne. Later he says, 'Oh, Jack, if I'd ever gotten you in bed, you wouldn't have any more muscle.'
"Have you seen some of the crap they're selling as exercise equipment now?" Jack wondered. "How about that Suzanne Somers? She should have been thrown in jail for selling the piece-of-crap Thigh Master. 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?"
Jack disapproves of a current health-club business model that requires a profitable club to sign up many more members than will ever use the facility. "It's like the movies," he said. "The artistry is gone from health clubs because of money. I knew your boyfriends and girlfriends. I knew everything about you. I was your friend, your counselor. After all, you had come to me."
Jack bounded back into his den and began to dicker over the phone with a car salesman. He wanted to buy a new Jaguar--a red or silver one. "Are you happy or are you married?" he said to the dealer to break the ice, talking above a soap opera that was blaring from an oversize TV built into a wall near a big wine-bottle-laden bar.
Cars and wine are Jack's indulgences. Especially cars. He once owned a Stutz Blackheart, and he had a Porsche that could do 130 easily. The car he'd driven off the road a few weeks earlier was a Toyota. ("Damn thing. Had the cruise control on and I got this sleepy feeling. Next thing I know, geez, I'm crashing through the trees.") One time he planned a feat that involved lugging a 355-pound barbell on his back up Hollywood Boulevard as a way to protest the presence of so many teenage prostitutes. But shortly before this latter-day stations of the cross effort, he totaled the Porsche he was driving and injured his knees.
For several years Jack talked about an 80th birthday feat that would involve swimming underwater from Catalina Island to Los Angeles, but he scrubbed the swim because he said Elaine threatened to divorce him if he tried it. "I still plan to try it soon," he told me. "You gotta keep a little challenge going."
"You seen my new book?" Jack asked, pointing to a table bearing a copy of Revitalize Your Life After 50, the title apparently taking into account the diminished market for books about revitalizing after 80. "It's a very understandable book, because the average person has an IQ of about two."
Jack signed my copy with the inscription "Anything is possible" and put his pen back on a small table holding television remotes and three pairs of smudged reading glasses--scant indicators of the physical degeneration born of time. "Nothing about the energy level is put on. That's one of the most amazing things about him," observes Richie Ornstein, a former New York City cop who's been a friend and associate of Jack's for 25 years. "He can't pass a Jack LaLanne club without going in and badgering people about their form. He can't sit in front of a TV without doing knees-to-chest exercises. He can't stop."
"Believe it or not," Jack said reflectively, "I had my best year ever last year. My speaking career is just huge, and I have plans to do some soups and salad dressings for Hunt and Wesson. Jake just called me about doing something with him and Jane Fonda. Everybody wants me for something. It's making it hard to find enough time to train for the 20-mile underwater swim."
As we wandered into the kitchen, Jack started barking at me again because I began a question about my own exercise regimen by noting my age.
"Don't talk age!" he interrupted. "Age has nothing to do with it. One of my guys who started out at my gym is 87 now, and he still does ten bench-press reps with a hundred-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."
Jack hopped onto a kitchen chair, pressed himself up like a gymnast on the parallel bars, and pointed his toes high into the air above his head. Then he jumped up, grabbed Elaine, wound her arms around behind her, and cracked her back. Then he started singing a song from a recording he once made with jazz singer Connie Haines. By the time I got into my rental car, he was leaning in through the window haranguing me about my vitamin intake.
In the rearview mirror, I looked to see Jack and the ten-foot-high statue of Jack striking the pose.
On the flight home, I had just enough strength left to leaf through Revitalizing Your Life After 50. On one page I came upon a quotation that the great LaLanne had extracted from the Scriptures: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
Donald Katz, a contributing editor of Outside, is the author of The Big Store, Home Fires, and Just Do It. He is currently writing a book about digital technology.