Skip to main content
Shopping cart: items Cart

Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Temple of Perfection

A History of the Gym

These days there is only one right answer when someone asks you what you are doing after work. Hitting the gym! With an explosion of apps, clothing, devices, and countless DVDs, fitness has never felt more modern, and the gym is its holy laboratory, alive with machinery, sweat, and dance music. But we are far from the first to pursue bodily perfection—the gymnasium dates back 2,800 years, to the very beginnings of Western civilization. In The Temple of Perfection, Eric Chaline offers the first proper consideration of the gym’s complex, layered history and the influence it has had on the development of Western individualism, society, education, and politics.
As Chaline shows, how we take care of our bodies has long been based on a complex mix of spiritual beliefs, moral discipline, and aesthetic ideals that are all entangled with political, social, and sexual power. Today, training in a gym is seen primarily as part of the pursuit of individual fulfillment. As he shows, however, the gym has always had a secondary role in creating men and women who are “fit for purpose”—a notion that has meant a lot of different things throughout history. Chaline surveys the gym’s many incarnations and the ways the individual, the nation-state, the media, and the corporate world have intersected in its steamy confines, sometimes with unintended consequences. He shows that the gym is far more than a factory for superficiality and self-obsession—it is one of the principle battlefields of humanity’s social, sexual, and cultural wars.
Exploring the gym’s history from a multitude of perspectives, Chaline concludes by looking toward its future as it struggles to redefine itself in a world in thrall to quick fixes—such as plastic surgery and pharmaceuticals—meant to attain the gym’s ultimate promises: physical fitness and beauty. 

272 pages | 25 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2015

Sport and Recreation

Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


“Gyms today are a familiar part of the life of millions of people across the globe and a regular aspect of a fitness and leisure oriented culture. But they have a long and fascinating history, from the pedagogic and military cultures of the ancient world to the sun swept beaches of California in the 1940s and ’50s through to the metrosexual body culture of today. Gyms are about fitness, well-being, beauty, and pleasure, but always about the body. Through their history we can see how the body is shaped, inscribed, worshipped, and displayed, in different ways at different times. Chaline has produced a compelling history that illuminates not just the culture of the gym but also our shifting obsessions with the body through three thousand years. It is a fascinating read.”

Jeffrey Weeks, London South Bank University and author of The World We Have Won and The Languages of Sexuality

“There were so many rich connections in this book that by the time you sweep through two millennia to the moment when Arnold Schwarzenegger became the posing-pouch politician, who, while pumping iron, said things like, ‘I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that,’ a lot of things clicked into place. . . . Humans are now machined in these body factories to better serve their corporate masters.” 


“The book is learned and well-researched. . . . It also furnishes some pretty interesting history.”


“An amusing and comprehensive tour.” 

Commercial Dispatch

“A grounded perspective on today’s representations of the physical—from world-class soccer players to contestants on American Ninja Warriors.”


“Chaline’s book is full of interesting information, not to mention its useful historical overview and its clear prose.”

Gay & Lesbian Review

Table of Contents

1. The Pursuit of Arete
2. The Rebirth of Vitruvian Man
3. The Health of Nations
4. The World’s Strongest Man
5. Pumping Iron
6. Let’s Get Physical
7. Macho Man
8. Consuming Fitness
Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press