Before western influence, ancient Iranians participated in numerous sporting events, much like the Greeks and their Olympics. Iranians though prided themselves in a type of wrestling called “Koshti Pahlavani” or “Heroic Wrestling”, where they would do graceful but powerful moves to pin their opponents. In order to train for events such as this, they developed a place to go to gain the strength, power, and endurance necessary to master their event. This place was known as the “Zurkhaneh” or “House of Strength”. The Zurkhaneh was originally a place to train and get closer to God, through weight training, because strength was seen as something godly. The Zurkhaneh housed the one true Iranian way of weight training, “Varzesh-e-Pahlavni” or “The Workout of Heroes”. This workout was a 60-90 minute routine of different lifts and exercises all in alignment to the beat of drums and bells. Now although there are many technical parts to the Zurkhaneh, like who leads it and different levels and rankings (much like those of Karate and Tae Kwon Do), I am going to focus specifically on the weight training aspect of the Varzesh. These exercises include the warm-ups, “Takhteh-Shena”, “Narmesh” (aka Calisthenics), “Meel” exercises, “Charkhidan”, “Pazadan”, “Kabbadeh Keshidan”, “Sang” exercises, and “Shelang-Takhteh”. Each part of the full exercise fully works different parts of the person’s body.
In the 90 minute period, the people in the Zurkhaneh start by warming up. They do callisthenic exercises like jumping on one foot and slow walking to achieve a dynamic stretch. They use the dynamic stretch as a way to prepare for the rigorous exercise they have ahead of them. Right after this warm-up, the people start doing pushups with the “Takhteh-Shena”. The “Takhteh-Shena” is a wooden plank that elevates you a little bit so that you do incline push-ups instead of flat push-ups. There are a few types of push-ups that they do including a regular push-up with the hip raised, a push-up with the legs spread wide-apart, and push-ups with a twist. These push-ups deliver a good chest and bicep workout, testing endurance as well as flexibility. Once they finish these push-up exercises, they do another round of calisthenics to further stretch their muscles for what is ahead.
The next exercise in the lineup is the “Meel Greiftan” or “Club Exercises. The “Meel” is a giant club weighing 10-30 kg (or 22-66 lbs) that is used in a few more exercises. This is the most physically demanding of the exercises because of the sheer weight of the clubs. This workout works power as well as strength, making it a great beginning to a workout. What the people do with these clubs first is put their hands around the handle and then twist the club around their shoulders in a continuous circular motion. This full motion gives an upper body workout, primarily to the triceps, and shoulders (with some bicep workout). Immediately succeeding this exercise is the exercise of juggling these clubs. The lifters throw the clubs in the air and juggle them. They do use smaller weights, and only a specific specialized group of them will do this activity. It is a break for them. The juggling does test hand-eye coordination but also uses biceps and triceps but isn’t as draining as the spinning of the clubs. Once this is completed they move on to the endurance part of their exercise.
The “Charkhidan” is a rotating or spinning dance that they do in the Zurkhaneh. This dance is a constant spin that gets progressively faster. The person is supposed to reach their max speed before the end of the dance. This spinning increases their balance and agility. The more skillful spinners lose complete dizziness and can spin for a lengthy period of time. The time and speed are crucial in this exercise because if the person doesn’t go for a lengthy time and high speed, they won’t work endurance. Endurance is the main reason for this exercise. Following this dance is a set of footwork drills. These set as another break in the workout, with continuing movement being the main motivation. The footwork drills really are what we call warm-ups. They jump on one foot or two feet while moving their arms in different directions. This constant stretching helps the muscles tear and repair faster so that the person will not feel as much pain after the exercise. Now mind you, all of these exercises were meant to train warriors. The next few exercises were aimed towards ancient Persian warriors.
The next part of the routine is the pulling of “Kabbadeh” or iron bow. This bow varies from 10-50kg (22-110 lbs) based on how many weights the bow has on the metallic chain. It is a very difficult exercise and is only done by those who are masters at it. What you do with the bow is you put it at arm length away from your body, and you shake it violently in a 360 degree motion around your head. You do this until you cannot do it anymore. As you can see, this becomes extremely tiring, working the triceps, chest and shoulders heavily. This trains power and endurance because you are using high weights at a high velocity of shaking while doing it for a long period of time. This exercise is meant to be done in minutes not seconds. To also help balance, some athletes spin in a circle while shaking the bow.
What I feel is the most demanding upper body exercises is one of the last ones. This is a unilateral push of shields or “sang”. These wooden shields are about 20kg a piece, totaling to a 90 lbs. press. Each arm extends with the shield in hand while doing what is widely known as a Russian twist. The athlete may not let the two shields touch and the shields may not touch the ground until they do the minimum of 50 double rotations. This is seen as a major disrespect to the gym. It is clear already that this exercise works endurance and not so much power because there are so many repetitions. The person (with their legs elevated 6 inches above ground) twists their body while simultaneously pushing the latter shield upwards. This unilateral push works out the chest and triceps while the elevated legs work the core. As you can see, this, along with other Iranian exercises stretches the body while simultaneously working the upper body. Another way of lifting them is straight up, just like a dumbbell unilateral bench press, but that is used more with the novices. Immediately following this is a round of “Koshti” or wrestling. The people in the Zurkhaneh are very tired and must use the rest of their body in the wrestling match, seeing as their upper body is completely worked. This leads into the final exercise.
The last exercise, which is part of the warm down, is a walk that gradually increases to a run and finally to a sprint around the room. In no part of this training session do they do a static stretch. This shows how even in the ancient times, they knew that stretching and warming down with movement was beneficial to muscle repair. After the run, the athletes proceed to do jumping activities and sprints. The most enjoyable part of this exercise is at the end where the athletes get in a circle and massage each other down. They tend to focus on the upper body, seeing as most of the workout was aimed towards upper body performance. This massaging helps reduce muscle pain after the training session and in the morning.
The training in these “Houses of Strength” show that there were ancient ways of weight training and that even without modern science, the ideals of strength and fitness remained the same. The Iranian heroic training stresses upper body lifting as well as the importance of core exercises. A heavy training of balance, endurance, and the triceps is used because in wrestling and battle they are essential to victory. Overall this weight training technique is effective because of its effect on the toning and conditioning of humans and their muscles. The “Varzesh-e-Pahlavani” is a pioneer of modern weight training. Works Cited
Koozehchian, Hashem & Izadi, Behzad, Zoorkhaneh: The Iranian Traditional Gymnasium <http://www.isdy.net/pdf/eng/2008_19.pdf> Amirtash, Ali-Mohamad, Zoorkhaneh and Varzesh-E-Bastani, <http://www.sid.ir/En/VEWSSID/J_pdf/97020080107.pdf>