2011-02-24 / News

The art of rowing: von Gumppenberg still going strong

By Geoff Campell


Johannes von Gumppenberg Johannes von Gumppenberg At the 2008 Connecticut Indoor Rowing Championships, Johannes von Gumppenberg won a blue ribbon for placing first in his age group by rowing an ergometer – a rowing machine – 2,000 kilometers in 9:01. He was 76 years old.

Indoor rowing competitions are held throughout the year all around the world. von Gumppenberg was first attracted to the ergometer when he and his wife Janet purchased one for Janet’s father more than 35 years ago.

Janet said that the first one was poorly made and “fell apart after six months,” but the next one, a Concept 2, was purchased for Johannes and still works, although he prefers the ergometer at the Jamestown Fitness Center. “It’s better,” he said.

Johannes began rowing on Lake Aldred, which was created by damming the Susquehanna River near Lancaster, Penn. His vessel was an aluminum fishing boat meant to host an outboard motor. The boat held two sets of oarlocks.

He first began to compete on the ergometer when he and Janet discovered that competitions existed. He explained that training for an ergometer competition “is a bit like going to work – you have to do it.”

A student of fitness since he was 17, von Gumppenberg realized that “perhaps competition is not the best way to stay fit.” He noticed that the older he gets, the more important variety in exercise is to working all of the muscle groups.

This realization spurred the lifelong fitness enthusiast to add circuit training to his exercise menu and to build a home-circuit trainer.

For von Gumppenberg, the lessons that he has learned are not book bound. They are the essence of a journey that began in earnest at the University of Illinois where he taught art and was the colleague of Thomas Kirk Cureton Jr.

Cureton, according to his 1992 New York Times obituary, was “a pioneer researcher in the study of physical fitness, taught at the University of Illinois from 1941 to 1969.” He also “wrote or was the co-author of 50 books and many articles” and “served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under five presidents and received several council awards.”

Cureton, who believed in running, encouraged von Gumppenberg to run for exercise. “When your legs don’t hold up, you find a way around your medical problems,” Johannes said. It was in Illinois that von Gumppenberg found circuit training.

He said that circuit training is a series of exercises, often using machines, and it allows him to develop a fitness focus that lies between endurance and strength, creating a cross between the physique of a cross-country skier and an oarsman. Johannes said that circuit training exercises more of the body’s muscle groups. von Gumppenberg demonstrated a typical circuit-training workout that he completes about twice a week either at home using his homemade, brightly varnished, wooden “Nautilus,” or at the fitness center.

At nearly 80 years old, Johannes said that his workouts are about “endurance, strength and flexibility.” On this day he began with knee bends while holding two 10-pound weights; he explained that he never uses more than 15 or 20 pounds.

He stopped long enough to note that as he has aged he has been able to maintain youth-like strength in both his hands and his abs.

He said that his hand strength is the result of exercises a doctor suggested in order to treat rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. As for his abs, von Gumppenberg demonstrated just how he maintains its strength.

Lying face first on a wooden bench that slopes away from the ground, Johannes strapped his legs in and placed his waist just over the edge of the bench. From there he raised his back, careful not to arch it. He repeated the extension 10 to 15 times.

Using a system of pulleys attached to the machine, he worked his shoulders and core. von Gumppenberg noted that the fitness center provides elastic bands for this exercise offering the advantage of a set level of resistance. In his home gym, resistance is increased by leaning into the exercise.

Next, Johannes went easily to the floor where he executed a series of jackknife sit-ups, pulling alternate knees to the chest with a twist. Getting up – and without the grunts and groans that might accompany a younger man rising to his feet – von Gumppenberg spoke philosophically, recounting a stint in physical therapy to do some shoulder work.

He said exercises and fitness routines, like those that you learn in physical therapy, “won’t serve you well if you learn them slavishly.”

He also said that “learning from others is extremely important,” but undue pressure on the routine or the frequency of the routine can result in quitting. People will miss a day or two and they say, “I blew it.” Johannes said that you don’t really blow it until you quit. He said that the same is true for diets. von Gumppenberg completes a 15-30 minute circuit about two times a week and because variety is so important, he also walks vigorously using Nordic walking sticks. Along with his warm-up routine and stretching, Johannes works out about six times per week. von Gumppenberg approaches exercise much the way he approaches his art. Born in Germany, the artist is currently presenting a series of talks on modern art at Salve Regina University. He has composed the talks as a collection of letters; the letters contain a series of course descriptions focused on “what an artist knows about art versus what an artist needs to know.”

A 1955 Rhode Island School of Design graduate, von Gumppenberg did graduate work in Munich and finished at Yale University in Connecticut.

An accomplished author as well, von Gumppenberg has written such recently published titles as “The Intellectual Travels of an Artist: A Letter to Claire Marcille Gadrow of Rhode Island School of Design,” “Space and Emotional Urgency in Contemporary Art” and “A Lexicon of Drawing.” von Gumppenberg seeks to look beyond the facts of “what you know,” to the next layer of “what you need to know,” which can only be discovered following intense observation. That is true of his art work that hangs in the Jamestown bungalow that he has shared with his wife for the past 15 years. von Gumppenberg explained that an engineer studies facts about the science of engineering, but a builder uses those facts and corresponding formulas to create buildings. The same is true for artists.

To repeat geometric shapes in a drawing is to copy, he said, but when “you add observation you do better than copy, you are solving a problem and you are surpassing the object.”

“It is wonderful to know how,” he said, “but it is not enough.”

That seems to be true for fitness as well.

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