Jack LaLanne would fit right into today’s society of fitness influencers and personalities. However, he came along several generations earlier than the internet and even at the birth of television. That turned out to be a good thing because he became a creator and inventor of many common aspects of fitness we know today.
LaLanne also was a daredevil and wanted to challenge himself as many times as he could. In his eyes, risking it all was a way to show why fitness was so important and could inspire the masses to start exercising and eating properly. The bigger and more dangerous the challenge, the better because LaLanne could showcase his abilities and entertain his fans.
Jack LaLanne’s widow, Elaine, has been by his side throughout all of his crazy stunts, and she knows firsthand why he was able to pull them off with no issue.
“He was able to do them because he KNEW he could! Why? Because he visualized them and believed it was possible. His famous saying, “Anything is possible. If you believe, you can make it happen! He did Anything negative was not in his vocabulary!”
The swims at Alcatraz could be considered his most famous feats, but he did much more than that. He also made enormous contributions to the fitness industry that we know today beyond his juicer. Elaine gave us the inside scoop on ten of these feats. What you’ll find is while he made them look simply, they were far from easy.
Life-Risking Swim in San Francisco
Jack Lalanne turned 40 in 1954. To celebrate this milestone age, he swam the length of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge underwater with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks. At the time, it was called an undisputed world record, and no one has done it since. Elaine spoke about the dangers that came with this swim, and the result from his effort could’ve been life altering or even life ending.
“He barely made it to the other side as he was out of air from the two tanks on his back,” she said. At the end of the swim, the strong waves caused him to be thrown into the rocks below the shoreline retaining wall.”
Elaine revealed that she didn’t know about what he went through until the end, and she credited a good luck charm for his safety.
“The hat I wore that day I wore at every swim afterwards…I called it my lucky hat!”
Towing a Cabin Cruiser
Three years later after his first swim, LaLanne got back into the water. This time, it was at the treacherous Golden Gate Channel, towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser. That kind of weight makes a novice think that strength is important, but Elaine shared that Jack focused on endurance.
“When Jack would go for a swim in the ocean in Santa Monica, I wouldn’t see him for an hour or so. I was often worried, but up he’d pop as fresh as a daisy.”
As intimidating as the challenge sounds or read, Elaine said that Jack didn’t consider this feat a tough one. She also got to take part in his effort, sort of.
“I was on this boat along with San Francisco local celebrities and lots of local press.”
Service and Fitness Contributions
Jack LaLanne served in the United States Navy, and even after he was discharged, he felt he could do more to serve those that were serving his country. He created training programs and routines for soldiers and offered his services to various branches of the Armed Forces when needed to help maximize the potential of America’s servicemembers.
Furthermore, he even helped the Los Angeles Police Department with their fitness testing and programming needs. The LAPD recognized LaLanne for his efforts by presenting him with the Jack Webb Award in 2005 when Jack was 91 years old. That same year, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presented LaLanne with the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award.
All Day Paddleboarding
Jack LaLanne decided to change it up for his 44th birthday. Instead of swimming, he maneuvered a paddleboard 30 miles, 9-½ hours non-stop from Farallon Islands to the San Francisco shore. Elaine knew he felt like this would be more difficult, but he clearly was up to the task because he was determined to show age is a number. She saw him do a lot, but she is still impressed by his success on that day.
“They arrived about 11:00 pm. Jack jumped in the water and began paddling behind the pilot boat. Over nine hours later, the morning of the next day, he arrived on the shore of San Francisco. I didn’t get much sleep that night and met him on the shore with a sigh of relief! I’m still amazed at the endurance he had!”
Celebrating America’s Birthday
In 1976, 62-year-old Jack wanted to celebrate America’s second centennial. He decided to swim one mile in Long Beach Harbor. To add some spice to the swim, he did it handcuffed, shackled and towing 13 boats (representing the 13 original colonies) containing 76 people. Elaine said this took months to prepare for. She may have wondered how he even came up with this idea, but she knew he could do it, and many people wanted to see it. So, she went along and brought a trusted ally with her.
“Hundreds of people lined up along the shore. People in their own boats as well as the press in their boat, were shouting “Go Jack Go,” she recalled. “I was in the press boat again wearing my lucky hat!”
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve used a Smith Machine at least once. It turns out it could’ve been called a LaLanne Machine. Elaine discussed how a device Jack used in his backyard made it into his own studio and evolved into the version we know today.
Jack’s squat machine was developed about the same time in his back yard for his knee rehabilitation.
“One of his students, a patternmaker named Jack Palmer, made patterns from Jack’s crude drawings of the leg extension, squat bar, and wall pulleys. Jack brought these patterns to Paull Martin, a metal worker who welded pieces together.”
Jack LaLanne came up with several other concepts such as wall pulleys, a calf machine, and more. Ultimately, the squat machine would reach Rudy Smith, who made his own innovations to it, and thus, the Smith Machine was born. In spite of numerous machines being sold in the decades since, Elaine said it didn’t turn out to be a financial benefit for its innovators.
“Jack nor Rudy never received any royalties from it.”
Built for Speed and Strength
As the 1980s came around, Jack found a new body of water to swim in, and he found a new challenge to conquer. At the age of 6t6, he towed 10 boats in North Miami, Florida filled with 77 people for over a mile in less than one hour. Instead of distance alone, the speed factor was what enticed him to try it. This was a rare occasion that Elaine couldn’t be there for, but she had faith he could do it. She and America would get to see it thanks to a local TV show.
“Jack told me it was cooked up by the local spa owners, their PR and singer Julius LaRosa, who had a national TV show out of Miami. LaRosa showed portions of it later on his TV show. So, it did get national coverage.”
A Unique Way to Celebrate Seven Decades
Jack LaLanne didn’t have a criminal record, but he found himself in handcuffs on multiple occasions. One such occasion came after he turned 70 years old. Handcuffed, shackled and fighting strong winds and currents, he towed 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen’s Way Bridge in the Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary for a total distance of 1.5 miles. Elaine reported that this one took a lot of preparation
and cooperation of the water as well as volunteers manning the boats, but you wouldn’t have known it the way he executed the challenge.
“When the swim ended, Jack popped out of the water like nothing had happened,” she said. “When he got to shore, he walked into the press conference and party on the Queen Mary like he just come off his TV show.”
Creation of the Leg Extension Machine
Jack was a football player in his high school years, and he suffered a knee injury that derailed his season. Doctors that performed his surgery told him he may never walk properly again. Elaine recalled how a book and his already developed determination changed his future and impacted generations to come thanks to the creation of a new training machine that you will see in almost every commerical gym in the world.
Jack bought and devoured “Gray’s Anatomy” several years prior to that injury,” said Elaine. “It took many months of rehabilitation doing a leg extension exercise that Jack designed for himself using a a crude prototype of a machine that was yet to be born.”
Glamour Stretcher (Now Resistance Band)
By the 1950’s, friend of Jack could bring random objects to him to see how he could use it for fitness and training. Paul Bragg, one of Jack’s friends, brought a two-foot long piece of rubber to him to see what he could do with it. Elaine described this moment as if Jack was just given a new toy.
“Jack excitedly started stretching it in all directions. The next day we went to a rubber company in Oakland, CA, to make an exercise stretcher. He wanted it about 60 inches long with loops on each end and flexible enough so that anyone could stand on it and stretch it over their head,” she stated. “The loop design was so that it would have the ability to put your feet and hands through and also it could be hooked onto a doorknob.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we know them today as resistance bands, and they have been used for stretching, training, and even as accessories on barbells. He called it the Glamour Stretcher because he marketed it to women, who made up a lot of his audience.
“Shortly after that, we came out with another stretcher that had more tension called The Easy Way Conditioner for Men,” Elaine explained. Other products would follow in the years to come, and the innovation became a gym fixture in the decades to come.
This list is a snapshot of a long list of feats and innovations that Jack LaLanne gave. If you want to see more and read about those Alcatraz swims, you can order Elaine’s book “Pride and Discipline,” which she co-wrote with Greg Justice. The book is available now on Amazon.