On the Lumbar Extension Machine

Emily Berry

When I had a bad back, I used to go to a special gym for people with musculoskeletal pain. My father had been recommending it for years but of course I paid no attention to him. It was only when someone else also spoke highly of it that I thought it might be worth a try. Kieser Training is a Swiss company specialising in strength training whose UK branch (RIP) was located in the basement of the art deco Carreras Cigarette Factory building in Mornington Crescent. The effigies of two enormous black cats guard its entrance, and the façade is adorned with the faces of further black cats that stare down at the street with yellow eyes.

The gym, by contrast, was delightfully utilitarian, with no music or TV screens, just a large room full of complicated-looking machinery into which comparatively tiny people were folded, slowly raising and lowering their limbs. There was visible pipework suspended from the ceiling, the changing areas were behind stainless steel partitions and the showers were inside tall metallic cylinders. There was an enormous clock that could be seen from anywhere in the room. When I got changed afterwards I felt as if I was coming off a shift at the International Space Station.

Kieser Training was founded in 1966 by the late Werner Kieser, known to the Swiss media as the ‘back pope’ or the ‘strength apostle’. He set up his first gym in the laundry room of his parents’ house, welding his own dumbbells out of scrap iron, and later established a studio in a condemned building in Zurich. He wrote a book called The Soul of the Muscles.

The best thing about the gym was that even though it looked like the sort of place where the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket might have worked out, its clientele was more like the cast of a Carson McCullers novel – hunchbacked, enormously tall, enormously old, or otherwise ‘not the norm’ as my grandmother used to say. It was wonderful.

When I joined the gym I was recovering from back surgery, so I was assessed by the in-house consultant. I had to strip down to my underwear, my troublesome vertebrae were inspected, and notes were taken and installed in a filing cabinet. I suppose women are not meant to enjoy taking their clothes off in front of doctors, but I have always rather liked it. It makes me feel as though I’m being taken seriously.

For the first few weeks I was accompanied by an instructor, Teresa, who showed me how the machines worked. The first machine she introduced me to was the Lumbar Extension Machine. It aims to immobilise the pelvis so the muscles of the lumbar spine can be strengthened in isolation. Strapped into this machine, I would rock back and forth, pushing the increasingly heavy weight on my back until I couldn’t push any more and would beg Teresa to release me.

I once went to a lecture at the gym about the treatment of chronic pain. The speaker was German and I remember nothing of what she said except that she offered up an affirmation – ‘I can do this!’ – which should be said while thrusting one’s fists in the air. I tried it a few times and it was indeed very empowering, but only if said in a German accent.

What fascinated me most was the machine for strengthening the pelvic floor. It had a monitor and a seat with a ridge down the middle that could apparently detect the slightest undulations of the nether regions. You would sit on this seat and clench and unclench your pelvic floor at varying speeds with the aim of tracing a wavering pink line onscreen up and down a series of peaks and troughs which grew pointier and closer together the mightier your muscle control became. It was like doing a hill start with your vagina. I now knew how Roald Dahl’s Matilda felt, using her eyes to pick up a stick of chalk and write messages taunting her headmistress on the blackboard. Unfortunately you couldn’t write on the pelvic floor machine’s screen, however hench your private parts; you could only go up and down the same peaks and troughs, a bit like life really.

The machine’s seat, I was advised, always had to be covered with a towel, for hygiene reasons. This paltry cloth barrier provided no protection whatsoever from the knowledge that every single person who sat on that seat was calmly clenching and unclenching their genitals as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Of course, flexing your pelvic floor is the most natural thing in the world. The people at Kieser Training understand this, and the instructor who showed me how to use the machine (not Teresa, this time) clearly saw nothing remotely humorous or embarrassing in what he was explaining to me, pronouncing the word ‘anus’ with the utmost dignity.

The UK branch of Kieser Training went into administration in 2016, a terrible loss to the bad-backed of North London and beyond. A Facebook group was established (‘Save Kieser Training!’) where people fretted about their psoas muscles and SI joints, and spread rumours about the fate of the equipment and whether it might be possible to track it down and start using it again. We all had charts documenting our progress which had been kept in a file behind reception. We were working towards something, but what – ultimate strength? a trophy? – I don’t know. (The strength apostle himself died in his sleep in 2021, aged 80, having completed his last circuit of the gym the day before.) To think of those records of our muscles’ haltingly increasing power, thrown to the four winds by the liquidators, who cared nothing for our small, hard-won achievements. What would become of us now?

A year later I had a dream which I wrote down:

Me and some other people are trying to steal the Kieser Training machines. The gym is located in a ballroom in a grand hotel. It’s empty at first and we think we might be able to use it after all but then the liquidators appear. We take the Lumbar Extension Machine and wheel it to the lifts. I can see the machine looking out of the little glass panel as the lift doors close. I rush downstairs to meet it. We put the machine in a small room in the basement where it will be hidden and we can visit it whenever we like.

I have been visiting the Lumbar Extension Machine in the basement of my mind for many years now, and have not had a bad back for a long time. I have other problems, but that’s a different story. As Werner Kieser said, people grow through resistance.


  • 3 May 2023 at 10:07pm
    David Murphy says:
    Wonderful! I shall use a German accent next time I'm pushing weights. I'm sure it will help.

  • 3 May 2023 at 10:45pm
    Lynn-Marie Harper says:
    I remember it well, my ex partner treated me to a time limited membership and I really enjoyed going there for a while. I met someone I used to work there once and enjoyed the chat and having a bad back again at the moment could do with some of that training again. The spaciousness of the high ceiling was wonderful. A place to breathe space. I remember having an interaction with a trainer on one of my last visits which was very dispiriting and that was that, enthusiasm over. Even at a gym it’s all about the people. But it was quite a place.