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Bodybuilding History 101

This article is reproduced with the permission of the author, Nelson Montana. What you are about to read is an extraction from his excellent book "Bodybuilding Truths, Secrets You Are Not Suppose To Know". Nelson Montana writes for some of the top bodybuilding magazines in the industry. To order Nelson´s book, visit him at: NelsonMontana.com


We all have a heritage. Our nationalities, our occupations and even our hobbies  have their  history. Where we´ve come from is a part of who we are. Pride is a part of it as well.

Our differences often cause dissension. Nevertheless, it´s possible to cross ethnic and cultural lines via shared beliefs and interests which fuse our unanimity and camaraderie. The love of sports is such a catalyst. It brings people together with a common bond. Sports aficionados are known for their mutual devotion and  reverence to the all time greats of a game. At times, they can be passionate to the point of fanatical when exuding their thoughts of how "it used to be." So why is it so few bodybuilders are familiar with the history of their own sport?

Maybe it´s because bodybuilding isn´t as much of a spectator sport as it  is an individual pursuit. Since bodybuilding is also an activity which emphasizes the latest advancements in training, supplementation and performance enhancement, some may think it unnecessary to familiarize

themselves with old and outdated methodologies. It´s also fair to note that many gym-going bodybuilders in the year 2000 are comparable in muscularity to some of the top competitors from the 1940´s.  All too often, this leads people into thinking that our iron ancestors have little to offer to today´s young lions. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Beyond the lessons to be learned, there´s a great and often engrossing history to the sport of bodybuilding. It´s uncertain how it all started, but   the fascination with strength and muscularity dates back to the beginnings of recorded history. Folklore and myths are filled with stories of strong powerful men from the ancient Greeks (Hercules) to the bible. (Samson) But bodybuilding, as we now know it, has its roots at the turn of the 20th century.


The early 1900´s brought a tremendous import of Europeans to American shores in the hope of a better life, or more realistically -- a job. These were a people who were accustomed to hard work whereas many of the more opulent Americans were growing soft from living the "easy" life. This made the influx of big, burly aliens the perfect candidates for manual labor.  


Work which involved heavy lifting was the only recourse for most of the undereducated immigrants and competition for employment became fierce. This was the impetus which inspired a few entrepreneurs to exploit their manly attributes and "sell" the notion of getting stronger. Ads soon began popping up extolling the virtues of physical fitness. Catchy headlines that by today´s standards appear corny and quaint such as  "Are You a Man Or Merely a Coat Hanger? (Charles McMahon) "I Make Men Strong" (Earle Liederman) and "Weakness is a Crime. Don´t be a Criminal!" (Bernarr McFadden), were featured in magazines and newspapers.

Originally, these pitches were geared to the first generation foreigners who would benefit from a greater physical presence. Looking stronger meant being more likely to be chosen for work. It was a matter of survival. What many of the early muscle hucksters didn´t expect was that the allure of greater strength crossed over to  the general populace. The "blue bloods" wanted to overcome their "weakling" status. They wanted  muscle too. And thus, the interest with bodybuilding had begun.


Perhaps the first muscleman who can be regarded as a "superstar" was Eugene Sandow. Sandow was an early proponent of weight training who was featured in the wildly popular  Ziegfield follies where he was billed as "The Strongest Man in the World." An overstatement to be sure, but the public ate it up!

Be that as it may, Sandow, besides his remarkable muscularity, exhibited some extraordinary feats of strength. At one point in the show, he lifted a platform containing 19 people--and a dog! His sense of showmanship, along with Ziegfield´s flair for hyperbole, made Sandow all the rage.  Suddenly, muscles were "in."   


Perhaps the most famous of all muscle promoters was  a man named Angelo Siciliano, better known as Charles Atlas. Atlas marketed a mail order course which was a combination of isometrics, calisthenics and general health advice. It didn´t sell. Then Atlas tried a novel approach. (With the help of promoter Charles Rodin and Dr. Frederick Tilney) He advertised in comic books and retitled the course "Dynamic Tension." It seemed as if he hit upon something. Before long, sales went through the roof! Atlas inadvertently discovered that even boys wanted to be more muscular. To many an insecure young man, Atlas´  promise of "getting a body women will desire and men will envy" struck a nerve. In many ways, Atlas´ course was selling hope. It worked.

To this day, the Charles Atlas course sells into the millions each year. What´s especially interesting is that Atlas can also be considered the first "self help" guru! His course was filled with self empowering advice and affirmations. It extolled a basic philosophy of positive thinking. As antiquated as it may appear -- everything in the original Dynamic Tension course still holds up as sound advice. What also still rings true is Atlas´ motto: "Nobody picks on a strong man."


The newfound interest in muscle which was sweeping the country prompted the physical culturist George Jowett to start what is considered the first bodybuilding magazine, STRENGTH. Among Jowett´s students was a young man who had high aspirations, both as a strongman and a businessman. His name was Bob Hoffman. 

In 1932, Hoffman founded the York Barbell Club which became the home base of many of muscledom´s early practitioners, including John Grimek.   He also started his own magazine; STRENGTH and HEALTH.

Hoffman was highly instrumental in bringing Olympic weightlifting to the fore of the public´s consciousness throughout the 1930´s. Bodybuilding, on the other hand, held little appeal to Hoffman. He felt that muscles were a pleasant side effect to weightlifting but the pursuit of muscle alone was  somewhat shallow. Another  ambitious young man intent on beating Hoffman at his own game had different ideas.  

Joe Weider saw the appeal of muscle and he concluded correctly that it was the appearance of muscularity and its consequential sex appeal that inspired most men to work out. In 1938, with his life savings of seven dollars, Weider published a crude pamphlet with  an emphasis on bodybuilding over weightlifting. He called it "Your Physique." That modest piece of literature launched an empire.

In ensuing years, Hoffman and Weider slugged it out in bitter rivalry--each vying for the bodybuilding community´s business with Weider always one step ahead. It´s doubtful  either of them knew that the business of muscle building was about to get an unimaginable  boost from the unlikeliest of places. It was around 1940 when a playground on a Santa Monica oceanfront was attracting hundreds, and eventually thousands of spectators each day. That small strip of land became known as Muscle Beach.


In many ways, Muscle Beach can be referred to as bodybuilding´s renaissance. The playground which had rings, a high bar and a platform was a natural attraction for young men looking to display their strength and athleticism.  Before long, bodybuilders were migrating to the area to work out, debate training concepts  and swap stories on the benefits of everything from goat´s milk and brewers yeast to the controversy surrounding "pressing while lying on a bench!" People from miles around would come to view all the beautiful bodies. But the inhabitants of Muscle Beach offered more than muscle.

Juggling, tumbling, gymnastics, and odd lifts of strength were daily fare which provided free entertainment for  the hoards of onlookers. The level of acrobatic athleticism was astounding! Human pyramids and acts of impossible flexibility kept audiences mesmerized.   

Besides the showmanship and the fun, the performers wanted to eradicate the stigma that muscles were just "for show" and weight training wouldn´t  cause one to become "muscle bound." They proved their point well. The Muscle Beach crowd advocated the weight training lifestyle as a testament to what the body is capable of accomplishing.


Along with the healthy bodies at Muscle Beach came healthy libidos. At a time when sexual mores were still very much puritanical,  promiscuous behavior at the beach was rampant! People were discovering the sensuality of muscle. 

The playful spirit hit a stumbling block when the liberal behavior started getting out of hand. The sexual acts were getting more and more blatant. The then discreet gay community was openly letting their presence be known.  Scantily clad women would brazenly parade in front of the podium where the bodybuilders were performing. The crowds were getting too large to contain. 

Things finally came to a head when a girl accused two of the beach bodybuilders of rape. Although all charges were dropped,  the area residents were becoming embarrassed by the scandalous behavior and started complaining.  The latest tawdry allegations were the perfect opportunity for the local authorities to step in and close down Muscle Beach.


One of the original Muscle Beach members was Jack LaLanne. Jack opened the first all purpose bodybuilding gym on the west coast. "People said I was crazy," recalls Jack. "But I proved them wrong."

LaLanne designed many of the exercise machines himself and personally worked with each gym member. The gyms proved so successful that a fellow bodybuilder by the name of Vic Tanny decided to go national and open a chain of gyms across the country. He had the right idea but it was twenty years too soon. Vic´s lofty dream of profiting from bodybuilding proved to be a little too radical. The franchise went bankrupt less than two years after it opened.  The novelty was wearing thin. People were enjoying the post war economic boom and getting back into the good life. The quest for bigger cars and homes replaced the desire for bigger muscles. It looked as if the fitness craze was finally over.


Just when it appeared as if bodybuilding was nothing more than a passing fad,  a new Muscle Beach had sprung up just 15 miles down the road from its original location. Its inhabitants were bigger, stronger and more muscular than anyone before could ever have imagined. There was a new electricity in the air, and people flocked from all over the world to the small town of Venice to see and be a part of this young generation of giants who in comparison, dwarfed the musclemen of just a few years prior. It was the end of an era.  And a new one was about to begin. 

By 1965, bodybuilding had gone "underground." The public had become bored with the ribald gaudiness of strong man acts and the pious blatherings of self-professed health enthusiasts. The political climate was changing. The Cold War was in full force and the fun loving scenarios of frolicking along the beach with glistening muscles seemed out of place with the stark political climate.  The college educated younger generation valued higher thinking and social activism.  Muscles were no longer in vogue. In fact, bodybuilders were looked upon as quirky odd balls who were little more than fodder for many a hackneyed comedian´s night club act. The concept of building one´s body was dismissed by a large faction of the population who erroneously equated muscles with a lack of intellect.

Nonetheless, there were those who realized the benefits of weight training and continued to do so.  In southern California, not far from the original Muscle Beach, a cult of young men were taking the idea of muscle building to a new level.  They incorporated a more analytical approach to training and nutrition. They upped the ante in terms of intensity and dedication to the pursuit of muscular development. To this new breed, muscles were no longer a means to an end, they were the end.  

There became an estrangement between the mainstream and the hardcore bodybuilder. This current herd of bodybuilders didn´t fit in. They were considered "freaks."  And that suited them just fine.

In the meantime, Joe Weider slanted his marketing to this modern day bodybuilder and all the young men who aspired to be like them.  He hired the best built and best looking bodybuilders to endorse his products and presented the bodybuilder´s life as romantic and exciting. According to Weider, muscles were the way to gain popularity and success! The approach wasn´t far from the very first promoters of bodybuilding. But its marketing was a lot more sophisticated.

America was beginning a space program, so keeping in the spirit of the times, Weider claimed to use "Space Age Technology" wherever and whenever he could.  The word science appeared abundantly through his magazines, MUSCLE BUILDER/POWER and MR. AMERICA. The Weider training system was deemed scientific. His supplements were scientifically formulated. He even added a special science wing to his operations. Men in lab coats were pictured  in advertisements for his product line.  An office door with a plaque that read "Research Clinic" was conspicuously featured in pictures of the Weider headquarters. Incidentally, that door led to a broom closet.


There were those who took the science of bodybuilding a little more seriously. Vince Gironda was gaining a reputation among a fringe society of progressive bodybuilders, as the real trainer of champions. Gironda, with nothing more than a high school education, can arguably be called the most intelligent and knowledgeable man in the history of bodybuilding. Self taught in anatomy and kinesiology, Gironda, through insight, experimentation, observation and creativity, developed methods in training and nutrition that were not only innovative, they set the standard for bodybuilding protocol for the subsequent 40 years. In many cases, the theories he extolled are just now being fully understood. Vince´s students included Larry Scott, Mohamed Mackawy, Don Howorth and many of the day´s top celebrities. 

What Vince was to training, Rheo Blair was to nutrition. Blair was an eccentric young chemist who was the first man to experiment with different amino acid combinations. His goal was to fit the exact ratio of proteins present in human mother´s milk, which he believed to be the perfect food. Rheo Blair´s theories were regarded as quackery by many of the established medical factions, but in truth,  Blair was way ahead of his time. Up until that time, protein supplements were made solely from cheap soy flour. Rheo used a blend of egg, whey, and milk solids. In short, Rheo Blair invented the modern protein supplement. 


Bodybuilding popularity gained its second wind when a small independent foreign film was bought by Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine for release in the United States.  Levine saw star quality in the man who played the title character. That man was Steve Reeves and the movie was "Hercules."

Reeves was the personification of the ideal male. Not only was he incredibly handsome, he possessed a physique which, to this day, is considered by many to be as perfect as a male body can be. "Hercules" was a huge success and it spawned dozens of imitations. Before long, the "sword and sandal" epics which featured notable physique stars such as Reg Park, Lou Degni and Gordon Scott had run their course.

Despite the short lived popularity of muscle movies, anyone who was  obsessed with bodybuilding was still seen as an outsider. In 1973, the business of bodybuilding was losing ground. In an effort to circumvent the limitations of marketing to advanced bodybuilders, a former TV strongman by the name of Dan Lurie began selling 110 lb weight sets to department stores and supermarkets. This attracted a mostly fleeting audience of teenagers who would take up weightlifting as a curiosity and dismissed it shortly thereafter.   Nevertheless, the scheme proved quite successful and Lurie was outselling his competition. Both Hoffman and Weider´s  sales were down.

There couldn´t have been a worse time for another bodybuilding magazine to hit the market. Still, an ex-employee of Bob Hoffman took his ideals, his energy and his genuine love of bodybuilding and decided to put it all on the line by releasing his own publication. That man was Bob Kennedy and the publication was MuscleMag International.

MuscleMag started as a modest monthly publication which continued to improve and thrive throughout the years.  Today, it´s not only the most comprehensive magazine on the market, but it´s also the longest running bodybuilding magazine to date. (Weider´s magazine titles have changed throughout the years. Muscle Builder/Power was the forerunner to Muscle and Fitness.)  Besides Weider, Bob Kennedy is the most successful muscle magazine publisher of all time. He´s also "one of the gang." He loves bodybuilding and still maintains his enthusiasm for new and interesting theories which will more effectively help people reach their bodybuilding goals. In fact, he is the inventor of the "Pre-Exhaust" principle of training which is a staple of many a successful bodybuilder´s routine. What is also unique about Bob is that he is one of the most trusted and well liked personalities in the business.  Bob Kennedy not only set a new standard in bodybuilding journalism, he proved that nice guys can finish first.


In 1977, a documentary on bodybuilding hit the theaters. With virtually no  backing for promotion, the film "Pumping Iron" went on to be a smashing success. It quickly became the highest grossing documentary to date due mostly to the charismatic performance of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  

It´s fair to say that there´s bodybuilding before Arnold and there´s bodybuilding after Arnold. Pumping Iron launched a worldwide resurgence in the appeal of weight training and "Arnold Mania" had begun. Gyms memberships skyrocketed. At a time when movie producers declared "muscle movies" to be dead, Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly redefined movies, muscles and the public´s perception of the bodybuilder. A muscular body was now looked upon as a work of art. The garish novelty which a  muscular man once represented was replaced by intellect and aesthetics. Muscle no longer connoted vanity and narcissism. It symbolized discipline, focus, and self improvement. In other words, it perfectly matched the ideals of the time.

Arnold´s fame crossed all boundaries. To the bodybuilding community, he exemplified the unobtainable goal. His massive size, along with  outstanding symmetry, set a new standard. He also obliterated the misnomer of the bodybuilder as "all brawn and no brain." Arnold was sharp, witty and magnetic. He  proved the American dream could indeed be a reality.  Bodybuilding had found a new spokesman -- one who will, in all probability,  never be equaled.


Concurrent with the renewed interest in bodybuilding came a heightened awareness of drug use. John Zeigler, a doctor who worked closely with the United States Olympic team, had discovered a way of manipulating the testosterone molecule, making it more anabolic and less androgenic and put it into a tablet form. He saw it as a tremendous tool in the advancement of physical improvement. He called it Dianabol.

Unfortunately, Dianabol worked too well. The use, overuse and excessive abuse of steroids was changing the tides of bodybuilding once again. The association with drug use was  distancing the bodybuilder from the fitness enthusiast and bodybuilding was in danger of losing all the advancements it had made up until that point. The industry tried to "soften" its image. In the 1980´s, aerobics, yoga, and low fat recipes replaced much of grittier bodybuilding information. Everybody was an authority. Movie stars made exercise videos. Models wrote diet books. This trend proved to be both good and bad. Good, in the sense that it introduced many more people to the benefits of exercise. Bad, in the sense that much of the information wasn´t accurate. Through it all, it turned out that the bodybuilding lifestyle proved itself to be the most effective method for changing the shape of one´s body.     


In the ensuing years, weight training continued to gain popularity throughout the world. The once cult hobby is now recognized by leading medical authorities as the most effective method of controlling weight, staying healthy and living longer. To millions of people, it´s a way of life.

Bodybuilding has gone through many changes. There have been  innumerable men and women who´ve shaped it along the way. It has also been a product of the changing tides, often dictated by ephemeral fashions -- for better and for worse.

From the 1980´s to the 1990´s and into the new century, fads have come and gone. New theories, new apparatus and new magazines  have made a splash -- then were gone as quickly as they appeared. But one thing has remained -- bodybuilding itself. The pursuit of a stronger, more  muscular body  remains because it´s an integral part of human nature. Just as muscle  was admired by cultures long gone, it continues to captivate another generation and will continue to do so as long as people yearn  to transform themselves into something greater.  

It doesn´t matter where you are in your bodybuilding journey, for as long as you have the desire  to turn your body into the best it can be, you too are a part of bodybuilding´s great history -- a  link in the long chain of devotees that started at the turn of one century and has led to the beginning of another.

Bodybuilding´s past may not be common knowledge to a lot of people -- even bodybuilders. Nevertheless, its roots are deep and its had an impact on all of us...whether it´s realized or not. Many great individuals have made it possible for today´s trainees to build their bodies into something that was considered inconceivable just a few short decades ago. We´ve reaped the rewards of their pioneering efforts. We owe a great debt to the men and women who refused to accept the negative connotations about bodybuilding which were flung their way and continued with what they believed in.  It took a long time, but we made it.

Today, if you´re a bodybuilder, you don´t have  to explain yourself. Thanks to the understanding most people have about the benefits of weight training, your intentions are well understood -- and admired.  Bodybuilding truly has a great heritage.  Be proud of it. 

(The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TrulyHuge.com)

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