Men's Bodybuilding: A Short History

Bodybuilding: The use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one's musculature.  Progressive resistance exercise is made possible by using barbells and dumbbells, or machine stations, at progressively heavier weights.  When done effectively, in conjunction with appropriate nutrition, bodybuilding can enhance a man's appearance and sense of his own masculinity.  Most bodybuilders train for personal pleasure, self-esteem, and health.  A limited number train for weightlifting, powerlifting, or competitive bodybuilding competitions.  Almost all bodybuilders who compete do so as amateurs, but a few are sanctioned as professionals, earning money with contest wins.  The dream of going "pro" keeps many men in the gym, despite the small number who achieve pro status. 



Eugen Sandow   Oscard Attila

            The history of bodybuilding as a performance of masculinity is the history of "name" bodybuilders, and of the promoters who helped them achieve fame.  Bodybuilding's origins in Europe in the late nineteenth century coincided with the advent of photography, which distributed striking images of muscular men to a worldwide audience.  The first famous bodybuilder, Eugen Sandow (born Friedrich Müller in 1867), got his start under the employ of Oscard Attila (born Louis Durlacher in 1844), who had converted his music-hall act into a career as a professional strongman.  Taking Sandow under his wing, Attila taught his protégé how to transform his gymnast's build into a bodybuilder's physique.  (Sandow had what is now termed "good genetics''--a physiology ideal for building muscles.)  Attending Attila's training school in Brussels, Sandow used a shot-loading barbell (one with globes at each end that could be filled with shot or sand at various weights), the forerunner of the plate-loading barbell.  Sandow later invented and popularized other equipment, such as spring-grip dumbbells.  See

            With Sandow, bodybuilding was born.  In 1898, when he started publishing the magazine Physical Culture (later Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture), he was one of the most famous men alive.  He appeared on countless postcards and cabinet cards, often wearing only an imitation fig leaf.  World tours with showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who billed him as "the World's Most Perfectly Developed Man," cemented Sandow's fame.  At first giving demonstrations of strength, or posing as a "living" Greek statue, he later only had to show up and let a sell-out audience witness his physique.  A cottage industry of magazines, contests, exercise devices, and diets helped Sandow commodify his personal brand of masculinity.  By his death in 1925, Sandow had pioneered much of what has made bodybuilding a profitable enterprise. 

Bernarr Macfadden

            Two major names in bodybuilding promotion in the early twentieth-century were Bernarr Macfadden and Charles Atlas.  Macfadden, an American who moved to England to promote his chest expander (a metal or rubber spring strand with side grips), founded the magazine Physical Development in 1898 to market his exercise philosophy.  His greatest contribution was the physique contest he sponsored in 1903 at New York's Madison Square Garden, the first of its kind.  The posing styles in today's bodybuilding competitions developed at Macfadden's annual events.  The $1000 prize winner in Macfadden's 1921 contest for "The Most Perfectly Developed Man in America" was Angelo Siciliano, an Italian immigrant who achieved fame as "Charles Atlas." Mythologizing an experience he'd had as a teenager on a Coney Island beach--when a bully had kicked sand in his face--Atlas sold "Dynamic Tension" mail-order courses to generations of boys who wished to face down their own bullies.  The larger-than-life Charles Atlas handling the beach bully has never lost its appeal as a masculine icon.

Early Charles Atlas ad

            The location typifying bodybuilding in the 1930s and '40s was another American beach: Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California.  During the summer, bodybuilders flocked to the spot to perform hand-balancing stunts before admiring crowds.  Among the leading figures at Muscle Beach were Jack La Lanne, later a TV fitness expert; Joe Gold, founder of Gold's Gym; Harold Zinkin, inventor of the Universal Gym, the most widely used exercise machine; and John Grimek, AAU Mr. America in 1940 and 1941.  When Muscle Beach closed in the 1950s, America's west coast remained the destination of bodybuilding aspirants--now centered at Venice Beach, California, site of the first Gold's Gym, still the facility of choice for many current pros.

John Grimek

            Mr. America competitions sponsored by the AAU (American Athletic Union) existed since 1939, but the dominant modern bodybuilding organization is the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilders), begun in 1946 by Ben Weider, a Canadian promoter.  His brother Joe, who was a bodybuilder himself, directed an empire of magazines promoting the "Weider philosophy" of training and fitness.  In 1965, Joe Weider professionalized competitive bodybuilding by founding the Mr. Olympia contest, which drew top bodybuilders away from rival organizations and contests--including Mr. Universe, sponsored by the National Amateur Body Builders' Association (NABBA).  One such bodybuilder was an Austrian immigrant to America named Arnold Schwarzenegger (born in 1947).  By the time Schwarzenegger won his seventh Mr. Olympia title in 1980, the IFBB dominated most competitive bodybuilding, and the National Physique Committee (NPC) had severed its ties with the AAU, becoming an independent amateur organization, the only one qualifying contest winners for an IFBB pro card.  The influence of other sponsoring organizations was broken, and now only a few other organizations remain.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

            Since Schwarzenegger left the bodybuilding world for Hollywood stardom, no single competitor has exerted the charisma and influence he did.  Bodybuilding now faces a crisis of legitimacy, even as its popularity as a form of training has flowered.  While competitive bodybuilders consider what they do a sport, the mainstream sports world rejects it as such.  Only specialized bodybuilding magazines and Internet websites note winners of competitions.  Outside of a devoted subculture, competitive bodybuilding often remains misunderstood, and bodybuilders themselves demeaned as stupid or emotionally stunted.  Even a sophisticated recent ethnographic study by Alan M. Klein claimed men are drawn to bodybuilding by feelings of insecurity.  Bodybuilding has never shaken its association with strongman sideshows; indeed, being called a "freak" can be a compliment to some bodybuilders.  The willingness of bodybuilders to possibly risk their long-term health for muscular size and strength through the use of anabolic steroids--illegal in many nations without a prescription, and criminalized in America--has further eroded its legitimacy.  Exploitation of bodybuilders is common, since little money can be made in competition, and paraprofessional work like personal training in gyms is undependable as a source of income. 

            Still, new generations of boys and men are drawn to bodybuilding for the same reasons Sandow, Atlas and Schwarzenegger were.  While limited, the fandom of bodybuilding is loyal.  Images of bodybuilding have transformed pop culture.  Most important, bodybuilding has changed the lives of many men by offering them a sense of masculine empowerment their career paths and personal relationships do not.  Bodybuilding has helped them establish a firmer sense of self, and given them a means by which to pursue their personal best. 

Mike Emery

January 2003

Further Reading

Budd, Michael Anton.  1997.  The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire.  New York: New York University Press.         

Chapman, David L.  1994.  Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Dutton, Kenneth R.  1995.  The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development.  New York: Continuum. 

Fair, John D.  1999.  Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell.  University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Fussell, Samuel Wilson.  1991.  Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder.  New York: Poseidon Press. 

Gaines, Charles, and George Butler.  1974.  Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding.  New York: Simon and Schuster.                               

Klein, Alan M.  1993.  Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Monaghan, Lee F.  2001.  Bodybuilding, Drugs and Risk.  New York: Routledge.

Schwarzenegger, Arnold, with Bill Dobbins.  1998.  The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Zinkin, Harold, with Bonnie Hearn.  1999.  Remembering Muscle Beach: Where Hard Bodies Began.  Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press.