The term "bodybuilding" has taken on several meanings in popular discourse. The most common usage refers to the organized sport in which men and women compete by posing to display the physiques they have created through weight training, careful dieting, and, in some cases, ergogenic drugs such as anabolic steroids. The term is also used generically to describe the lifestyle followed by many men and women who simply train for greater muscle mass and leanness even though they never compete. These non-competitors train for the "look"—a physical ideal featuring large rounded muscles and minimal body fat. Although the "look" requires enormous dedication and personal sacrifice—and, frequently, drugs—to achieve, it has become pervasive in Western culture. Films, television, comic books, and magazine advertising had all fallen under its sway by the end of the twentieth century.
Although surviving sculpture from Ancient Greece and Rome suggests that both cultures were deeply interested in physical training and body symmetry, there is no evidence to suggest that physique contests were held during these eras. However, the heroic proportions of these early Hellenic and Roman statues are important, for they served as the impetus for the birth of the bodybuilding movement of the nineteenth century. With the importation of the Elgin Marbles to Britain in 1806, a widespread interest in Greek Revivalism spread across Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. This interest in resurrecting the art, architecture, literature and educational systems of Ancient Greece fostered the development of a number of systems of physical training during the nineteenth century and helped create the new science of physical anthropometry—the study of human measurements. Full-sized plaster cast replicas were installed in many colleges, smaller likenesses of ancient statues were manufactured as household ornaments, and advances in printing technology disseminated illustrations and engravings, giving men models of physical perfection against which they could compare themselves. And, as one might expect, sedentary city dwellers discovered that they did not measure up to the ideals presented by the ancient classical civilizations.
Greek Revivalism hit its apex on the shores of Lake Michigan, just outside Chicago, at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition. The managers of the World's Fair designed an entire city in the mode of Ancient Greece, and throughout this plaster-of-Paris city they placed large copies of ancient statuary. Reports from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair nearly all remark on the symbolic importance of these statues, which forced fairgoers to take stock of their own physical condition. Many of the reports also commented on the "living embodiment" of Ancient Greece, strongman Eugen Sandow, who performed in Chicago on a daily basis, and is rightfully recognized as the first major "bodybuilder." Author David Chapman argues that Sandow is the transitional figure from the large and often graceless strongmen, who were ubiquitous in the circuses of the mid-to late-nineteenth century, to the physique stars of the twentieth century. Florenz Ziegfeld (who would later produce the Ziegfeld Follies) became Sandow's manager in 1893 and convinced him to alter his act to capitalize on his unique muscularity and physical beauty. Thus, in addition to weightlifting, Sandow added a series of poses at the end of his act. To replicate the classical ideal, he covered himself with white powder and stood against a black velvet backdrop, simulating the poses of classical statuary.
Sandow's appearances at the Chicago World's Fair and his subsequent tours of the United States made him an international celebrity and set off a mania for physical training in the United States and abroad. Back in England in the late 1890s, he began Sandow's Magazine, published books, opened a physical training institute, and became the darling of the English upper classes. In 1898, a group of British aristocrats inspired by Sandow's example joined forces with a local physician, Professor John Atkinson, and held a "Best Developed Man Contest" in conjunction with a weightlifting championships. The winner of that first bodybuilding prize was 1896 Olympic Games heavyweight champion Launceston Elliott (1874-1930), who soon went on the stage and imitated Sandow, both in his grooming and by including poses in his strength act.
The first successful bodybuilding promoter was Sandow himself. In 1898, the year he began his magazine, Sandow announced an ambitious plan to sponsor physique contests in every county in England and then bring the winners together in a magnificent final competition in London. That contest, with 15,000 people in the audience, was held on 14 September 1901 at the Albert Hall, and was won by the 189-pound W.L. Murray of Nottingham, perhaps the least known champion in the history of bodybuilding. Following his victory, Murray, too, became a professional showman, billing himself as "The Most Perfectly Developed Athlete of Modern Times."
The first physique contests in the United states were organized by the eccentric and controversial magazine publisher and health fanatic, Bernarr Macfadden, who was inspired by Sandow's act at the Chicago World's Fair. A gifted promoter, Macfadden began publishing Physical Culture magazine in 1898 and by 1900 had reportedly attracted 100,000 subscribers. Quick to understand the value of photography and personal success stories to the magazine's growth, Macfadden announced a world-wide contest for the "Best and Most Perfectly Developed Man and Woman." Contestants submitted photos and measurements that Macfadden then used in his magazine. The most suitable candidates then competed in 13 regional competitions in the United States and England for the privilege of entering the finals. Macfadden's first "Physical Culture Extravaganza" began on December 28, 1903 in Madison Square Garden. With representatives from England competing in both the men's and women's divisions, it was the first international bodybuilding contest and was won by Albert Toof Jennings (1873-1960) and Emma Newkirk. Jennings, a professional strongman known professionally as Al Treloar, was hired as the physical director of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1907, a position he held for the next 42 years. Emma Newkirk, from Santa Monica, California, appears to have had no subsequent involvement with women's bodybuilding.
Macfadden held a second competition for men and women in October of 1905, and over the next several decades he sponsored a variety of other physique contests. Some were simply postal meets in which physiques were judged on the strength of photographs and measurements. Others, however, were real competitions, such as the 1921 "America's Most Perfectly Developed Man Contest" won by artist's model Angelo Siciliano (1892-1972), who would go on to revolutionize the mail order training business under the world renowned name of Charles Atlas. The problem with Macfadden's contests, however, was that the judging criteria varied considerably from event to event. The early shows were largely judged by artists and physicians or by prominent people from other walks of life. There were no written rules, no set poses, and no clearly stated aesthetics. Also, with no regular schedule of bodybuilding competitions, the men who entered the early shows rarely worked solely on their physiques. Most were weightlifters, artists' models, or professional strongmen who entered physique contests as a sideline. But that would soon change.
In the 1930s, the British magazine Health and Strength began sponsoring a bodybuilding contest as part of its annual physical culture extravaganza. Interest in physique competitions also blossomed in France, where a national championship was held for the first time in 1934. Across the Atlantic, 28-year-old Johnny Hordines sponsored the "Finest Physique Contest" on December 1, 1938 in Schenectady, New York. No overall winner was named in the contest although prizes were given for best body parts and in three height divisions. The following year, on June 10, 1939, Hordines organized a much larger and more elaborate show in which the 30 bodybuilders posed to music on a revolving dais. Although this contest, won by Bert Goodrich, is frequently referred to as the first "Mr. America" contest, Hordines did not advertise it as such. He called it "America's Finest Physique Contest."
The first contest to be held on a regular basis in the United States was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Mr. America contest. The first meet took place on July 4, 1939 in conjunction with the AAU National Weightlifting Championships. As would be the case for many years in the AAU, the physique show was held after the weightlifting, almost as an afterthought. At the 1939 show, no contestant could enter the physique contest who had not competed in the weightlifting event. Ronald Essmaker won the tall class in that first AAU contest, and is thus regarded as the first Mr. America. On May 25, 1940 a Mr. America contest was again held following the National Weightlifting Championships. John Grimek won the overall title for that year and the next, thus becoming the only champion to win two Mr. America titles. In fact, Grimek's physique was so far ahead of his competitors in the early 1940s that the AAU passed a rule forbidding winners from competing in subsequent Mr. America contests.
The establishment of the Mr. America contest validated bodybuilding as a sport. However, for a number of years, nearly all American bodybuilding competitions continued to be held after weightlifting events. The bodybuilding shows often ended well beyond midnight, and thus attracted small audiences and little publicity. Furthermore, in order to fight the notion that large muscles made a person muscle-bound and unathletic, the AAU established an athleticism requirement for all competitors. Men who wanted to be in the physique shows had either to compete in the weightlifting event or prove that they were athletes involved in such things as team sports or track and field. The guiding force behind these regulations was Robert (Bob) Hoffman (1898-1984), owner of the York Barbell Company. Hoffman was a staunch supporter of the Olympic sport of weightlifting, and a strong presence in the AAU. He didn't dislike bodybuilders, and was Grimek's employer, but he worried that the new sport would take young men away from weightlifting. In his magazine, Strength & Health, which by the mid-1940s was the most widely circulated muscle magazine in the world, Hoffman gave less space to physique men than he did to weightlifters. These attitudes, coupled with the AAU's continued presentation of bodybuilding as a second class sport, opened the door for the young Weider brothers of Montreal, Canada, and allowed them to take control of the sport.
Joe Weider (1923—) was only 17 years old when he published his first issue of Your Physique magazine in 1940. From that inauspicious, mimeographed beginning, Your Physique's circulation grew almost geometrically. By 1943, his readership had spread across Canada, and he began selling exercise equipment as well. In 1946, with his younger brother Ben (1925—) home from the war, Joe organized the first Mr. Canada contest, but after experiencing problems, the ambitious entrepreneurs decided to form their own bodybuilding federation. Ben Weider explained their decision in a 1998 magazine article: "At that time the AAU controlled bodybuilding, not only in America but in Canada as well, through the Weight Lifting Federation. Although we had asked for and received a permit from the AAU to organize the [1946 Mr. Canada] contest, on the night of the contest, their Canadian representatives … arrived and threatened the bodybuilders that they would be expelled from the AAU if they participated. The reaction of Bob Hoffman and the International Weightlifting Federation was aggressive and mean. They did everything to try to destroy and humiliate us. That's when Joe and I decided to organize our own federation and not be under the control of the AAU."
Over the next several years, Joe and Ben Weider sponsored dozens of contests and traveled throughout the world to enlist member nations for their new International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). During the 1950s and 1960s the IFBB grew steadily in membership and in stature. At the same time, the Weiders' magazine, equipment, and food supplement businesses turned into an empire. By the early 1970s, when the International Weightlifting Federation finally decided to give up what little control they had of bodybuilding, the IFBB was able to assume total control of international bodybuilding. Ben Weider also stepped up his campaign for the acceptance of bodybuilding as an Olympic sport. Although it took another quarter century to see it finally happen, Ben Weider's tireless crusade finally resulted in the International Olympic Committee admitting the IFBB as a "recognized Olympic sport" on January 30, 1998. By that time, the IFBB was one of the most international bodies in sport, with well over 100 member nations.
It was clear, however, that before the IFBB would be able to send athletes to the Olympics, it would have to deal more effectively with the drug use that pervaded the sport. The International Olympic Committee has had many drug scandals in other sports, and it would be unlikely fully to embrace a sport that has been dominated by drug use since the 1960s. Because ergogenic drugs such as anabolic steroids and Human Growth Hormone build muscle and reduce body fat, they provide virtually unbeatable advantages to those who use them. The IFBB has attempted, with varying degrees of rigor and with very limited success, to curtail their use by the top competitors, but because the drugs are easy to obtain and, in most cases, relatively inexpensive, and because most drug testing programs have been either half-hearted or short-lived, bodybuilders are drawn to their use. The irony of unhealthy men and women winning competitions that have traditionally symbolized health must be resolved before bodybuilding can become a full-fledged Olympic sport.
Although there were women's beauty contests at Muscle Beach in the 1940s and 1950s, and although some men's contests during the 1950s and 1960s also contained a bikini or beauty contest for women, the first competition at which women were judged on muscularity and symmetry was a 1978 meet promoted by Henry McGhee, a Canton, Ohio, YMCA director. One of the competitors in that contest was a 46-year-old Florida grandmother, Doris Barrilleaux, who decided to form a bodybuilding association for women. The Superior Physique Association sponsored several contests in the southeastern United States but, ultimately, could not compete with the National Physique Committee—the American arm of the IFBB. The first NPC show, The World Pro Championships, was held in 1979. Lisa Lyon, who won that first contest, was heavily promoted by Joe Weider in Muscle and Fitness magazine and, seemingly overnight, women's bodybuilding took off. Within two years, the NPC had state, regional, and national meets in place, and in 1980 the IFBB sanctioned the first Ms. Olympia contest, which was won by Rachel McLish of Harlingen, Texas.
Throughout the early and mid-1980s, women's bodybuilding seemed to be on a steady growth curve. However, as women bodybuilders trained harder, and as drug use became more commonplace, concerns began to be raised about the aesthetic direction of the sport. Charles Gaines and George Butler gave voice to some of these concerns in both the film and book Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman. Both were released in 1983 and both juxtaposed the elegant McLish with the larger and more heavily muscled Australian power-lifter, Beverly Francis, who was then making a move into bodybuilding. Since 1983, as the level of muscularity in women's bodybuilding gradually increased, women's bodybuilding seems to have taken a path that fewer and fewer women have cared to follow. As bodybuilding has continued to reward size and muscularity, women bodybuilders have gotten bigger and still bigger; by the mid-1990s they had lost much of the mainstream appeal they enjoyed in the 1980s.
While bodybuilding continued to struggle with its aesthetic direction, another type of contest emerged in reaction to the hyper-muscular bodybuilders. Generically referred to as "Ms. Fitness" competitions, the new contests combine elements of bodybuilding, aerobic dance, and gymnastics. By the end of the 1990s, these contests had far surpassed women's bodybuilding in popularity both on television and in the muscle magazines. Apparently, this occurred because of the more traditionally feminine physiques of the competitors. A 1998 study of the covers of Flex, Muscle and Fitness, Iron Man and Muscle Mag International —the four leading muscle magazines—found that these publications were far more likely to feature fitness competitors than they were women bodybuilders, both inside the magazine and on the cover. In fact, by that time women bodybuilders were almost never featured on the covers of such magazines.
Since its inception in the nineteenth century, bodybuilding has been linked to the entertainment industry. Although most people are aware that there were circus and vaudeville strongmen, some body-builder/strongmen also played an important role in the early cinema. For example, Thomas Edison asked Eugen Sandow to pose for his new Kinetoscope in 1894. The brief film clip shows Sandow posing, lifting a barbell, and performing a back flip. It played in Kinetoscopic "parlors" where patrons paid only a penny or so to peep through a small hole in a large box-like machine. Sandow also appeared in four brief films for the Biograph company, which he showed as the finale of his act in the mid-1890s.
Over the past century, a number of bodybuilders and strongmen have worked in the film industry largely because their physiques. Josef Grafl, the world heavyweight lifting champion from 1908-1911 played Ursus, the bodyguard of the heroine in the 1913 version of Quo Vadis ; and Bartolomeo Pagano, under the stage name of Maciste, appeared in a number of films between 1914 and the early 1920s in which his strength and muscularity advanced the script. Joe Bonomo, the training partner of Charles Atlas and a winner of an early physique contest in his own right, worked throughout the 1920s as a Hollywood stunt man and character actor, while Elmo Lincoln found fame as the first screen Tarzan in that same decade.
In the 1950s, a number of largely Italian-made costume epics employed bodybuilders as gladiators and mythic heroes. Mickey Hargitay, who had been part of Mae West's bodybuilder revue, married actress Jayne Mansfield and played in a couple of these, such as Revenge of the Gladiators (1968). South African bodybuilding star Reg Park made five Hercules pictures between 1961 and 1965, while former Tarzan Gordon Scott starred in Goliath and the Vampires (1961). Until the advent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the brightest star in this genre was Steve Reeves, whose series of film roles in the 1950s and 1960s made him the number one box-office draw in the world for a brief time.
Many other film stars also have connections to the world of bodybuilding. Oscar winner Sean Connery was a serious bodybuilder in his early adulthood and entered the Mr. Universe contest in 1953. David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in Star Wars, looked so large and menacing because he was in reality a 6'7," 280-pound former Mr. Universe competitor. And, finally, Schwarzenegger's participation in such early films as Pumping Iron (1977) and Stay Hungry (1976) helped to popularize the bodybuilding aesthetic and lifestyle to the general public. What's more, many leading actors in the last decades of the twentieth century undertook serious bodybuilding training in order to portray "action characters" to audiences grown used to seeing bodybuilders in magazines and heroically built comic-book characters. Stars such as Clint Walker, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, Robert DeNiro, Christopher Reeves, Nicholas Cage, Carl Weathers, Brendan Frasier, and Ving Rhames realized how much more believable they are when their muscular bodies match their masculine roles. And women such as Linda Hamilton, Jane Fonda, and Sigourney Weaver have also trained and dieted to prepare for roles in which the condition of their bodies was critical.
Other media, too, have been influenced by bodybuilding. Comic books, for instance, have considerably altered the proportions of their superheroes as the years have passed. When Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman first appeared in the 1930s, they were shown to have athletic but relatively non-muscular physiques. However, as the bodies of the top physique men have become increasingly exaggerated, so have the drawings of the superheroes in comic books, on television cartoons, and in films. Some scholars believe that the depiction of these ultra-hypertrophied superheroes has been a factor in the growing public acceptance of bodybuilding. Television, of course, has also played a major role. Beginning in 1951 with Jack LaLanne's show, bodybuilders have preached the gospel of fitness over the airwaves. In the 1990s, the proliferation of cable television resulted in much more on-air coverage of bodybuilding competitions and many more instructional shows. By far the biggest bodybuilding star on television, however, was Lou Ferrigno, who was very convincing as the Incredible Hulk from 1977 to 1982.
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Fair, John. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. State College, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Gaines, Charles, and George Butler. Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1977.
——. Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Roark, Joe. "The Mr. America Contest: A Brief History." Iron Game History. Vol. 2, November 1992, 19-20.
Todd, Jan. "Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of Feminine Form." Iron Game History. Vol. 1, March 1991, 3-8.
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