body building

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body building Spectacular displays of human strength in modern times were a tradition of the Victorian fun-fair. Systematic methods for building muscular strength were subsequently promoted by highly successful, late nineteenth-century American entrepreneurs such as Eugene Sandow, Bernard Macfadden, and Charles Atlas. Sandow proselytized his muscle-building system as a health philosophy based on the belief that the human body could be made resistant to all disease by keeping all ‘cells in perfectly balanced strength … This I contend we can only do by the balanced physical movement of the voluntary muscles.’ Macfadden incorporated muscle building into a theory of lifestyle, including sexual, reform. Charles Atlas popularized his fast-track body-building method by humiliating his clients, daring each to turn himself from a ‘seven-stone weakling getting sand kicked in his face’ into a lion who made all the other animals in the jungle ‘sit up and take notice as soon as he lets out a roar’.

Body building as a professional sport flourished after World War II with a newly formed World Body-building Association creating an international competition for the title of Mr Universe, which was judged on muscular bulk and definition. The early systems of Sandow, Macfadden, and Atlas were incorporated into methods for turning muscles into iron — above all by the post-war entrepreneurial giant of the body-building cult, Jo Weider. Weider and his brother funded a separate competition which became the most sought-after world-championship body-building title in the 1980s, ‘MrOlympia’, and extended this to provide a female equivalent, ‘Ms Olympia’. The Olympia competitions, however, were the tip of a commercial empire including the international supply of gymnasiums and equipment, sports clothes, dietary supplements, and magazine and book publications. Weider, like his predecessors claimed to offer a new lifestyle philosophy along with his methods for increasing muscular size and strength. As a result professional body building has spawned a new exercise and fitness cult for the sedentary classes based on the weight-training methods and dietary controls employed by competitive body-building athletes. Weider has given this ‘fitness culture’ recognition by founding a new competition for the title of ‘Ms Fitness’, whose chief characteristic is supposed to be the holder's sexual attractiveness defined in terms of weight ratio and body shape.

Another qualification for the Ms Fitness title is that competitors must achieve a developed and defined muscular physique without the assistance of anabolic steroids. This criterion differentiates the identity of the ‘fit body’ because the extravagant bulk of contemporary professional body builders, and all who imitate them, cannot be achieved without the illegal use of sex hormones and/or human growth hormone. From the time that Soviet weightlifters, such as Vasily Stepanov, began using anabolic steroids to build strength in the early 1950s, testosterone has been a crucial weapon in the cold war in hard flesh. The local gym has become an experimental laboratory investigating the limits to human growth. Professional and amateur body builders have become enthusiastic self-experimenters who exchange a vast quantity of highly specialized knowledge about human health and physique and how to enhance or, indeed, destroy it. The physiological consequences of taking testosterone and human growth hormone are not yet fully known. Apart from distorting normal human muscle proportions, the short-term effects have a number of pathological results ranging from acne to liver damage and the recently identified psychopathology of ‘roid-rage’.

The aim of the contemporary body-building cult is not, however, to produce the perfectly healthy human form or even a human form at all. The current criteria for achieving the highly prized Mr Olympia title is body bulk which is also ‘cut’. The goals of body building had changed by the end of the twentieth century, taking on a new post-modernist, ‘post-human’ tonality. As illustrated by one of the currently most popular body-building magazines. Ironman, the desire of the contemporary competitive body builder is to look ‘alien’ — or, in the lingo of the locker-room, to look ‘freaky’. As T. C. Louoma, writing in the first edition of the British publication of Ironman in 1992, highlights, the competition between body builders is to look ‘out of this world’. It is perhaps ironic that the contemporary body-building cult, which can trace its heritage back to the role of the ‘freak’ strongman in the nineteenth-century fun-fair, chooses to revive this particular Victorian value.

Dorothy Porter


Berryman, J. W. and Park, R. J. (ed.) (1992). Sport and exercise science. Essays in the history of sports medicine. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
Chapman, D. L. (1994). Sandow the magnificent. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

See also Atlas, Charles; sport; skeletal muscle; strength training.