Body Building Resources

The History of Bodybuilding
By Jean Lam

Bodybuilding is the art of building a hyper-muscular physique-and displaying those muscles. The competitive side of bodybuilding is an art in itself, and it involves knowledge of posing, proper tanning, and also makeup, hair and wardrobe-particularly for female bodybuilders. Today, the sport is over a hundred years old.

Most people point to the late 19th century as the start of modern body building as we know it today. Its first promoter was a man named Eugen Sandow, a Prussian-American strongman. Sandow first started working under Oscard Attila, a professional strongman whose act included heavy lifting and other feats of strength. There were many strongman shows in America at this point, and the performers did display their physique-but the performer's body was often secondary to the rest of the act. Sandow was the first to make his muscles the main attraction.

Sandow's shows took place at carnivals and town halls, where he would flex and pose to show his physique to maximum effect. He had the good fortune to start his career in the late eighteen-hundreds, contemporary to the invention of the camera. Striking images of Sandow in various bodybuilding poses were printed on "cabinet cards" and pamphlets, sold and distributed all over the country. Through photography, Sandow became famous-and so did the sport of bodybuilding.

Sandow believed in the "Grecian Ideal"-a mathematical standard for a man's physique resembling the proportions of Grecian statues. When he set up the first bodybuilding contest, called the Great Competition, in 1901, the Grecian Ideal was the standard upon which the competitors were judged. The show was extremely successful, without an empty seat in the house, and was judged by Sandow, sculptor Sir Charles Lawes, and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The winner, William Murray, was presented with a bronze statue of Sandow-the same bronze statue presented to the winners of the Mr. Olympia competition today.

Bodybuilding was fueled by the invention of the camera. Still pictures of Sandow made the sport and its founder famous, and movies made it even more well-known. In 1904, Thomas Edison himself filmed Al Treolar, the winner of the first large-scale bodybuilding competition held in Madison Square Garden, going through his posing routine. Edison had filmed Sandow posing twice a few years before-and so the first films featuring body builders were made. Body building and movies would continue to be linked, with many subsequent famous bodybuilders making the leap from competition to films-most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Another important early body builder, Charles Atlas, was born in 1892-around the time Sandow's bodybuilding show was becoming popular. Atlas won the title of "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" in 1921, and later became the strong man at Coney Island's Circus Side Show. But what made his name famous was his "Dynamic-Tension" exercise program, which he published in a series of lesson booklets that were advertised in comic books from the 40's to the 70's. The ads for the booklets were iconic. They usually featured a "97-pound weakling" getting harassed by a bully and humiliated in front of his date. The hapless weakling goes home, gets mad, kicks a chair, and sends away for the Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension training booklets. Soon afterwards, he returns to the scene of his humiliation-a dance floor or party or beach, generally-and beats up the bully, wins back the girl, and impresses the crowd.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, another famous body builder, gained even more publicity for bodybuilding when he made the transition to the silver screen. He won the Mr. Olympia competition-the most prestigious bodybuilding competition in the world-in 1970, at the age of 23. From there, he wanted to move into acting-as some of his earlier bodybuilding idols had done. However, Arnold's transition was not an easy one; his long, ethnic last name, thick accent, and extravagantly large muscles held him back from stardom although he did win bit parts in a few movies and a starring role in Hercules in New York the year he won the Mr. Olympia title.

Arnold's first big break in movies came seven years after his title win, in Pumping Iron. The movie was a documentary about the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, featuring Schwarzenegger and two of his competitors, Lou Ferrigno and Franco Columbu, preparing for the competition. His breakthrough role came in 1982, however, with the movie Conan the Barbarian. Schwarzenegger's fame as an A-list star contributed further to the popularity of bodybuilding as a sport.

In the early years of bodybuilding, the sport was entirely natural. Anabolic steroids began to influence competitions later on, however. In the 1970's and 80's, steroids were frowned upon by body building groups and authorities, and doping tests were sometimes done to screen out competitors who used them. However, they were still legal-and competitors openly discussed using them. However, in 1990, Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act banning the substance from use. While competitors today technically shouldn't use steroids, it's possible that use continues underground as it does with other sports. In addition, most competitors continue to use hormonal and other supplements that are still legal in the U.S.

In the beginning of the 21st Century, the IFBB-the International Federation of Body Building, a professional bodybuilding organization-petitioned to have bodybuilding included in the Olympics. The effort was not successful, as bodybuilding is not widely recognized as a sport.

Still, bodybuilding has a long and distinguished history in the United States and internationally. Its fame is powered by stars such as Sandow, Atlas and Schwarzenegger-competitors who inspire the imaginations of future bodybuilders and attract interest in lifting and competing. As long as charismatic personalities continue to make a name for themselves in bodybuilding, interest in the sport will continue.

About the author

Jean Lam is the webmaster of Body Building Resource which provides articles on weight training, nutrition and fitness, body building book and DVDs.

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