The sport of competitive bodybuilding is one of the strangest, yet intriguing sports to have taken hold over the last century. As broad and tall as those who compete, the sport has become a symbolised ideal of the masculine look.
Bodybuilding contests display an ironic veneration of the disparity between beauty and strength. The thematic pairing of majestic, artistic (some may say slightly erotic) performances with the perception of brute power and strength is not without its challenges; as the so-called peak of masculinity meets fake tan, tiny briefs and stuffed socks.
Marketing vehicles of supplement, clothing and workout information companies utilise visceral nouns and verbs such as fire and pump as their signature athletes craft themselves into indisputable armories of muscle. Yet one cannot help but ponder the psychology behind the creation of bodies that are seemingly indestructible, yet are largely seen by the medical world as some of the unhealthiest on the planet. It leaves one as equally baffled as it does intrigued.
From the grassroots of the sport to the modern day, bodybuilding has been a roller-coaster ride of technological advances, molecular manipulation and has seen physical transformations like no other sport. Bodybuilding is not just the crafting of a muscular physique. It is an ethos, a way of life and a regimented ideal that has spilled not only over into the fitness world but to that of the average sized Joe.
Since the terms first usage in the late 1800’s, the core principle of bodybuilding has been a difficult paradigm for the general public to digest. Beauty by strength, two seemingly unattainable symbiotic characteristics. After all, nobody ever expected King Leonidas to look good in a three piece suit or Conan (the Barbarian, not the comedian) to don a fancy sweater. Yet with all of the perceived masculinity at play, bodybuilding still widely exists outside of the norm and is yet to find itself fully streamlined into a society that has its own ideal representation of beauty. Bodybuilding therefore, seems a little too far for even the most hard-core Jersey Shore viewer.
The battle between the norms of society and the perceived abnormality of the sport have not however always existed – the sport did after all start through public want and the original Grecian Ideals were something of godlike marvels in their time. It was however, the increase in size and inhumanity of bodybuilders that took it too far from the perception of what the human being is capable of that earned bodybuilding this disparity. One only has to look at the popular American series The Streets of San Francisco episode Dead Lift from 1977 to see how public perception and bodybuilding don’t mix as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a character who loses his rag over a young girls mockery of his muscle movements.
Welcome to the PhysioRoom.com guide to bodybuilding. A sport where it seems that one either gets it, or one doesn’t.
Through the Ages
The Grecian Ideal
Early accounts link the roots of bodybuilding to the Ancient Greeks who were well documented lovers of all things aesthetic – from irresistible bodies to iconic buildings (pun most definitely intended). As the aesthetic poster body for the Grecian people, Adonis (pictured); the god of beauty and desire has become the most iconic of all Grecian figures in the workout world.
Ancient stone crafted statues and graphics depict a man blessed with sculpted abdominals, an eternally youthful design and the prize of both Aphrodite and Persephone (the daughter of Zeus no less) by his side. The Grecian figure represents an ideal that has been transformed into the mind of the modern man (and women) – a perfect body with perfect proportion – a perfect model of desire and a timeless, youthful elegance. A lover, fighter and hunter with idyllic looks and the goddess of love and beauty by his side, Adonis has become a poster boy for the archetypal man, apparently.
It begs the question; is that what a man is supposed to look like?
Milo Of Croton
The first stop on the bodybuilding train is the often referenced fable of Milo of Croton in 6th century B.C. Though significant evidence as to his actual abilities is scarce, the sport of bodybuilding frequently cites Milo’s existence in the tale of the sport’s early beginnings. A recurring theme throughout the world of bodybuilding is the likenesses to timeless, ancient characters deemed as supermen of their time. From movies such as Hercules to the aesthetic of the Grecian Ideal, the sport constantly harks back to the appendages and models of old – and Milo is the perfect hero to replicate. As the tale goes, Milo, who originated from the Grecian state of Croton which now sits nestled in an area known as Calabria in Southern Italy, became an athletic celebrity in the ancient world for his exceptional feats of strength. Legend has it that when Milo was a boy his father tasked him to carry a young bull around a field every day. Naturally as the years passed, both Milo and the bull increased in size with Milo’s strength growing in proportion to the point of being able to carry the bull as an adult.
Milo’s feats of strength spanned the realms of the possible, to the absurd. Though one does not doubt his impressive Olympia victories in Greek Wrestling as these are highly plausible, it is the impossible strength feats that are largely attributed to the bodybuilding inspiration that are hard to quantify. Like many athletes of his time, Milo was said to have performed godly displays of strength such as, braking a band wrapped around his head by merely inflating the veins on his temple, carrying his own statue to Olympia and regularly entering the wrestling arena carrying a bull – before killing it and gobbling it down in one.
This much touted tale is just one of the many exploited stories of the bodybuilding world that have unrealistic roots. Harking back to the ancient times when one was defined by strength and power of will rather than his financial takings or the cut of his suit is a common theme in the bodybuilding world and is representative of those who take part in the sport. To be bigger, to be stronger, to be more representative of the human ideal – to be feared.
Physical culture in India has been documented as early as the 11th century with evidence highlighting the trend as a common activity until the mid-16th century British take over. Deeply tied to the embedded Indian roots of spirituality, the mantra of bodybuilding as a way of increasing not only ones physical but mental strength existed in India long before it did in the West. Well-documented tools such as the Nal (stone dumbbell) and the Sumtola (Indian Barbell), which are still used to this day, are primitive forms of the modern day bodybuilding dumbbell. Allowing for progression through a multitude of weights, equipment such as this is often home-made out of stone or wood.
The obvious ties to ancient practices embedded within spiritual culture are also a tying branch to the sport of bodybuilding. Strength of will – a notion popular in Buddhist practices is one of the fundamentals of bodybuilding which also shares many characteristics with ancient practices such as yoga, a common spiritual pastime in the East.
The Encyclopaedia of Indian Physical Culture, Mujumdar, D.C. (1950) quantifies this theory by highlighting the most important strength exercise available to the traditional work lifting enthusiast as the Surya Namaskar, or, Sun Salutation – one of the primary exercises, or asanas in the yogic field. It is the blend of mental and physical strength that is documented in the Indian tradition of physical culture which naturally links to the ancient arts to achieve empowerment of body and mind, something that western bodybuilding seems to be only just getting their heads around.
The Birth of Physical Culture
Physical exercise has of course existed in some form or another since the dawn of man. After-all, without our inherent abilities to fight off scary roaring things or run countless miles in pursuit of dessert, the human being would likely not be the dominant species that it is today. Yet the appreciation and definition of a functional physique with regards to aesthetics did not occur until the late 18th century. Vaudeville shows and circus acts had long held strongman competitions and feats of incredible (but often faked) strength, but with the introduction of one man, the western world became fascinated by not only the amount of weight that was lifted but with the appearance of his body.
Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, commonly known as Eugene Sandow, was a strongman born in Könisberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1867 who became a global fitness megastar in the early 1900’s – touted as the man with the perfect body.
Though Sandow began his career as a simple strongman who ran away with the circus at a young age (classic cliché), his Vaudeville act of incredible strength would soon become overshadowed by his muscles. Being fascinated with classical antiquities and depictions of grand civilisations of old, Sandow was the first notable champion of the Grecian Ideal.
Sandow became so fascinated by the likeness of the early Grecians that in order to craft the ancient physique of perfection it is said that he would measure the sizes and symmetrical features of the statues in museums in order to create a perfect formula to design one’s own body on the specifics of the ideal. In 1893 Sandow became acquainted with the American Broadway promoter Florenz (Flo) Ziegfeld Jnr who realised the marketing potential of a man with the perfect body. Noting how audiences were becoming particularly interested in his muscles over his strength, it was this observation that pushed Sandow and Ziegfeld to highlight not only the strength of the incredible body but also the appearance and symmetry also. From here on in, Sandow began to incorporate elements of what would eventually evolve into the bodybuilding posing routines that we see today.
The earliest visually documented example, produced by none other than Thomas Edison in 1894, features a near naked Sandow flexing his muscles to an audience and though the performance is rudimentary, its relation to the modern posing routines is uncanny. In the early part of the 20th century, Sandow was a global sensation and championed by the people of his adopted home – England. Setting up his own system of Physical Culture in order to rid society of the ‘disease of affluence’, Sandow became a wealthy entrepreneur, an influential figure in the Ministry of Health, friend of high society members such as Arthur Conan Doyle and even personal fitness trainer to King George V.
Early Modern Lifting
Sandow’s original idea of creating a Grecian Ideal, based on the Greek statues of old, was, in the early days of modern body building the most sought after design that a man could acquire. As knowledge of how the body worked and technology advanced however, bodybuilding naturally changed with the tide. The early modern period is best exemplified by the stellar physiques of the ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding from 1940-1970. Names like Charles Atlas, Steve Reeves and Reg Park set the standard for the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, Sergio Oliva’s, Lou Ferrigno’s and Alex Zane’s of the workout world in the 70’s who turned Eugene Sandow’s Grecian Ideal of symmetry on its head in pursuit of upper body size whilst still retaining the classical idea of symmetry and proportion – the demigod physique if you will.
The Muscle Mass Monsters
As technological advances in sport science, both legal and illegal grew in the late 20th century, so did bodybuilding. Dosages, biceps and hair styles became impossibly overblown in line with just about every other aspect of popular culture at the time. Like their musical counterparts of the Hair Metal scene, the bodybuilding world became bigger, bolder and tighter than ever before – the Muscle Mass Monsters had arrived. Though Samir Bannout and Lee Haney were noticeably bigger in the 80’s than their 70’s counterparts, it was the arrival of Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman who set the standard for size that we see in the modern day.
Olympia winners such as Jay Cutler and Phil Health have continued the trend of behemoth size well into the 2000’s as sheer size and vascularity slowly becomes the mere purpose of design. Modern bodybuilding has made Foie Gras out of Sandow’s original Grecian Ideal as the World’s Most Perfect Body becomes the World’s Most Ridiculous Sport.
Often titled The Father of Modern Bodybuilding, Sandow was a key figure in the early stages of a craze that would practically infest the American state of California in the coming century. With an ever-so-European handlebar moustache and merely a fig leaf covering his most important muscle, Sandow created the aesthetic ideal that set the standard for the early stages of the sport. Beginning life in the Prussian town of Könisberg in 1867, Sandow became so impressed by the Grecian aesthetic of ancient antiquity that he set about creating the ‘perfect physique’ for himself based on the proportions of the Grecian statues of old. Literally by measuring them. The Grecian Ideal that Sandow became an advocate for was based on definition and proportion with an overarching theme of general fitness. This long forgotten notion is largely unseen in today’s modern bodybuilding world whereby the aesthetic requirements have become based on size and vascularity rather than proportion and symmetry.
The first mass marketed workout advocate, Charles Atlas was instrumental in popularising the muscular ideal of the ‘Golden Era’ bodybuilders. Though Sandow’s Physical Culture routine had been sold to punters as early as 1894 through a variety of books and exercise programmes, it was Atlas who pitched the idea to a mass audience (pun intended). After overcoming an alleged altercation with a muscle bound bully in his youth, Charles Atlas embarked on his own physical journey to improve his physique and won the title of The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man in New York 1921. Following his victory, Atlas began a mass marketing campaign of his set of workout tools that were specifically aimed at young men with lacking muscularity. Atlas’ Dynamic Tension regime, which aimed at turning the 97lb weakling into a muscle bound Adonis, quickly became one of the most popular workout routines of the century. The accompanying cartoon featured an Atlas’ inspired marketing strategy which utilised the insecurities of the audience to sell products – a theme that continues in the sports world unto this day popularising the notion of a beach body and the perceived importance of being masculine.
Reeves’ image, an All-American, casually coiffed ex-army man with a penchant for Goliathesque size and frankly ridiculous muscle gains is perhaps one of the finest examples of pre-steroid bodybuilding that the sport has to offer. Like his successor Reg Park, Reeves was well versed in the art of natural bodybuilding using his immense genetics and Herculean frame to crank his body up to a massive 215lbs winning both Mr America and Mr Universe in the process. Though his bodybuilding career was relatively short, Reeves became the poster boy for a generation. Moving into acting after only a few years in the professional bodybuilding circuit, Steve Reeves featured in iconic – albeit terrible films such as; Hercules and the odd Spaghetti Western. Rumour has it that the muscle clad action star was even offered the role of James Bond in Dr No, turning it down due to a lack of financial incentive. Licence to lift doesn’t sound bad though.
Yorkshire born Park followed in Reeves’ example and became the first real bodybuilding crossover megastar. Often hailed as a mentor to the great Arnold Schwarzenegger during the Austrian Oaks’ preliminary years in the sport, the Englishman, born in 1928, was introduced to weightlifting through his gym owner father in his teens. Though initially excelling in football (soccer for you Americans), going so far to play for Leeds United Reserves, Park soon became infatuated with the sport of bodybuilding whilst nursing an injury. After spotting American bodybuilder Vic Nicolette in a copy of ‘Strength and Health’, Park soon lost interest in football and began training in his parent’s backyard with improvised weights. A victory at the Mr Britain championship in 1949 carved Park’ career path as the Yorkshireman became a name among the bodybuilding elite which allowed for a trip stateside and regular features in Joe Weider’s magazine ‘Your Physique’. Park won the Mr Universe competition in 1951 at the age of 22 years old and quickly became one the first behemoths to cross contaminate the world of acting and bodybuilding. Featuring in a Hercules series of his own from 1961-65 – Park’ films were never technically or visually sound but that didn’t stop the bodybuilder inspiring a generation of lifters to cross over into acting as his visually documented muscular size became iconic offerings to the new breed of size monsters.
Nicknamed ‘The Myth’ by pretty much everyone in the bodybuilding sphere, Sergio Oliva was the first muscleman to represent a new ideal in aesthetics – size. With his incredibly large upper body muscles, specifically the lattismus dorsi (commonly known as lats or wings) and chest, Oliva opted for a waist size of merely 28” to highlight and accentuate the size and shape of his figure. The Myth transformed the world of bodybuilding by bulking not just up, but outwards – laterally. After fleeing the clutches of communist Cuba in 1962 by escaping to the U.S Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica during the Central American and Caribbean Games, Sergio Oliva moved to the city of Chicago and eventually settled as a Chicago police officer. As the first proponent of ‘wings’ (large lattissimus dorsi muscles), Oliva won just about every title there was to win in professional bodybuilding whilst also working a full-time all-encompassing job, getting shot by his wife in 1986 and having a son. A busy mind is a happy mind, apparently.
Action star, former politician, the first result on Google when the word ‘Arnold’ is typed, businessman and probably, no, definitely the most famous bodybuilder of all time. Period. Schwarzenegger’s seemingly endless grasp of the bodybuilding world came by no accident to the actor who modelled his career closely on his friend and mentor Reg Park. Schwarzenegger catapulted onto the scene in thunderous form in 1965 when he won the Mr Europe contest at the age of only 18 years old. Having quite literally escaped from the Army (where he was conscripted in national service) to participate in the contest, the young Austrian was forced to spend a week in military prison upon his return to base.
This mattered little to the soon-to-be-megastar who had exploded into the world of bodybuilding – a world that would never be the same again. Following his victory at the 1965 Mr Europe, the Austrian Oak attempted to win his first Mr Universe in London, England and though his impact at Mr Europe shook the world of bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger couldn’t quite rattle the bones of American Chester Yorton who defeated the 18 year old at the Universe. After finally winning the Amateur Mr Universe title in 1967 Schwarzenegger took to the professional competition, winning in 1968, 69 and 70 before being the first Mr Olympia to win six titles in a row, adding a seventh in 1980.
The 1977 film Pumping Iron, which focused largely on Schwarzenegger’s defence of his Olympia title under the heat of New York’s finest, Lou Ferrigno, propelled the Austrian into the stratosphere of movie stardom. Though the film is well documented for being highly manipulated and staged, the soon-to-be action star and his cohort of heavy metal lifters shocked the world with their feats of strength and ambition, many of whom continued to have acting careers following the movie.
Though Schwarzenegger had featured in small bit parts previously, it was his role in the 1977 film that escalated his already Herculean frame into the world of Hollywood. The rest, as they say, is history as iconic roles secured the Austrian Oak into the minds of millions. Legendary pictures of the 80’s and 90’s such as; Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, and Predator sealed his name as the ultimate action hero. With an Austrian/pseudo-English accent and a penchant for tight clothing, Schwarzenegger practically owned the action genre in the 80’s before foraying into comedy with movies such as the horrific Twins and the equally appalling Kindegarten Cop in 1988 and 1990 respectively.
Eventually retiring from the big screen to take on the last avenue available to him – politics, the former bodybuilder found himself as a poster boy/man for yet another generation. Sadly however, The Governator, as he was often known, was thwarted by a global recession and the demands of real government and failed to deliver on many of the promises that he had originally made. Thankfully, the 66 year old is now back to doing what he does best; making hilariously bad movies that everyone can enjoy on ITV 3 in a few years’ time. Welcome back – baby.
Nicknamed ‘The Shadow’, presumably because he clouded above everyone else in the field, Yates was one of the biggest professional bodybuilders of all time. After a brief spell in prison, Yates garnered a reputation for his immense strength and soon decided to channel his energy into sport rather than a life of petty crime. Winning six Olympia titles from 1991-1997, Yates’s training methods focused on high intensity sessions that lasted for no more than 45 minutes. Yates set the standard for the behemoths that now grace the podiums of bodybuilding shows worldwide and of course, his heavy drug use played a huge part in his success. A highly respected owner of his own brand gyms and supplement company, Yates has been exceptionally open with regards to his substance intake over the former years and offers honest insights into the world of professional bodybuilding. Though not exactly discouraging people of the dangers and effects, Yates at least talks about it – something most sports people fail to do.
If Dorian Yates and a squat rack had a baby, the result would have been Ronnie Coleman. Tying with Lee Haney’s eight Olympia titles of the 80’s, Coleman pushed muscle mass to a point that had never been seen previously. A mammoth fixture on the podium, Coleman was known as much for his beaming smile and likeable demeanour as for his muscles and high pitched voice. During his 8 Olympia titles, it was often held between the bodybuilding elite that the real fight was for second place as Coleman became the ultimate victor who seemed more unstoppable by the year. With a walking around weight of over 325lbs, Coleman was a full 65lbs heavier than Arnold Schwarzenegger at his heaviest weight of 260lbs – a full 4.6 stone. Following a stint as a line-backer in college football, Coleman worked as a police officer in Texas for most of his early professional bodybuilding career. Winning his final Olympia at the grand age of 41, it was the rise of Jay Cutler and other Coleman inspired size kings that finally upstaged Big Ron in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Still training to this day, Ronnie Coleman is a regular fixture on the touring circuit and continues to appeal to audiences across the globe. The Great Competition
The Great Competition
The first bodybuilding competition in 1901 named, ‘The Great Competition’ by organiser Eugene Sandow was held at the Albert Hall in London after taking a reported three years to plan and organise.
Due to Sandow’s love of the Grecian Ideal the much sought after physique became the most prominent fixture by which participants would be judged. Sandow encouraged those who followed his training regimes and fitness centres to aim for a body that was sculpted to the mathematical formulae of the Grecian statues he adored so much. ‘The Great Competition’ therefore attracted participants from all over the UK with Sandow himself taking part in the judging of localised preliminary competitions in order to acquire only the top bodies in the country. Though today’s competitions seem to focus solely on muscle size and vascularity, the early days of bodybuilding allowed each individual aspect of the body to be scrutinised by the judges who looked for general development, balance of development, condition and tone, general health and condition of the skin which had to be as close to the Grecian Ideal as physically possible. Much like examinations at a dog show.
Though a lot is said about the general state of bodybuilding in the steroid era, specifically the monstrous sized guts and horrendously vascular appearances of athletes, an important aspect to note is that the perception of pressure is one founded by athletes themselves and not judges. Historically speaking, judges are forced to find the most aesthetically pleasing body out of the display. Yet, when one athlete changes the game such as Sergio Oliva’s enormous lat development in the 60’s the judging criteria change in favour of the advancement, in Oliva’s instance for exceptional lat development. Likewise, when Dorian Yates entered the scene in the 90’s with an overly distended stomach (an effect of Human Growth Hormone) and a size that was vastly out of proportion with the Grecian Ideal, the effect was so noticeable that it once more changed the way that competitions were judged.
The importance of this notion is the fact that the sport changes with the competitors. As there is no physical competition in the Olympic sense of the word, on the day of the actual event, the only way competitors can be judged is on how they impact the judges with their chosen look. Every time a competitor raises the bar by some significance, then that ideal becomes the new standard that others must reach.
In a classic competition, though different organisations house different rules, there exists a number of rounds; the symmetry round, mandatory posing round and a free posing round. Typically, judgements are made throughout the day before audiences arrive to the evening shows and though judgements are made with complete individual subjectivity, the following categories are standard characteristics that judges look for:
- Mass –hypertrophied muscles, firmness and striations with no excess water.
- Definition – definition to muscle detailing, minimal body fat and water retention, muscle separation.
- Proportion/symmetry – even balance of muscular development between all muscle groups.
Muscle Beach, Gold’s Gym & Joe Wieder
Following a beach front refurbishment in the American city of Santa Monica in 1934, a new sunshine culture of tanned muscle and fitness fanatics graced the shores of what was soon to be titled Muscle Beach. By the end of the Second World War, Muscle Beach established its name as a front running workout complex like no other in the country.
Equipped with sandboxes for wrestling, rings and bars for acrobats and of course, a weight pen for bodybuilders, the beach became a hotbed of activity for the newly established fun centric post-war athletes. However, the fun would be short lived as the City of Santa Monica bulldozed the complex early one morning in 1959 due to the conservative government deeming the area a hotbed of unsavoury activity, sleaze and sex. After a handful of bodybuilders were found to be fraternising with a group of young girls, the City of SM moved in and destroyed the now infamous complex. Muscle Beach however, would refuse to die a new complex titled Muscle Beach Venice would soon appear in the City of Los Angeles and carries the torch of the Muscle Beach name unto this day.
The closing of the original Muscle Beach in 1959 supplied yet another catalyst for change as Joe Gold, a regular feature on the Santa Monica circuit took the opportunity to open his own gym in 1965. Gold’s Gym no less – the world famous Gold’s Gym. Fitting it with home-made workout equipment and the best bodybuilders that California had to offer at the time, Gold’s Gym took off as the ultimate Mecca of Bodybuilding. Regulars at the original Gold’s Gym, most of whom were featured in the 1977 film Pumping Iron, included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ken Waller and Ric Drasin among many others. Having sold the firm to investors in the 1970’s and spending time as a merchant shipman, Gold decided in 1977 to open World Gym in Santa Monica. That’s World Gym, the globally recognised World Gym no less. Having owned the former brand until his death, Gold proved to be one of the most inspirational businessmen of the bodybuilding world with Schwarzenegger himself calling him “a trusted friend and father figure”.
As probably one of the most influential figures that bodybuilding has produced over the last century, Weider has become a household name who has infiltrated every fitness centre from warehouse gyms to five star resorts. Publishing his first magazine in 1936, titled Your Physique, Weider went on to create the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), the Mr Olympia, Ms Olympia and Masters Olympia contests before publishing industry standard magazines such as Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Men’s Fitness and Shape and his own nutrition company in 1936. Having been instrumental in the career of one particular Austrian muscle man, Weider became a tireless promoter and expert within the field. Though not without his flaws and legal issues (think misleading workout equipment and supplements claiming blatant lies), Weider is an infamous name in not only bodybuilding but workout equipment and sports clothing.
The Final Posedown
In the modern day, bodybuilding has transformed into a tool recognised not only in the traditional sense of the word but as a medium for the common man also. A recent surge in size has hit all walks of life from bicep brothers to muscle mums as magazines splatter cast newsagent walls filled with flat tums and flexed guns. The nation (Blighty that is) has seemingly gone mad for muscle as chickens and tuna fishes have never had it so hard. So what causes the common man to reach for the iron? If competition is not the aim of the game, why do it? Why diet so hard? Why lift so heavy? Why wear shirts so tight?