From Strongmen to Bodybuilders

From Strongmen to Bodybuilders


A brief history of the making of muscle culture and sport

BODYBUILDING IS DEEPLY layered in a rich history and tradition that begins in antiquity. Chinese texts dating back to 2600 BC and Greek texts from 2500 to 200 BC reference the importance of strength training for military preparedness. In ancient Egyptian and Greek societies the sport of weight lifting had developed from stone lifting, where men would heft stones of various sizes and weights. It began as a form of entertainment for the masses and grew from displaying feats of great strength to showcasing aesthetically carved physiques. It became a celebration of the perfection of the human body. In the 13th century, muscle building became wildly popular in India, with gyms sprouting up throughout the country where men would exercise with weights to enhance health and stamina. In Italy, in 1569, the physician Hieronymus Mercurialis published an illustrated medical book called De Arte Gymnastica, showing muscular men lifting dumbbells. In the American colonies, in the 18th century, even Ben Franklin attributed his longevity to “daily exercise of the dumbbell.”

Arnold the young bodybuilder.

The modern evolution of muscle building began in earnest toward the end of the 19th century in Europe and the United States when professional strongmen emerged as a form of entertainment. This new style of weight lifting for entertainment was all about strength. The physique didn’t matter. What did matter was how much iron a man could press above his head. Many of these competitors had thick, protruding stomachs and fatty limbs. Their physiques didn’t need to appeal to their audiences because pure power was what the crowds came to see. The strongmen entertainers would pull heavy carts loaded with boulders, lift cows and other animals on their backs, and heft a variety of odd but heavy objects aloft with their arms and sometimes only one arm.

History of Bodybuilding

From the 1890 through the 1920s strongman competitions thrived in the United States and sparked an intense interest in weight training. Then, in 1894, a German man named Louis Durlacher opened Professor Attila’s Studio of Physical Culture in New York City. Professor Attila was a pioneer of strength training and bodybuilding. He preached the gospel of repetitive lifting of light weights to build muscle. He even invented fitness equipment, such as the globe barbell and the Roman chair. Two of Attila’s students were Warren Lincoln Travis, the “Coney Island Strongman” who once lifted 667 pounds with one finger and did a verified backlift of 4,140 pounds, and Eugen Sandow, the father of modern bodybuilding.