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Flex Appeal: The Father of Modern Bodybuilding

The ancient Greeks were obsessed with sculpting the perfect male form. But when their civilization died out, bodybuilding died with it. It took a Prussian strongman named Eugen Sandow to bring it back.

During the Victorian era, a bulging waistline was a sign of a bulging wallet, and fashion-conscious men weren’t embarrassed to carry around some excess pounds. Even strongmen—who dazzled circus-goers by lifting enormous weights and large animals—were big-bellied. But all of that changed with Eugen Sandow. Sandow did more than simply shock and titillate audiences with his tiny waist and ripped muscles; he pioneered the notion of working out for the sake of aesthetics. He also launched the sport of competitive bodybuilding and inspired the concept of personal fitness. Today, that’s a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States alone.

Cut Like a Statue

Sandow liked to tell his fans that he started perfecting his body at the age of 10, after his father took him to Italy to see the statues of the gods. The sculpted abdomens and chiseled biceps inspired him, and when he returned home, he became obsessed with developing his muscles. Of course, none of this is true.

Professor Attila.

A master of creating his own legend, Sandow’s biography tends to be a patchwork of great marketing and tall tales. What’s known for certain is that he was a Prussian acrobat who toured with small-time circuses across Europe during the 1880s, until he landed in Brussels without a penny to his name. There, he stumbled across an educator in the nascent world of physical fitness named Louis Durlacher, better known as Professor Attila.

At the time, it was thought that lifting more than 5 lbs. at once could cause muscles to cramp and lock, eventually leading to paralysis. Attila, however, decided to buck popular opinion. A former strongman himself, he’d developed a system of progressive weight training in which muscles are strengthened by gradually increasing the weight lifted over time. Today, it’s the cornerstone of bodybuilding. When Attila met Sandow, he knew he’d found the perfect specimen to test his system.

In 1889, the pair moved to London to secure a strongman show for Sandow. In order to grab people’s attention, they set their sights on the city’s reigning brawny duo, Sampson and Cyclops. Sampson was known for lifting “imperial tons” (2,240 lbs.), Cyclops for tearing coins in half.

Sandow began by challenging Cyclops to a feat of strength. On the night of their competition, he walked out in a foppish, tailored suit. Once at center stage, he tore off the outfit in one pull, revealing only Roman sandals, a pair of tights, and a physique the likes of which no one in the audience had seen before. The crowd went wild and quickly took the side of the handsome, mysterious challenger. Sandow soundly defeated Cyclops in a series of barbell lifts.

One week later, Sandow returned to the stage to face Sampson and matched him stunt for stunt. Then came the final challenge—chain-breaking, in which both contestants had to break free only by flexing their muscles. Sampson had never been defeated in this competition, but then again, he’d always cheated; his chains were rigged to fall apart. Sandow had discovered Sampson’s trick weeks earlier and tracked down the blacksmith, who made him a set of his own fake chains. On the night of the contest, the chains burst off Sandow’s body in record time, and Sampson stormed off stage. London had a new king of strength.

Touch My Muscles

Throughout the 1890s, Sandow headlined a strongman show that brought in the masses. But audiences weren’t lining up just to see how much Sandow could lift; they were also intrigued by his body. Taking a cue from the ancient statues he loved, Sandow augmented his performance with a series of classical poses that highlighted his perfectly proportioned form. Men cheered, and women swooned. Today, his poses are the basis of modern bodybuilding competitions.



Public displays were only half the secret of Sandow’s success. To promote his show, Sandow had himself photographed wearing nothing but a well-placed fig leaf. As the images spread across Europe, the crowds grew. Sandow also supplemented his income with private exhibitions, where patrons paid an extra fee after the show to touch his muscles while he described them in detail. Smelling salts were kept on hand to rouse the women who fainted.

When the show moved to New York in 1893, it caught the attention of a young Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., later known for his Ziegfeld Follies theater shows. Ziegfeld decided to produce a massive show with Sandow as headliner, and together they crisscrossed the country multiple times. Along the way, Sandow became a notorious womanizer. Ziegfeld, who didn’t believe in bad publicity, let word of Sandow’s escapades fly. He even spread a rumor that the muscleman was tomcatting about with sexpot actress Lillian Russell, which caused a major stir in gossip columns.



Pumping Up

By the turn of the century, Sandow’s name had become synonymous with strength, good looks, and fortune. Phrases like “strong as a Sandow” were commonly used around the world, and he was quick to capitalize on the name recognition. One of the first celebrities to endorse sporting goods, Sandow’s “combined developer”—a chest expander with dumbbell handles—was so ubiquitous that, today, any type of rubber cord is known in French as un sandow.

In 1901, the muscleman expanded his business by hosting The Great Competition, the first modern contest in which participants were evaluated solely on the appearance of their bodies. Sandow asked his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories, to judge the event. But Sandow’s contributions to bodybuilding and personal fitness didn’t end there. He also wrote some of the first major books on weight training and established dozens of gyms around England.

By the outbreak of World War I, Sandow had all but retired from the stage. A new wave of American and European strongmen had emerged, inspired by his success. From then on, Sandow focused exclusively on his role as a businessman and innovator. And though he was far from a feminist, he promoted weight training for women, which set him apart from his peers. He also promoted exercise as a way to improve people’s health, claiming that his workouts could cure conditions such as gout. Although many of his ideas turned out to be untrue, Sandow was instrumental in providing a link between exercise and health.

In an era predating professional sports leagues, Eugen Sandow was arguably the most famous athlete in the world. While his name is rarely heard these days, his legacy still exists in training gyms, muscle magazines, vitamin shops, and sporting-goods stores across the globe. The idea that humans can do something to combat nature’s design for their bodies was once a laughable concept. Today, it’s the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry. Perhaps most fittingly, Sandow lives on in one other way; he’s now the sculpture he always wanted to become. At the Mr. Olympia Competition each year, the award handed to the winner is a gilded statuette of Eugen Sandow.

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The article above, written by Tim Farrell, is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Wait, what? People thought lifting more than 5 pounds at a time caused muscle lock-up and paralysis? So what about all those farmer and longshoremen and, well, just about anyone with a job who routinely lifted way, way over 5 pounds at a time?
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"Wait, what? People thought lifting more than 5 pounds at a time caused muscle lock-up and paralysis? So what about all those farmer and longshoremen and, well, just about anyone with a job who routinely lifted way, way over 5 pounds at a time?"

They thought it would eventually if you kept at it, and there was plenty of reason to believe it.

Not only did people risk sprains and muscle tears, but people who did a lot of manual labor back then had a bad diet, lived in atrocious conditions, had no medical care at all, and tended to live into their 40's if they were lucky. Tobacco was considered healthy because people tended to not live long enough to get cancer, and if you were a farmer or a longshoreman, death by misfortune, trampled by animals or crushed under some crates was more likely than living to a ripe old age.

So looking at the thought of lifting more than 5 pounds as insane really ignores their reality. We know the idea to be wrong, but if you were observing things back then, you would likely come to the same conclusion.
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