Where It Came From, Where It’s Going

 By Bill Dobbins

Strength training is an ancient human practice. Sometime in the past 15 thousand years people who formerly lived as hunter/gathers moved into villages, towns and later cities. As they accumulated land and property the need developed to defend what they had. So they created armies. Armies depend on soldiers with particular skills and abilities. One of these is strength. So we have records of weightlifting contests going back thousands of years.

A 5,000-year-old Chinese text tells of prospective soldiers having to pass lifting tests, reports USA Weightlifting. Ancient Greek sculptures also depict lifting feats. The weights were generally stones, but later gave way to dumbbells. The origin of the word dumbbells comes from the practice of removing clappers from bells, rendering them soundless during lifting.

weightlifting coins
Weghtlifting Coins

It is apparent that humans have understood the effects of progressive-resistance training for a very long time – the idea that working the muscles against gradually increasing amounts of weight makes them strong. From the Greeks we have the myth of Milo of Crotona, a 6th-century B.C. wrestler and strongman. As a boy, Milo is said to have developed his strength by picking up a young calf every day and continuing to do this over time as the calf grew into a large and powerful bull.

Of course, as those engaging in weightlifting got stronger their muscles also developed. Literature is full of references in history to men with powerful, muscular bodies. And starting with the ancient Greeks we have examples of paintings and sculpture celebrating not just strength but the aesthetics of athletic bodies. The reason for this seems to be the prevalence during that age of athletic contests like the Olympics.

greek statue warrior

Previous to this, however much strong bodies might have been admired, it was performance that matter most, the ability of a soldier to defeat his enemies. But with events like the Olympics there arose a class of professional athletes whose full time job was training for sports. These athletes frequently competed in the nude, so there was an obvious emphasis on the physique. We can see visual evidence of this interest looking at Greek statues from 500 BC onward. They moved from being very stylized, more in the manner of Egypt, to showing athletic men depicted as flexing, bending and posing in ways to show of their muscular bodies.

These were the earliest manifestations of bodybuilding, developing the muscles of the body for primarily aesthetic purposes.

davidMichelangelo’s David

After the decline of Ancient Rome, during the Dark and Middle Ages, this tradition of celebrating the athletic development of the athletic body with realistic or hyper-realistic artistic depictions was lost. It was rediscovered as a result of the humanism of the Renaissance and the best examples of this are probably the sculpture and paintings of Michelangelo. Many of the subjects of his art were heroically developed men. His statue of David has a very modern athletic look. His model is muscular but aesthetic, powerful but symmetrical, each muscle and muscle group developed and defined.

David is very much the image of a proto-bodybuilder.

Eugen Sandow

Strongmen were very much a facet of entertainment in the 19th century. Eugen Sandow was a strongman who focused on muscularity and muscle control. His muscle were highly defined for his time and he would do exhibition in which he posed and flexed. He was a prime example of the modern emphasis on muscles for their own sake, rather than for using strength to achieve some task or performance. With Sandow you can see the beginnings of modern bodybuilding, but you can also see the differences. He was not as big as bodybuilding competitors became, he didn’t have the sculptural qualities of wide lats and a narrow waist or full muscle volume that later bodybuilders developed.

Martin Mester – Actor, Model, Physique Competitor

The origin of modern bodybuilding contests began with physical culture competition in the 1920s and 1930s. Athletes would appear on stage to be judged on the basis of their physiques, some kind of athletic performance and sometimes interviews and personality. But over time the competitors that trained with weights and therefore had much more impressively developed muscles tend to gain a lot of advantage. As a result, starting in 1940 contests began that were more about bodybuilding – primarily based on muscle size, proportion, muscularity and the ability show off the physique with posing.

The primary reason for the difference between Sandow and today’s bodybuilding pros – or even between the competitors of earlier decades and contemporary champions – is knowledge. The bodybuilding method, a system of exercise and diet that produces these kinds of results, is a very modern invention, is constantly evolving and has even changed drastically in the past couple of decades. It is not enough to lift a calf like Milo or dumbbells like Sandow. The best results come for a system of sets and reps, specific exercises, split-system training, intensity techniques and the ability to diet away body fat while maintaining or even increasing muscle mass.

Ronnie Coleman, Mr. Olympia

The bodybuilders of the 1940s like John Grimek, Clancy Ross, Steve Stanko and George Eiferman did not use contemporary training or diet techniques. They didn’t do split-system training but worked the whole body in one session three times a week. They didn’t value being highly defined and wouldn’t have known how to achieve that if they had. But it was their efforts and those of the bodybuilders who came along after that created modern bodybuilding.

Always remember that the bodybuilding method we have today was not invented by scientists or medical professionals. It came about by trial-and-error experience and experimentation by the part of the actual bodybuilders themselves.

Consider that the human nervous system is like a computer and is what governs things like muscular development. Normal activity pretty much creates a normally developed body – given the inherent differences in genetics. Weightlifting has a specific affect on reprogramming the nervous system. It makes muscles bigger and stronger. But in computer terms it is a relatively unsophisticated program.

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, has evolved over time to be an extremely complex and effective type of input that reprograms the nervous system to product what we know of as the bodybuilding effect – the type of size, shape, proportion, definition, muscularity and symmetry we recognize in the best of modern bodybuilding champions.

Steve Reeves as “Hercules”

When I was a kid the most famous bodybuilder was Steve Reeves. Reeves came along in the 1940s and I’m told when he walked along the beach in Santa Monica crowds followed him in amazement as if he were a visitor from Mars. He was arguably the most beautiful man on the planet with the best physique and had no equal.

Reeves started making muscle movies in Italy and started a whole industry. In the 1960s, Cinecitta studios in Rome was full of hype-muscular actors: Gordon Scott, Reg Park, Ed Fury, Mickey Hargitay, Brad Harris and many others. These were the bodybuilders who inspired the next group to come along, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno.

Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk

There have been two bodybuilders in recent decades who brought the idea of bodybuilding to a high degree of cultural visibility more than any others.

Italian muscle movies were popular but were definitely B-grade films. But in the 1970s and 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger came to the attention of the public as the star of the book and movie Pumping Iron and went from being Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia to becoming, at one point, the most successful movie actor in the world and Governor of California.

Lou Ferrigno, a massive bodybuilder almost too big to succeed in the sport but who became Mr. Universe anyway, was cast as a lead to television’s Incredible Hulk went on to more acting roles in TV and movies and a well-known TV personality.

Chuck Norris worked hard on getting in shape to prolong his acting career.

Nowadays there is not a single action movie star I can think of without a good physique, with the exception of Bruce Willis. This started in the 1970s with Sylvester Stallone who trained and looked like a bodybuilder for his movie roles. Films like Rocky and Rambo were major successes that made a great deal of money. Jean-Claude Van Damme parlayed his muscular physique into becoming one of the most popular of international action stars.

There was also a big difference in the bodies we was among competitive athletes.   Actor and former football player Fred Dryer, star of the TV series Hunter, says that when he went to the NFL in the late 60s very few players worked out with weights. By the time he left in the 70s, everyone was hitting the gym. This has happened in all sports. Look at photos of Barry Bonds as a young man, before he started a lot of weight training and in later years after a lot of 300 lb. bench presses. There is a big difference. Tiger Woods has wide shoulders, a narrow waist and defined triceps you would never see in a golfer of past eras. He’s another athlete who works out intensely with weights. Olympic sprinters are so muscular they could step on stage and win many bodybuilding contests.

Given the example of these celebrities with impressive muscles, nowadays almost every young actor is hitting the gym and getting in shape. Male models have followed suit, not become big but very lean, defined and muscular. Everyone admires a six-pack. A revolution had taken place.

Arnold hands  out trophy to Ms. Figure International winner Jenny Lynn.

Beginning in the late 1970s, women began training for and competing in bodybuilding. The example of these women has radiated out to the point where female athletes train with weights as intensely as do the men and gyms all over are filled with women doing some kind of serious resistance training. You know there is a revolution going on when Arnold stars in Terminator II and the muscles every one talks about belong to Linda Hamilton, not Mr. Olympia.

Hyper-muscular women have become what Pumping Iron author Charles Gains has called a new archetype. They have totally changed our expectations regarding how strong and muscular women can be, how good it can look and how women can maintain their youthful looks and abilities as they age.

Nowadays, bodybuilding for women has evolved into the new competitive categories such as fitness, figure, physique and fit bikini.  Increasingly, as models work at being more fit it becomes difficult to tell fitness models from those working in the mainstream.  Women celebrities routinely work with personal trainers to keep themselves trip, shapely and youthful.

The revolution has had a profound effect on women as well as men.

Nowadays, bodybuilding is a sport and activity for women as well as men.

Of course, as I said above this revolution has been possible because of the technology we know of as the bodybuilding method. We now have the ability to reprogram the nervous system through exercise to uncover the limits of muscle development essentially determined by individual genetics.

Getting back to the race car analogy, who would have thought in the past that you could build a 2.4 liter, V-8 engine that would develop 900 bhp, durable enough to last through the stresses of two hours on a track at race speeds? And who would have expected to see a 5’11” man with 22 inch arms, a 60 inch chest, a 34 inch waist, weighing 275 pounds with the body fat of a famine victim?

Most cars are not like Formula I racers and most bodies are nothing like a Mr. Olympia contender. But in both cases the development of high-level technology has trickled down to other aspects of the culture and had significant consequences.

Or to use another analogy, bodybuilders are to the physique what grand opera is to the human voice.  Both involve the maximum aesthetic development of a human ability.

Darrem Charles, IFBB Pro Bodybuilder – and one of the best posers.

Bodybuilding is a sport in which individuals compete to exhibit the highest extremes of aesthetic muscular development and their ability to present their bodies on stage with skilled posing. But the bodybuilding method they use to achieve this has very significant consequence for the rest of the culture.

Those of us in the US, and increasingly in other countries, are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Nowadays we eat too much of the wrong foods and get too little exercise. Some 30% of the population is dangerously overweight and children are growing up with the same problems. We have an aging population and see an increasing average lifespan. Along with the normal diseases that simply come increasingly with age, we are seeing more and more heart disease, diabetes and other conditions that are primarily the result of lifestyle.

There is an obvious interest in fitness and diet on the part of at least some percentage of the general population. We see thousands of diet books and programs. But strictly in terms of effectiveness, the bodybuilding method – not for the sport but as a lifestyle element – is the most effective and efficient system for regulating weight, muscle mass and overall body composition ever developed. If you stay on the program it is guaranteed to work, no matter your genetics. You may not turn into a WWE wrestler or an action movie hero, but you will become more muscular, stronger and leaner; you will both look and feel better. Your health will improve and you will slow down or even reverse (temporarily) the deterioration we associate with the aging process.

Mr. Olympia Lee Haney and Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray at the Arnold Weekend Expo

It is amazing that the modern, super-effective bodybuilding method has been created just as the point where lifestyle problems like too much food and too little exercise has made it necessary. A modern disease develops, and at the same time so does the cure. This revolution has been obscured for a variety of reasons. One is the tendency of our culture to see bodybuilding as somehow perverse or narcissistic. Another is the confusion between bodybuilding as an athletic competition and as a system of controlling body composition with diet and exercise. There is also the drug question, with the media constantly exaggerating both the effectiveness and the dangers of anabolic substances which makes people believe these impressive physiques art not primarily the result of a lot of hard, intelligent and disciplined effort.

But as time goes by, there is no doubt the bodybuilding method will become much more common knowledge and it’s adoption by athletes, sports medicine, physical therapy and the culture as a whole will verify its significance.

At that point, it will no longer be a revolution but just the way things are done.


Zane_Dobbins_Ferrigno-Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia    Bill Dobbins      Lou Ferrigno, Mr. Universe.



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