Walking Back In Time: The History Of Bodybuilding

By February 13, 2016Brainflex
History of Bodybuilding - An image of athletes during the golden era of bodybuilding.

We all know about the sport of bodybuilding. But how did it all begin? Let’s find out the history of bodybuilding!

Nowadays, there are about as many ways to shape or firm your body as there are gyms and personal instructors. The increased scrutiny of physical appearance has led to a great increase of people, especially in the current generation to diet and work out in order to look their best.

However, while the bodybuilding trend might seem fairly recent, the practice itself has been around for much longer than you might think.

From the Dawn of Civilization to the Mid-1850s

The earliest written record of bodybuilding goes all the way back to the dawn of civilization, during the time of the ancient Greeks in particular. Aside from honing their knowledge of philosophy and politics, the ancient Greeks were also very keen on developing their physiques. Thus, they set up establishments, called gymnasiums, where their athletes would train,prepare, and improve their bodies hence marking the start of the history of bodybuilding.

History of Bodybuilding - 3x Mr Olympia - Sergio Oliva

3x Mr Olympia – Sergio Oliva

However, it wasn’t until 6 B.C. that athletes began using resistance training to shape their bodies. Until that point, all physical exercise had been solely for improving their skills for whatever sport they participated in. It was actually a noted Olympic wrestler named Milo of Croton who bucked that trend by allegedly carrying a calf on his back every day in order to build up his strength and musculature. Because Milo continued performing this exercise as the calf matured into a fully-grown bull, he ended up being the first known human to use the principles of progressive resistance for bodybuilding purposes.

By the 11th century, the ideal physique prized by the ancient Greeks was gradually catching on in other areas of the world. It was around this time that the concept and practice of bodybuilding arrived in India. The 11th century Indians were the earliest practitioners of the bodybuilding method most familiar to the modern world as they carved primitive dumbbells out of stone. They would then lift and carry these dumbbells, using varying sizes and weights, in order to make their muscles grow bigger and stronger.

The practice of weightlifting was first picked up by the peasantry, but some records from the 16th century have also revealed that weightlifting had become a well-loved national pastime in India during the 1700s.

1880s – 1900: The Primitive Era of Bodybuilding

During the 1880s, traveling and performing “strongmen” were a popular attraction. These erstwhile bodybuilders focused on lifting the heaviest weights they could rather than developing and polishing each muscle in their bodies. As a result, most of them had fat stomachs and thick limbs accompanying their developed muscles. They were, however, noted for their impressive displays of physical strength and for constantly challenging their fellow “strongmen” to raise the weightlifting bar.

Eugen Sandow, who would later go down in history as “the Father of Modern Bodybuilding,” would come to challenge that notion. Originally born as Friedrich Muller, this German native developed his physique so that his audience could also appreciate his fine musculature while he carried out what was then called “muscle display performances.” Sandow was famous, not only for his incredible strength but also for his finely sculpted body. Apart from lifting the usual heavy weights, Sandow’s shows (usually performed on a stage built by his manager Florenz Ziegfield) also featured “The Strongest Man in the World” flexing his well-honed muscles and posing his muscular physique during weightlifting intervals.

History of Bodybuilding - Joe Weider training Larry Scott.

Joe Weider training Larry Scott.

Before he knew it, Sandow was drawing considerable crowds in both Europe and America and soon saw and seized on the opportunity to cash in on his erstwhile fame. As the first bodybuilding entrepreneur, Sandow was credited with developing exercise equipment (as well as the first exercise machine). Fitness tools like tension bands, dumbbells, and pulleys also eventually became part of the Sandow brand. Sandow’s clout as a bodybuilding celebrity led to the creation of the first bodybuilding magazine, “Physical Culture,” before later being renamed “Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture.”

Sandow was also responsible for advocating the establishment of bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions. Thanks to his promotional lobbying, a handful of the world’s most prestigious weightlifting competitions eventually emerged. One was the first international weightlifting competition in the form of The World Championship in England, which took place in 1891. A few others included two weightlifting events which started in the 1896 modern Olympics.

1900s – 1910s: The Rise of Bodybuilding Competitions

History of Bodybuilding - The idea of bodybuilding began from Eugen Sandown.

The idea of bodybuilding began from Eugen Sandown.

Once the 1900s began, the first major bodybuilding competitions were held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The events, judged by luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sandow himself, were packed with spectators which turned out to be a great success.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Bernarr Macfadden was cementing his reputation as the father of “physical culture” by writing books and publishing magazines about developing good health and strength as early as 1904. These publications became so popular, they are said to be the forerunner for modern bodybuilding magazines. Macfadden also came to promote and organize bodybuilding competitions that led to the discovery and development of one of the biggest names in international bodybuilding: Charles Atlas.

1910s – 1920s: Steady Progression Into Mainstream Community

Over the next few decades, Charles Atlas became the face of bodybuilding and regularly appeared in advertisements that encouraged men to build their physiques. Born in Angelo Siciliano, the Italian-born Charles Atlas was a constant feature of Macfadden’s “Physical Culture” magazines and was said to have set the tone for future bodybuilding entrepreneurs.

1930s – 1940s: Securing Bodybuilding’s Place on the Map

History of Bodybuilding - Reg Park on the front cover of the magazine Strength and Health.

Reg Park on the front cover of the magazine Strength and Health.


The 1930s would prove to be a pivotal period for bodybuilding as it is said to have marked the bodybuilding magazine trend. Some of the most memorable publications concerned with bodybuilding were born during this period, including Bob Hoffman’sStrength and Health,” Dan Lurie’s Muscle Training Illustrated,” and  Robert Kennedy’sMuscleMag International” (which stopped in 2013). Many of these magazines paved the way for modern health and fitness magazines now enjoyed by countless people all over the world.

One of the most famous muscle magazines in the 1930s was “Super Physique.” Established by Peary Rader (who himself went through a great deal of exercises featuring high-repetition squats, increasing his weight from 128 pounds up to 220 pounds over the course of a single year) in 1936, “Super Physique” was prized for imparting sensible articles about bodybuilding to the common man. The magazine, later renamed “Iron Man,” wasn’t the first in its field, but it was nonetheless widely considered to be the best, allowing it to stay in circulation for about five decades.

Another notable magazine during this period was Joe Weider’s “Your Physique,” which he published at a mere 17 years of age back in 1937. When this publication met with significant success, the future co-founder of the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) devoted more of his entrepreneurial prowess into commercialising the bodybuilding industry. Thus, Weider ended up publishing several other magazines on health and fitness and eventually rolled out his own line of health supplements and fitness equipment.

Towards the end of the 1930s, the Mr America competition began, and so did the rapid rise of bodybuilding.

1940s – 1950s: Bodybuilding as We Know It

During the 1940s, John Grimek began dominating Mr America. Since Grimek was known to be a bodybuilder, those who wished to emulate his physique figured out that they needed to follow his weightlifting regimen.

After John Grimek’s time, the celebrated Steve Reeves soon came into the picture. Reeves was considered to be extremely good-looking in addition to having a physique displaying perfect mass, proportions, and definitions. Apart from winning three major bodybuilding competitions (Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948, and Mr. Universe in 1950), Reeves also became the highest-paid actor in Europe and was widely considered to be the “Arnold Schwarzenegger of his era.”

With the bodybuilding industry finally beginning to carve out its own distinct identity, some of the regulatory boards began to emerge. Joe Weider co-founded the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) in 1949 (and launched the first IFBB Mr. America shortly afterwards) while the National Amateur Body-Builder’s Association or NABBA was formed in 1950.

Both of these were preceded by yet another bodybuilding milestone, the establishment of the Mr. Universe competition in 1948.

History of Bodybuilding - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Dave Draper and co.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Dave Draper and co.

1950s – 60s: The Beginning of the Golden Era

By the end of the 1940s, Reeves’ prominence had finally put bodybuilding on the world map. Arnold Schwarzenegger would later cite Reeves as a role model, even though the latter left the industry in the 1950s.

Reg Park followed in Reeves’ footsteps and became the next bodybuilding prodigy, going on to dominate the bodybuilding world for the next two decades and bagging the title of Mr. Universe in the years 1950, 1951, 1958, and 1965 . Like his predecessor, Park would also appear in films, most notably for playing Hercules in a slew of movies focusing on the developed male physique.

Shortly before the end of the 1950s, John Ziegler synthesized Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that significantly increased a bodybuilder’s weight and strength without any side effects. This particular development would go on to revolutionize the bodybuilding industry forever.

1960 – 70s: The Birth of Mr Olympia

After Ziegler’s Dianabol hit the market in 1958, the focus of bodybuilding shifted to acquiring a better understanding of the science behind conditioning and nutrition. Up and coming bodybuilders applied the results of those studies to their own regimen and ended up looking bigger and better as a result.

Midway through the 1960s, Joe Weider of IFBB created the Mr Olympia competition to allow previous winners of the Mr. Universe pageant to continue competing and earning money. Shortly after its inception in 1965, Mr. Olympia became the most prestigious bodybuilding title, netting great fame for Larry Scott, who won the first two Mr. Olympia competitions in 1965 and 1966.

History of Bodybuilding - A young Lou Ferrigno.

A young Lou Ferrigno.

The 1960’s were then rounded out by Sergio Oliva, also known as “The Myth.” He earned this nickname due to his sheer, unprecedented bulk and muscle mass. Oliva dominated the latter Mr Olympia competitions in the years 1976-1969, after Larry Scott had already retired from the industry.

1970s – 80s: The Peak of the Golden Era

The 1970s basically heralded the arrival of a new bodybuilding superstar. Despite being defeated by Sergio Oliva in his first attempt for the Mr Olympia crown, Arnold Schwarzenegger would come to dominate the competition, winning the title seven times total before 1975. Schwarzenegger’s record-breaking winning streak attracted the attention of a couple of filmmakers who came up with the idea of making a documentary about the Austrian bodybuilder’s preparation for and participation in the 1975 Mr Universe competition. The documentary, entitled “Pumping Iron,” elevated Schwarzenegger to celebrity status. It was also seen as the catalyst of a huge spike in new gym memberships all over the United States following its 1977 release.

“Pumping Iron” not only served as Schwarzenegger’s debut but Lou Ferrigno’s as well. Ferrigno also featured in the iconic documentary, and thanks to his eventual roles in the films “Hercules” and “The Incredible Hulk,” he pushed bodybuilding further into the mainstream.

The 1970s was also witness to a key development in the Mr Olympia competition. In 1976, the competition split into two categories: short and tall. That same year, Franco Columbu became the first short man to win the title in his division. Another key development in this decade was the renewed scrutiny on lower body fat as a decisive factor in the Mr Olympia competition. This allowed Frank Zane, a mathematics and chemistry teacher known for his lean and aesthetic physique, to nab the Mr Olympia title three consecutive times from 1977-1979. These years also represent the point of time where the importance of aesthetics peaked, while also dwindling away soon after.

Arnold Schwarzenegger competed as a bodybuilder for the last time around 1980, a couple of years before other industry greats like Tom Platz, Lee Haney, and Mike Mentzer came into the picture.

1980s – 1990s: The End and Aftermath of the Golden Era

After Schwarzenegger’s retirement from bodybuilding, Lee Haney emerged as the bodybuilding superstar of the 80’s. Like Schwarzenegger’s idol, Steve Reeves, Haney was said to have all the elements of the ideal weightlifter’s body. Haney would later break Schwarzenegger’s record by winning the Mr Olympia title for eight consecutive years in the period between 1984 and 1991.

The 1980s weren’t without controversy, however, with Arnold’s Mr Olympia title in 1980 and Franco Columbu’s second Mr Olympia win in 1981. With the former registering a month late while breaking some posing rules on stage, and the latter instigated heavy dispute after some pointed out that his legs weren’t the best developed among the contestants in his division that year.

History of Bodybuilding

The Golden Era of bodybuilding.

In same year Franco won his second Mr Olympia, the National Physique Committee, which served as the amateur division of the IFBB, was formed by the former AAU Physique Committee Chair. The Ms Olympia competition, the female counterpart to the Mr Olympia competition, also emerged during this time. Before the end of the 1980s, Schwarzenegger had made an industry comeback by co-creating the Arnold Classic Weekend in 1989. This bodybuilding event later became the second most prestigious event in the world of bodybuilding competitions. The end of the 80s also saw the focus shift away from small, tight-waisted physiques and onto monstrous, outrageous bodies. A new era of bodybuilding, one where size became the winning factor, had emerged.

90s – 2000s: The Rise of Monsters

Thanks to this renewed focus on size in bodybuilding competitions, Mr Olympia candidates who possessed a perfect mixture of monstrous mass, conditioning, and proportion became the frontrunners. One such candidate was Dorian Yates, succeeding Lee Haney as the perennial Mr Olympia title holder. Due to his unbelievable, hulking mass, Yates won the Mr Olympia title for six consecutive years, up until he retired in 1997.

Yates’ successor, Ronnie Coleman or “Big Ron,” would then be known as the biggest Mr Olympia winner as well as the one with the highest number of competition wins. Ronnie “Big Ron” Coleman won the Mr Olympia title a total of eight times between 1998 and 2005.

History of Bodybuilding - History of BB

An upcoming bodybuilding monster – Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay

2000 – 2010s: The Twenty Thirst Century

The new millennium saw a slight reversal in the bodybuilding trend when Jay Cutler won the title from Big Ron in 2006, with Cutler’s frame being considerably smaller and trimmer than that of the previous titleholder. Although the trend swayed away from the mass monsters, by no means was it anywhere close to an aesthetic physique like Frank Zane brought to the latter years of the 1970s.

As for Cutler, he eventually went on to win the Mr Olympia title four times, even winning the title back from Dexter “The Blade” Jackson in 2009, after the latter’s leaner frame led to Cutler coming in as a runner-up in the previous year.

History of Bodybuilding - Steve cook posing

Could the muscle model division be the next big thing?

2010 – Present: The Start of a New Change?

The current title holder for Mr Olympia is Phil “The Gift” Heath (2015), an ex-college basketball player who combined extraordinary genetics with boundless determination allowing him to shoot up to number one. By demonstrating his dominance through winning the past five Mr Olympia’s, Heath has showed to everyone that it is possible for him to even top off Haney and Ronnie for their Olympia records.

Although this decade is far from over, many people including most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been voicing their opinion on the need to an adjustment to the Mr Olympia that emphasises aesthetics over mass. It is because of these kind of outcry that has lead to more popularity among other organisations such the WBFF and even a new men’s division in the IFBB, Classic Physique. And as long as this debate between “aesthetics” and “mass” rages on, who knows where bodybuilding may evolve into.

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