When many of us think of bodybuilders, we imagine impossibly large men with ballooned, veined muscles reaching almost unearthly proportions, but when the phenomenon first started out two centuries ago, the aesthetics required were totally different.

Western lifting dates all the way back to the late 19th century when strongmen in Europe would show off feats of strength to large crowds. Yet, instead of boasting taut biceps and six packs, these men often had fatty limbs and large bellies, which were considered synonymous with massive strength.

Bodybuilding proper began with Prussian-born Eugen Sandow, who moved to England in 1889 to take part in strongmen competitions. Audiences would flock to watch Eugen’s muscle display performances, which would include strength demonstrations or wrestling matches.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Eugen Sandow (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


He came to be known as the “father of modern bodybuilding,” but by today’s standards his physique was relatively slender. He was what was known as a “gracilian,” a standard of ideal body proportions – lean and well-built – adulated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Gone was the idea that great strength required a big stomach.

In the early 20th century, attentions turned to Charles Atlas, who, in 1922, won the title of “America’s most perfectly developed man.”

Charles began life as Angelo Siciliano: a skinny, sickly, 97lb youth who was famously picked on at a beach when a bully kicked sand into his face. Angelo resolved to never let this happen again; he changed his name and built and honed his body to perfection. He became an idol for generations of thin boys.


Angelo Siciliano aka Charles Atlas (YouTube)


He was a great believer in proportion, and Charles’ physical measurements were considered the ideal proportions of the 20th century man: 5ft10in tall and 180lb heavy with a 17in neck, 47in chest, 17in biceps, 14in forearms, 32in waist and 23.75in thighs. He was capable of bending a couple of railroad spikes or ripping a Manhattan phone book in half.

Bodybuilding increased in popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the growth of nutrition for bulking up and cutting down, as well as the use of protein and other food supplements to increase muscle mass.

In the 1970s, anabolic steroids came into the picture, partly attributed to the rise of “mass monsters.” Thanks to these drugs, 5ft 7in Larry Scott was able to overcome genetic limitations, inflating his arms to 20in and weighing over 200lbs. He changed the public’s perception of what a well-developed body should look like. Gone was the aim of everything being in proportion.

Enter, too, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most iconic bodybuilder in history. Arnold was 6ft 2in, 235lb at his peak, with a body-mass index of 30.2, and he changed the world’s perceptions of muscularity and masculinity.


Arnold Schwarzenegger (Bodybuilding.com)


By the 1990s, insulin and human growth hormone were being added into the bodybuilder’s cocktail of supplements, resulting in the huge, superhuman look that we often associate with bodybuilders today.

However, as a result, many bodybuilders began to look all the same rather than having one body part that was more developed and particularly impressive as used to be the case. Moreover, gone were the displays of feats of strength strongmen had once performed; competitions became just about posing stationary on stage.

MHP athlete and bodybuilder, Chris Bumstead says: “In the golden era, they primarily focused on lines, symmetry and overall flow of the body, but those same competitions came to be filled with mass monsters who tipped the scales in the mid-high 200s.”

Eight-time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, was one such top bodybuilder who developed growth hormone gut, taking him to freakish physical levels.


Ronnie Coleman (Ronnie Coleman/Instagram)


These days, though, there’s a move towards shedding the other-worldly, negative image the public have of bodybuilding. Sportsmen whose physiques are much more achievable and realistic are growing in popularity, such as American IFBB professional physique competitor, Steve Cook, whose body many lifters aspire to emulate. Gone is the need to flaunt impossibly gargantuan, drug-pumped muscles.

We are no longer inspired with static pursuits, as bodybuilding became over time, but rather the functionality and movement seen in such trends as CrossFit.

Ludwig Araujo/Maximum Human Performance, LLC
Chris Bumstead (Ludwig Araujo/Maximum Human Performance, LLC)


Chris says: “Mass monster became prominent throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, but over the last couple years it has lost its steam amongst the general population.

“With the rise of social media, Men’s Physique and Classic Physique have become mainstream as these types of physiques are more attainable and desirable. I myself turned pro as a bodybuilder, but made the transition to Classic Physique.

“I’m not saying I would never transition back to bodybuilding, but as of now I don’t see myself putting on another 40-50lbs. For the future, I believe the mass monsters will still have their place, however, Classic Physique is where it’s at.”