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The Evolution of Bodybuilding – From 1900 to 2017


Bodybuilding is a fantastic sport that is hugely popular, there are thousands of amateur bodybuilders, hundreds of professionals, and a global audience that is continuing to grow.

Many believe that bodybuilding is largely a modern phenomenon, or that it became popular in the 70s with Arnold and co … But bodybuilding can trace its roots back to the dawn of the twentieth century, and in some ways even further.
This article will look at how bodybuilding has developed over the last 117 years, and some of the big characters who made the sport what it is today.

We’ll go through it decade by decade, starting in 1900 and the birth of the bodybuilding world.


Eugen Sandow

In 1900 there wasn’t really such a thing as bodybuilding, there were people who had huge muscles, but they concentrated on traditional strongmen routines.

Lifting large boulders, performing impressive feats of strength, and generally entertaining an audience with tricks and skill.

In 1898 a strongman by the name of Eugen Sandow first started using the term Bodybuilding to describe his routine.

Sandow is considered the Godfather of bodybuilding as it was he who first set up and inevitably won bodybuilding competitions.

He was also the first person to rely on their physique and aesthetics, rather than traditional strongman skills.

Sandow based his physique on what was known as the Grecian ideal, the body shapes used by sculptors to depict Greek and Roman Gods. This was unique as it was the first time that someone had trained their muscles to be a certain size, or ideal.

The first Bodybuilding tournament was judged by Sandow, Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It was won by William Murray, a former footballer from Nottingham, England. He went on to carve out his own successful career, but was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914.

After suffering from the effects of a gas attack while in the trenches, William was never able to train again [1].

While Sandow was organising and successfully running competitions in Britain, an American named Bernarr Macfadden was organising America’s first bodybuilding competition, which was held in New York.

A New York native, Hugh Jenkins won the competition, with Emma Newkirk claiming the women’s title [2].

As you can see, the dawn of the twentieth century had launched bodybuilding into the stratosphere, in a way that it may never reach again.


Charles Atlas

The 1920s will be known for one bodybuilder above all others, in 1922 Charles Atlas won the US competition for “Most Perfectly Developed Man”.

During the 20s and 30s Charles was the most well known bodybuilder in the world.

His Dynamic tension fitness equipment (and the accompanying adverts) are still known today.

The advert revolved around a skinny guy who got into an argument with a much bigger bully.

The bully kicks sand in his face, and the skinny guy decides to use the Dynamic tension fitness system to get huge. He then punches the bully and walks off with a beautiful woman. The advert was marketing gold and it made a star of Atlas.

Thanks to Atlas, Sandow, and other stars, bodybuilding entered its first Golden age during the 1930s.

Areas like California became a Mecca for people interested in the sport, with outdoor bodybuilding gyms, muscle magazines, and big names all coming from this area.

In 1939 a new competition was run by the American Athletic Union, it was called the Mr America. It was won by Bert Goodrich.


Steve Reeves

By 1940 the Mr America competition was a solely Bodybuilder focused competition, and it was won on 2 consecutive occasions by John Grimek of New Jersey.

1940 was also the year that Joe Weider published his first magazine on bodybuilding. He would go on to become one of the biggest names in bodybuilding history.

In 1946 Joe and Ben Weider founded the International Federation of Bodybuilders and Fitness (IFBB). Alongside NABBA (founded in 1950) these two federations would run bodybuilding for years.

1947 saw the first competition win for Steve Reeves, who was one of the first bodybuilders to successfully use bodybuilding to establish a film career.

In 1948 John Grimek pipped Steve Reeves to win the inaugural Mr Universe title in London. The competition did not occur in 1949, but in 1950 Reeves won it and a legend was born.

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The 50s were a time when bodybuilders would grow substantially in size compared to previous generations. Saying that, this was the last generation before the steroid use completely changed bodybuilding forever.

During the 1950s the Soviet Union began to experiment with testosterone injections for their Olympic weightlifting team [3]. Dr John Ziegler who was the physician for the American team helped develop Dianabol in 1955 and it was finally made available as a prescription drug in 1959.

Towards the end of that year, Ziegler was testing his drug on professional bodybuilders, the results shocked the community, and by the 1960s everyone was taking them.


Arnold Schwarzenegger

In 1960 Steve Reeves was a famous movie star, who was inspiring countless future bodybuilding stars.

Joe Weider was writing books in bodybuilding, and starting a famous feud with Bob Hoffman (the owner of York Barbell and owner of multiple magazines). Their rivalry would inadvertently progress bodybuilding further as they fought for dominance.

1965 saw the inaugural Mr Olympia competition, created by Joe and Ben Weider. It was won by Larry Scott an incredibly gifted bodybuilder. He won it again in 1966 before retiring.

The late 60s and early 70s were an incredible time for bodybuilding. Sergio Olivia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, and Serge Nubret all competed.

The documentary Pumping Iron came out in 1977 and focused on Arnold’s incredible victory in the 1975 Mr Universe competition.

This documentary led to a huge rise in popularity for the sport, and also led to Arnold becoming the most famous bodybuilder in history.

Frank Zane won Mr Universe in 1977 and held the title until 1980 when Arnold controversially reclaimed his title (after retirement in 75).


Dorian Yates

After many controversies in the early 80s bodybuilding seemed to be a sport in decline with no clear champion until 1984 when Lee Haney won Mr Olympia.

He beckoned in a new era of bodybuilders who looked bigger. Tom Platz became known as the People’s Champ after controversially losing to Columbu in 1981, and Lisa Lyon led the way for female bodybuilding [4].

The Arnold Classic was created in 1989 and is now second only to the Mr Olympia in terms of prestige. The inaugural competition was won by Rich Gaspari.

The 80s had raised the profile of bodybuilding even further, and while the 1980s may not have created a household name or icon in the way that previous decades had, it may have created some of the greatest physiques.

In 1992 Lee Haney finally lost a Mr Olympia (after 8 consecutive wins) to Dorian Yates. A bodybuilder who completely transformed the sport.

It was in the 90s that drug use led to the biggest bodybuilders yet. This was obvious when comparing the size of Yates and Ronnie Coleman to previous winners.

But it was even more obvious in the women, with women like Nikki Fuller and Tonya Knight becoming huge (literally) names.

In 1999 the Mr America contest was discontinued by the AAU, marking the end of one of the longest running competitions in bodybuilding.

It was around this time that training for mass became far more important than training for aesthetics, and bodybuilding was changed forever.


Phil Heath

The early 2000s were all about the duel between Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler, between the two of them they won every competition from 1998 to 2010 (bar 2008 when Dexter Jackson won it). Ronnie won the majority of them (8) and Jay won 4.

Bodybuilding was becoming a more popular sport in terms of people participating, and in terms of audience size. The internet has changed things completely, with Wikipedia, fitness websites such as, and so many others.

There is now as much information as you could possibly need. Social media has also helped to make bodybuilders more accessible than ever.

Since 2011 the competition has been won on seven consecutive years by Phil Heath, his duel with Kai Greene has been fascinating to watch (though sadly one-sided).

There is still a focus on mass, but there is hope that bodybuilding may be starting to return to the aesthetic focus of those early pioneers.




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0 thoughts on “The Evolution of Bodybuilding – From 1900 to 2017”

  1. You can see how physiques have changed with the introduction of steroids. Personally prefer the more aesthetic look rather than these “mass monsters”.

  2. Most guys are using steroids to look like the bodybuilders from before 1960. So perhaps they dont actually need to resort to steroids, but should just try and get good nutrition and hard work.

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