The Origins of Bodybuilding


Bodybuilding as we know it begins in late nineteenth century Germany with Eugen Sandow, who is known as “The Father of Bodybuilding”. Before Sandow, strongmen were popular for their feats of prowess. However, these were often stocky, rather overweight gentlemen. Not only was Sandow strong, but he would add a visual aesthetic to bodybuilding, which he would term ‘The Grecian Ideal’  – some of his act would consist of simply standing on stage while lesser mortals would gawk at his abs. Above all he was keen on emphasising the importance of physical fitness, developing strength training processes that were revolutionary for his time, many of which we still employ today.

For instance, he recommended against training to failure – in order to promote muscle development – incorporating exercise into stationary periods of your daily regime, and recommended strength training for women as well as men. There was obviously far more to him than just wrestling muzzled lions. Indeed, within the bodybuilding community, Sandow has left such a lasting impact that the Mr. Olympia trophy is called “The Sandow”.

Sandow achieved the physique of a Greek God purely through the use of dumbbells and barbells, eschewing all other forms of exercise training. He would proudly claim,  “I have never fancied, nor found need for, the elaborate equipment of the modern gymnasium,”  He had been inspired during his youth when his father took him on a Grand Tour, his encounters with classical culture fostering a lifelong interest in physical culture; he would even publish a magazine of that title, the first in the world.

Sandow would find fame when he won a contest for the world’s strongest man, making him a Victorian celebrity. His highly successful stage act would include bending iron bars, snapping chains and supporting horses and soldiers on his back. Backstage, ladies (and gentlemen of a certain persuasion) could get to meet him and touch his muscles. He would appear in one of Thomas Edison’s first films illustrating his routine, and would also found the first bodybuilding contest, The Great Show, held in the Royal Albert Hall. In 1901.

Much of his advice holds true today – for instance, he would recommend a mixed regime of exercise to work on different muscle groups, and recommend drinking lots of water for hydration. In other respects, he did beg to differ from contemporary opinion. While he recommended moderation in all things, he also stated that “A man should be denied nothing which he desires within certain limits. I never refuse myself anything—I take wine, beer, smoke…” He also abhorred exercising indoors, claiming that it led to “a stagnation of the life-processes”, preferring to work out en plein air.

Ultimately, no man – however fit – is immortal, and he died tragically young, at the age of 38, as the result of a brain aneurysm.  Some speculated that syphilis was the root cause, as Sandow was a hit with the ladies, and according to some scurrilous rumours, the gentlemen too.

Whatever the truth, modern bodybuilding owes Sandow an immense debt.