The History of Bodybuilding


Even to find passing references to bodybuilding in days gone by is a major task as it was not considered an activity in its own right until the 1900's. It was used in preparation for sporting contests, for improvements in the art of war, for better physical appearance in stage and entertainment, to preserve and improve health and finally to portray perfection for aesthetic appreciation and satisfaction

Examples of these applications are found as far back as 3,600-3,500 B.C. when the great Emperor Yu-Kang Chi made his subjects exercise every day and even Confucius (521 B.C.) tried hard to perfect himself in all exercises. A recently unearthed tomb painting showed weight routines being practised by the Marquis of Tai's subjects in China over 2, 000 years ago. In the latter part of the Chou dynasty (122-249 B.C.) the military services used heavy weight-lifting as one of the tests for entry into their ranks. In ancient India heavy clubs and heavy bows were used for systematic exercise and from Egypt, one of the oldest of Empires, evidence has been produced to show that weight-training and heavy exercise was known

The Egyptian Empire was established about 3,400 B.C. and it was the custom to illustrate the walls of the tombs of their Kings and important personages. Some of these drawings clearly show bodybuilding exercises for men and women such as the walls of the famous Beni Hassan tomb, depicting the use of swinging weights made of stone and marble

The first thoroughly produced and advanced system of physical training however, seems to have been produced by the Greeks. Based on their practical experience of physical improvement, their methods were gradually improved and developed until by the 2nd century A.D. and they were very sophisticated and systematic. In warfare at that time victory was not so much dependant on superiority of weapons or strategy but on the physical capabilities and skill of the participants. Strength was a prime factor and physical development was much admired as a visible indication of this strength

There are a great many legends and some evidence of weight-training in 300 B.C., Milo of Crotona first popularised progressive resistance exercise by daily carrying a calf until it grew to be a full-sized bull. In the 1930's Herbert Edward Mann duplicated this feat, the calf first weighing 35 lbs increasing until it was 800 lbs, when he carried it 60 yards in stage shows. Milo won the Pythian Games seven times and the Olympian Games six times. 


This example typifies the history of bodybuilding and sometimes the great efforts to win medals. Honours were bestowed from life sized Statues to physique vases, just two of the many prizes given to Olympic victors, also there were other considerations as the heroes became very important members of society feted throughout their lives and interestingly,  exempt from paying all taxes. What an incentive this would be today!

Apart from their Olympic statues, the victors were the subject of many other works of art and their physiques were celebrated then as physique champions are today

The Greeks recorded a great deal about their activities at that time and research has shown that they knew about staffing gymnasiums, gymnastics and diet and there are details of some of their weight training exercises. They illustrated work with stone slabs and stone dumbbells and weights fitted to the shoulders for squats and dips more than 2,000 years ago. They trained hard and regularly for about ten months prior to their major Games


The Greeks put great stress on nakedness for their statues and in Olympic competition, and when recording the stages at which they distinguished themselves from Barbarians, they emphasised the age at which the Olympics became nude. Some paintings show the competitors at the Pan-Athenic Games had been naked since the early 6th century. The Spartans were the most enthusiastic nudists and also encouraged women to compete in their athletic games.

After the Greeks, the Romans took over as leaders of ancient civilization which of course had an influence on physical culture. Their approach had much in common with the Greeks, they loved athletic entertainment and health and beauty but there were significant differences and as these developed their whole concept of recreation changed. Initially Rome held the body as a respected subject for all art forms although there were some different periods, their love of statues has been passed down through the ages with appreciation not just in the fashionable streets of Rome, but in many small Italian villages, shops and homes

The Stadia de Marmi (at one time called the Mussolini Forum) in Rome provides modem examples of classical physique statuary. All around this sports stadium are huge statues each depicting a different sport. They were made by a variety of sculptors from various parts of Italy but all achieve a uniformity which captures the eye and enhances the whole scene with a vital, restless energy which is memorable

The Olympic statues were true representations of the athletes but when the sculptor wanted a statue of physical perfection he would not confine himself to one model. He would search for athletes and slaves and would copy the legs of one, the torso of another and perhaps the head of yet another until the composite work would meet his personal standards. This technique was used on the statue of the reputed father of modern bodybuilding, Joe Weider, sculpted by I. Guarco, the famous Italian sculptor who is rumoured to have used Robbie Robinson (a renowed international bodybuilding champion) for his torso

Of all the ancient Greek sculptors, Phidias was best able to depict the majestic proportions and authority of the Olympic Gods. The high point in Phidias's career was around 448 B.C., when he produced one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the giant gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia

Phidias is of major importance from a physique point of view because he systematically and deliberately cultivated a style which could represent the perfection of man in a natural and dignified fashion. Sadly Phidias was found guilty of impiety by representing himself in an Amazon battle scene. He was convicted and died in prison. His work lived on and influenced sculptors for many centuries afterwards


Much of the great work of Phidias and his disciples was destroyed in wars, and artists changed direction seeking to express feelings and moods, rather than physiques and figures, but there were exceptions such as Lysippus and Polyclitus who depicted athletes in motion or in characteristic poses, and caught man as he should be seen at his physical best. Typical of the statues was Apoxyomenos, where an athlete is seen drying himself after exercise or competition. With work like this, it was little wonder that he was the favourite sculptor of Alexander the Great


After Alexander died the Macedonian armies carried abroad and Hellenic culture and the Hellenistic period lasted for 300 years until around the time of Christ when Roman art took over. Important examples of Hellenistic art include the Laocoon, the Venus de Milo (2nd century B.C.), The Boxer (National Rome Museum) and The Wrestlers (Florence Uffizi)

The practice of physical exercises first became fashionable in Rome as a prelude to the bath. The Roman love of bathing was one of the habits they spread throughout their Empire and in Britain today, there remain excellent examples of beautiful bathing establishments built by the Romans eg. Bath in Somerset. The ritual of the bath was extremely popular. It would include exercise, hot and cold baths, oiling, scraping and massaging the body. There were over 11,000 bathing establishments in Rome alone and by the 2nd century A.D. it was the favourite afternoon activity of the entire population

The Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) was mainly responsible for introducing gymnastic exercises into Rome on a significant scale and their use was officially encouraged. It should be borne in mind that until the last century the word 'gymnastics' was usually used to signify the practice of exercises for bodily form rather than the competitive sport we know by this name

While the Greeks were orientated towards grace and physical beauty the Romans worked mainly for the arts of war. Their emphasis expressed itself in many ways and unfortunately in their athletic sports they lost their sense of pure direction and purpose. The Romans slowly debased the Games and promoted them purely as a blood-letting spectacle


Anything was an excuse for 'Roman Holidays' and the presenting of these spectacles, which featured Gladiators, slaves and sometimes even wild beasts. Julius Caesar introduced sea fights in artificial lakes, but the climax was reached in the games of Claudius on Lake Fucinus when there was a properly staged battle with 100 ships (50 each side) and 19,000 men taking part. The participants were mainly convicts and slaves who were told they would be given their freedom if they fought gallantly and provided good sport!


With such blood-thirsty diversions capturing the interest of the population it is not surprising that the interest in pure physical culture waned. The muscular male ceased to be an important subject in art almost a century before the official establishment of Christianity. The statues of Hercules were the last to leave the scene and, we are happy to say were the first to return, but not until the middle ages...

Shortened version adapted for the Web taken from ‘The History of Bodybuilding’ by David Webster OBE, Social and Humanities Research Associate, The Physical Culture Museum, The Stark Center, University of Texas, USA


This book and many others by David Webster regarding all aspects of Physical Culture and Bodybuilding are available on request 




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