The History of Strength III - Charles Atlas

The History of Strength III - Charles Atlas

-Matthew Cavalier

For anyone who has spent any length of time in the gym, most people, if not everyone, has at one point or another looked up to bodybuilders. Whether we were fascinated by their physiques, wanted to be bodybuilders ourselves or just wanted to look good with no clothes on, we at the very least know who some of the biggest names are. Names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates and Chris Bumstead are practically household names in the gym community. However, there is one man who is considered the father of bodybuilding that many people today have never heard of. He was the Arnold of his time, and rightfully so. His name was Charles Atlas.

Charles was born in the small town of Acri, Italy on October 30, 1892. His birth name was Angelo Siciliano. In 1903, Angelo would arrive at Ellis Island with his parents like the other millions of immigrants during the early 1900s. Without the ability to speak English, he started his American life in Brooklyn. A small, frail, feeble and sickly kid, he was bullied and often got into fights with his peers. However, that would not be his lasting legacy. Angelo liked to go to the Brooklyn museum and admire the statues of the Greek gods like Apollo, Hercules and Zeus. He wanted to grow to be big and strong like the men of mythology.

During the early 20th century, bodybuilding was a fringe culture. Very few people participated. Of those that did, the most popular and the pinnacle of them all was Eugene Sandow. Sandow was a Prussian strongman and bodybuilder known for lifting ponies over his head and popping chains across his chest. In an effort to be more like Sandow, Angelo would construct homemade equipment and train on his own. Frustrated with the lack of results, Angelo drew inspiration from the lions he saw at the zoo. He realized that the lions became big and strong with nothing more than their own bodies. Angelo would ditch his equipment and learn how to use isometric exercises and holding poses as a way to stimulate and grow his muscles. The once pitiful and frail young boy would have his own impressive physique that drew the attention of his peers. During a visit to the beach, someone was so impressed with Angelo’s new body, he compared him to a statue of Atlas atop a building nearby. From then on, Angelo would be known as Charles Atlas.

In an effort to start his own career, Charles took a side gig as a janitor while he was a sideshow strongman. His feat was to challenge men to step on him while he lay on a bed of nails to showcase his hardened body. Unfortunately, the sideshow gig was not going to help Charles get very far in life. Before he faded away, however, he was noticed by a local artist. Amazed by his physique, the artist wanted to use Charles as a model. Charles would soon be bounced around from artist to artist as a model for various pieces of artwork that included paintings and sculptures. They were all amazed by his physique and his ability to hold poses for as long as thirty minutes. For his troubles, Charles was able to make as much as $100 per week. Charles was beginning to see some success for his work.

Later on, Charles Atlas would submit his picture to a physique contest called the “World’s Most Beautiful Man.” The contest was sponsored by a magazine called Physical Culture. Charles won the contest. In 1922, Charles would win another physique contest called “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” More than 750 men participated in the contest, and all were dwarfed by Charles Atlas. Unfortunately, this success would not be long lasting. Atlas would make an attempt to sell mail order exercise routines, but his company failed. Later, he would meet a man by the name of Charles Roman, who would take over his marketing for his company. With his knowledge of ad copy, Roman and Atlas would coin and market the term “Dynamic Tension,” which would become the name of Atlas’s fitness program that would transform the physique and physical capability of any man. Together, they would become marketing giants. Atlas would challenge the ego of every man in America. During the days after the Great Depression, Atlas challenged every man to reclaim their masculinity through fitness. Fitness would transform from a niche hobby of a small few to a measure of masculine success. Atlas and Roman were able to expertly promote and expand the brand. Pictures and ads of Atlas hoisting beautiful women were plastered all over the place. There were Charles Atlas ads in more than 400 comic books and magazines. Atlas would spend time with boxers, the most popular American athletes at the time. Even the likes of the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey would find himself with Charles Atlas. Atlas also loved publicity stunts. For example, he was known for pulling a 145,000 pound locomotive for 112 feet. By 1950, there were more than a million Atlas pupils around the world. Dynamic Tension was translated into seven different languages. Some of these pupils were very famous, like the comedian Fred Allen, the legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, the great Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees and Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Charles Atlas would be a household name.

Not everyone bought into what Atlas was selling, however. He did draw criticism from some in the fitness world. One of his critics was Bob Hoffman, the owner and founder of York Barbell, who called the Atlas program “dynamic hooey.” Hoffman did not believe that Atlas could achieve such an incredible physique without the use of any equipment. The two of them would have a famous feud and have a case heard before the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC would side with Atlas, saying that he created his own physique with his own methods. Hoffman would be forced to leave the issue alone. Despite possibly being caught using some weights from time to time, Atlas was such an incredibly nice and well liked man, that no one really seemed to care. Even with his allegations against Atlas, Hoffman did admire and respect the man for his business and his physique.

Even with all of the limelight and money, Charles Atlas was a very humble man. Yes, he did love his publicity stunts and hanging out with the stars, but Atlas was not known for having a big ego. Atlas did not spend his money on extravagant luxuries, and seldom went to nightclubs, and when he did, he spent more time trying to convince patrons to drink orange juice instead of alcohol. Atlas would not waste his time with fast women as he was a devoted husband to his wife Margaret and loving father to his two children, Charles Jr. and Diana. The great Charles Atlas died on December 24, 1972.

The name of Charles Atlas lives on to this day. Dynamic Tension is still being sold and, you can even buy a Charles Atlas t-shirt with the old fashioned advertising style of his time. If you want to check it out, visit

If you are within driving distance of Baton Rouge and need a place to train for your next strongman competition, powerlifting meet or weightlifting meet, check out the Atlas Strength Shop for all of your training needs. Send an email to for your next visit. You can also check out our apparel line and programming options on our website. Be sure to like our Facebook page, here, and follow us on Instagram, here. Do you need a high quality energy supplement that won’t leave you with that crashing feeling? Check out veteran owned and use promo code ATLASSTRENGTH at checkout to get 20% off of your order. If you’re like me, and you like to bite down while lifting, you need to protect your teeth. Check out Impact Mouthguards and their custom molded mouth guards. Use promo code ATLASSTRENGTH at checkout to get 10% off of your order.

“Nobody picks on a strong man!” -Charles Atlas