Concurrent with the modern Olympic movement, the emphasis on the perfect human physique came to captivate Prussian Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). He described his early teenage self as weedy, fragile, and pale-skinned. When he was fifteen, his father took him on a trip to Rome where the young man became infatuated with the brawny brutes represented in Greek and Roman statuary. He dreamed of emulating them, and on return home Sandow committed himself to achieve a state of physical perfection. To determine exactly what the “Grecian ideal” should be, he visited museums and measured statues’ various dimensions.
Then taking tips from circus strongmen, Sandow began pumping iron to achieve the Grecian ideal of broad shoulders, tapered back, small waist, and detailed but overwhelmingly huge muscles. He performed lots of reps. It worked (and it still does).
Sandow stressed the aesthetics of muscle size and definition over strength, but he became strong in the process. At eighteen, he left home and toured Europe first as a circus athlete and professional wrestler and later as a weightlifter. Eventually, Florenz Ziegfield contracted him to show off in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Once they discovered that the audiences were more interested in Sandow’s robust physique than in how much weight he was lifting, Ziegfield asked him to pose and flex in what he called “muscle display performances” to highlight various muscle groups.
Subsequently, Sandow traveled the world, published Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, and name-branded a line of cigars, possibly the first celebrity endorsement of a commercial product. In his performances, Sandow dazzled audiences with feats of strength such as lifting pianos, bending iron bars, bench-pressing cows, and tearing decks of cards in half, a stunt for which Sandow was once bested. A young man in the audience, who later became the “World’s Strongest Youth,” jumped on the stage, took half of the torn deck from Sandow, and tore it in half again.
In 1901, Sandow hosted the first major bodybuilding show, “The Great Competition,” for an overflowing crowd at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Clad in leopard-skin leotards, the sixty contestants flexed their muscles for the enthusiastic crowd and the discerning eyes of the three judges, who were Charles Lawes, a sculptor and athlete; Arthur Conan Doyle, author and friend of Sandow’s; and Sandow himself. The winner received a gold-plated statuette of the competition’s nearly naked host.
For all these accomplishments, Sandow is known as the father of modern bodybuilding. (Take note, bodybuilding contests stress form, not strength. By contrast, powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters are not judged at all on their appearance, just on their strength and explosive speed, respectively.) Sandow inspired the golden age of body builders, which included Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today, the award for the Mr. Olympia contest is “The Sandow.”
Launching June 13, 2023, Pre-order now
also available at