“Hey skinny, your ribs are showing.” (1)
A simple message that underpinned one of the most successful and well-known fitness advertisements of all time. Produced by Charles Atlas and his business partner, the “Insult that made a man out of Mac” advertisement inspired thousands to take up physical exercise in the 1930s.
In the ad, titular character Mac is shamed by a bully and has sand kicked in his face. Mac goes home, uses Atlas’ patented “dynamic tension” exercise plan, and returns to confront the bully. This advertisement made Atlas one of the most well-known personalities in the burgeoning fitness industry. Atlas promised a complete bodily transformation — without lifting a single weight.
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Atlas himself won two physique competitions in the early 1920s and regularly took part in public strength exhibitions to prove the value of his system. He pulled trains, broke steel bars, tore phonebooks in half, or lifted grown men with one hand. (2) Despite his successes, Atlas was met with more than his share of controversy.
So, what’s the truth? Was Charles Atlas a beloved and inspirational bodybuilder and coach, or a lying charlatan?
The Young Atlas
Born as Angelo Siciliano in 1892, Charles Atlas’s early life is difficult to properly pin down. As an early physical culturist, Atlas told several different stories about his childhood. He was the sickly child, the athletic child or the weak child — the story could vary at times.
Atlas was a first-generation Italian-American, who grew up at a time when anti-immigration sentiment in the United States was strong. This may have caused a significant amount of bullying and trauma for the young Atlas. (3)
In later years, Atlas claimed that he was once a “97-pound weakling” who was bullied at the beach. (3) Angry and disgusted, he took to transforming his body. At a loss about just how to do it, Atlas found inspiration from the local zoo.
It was at the zoo that Atlas became fascinated with the caged lions. Observing them, Atlas noted that the “king of the jungle” built its strength without a dumbbell or barbell. (2) Atlas returned home with a new resolve and began pushing one muscle against the other in a system he later called “dynamic tension.”
The Perfect Physique
Illustrative of Atlas’s impressive physique were his victories in a series of physique contests in the early 1920s. In 1921, Bernarr Macfadden, owner of the popular Physical Culture magazine, hosted an “America’s Most Handsome Man” competition. (4)
Atlas won Macfadden’s competition outright. The next year, Macfadden hosted an “America’s Most Perfectly-Developed Man” show in Madison Square Garden, which Atlas won as well. Also in 1922, he legally changed his name to Charles Atlas and began selling fitness courses to the public. (3)
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Through Macfadden, Atlas was introduced to Dr. Frederick Tilney, a physical culturist and prolific fitness writer. Working together and funded by Atlas’s contest winnings, the two published a bodyweight-only workout course that required no weights. The two rapidly built a friendship and a business venture together. (5)
From Failure to Success
Atlas and Tilney did not make for a successful duo, however. Initially targeted at men and women, Atlas’s bodyweight-only course had a hard time distinguishing itself from competitors. His system struggled to thrive or generate significant revenue. In fact, the situation was so dire that, in 1930, Atlas faced bankruptcy. (6)
Atlas was not alone in this regard, though. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 swept havoc across the fitness industry and even the most successful fitness entrepreneurs and business models rapidly descended from riches to rags within a few short years. (6)
What saved Atlas was his partnership with an advertising executive, Charles Roman. In 1929, Frederick Tilney sold his portion of their joint business to Roman and got out of the game.
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Roman had previously been responsible for managing Atlas’s finances and had, over time, become a keen proponent of Atlas’s physical training philosophy. After the two formally joined forces, the first thing Roman did was convince Atlas to make some drastic changes to his advertising. (3)
Thus began a series of advertising campaigns promoting Atlas’s ability to turn clients into so-called “he-men.” Advertising copy from the early 1930s promised to turn users into a “new man” within one week and featured information on how to build muscle.
Speaking to reporters in 1942, Roman claimed that the success of the Mac advertisement stemmed from the 1929 economic crash. Roman believed that, in times of economic turmoil or stress, men placed a greater emphasis on strength and muscularity. (1) Roman was not the only man in the fitness industry to make claims like this, as the proponents of 20 rep squats also made similar claims.
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The “Mac” advertisement was more successful than its contemporaries because it targeted teenagers and young men. It appeared in comic books and numerous popular culture magazines. At times, Mac was even referenced in popular culture, including the later Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ad wrapped with a simple promise — sign up to Atlas’s system and you’ll transform your life.
At the height of its prominence, Atlas’s company brought in 40,000 new clients a year. At one point, he even hired 29 women in his New York office whose sole job was to open letters and collect clients’ money. (2)
Despite Atlas passing in 1972 and Roman in 1999, their joint company continues to this day and maintains many of the same advertising slogans it used in its early years.
Distinguished Customer Service
While Roman’s marketing campaign is rightly celebrated for its ingenuity, an understated element of Atlas’s success was his customer service. Atlas often referred to clients as students or friends, and each lesson was written informally and accessibly.
Atlas received many letters each week from his clients, each of which received a personalized response. Atlas also made his New York offices available to his clientele and, if Atlas wasn’t too busy, would some feats of strength in person. (2) It was not unheard of for a group of teenagers to enter Atlas’s offices and leaves with nails, pipes, or coins that Atlas bent before their very eyes.
Although he was based in New York, Atlas established offices in London, England in the mid-twentieth century, welcoming customers from Europe and around the world. (7) While his businesses did falter in the latter half of the 20th century — especially so after the rise of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenneger — Atlas’s methods have been preserved thanks to the internet.
His approach to exercise maintains a small cult following to this day.
The Atlas System
Atlas claimed that strength, muscularity, and health could be built without lifting a single dumbbell or barbell. Thanks to the business acumen of his partner Roman, Atlas’s name became synonymous with the “anti-weight” movement.
Dynamic tension was based on the principle that you could build strength and size by using the force of your own muscles against each other to elicit growth and change.
While Atlas’s courses did include bodyweight staples like push-ups, sit-ups and dips from chairs, the exercises were performed as a form of manual resistance wherein exercises actively braced against themselves.
For example, Atlas would have trainees push their palms together as hard as possible as a way of building up the pectoral muscles. Below, you can see a template of the kind of training session that Atlas sold to the public. Note that all movements are pushed to the point of failure:
Charles Atlas’s Manual Resistance for the Upper Body
- For the Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps: Push-Ups
- For the Chest and Biceps: With one hand on top of the other, pretend to be pulling a rope from overhead to waist height. The trick is to squeeze your hands together while tensing your chest.
- For the Chest, Biceps, and Shoulders: Interlace your fingers at waist-height and squeeze your biceps hard in an attempt to pull your hands apart while also raising them upward over your head.
- For the Arms: Put your left fist beside your left hip with the left elbow bent. Now, crossing the right arm across the body, place the right fist on top of the left one. Push up with the left fist and down with the right fist as hard as possible. Switch sides when done.
- For the Shoulders and Arms: With your hands by your sides, tense your shoulders and arms as hard as you can. Repeat several times throughout the day.
Atlas recommended using a very slow tempo to “force” the muscle to work. Trainees were encouraged to work as hard as possible. Several times per week (and for some, daily), Atlas’s devout followers pushed, pulled, and contorted themselves in an effort to build up their bodies.
For other exercises, Atlas recommended using very slow tempos to force the muscle to work. Trainees were encouraged to train to near failure and to exert as much force as possible. Training several times a week, and for some enthusiastic exercisers, every day, people pushed and pulled their muscles in a variety of positions hoping to build their bodies.
The Atlas Controversies
By all accounts, Atlas was considered a kind and compassionate man, one whose lofty promises often exceeded the results delivered by his methods. (2)
Interviewed about Atlas’s system, physical culture historian and former elite powerlifter Terry Todd stated that, “dynamic tension can build muscle only to a limited degree … to build up muscle you need weights. But back then it was hard to make money in weights. You needed something cheap to make and cheap to ship.” (2)
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Atlas’s entire system was made up of a series of mail-order courses. Clients paid a small fee, either all at once or over the course of a few months, and received letters to their homes detailing his system. Atlas never recommended additional equipment. Anything he suggested could be found in the home (like chairs or towels).
However, Atlas did catch some flack for packaging a weight-free approach to resistance training when he once espoused the benefits of lifting weights personally. Back in 1922 shortly following his win at one of Macfadden’s contests, Atlas detailed his diet and training in which he positively endorsed the use of free weights. (8)
In the 1930s, his company also came under investigation by the Federal and Trades Commission (FTC) regarding his advertising claims. Atlas even took one of his commercial rivals, Bob Hoffman, to court after Hoffman described Atlas’s system as “dynamic hooey.” (2) Atlas won the court case by doing a handstand on his thumbs in the courtroom, but it did little to dissuade his dissenters.
As a final capstone, Atlas was also thought to have plagiarized his famous “Mac” advertisement. While Atlas opted for a different, more comic-inspired format on the beach, the industry did recognize that he may have in fact borrowed the selling point from another ad. (6)
The Best Fitness Ad…Ever?
Whether you believe in the merits of Atlas’s methods — and there were certainly reasons to be skeptical, even back then — there is no denying the influence the Italian-born American bodybuilder had on the budding fitness industry in the States.
Atlas garnered worldwide attention and renown for his work in physical culture and created one of the most successful exercise advertisements in history. While fitness entrepreneurs seem to pop up left, right, and center in the modern era, they all harken back to Atlas (whether they realize it or not).
1. Conor Heffernan, ‘“Hey Skinny, Your Ribs Are Showing”: Charles Atlas and American Masculinity, Physical Culture Study, November 19, 2019. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2014/11/19/hey-skinny-your-ribs-are-showing-charles-atlas-and-american-masculinity/
2. Jonathan Black, ‘Charles Atlas: Muscle Man,’ The Smithsonian, August 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charles-atlas-muscle-man-34626921/.
3. Reich, Jacqueline. ““The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” Charles Atlas, Physical Culture, and the Inscription of American Masculinity.” Men and Masculinities 12.4 (2010): 444-461.
4. Todd, Jan. “Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of Feminine Form.” Journal of Sport History 14, no. 1 (1987): 61-75.
5. ‘Frederick W. Tilney,’ Sandow Plus, https://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Tilney/tilney-intro.html.
6. Pollack, Benjamin, and Janice Todd. “Before Charles Atlas: Earle Liederman, the 1920s king of mail-order muscle.” Journal of Sport History 44, no. 3 (2017): 399-420. https://scholarlypublishingcollective.org/uip/jsh/article-abstract/44/3/399/218389
7. Gaines, Charles. Yours in perfect manhood, Charles Atlas: The most effective fitness program ever devised. Simon & Schuster, 1982.
8. Angelo Siciliano, ‘Building the Physique of a Greek God,’ Physical culture, https://web.archive.org/web/20070923023252/https://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Atlas/GreekGod/gg.htm.
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