Venice. Los Angeles, California. You duck between family reunions and skateboarding teenagers. The bustling boardwalk is lined with street vendors, hot dogs, and performers doing everything from juggling bowling pins to breathing fire.
Your destination? Muscle Beach. You’re on a journey to lift weights on the same hallowed ground as legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, and Lou Ferrigno. The Weight Pen is full of bumper plates, barbells, dumbbells, and benches — all of which are in clear view of tourists and locals alike, who gawk at your bodybuilding, powerlifting, or weightlifting prowess.
But the bodybuilding paradise that the world knows as Muscle Beach Venice today is not the original. A few hundred feet away, the first Muscle Beach was born in Santa Monica. Here’s how a children’s playground evolved into one of the most renowned sites of bodybuilding lore — and why it was torn down and remade in Venice.
The Birth of the Original Muscle Beach
By the early 1930s, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. But Los Angeles County had undergone another disaster: In 1933, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Long Beach, just south of downtown LA. Elementary schools in Santa Monica were devastated by the quake, and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around for rebuilding.
Local playground instructor Kate Giroux petitioned the city to build a park on the beach. She argued that it was easier (and cheaper) than building multiple different playgrounds to replace those that had been lost. Agreeing with her proposal, the city secured funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program that sponsored infrastructure projects across the country and employed around 8.5 million people in need of jobs throughout the Depression.
Though the spot chosen for the playground would eventually become legendary for bodybuilders, it was originally dubbed “High School Beach” because of its original vision as a playground. The weight lifting would begin soon enough.
Physical Culture Takes to the Sand
The former playground started morphing into “Muscle Beach” as it became a haven for local vaudeville performers, wrestlers, boxers, and acrobats searching for a place to perform and work out during the Depression. At first, these athletes would throw down mats, tarps, and blankets, reveling in the added soft landing provided by the sand. Throughout the ‘30s, athletes added a gymnastics platform, bars and rings, and even ping-pong tables.
Soon, benches appeared, but not just weight benches — benches for spectators to sit and watch the athletic action. And there was plenty to take in. With the onset of World War II, the location started morphing in earnest into one of the best-known homes for outdoor weight lifting and bodybuilding in the world. In 1947, the first Miss Muscle Beach and Mister Muscle Beach contests were held.
These novel contests combined assessments of beauty with rewarding athletes who “possess effective working sinews too and know how to flex them.”
And as with everything in fitness, the goings-on at Muscle Beach didn’t exist in a bubble.
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The Mister Muscle Beach contest, in particular, was noteworthy because Muscle Beach was “one of the most integrated stretches of Santa Monica Beach,” according to an article in the European Journal of American Studies by Elsa Devienne, Assistant Professor in History at Northumbria University.
Muscle Beach was located close to both The Inkwell at Ocean Park (a safe haven for Black beachgoers) and Crystal Cove (a section of the beach popular with LGBTQ+ beachgoers). This proximity was reflected in men’s Muscle Beach competitions. Black, Asian, and Latino men regularly participated in the Mr. Muscle Beach contests, with 23-year-old Latino Joe “Pepper” Gomez winning the title in 1950.
However, Miss Muscle Beach remained a segregated affair, with only white or white-passing women participating. Though Black women from Los Angeles did compete in beauty contests — and would organize to compete in Miss Val Verde contests about 40 miles from the coast — their participation and successes were only noted in Black newspapers at the time.
Big Names at the Beach
Today, strength athletes and enthusiasts alike journey to Venice to experience modern-day Muscle Beach. Not much has changed in that regard, as on the sands of Santa Monica, stars abounded from the 1930s into the late ‘50s, according to a retrospective from California’s KCET.
From Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton (née Eville) and Vic Tanny to Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold of Gold’s Gym, the original location played host to plenty of fitness trailblazers. The average day at Muscle Beach might also include appearances by UCLA gymnasts, accompanied by their coach CeCe Hollingsworth, strongman George Eiferman, or stuntwoman Paula Boelsems with her partner Russ Saunders.
For her part, Stockton found her way to Muscle Beach as a teenager in the late 1930s when her future husband, Les Stockton, encouraged her to start lifting with the light dumbbells on the beach. Les was an acrobat at UCLA — the typical athlete that populated the beach in its early days.
Of course, Stockton didn’t stick to light dumbbells. The weight-lifting champion performed tremendous feats of strength over the years at Muscle Beach, including holding herself steady enough to heft a 100-pound barbell over her head while Les held her up in the air.
These kinds of strength stunts were common sights on the beach. In her book Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution, author Marla Matzer Rose wrote of a typical summer’s day in the 1940s at Muscle Beach:
“By early afternoon, several dozen gymnasts, bodybuilders, and weightlifters would have been entertaining the crowd … Several strong women might have come out to lift weights, tear phone books in half, and even ‘wrestle’ with men using martial arts techniques.”
If fans wanted to reach those stars, they could (and did) address letters simply to “Muscle Beach, USA” and be confident they’d find their mark.
The Closure of Muscle Beach
By the 1950s, longstanding social hesitations that had brewed around Muscle Beach since its inception finally reached a boiling point. During its first two decades, the exhibitionism inherent in acrobatics and gymnastics was accepted and even largely embraced. As weight lifting and bodybuilding took center stage alongside a nationwide fascination with muscular thinness, bodybuilders on Muscle Beach were perceived by the general public as “both admirable and excessive.”
But in the 1950s, the “excessive” part of the equation began to win the day. Amidst brewing McCarthyism and homophobia across the country, local politicians and community members interested in “cleaning up” the beach criticized Muscle Beach as being a haven for “sexual deviants.”
The city council proposed a new location for Muscle Beach in 1957, farther south from the Santa Monica Pier. Athletes objected because the pier protected them from wind and the new location would discourage an audience — though that was precisely the point.
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Athletes continued to protest the potential closure of their favorite lifting and performance spot, but the situation became untenable in 1958 when four weightlifters who frequented Muscle Beach were accused of sexually assaulting two young Black girls. Devienne writes that a fifth weight lifter was jailed for possessing photos of “male nudity.”
Instead of distancing themselves from the sexual assault of young girls, some bodybuilders blamed the “‘h***’ carnival that prance[d] along the Santa Monica promenade” for Muscle Beach’s closure.
Regardless of athlete desire to keep the beach open, the city council closed down the area, filling it with dirt and transitioning to an “improved Muscle Beach” in Venice.
The Murky Beginnings of Muscle Beach Venice
The destruction of the original Muscle Beach coincided with the ousting of Black beachgoers from the nearby Inkwell and queer beachgoers from Crystal Beach via increased “development,” nearby apartment and hotel destruction, and the construction of a massive parking lot.
Alongside what the city called “clean-up” projects, requests for more policing to weed out “sexual deviance” at the new Muscle Beach were fulfilled with the construction of a “family-style outdoor gym area under strict municipal supervision.”
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Partly in response to accusations of Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach being filled with “feminine men and masculine women,” Devienne writes that women weight lifters and bodybuilders were gradually “sidelined” through the next couple of decades in the Venice location.
Amidst the destruction, a subsection of lifters at Muscle Beach Venice began to thrive. While gymnastics and acrobatics were still part and parcel with dumbbells and barbells, bodybuilding began to truly take hold in the 1960s. By 1987, the Weight Pen (as the location in Venice was known) was officially re-dubbed Muscle Beach Venice.
Within two years, the city erected a sign on the Santa Monica Pier to commemorate the original location of Muscle Beach. It came with a simple, yet apt, dedication: “The birthplace of the physical fitness boom of the twentieth century.” Even today, you can find gymnasts and acrobats showing off on the equipment that the city maintains. Though it’s a far cry from its heyday nearly a century ago.
Muscle Beach’s Legacy
Though mired in controversy, the original Muscle Beach had an immense impact on bodybuilding culture and lore. For one thing, its destruction gave rise to Muscle Beach Venice, where the likes of Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno trained, and where modern-day stars like Jennifer Aguirre still get a sweat going.
Athletes who have made tremendous impacts on strength sports — think Stockon and Gold — got their starts at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica and helped push fitness culture into the mainstream. So the next time you train for a strongwoman event or head up the stairs to your local Gold’s Gym, you’re taking the proverbial path laid out by a patch of sand a century ago in Southern California.