9 Old School Natural Bodybuilders Who Are Still Inspiring Today

These male athletes were the Founding Fathers of muscle culture.

Where is the ceiling in bodybuilding? Few questions divide fans of the physique-focused sport as starkly. The development of anabolic steroids around the mid-20th century forever changed the landscape of bodybuilding. In a way, it also muddied the waters with regard to what the human body is capable of on its own.

Although human beings have experimented with ergogenics and various performance-enhancers for far longer, it wasn’t really until the 1950s and 1960s that pharmaceuticals began to prominently feature in strength sports. Olympic lifters would dabble in drug use to enhance their strength and performance, a behavior that would rapidly proliferate into the burgeoning bodybuilding industry. 

Since there’s no way to know with absolute certainty who from days past was “natural” and who wasn’t, the safest practice is to look way back into the history books of fitness, before pharmacology evolved into the powerhouse it is in the modern era. (1) This doesn’t guarantee that an athlete possessed a naturally-obtainable physique, but it does bolster the odds. 

There were plenty of impressive physiques prior to the advent of color television, and even some jaw-dropping ones before the turn of the century. Here are some of the best bodies from the earliest days of bodybuilding.

Best Old-School Natural Bodybuilders

Note: The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of BarBend and/or BarBend’s organizational partners. BarBend does not support or condone the use of banned substances.

This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Defining Old School

Before diving into this list, understand that the dichotomy between pre and post-steroid use in bodybuilding is not a clear line. Without oversight by a governing body like the World Anti-Doping Agency or the International Testing Agency, it is impossible to say with complete certainty which athletes did or did not have access to exogenous hormones or other performance-enhancers at a given time.

It is a commonly-held belief in the bodybuilding industry that anabolic steroids and other compounds did not rise to prominence before the middle of the 20th century. However, there were likely exceptions and instances of drug use prior to that period. 

The athletes on this list have been selected for their contributions to physical culture and boundary-pushing endeavors in bodybuilding, irrespective of how their timelines sync up with the proliferation of illicit drugs. 

Eugen Sandow

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Mueller in 1867, the “Father of Modern Bodybuilding” Eugen Sandow was the world’s first global physique superstar. He toured worldwide, helping to popularize early forms of weight training and even hosted the world’s first formal physique contest. 

Sandow was hailed at the time for his physical perfection and muscle growth. His early training courses and manuals included measurement benchmarks to help others build their bodies as closely as possible to Sandow’s own. 


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In the mid 1890s, Sandow’s body was evaluated by Dudley Allen Sargent, Harvard University’s physical education instructor, and labeled as the best physique Sargant had encountered in all his thousands of measurements. Sandow’s physique was also commemorated with a bust in the Natural History Museum.

As a weightlifter and athlete, Sandow was able to lift 269 pounds in the “bent press,” do a back somersault holding a 56-pound dumbbell in each hand, and was able to perform any manner of pull-up, including one with just his thumbs. (2)

Bobby Pandour

Wladyslaw Kurcharczyk, or “Bobby Pandour” as he was billed to American audiences, is one of the most fascinating physical culturists of the late 19th century precisely because so little is known about him. Born sometime in the late 1870s to early 1880s, Pandour first came to fame in the fitness world when he was featured on the cover of French magazine La Cultur Physique.

Appearing in strongman performances with his brother Ludwig, Pandour came to the United States, where he toured for several years between 1907 to 1915. Sadly, an unspecified injury in 1915 meant the end of Pandour’s career as a traveling performer.


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Pandour trained as a gymnast and performed on a regular basis prior to retirement, which helped bulk up his physique. He also used unusual training methods, such as climbing flights of stairs with his brother on his back as a leg workout. (3) Pandour serves as a reminder of the power of genetics and how far you can take your physique without using weights

Al Treloar 

Born Alfred Toof Jennings in 1874 and later renaming himself as “Al Treloar,” Treloar won America’s first large-scale physique show in 1904.  Treloar’s body was praised for its near perfection and, in the eyes of the organizers, was the finest example of American manhood. Thanks to his victory, Treloar became a darling of the early American fitness industry.


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Treloar published a book on physical training in 1904, appeared in one of Thomas Edison’s films, and later was appointed the Director of the Los Angeles Athletics Club, a position he held for 42 years. There, Treloar helped coach generations of weightlifters and other athletes.

Treloar was no slouch himself in the strength department. As a student at Harvard University, he was credited with being able to lift 1,150 pounds on a strength machine housed at the college. (4)


In 1882, German-born strongman Max Sick would later rename himself Maxick and perform various feats of strength across Europe in the early 1900s. A proponent and promoter of “muscle control,” Maxick was able to contract and contort his muscles in a way that defied explanation at the time. (5)


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Maxick could roll, jiggle, and gyrate the muscles of his body to music in ways that would make Frank Zane’s vacuum poses look like child’s play. Maxick combined his seemingly-inhuman posing demonstrations with strength exhibitions, and was able to lift 322.5 pounds overhead while weighing as little as 145 pounds.

Charles Atlas 

In 1922, Angelo Siciliano changed his name to Charles Atlas and embarked on a career as a fitness celebrity who sold home workout instructions. What distinguished Atlas from many of his competitors was his claim that he never lifted weights, and that you didn’t need any specialized equipment to build strength and muscularity.


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While the most famous images of Atlas show a man who is undoubtedly healthy, his physique lacks the definition of some of his contemporaries. Early in his career, though, Atlas would legitimately have been categorized as a prominent bodybuilder. In 1921 and 1922, Atlas won back-to-back national physique shows and built himself a substantial business as a result. 

Sig Klein

Sig Klein is one of the least-discussed but most important figures of early American bodybuilding. Born in Germany in 1902, Klein’s family moved to Ohio the following year. Infatuated with strength, Klein began training at the age of 12 with an improvised system of weights and pulleys.

In 1924, Klein moved to New York, where he established his own gym. Klein’s “Physical Culture Studio” was one of the better-known gyms in America in the 1940s and 1950s, while Klein himself was continually photographed for the covers of muscle magazines.


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Klein stressed training for aesthetics over strength — his motto was “train for shape and the strength will follow.” (6) That said, he did value the importance of lifting heavy. His “Sig Klein” challenge demanded lifters clean and jerk two 75-pound dumbbells for 10 repetitions, a task much easier said than done. 

Alan P. Mead

Born in the late 19th century in England, Alan P. Mead became famous in the 1920s and 1930s for his remarkable muscularity. Like Maxick, Mead was a practitioner of muscular control and, in fact, was regarded as one of the best muscle performers of his generation. 


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What makes Mead all the more extraordinary was the fact that he had a leg amputated following an injury suffered during his time fighting in World War I. During his recovery, Mead took to physical activity and, through force of will, grew into an icon for British veterans struggling to get back in shape after their service. (7)

Melvin Wells

Physical culture and fitness communities were, for many decades, strongly influenced by rampant racial discrimination. Thusly, non-white bodies were typically neglected in media — with the exception of the extraordinary Melvin Wells. Born in Buffalo in 1919, Wells played sports in high school and, if stories are true, lifted rocks and large stones in an unheated garage to build his body.


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Wells fought in the Second World War, and during his service added 14 pounds of lean mass to his frame. When he returned home, Wells continued to train and was introduced to the barbell.

Wells won the Mr. New York State bodybuilding show in 1949 and the Most Muscular Award at the Mr. America contest as well. The following year, Wells won the Most Muscular Award again but failed to capture the overall title. (8)

It is said that Wells could perform a deep squat with 400 pounds for multiple repetitions and single-arm press 150 pounds.

Steve Reeves 

No list documenting the greats of old would be complete without mentioning Steve Reeves. Born in Glasgow, Montana in 1926, Reeves took to training while still in high school. After returning to the States following his tenure in World War II, Reeves enrolled in a chiropractic college.

During his years in school he began to make a name for himself in bodybuilding, owing to his jaw-dropping and well-proportioned muscularity. Reeves won the Mr. America contest in 1947, the Mr. World in 1948, and the Mr. Universe in 1950.

In three short years, Reeves had effectively conquered the physique world.


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Opting out of a career in bodybuilding, Reeves turned his physique toward film and television. In 1958, Reeves starred as the Greek god Hercules, a role that cemented him as an iconic figure in the American film industry. (9)

Rumors persist surrounding Reeves having perhaps utilized performance-enhancing drugs, but the athlete and his representatives have always denied the allegations and no credible evidence has ever been put forth. 

A Lasting Legacy

There will always be a degree of controversy surrounding any “best” list that attempts to categorize athletes. After all, there really isn’t such a thing as a true apples-to-apples comparison — bodybuilding is a subjective, individual sport

Furthermore, there isn’t an empirical way to determine when exactly anabolic steroids started to make inroads into the bodybuilding community. However, there isn’t much credible evidence backing the idea that the sport was rife with drug use prior to roughly the 1950s either. 

Happenstance and conjecture aside, the athletes on this list were trailblazers in their own right. They were all hailed and praised for their physiques, which may pale in comparison to modern winners of the Mr. Olympia contest but appeared downright superhuman in their day.

Most of these athletes were also beastly strong, which adds to their credibility and proves that bodybuilding is more about what you can do with your body than what you put into it. 


1. Fair, John D. “Isometrics or steroids? Exploring new frontiers of strength in the early 1960s.” Journal of Sport History 20, no. 1 (1993): 1-24.
2. ‘Eugen Sandow,’ Strongman Project
3. Conor Heffernan, ‘Bobby Pandour: The Myterious Muscle Man,’. Physical Culture Study, 18 Nov, 2020. 
4. ‘Al Treloar,’ Sandow Plus
5. Logan Christopher, ‘Strongman Profile: Maxick Teaches Us the Lost Art of Muscle Control,’ Breaking Muscle, 11 November 2013. 
6. ‘Sig Klein,’ Strongman Project
7. Logan Christopher, ‘Strongman Profile: Alan Mead Teaches Us About Perseverance,’ Breaking Muscle, January 1, 2015. 
8. Bill Pearl, ‘Marvin Wells,’ Facebook, July 8, 2018, 
9. Rick Lyman, ‘Steve Reeves, 74 Whose Hercules Began a Genre,’ New York Times, May 5, 2000, 

Featured Image: @stevereeves_official on Instagram