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History Of Bodybuilding In America

Bodybuilding is a noble sport but how long has it been around in America and when did weight training turn into a bodybuilding industry?

Let’s take a look at how the sport of competitive bodybuilding came about and how modern-style bodybuilding has a rich history in the United States.


When Did Bodybuilding First Start?

The first known bodybuilding machinery appeared in around the 11th century in India.

There the first dumbbells can be found (though they were made from stone) and by the 16th century, heading to the gym to work on muscular development through lifting weights was something of a national pastime.


Early Bodybuilding In America

It wasn’t, however, until the 19th century that somebody popularized bodybuilding in the West.

It didn’t begin with bodybuilding competitions, however, but rather with the physical culture of the strongman.

This took off in Europe first but quickly made its way to the Americas too. Strongmen had inter-village fitness competitions and muscle mass would have been highly sought after.

Eugene Sandow, was the most famous of the early strongmen and it was his visit to the US in the 1890s that helped to promote the bodybuilding movement.

And the first World Championship bodybuilding competition was held in the UK in 1891, and the first instance of weightlifting at the Olympics arrived in 1896 – all thanks to Sandow’s influence.

You can still see his muscular body today in the image of the Mr. Olympia contest statue.


Competitive bodybuilders: The First Bodybuilding Contest

The first bodybuilding contest came about in 1891 as “The Great Show” and it was held by Eugene Sandow.

He brought Americans and Europeans together to compete in the UK for a top prize of around $2,500 and a gold “Sandow” statue.

To enter, each person had to have been placed in an amateur athletic union style contest prior to entry.


Weight Training Catches On

The first-ever bodybuilding magazines emerged at the start of the 1920s and they helped to promote bodybuilding and bodybuilding contests to the young men of the time.

For the first time ever, bodybuilding developed a large following and the bodybuilding world turned its stars into household names.

Lifting animals as the strong men once had, became pumping iron and the gym industry began to differentiate between bodybuilding and weight training for the first time.


Bodybuilding Culture Grows

The 1930s arrived and now, those who wanted to become a famous bodybuilder also wanted to work on developing balanced physiques and leading a healthy lifestyle too.

In California, Muscle Beach began to welcome many bodybuilders and they would show off their muscle quality to each other in the golden sunlight.


Mr. America Contest Is Established

The first American official competition for professional bodybuilders was Mr. America.

It was advertised in 1939 and the first winner, in 1940, was John Grimek.


The Bodybuilders Of The 1940s

Grimek was soon forgotten in the avalanche of men who had more of a muscular physique than he did. Clancy Ross was to win the Mr. America tournament in 1945 and Steven Reeves won both Mr. America and (much later) the Mr. Universe trophy.

Reeves is often considered to be the father of modern bodybuilding and his performance in bodybuilding competitions was world-famous.

Reg Park arrived in 1946 and he would inspire Ben Weider to form the International Federation of Bodybuilders and this, in turn, would inspire the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association in England!


The Arrival Of Modern Bodybuilding: Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia

Mr. Universe was the first large-scale bodybuilding competition and it began in 1950. In the 1960s, another major bodybuilding competition would begin – Mr. Olympia.

While it’s true that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decade was the 1970s, it’s worth remembering his first major win was against Dennis Tinereno when he took the Mr. America title in 1967.

However, for the rest of the 60s, Larry Scott and Sergio Oliva would dominate the Olympia competition and other large-scale bodybuilding competitions.


The 1970s: Arnold Schwarzenegger

The 1970s belonged to one man, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would win Mr. Universe 5 times and the Mr. Olympia title 7 times in this decade.

He was simply unstoppable and it was this that began the golden age of the actual sport of bodybuilding and muscular strength and physical prowess became highly desirable athletic skills and they soon started a golden era of money too.

International competition became lucrative as did the physical culture overall.


The 1980s: Bodybuilding Comes Of Age

In the 1980s, they’d come a long way from the days of Physical Culture Magazine and the history of bodybuilding was already starting to become a serious mark in sporting history.

Top actors started to train to lose their body fat and lift weights. Female bodybuilders began to emerge as serious competitors in their own right too.

Muscular actors like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone then inspired other athletes such as Carl Lewis and his arch-rival Ben Johnson to also pursue physical development through body-building techniques.

This was of course good for the industry. They’d never sold as much exercise equipment and training techniques were evolving rapidly, dietary strategies became a standard part of every physical improvement routine too.

However, the money that was flowing into the sport began to bring a darker side to things. The human body can be naturally enhanced or the process can be sped up somewhat using illegal drugs. The innocent early history of the sport was over, now steroids and worse, were the way forward for many desperate competitors.


The 1990s: The Curse Of Anabolic Steroids

People had been using steroids for decades, even in the 60s and 70s but the 80s made them popular and they were often combined with insulin and growth hormones too to gain a competitive edge and in the 90s their use just exploded.

Routine drug testing began to play a large part in the sport, even in female bodybuilding where the prize pots were not as large and the competition not quite so fierce.

Fortunately, the sport also still produced great champions such as Dorian Yates who simply redefined what it meant to be built.


The 2000s To Now: The Internet And Bodybuilding

The 2000s have seen the emergence of the greatest builders of all time, guys like Ronnie Coleman, Dexter Jackson, and Jay Cutler have shown that professional bodybuilders can keep redefining themselves.

The sport has gone mainstream with Mr. Olympia now being a pay-per-view favorite and Arnold has returned by buying up and editing many of his favorite magazines.

Most of all, the internet has hugely contributed to the sport’s popularity and accessibility. Not only are their legions of websites dedicated to the sport but also thousands of social media accounts showing people what kind of results they can get from training hard.


Final Thoughts On America’s Bodybuilding History

America has a long, rich history of bodybuilding and there’s no doubt at all that this will continue. The popularity of living right, working out, and eating good food will ensure that.

If you’re looking to make a splash in the world of bodybuilding competition then you might want to check out our articles on Crazy Bulk Muscles, Bulking for Beginners Guide, and the guide to the best weight-training apps.

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Stephen Oliver
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