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The Most Enduring Fitness Scam in History

For decades, Charles Atlas claimed you could get a physique like his solely through the body-weight exercises found in his Dynamic Tension program — no weights necessary. But that claim definitely was doing a significant amount of heavy lifting

The beachfront advertisement for the Dynamic Tension training program of Charles Atlas is among the most iconic marketing campaigns in American history. This is especially true of its reputation within fitness circles. The image of a skinny young man getting pie-faced to the ground by a beach bully, only to return to the scene of his humiliation after months of diligent training to punch his bully into a state of unconsciousness and leave with all of that beach’s most beautiful women is the distilled essence of the bully-revenge fantasy.

This fantasy is undoubtedly every bit as common as bullying itself, along with the desire for physical self-improvement, and the even more pervasive hope many men have to be attractive. To its credit, the ad for Dynamic Tension preyed on these desires perfectly, and the realism of this narrative was held together by the muscled figure of Atlas, who positioned himself as the living embodiment of the literal 98-pound weakling who metamorphosed into an allegorical Greek god via the Dynamic Tension training regimen.

Making the Myth

Article from The Leader Post of Saskatchewan, October 1, 1921

The man who took on the name of a Titan was born Angelo Siciliano in October 1892. By the time he emerged in 1921 to win his first of two $1,000 contests held in the New York area for possessing the most beautiful male face and form in the world — a dubious claim considering the geographic limitations of the search — Siciliano had already acquired his professional alias, having posed for several of the most prominent artists and sculptors of the era. 

Obviously, being able to lay even a disputed claim to possession of the most beautiful physique in the world is valuable if you have the prestige of a formal competition to back your claims. A reporter from the Buffalo Sunday Express promptly swooped in to interview Atlas, and on February 19, 1922, the newspaper printed Atlas’ first recorded answers to the question of how he had managed to develop the moneymaking physique that was in such artistically high demand.

Atlas began by explaining how he knew of no other way to grow in size and strength other than natural growth. However, upon relocating to Brooklyn from Calabria, Italy, and wandering around the city, he happened upon the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This is where he admired the Greek masterpieces contained within the museum, and had it explained to him by Dr. Davenport, the proprietor of a local settlement house, how the physiques in those works of art were replicable through physical training. At this point, Atlas went into detail to explain the methods he employed to craft his own body.

“I was too poor to join the YMCA, so I went home and made a barbell of two cobblestones from the pavement, which I tied to the ends of a stick,” he said. “I practiced with this, and imitated exercises that I had seen at the gymnasium. Finally, I was able to buy a spring pulley weight, and I worked at home with this after I had finished my task in the leather factory. I felt myself growing perceptibly stronger. Later, I joined the YMCA where I took up wrestling and gymnastics. I like the light exercises best. It is to them, practiced unflaggingly for years, that I owe the symmetry of my development.”

After spending some time discussing the benefits of proper breathing and taking in air of the highest quality, Atlas continued to describe other muscle-building exercises he found valuable. “Pushing one’s body up from the floor is another good exercise,” he opined. “Chinning and stretching are also good. These exercises should, in general, be done about 25 times each.”

Then, after explaining that he doesn’t engage in any strict dietary practices, and divulging that he enjoys drinking and smoking, Atlas concluded the interview. 

To be clear, Atlas credited weight training and bodyweight training — including push-ups and either pull-ups, chin-ups or both — for his powerful physique. If it’s true too that he “took up” gymnastics, it’s important to note that gymnasts of the era trained with rings, horizontal bars, parallel bars, Indian clubs, steel wands and dumbbells, all of which are required for either highly demanding bodyweight or strength-training exercises.

By any interpretation of his story, Atlas certainly engaged in a diverse range of relatively common muscle-challenging activities when forging his aesthetic. The date of the article’s publication is crucial as well, because it reportedly wasn’t until November 1922 that Atlas teamed up with Dr. Frederick Tilney and began designing training courses of his own.

A Shift in the Story

Not too much later, in 1924, Atlas was interviewed by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and this is when elements of his story began to trend in a different direction, as Atlas was now a man with a training program to sell. The allusion to his initial training with a homemade barbell remained, but the article states that Atlas had soon “compiled his own set of exercises which he practiced diligently. They were mostly exercises of natural movement without apparatus.”

Despite the assertion of Atlas that he preferred not to use any sort of apparatus — e.g.,  a barbell, a wand, a rope, a pull-up bar or any other sort of training device — he couldn’t deny their contributions to the development of his musculature. When being forced to tell the tale of his initial discovery, Atlas explained how he got his break as a result of the job he held demonstrating athletic springs in a drug store window for several hours each day. These springs have often been referred to as “chest expanders,” but they were most frequently used for a host of shoulder and arm exercises, in the same way that elastic bands might be utilized today. In other words, it’s impossible to downplay the benefits these hours of apparatus training bestowed upon Atlas’ body.

It was in 1925 when Atlas began the rollout for his Dynamic Tension exercises and completely changed his tune. In the magazine section of the Tampa Tribune on August 9, 1925, Atlas wrote the editorial “My Program for a Perfect Figure.” The first round of exercises included push-ups with the upper portion of the body elevated between two stools, flexing of the bicep in order to strengthen it, pushing your head against resistance provided by your hand to strengthen your neck and standing and bending to the left, right, forwards and backwards as a torso trainer.

A week later, Atlas published a second round of exercises in the pages of the Tampa Tribune. This time he advised readers to perform straight-legged sit-ups, which he claimed would provide the added benefit of stimulating the internal organs and causing them to function properly. From there, he proposed that readers could train their triceps by clasping their hands together and pressing downward against resistance provided by the other arm, exercise their backs and legs simultaneously by attempting to pull their legs up with their hands as they resist themselves and further train their legs by stretching forward as far as they could, touching their foreheads to their knees, and then returning to the starting position in what could generously be described as a lunge.

Apparently, giving away his exercise solutions for free, whether they were spurious or not, was bad business. In May 1930, the Times Union of New York posted a notice of bankruptcy for Atlas. However, Atlas rebounded with the help of advertising man Charles Roman, and just four years later, Atlas’ first national ad for Dynamic Tension appeared in print. 

Committing to the Lie

In that first ad, Atlas declared it “bunk” that muscle development takes a long time, and further affirmed it in an awkwardly worded sentence by stating, “I’ll prove in the first seven days you can have a body like mine!” This was also the moment where Atlas fully deviated from his prior statements by saying “don’t fool yourself into thinking you need dumbbells, springs or any other contraptions. I don’t need any apparatus, either. I have no sympathy for apparatus at all — don’t believe in it. It is artificial — and it may strain your heart or other vital organs for life!”

From there, Atlas went on to officially declare his system to be known as Dynamic Tension. Five years later, the Federal Trade Commission struck a blow against Atlas, but did him a phenomenal branding favor in the process. In the coverage of Atlas being reprimanded and banned from suggesting that adherents to his exercise program could acquire a body that looked like his in any length of time — an announcement that made the front page of several papers around the nation — this notification was printed with the headline “On the Muscle: U.S. Tells Mr. Atlas He Can’t Be Duplicated.” It, of course, only affirmed that a man who stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 175 pounds in his prime — which he was nearly 20 years removed from by this point — remained the nation’s physical ideal, and its foremost expert in muscular development. 

After eliminating any projections as to how long it would take for his customers to realize appreciable results from their muscle-building efforts, Atlas simply leveraged his reputation as the nearly 50-year-old man whose physique couldn’t be replicated into another series of ads that circulated in comic books and magazines for decades, including the famous beach ad that made him a national icon.

By the time he died in December 1972, Atlas had sold multiple generations of young men on the idea that they could acquire his physique through a series of exercises that bore no resemblance to the training regimen Atlas himself engaged in while he was in his prime. Fortunately for him, in a world where the printed word was quickly forgotten, he was able to edit and redraft the narrative surrounding his workout routine over several decades until he finally happened upon the story that would transform him into an enduring fitness legend, and enable him to die as a very wealthy man. 

He essentially proved the rule of legendary psychoanalyst Walter Langer: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”