The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly has this as its
cover story: “The 100 Most Influential Americans of All
I found myself growing frustrated as I read it. Once you get
past the guys on Mt. Rushmore, it seems like a grab-bag, with an
overwhelming 19th-century bias. Were Walt Whitman (#22)
and Ralph Waldo Emerson (#33) really more influential than Bill
Gates (#54)? Were people in the 1800’s so literate that a gay
poet and reclusive philosopher changed their lives the way the
ubiquity of the personal computer has changed ours?
My second thought was that almost no one on the list had the
slightest influence on health, nutrition, or physical fitness.
(Unless you count P.T. Barnum, #67, whose influence on bodybuilding
in general, and the supplement industry in particular, can’t
be underestimated.) More than 40 million Americans – well
north of 10 percent of American adults – belong to health
clubs. Surveys consistently show that the majority of Americans
worry about their weight.
Where does that come from? Who convinced us that it was
important to exercise? And whose fault is it that most Americans
are so goddamned confused about how to do it?
A bit of backstory: Two years ago, I was commissioned to work on
a magazine story called “The Best Trainers of All Time.”
My coauthor and I surveyed a group of folks in the fitness biz and
came up with a list of 10 all-time greats.
But several of the people we surveyed expressed disappointment
with the results, and, for different reasons, the story never ran
in the magazine. But it did make me think about what we lifters do
in terms of its historical context. Strange as it seems, there were
moments in our nation’s history when muscleheads like us
inspired genuine and sincere efforts to improve public health and
raise awareness of physical fitness and the importance of good
Here is my very opinionated ranking of the most influential of
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Professional bodybuilding before Arnold was nothing in terms of
its impact on society. After Arnold, it returned to nothing. But in
between, Arnold almost single-handedly made bodybuilding appear to
be an actual sport involving strategy and gamesmanship to those who
knew nothing about it beyond the fact it required grown men to
shave their bodies, apply barbecue sauce and baby oil to their
skin, and appear onstage next to each other wearing six square
inches of fabric.
That was a hell of a trick.
More importantly, Arnold flipped the notion that hypertrophied
muscles were a manifestation of blue-collar labor at best,
unfettered narcissism at worst. He changed the narrative. With
Arnold, muscles were the apogee of aspiration, of achievement, of
achieving the American dream… even if you were a veteran of
the Austrian army.
That, and he got to fuck a Kennedy.
But Arnold’s influence also has a dark side: Along with
Jesse Ventura, he’s one of two admitted steroid users to
become governor of a state. We’d never have heard of either
man if they hadn’t used steroids. How do you talk about the
risks of anabolic drugs with your kids or students or the athletes
you coach when they know as well as you that the potential rewards
include a massive fortune, worldwide fame, the governorship of our
wealthiest state, and sex with a Kennedy?
2. Bob Hoffman
Everything Joe Weider did, Bob Hoffman did first. He published
magazines, manufactured weight-lifting equipment, created and
pushed nutritional supplements on his audience, and ran a national
sports organization as his private fiefdom.
He even hired a sculptor to put a likeness of his head on
another man’s (more muscular) physique. If you tried to
measure their egomania, both men would be off the charts, but
Hoffman would probably win, if for no other reason than the fact
Hoffman pioneered the marketing of an honorary doctorate as a
legitimate academic credential. Even Weider never went that far.
At the start of his career, Weider made no secret of his
admiration of Hoffman and his desire to follow in his footsteps.
But that was before they became competitors, trading insults and
lawsuits throughout the 1950s, as Weider’s influence rose and
Hoffman’s stood poised for a fall.
Hoffman was decades ahead of his time. Starting in the 1930s, he
championed strength training for everyone, from his employees to
the world’s best athletes to (gasp!) women. With his base in
York, Pennsylvania, he built an empire of iron that included Strength & Health magazine, York Barbell, and de facto
leadership of the once-dominant U.S. weightlifting team.
I doubt if 1 percent of today’s sports fans know that the
Americans used to dominate Olympic weightlifting the way Tiger
Woods dominates golf. Led by Hoffman’s York Barbell-affiliated
athletes, the U.S. team won eight medals in six weight classes at
the 1948 Olympics, including four gold. In fact, York had so many
of the strongest lifters in the world in the 1940s and ’50s
that it was dubbed “Muscletown, U.S.A.” (That’s also
the title of a book by John Fair chronicling Hoffman’s rise
Hoffman’s big mistake was waiting too long to realize that
bodybuilding had broader appeal than competitive weightlifting. It
seems obvious now, but back in the ’50s Hoffman and the
writers in his magazine made endless fun of Weider and his focus on
bodybuilding. They thought the idea of men going into a gym to
build their pecs and lats was absurd, and unleashed their
homophobia and anti-semitism on bodybuilders in general and Weider
By the time Hoffman embraced bodybuilding and the new sport of
powerlifting and started publishing Muscular Development magazine in 1963, he was already on the wrong side of history,
despite his three decades as the master of the hypertrophied
3. Eugen Sandow
When you read about the feats of strength performed by Sandow, a
Prussian born in 1867, you can’t fathom that any of these
things were done by a human being, much less a 180-pounder who
performed them a half-century before the Russkies figured out the
magic of man-juice.
In one of his books, he claimed to have done a one-arm shoulder
press with 322 pounds with his right arm, 300 with his left, as
well as a one-arm snatch with 189 pounds.
I suspect he was exaggerating. Certainly, the shoulder presses
don’t seem humanly possible. But the feats of strength that
were verifiable still stagger the imagination.
Take what he did to Dudley Sargent, the Harvard professor who
was one of the founding fathers of modern physical education and
exercise science. Sargent was asked by the New York World,
Joseph Pulitzer’s flagship newspaper, to examine Sandow and
try to figure out what made this seemingly perfect man so different
from everyone else.
At one point, Sandow knelt down and asked the 175-pound Sargent
to step onto his open palm. When he did, Sandow easily lifted him
up, keeping his arm straight, and set him down on a table. Then
Sandow lay on his back on the floor and had Sargent stand on his
abdomen. Sandow relaxed his ab muscles, then flexed them so hard he
bounced Sargent into the air.
Maybe he was a genetic freak, sui generis, a statistical
outlier many standard deviations away from you, me, and Dupree. Or
maybe he figured out secrets of strength and power that we’re
just now rediscovering. First among them: There’s no
substitute for lifting really heavy shit.
It’s tempting to say that Sandow was the Schwarzenegger of
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but
he was more and less than that. He started as a circus strongman,
performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1890s, and eventually
became more famous for his chiseled physique (a likeness of which
Weider uses on his Mr. Olympia trophy) than for his otherworldly
strength. Thus, he was the first bodybuilder in the modern
But Sandow did more with his physique than acquire fame and
fortune, although he had plenty of both. (He made a ton selling
equipment for home-based exercise, on top of the money he made with
his public performances, and was one of the most famous people in
the English-speaking world by the time he died in 1925.)
As personal training consultant to the English royal family, he
lobbied the English government for mandatory physical fitness in
schools, and advocated such now-standard public-health measures as
free school lunches for underprivileged children and prenatal
checkups for women.
On top of all that, he wrote books, published a magazine, staged
the first-ever bodybuilding contest (with his friend Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle as one of the judges), and opened and operated health
So why doesn’t he rank higher? Mostly because his influence
was ephemeral; for all his fame, his training “secrets”
(lift heavy shit, the heavier the better) were lost for two
generations. Worse, the bodybuilding world appropriated his image
while mocking his message (did I mention the importance of lifting
really heavy shit?).
Thus, it’s interesting that he was so far ahead of
his time, but you can’t really put him above the people whose
message has been in continuous circulation.
4. Joe Weider
I started working for Weider in late 1991 as a part-time copy
editor at Muscle & Fitness. At the time, I was a grad
student in creative writing at USC. That turned into a full-time
copyediting job at Men’s Fitness in early ’92. I
was promoted to fitness editor three years later, and left for Men’s Health three years after that. The rest is
history, or would be, if it were of interest to anyone but
Here’s why I mentioned creative writing: For most of my
time at MF, I was also writing screenplays and trying to get
them made into movies. St. Louismagazine decided to do a
feature on people from my hometown who were in Los Angeles trying
to catch a break in the movie biz. I was one of the people
profiled. The magazine hired a photographer to shoot a photo of me,
and I got permission from someone at Weider to do the shot in the
lobby of Weider’s building in Woodland Hills.
Joe Weider happened to walk by in the middle of the shoot,
assumed the photographer worked for one of his magazines, and asked
him to take some photos of him. The photographer was mildly freaked
out by this, but scrambled to accommodate the owner of the building
in which we were shooting. He posed Weider next to a sculpture of
Weider’s head on the upper torso of Robbie Robinson, and,
while his assistant adjusted the lights, tried to banter with the
“Come on, come on!” Weider barked. For the life of me,
I can’t remember exactly what Weider said next. But I know it
was something along the lines of, “Quit screwing around.
I’ve got work to do.”
Imagine the weirdness of this: A guy walks into the middle of
someone else’s photo shoot, asks the photographer to drop what
he’s doing and take shots of him instead of the person the
photographer was hired to shoot, and then yells at the photographer
for not moving fast enough.
But that was Weider, who was notorious among his staff for once
saying this about one of his employees: “If he was any good he
wouldn’t be working here.” Again, I don’t know the
exact quote – I wasn’t there when he said it, and
I’m not sure which employee he was referring to – but
the veracity of the quote isn’t in dispute.
In case you’re wondering, he wasn’t talking about me.
After six years, I doubt if Weider knew who I was. He knew my name
from the magazine and my face from the office, but I don’t
think he ever put them together.
My former boss at MF tells another story, which, again, I
have no reason to doubt: After the editors at MFwon a minor
journalism award, the first in the company’s history, my boss
showed Weider the trophy we’d won. “For what?” he
So Weider wasn’t a sweet and nurturing guy. Does that
matter? Schwarzenegger is reputed to be a butt-pinching,
boobie-grabbing bastard. Hoffman was monomaniacally dishonest.
Sandow cheated so flagrantly and consistently on his wife –
he lived with a man for a while – that she had him buried in
an unmarked grave. (It’s rumored, but unverifiable, that he
died of complications from syphilis.) And Jack LaLanne
might’ve stiffed a waiter at some point.
I think Weider’s essential darkness, his need to have his
own way and then not particularly enjoying the results of his hard
work, is what makes him so problematic as a fitness icon. He gave
the people what they wanted by emphasizing the aesthetics of
training over its functional purpose. But while making bodybuilding
a purely aesthetic pursuit, he removed it from its original,
health-promoting ideal. And he opened the floodgates to unlimited
You couldn’t look at a 300-pound dwarf – five feet tall,
four feet wide, and two feet thick – and imagine that this
drug-fueled man is healthier than any other junkie lining up at the
Worse, his bodybuilding magazines were fundamentally dishonest
about how the bodybuilders they promoted achieved their results.
Many T-Nation writers have noted that just about any training
program works at the junction of Needle Avenue and Buttock
Boulevard. So when you show a professional bodybuilder in contest
condition and imply that the average reader can get similar results
by following the bodybuilder’s workout routine… well,
that’s horseshit, and everyone involved knows it.
And yet, I think there remains something pure and positive
behind Weider’s distorted creations. My guess is that most of
the people reading Muscle & Fitness and Flexunderstand that the bodybuilders in the photos use
steroids, and that few of the readers follow that example. We used
the word “aspirational” a lot during my time in magazine
publishing, and if oversized muscles were the inspiration for guys
to get off their asses and hit the weights, then who am I to
I also think Weider played a role in demystifying training, in
showing a path from here to there. The great bodybuilders and
strongmen of the pre-steroid era tended to have personal
connections to other great bodybuilders and strongmen –
that’s why so many of the people we’ve heard of
congregated at Muscle Beach and the original Gold’s Gym.
But Weider helped the average guy working out in his basement or
the neighborhood health club figure out what he was supposed to be
doing. We can all quibble with the type of training that Weider
emphasized – advanced bodybuilding routines promoted to
beginners and intermediates who’d have been much better off
following’s Sandow’s dictum to lift progressively heavier
shit – but there’s some value in getting people
motivated to train in the first place.
Ultimately, I think Weider belongs in two iconic categories: In
the fitness world, he’s a worthy successor to Hoffman, for
better and for worse. And in publishing, he stands alongside Hugh
Hefner. Just as Hefner made whacking material mainstream, so Weider
made the world safe for muscle porn.
5. Jack LaLanne
You want to know something really scary? I can still sing the
opening lines of the theme song from LaLanne’s TV show in the
1960s: “It’s the new Jack, Jack LaLanne, and the new
Jack LaLanne show!”
And I can still see LaLanne, in his goofy-ass jumpsuit and
slippers, doing jumping jacks on the tiny screen of our
black-and-white TV. I’ve never figured out why his jumpsuit
covered half his deltoids, rather than all or none, but then again,
I’ve never figured out LaLanne, either.
Here you have a guy who was there at the creation, but also not
there. He opened a health club in Oakland, California, in 1936,
when he was just 21. He hung out at Muscle Beach with the
bodybuilding legends of the 1940s, and had the first fitness show
on TV. He invented the leg extension machine, cable pulley systems,
selectorized weights, the calf machine, and the wrist roller.
On his website, he claims to have been the first to encourage
athletes, women, and the elderly to train with weights, and also
takes credit for inventing “scientific” training. The
older he got, the crazier he got, until he was celebrating
birthdays by towing barges through San Francisco Bay while
handcuffed and shackled. I have no idea how he did it, just as I
can’t fathom how Sandow lifted some of the things he lifted or
claimed to lift.
So how influential was LaLanne?
Well, unless there’s been a spate of shackled
septuagenarians towing barges through commercial waterways,
I’d say his influence is important but perhaps exaggerated by
the man’s longevity and penchant for self-promotion. Like
everyone else on this list, he may have been an innovator, but in
LaLanne’s case, it’s hard to say how continuous his influence was. I’m a lifelong fitness enthusiast, and
LaLanne was the first fitness guru to whom I was exposed, and I
can’t think of one routine I’ve ever done that he
6. Vic Tanny
Vic Tanny was probably the most visionary entrepreneur in the
health-club field – in fact, the first commercial gym I ever
belonged to was a Vic Tanny in the St. Louis suburbs – even
if he expanded too fast and had to sell off his chain two decades
before I became a member.
I say “probably” because we can’t go back in time
and figure out exactly who deserves the most credit. LaLanne claims
to have invented the modern health club, but Tanny opened his first
club in Rochester in 1935, a year before LaLanne opened his in
Oakland. Since Tanny was a full-time schoolteacher, it’s hard
to imagine that it was a full-time venture.
The next gym Tanny opened was in Santa Monica, California, in
1940; he also opened one in Long Beach. After the war ended, he
moved his Santa Monica operation into a former USO facility. The
7,000-square-foot gym, known as The Dungeon, became the hub of the
Muscle Beach crowd, which included Tanny’s younger brother,
Armand, along with Steve Reeves, George Eiferman, Joe Gold, and
just about every famous musclehead who passed through Southern
California in the late 1940s.
In fact, according to Marla Matzer Rose’s Muscle
Beach, the Tanny brothers put the “muscle” into
Muscle Beach. The place was already a well-known local hangout for
gymnasts and acrobats, but the Tannys were among the first
bodybuilders to hit the beach.
Tanny expanded his chain quickly in the 1950s, using a formula
that today looks a lot like a Ponzi scheme – he’d sign
up as many members as he could in one location, often using
deceptive and intimidating sales tactics, then use that future
revenue stream as collateral to borrow the money to open his next
gym. His clubs had distinctive red carpeting, chrome, mirrors, and
cabinets filled with accounts receivable. When a substantial number
of members got behind in their payments, it fell apart, and he sold
off the business in the early ’60s.
Today his name has all but disappeared from the conversation,
but I see Tanny as an underrated innovator. Whereas Hoffman and
Weider had multilayered businesses – magazines that helped
them sell their own equipment and supplements – Tanny was, to
my knowledge, the first to hit on the idea of franchising one part
of the fitness industry.
LaLanne also franchised health clubs, but did so years after
Tanny gave him the idea. Both chains were eventually consumed by
Bally Total Fitness, which, alas, is rumored to continue some of
the sales practices pioneered by Tanny.
7. Pudgy Stockton
Tanny’s Dungeon was a male-only club. But one of the most
appealing figures on Muscle Beach at that time was Abbye
“Pudgy” Stockton, a former fat girl who, with the help of
some iron therapy, developed one of the most memorable physiques of
any woman, ever. Back in the 1940s, long before silicone allowed
skinny chicks to have traffic-stopping headlamps, Stockton had the
whole package – full breasts, tiny waist, and thickly muscled
legs that would’ve inspired lascivious thoughts, if anyone
back then actually had thoughts like that. (The Baby Boomers
invented lust, right?)
She was photographed for Life magazine, wrote the
“Barbelles” column for Hoffman’s Strength &
Health, opened gyms for women, and even staged the first-ever
weightlifting contest for women. (At 118 pounds, she pressed 100,
snatched 105, and got 135 in the clean and jerk.)
Of all the names on this list so far, Stockton is the only one
who was never a household name. But in a just universe, she’d
be at least as famous as any female fitness icon who followed her,
up to and including Richard Simmons. Stockton proved that weights
make a woman sexy. You couldn’t possibly look at her and
conclude that lifting gave women masculine physiques or
“bulky” muscles; she was bigger before she started
training than she was at the height of her fame. (She peaked at 140
pounds when she worked as a telephone operator shortly before she
started her transformation.) It’s not her fault that some
women still believe the opposite.
And here’s a nice bit of historical symmetry: Lisa Lyon,
who won the first women’s bodybuilding title in 1979 and later
posed for Playboyand was the subject of a book of
photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, started training at a gym in
L.A. in which Stockton worked.
Did Pudgy train the woman who came to symbolize the sexiness of
female muscle 40 years after Stockton had pioneered that role? I
don’t know. But I like the fact that they at least crossed
paths, and I like to think that Stockton, if nothing else, helped
convince Lyon that a woman’s place is in the weight room.
8. Arthur Jones
Indulge me as I take another stumble down memory
When I was on staff at St. Louis magazine in the early
’80s, I worked on one of those big “Best Of… ”
features that all the city magazines do. One of my assignments was
to figure out which was the “best gym” in the city. I was
a member at Vic Tanny, so I sure as hell knew that wasn’t the
best. One of the gyms I visited was the local Nautilus Aerobics
Plus. All I knew about Nautilus was that it was a type of machine.
I had never heard of Arthur Jones or high-intensity
The instructor who put me through the workout wasn’t built
any better than I was, which was scary, considering how skinny I
was back then. And the workout seemed insane – one set to
failure on a bunch of machines. On one of the exercises, the
pullover, he forced me to use such an exaggerated range of motion
that I thought my lats were going to detach themselves from my
ribs. And the trainer castigated me for my poor shoulder-joint
mobility. It wasn’t that there was a problem with the system.
The problem was that I wasn’t good enough for the
I went away thinking it was the stupidest workout I’d ever
done in my life.
Many years later, when I was at Men’s Fitness, I
went with a reporter to check out a local trainer who was doing
Super Slow workouts with his clients. I didn’t do the workout
this time, but I still got the feeling of déjà vu:
machine-only training, one set to failure, a trainer who had even
less muscle than me touting a magical muscle-building system…
Which brings me to Arthur Jones. You can’t talk about Jones
without pissing off somebody. You either celebrate his achievement
in bringing high-intensity training into the conversation, or you
demonize him for bringing high-intensity training into the
conversation. Try to take the middle ground, and you piss off
I don’t really have an interest in pissing off anybody,
much less everybody (there’s no upside to having enemies, and
it only took me 50 years to figure that out). But to me it’s
clear that Jones changed the way we talk about training. You can
argue about whether he changed it for better or worse, and chances
are I’ll find some merit in both arguments.
Certainly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the
value of making my workouts shorter, finding that I can accomplish
in a half-hour what used to take an hour. I also find that, most of
the time, there’s one set of each exercise that feels as if
it’s taken the muscles as far as they need to go that day,
making subsequent sets unnecessary, if not counterproductive.
So am I doing HIT? I wouldn’t describe it that way. I do
multiple sets of everything, usually with lower reps, heavier
loads, and faster tempos than a HIT man would prescribe. And I
don’t do anything with machines (cable systems excepted),
unless I have a very specific reason for using one. I have yet to
encounter a machine that improved on the human range of motion, and
I’ve come across plenty that did the opposite.
My overwhelming feeling about HIT is that it’s a useful
tool in specific circumstances. And my overwhelming gripe about
Jones is that he turned a methodology into a crusade, which to me
is exactly backwards. Training is the crusade, and the training
system is simply a tool to help you achieve the results you want.
It’s like being so passionate about wool that you
can’t bring yourself to say the word “cotton,” much
less acknowledge its merits. If you thought about it rationally,
you’d probably conclude that cotton is the better choice more
often than not, but there are certainly times when it makes sense
to opt for wool. And, for that matter, you can’t rule out
synthetic fibers. But if you put so much emotion into your choice
of fabric that you begin to imagine an anti-wool conspiracy, it may
be time to redeploy your emotional resources.
As Forrest Gump once said, “That’s all I have to say
9. Sylvester Stallone
I remember sitting in a theater in 1976, watching Rockysoon after it came out. The theater was packed.
There’s a scene where Rocky, played by Stallone, is trying to
seduce Adrian, played by a famous director’s younger sister.
Stallone pulls off his sweater, and you could hear a gasp from the
audience, the women as well as the men. Stallone was wearing a
wife-beater underneath the sweater, and his muscles were soft and
smooth, compared to the sliced-and-diced flesh he would display in
subsequent movies. But still, by bicentennial standards, he was a
specimen. And everyone noticed.
I can’t prove that Stallone’s delts kick-started the
strength-training craze of the ’80s and ’90s. To my
knowledge, nobody was even keeping track of exercise trends back
then. But I do know it was the height of the running boom, and you
never had to wait to use a bench in your local gym. Within a few
years, there were more gyms, bigger gyms, and no such thing as an
uninterrupted workout at any of them.
Sure, Stallone was never half the muscle icon Schwarzenegger
was, which is why Arnold is #1 on this list and Sly is #9. And
we’d probably all agree that the bigger Stallone got, the
worse his movies became.
But I can’t shake the idea that a lot of people sitting in
that audience in 1976 started thinking about muscles for the first
time after seeing the Stallion in his wife-beater. The women
couldn’t help but notice how a few pounds of contractile
tissue profoundly improved a man’s reproductive suitability,
and the men couldn’t help but notice the reaction of the
Whether it’s correlation or coincidence, a lot of people
who saw that movie in 1976 started working out with weights soon
10. Louie Simmons
I spent a couple of years in the mid-’90s doing
Westside-inspired workouts, and it seemed as if, after three
decades of exercise, my body finally got to where it was supposed
to be. I set personal records in the all three power lifts, but
that’s beside the point; I’d guess 90 percent of the guys
reading this, and a quarter of the women, have better PRs. The key
is that I finally felt strong, more than 30 years after I’d
started training for strength.
How influential will Simmons, Dave Tate, and Westside be a
generation from now? I haven’t a clue. Is Westside-endorsed
conjugate periodization a better choice than linear periodization,
or any other organized training system? Don’t know.
What I do know, or at least believe, is that Westside is the
Muscle Beach of our time. I don’t mean the actual Westside
Barbell in Columbus, which is a warehouse with more chalk dust than
an army of third graders could clap out of their erasers in a year.
And the facility isn’t open to any but the most gifted and
dedicated powerlifters who happen to be in central Ohio. (Unless
you’re a journalist and can get a magazine to send you there
on assignment… )
But to many of us, there’s a Westside ideal, a spirit that
rivals the community that congregated at Tanny’s Dungeon or
the original Gold’s Gym. The price of admission is a
willingness to learn from the masters and do your best to implement
the lessons. You don’t have to be gifted. You just have to be
serious. You can learn the ropes here and at Tate’s site,
Sometimes, via phone or email, you get the chance to interact
with one of those masters. As Simmons and Tate both explained to
me, in different ways, there’s an obligation that comes with
being the biggest and strongest. You help people who want to be
bigger and stronger.
And, in the end, isn’t that the most influence you could
Atlantic Monthly feature:
Stallone in the original Rocky: