Uncovering Muscle Beach

When many of us think of perfect physiques, we think of those belonging to Golden Age bodybuilders. These champions of the past were muscular, strong, healthy, and athletic. It's cliché but it's true: women wanted them; men wanted to be them.

But how did these Golden Agers train? How did they eat? What was the vibe like back in the glory days of bodybuilding? How did it all begin? One person who knows is Dr. Ellington Darden.

Dr. Darden knows because he was there through much of the Golden Age. He won his first contest in 1964, which of all things was called Mr. Muscle Beach. The contest was held in conjunction with the grand opening of a movie called Muscle Beach Party. This beach parody starred Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, and featured bodybuilders Larry Scott, Peter Lupus, and Chet Yorton.

In Part 1 Dr. Darden talked about full-body training and bodybuilding in the 1960s and 70s. In this installment, he talks about what can be done to save modern bodybuilding, and he delves further into the past, into what many consider to be the beginning of American physical culture: the real Muscle Beach.

T-Nation: Most people have heard of Muscle Beach, but few know much about it. Where was Muscle Beach and exactly what went on there?

An aerial photo of Muscle Beach, which was located to the
south of the famous Santa Monica Pier.

This Muscle Beach shot from the summer of 1948 shows
the gymnastics platform.

Look closely and you'll see the noonday, physique line-up for
the 1951 Mr. Muscle Beach contest. The winner was
Ken Cameron, who was on the far right.

T-Nation: Interesting. So, everything we've heard about Muscle Beach and the training that originated there, actually took place outdoors on the beach?

Dr. Darden:

Steve Reeves performs a hack squat at the Dungeon in 1947. That's Vic Tanny in the background.

T-Nation: Did you ever visit Muscle Beach?

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: Okay, so it's the summer of 1963 and you're in California training at Venice Beach. What was that like?

An athletic-looking Reg Lewis lights up the cover of the
March 1964 issue of Muscle Builder magazine.

T-Nation: You've mentioned Vic Tanny several times. How did you meet him?

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: Didn't Tanny sponsor the Mr. USA contest in the late 1940s that featured the famous John Grimek/Steve Reeves confrontation?

John Grimek (left) and Steve Reeves battled for the
1949 Mr. USA. Grimek was the eventual winner.

Steve Reeves not only had the ideal body to play Hercules –
but his face was also heroic, especially with his beard.

T-Nation: I've often wondered if the early contests had some of the same political overtures that exist in today's professional contests. Did you ever talk to Steve Reeves in person?

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: The lack of mentoring appears to be even more common in 2006. In most gyms, to get any kind of help at all, you have to hire a personal trainer at $50 to $100 an hour – and this personal trainer probably doesn't know, or care to know, the difference between Steve Reeves and Steve Martin or between a regular curl and a reverse curl.

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: You know, the more I talk with you the more I realize that the historical aspects of weightlifting and bodybuilding run deep and are indeed meaningful.

Dr. Darden:

This photo reveals a small section of Kim Wood's collection of old barbells and dumbbells. The large blue dumbbells on the floor are from the Milo Barbell Company, which was started by Alan Calvert of Philadelphia in 1902. Above the blue dumbbells, resting on boxes, is a huge globe barbell, which was lifted in the early 1900s by strongman Warren Lincoln Travis. The green globe barbell in the racks is a Milo Tri-Plex, and to the right are two Milo Du-Plexes. Mixed in are several solid Sandow barbells, which came from England. On the floor and on the wall are a few Milo kettlebells, with the original weights still inside. Along the back windows are some chromate-finished kettlebells from Black Iron Strength and on the floor are globe dumbbells and kettlebells made by Osmo Kiiha. On the racks to the near right are some retro barbells from Atomic Athletic.

T-Nation: Now, we're talking a lot about classic physiques, but what about classic diets? Do you have any insights to how these guys ate for muscle?

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: You know, what always strikes me looking at these classic physiques is that they seem very attainable. In fact, I know a lot of guys who are always disappointed with their physiques, yet they look as good as many bodybuilders of the 50's and 60's who scored magazine covers! What's going on here? Have steroids wiped out the idea of what a healthy, muscular body can look like? Have we forgotten... or developed unrealistic expectations?

Classic symmetry and muscle: Steve Reeves through the years.

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: Probably not! I find the classic physiques (pre-1980) inspiring. I have no desire to look like today's pro; I don't think many people do. But can pro-bodybuilding ever make a return to the Golden Age physique? Or is that like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube?

Dr. Darden:

T-Nation: Sounds like something that's much needed. Thanks for the interview, Dr. Darden!