Lessons in Manliness from Charles Atlas

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 29, 2011 · 60 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

© Charles Atlas, LTD

“Let Me Prove in 7 Days That I Can Make You a New Man!”

“The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac”

“Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs Are Showing!

It’s an ad the majority of readers out there can easily conjure up in their heads. A cartoon of a skinny, 97-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face by a beefcake, uses the moment as inspiration to build his body, and comes back to the beach to give the bully his belated comeuppance.

The name associated with that image is just as familiar as the ad itself: Charles Atlas.

That these two images go hand-in-hand may have led you to see Atlas the man as a cartoonish caricature, or to view him in the light of the thousands of sometimes shady modern-day fitness hucksters who have taken Atlas’ old mail-order business model and ramped it up for the online age.

But Atlas was that true rarity, a man equal to the marketing hype—the real deal. He was a scrawny immigrant kid who transformed his body and launched a fitness revolution by creating a 12-lesson exercise course that was translated into seven languages and adopted by millions around the world, including King George VI, Joe DiMaggio, and Rocky Marciano. Even Mahatma Gandhi wrote to inquire about the program—no kidding!  The mail-order business Atlas started has now been around for 82 years (although it’s currently run by others—Atlas died in 1972), and thousands continue to look to his program for a way to get in shape.

For the men who lost confidence in themselves during the Great Depression, Charles Atlas was a source of hope and inspiration. Today he remains a symbol of virile strength and vitality, and his life offers us several lessons in manliness.

© Charles Atlas, LTD

Lessons in Manliness from Charles Atlas

Turn your weaknesses into strengths.

Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, Italy in 1893. When he was ten, his family immigrated to America, and he landed on Ellis Island not speaking a word of English.

Little Angelo swore he’d do great things, but his prospects didn’t look too promising. He was a skinny, sickly, slope-shouldered boy–easy pickings for the bullies in his tough Brooklyn neighborhood. Coming home one Halloween night, a bully beat him with a bag of ashes, knocking him out for an hour. “It seemed like he was beating the brains out of me,” Atlas recalled. When he came to, Atlas lumbered home, crawled into bed, and said a prayer, telling God he’d never let another man beat him.

Young Angelo Siciliano: A real life 97-pound weakling. © Charles Atlas, LTD

But the pummelings continued. At age 15, Atlas really was a “97-pound weakling,” and said he really did get sand kicked in his face by a beefy lifeguard in front of a good-looking gal.

When he turned 17, Atlas finally reached his breaking point and made it his goal to change his body so that he could finally stand up for himself. He experimented with different exercises and developed his own fitness routine, and when he emerged on the beach after months of training, his friends were astonished at his transformation. “You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!” one exclaimed. (When he later legally changed his name, he paired that heroic moniker with “Charlie,” a childhood nickname.)

© Charles Atlas, LTD

From an auspicious start, Atlas built his body into a man’s whose measurements would be buried as part of the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, which won’t be opened until 8113. He turned his most hated-weakness into his most famous strength.

Be open to inspiration.

How did Atlas go from a scrawny kid to what one scientist called, “the absolute masculine ideal?” From inspiration he received at a museum and a zoo, respectively.

While on a school field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Atlas gazed with wonder at the statues of Greek gods, focusing particularly on the muscular physique of Hercules. He asked his teacher how he could build a similar body, and he suggested that the young man try lifting weights.

So Atlas began a diligent exercise program. He couldn’t afford to buy weights, so he jury-rigged some together at home and used them every morning. But after months of training, he wasn’t at all satisfied with the results—his body was still lean and lanky. Young Atlas wondered how to proceed.

The answer came as he was walking through the Bronx Zoo—a place he would often go to think. As he stopped to admire the lion exhibit, he saw that jungle beast stretch, and observed the way in which its “muscles ran around like rabbits under a rug.” That’s when his light bulb went off: The lion was strong but had never used a barbell or any exercise equipment. “He’s been pitting one muscle against each other!” Atlas thought.

Atlas went home, deciding to try something different—“working out” like the lion did. He discarded his weights and developed a new exercise program for himself—this one based on isometric exercises.  Pushing one arm against the other, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, leg lifts, and so on.

Atlas’ business partner, Charles Roman, said that Atlas continued to observe animals his whole life, always on the lookout for a bit of inspiration on how he might improve his fitness regimen.

Carve out your own path.

Many men these days are constantly looking to other people to give them a plan for every aspect of their lives, but sometimes the best plan is the one you create yourself!

In the early 20th century, the use of weights and barbells was just catching on, and bodybuilding was a fringe movement—strongmen were curiosities who performed at carnival sideshows. That’s where Atlas saw the most famous of the oldtime strongmen—Eugen Sandow. Atlas used Sandow as inspiration and tried lifting weights like his hero. He also experimented with pulleys, calisthenics, and other exercise programs that were popular at the time.

When you're as manly as Charles Atlas, you can wear leopard-print briefs too. © Charles Atlas, LTD

When these methods did not yield the results he was looking for, Atlas stopped trying the established regimens, and created one of his own. While isometric exercises had been around for thousands of years as part of disciplines like yoga, and were popular among professional strongmen, it was a relatively unknown approach to most Americans. Atlas self-reliantly experimented with and put together his own exercise routine. And he was able to put these time-honored exercises into a program that could be followed by the average joe. He came up with a way to make fitness truly accessible—his course was so popular because it required no equipment whatsoever and could be performed by anyone in their own home.

Atlas went against the grain, and in so doing, not only found success himself, but launched a whole cultural movement.

Always seize an opportunity…especially when it’s to work for yourself.

Having a skill or talent doesn’t automatically translate into success.

After building up his body, Atlas’ life didn’t immediately change. He continued to work as a leatherworker, before quitting to take a job as a janitor and a sideshow strongman at Coney Island. He would lie on a bed of nails while an audience member stood on his stomach, rip telephone books in half, and bend iron bars into U’s. But these kinds of stunts were common on the strongman circuit, and Atlas might have labored in obscurity forever had he not been noticed by an artist in 1916.

The commissioning of public statues was on the upswing, but artists were having trouble finding worthy models to pose for their sculptures. When the artist spied Atlas one day on the beach, he asked him to come back to the studio to pose for him. Atlas was unsure about doing it, but decided to see how the opportunity played out. Other artists heard about the man with the incredibly well-proportioned body, and soon Atlas was in great demand, running from one studio to another, and collecting $100 a week.

Charles Atlas was the model for 75 statues that can be seen all around the country.

But modeling did not satisfy Atlas’ great restlessness and ambition. In 1921, he submitted a picture to the “World’s Most Beautiful Man,” photo contest which was sponsored by the founder of Physical Culture Magazine, Bernarr MacFadden, and he easily won the $1,000 prize. A year later, he won MacFadden’s “World’s Most Developed Man” contest, beating out 775 men in a showdown staged publicly at Madison Square Garden.  This time, the prize was either $1,000 or a screen test for the starring role in a new Tarzan film. Atlas took the money. He didn’t want his future to be at the mercy of Hollywood execs; he wanted to start own business and be in charge of his own destiny. A wise choice…after all, who remembers the name of the actor who starred in The Adventures of Tarzan?

Be humble enough to admit when you’re in over your head.

Atlas invested his $1,000 in selling his fitness course by mail. In the first two years of business, several thousand orders were placed, allowing Atlas to open his own gym in New York City. But in trying to run the two businesses at once, both of them floundered. Atlas realized he needed to focus on just one thing—promoting his exercise course—and that he couldn’t do it alone.

© Charles Atlas, LTD

In 1928, his advertising agency hired 21-year-old Charles Roman to help create better ad copy. Roman came up with the idea of giving Atlas’ isometric exercises a snappier name–“Dynamic-Tension”—and formulated the now-famous 97-lb weakling ads and their memorable headlines. Atlas could see that Roman was a marketing genius, and he offered him half of his company, on the condition that Roman run it. The ad man agreed, and the rest is history. Roman created irresistible ad copy and booked Atlas promotional gigs; Atlas showed up with his muscles and charisma. The two were a match made in heaven.

Practice what you preach.

An enormous part of the appeal of Charles Atlas was that he didn’t just sell his principles, he lived them.

“Live clean, think clean, and don’t go to burlesque shows,” Atlas was fond of saying. Living the clean life meant not only exercising regularly, but keeping your room tidy, getting fresh air, eating healthy food, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol. Atlas himself didn’t smoke or drink, and on the rare occasion someone convinced him to come out to a nightclub, he’d spend the evening sipping a glass of milk and trying to convince other patrons to swap their beer for orange juice. Unsurprisingly, he held New Year’s Eve celebrations that provided carrot juice instead of champagne. He was also a tireless promoter of the Boy Scouts. And despite becoming a multi-millionaire, Atlas lived modestly; only splurging when it came to his beloved white double-breasted suits.

© Charles Atlas, LTD

Atlas’ life was remarkably scandal-free, and his only brush with controversy, far from injuring his reputation, actually improved it. Bob Hoffman, who owned the York Barbell Company, sued Atlas, claiming that you couldn’t get an Atlas-like physique with just isometric exercises (which he called “Dynamic-Hooey”) or see a change in your body after just 7 days, and that Atlas was a fake. But the resulting Federal Trade Commission investigation found no evidence of false advertising or unfair trading practices, forcing Hoffman to drop his attacks.

Atlas was also incredibly devoted to his family and his wife. When she passed away in 1965 after their 47 years of marriage together, Atlas’ grief and depression were so profound he considered joining a monastery. But his parish priest convinced him to reconsider, telling Atlas his life’s mission lied not in the cloisters but in continuing to inspire young people.

© Charles Atlas, LTD

The Father was not flattering the strongman. At the peak of his popularity in the 30s and 40s, Atlas received so much fan mail that he required a team of nearly 30 women to open and sort it. The letters, often written by young men, came from all over the world and expressed sincere appreciation to Atlas for changing their lives. Despite how large his company got and up until his 60s, Atlas always went into his office in the afternoons to answer some of the letters personally, and sign all of the replies himself. He would also sit and talk with fans who came by looking for advice.

As he grew older, be refused to let himself go, because he knew young people looked up to him, and he didn’t want to be a hypocrite and a bad example. So he kept up his morning exercise routine—50 knee bends, 100 sit-ups, and 300 push-ups–and at age 75, his measurements were almost identical to his measurements at age 30. He spent the last two years of his life reading his Bible and running on the beach, and died at age 79 in 1972.



A&E Biography–Modern Day Hercules
Charles Atlas: Muscle Man” by Jonathan Black


{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daren Redekopp September 29, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I actually used Charles Atlas’s 12 lesson course as a kid: it was handed down to me from my father. It was actually quite effective, although he prescribed working out in the nude so as to be as free in movement as possible. I still wore my shorts.

2 Yared September 29, 2011 at 4:15 pm

What a badass.

3 George P.H. September 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Charles Atlas is a legend.

A lot of his training methods are outdated now; in fact, better ones were available during his lifetime. But Dynamic Tension sold like no other fitness program! As someone who works in marketing for a living, I think there’s a very important lesson to be learned from Mr. Atlas’s success:

If you want your product to sell, design it with the everyman in mind.

His program promised (and delivered) results; it was accessible to anyone (15 minutes & no equipment); the ads were irresistible. That’s why it sold so well. Guess which other best-selling fitness program has all the same characteristics?

P90X – it’s popular today for the exact same reasons. Times may change, but the average guy’s search for a simple, effective workout plan doesn’t!

4 Belligero September 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Mocking slim guys to make a buck. Real manly.

5 Skip September 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Excellent article, Atlas really was a man who lived up to his ability. My only complaint is that he did not actually perform isomentic exercises. True isomentrics require all the muscle groups being used to be completely still. Atlas’s exercises were self-resistance exercises with movement. It’s just a technicality, but I think its worth noting.

6 Leo September 29, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Comments like Belligero’s are inevitable I suppose, but they’ll miss the point. ALL advertising plays on our insecurities, all of it. But Atlas isn’t really mocking skinny guys, he’s saying that if you’re tired of getting beat up like he did, then there’s hope for you to change your life. That’s a positive message. If you’re already feeling bad about yourself, then you don’t have to keep doing that, there’s something you can do to change.

7 Gabriel September 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Leo so true about the negative comment, instead of seeing encouragement & oppertuinity people want to get offended, I’m currently in transition from my skinny stage, and my curiousity is peeked, really want to find a copy of the Atlas regime.

8 Mark September 29, 2011 at 8:56 pm

I used his course myself and still do some of the exercises, from time to time, when I can’t make it to the gym. The man is a great inspiration and there are times when I read through his course just to be reminded of some of the sound advice he provides between the lines. You don’t see very many living legends anymore that actually believe in putting forth a positive message and can actually say that they practice it in their own lives as well. What a shame…

9 Miller Industries September 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Ive never read anything about Atlas’ fitness regimen, but his body definitely proof it works. I used to be skinny when I was a teenager, too. I never thought I’d be ‘muscular’ by any means, especially since I had really bone elbows and shoulders. I saw Predator with Swartzeneger and convinced myself to just try working out.

After a week I not only started seeing (small) results, but I felt better about myself. I still continue to excercise to this day, everyday. Results speak for themselves.

I think where many go astray is 1) giving up to soon, not enduring, not being persistant in reaching their goals AND 2) they are doing it for the wrong reasons. They shouldn’t do it to pick up chicks or show off, but rather to better themselves and feel good about it.

10 Colonel September 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Belligero – That’s funny, I’m a scrawny guy and I didn’t feel like anything presented here was making fun of me. Atlas offered a way for people to try and better themselves. I suppose these days, when everyone is supposed to believe they’re perfect just the way they are, then the idea of self-improvement may come off like an insult.

11 Dave September 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm

“at age 75, his measurements were almost identical to his measurements at age 30.” That’s the biggest accolade you could ever give his approach to fitness. Longevity in any pursuit (and especially strength training) is seriously underrated.

12 thewolfgod September 30, 2011 at 1:53 am

I’m a little confused about this article. On the one hand it supports regular exercise and living the straight and narrow life (which is good). On the other hand the method used to get strong is one that is outdated (which is not so good). Look at the first photo of Atlas: notice how his upper body looks a bit beefy but his legs looks kinda scrawny? That’s a sign of an insufficient work out routine.

I myself strength train with a barbell using anatomically correct exercises (squats, presses, bench presses, deadlifts, power cleans, and chin ups). If someone wants to get strong you need to strength train regularly, eat like a man whose got a week to live and get the proper training (either a quality gym or through books, I would ‘strongly’ recommend “Starting Strength” by Kilgore and Rippetoe). If someones just wants giant muscles, you need to follow a bodybuilding program.

Don’t let looks deceive you, though: just because a man has rippling muscles doesn’t mean his necessarily “strong.” The only way to tell true strength is to look at the numbers being produced.

Lift strong and lift clean my friends.

13 Robert Weedall September 30, 2011 at 4:56 am

Its not really “encouraging an opportunity” if your selling something based on that insecurity. Marketing it as “self improvement” is a good idea, marketing it as “This is the only way women won’t leave you/ you can fight back” strikes me as ridiculous.

Besides which I think a better question might be “what kind of girl is so flighty and brain damaged as to just go ‘HUNK’ and then leave you?” or “What kind of man goes to the beach specifically to bully people, what is he freakin’ Bluto from popeye?” add to that some exceedingly weird dialogue choices (Seriously, being thin equals not being manly?) and you have the makings of a meme ready to go.

Its a good story, but (for the most part) there is a reason a lot of people have mocked the ever loving heck out of this particular poster campaign.

14 George P.H. September 30, 2011 at 5:01 am


Show me one guy who has large muscles but is weak. You won’t be able to. I’m tired of people going on and on about the “fake muscles” that bodybuilders have, and how strength and size are unrelated.

As for Charles Atlas, his program wasn’t great, even when it first got published, but that’s really not what the article is about. The man built a body that was impressive for his time and transformed lots of lives. Give respect where respect is due.

To be honest, we know so much more nowadays that I wouldn’t recommend Atlas’s Dynamic Tension to anyone, unless you just want to read it for fun. If you want some recommendations on good workout programs, just e-mail me.

15 Robert Weedall September 30, 2011 at 5:14 am

@George: The “worlds strongest man” people tend to be a combination of both fat and muscle as far as I can see.

And they are only “fake” in that they look like you’ve spent way more time on them than on anything else, I think perhaps a better term might be “overdeveloped to the point of absurdity”.

For the most part there is also genetics to consider. No matter how much I eat I am never going to be able to make my wrists any larger than they currently are.

Not going to rag on Atlas himself, just pointing stuff out.

16 George P.H. September 30, 2011 at 5:22 am


I assume you’re referring to powerlifters. In strength sports, they say: “weight moves weight.” Once you get to the heaviest weight class, it helps to have extra mass (even if it’s fat). However, powerlifters/olympic lifters in lighter weight classes are quite lean.

Not too different from American Football. You have some light, lean guys but you also have the huge guys with big bellies.

What do wrists have to do with bodybuilding (or anything else)?

17 Robert Weedall September 30, 2011 at 5:28 am

I aam afraid I have never seen Amerrican football being played, so I was not aware of that.

Its more an example of lifting, my bones are not built large enough to be able to easily do thing that other people seem to be able to. Its like one of the people who works at my gym, he’s very fit and lifts a lot, but he lacks thick treetrunk like arms that Atlas tended to “sell”. That doesn’t mean he’s weak (far from it) but it does mean that people can assume otherwise. Its more important to be healthy and able to kick someones backside than it is to look like a walking slab of beef, is essentially what I am trying to say.

18 Danny September 30, 2011 at 8:10 am

I’ll admit I ahd never heard of this guy until I read the article but I am now inspired. What a stud! That was a great article with a lot of inspiring words. Thanks!

19 Tom September 30, 2011 at 10:31 am

Now this is the kind of article I would like to see more of in The Art of Manliness. Charles Atlas was an icon that everyone looked up to. He was well built without being musclebound. My question is that after a life of fitness into old age, why did he die so young. Wiki says he was 80, not 79. Cause of death was a heart attack during a jog. Evidently there was a family history of heart disease but in Atlas’ day they really didn’t know the importance of diet and health. I’m very slender and don’t have much of a need to be a muscle guy. I try to practice Tai Chi and walk 1 hour everyday. Most people don’t need vigorous aerobic exercise like we are led to believe.

20 WickedWillie September 30, 2011 at 11:38 am

During the lengthy Atlas/Hoffman trial, Atlas was asked if he used barbells and dumbbells. He replied he only used them “to test his strength.” When questioned how often he tested his strength…he replied “Three times a week, for about an hour.”

Make no mistake – Atlas built most of his physique with weights. Once developed, it was fairly easy to maintain it with isotonics/isometrics and running/free hand movements. The idea for Dynamic Tension was actually Dr. Frederick Tilney’s…in partnership with Roman. They were looking for something that would be easy to sell through mail order, because most could not afford the shipping on various types of weights…especially during Depression times.

21 Eric September 30, 2011 at 11:59 am

To those saying that Atlas’ workout program isn’t that great, I say phooey. To each his own. Everyone has these preconceived notions about workout routines and everyone thinks that what they do is the best. I don’t know all the details of Atlas’ workout, but I understand that it is primarily focused on isometric and self-resistance exercises. That is primarily what my workout routine consists of now.

I was 6’0” 135 pounds when I joined the Navy. I got hooked on weight training with some friends while I was in and even dabbled in some power lifting (squats were always my weak lift, but I could deadlift like a champ). I left the Navy four years later at 185. I continued to weight train, but as I got into my thirties, my body was starting to feel a bit broken down by the heavy lifting so I quit the weights and actually got a bit depressed about it. Then I refocused myself and for about the last five years, my workouts have mostly consisted of the mainstays of self-resistance exercises: pushups, situps, dips, lunges, leg raises, etc. Only a few light weights included in my basement. My body has leveled off at a weight of about 175, not big by any means, but it’s a weight that feels ideal for my body and that is what I would recommend that people try to find rather than trying to get huge. Find your body’s ideal weight. In the process, I have maintained and actually increased muscle definition and lowered body fat over the years as I push 40 now.

Using these exercises has changed my life because now I know that I can continue to work out and maintain my physique well into my advanced years – much like Atlas did – because I don’t feel the strain on my body anymore from the weights. Family and work commitments have also cut down on the time I have available, so on some days my workout actually only consists of 15 minutes of exercise. That’s just the reality of life for me. But it seems to work just fine.

To anyone that is considering starting up a workout routine based on self-resistance, just search around the internet. You will find tons of great exercises that give you a great workout. Just be patient and focus on feeling good.

One other tip that I found very effective for me that really opened my eyes and changed my thinking: rather than trying to force in a workout at a preset time every day, you can squeeze in a highly effective 15-20 minute workout when you feel strong. There are those certain times just about every day where you just feel good. You have energy, you feel good, you feel strong. That is the time to get some quick work in. Close your office door and bang out five strong sets of pushups. Rack out some dips. Whatever you think you can squeeze in. You’re working out when your body feels good. It feels great and you don’t have to worry about forcing yourself to work out when your body might not be feeling it and you are tempted to just bag it.

Good workouts, everyone!

22 Chris September 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm

This article brings deserved recognition to a man who truly practiced what he preached. It’s great to see that methods that have stood the test of time are still being held up as good and worthwhile.

On a side note, Sergio Ramirez’ short story Charles Atlas Also Dies presents a great reminder that, however positive this kind of self-improvement can be, it is only transient, as is all life, and that one should be careful to use these things as a means to leave a legacy.

23 WickedWillie September 30, 2011 at 2:05 pm

An excerpt from the article “Charles Atlas: Muscle Man” by Jonathon Black in Smithsonian magazine:

(Page 4 of 6)

More from Smithsonian.com
•Bodybuilders Through the Ages Terry Todd, an author and expert in sports and exercise history, who with his wife, Jan, has collected a major archive of physical culture memorabilia at the University of Texas, is also skeptical. “Dynamic-Tension can build muscle only to a limited degree,” Todd says. “To build up muscle you need weights. But back then it was hard to make money in weights. You needed something cheap to make and cheap to ship. Atlas wasn’t the only one who saw the value of mail order.”

In fact, a fellow bodybuilder says he saw Atlas lift weights when they worked out at a Brooklyn YMCA in the early 1940s. “I never saw Angie lift heavy,” says Terry Robinson, referring to Atlas by another nickname. “He just did a lot of repetitions.” Robinson did not hold it against him. Atlas “was always smiling,” he says. “He never showed off. He was a humble guy.”

Atlas may have sneaked a few weight curls into his workouts, but as far as anyone knows he otherwise lived the virtuous life.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Muscle-Man.html#ixzz1ZSa9HrfT

24 Guy September 30, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Good Stuff Mr. and Mrs. Brett. I’ve heard stories to corroborate Charles’ access to the public. Man/kids stopping in right off the street and him taking the time to talk to them about diet and health. He was a good man who learned positive things about himself and shared them with the public in an honest manner. He was known to give his courses out for free to people with little money but with a desire. His approach was geared toward healthy, vibrant, clean living vs building as much muscle as possible.

Additionally, taking care of your body, mind and health may not add years to your per-determined genetic make-up, however, it will provide you a better opportunity to do what you enjoy doing for a longer time.

A person could do a lot worse finding someone to emulate.

25 Grant Ashley September 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm

This is an interesting article, but I have to say I enjoy being thin. I work in fashion so I can fit sample clothes and for me that’s an excellent price to pay for not being the incredible hulk. I do admire this mans outlook on life though, “Live clean, think clean, and don’t go to burlesque shows,” is a moral i think many young men are missing in their lives today.

26 Drew October 1, 2011 at 4:40 am

Excellent article! The Art of Manliness should have more in this vein, as opposed to what they’ve been putting out of late. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with making an old-time radio into an MP3 player, but pointing out great (and manly) men of history is phenomenal. The world needs more real men.

I think Charles Atlas would enjoy P90X, were he around today.

27 Fritz October 1, 2011 at 8:16 am

Using self resistance is highly underrated in building a really good physique. Things like push ups, lunges, and muscle ups will go a long way towards building a solid physique. Especially if you run regularly and get your body fat level down. I remember when I was a very bony 14 year old, my father put me on an old school regiment of calisthenics. It worked great for me and my brothers. There’s also a very low chance of injury as compared to bodybuilding. Best part is you can pretty much do it anywhere. I think Atlas would get a kick out of seeing this video:


28 YG October 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

It’s funny how that physique was considered the epitome of manliness back then. Looking at him, he looks like an average guy with a decent amount of muscle. Not *very* big, far from low body fat % too. I’ve got a better build by now but still feel like I’ve got a *long* way to go.

Nothing against him, of course. This is a great article.

29 Tommy October 1, 2011 at 9:11 am

A great article about a great man.

30 zeus October 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Being a fitness enthusiast for years this is a great article that shows that not only can a clean life give better health but can also improve your everyday life as well by living a decent life.
This is true inspiration to anybody that wants to achieve success in life.

31 thewolfgod October 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm

@ George P.H.

I’m not trying to say body builders don’t have strength; I’m just saying body builders train for muscular size, symmetry, and competition. That’s fine if that is what you want to do. Strength training (as differentiated from Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting) trains for strength as seen in the numbers of poundage lifted. Atlas looks strong cause he has some good mass on his muscles but unless there is a postage somewhere of what he pressed, squated etc we cannot know for certain just how strong he was.

PS. Lifts on machines are different than lifts with a barbell. Just throwing that out there…

32 Paul Riehl October 2, 2011 at 9:14 am

Oh yeah, throwing my hat in the ring would highly recommend ‘The Miracle Seven’ by John Peterson. Seeing a photo of me taken outside with my shirt off at age 52, when I thought i was in pretty good shaped, shocked me – I looked old and saggy. I found the Miracle 7 and within a few months someone actually told me I had a body that looked half my age.

33 Frank October 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Exercise and clean living = Awesome! However, if you want to square your insides away too, do a web search for: KEIFER GRAINS”. The ultimate probiotic food with about 30 different bacteria types combined, which transforms milk into a completely different type of drink. It’s also free, all you need to buy is milk. You can obtain the grains from an internet source of your choice of which there are several. You can thank me later, after your reflux, age spots, moles, energy, blood pressure etc are fixed. It’s that good for you. It is essentially a fermented beverage, you get used to the tart taste. I mix it with orange Metamucil.

34 Dawud October 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Great stuff. I think Atlas would enjoy Convict Conditioning by Paul “Coach” Wade, who cites Atlas in the book. It’s a great bodyweight training program, despite whatever images might be conjured by the title. I’m combining that with kettlebells in hopes of making a transformation in my strength and fitness that I unfortunately let fall by the wayside the last few years.

35 Mike October 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm

What is a Knee-bend? Is that a one-legged squat or just an air squat?

36 Mike October 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

@George P. H.

Wrists as well as grip are extremely important. Say I want to pick up something heavy, say for example a motorcycle off a stranded motorist. A small motorcycle is a little over 350lbs. If my arms, legs and core are all suitable for lifting that weight but my wrists can’t take the pressure or my grip isn’t strong enough to hold on it won’t matter in the slightest what I’d like to do, I won’t get it lifted.

37 Aaron October 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

You’d probably be interested in the state-of-the-art version of his approach as performed using the 1 Rep Gym:


38 Jeffrey D October 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Interesting article on an interesting subject. But talking about bodyweight exercises – it’s not possible to look like Charles Atlas by doing the Charles Atlas workout plan. And the stories reek of marketing and self-mythologizing rather than biography. It’s all kind of a white lie/fraud that deserves a more serious mention.

39 ron October 5, 2011 at 1:54 am

I remember the bully at the beach cartoon. There was another of that time which was equally persuasive to young men. The guy sees his failure in his family’s eyes. The wife and kids look at him with pity. So he takes an ICS correspondence course and becomes a qualified technician. The next scene shows him with new vigor, actually kicking in the door to his boss’s office! Of course, he gets the promotion and his family’s respect.

40 Gil October 5, 2011 at 4:12 am

It should also be added that Charles Atlas also into nutritious eating than being a human garbage can like the traditional strongmen.

41 JimmyP October 5, 2011 at 6:00 am

When I was 13 years old I saw the Charles Atlas ad for the “Dynamic Tension” course and I really wanted it; however, the price was $100 and that was a lot of money for a kid with a newspaper route. After responding to the ad I noticed that every week I would get in the mail a flyer with the price drop of $5….. I ended up buying the course for $10

42 Gregory T. Glading October 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm

I am a former professional wrestler and competitive bodybuilder (although lack of success in competition spurred me to professional wrestling). I had lifted weights for almost three-decades before saying “enough.” Moreover, I finally came to the realization that a good physique and weightroom lifts does confer good physical condition or an effective athletic power. I have developed my own routine based on tensolator (Bullworker Steelbow) isometrics and iso-motion (dynamic tension LOL) as a pre-exhaustion to Asian calthenics and chins. After five-years this workout (and not touching a weight), the results are that at 53-years-old I look as good as ever; I am more flexible than at any time in mylife; I coomand for greater power and speed in my martial arts strikes, and I can drive a golf ball over the 250 yard-sign on the fly at our local driving range and I recently hit a baseball out of a Major League Spring Training Stadium. I can’t answer the question of how I would look or my strength level had I never lifted a weight and did my new workout all along, but the results over the last five years, in addition to the financial savings and convieniance of not having to join a gym, drive to a gym, or find a gym; and workout when I want, where I want, and to whatever music I want, speaks for itself.

43 Bill Gibbons October 5, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I knew his son, Charles Atlas Jr until his own passing in August 2008 at the age of 89. He told me lots of stories about his famous dad, and even in old age people would ask him (Charles Jr) “are you the famous muscle man?” Charles Jr, however, wasn’t as big as his father, standing 5ft 7in and weighing 160lbs. he did not follow his father into the mail order muscle business, and spent his working life as an aeronautical engineer, then later as a professor of mathematics at Santa Monica college .

I can attest that his course does work, as it put 2 inches on each arm and five inches on my chest. I am planning on writing a biography about Atlas the muscle man, and hope i can do his incredible life story some justice!

Bill Gibbons

44 John October 5, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Heart attack does not always mean clogged arteries. To try to discredit one of the early pioneers of the fitness movement because he died at eighty while jogging is ridiculous.

45 Matt October 5, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Good article and also the posts above.

Seems that many here go from weightlifting to using the non-lifting methods, but all think that without the weights first, that prob. wouldn’t be the case.
If you never bothered with either into your late thirties, what’s the best approach?
Not for the bully-ward off (lol), but just because the improvement should have been attempted but never was?

My situation..

46 Gregory T. Glading October 6, 2011 at 10:26 am

@ Matt Sounds like you read my post. I will answer your question as best I can. If I could do it all over again, I would do my present work out and NOT lift weights. I was a huge weight lifting advocate for almost three-decades and would even disparage non-weightlifing workouts. Actually, I was, and still am, openly critical of the traditional multi-set bodybuilding method. The multi-set method entails doing many low to medium intensity exercises for each body part with the goal of flushing the muscles with blood, or in bodybuilder’s lingo, getting “pumped.” The multi-set method is time consuming and does not grant weight lifting strength equal to the muscular hypertrophy gains. Moreover, multi-set bodybuilding gives the trainee almost zero gains in functional strength or flexibility. Most competitive bodybuilder’s do utilize this training style nonetheless. I had always utilized the Mike Menzer/Arthur Jones heavy duty method. This method utilizes the heaviest possible weights in a low set, short duration, sprint of a workout. All movements are done with extreme intensity, to total failure. I have kept that concept in my new non-weight workout. For each bodypart I will do an intense isometric and my variation of isomotions with a Steel Bow Bullworker and then immediatetly do the applicable Asian Calethenic or chin movement to absolute failure. I demonstrated this work out to a strength trainer in the Detroit Tigers minor league system and he told me that none of his players would be able to do it with my intensity. That is the key. Intensity. My leg and ab workout is very different from my upperbody workout. BTW, unless you want to slip some discs and do yourself irreparable knee, ankle, and hip damage, avoid barbell squats at all costs.

Back to your original question. Why would I ever, at any age, choose weights over what I am doing now? Again, my martial arts strikes (Bruce Lee did a variation of my routine), and golf and softball drives are as good at 53 as at anytime in my life. I also look great and feel great. Before making the switch, I was stiff as a board. I now have better than average flexibility. This routine is also safer and of course the convieniances listed in my previous post. Let me close with this. If your primary goal is cosmetic physique change, ask yourself the last time that a woman’s poll choosing the world’s sexiest men even mentioned a competitive bodybuilder? For that matter, not knowing this from any kind of experience LOL, even most gay men don’t desire freakish musclemen.

47 Bill Gibbons October 6, 2011 at 2:47 pm


Charles Atlas did not die from a heart attack after jogging on the beach. His son (Charles Jr) told me that his father started experiencing chest pains after his workouts. By the time he reach his late 70′s, he used an exercise bicycle instead of running. The clogged arteries were the result of a high protein diet that Atlas adopted (on the advice of his doctors) after developing a mild form of diabetes from his mother’s side.

Eventually the chest pains became severe enough to hospitalize him. He died on the evening of December 24th 1972 from congested heart failure. As his son said to me about that event;

“It was that damned diet that killed him!”

Bill Gibbons

48 George Stathis October 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm

I didn’t know about the protein diet. It’s pity because on the 2nd lesson Atlas gives some great advices on what to eat…

I am using Atlas Dynamic Tension system for the last 3 years and I can say that I feel better than ever. In the past I have use weights and various apparatus but Atlas System it’s more sensible and enjoyable.

As the other Atlas students said before me, with the Atlas system you “Train don’t Strain” and by doing this you don’t suffer from overtraining and injuries. But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.

I’m 40 years old and by doing dynamic tension I’m now stronger than ever before. And that’s not an advertisement! It’s the words of someone who have try so many training systems and truly believes in the efficient of Charle’s Atlas Dynamic Tension.

I can’t recommend it more highly.

49 Mike October 9, 2011 at 7:16 am

I remmber the ads from when i used to read comments and i never forgot them . I think he sent a message out to live healthy and actually walked the walk . Theres not many role models like that these days .

50 jake October 9, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Isometrics certainly has its place for people starting out in physical fitness, however if you really want to find out how the old time strongmen worked out checkout brookskubik.com.

51 Daniel V October 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm

vivir con el ejmplo, es una de las mas valiosas pruebas de integridad. lo que pienso es que, la idea de transformar tus debilidades en fortalesas es un verdadero reto! pero bien lo vale

52 Maverick October 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm

The only problem is… isometrics don’t work nearly as well as barbells, and they certainly don’t make you strong.Bob Hoffman was actually right.

53 Jason October 14, 2011 at 6:29 pm

I believe there are some truths to Atlas’s workout routines. Let me start out by saying I spent several years in a gym trying to get as strong as I could possibly get. I did get fairly strong, but nothing like I am now. A few years ago I got into competitive armwrestling. I was armwrestling every week. In comps I got smoked initially. After a few years of armwrestling I have turned pro and am so strong it is unbelievable. The weights didn’t do it for me, it was my arm on a table against someone else’s and literally blowing my arm out week after week.Now armwrestling is a very dangerous sport, don’t rush out and start armwrestling people because you will get your arm broken or brake someone else’s without the proper knowledge. But it does give credence to Atlas’s philosophies that you don’t have to have weights to get strong. One more thing to add, I don’t know any of my immediate friends or gym friends that can curl more than me. I’m 180 lbs. And can put all the men in my local gym to shame. The secret is, is that arm strength came from armwrestling.

54 Dave Tindell October 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Just as important as Atlas’ isometric exercise regimen were his eating and drinking habits. The best physical training regimen means nothing if you eat lots of junk and high-fat food, drink to excess and smoke. If our politicians could ever figure that out, and start emphasizing wellness and healthy lifestyle choices, we’d be a lot better off.

55 Garett October 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm


Bob Hoffman sued Charles Atlas primarily because he was losing sales to Atlas’s at home minimal equipment methods. He owned the York Barbell company. Eventually he figured out how to make money with isometrics and was pushing his isometric power rack. The isometric routines Hoffman came up with were used by many people and athletes with outstanding results. He even tried to get his rack installed in the White House. Of course the way he configured his program it not only required the rack he sold, it also required the weight sets he sold that weighed hundreds of pounds of pounds. You can get his course for free at the Sandow Museum online.

Google Alexander Zass if you think that isometrics don’t build strength and lots of it. He was a small man with brutal strength putting many men more than twice his size to shame. As a prisoner of war on a starvation diet he pulled against the chains that bound him and he pulled and pressed on the bars until he was strong enough to break the chains and bend the bars enough to slip through. He escaped this way 3 times. Each time they caught him they bound him with stronger chains. Every time he broke those and got away. He NEVER trained with weights. Only isometrics.

I use isometrics in my training routine and they definitely increase my strength compared to when I don’t do them. Charles Atlas said in an interview that everything he learned from someone named Swoboda. Lots of info on him online as well. He repackaged what he learned from him and turned it into the famous course he sold and which is still selling today. I have his course and have used his methods. I consider it to be full of good info and much of what is being pushed and promoted today is far worse. His exercises are a combination of bodyweight using items around the house, and self resistance. Not isometrics even though lots of people call it that. Good info on healthy living is included. Worthwhile reading and trying and is still being sold today. People that use it still report good results from it.

56 Scocasso October 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm

One cannot say that his exercise methods are outdated, trying to say they won’t work, as they worked then, so they will work now. He did it, you can do it. I’m sure he’d say to do whatever exercise works best for you, as long as you exercise and live a clean lifestyle; basically, treat yourself with respect.

57 sky October 19, 2012 at 3:07 am

i’m pushing 60, bought the course when the price went down to 12 bucks. i ‘ve used it pretty much all this time,it beats every other program that i have used, including weight-lifting. i am a former boxer,blackbelt karate,kickboxer. the atlas course does what it says it will do, and that is it will change you for the better for your entire life. it is body weight exercises and dynamic tension isometrics but with a different twist than what’s out there today. if will improve your fighting skills and help you survive rough & tough tumble situations. try it for one year, you’ll get hooked,it’s real. Atlas deserves the praise!!!

58 Rik January 13, 2013 at 11:40 am

The Atlas course is still available online and is not much different than the 1943 print course I own. Atlas death at 79 is a testament to his health. In 1972 few men lived to that age, there was no such thing as open heart surgery or transplant yet and certainly no stents or angioplasty. Even today 79 is an age many men fail to attain and Atlas was not only alive but quite vital at 79. His 17 inch arms are well above what most men will ever achieve even today as is his 47+ inch chest. Can you get bigger with barbells? Sure you can, but you still gotta work at it. Atlas is an American icon and the fact that we can have these discussions about him 40 years after his death says a lot about his legacy.

59 Geo January 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm

I trained with weights for 20 some odd years, all kinds of routines, hit my 40′s and was suffering from bad knees, bad shoulders, herniated disc with accompanying sciatica. Started using stretching, calisthenics, TRX suspension straps, ab wheel. I was injury and pain free within 6 months. I began to adapt high intensity and super slow principles to my calisthenics and TRX work outs and added self resistance exercises and am larger and leaner than I was when I was routinely benching 315 , squatting 375 and dead-lifting 450,and with no injuries. I’m almost 50 and I look better than I did in my late 20′s, ripped abs and all, and most importantly : pain and injury free! I would never go back to the gym, and my sons will never wreck themselves with weights either, they have my example to learn from. Charles Atlas had it right,check out this video about him on youtube to see what he really looked like in his prime:

60 Steven C. Loney December 29, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I know this is an older post, but to those of you who question his actual strength…let me inform you that Charles Atlas pulled 144,000 pound train 120 feet.

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