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Charles Atlas playing tug of war with the Rockettes atop Radio City Music Hall (Charles Atlas LTD)

Charles Atlas: Muscle Man

How the original 97-pound-weakling transformed himself and brought physical fitness to the masses

Roman knew a thing or two about writing ad copy and a lot about psychology, and he'd scarcely sharpened his pencils before he coined the term "Dynamic-Tension." He would do more than save the business; he would turn it into a marketing landmark. It was Roman who would write all the Atlas ads, from the "Hey, Skinny!" strips to the "97-Pound Weakling" and the "The Insult That Made a Man Out of ‘Mac'" series. The ads went straight to the male psyche. They preyed on every man's insecurity—that he wasn't "man enough" to defend his girl at the beach. At a time when the entire country was reeling from the 1929 stock-market crash and its aftermath, Atlas promised to restore a million battered egos.

"When the Depression struck, a characteristic response in America was to blame ourselves," says Harvey Green, a professor of history at Northeastern University and author of Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport and American Society, 1830-1940. "Atlas interpreted the desire to transform ourselves as a way of self-improvement."

The story of the two Charleses—Atlas and Roman— was a marriage of muscle and marketing that permanently altered America's approach to fitness. Before them, exercise had been the habit of a few, motivated by health first with vanity a distant second. Roman's ads heralded a new view of a man's body—as a measurement of success. As people migrated from rural America to cities filled with offices, making an impression became a priority. It was why Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, had won so many readers. But where Carnegie preached advancement through social skills, Atlas evangelized for the body beautiful.

"Carnegie's message was, fit in—Atlas' was to be bigger than everybody else," says Green. "Then nobody would mess with you. The idea that physical size could give you confidence was a powerful message."

Brute size was all well and good, but proportions were what mattered to Atlas. "I don't stress the matter of chest expansion," he told Family Circle magazine in 1939, "because it is not important....I've had a fellow in here who could blow himself up like a frog...but it was just a trick, and he was underdeveloped in every way." Nor did big biceps impress Atlas as much as well-developed abs. In one of his lessons, he wrote, "It is all very well to have strong arms and a grip of steel, but of what use are these unless the abdominal area is in perfect condition?" The paragraph concludes: "The rectus abdomus muscles will stand out firmly like a washboard."

His values were curiously old-fashioned, even quaint. Manfre was always surprised by Atlas' interest in his life. "He'd constantly ask me questions. ‘What did you do yesterday? How's it going? Did you go to church? I've got a new exercise you should add in.'" That Atlas never stopped working to improve his exercise program also impressed Manfre. "He kept studying animals," says Manfre, "and not just four-legged ones. He'd say, ‘See that bird fly? See how he flaps his wings to push out his chest?' I'd sit there amazed."

The personal touch was his hallmark; his lessons took the form of letters signed by the man himself: "Yours for Health and Strength" or "Yours for Perfect Development" or "Yours in Perfect Manhood" or (during World War II) "Yours for a Lasting Peace." Long before personal trainers, Atlas tried to create an intimate bond with his "students." That the exercises could be performed alone at home, without risk of embarrassment at a YMCA or club, was part of their appeal. "You will understand these exercises better," Atlas empathized, "if you read them out loud to yourself in a private room where you will not be disturbed."

Of course, not everyone bought into Dynamic-Tension. Most notably, Atlas feuded with a man named Bob Hoffman, who published Strength & Health magazine and sold York barbells on the side. In a celebrated case filed with the Federal Trade Commission in 1936, Hoffman called the Atlas system "dynamic hooey" and stood on his thumbs before the commission to prove the value of barbells. The FTC was apparently impressed—but not persuaded. In its finding of fact, it declared that Atlas "has employed and developed his said system since he was seventeen years of age and has attained his own great strength by the use of his own methods without relying upon apparatus." The FTC dismissed the suit and issued an order warning Hoffman not to disparage Atlas again.

John D. Fair, author of the biography Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell, says he found articles in old issues of Physical Culture in which Atlas admitted he supplemented his exercises by using weights. But Fair also gives credit to Atlas. "He was an awfully nice guy with a great body, handsome and very strong," he told me. "He was a look, a household name. Hoffman admired him, but Hoffman was a businessman."

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