Charles Atlas: Muscle Man

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

Charles Atlas playing tug of war with the Rockettes atop Radio City Music Hall (Charles Atlas LTD)
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As the world prepared for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and the specter of National Socialism grew more alarming, Atlas bemoaned the poor state of U.S. distance running and touted the value of exercise to improve the readiness of American troops. "A study of the reasons for rejection of army applicants made by Atlas," read one syndicated newspaper story, "shows that nearly one-third of the defects are those which could be largely minimized by proper care and training." He was past the age to serve in the military, but he posed for a Treasury Department sale of Victory Bonds.

Though never a zealot like Macfadden, he was single-minded in trumpeting the value of health and the means to attain it. His exercises were framed with detailed lifestyle advice: on how to dress, sleep, breathe, eat and relax. (He urged "Music Baths.") He penned long treatises on various maladies, and his company published books on everything from child rearing to relationship advice. In his view, marriage itself was subject to the vagaries of a robust sense of well-being. "The lack of glorious, vigorous health," he noted, "would prove to be, if the divorce records were analyzed, the most common reason why so many marriages ‘crack up.'" He even counseled on the best way to start the day: "Get up immediately on awakening in the morn­ing....Don't dillydally. GET UP!"

By the 1950s the business counted nearly a million pupils worldwide and the Dynamic-Tension regimen had been translated into seven languages. Ads in more than 400 comic books and magazines brought in 40,000 new recruits each year. Celebrity pupils included comedian Fred Allen, Rocky Marciano, Joe DiMaggio and Robert Ripley. (Ripley once wrote in his "Believe It or Not" column that he saw Atlas swim a mile through storm-tossed waters off a New York beach to tow a rowboat and its panicked occupants back to shore.)

Even as Atlas' days slipped into mundane routine, and he himself slipped into middle age, he would show up most afternoons at his Manhattan office to answer mail and preach fitness to fans who came by to view their idol in person. Dinner in Brooklyn was invariably broiled steak and fresh fruit and vegetables. He often ended the day practicing Dynamic-Tension in the mirror, though he also exercised regularly at the New York Athletic Club, where he was secure enough to offer marketing tips to potential rivals.

"I was working out at the club in the late '50s when I ran into Atlas," remembers Joe Weider, founder of Muscle & Fitness magazine and a former competitive bodybuilder then marketing barbells. "He came over to me and tried to offer me some business advice. He said a 100-pound barbell set was heavy to ship. Then he said, ‘Joe, I just send a course and some pictures, and I make so much more money than you. You should do that, too.'"

Atlas suffered a jarring blow in 1965 when Margaret died of cancer; he was so distraught he briefly considered joining a monastery. Instead, he fell back on what he knew best: tending to his body. He took long runs on the beach near Point Lookout. He bought a condominium in Palm Beach, Florida, and kept up a morning routine of 50 knee bends, 100 sit-ups and 300 push-ups. Occasionally a photo of him appeared, bronzed and flaunting his godlike chest, his measurements almost exactly the same as those enshrined in the Crypt of Civilization. In 1970, he sold his half of the company to Charles Roman but continued on as a consultant. On December 23, 1972, Charles Atlas died in a Long Island hospital of a heart attack. He was 79 years old.

It was the beginning of the fitness boom. The year Atlas died, maverick inventor Arthur Jones introduced his first Nautilus exercise machine, which offered variable resistance; it was joined on the workout floor by the Lifecycle exercise bike, which got its marketing kick from the budding science of aerobics. Other workout routines—Pilates, step aerobics, Spinning—would lure members to ever-multiplying health clubs. Charles Atlas Ltd., meanwhile, was selling the same mail-order course, but without Atlas as living icon and with neither branded equipment nor a franchised gym, the company profile dimmed. One day, Roman received a letter from Jeffrey C. Hogue, an Arkansas lawyer who said he'd idolized Atlas since the course rescued him from terminal insecurity decades earlier—and he wanted to buy the business.

"We met at the Players Club," Hogue recalls. "Mr. Roman told me how much [money] he wanted and I did something I advise no client ever to do. I didn't negotiate. It just didn't feel right."

Hogue declines to disclose the sale price, but he says he had to borrow a considerable portion of the money. The company's global reach surprised him, he says—he recounts that the first letter he opened was from a student in Nepal—but it was making only a modest profit.


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