How early fitness influencers shaped modern gym culture
If you’ve ever felt frustrated with modern gym culture, it may be tempting to imagine a fitness utopia where your appearance doesn’t matter, diets don’t exist, and no one is trying to sell you anything.
It may be even more tempting to yearn for a return to pre-social media fitness culture, before the fitspiration feeds and the Gymshark hauls and the “What I Eat in a Day” videos trying to convince you 1,200 calories is enough to sustain an adult woman.
But what would we actually find if we scrolled up on the history of American fitness culture? Would it be any more inclusive and welcoming?
In Let's Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, Danielle Friedman writes, “The fitness industry has a history of exclusion, catering to middle- and upper-class white people with disposable income. Just as the rich get richer, the fit tend to get fitter and too often, the poor get sicker. And then there’s the problematic fact that exercising has, for several decades, been linked to virtue, creating stigmas against people who can’t or don’t want to or even don’t look like they work out.”
Today, fitness culture commodifies the body by breaking down exercise that should feel good into what you can buy to facilitate it. The selling process in the fitness category is particularly upsetting because product benefits are attached to what we can quickly see as an acceptable physique in an ad campaign: lean muscle, smooth skin, and a lack of fat.
The bad news is that we’ve been building up to this version of fitness culture for more than a century. Since the 1800s, the founders of “physical culture” have been setting us up to feel badly about our bodies long before Instagram exacerbated the problem.
Keep reading to find out who’s to blame for stripping the joy and performance out of fitness, and how we can view current trends in fitness culture through a historical lens.
Years active: 1893–1919
Eugen Sandow is the world’s first bodybuilder. Originally a strongman competitor, Sandow was the first person to build his musculature based on a set of predetermined measurements. Before he wrote his third book, Strength and How to Obtain It, Sandow measured the proportions of classical Greek and Roman sculptures to create what he called the “Grecian Ideal.”
One of his later books, Body-Building, is the first known use of the term.
Sandow became famous during a time when sexually repressed Victorians had developed a fascination with the human body. When Sandow began touring North America with Florenz Ziegfeld’s Trocadero Company, people flocked to see his “muscle display performances.” Sandow left the United States a rich man, having earned 10% of the gross receipts from his show, totaling more than a quarter million dollars.
In London, Sandow used his fortune to establish one of the first modern weightlifting gyms open to the general public. The Institutes of Physical Culture, where Sandow taught weight training and nutrition, was also home to the first bodybuilding magazine, Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture.
Combined with his world tours, the magazine established Sandow as one of the first fitness influencers focused on the aesthetics of the human body — and an “authority” on what the male body “should” look like.
Years active: 1897–1951
Specialty: Bodybuilding, magazine publishing, and quackery
Bernarr Macfadden was the first fitness influencer to give fitness influencers a bad name. If you’re a fitness creator who’s frustrated with the industry’s quacks, feel free to place some of the blame on Macfadden.
Known for his invention of the tabloid magazine, Macfadden started his publishing empire with the magazine Physical Culture in 1899. Via his many magazine ventures and subsequent books, Macfadden condemned what he thought ailed the American public: doctors, vaccines, and gluttony. He advocated for prolonged periods of fasting, claiming that his regimen could fend off any disease and allow someone to live until the age of 150.
America’s obsession with diet and fitness may have begun with Bernarr Macfadden, but it would scale with his protégé, Charles Atlas, who wrote one of the first mass marketed fitness courses inspired by some of Macfadden’s recommended exercises.
The cover of Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine, featuring a cover story on Eugen Sandow.
Years active: 1921–1970
Charles Atlas was a strongman at the Coney Island sideshow when he spotted an ad for the “World's Most Beautiful Man” photo contest, sponsored by Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine. After stripping down to his leopard bikini, Atlas won the contest and earned himself a starring role in Macfadden’s silent short film, The Road to Health.
Atlas’ connection to Macfadden was enough to help him start a business — a mail-order exercise program called Dynamic-Tension. For years Atlas had sworn off traditional bodybuilding with weights, preferring to exercise with self-resistance by exerting tension on one muscle with another. For $29.95, a Dynamic-Tension customer could send a check in the mail and get back a 12-lesson course of exercises that could be done in the privacy of their own home.
You may consider Atlas one of the founding fathers of toxic masculinity in fitness — Dynamic-Tension ads were famous for calling out “skinny” men as “weaklings.” Atlas’ ads struck a chord during the ’30s and ’40s, when the Depression and subsequent world war placed additional pressures on definitions of masculinity as it related to socioeconomic class and patriotism.
What followed for many years was not whether men should pack on muscle, but how they should do it. Atlas’ rejection of weights sparked heated discussions about the best way to become a “real man.” Bob Hoffman, an up-and-coming fitness entrepreneur, challenged Atlas when he started a debate that’s still discussed today: Do you need weights to grow muscle?
Years active: 1923–1977
Specialty: Weightlifting, bodybuilding, and supplements
If Eugen Sandow is the grandfather of bodybuilding, Bob Hoffman is the entrepreneurial son who commercialized it.
In 1919, Bob Hoffman co-founded an oil burner business, the York Oil Burner Corporation. A few years later he started the York Oil Burner Athletic Club with a team of employees and began making his own barbell weights to accommodate members.
Many American weightlifters credit the York Oil Burner Athletic Club as the birthplace of U.S. weightlifting because it’s where Hoffman hosted the country’s first weightlifting competition in 1924. A few years later at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Hoffman coached the U.S. weightlifting team and began to change the world’s perception of Americans in the sport.
York Barbell Club became ground zero for weightlifting success when one of the club’s most prominent members, John Grimek, won the first Mr. America competition in 1940 and the first Mr. Universe contest in 1948. The win gave Hoffman the clout to grow his business, which branched out to supplements in the 1950s.
Hoffman was the first person to develop a commercial food supplement engineered for bodybuilders and weightlifters. Hoffman was criticized, however, by several medical experts who disputed outlandish claims that the supplements could treat more than 120 diseases, including epilepsy, gallstones, and arthritis. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hoffman’s supplements were periodically seized by the U.S. government until such claims were removed from promotional materials.
Despite these controversies, Bob Hoffman is well respected for his role in drafting the blueprint for fitness entrepreneurship in the U.S. Every time you see a weightlifting coach expand on services by offering fitness-related products, Hoffman’s influence is playing a part.
Years active: 1936–2009
Specialty: Health clubs and home fitness entertainment
After earning his Doctor of Chiropractic degree in San Francisco, Jack Lalanne opened one of the first modern health clubs in the United States in 1936. Lalanne is credited with inventing the leg extension machine and the first pulley machines using cables.
At the time, doctors were misinformed about many of the benefits of lifting weights, thinking that “muscle-bound” people would suffer from health problems such as heart attacks and a lower sex drive. Lalanne pushed back, also insisting that women should lift weights at a time when many people thought it would make them bulky and unattractive.
In 1953, Lalanne launched The Jack Lalanne Show, which became the longest-running television exercise program in U.S. history. The show started as a 15-minute segment after the local news that featured Lalanne demonstrating simple exercises using household items like a chair. After the show was picked up for national syndication in 1959, it ran until 1985.
Lalanne was a businessman at heart, and he followed Bob Hoffman’s footsteps in selling vitamin supplements and exercise equipment. But Lalanne is most remembered for his contribution to the juice craze with his Power Juicer, which is still sold in five models today.
Years active: 1969–present
If you’ve ever seen an aerobics routine from the 1980s, think of Jacki Sorensen. Originally a cheerleader in the 1960s, Sorensen began teaching dance classes to air force wives after she married Neil A. Sorensen, a member of the United States Air Force. After reading Kenneth H. Cooper's 1968 book Aerobics, which recommended jogging, Sorensen took a fitness test and discovered her dance routine made her just as fit as a jogger.
Encouraged by Cooper himself, Sorensen developed dance aerobics as a way to improve heart health. She took a scientific approach to the development of her routine, testing it and refining it on a group of women who weren’t familiar with dance moves. Sorensen removed mirrors and faced away from students as a way to remove intimidation factors. She recorded her students’ pulse before, during, and after class over a period of 12 weeks to track improvement in heart rate.
After her husband finished his military service the couple moved several times across the U.S., and Sorensen taught her aerobics routine in various YMCAs while taking graduate classes in exercise physiology. Sorensen eventually set up her own aerobics studios across the country, training hundreds of instructors that she called “clinicians”.
Throughout the 1980s, Sorensen’s aerobics empire competed with Judi Missett's Jazzercise franchise and a barrage of home video releases inspired by Jane Fonda's Workout. Thanks to Sorensen, women’s fitness had finally been made “acceptable” through cardio exercise, not weights.
Fast forward: The fitness creator boom
The history of fitness is full of gatekeepers. Charles Atlas, Jack Lalanne, and the fitness pioneers who came before them were once authority figures on how people should look, move, and eat. Now we just have more gatekeepers telling us how to look, move, and eat on more channels that are accessible to more people.
Diversity of perspective has led to positive change in fitness culture, like the body neutrality movement, better nutritional information, and better gender equality in fitness. But now the root problem has been flipped on its head: There are too many fitness “authorities”, too many gatekeepers telling us what fitness should feel and look like.
The solution may just be to hyper-curate your sources on fitness, cut out 90% of the noise, and focus only on the activity you enjoy. When members of r/gymsnark, a subreddit on the toxicity of modern fitness culture, were asked, “How do you define modern gym culture?”, one sage member in her 60s probably said it best: