body building

A routine of exercise and diet designed to make the body appear muscular. Weight-training is used to develop the size, shape, and symmetry of all the superficial muscles in the body so that they are larger, more conspicuous, and better defined. Training routines usually reduce fat levels and, if performed properly, can improve flexibility, particularly of the shoulders, hips, and trunk. When combined with aerobic fitness training, body building can be beneficial to health. However, when the only objective is to obtain a better looking body, the exercises usually have little beneficial effect on fitness and may even be harmful. Body building may, for example, reduce flexibility and mobility if the weight training is performed without using the full range of movements.

One routine, called the ‘blitz’ system, uses circuits of several different exercises performed on one body part over long periods of time. This enlarges muscles because more blood can be pumped into them, but blitzing does not necessarily strengthen the muscles.

The most controversial aspect of body building concerns the methods used to increase body mass. This can be achieved only if there is a positive energy balance, with food intake exceeding energy expenditure. There are many special food supplements on the market which claim to help body-builders to gain weight. However, a major problem is ensuring that the gain is in the form of muscle rather than fat. Appropriate weight-training exercises can help the process, but only slowly. Many serious body-builders resort to taking drugs, such as androgenic-anabolic steroids, for quick results. This can be expensive, both financially and in terms of health.

Although body-builders require protein, they sometimes over-indulge in protein-rich foods (often in the form of expensive, commercially-packaged supplements) and do not eat enough of the other nutrients. It is difficult to define an individual's exact protein requirements, but the needs of an active body-builder are more than twice those of a sedentary person. Nevertheless, even a 200 lb (90 kg) male body-builder would require no more than 6.5 oz (180 g) of protein per day. Many body-builders eat much more protein than this; the excess is either excreted or turned to fat. See also amino acid supplements and pumping-up.


Spectacular displays of human strength in modern times were a tradition of the Victorian fun-fair. Systematic methods for building muscular strength were subsequently promoted by highly successful, late nineteenth-century American entrepreneurs such as Eugene Sandow, Bernard Macfadden, and Charles Atlas. Sandow proselytized his muscle-building system as a health philosophy based on the belief that the human body could be made resistant to all disease by keeping all ‘cells in perfectly balanced strength … This I contend we can only do by the balanced physical movement of the voluntary muscles.’ Macfadden incorporated muscle building into a theory of lifestyle, including sexual, reform. Charles Atlas popularized his fast-track body-building method by humiliating his clients, daring each to turn himself from a ‘seven-stone weakling getting sand kicked in his face’ into a lion who made all the other animals in the jungle ‘sit up and take notice as soon as he lets out a roar’.

Body building as a professional sport flourished after World War II with a newly formed World Body-building Association creating an international competition for the title of Mr Universe, which was judged on muscular bulk and definition. The early systems of Sandow, Macfadden, and Atlas were incorporated into methods for turning muscles into iron — above all by the post-war entrepreneurial giant of the body-building cult, Jo Weider. Weider and his brother funded a separate competition which became the most sought-after world-championship body-building title in the 1980s, ‘MrOlympia’, and extended this to provide a female equivalent, ‘Ms Olympia’. The Olympia competitions, however, were the tip of a commercial empire including the international supply of gymnasiums and equipment, sports clothes, dietary supplements, and magazine and book publications. Weider, like his predecessors claimed to offer a new lifestyle philosophy along with his methods for increasing muscular size and strength. As a result professional body building has spawned a new exercise and fitness cult for the sedentary classes based on the weight-training methods and dietary controls employed by competitive body-building athletes. Weider has given this ‘fitness culture’ recognition by founding a new competition for the title of ‘Ms Fitness’, whose chief characteristic is supposed to be the holder's sexual attractiveness defined in terms of weight ratio and body shape.

Another qualification for the Ms Fitness title is that competitors must achieve a developed and defined muscular physique without the assistance of anabolic steroids. This criterion differentiates the identity of the ‘fit body’ because the extravagant bulk of contemporary professional body builders, and all who imitate them, cannot be achieved without the illegal use of sex hormones and/or human growth hormone. From the time that Soviet weightlifters, such as Vasily Stepanov, began using anabolic steroids to build strength in the early 1950s, testosterone has been a crucial weapon in the cold war in hard flesh. The local gym has become an experimental laboratory investigating the limits to human growth. Professional and amateur body builders have become enthusiastic self-experimenters who exchange a vast quantity of highly specialized knowledge about human health and physique and how to enhance or, indeed, destroy it. The physiological consequences of taking testosterone and human growth hormone are not yet fully known. Apart from distorting normal human muscle proportions, the short-term effects have a number of pathological results ranging from acne to liver damage and the recently identified psychopathology of ‘roid-rage’.

The aim of the contemporary body-building cult is not, however, to produce the perfectly healthy human form or even a human form at all. The current criteria for achieving the highly prized Mr Olympia title is body bulk which is also ‘cut’. The goals of body building had changed by the end of the twentieth century, taking on a new post-modernist, ‘post-human’ tonality. As illustrated by one of the currently most popular body-building magazines. Ironman, the desire of the contemporary competitive body builder is to look ‘alien’ — or, in the lingo of the locker-room, to look ‘freaky’. As T. C. Louoma, writing in the first edition of the British publication of Ironman in 1992, highlights, the competition between body builders is to look ‘out of this world’. It is perhaps ironic that the contemporary body-building cult, which can trace its heritage back to the role of the ‘freak’ strongman in the nineteenth-century fun-fair, chooses to revive this particular Victorian value.

— Dorothy Porter


  • Berryman, J. W. and Park, R. J. (ed.) (1992). Sport and exercise science. Essays in the history of sports medicine. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
  • Chapman, D. L. (1994). Sandow the magnificent. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago

See also Atlas, Charles; sport; skeletal muscle; strength training.

A form of exercise and competitive sport in which the primary aim of participants is to develop muscularity and body mass, and to produce symmetry and harmony between different body parts. In addition, body-builders try to achieve definition so that muscles can be separated from each other. During competition, body-builders are judged while posing in specific body positions. Weight-training for body-building usually incorporates ‘split’ systems (a few selected muscles or muscle groups are exercised in each session), which have a low risk of serious injury. The training does not improve maximal aerobic power or endurance capacity, but it does seem to have some health-promoting effects (for example, steroid-free male and female body-builders tend to have favourable lipoprotein-lipid profiles, reducing the risk of coronary heart disease). Well-trained body-builders are characterized by having lean and muscular bodies with enhanced muscular strength and power.

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