by Ellington Darden, Ph.D.
On June 7, 2008, I attended my first Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen Reunion Dinner in Newark, New Jersey. What a meaningful experience it was to meet such famous strength athletes as Tommy Kono, Dave Prowse, and Joe Rollino.
Kono is recognized as one of the greatest Olympic lifters of all time, as well as a two-time winner of Mr. Universe. Prowse played Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" sagas, and was a weightlifting champion in Great Britain for many years. Rollino, the oldest in attendance at 103 years of age, apprenticed at Coney Island with legendary strongman, Warren Lincoln Travis. In his prime, Rollino could do a 1-finger lift with 600 pounds and bend coins with his fingers.
Joe Rollino, at age 103, shares a story about his days as a professional strongman. "I could curl 185 pounds," Joe remembered, "when I weighed only 175."
Speaking of strong hands and fingers, seated at my table for the dinner, were Pat Povilaitis, Steve Weiner, Jim Flanagan, Kim Wood, and John Wood — and at nearby tables, were Slim "The Hammerman" Farman, Terry Todd, and Don Reinhoudt. All of these men have massive forearms and hands, as well as extraordinary grip strength.
The day before this event, I visited my oldest daughter, Amy, who's a senior at Brooklyn College. Amy took me to Coney Island, since she knew I wanted to see it, as it will be torn down later this year. Coney Island's sideshow exhibits provided a background to the discussions I had the next day with Joe Rollino, who quit school at age 10 (in 1915) and toured the world with the performing Travis. "What an education that was," Rollino said. "And get this, in Brooklyn I lived right across the street from Charlie Atlas. We often worked out together."
A 1914 post card pictured one of the sideshow sections of Coney Island. Some of the acts included the armless wonder, spider boy, a 4-legged girl, a contortionist, a fat lady, and the "world's strongest man."
Early strongmen, according to Rollino, specialized in hand and grip strength because it was something that was easily demonstrated — and, in turn, offered as a challenge to sporting men in the audience. This usually led to competition and additional interest.
"A century ago," Rollino remembered, "muscular biceps, triceps, and forearms were very marketable. Big arms were in demand, not only at Coney Island, but also all over the country. Just about anywhere men gathered, eventually, the sleeves were rolled up and the competition began."
Why were men, 100 years ago, so intrigued by big arms?
Let's turn back the years on the calendar — as Joe Rollino suggested — to a century ago. A look at the economic climate in 1908 and beyond, with a few notes of history concerning the big-arm promoters, will help supply some of the answers.
- Half of all Americans lived on farms or in towns with fewer than 2,500 residents.
- Nearly 90 percent of the energy used on these farms came from animals and HUMAN power.
- Strenuous, physical work (an average of 10 hours per day, 6 days per week) was required of most boys and men who lived on farms.
- Hard work produced bigger, stronger arms.
- Was it possible that the bigger, stronger armed men were the most confident and the most successful? My guess was YES, that was the case in the minds of many men.
- President Theodore Roosevelt was finishing his eight years in Washington. Roosevelt had suffered from asthma and cholera morbus as a youth and rehabbed his body through vigorous exercise. During his presidential years, he became the nation's foremost symbol of hard, adventurous work leading to success.
- The Model T Ford was introduced and would eventually outsell all other cars, but not initially. In 1908, fewer than two farm families in 100 owned cars. The reason? Cost.
- The average American's wages was 18 cents per hour and the Model T sold for $850. Thus, it took 4,722 hours of work — or 472 days at 10 hours a day — to earn enough money to purchase a car.
- Summary — In 1908, especially among the farmers, manual laborers, and lower socioeconomic groups of people, the following belief was prevalent: Hard work produced stronger men. Men with bigger arms were more confident and successful, than were men with smaller arms.
World War I, which stretched from 1914 to 1918, opened the door to prosperity and the "Roaring Twenties." Increased industrialization, radio, better automobiles, and railway travel improved people's earning power.
Still, skinny teenagers lacking confidence were everywhere, in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, and Georgia — which set the stage for the muscle-building publishing and/or mail-order success of Alan Calvert, Bernarr Macfadden, Earle Liederman, Charles Atlas, George Jowett, Mark Berry, and Sig Klein. These men knew that progressive resistance exercise provided the best way to get bigger and stronger muscles.
Earle Liederman had one of the most successful mail-order courses related to bodybuilding. In 1928, in his New York office, his business required 96 employees to fill his orders.
Touring strongmen were also popular during this two-decade period. They usually performed in the large and small circuses that circled the country each year or two.
What these strongmen and the early muscle peddlers offered teenagers was much more than hope. It was self-made manhood . . . manhood that stressed strength, athletic skill, appearance, and big arms.
The 1920s offered wealth to many men, especially in the industrialized states.
In Texas, however, there was limited prosperity. My dad, George B. Darden, who graduated from Baylor University Law School in 1927, told me that his first job was that of county attorney in Anahuac, Texas (near Galveston). "My salary was $25 per month," dad said, "which was more than most folks made. In fact, if I had been presented with a contract that guaranteed me $25 per month, for the rest of my life, I would have signed it on the spot." That was in early 1929.
Then, things got worse . . . much worse.
In October of 1929, the stock market in the United States crashed, panic ensued, and eventually 10,000 banks failed. Mass poverty occurred, which launched the Great Depression.
Times were hard in the United States in the 1930s and throughout the world. A man with a great physique, who possessed larger-than-normal-size forearms and upper arms, had a real advantage. He was viewed as an achiever.
The time seemed right for Bob Hoffman. Hoffman was a tall, stout, athletic, young man, who became friends with some of the best American weightlifters and coaches. Shortly after the market crash of 1929, with the mail-order strength business in shambles, Hoffman purchased an oil burner manufacturing plant in York, Pennsylvania. Soon he constructed a weightlifting/training facility at his plant, organized a team, and recruited talented prospects by offering them jobs in his warehouse.
"Bob Hoffman," according to strength historian, John Fair, "was never a great weightlifter, bodybuilder, coach, writer, nutritionist, or businessman, yet he was a great man — chiefly because of his capacity to promote an ideology of success."
His ideas paid off. In 1932 he held the AAU National Weightlifting Championship in York, which started a several-year feud with Mark Berry, head of Milo Barbell Company, publisher of Strength magazine, and coach of the U.S. Weightlifting Team. Eventually, Hoffman got the upper hand when he established his own magazine, Strength & Health; purchased the bankrupted Milo business; and started the York Barbell Company.
In 1938, Hoffman brought John C. Grimek to York. Grimek was the nation's most recognizable bodybuilder and Hoffman reinforced him to win the first AAU Mr. America competitions in 1940 and 1941. Grimek worked closely with Hoffman and the York Barbell Company for almost 50 years.
Depressed conditions continued throughout the country for 12 long years. The United States finally entered World War II in December of 1941, which was generally considered to be the end of the Great Depression. Federal outlays skyrocketed and jobs became plentiful as the country geared up for war.
John Grimek as he appeared on the January 1940 issue of Strength & Health. Not only did Grimek have a great physique, but he was an accomplished weightlifter, having represented the USA at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Bob Hoffman enthusiastically backed the war effort with his writings in Strength & Health magazine. His combination of national regeneration and self-improvement through exercise helped America emerge from the depths of the Great Depression. Hoffman's York team of weightlifters and musclemen not only won Olympic medals and physique contests, but also helped produce and promote his barbells and publications — which brought Hoffman money and power.
Hoffman's businesses prospered throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Interestingly, Hoffman didn't particularly like bodybuilding competitions. He was primarily a promoter, coach, and fan of Olympic-style weightlifting. Since weightlifting competitions were well established before the introduction of physique displays, the official AAU state, regional, and national championships always placed the physique part at the end of the lifting — which often left bodybuilders flexing their muscles after midnight. Such obvious favoritism didn't sit well with the bodybuilders and their fans.
Even though Hoffman's Big Arms was the bestseller of his numerous books, he simply tolerated the flexing and posing of physique men. As a result, he opened the door for a much smaller rival organization — the IFBB, headed by Joe and Ben Weider — to popularize bodybuilding.
Joe Weider began publishing Your Physique magazine in Canada in 1940. Three years later he moved into the U.S. market. Since Hoffman monopolized the weightlifting market, Weider's magazine focused on bodybuilding. In 1946, Joe was joined by his younger brother, Ben, and they founded the IFBB, which stood for the International Federation of Body Builders. In their minds, competitive bodybuilding was an endeavor worthy of its own independence, as opposed to being the stepchild of weightlifting.
Here's a 1944 issue of Joe Weider's Your Physique, with him on the front. Compare it to his fun-in-the-sun, California cover from 1970. The featured body builder was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Hoffman effectively combated the Weiders' challenge with some positive changes. But after 20 years, America's tastes had taken a turn toward the California showbiz culture. In the mid-1960s, Weider had taken former AAU competitors — Harold Poole, Larry Scott, and Sergio Oliva — and turned them into IFBB champions. By 1970, Joe Weider was positioned to promote a young bodybuilder with unusual charisma, and the unlikely name of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to international fame.
Compared to the early AAU physique champions, Scott, Oliva, and Schwarzenegger possessed huge size in their arms. Their arms became a powerful marketing tool in Weider's stable of muscle magazines, which were now called Mr. America and Muscle Builder/Power.
Larry Scott won the 1960 AAU Mr. California and was told by Bob Hoffman in 1962 that, if he entered the AAU Mr. America, his chances of winning were not good. Disappointed, he joined Weider's IFBB and went on to win the IFBB's Mr. America, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia.
The year 1971 brought a new competitor into the strength-training arena. His name was Arthur Jones. A year earlier, he began writing a series of "in-your-face articles" for IronMan magazine. IronMan was published by Peary Rader, whose approach was to remain neutral to Hoffman and Weider. Rader acquired a loyal fact-hungry/training-orientated readership — which welcomed the writings of Jones. Jones hard-hitting articles led to the creation of Nautilus machines.
Big arms were a fascination for Jones and some of his early machines and routines were directed at full-range development of the upper-arm muscles. To reinforce his concepts, Jones hired teenage bodybuilder Casey Viator and brought him to his headquarters in Florida. He then trained Viator intensely for the 1971 AAU Mr. America, which by coincidence was held that year in York, Pennsylvania.
Viator easily won the Mr. America title, as well as 5 of the 6 sub-divisions, including Best Arms. These wins put Arthur Jones, Casey Viator, and the Nautilus machines permanently into bodybuilding's historical records. Viator remains the youngest-ever Mr. America.
By the late-1970s, Hoffman was in declining health and his interest in bodybuilding had faded to a trickle. So had the circulation of Strength & Health, which would cease publication in 1986, a year after Hoffman's death.
On the other hand, Joe Weider relocated his entire operation to Woodland Hills, California. His primary magazine, which was renamed Muscle & Fitness in 1980, had dramatically increased its circulation. Furthermore, Weider's IFBB Mr. Olympia had replaced the AAU's Mr. America, as the most prestigious bodybuilding contest in the world. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not only won Mr. Olympia seven times, but had made an even bigger name for himself in the movies, by starring in such box-office hits as Pumping Iron, Conan the Barbarian, Twins, Eraser, True Lies, and Terminator.
Going into the 1990s, the popularity of bodybuilding was at an all-time high. Soon that began to change, as more and more of the professional competitors began to morph themselves with drug-induced, distorted body parts. Interest and participation began to drop. Today's professional contests are little more than freak shows. Sure, Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman have gigantically muscular arms and legs, but these parts surround bloated bellies.
In 2003, Joe Weider sold his publishing empire to American Media. Today, well into his 80s, he's in poor health. His brother, Ben Weider, is still President of the IFBB and they both have a 50-percent stake in the Mr. Olympia competition.
What happened to the chiseled athletic look of John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Frank Zane? Where did the just right combination of mass, muscularity, and symmetry go that propelled Clancy Ross, Robby Robinson, and Samir Bannout to the top?
"The last Mr. Olympia winner," according to Tim Patterson, CEO of T-Nation.com, "who did NOT have that bloated, drug-induced look, was Samir Bannout in 1983."
And what about those impressive arms of Boyer Coe, Casey Viator, Mike Mentzer, Sergio Oliva, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Where did those types of arms go?
And more importantly, does anybody really care?
My answer is YES.
I believe there are millions and millions of teens, young men, and older men who would like to have bigger, stronger, and more muscular bodies. And almost every one of them would like a pair of more impressive upper arms and larger, stronger forearms. But they need to be influenced and guided by REALISTIC expectations, not freak-show mass and promotion.
The how-to of muscular size is still there — buried under tons of nonsense material on easy ways to massive muscles with new anabolic formulas. It's there . . . in the form of hard work, discipline, and patience.
All the 300 men who attended the Oldtimers Reunion are definitely in favor of a return to sensible, sane training techniques, combined with sound nutrition and drug-free practices.
And big arms? Absolutely. They were important 100 years ago and they're important NOW!
Can big arms become a problem? Sure . . . if all you do is contemplate them or getting them bigger and bigger becomes your life's primary quest.
Again, you must be realistic in what you want and how you approach it.
Four months ago, I visited John Wood in Ann Arbor, MI. John is one of the new strongmen who follows in the footsteps of the oldtimers. His specialty is grip strength (see www.functionalhandstrength.com). Recently, John, during his forearm training, did 33 consecutive reps with the #2 Captains of Crunch gripper. He's also achieved a slow, deliberate close of the #3 gripper.
A sociologist might say that while big arms were an indication of achievement 100 years ago, men today should be more concerned with intellectual success.
A psychologist might say that throughout recorded history, men have had a primal need to acquire domination over other men. This primal need is often demonstrated through combat, athletics, grip strength, or arm size.
A psycho physiologist might say that when times are tough, you may not be able to rely on reasonable gas prices, take a pricy vacation, or bank on your portfolio. But you can, most assuredly, depend on the Iron. And you can always count on big arms to serve you well.
(Sincere appreciation goes to Joe Rollino and the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen (AOBS) for recognizing and preserving the Iron Game's rich and colorful history. Thanks to Bob Hoffman, John Grimek, Joe Weider, Peary Rader, and Arthur Jones for keeping the quest for big arms alive and meaningful.)
ELLINGTON DARDEN appeared on the cover of Strength & Health magazine several times, the first being in March of 1970. For information on Dr. Darden's latest book, "The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results," click here.