Charles Atlas

For other uses of "Charles Atlas", see Charles Atlas (disambiguation).
Charles Atlas

Charles Atlas c. 1920
Born Angelo Siciliano
October 30, 1892
Acri, Italy
Died December 24, 1972(1972-12-24) (aged 80)
Long Beach, New York[1]
Nationality American
Occupation Bodybuilder
Known for Bodybuilding

Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano; October 30, 1892[1] – December 24, 1972) was the developer of a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program that was best known for a landmark advertising campaign featuring Atlas's name and likeness; it has been described as one of the longest-lasting and most memorable ad campaigns of all time.[2]

Atlas trained himself to develop his body from that of a "scrawny weakling", eventually becoming the most popular muscleman of his day. He took the name Charles Atlas after a friend told him that he resembled the statue of Atlas on top of a hotel in Coney Island[3] and legally changed his name in 1922. He marketed his first body building course with health and fitness writer Dr. Frederick Tilney in November 1922. Tilney wrote the original course "Health & Strength by Charles Atlas," and the duo ran the company out of Tilney's home for the first six months. In 1929, Tilney sold his half of the business to advertising man Charles P. Roman and moved to Miami, Florida, where he operated a very successful health food business until his death in 1977. Charles Atlas Ltd. was founded in 1929 and, as of 2015, continues to market a fitness program for the "97-pound weakling" (44 kg). The company is now owned by Jeffrey C. Hogue.


Comic ad from 1949 featuring Charles Atlas

Angelo Siciliano was born in Acri, Calabria, Italy, in 1892.[4] Angelino, as he was also called, moved to Brooklyn, New York at the age of 11 and eventually became a leather worker. He tried many forms of exercise initially, using weights, pulley-style resistance, and gymnastic-style calisthenics. Atlas claimed that they did not build his body. He was inspired by other fitness and health advocates who preceded him, including world-renowned strongman Eugen Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden (a major proponent of "Physical Culture"). He was too poor to join the local YMCA, so he watched how exercises were performed, then performed them at home. He attended the strongman shows at Coney Island, and would question the strongmen about their diets and exercise regimens after the show. He would read Physical Culture magazine for further information on health, strength, and physical development, and finally developed his own system of exercises which was later called 'Dynamic Tension,' a phrase coined by Charles Roman.

A bully kicked sand into Siciliano's face at a beach when he was a youth, according to the story that he always told. At this time in his life, also according to the story, he weighed only 97 pounds (44 kg).[5] However, an early Atlas brochure from 1924 showed a 1903 picture of a small, thin Angelo Siciliano dressed in clothes for the period, including traditional knickerbockers. In later editions of the brochure, Angelo's age was changed to 15. According to several stories and claims, he was at the zoo watching a lion stretch when he thought to himself, "Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?...And it came over me....He's been pitting one muscle against another!"[6]

None of the exercises in the Dynamic tension course could be attributed to an African big cat, but other exercise courses of the time contained exercises similar to Atlas's course, particularly those marketed by Bernarr McFadden and Earle E. Liederman. Were they all inspired by stretching lions at the zoo? He concluded that lions and tigers became strong by pitting muscle against muscle.[7]

Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of the magazine Physical Culture, dubbed Siciliano "America's Most Handsome Man" in 1921, and "Americas Most Perfectly Developed Man" in a 1922 contest held in Madison Square Garden[6][8] He soon took the role of strongman in the Coney Island Circus Side Show. Nowhere did Atlas win a title proclaiming him to be the world's most perfectly developed man.

In 1922, 30-year-old Siciliano officially changed his name to Charles Atlas, as it sounded much more American. He met Dr. Frederick Tilney, a British homeopathic physician and course writer who was employed as publisher Bernarr MacFadden's "ideas man." Atlas and Tilney met through MacFadden, who was using Atlas as a model for a short movie entitled "The Road to Health." Atlas wrote a fitness course and then asked Tilney to edit it. Tilney agreed and Atlas went into business in 1922. Tilney himself had an extensive background in weight training.[6]

Dynamic Tension

Main article: Dynamic tension

Atlas' "Dynamic Tension" program consists of twelve lessons and one final perpetual lesson. Each lesson is supplemented with photos of Atlas demonstrating the exercises. Atlas' lesson booklets added commentary that referred to the readers as his friends and gave them an open invitation to write him letters to update him on their progress and stories. His products and lessons have sold millions, and Atlas became the face of fitness. Among the people who took Atlas' course were Max Baer, heavyweight boxing champion from 1934 to 1935;[9] Rocky Marciano, heavyweight boxing champion from 1952 to 1956; Joe Louis, heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949; British heavyweight weightlifting champion and Darth Vader actor David Prowse; and Allan Wells, the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games 100 meter champion.


Atlas was described as a student of Earle E. Liederman in several editions of a Liederman booklet, until shortly before the Dynamic Tension course was published. The 1918 edition of the booklet states that Atlas had performed a one-arm overhead press with 236 lb.[10] The 1920 edition states a 266 lbs one-arm overhead press. However, Atlas/Siciliano was already a strong, well developed man before being featured in Liederman's magazine.[11]

The American Continental Weight Lifting Association (ACWLA)

"In April of 1924, (David P.) Willoughby staged a "National" weightlifting championship, which was also supposed to serve as a basis for selecting an Olympic Team to represent the United States at the upcoming Paris Olympic Games (no team was ever sent to Paris). In the meantime, Jowett joined the staff of Calvert's Strength magazine and began, with Calvert, to push the ACWLA. The ACWLA was also reorganized, with Jowett as president, Coulter and Willoughby as vice presidents, and an advisory board that included Charles Atlas, Bernard, Calvert, Earle Leiderman, Charles MacMahon, Bernarr Macfadden and Henry Titus (many of the major players in the Iron Game at that time). Jowett was to be the editor of Strength magazine from 1924 to 1927 and that position, along with his energy in it, made him the most powerful voice for the organization of weightlifting in the United States at that time. He staged a number of competitions and the first ACWLA governance meeting (in late 1924). At that meeting, issues such as the lifts to be contested were agreed to."[12]

Artists' model

The Dawn of Glory (1924) by Pietro Montana, Highland Park, Brooklyn.

Besides photographs, Atlas posed for many statues throughout his life. These included Alexander Stirling Calder's Washington at Peace (1917-18) on the Washington Square Arch, Manhattan; Pietro Montana's Dawn of Glory (1924) in Highland Park, Brooklyn (sometimes misreported as Prospect Park);[13] and James Earle Frazer's Alexander Hamilton (1923) at the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.[14]


Atlas began to experience chest pains after exercising. In his final years, Atlas developed diabetes and was placed on a high protein diet by his doctors to offset the effects of the disease. This led to his arteries being clogged and resulted in his hospitalization. He died on December 24, 1972 in Long Island Memorial Hospital. He left behind a son, Charles Jr., and a daughter, Diana. His wife, Margaret, had predeceased him seven years before. There is no evidence of heart trouble in the Atlas family. Santos Siciliano, Atlas' father, who had returned to Italy shortly after arriving in the USA in 1903, lived into his 90s. Atlas' son, Charles Jr., died in August 2008 at the age of 89.

The print advertisements

The famous Charles Atlas print advertisements became iconic mostly because they were printed in many comic books from the 1940s onwards – in fact continuing long after Atlas' death. The typical scenario, usually expressed in comic strip form, presented a skinny young man (usually accompanied by a female companion) being threatened by a bully. The bully pushes down the "97-pound weakling"[15] and the girlfriend joins in the derision. The young man goes home, gets angry (usually demonstrated by his kicking a chair), and sends away for the free Atlas book. Shortly thereafter, the newly muscled hero returns to the place of his original victimization, seeks out the bully, and beats him up. He is rewarded by the swift return of his girlfriend and the admiration of onlookers.

The ad was said to be based on an experience the real Atlas had as a boy.[16] With variations, it was a mainstay of comic books and boys' magazines for decades. The ads usually conclude with the words "As is true of all the exercises in Atlas's course, you can do these exercises almost anywhere."[17]

"The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac"

In this, the full-length version, the protagonist, "Mac," is accosted on the beach by a sand-kicking bully while his date watches. Humiliated, the young man goes home and, after kicking a chair and gambling a three-cent stamp, subscribes to Atlas's "Dynamic-Tension" program. Later, the now muscular protagonist goes back to the beach and beats up the bully, becoming the "hero of the beach." His girl returns while other women marvel at how big his muscles are. (An earlier but otherwise almost identical version, "How Joe's Body Brought Him Fame Instead of Shame," debuted in the 1940s).[18]

"The Insult That Turned a 'Chump' Into a Champ"

In this version, which debuted in 1941,[18] "Joe" is at a fair with his girl when the bully (who has just shown his strength with the "Ring-the-Bell" game) insults and pushes him. Joe goes home, slams his fist on the table, and orders the free Atlas book. Joe then returns to the fair, rings the bell, and pushes down the bully while his girlfriend reappears to compliment him on his new, powerful physique.

"Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs Are Showing!"

The condensed, four-panel version stars "Joe," though it is otherwise identical to Mac's story. Instead of "Hero of the beach," the words floating above Joe's head are "What a man!"

"How Jack the Weakling Slaughtered the Dance-Floor Hog"

Another version of the ad presents a scenario in which "Jack" is dancing with his girl, Helen. They are bumped into by a bully, who comments on how puny Jack is, not even worth beating up. Jack goes home, kicks a chair, and sends away for Atlas's "free book." Later, the muscular Jack finds the bully, punches him, and wins back the admiration of Helen. This time, the words "Hit of the party" float over his head as he basks in the admiration of the other dancers.


Film and TV



Magazine and newspapers


Video games


  1. 1 2 "Charles Atlas, the Body-Builder And Weightlifter, Is Dead at 79". New York Times.
  2. Kannenberg, Gene. "The Ad That Made an Icon Out of Mac," Hogan's Alley.. Retrieved August 6, 2008.
  3. "History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places – Smithsonian".
  4. New York Times obituary states Oct 30, 1893, as his birth date, but his tomb gives 1892 as his birth year. See
  5. Dennis, Jeffery P. Charles Atlas.
  6. 1 2 3 Jonathan Black (August 2009). "Charles Atlas: Muscle Man". Smithsonian magazine.
  7. Wallechinsky, D. (1996) The 20th Century History with the Boring parts Left Out. Little Brown & Co.
  8. Charles Atlas section of R. Christian Anderson's Sandow Museum website Archived September 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved September 30, 2008.
  9. Robertson, Stewart (January 20, 1939) "Muscles by Mail", Family Circle Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 3.
  10. Chas Atlas.
  11. "Eugen Sandow & The Golden Age of Iron Men".
  12. History of Weightlifting.
  13. "The Artistic Endeavor, toinelikesart: Pietro Montana Dawn of Glory,...".
  14. Maeder, Jay (May 16, 1999) "Charles Atlas Body and Soul" Archived August 25, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.. New York Daily News.
  15. Where appropriate, such as in the UK, he was a pound heavier as a "seven-stone weakling". Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
  16. " Federal judge: Parody of Atlas man protected by First Amendment," Associated Press (August 31, 2000).
  17. Gaines, Charles and Butler, George (1982) Yours in Perfect Manhood, Charles Atlas: the Most Effective Fitness Program Ever Devised. Simon & Schuster.
  18. 1 2 Thomas, Carl (August 9, 2014) "Charles Atlas – The Worlds Most Perfectly Developed Man".
  19. Geok-Lin Lim, Shirley and Spencer, Norman A. (1993) One World of Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 846–48. ISBN 0395588804
  20. Meghan McCarthy (2007), Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas, A.A. Knopf, ISBN 9780375829406
  21. Woycke, James (2003). Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada. FCN. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-0-9682332-3-8.
  22. Video on YouTube
  23. '3a. The Seven Stone Weakling', David Hockney: Catalogue entry. Tate (December 18, 1963). Retrieved on 2015-08-29.
  24. Canberra Times cartoon Archived February 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.. Scratch Media.
  25. "Animals". National Lampoon. (#46). November 17, 1997. Retrieved August 7, 2010.
  26. Sullivan, John (August 31, 2000). "Charles Atlas Complaint Held as Legal Weakling". The New York Times.
  27. "Salon".
  28. Meadows, Caesar. Poster.
  29. "Grumpy Gamer Stuff and Things and Monkey Island". June 1, 2009. Retrieved August 7, 2010.
  30. "The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac".
  31. "Team Fortress 2 – Manniversary Update".
  32. "Pumped-up bass".
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