Charles Atlas, Famed Bodybuilder

Legendary bodybuilder Charles Atlas became an icon in the 1920s as the man who transformed himself from a skinny weakling into a muscle-bound celebrity.

Charles Atlas’ Early Years

Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano in Calabria, Italy, on Oct. 30, 1892. At the age of 10, Siciliano and his parents immigrated to America, arriving at Ellis Island in 1903. Siciliano’s father returned to Italy, and the boy stayed in New York, settling in Brooklyn with his mother, who worked as a seamstress in a local factory. Siciliano attended school in New York until 1908, when he dropped out to take a job in a leather factory. Throughout his youth, Siciliano was skinny and weak, possibly due to anemia. He was often the victim of beatings by other children and his uncle. The most famous story of humiliation occurred on Coney Island, when a bully insulted Siciliano at the beach, but he was too weak to retaliate.

As a teenager visiting the Brooklyn Museum, Siciliano saw a statue of Hercules and was inspired to improve his own physique. He began working out at a local gym, but after several years of exercise, he was still dissatisfied. When he was 17, a visit to Prospect Park Zoo gave Siciliano a new idea; seeing a lion stretching, Siciliano hypothesized that the animal’s strength came from “pitting one muscle against another.” Siciliano then began developing his own bodybuilding technique that did not require weights or equipment. Siciliano’s new system, which he eventually named “Dynamic-Tension,” relied on isometric and isotonic exercises to develop the muscles.

Sources in this Story

Atlas’ Notable Accomplishments

Siciliano’s friends began comparing him to the Greek titan Atlas because of his impressive appearance. Siciliano combined this with his nickname, Charley, and began calling himself Charles Atlas. In 1914, Siciliano used his new body to get a job as a strongman, performing various feats in Coney Island sideshows. He also began posing for sculptors. He won a competition for The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1922. That same year, he legally changed his name to Charles Atlas. Using the prize money from the competition, Charles Atlas began marketing his bodybuilding technique as a mail-order product, although he achieved little financial success.

In 1928, Atlas began a partnership with Charles Roman, a New York-based advertiser. Together, the two developed an advertising campaign for Atlas’s bodybuilding program and came up with the name Dynamic-Tension, incorporating their company as Charles Atlas Ltd. in 1929. The now-legendary advertising campaign used photographs of Atlas’s impressive physique along with slogans, like “I can make you a new man!” and “What’s my job? I manufacture weaklings into men!” The advertisements appeared in comic books and men’s magazines around the world. The most well-known advertisement shows a scrawny kid getting sand kicked in his face at the beach; he then uses Atlas’s Dynamic-Tension program to bulk up and returns to the beach for revenge.

The Rest of the Story

Atlas’s fame spread across the globe; he opened a London office in 1936 and a Rio de Janeiro office in 1939. By 1942, Atlas had sold 400,000 copies of his bodybuilding program. Investigations by the Federal Trade Commission into the authenticity of the claims made by the advertisements concluded in Atlas’s favor, and Charles Atlas Ltd. continued to profit throughout his lifetime. The company still operates today, selling products from its web site. Charles Atlas died of a heart attack in Long Beach, New York, on December 23, 1972, at the age of 80.

This article was originally written by Caleb March; it was updated October 26, 2017.