Lessons in Manliness From Charles Atlas

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“Let Me Prove in 7 Days That I Can Make You a New Man!”

“The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac”

“Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs Are Showing!”

It’s an ad the majority of readers out there can easily conjure up in their heads. A cartoon of a skinny, 97-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face by a beefcake, uses the moment as inspiration to build his body, and comes back to the beach to give the bully his belated comeuppance.

The name associated with that image is just as familiar as the ad itself: Charles Atlas.

That these two images go hand-in-hand may have led you to see Atlas the man as a cartoonish caricature, or to view him in the light of the thousands of sometimes shady modern-day fitness hucksters who have taken Atlas’ old mail-order business model and ramped it up for the online age.

But Atlas was that true rarity, a man equal to the marketing hype – the real deal. He was a scrawny immigrant kid who transformed his body and launched a fitness revolution by creating a 12-lesson exercise course that was translated into seven languages and adopted by millions around the world, including King George VI, Joe DiMaggio, and Rocky Marciano. Even Mahatma Gandhi wrote to inquire about the program – no kidding! The mail-order business Atlas started has now been around for 82 years (although it’s currently run by others – Atlas died in 1972), and thousands continue to look to his program for a way to get in shape.

For the men who lost confidence in themselves during the Great Depression, Charles Atlas was a source of hope and inspiration. Today he remains a symbol of virile strength and vitality, and his life offers us several lessons in manliness.

Lessons in Manliness from Charles Atlas

Turn your weaknesses into strengths.

Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, Italy in 1893. When he was ten, his family immigrated to America, and he landed on Ellis Island not speaking a word of English.

Little Angelo swore he’d do great things, but his prospects didn’t look too promising. He was a skinny, sickly, slope-shouldered boy – easy pickings for the bullies in his tough Brooklyn neighborhood. Coming home one Halloween night, a bully beat him with a bag of ashes, knocking him out for an hour. “It seemed like he was beating the brains out of me,” Atlas recalled. When he came to, Atlas lumbered home, crawled into bed, and said a prayer, telling God he’d never let another man beat him.

Young Angelo Siciliano: A real life 97-pound weakling.

But the pummelings continued. At age 15, Atlas really was a “97-pound weakling,” and said he really did get sand kicked in his face by a beefy lifeguard in front of a good-looking gal.

When he turned 17, Atlas finally reached his breaking point and made it his goal to change his body so that he could finally stand up for himself. He experimented with different exercises and developed his own fitness routine, and when he emerged on the beach after months of training, his friends were astonished at his transformation. “You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!” one exclaimed. (When he later legally changed his name, he paired that heroic moniker with “Charlie,” a childhood nickname.)

From an auspicious start, Atlas built his body into a man’s whose measurements would be buried as part of the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, which won’t be opened until 8113. He turned his most hated-weakness into his most famous strength.

Be open to inspiration.

How did Atlas go from a scrawny kid to what one scientist called, “the absolute masculine ideal?” From inspiration he received at a museum and a zoo, respectively.

While on a school field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Atlas gazed with wonder at the statues of Greek gods, focusing particularly on the muscular physique of Hercules. He asked his teacher how he could build a similar body, and he suggested that the young man try lifting weights.

So Atlas began a diligent exercise program. He couldn’t afford to buy weights, so he jury-rigged some together at home and used them every morning. But after months of training, he wasn’t at all satisfied with the results – his body was still lean and lanky. Young Atlas wondered how to proceed.

The answer came as he was walking through the Bronx Zoo – a place he would often go to think. As he stopped to admire the lion exhibit, he saw that jungle beast stretch, and observed the way in which its “muscles ran around like rabbits under a rug.” That’s when his light bulb went off: The lion was strong but had never used a barbell or any exercise equipment. “He’s been pitting one muscle against each other!” Atlas thought.

Atlas went home, deciding to try something different – “working out” like the lion did. He discarded his weights and developed a new exercise program for himself – this one based on isometric exercises. Pushing one arm against the other, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, leg lifts, and so on.

Atlas’ business partner, Charles Roman, said that Atlas continued to observe animals his whole life, always on the lookout for a bit of inspiration on how he might improve his fitness regimen.

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