Dynamic Tension: The Charles Atlas Story

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“Darn it! I’m sick and tired of being a scarecrow! Charles Atlas says he can give me a REAL body, all right! I’ll gamble a stamp and get his free book!”

And thus scrawny Mac is transformed from a 97lb weakling into a muscle-bound tough guy who can knock out beach bullies, in one of the most famous ads to appear in comic books back in the days when comic books still carried such ads. Charles Atlas, the most famous body builder in the world, sold his wares through a handful of full-page ads – the most famous being The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac and The Insult that Turned a “Chump” into a “Champ”, both variations on a theme that was cynically – or smartly, depending how you look at it – designed to appeal to the average comic book reader, who was unlikely to be either a muscle-bound tough guy or a wow with the ladies, but was statistically more likely than most to be the victim of bullying. Atlas’ ads were a masterclass in wish-fulfilment – the opportunity, for simply the price of a stamp and the nebulous additional costs of the full course, to turn you into ‘the world’s most perfectly developed man’, as Atlas had apparently been voted. What’s more, Atlas promised to do this without any expensive gym equipment – instead, his technique of ‘dynamic tension’ was all it took, for just 15 minutes a day. And let’s be fair – most teenage boys were already spending that amount of time, if not more, locked in their rooms working vigorously on one particular muscle, and so this would not be a particular imposition on their lifestyles.

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It’s easy to mock the Charles Atlas ads, and in these days of hysteria about ‘body-shaming’, it’s unlikely that we’ll see their return. But oddly, it does seem that the Atlas technique worked.

Charles Atlas was born Charles Siciliano in 1892, and by all accounts – admittedly his own – he really was that 97lb weakling who had sand kicked in his face and decided to do something about it. The story goes that he was in the zoo one day, looking at a lion, when he realised that the animal’s muscular frame was not the result of using gym equipment, but rather by pitting one muscle against each other. He also visited strongman shows at Coney Island and quizzed the performers about their diets and lifestyles. From all this came the technique that he christened ‘dynamic tension’. The program, for those who signed up, consisted of twelve individual lessons, and a final, perpetual lesson that the student would continue with throughout their lives. In 1922, Siciliano changed his name to the more American sounding and easier to pronounce ‘Atlas’ and began selling his course by mail order. The comic book ads began to appear in the 1940s, and Atlas encouraged his pupils to write to him with reports of their progress, apparently taking a genuine interest in how his system worked. Ironically, by the time kids in the 1970s saw his ads, he was dead – he passed away of a heart attack in 1972.

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Among the people who took the Atlas course were boxers Max Baer, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and British actor Dave Prowse. All could be said to be living examples of the technique’s validity, though of course it is unknown what other methods they also used.

Atlas would, of course, become a pop culture icon. The song I Can Make You A Man, in The Rocky Horror Show, is entirely about Atlas, while Frank N. Furter’s creation is said to come with “the Charles Atlas seal of approval”. And Atlas has been referenced in countless films, books and TV shows over the years. If, as seems the case, the whole Dynamic tension technique was created in order to draw attention and admiration to Atlas, then we can say that it succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He turned out to be not just the hero of the beach, but also a comic book hero to rival the most successful superheroes.