Remember Charles Atlas? In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the most famous and popular physical fitness course in the world was Charles Atlas’ Dynamic Tension* program, sold through his famous “Kick sand in your face” graphic ads in the comic strips and magazines of the time. It was used by men and women alike, but was promoted mostly to men with the promise that women would be attracted to them because of their new and improved robust fitness.
Charles Atlas’ real name was Angelo Siciliano. He was the winner of one of Physical Culture Magazine’s World’s Best Body contests. But he was even more famous for his “Kick Sand in Your Face” advertisements in magazines and comic books in the forties and fifties. Because of those ads, his Dynamic Tension course sold more exercise courses than anyone in history. The course also worked as advertised!
The course was built around the concept of “self-resistance”, or pitting one muscle against another and contracting it as hard as possible, either without or with movement.. Today these are called Isometric Contraction and Isotonic exercises. Isometric exercises are when you pit one muscle against another muscle or an inanimate object, without any movement. Isotonic exercises involve the same kind of muscular contraction, but with movement around the joints for partial or full range of motion.
According to Wikipedia: “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; 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.”
Legend has it that Mahatma Gandhi inquired about the course in response to one of his ads. Hmm. Apparently he didn’t take the course.
What are some of the major benefits of this type of exercise? First, it is nearly impossible to be injured during exercise using this method because one’s own muscles provide the force and, as they tire, the force used also decreases. Second, you need no equipment other than possibly a chair or two. There are no dumbbells, barbells, stretch bands or other equipment. The Third benefit is that historically the program seems to work as advertised. A major barbell manufacturer once challenged Atlas’s claims with the FTC. Atlas won.
For seniors, note that you should slowly work up to using maximum strength, and you should guard against holding your breath, for blood pressure reasons mostly.
An interesting sidenote: Charles Atlas was a protege of Bernarr Macfadden, the godfather of American health and fitness. Another Macfadden protege was a writer for Macfadden’s magazine by the name of Paul Bragg, the founder of the first health food stores in the United States. Paul Bragg is also well known for his own protege, Jack Lalanne.
In his later years, Charles Atlas still performed 50 knee-bends, 100 sit-ups, and 300 push-ups every morning. He died at age 79 (some say 80) in 1972
Another surprising name in the area of Isometric exercise is Bruce Lee, the martial artist and movie actor. I say surprising because many believed that isometric exercises stifled muscle speed and range of motion of the joints. But Bruce Lee had blazing speed and full range of motion in spite of using isometric exercises. According to the book, The Art of Expressing the Human Body, written by Bruce Lee and compiled and edited by John LIttle after Lee’s death, Lee was a huge fan of isometric exercise and performed what he called “the Basic 8” (isometrics) as part of his routine throughout a major portion of his career.
Next week, in Part 2, I’ll describe some of the best strength building isometric and isotonic exercises we, as seniors, can do to build and protect our Strength, Health, Fitness and Personal Energy. The exercises will be excerpted from my ebook entitled, Fitness and Personal Energy (Working Title) to be for sale online by year end.
Thank you for reading.
*”Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd.
Note: Pardon my grammar. Atlas’ vs. Atlas’s reflects the Associated Press Style Manual vs. the Chicago Manual of Style. Go figure.