The recent interest in bodybuilding has brought to mind my boyhood and my encounter with the patron saint of the art or obsession, Charles Atlas. As a scrawny kid of 11, living in a small upstate New York town, I was an enthusiastic reader of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the sports pulp magazines, most of which carried the Charles Atlas ads, but I never dreamed I'd ever meet the great man himself. How could that godlike being ever have been a 97-pound weakling? And what was this Dynamic Tension that changed his life?
You can imagine my delight when my mother brought home a brochure for Camp Atlas with my hero depicted on the cover. The camp was on a lake in the Catskills, and the brochure promised that Mr. Atlas would be in attendance all summer. My mother enrolled my brother and me for the full season.
Camp Atlas was much the same as any other camp. It had cabins, double-decker bunks, a mess hall, baseball fields, volleyball courts, a dock, boats, canoes. The campers all wore uniforms and called the counselors Uncle. The difference was Charles Atlas. And he was there all summer, as promised. So were his wife and son. His son's name was—are you ready for this?—Hercules. We called him Herk.
The first evening, we gathered in the mess hall to meet Charles Atlas. He appeared dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth. He was big and bronzed, with rippling muscles and wavy hair. The campers all went wild. "He's real!" the kid next to me said.
Atlas welcomed us in a quiet, friendly voice. He told us what he would like to accomplish with us during the summer, how he hoped that every camper would improve his physique. Then he gave a demonstration of his strength. First he tore a Manhattan phone book in half. Next he bent an iron bar into a horseshoe shape with his bare hands. Then he gripped a long iron bar in his teeth and had two men hang from it, one from each end, until it bent under their weight. Finally he lay on a bed of nails while the same two men stood on a board across his chest. We all cheered like crazy.
Atlas was a beautiful specimen compared to today's muscle men. No gruesome knots, no grotesque, overdeveloped pectorals, simply a man who had harmoniously developed his body. He was well deserving of the title "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." His system of bodybuilding, Dynamic Tension, was what we now call isometrics, except that Atlas advocated pitting one set of muscles against another. He didn't approve of gadgets. He believed you were less likely to hurt yourself or "overdo it" when only your own strength was involved.
The encounter with Atlas that I best recall took place when my age group had a special-awards campfire, and he came to present the medals. Afterward, he sat in the midst of our group and called for questions.
"How did you ever get started?" one kid asked.
"Believe it or not," Atlas said, "I really was a 97-pound weakling. And very sickly. When I was 20, a doctor told me not to walk up even one flight of stairs because it might kill me." He paused. "But I knew I couldn't stand living that way, so I ran up three flights!"
"And then what happened?" another kid asked.