On the left is Eugen Sandow (born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller), known as the father of bodybuilding. He made his mark in the late 19th century, originally performing shows to demonstrate feats of strength and later posed for audiences by showing off his muscular body.
On the right is Phil Heath, the current Mr Olympia who has been undefeated for the past five years, consistently beating notable challengers such as Kai Greene, Jay Cutler and Dexter Jackson.
The finest physiques of their time.
Only 112 years separate them.
How on earth has such a big physical change occurred?
A century is not a long time…
…in the history of human evolution. It’s really not. An infinitesimal grain of sand on a beach spanning as far as the eye can see.
As time goes on, average height and weight continues to increase. This should not come as a surprise to most. If you’d like a good indication, visit a building that was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and notice the narrow corridors and lower ceilings as you duck and weave around the establishment.
Let me make this clearer.
From the 1870s to the 1970s average male height increased by 11cm, slightly more than 1cm per decade.
In an even shorter time frame of 42 years (1960-2002) average male weight rose from 166.3lbs to 191lbs and female weight jumped from 140.2lbs to 164.3lbs within the United States.
Assuming the current weight gain trend holds, close to 80% of the Australian adult population will be overweight or obese in 2025.
Our bodies and minds are changing, with a “bigger is better” point of view becoming the norm.
What can this be attributed to?
I will focus on three reasons.
The Three Catalysts of Physical Change.
Performance Enhancing Drugs.
The elephant in the room. The term steroids has a tendency to split a discussion in half, with die-hard advocates on one side and the other half vehemently arguing against its use.
Used as early as the 1930s to treat men who were unable to naturally produce enough testosterone and to aid malnourished soldiers in the second World War, we’ve seen drugs of the testosterone-boosting nature administered for more than 80 years.
One of the most well documented cases of competitive drug use involved the USSR’s dominance of the weightlifting and wrestling events in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic games.
The USSR finished 2nd on the medal tally, with 9 of their 22 gold medals coming from weightlifting and wrestling alone. This outstanding performance was attributed to testosterone injections administered to the Russians, comically disclosed to a prominent US physician (Dr. John Zeigler) two years later by an intoxicated Russian coach involved with their secret drug program.
This prompted Dr. Zeigler to experiment with US athletes afterwards, eventually developing the widely used anabolic steroid Dianabol in 1958.
Anabolic steroid use is now more common than you think, especially in the realm of bodybuilding and high level sports.
The outspoken bodybuilder Rich Piana controversially posted his upcoming supplement cycle to Instagram in December last year, illustrating just how much goes into maintaining and adding even more size to his monstrous body.
Anderson Silva, widely considered as one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters in the world, is currently serving a 12 month suspension from the UFC for failing mandatory drug tests before and after his fight against Nick Diaz at UFC 183.
Even Sylvester Stallone was famously apprehended in 2007 for carrying 48 vials of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) into Australia during promotion of his film Rocky Balboa.
Will our bodies be able to withstand the barrage of drugs we’re administering in our pursuit of being bigger and better?
Time will tell.
As an addendum to this section, if this topic has piqued your interest I’d recommend putting all prejudices aside and watching the Bigger Stronger Faster documentary. Produced in 2008, this film paints a real, honest picture of drug use in competitive sports and bodybuilding. Highly recommended viewing.
The appearances of those gracing the silver screen have been a determiner of fashion and body image for decades, showcasing the power and influence of the Hollywood machine.
Women’s fashion exploded in the post-war era of the 1950s, favoring a busty, voluptuous hourglass look sported by Hollywood actresses Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. The cosmetics industry also reaped a significant reward during this time, as women began to experiment with a wide array of beauty products that were becoming increasingly available.
Suddenly women were not leaving their houses unless they were looking at their best, an interesting contrast to the women only a decade earlier during the second World War.
Who’d have thought the Ninja Turtles would have grown from the lovable characters in the early 90s to giant, city-encompassing monsters shown in 2014? Han Solo also looks like he’s been putting in some gym time, with noticeable improvements to his back, biceps and chest. He is also a more spatially imposing figure compared to his 70s counterpart – just look at how much room he’s occupying!
On the topic of encompassing, very few Hollywood stories have captured the world like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition from bodybuilding phenom to action movie symbol. The film Conan the Barbarian (1982) played a significant part in his rise to Hollywood stardom and widespread recognition. Arnold’s raw acting style was overshadowed by his herculean physique, an unforeseen image in the traditionally conservative movie industry where stars had always sported a similar “look”.
This breakout into the mainstream later helped Arnold inspire millions around the world with his physical accomplishments and work ethic in the movie business.
Would people be adopting Arnold as a role model, striving to emulate his aesthetic appearance and ruthlessly pursuing a route that entails getting bigger at all costs?
And the best part is, without Hollywood, we may have never even heard of him.
Improved Quality of Life.
Quality of life has continued to improve over the last century, particularly in the West.
Everything we need to sustain ourselves is abundantly available at the grocery store or at nearby fast food restaurants. Gaining weight can simply be a matter of purchasing more, rather than being restricted to limited portions.
The minimum level of healthcare has improved substantially, with doctors and specialists more accessible to the average person.
Our incomes are higher.
I could go on and on.
The bottom line is: we’ve got it incredibly easy. What we’re used to is a far cry from what our parents and grandparents experienced, particularly during the first half of the 20th century.
In the second World War, food rationing became a necessity in several countries. After their entry into the war post-Pearl Harbor, the United States allotted points to food items based on availability to keep up with demand and make sure its citizens were fed.
A certain number of red or blue points would buy meat, fish and dairy or canned, bottled and dried foods respectively. These transactions involved ration books filled with food stamps which were used as currency.
Interestingly, despite the adversities faced during this time, average height continued to increase during the periods of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Improvements in sanitation, hygiene and nutrition were cited as possible reasons for this sustained growth during these periods of instability. Increased GDP figures and average income across Western countries has also played a significant part.
The below graph shows a correlation between increased wealth and height in the Netherlands, regarded as one of the tallest regions in the world with the average male standing at about 185cm (6 foot).
It’s great, but…
The catch-22 with this wonderful notion of physical change is that with increased growth comes increased risk for chronic disease and obesity. Our organs also suffer, especially after drug use where long-term kidney and liver damage is common.
More people with access to higher incomes and calorically rich foods equates to trouble for our waist lines. Advancements in medicine and surgical procedures continue to do wonders for humanity, however health and dietary self-awareness is now more important than ever, especially in the increasingly opulent lifestyles that we love to lead and let others know about through social media.
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