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The Defining Eras of Bodybuilding

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

On Instagram you can find various accounts devoted to “Old School” bodybuilding. Many of these accounts have thousands of followers and publish content that consists primarily of Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, and others from our current Mass Era. While each generation has their own definition of what “Old School” is or isn’t, we wanted to more clearly define and explain the different eras in bodybuilding through its existence.

Bronze Era (1894-1939) – The Bronze Era was started by Eugen Sandow, who is known as the “Father of Bodybuilding”, in 1894. Sandow had competed as a strongman for some time before that, but in 1894 he started posing during his shows. This posing was the start of bodybuilding itself as it moved the audience’s attention towards the body and away from feats of strength. The Bronze era is the least known in bodybuilding history as there were few gyms to train in during this time and relatively no contests to compete in. Weight training was limited to barbells and dumbbells, diets varied but were generally similar to that of the strongman which built muscle but also brought fat with it, and steroids were decades away from being created. There were many theories spread throughout the World as to what made muscle grow but none were generally accepted by the bodybuilding community. This period was essentially bodybuilding’s Wild West. Notable bodybuilders from this period include Eugen Sandow, Siegmund Klein, Earle Liederman, George Jowett, Tony Sansone, and Bert Goodrich.

Silver Era (1940-1959) – Just as there can be no mistaking the Bronze Era started with Eugen Sandow, the same can be said of the Silver Era and John Grimek. Sandow had been a strongman before becoming a bodybuilder, and Grimek was a weightlifter before becoming a bodybuilder and even competed in the 1936 Olympics for the US. Grimek’s burst on to the bodybuilding scene occurred when he won the AAU Mr. America contest in 1940. No one had a seen a bodybuilder with the size and shape of Grimek before. He would win the AAU Mr. America contest again in 1941 causing the AAU to create a rule where a previous Mr. America winner could not compete in future contests. Grimek would compete from 1940-1949 and never be defeated. To this day he remains the only undefeated bodybuilder to compete in major contests. Bodybuilding saw a modest rise in popularity during the Silver Era as gyms became more common and many contests were staged annually. Interest in bodybuilding would accelerate in the late 1950s as Steve Reeves appeared in movies as Hercules and young boys who admired him starting lifting weights to achieve his look. Weight training had advanced to higher reps to stimulate the muscle for growth instead of strength and the typical workout was performed on the full body. Diet had modest advancement in avoiding processed foods and sugar, but during World War II with rationing in effect bodybuilders ate what they could find. It should be noted that after WWII most Americans were underweight so avoiding fat was not as big an issue. Steroids would become available in 1958 with the creation of Dianabol by Dr. John Ziegler although it is generally accepted that bodybuilders did not start taking steroids until the early 1960s. The bodybuilding lifestyle was starting to become more defined as tips on exercise and diet were spread throughout the various muscle magazines of the day. Notable bodybuilders from this period include John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Clarence Ross, Alan Stephan, George Eiferman, and Armand Tanny.

Golden Era (1960-1983) – The use of steroids in the early 1960s was the beginning of the Golden Era. Golden Era bodybuilders would test these new drugs on themselves throughout the decade fine tuning what worked and did not. Natural bodybuilders soon learned that in order to keep up they would have to use these drugs or watch bodybuilding competitions from the stands. The effects of steroids on health were not known at this time and most of these drugs could be purchased easily with the prescription of a doctor. Although steroids were used by virtually all competitors towards the end of the era, bodybuilders’ physiques were still generally symmetrical and aesthetic. Many competitors from this era claimed steroids were only used for the last month or two before a competition to give them a more “polished” look. The Golden Era saw a huge rise in popularity toward its end as Pumping Iron was produced and Arnold Schwarzenegger started his rise to the top of Hollywood with the Conan movies. Frank Zane’s rise to Mr. Olympia in 1977-1979 was probably the most popular period in bodybuilding ever as his physique was seen as desirable and obtainable by the general public. Exercises became different as Arthur Jones and others created machines to isolate muscles in the 1970s and the split system of training only a few muscles with higher sets was adopted over the full body workouts of the Silver Era. Diet changed to a high protein low carb diet that still dominates bodybuilding circles today. Notable bodybuilders from this period include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Larry Scott, Dave Draper, Sergio Oliva, Serge Nubret, and Franco Columbu.

Haney Era (1984-1991) – The Haney Era was largely defined by Lee Haney’s dominance of bodybuilding. Although not a modern-day mass monster, Haney was the precursor to them as he still had shape but was pushing the limits of aesthetic muscle. He was more of a hybrid bodybuilder in that he did not fit with the symmetrical bodybuilders of the Golden Era but did not quite have the mass necessary to compete against those from the Mass Era. Many bodybuilding historians believe Haney would have been the first bodybuilder to halt Schwarzenegger's Mr. Olympia streak had Schwarzenegger continued competing instead of entering the movies. That by itself is reason enough for a new era. Other than being a pre-cursor to the Mass Era, the only major change that occurred was judges starting to put more emphasis on size over symmetry which hurt those that stuck to symmetry and aesthetics like Bob Paris. Notable bodybuilders from this era include Lee Haney, Kevin Levrone, Shawn Ray, Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, Vince Taylor, Mike Christian.

Mass Era (1992-Present) – The current Mass Era was ushered in by Dorian Yates’ rise to Mr. Olympia in 1992. It was clear that Yates was a different kind of bodybuilder than what had been seen before. Dorian would continue to get bigger every year and would eventually succumb to a bloated waist in his last year of competition (1997) which he attributed to insulin usage. Ronnie Coleman would surpass Yates and become the poster child for the Mass Era as no one to this day has passed him in size. The Mass Era has and is still being defined by who can pack the most muscle on the body. This has led to distended stomachs which have finally been negatively judged over the last few years. Today one of the most important aspects of a Mr. Olympia winner is keeping their stomach in check. Exercises and intensity have ultimately remained stable since the Golden Era although variations exist. Diet is still primarily high protein, low carb, but the quest for size has resulted in bodybuilders consuming much more than their Golden Era mentors. Steroids are what define this era more than anything else as the variations available have skyrocketed since the Golden Era. Technology keeps creating more intense steroids which has created bigger bodybuilders. Perhaps this era is almost at a close as Classic and Physique contests spring up as the public demands a return to the more aesthetic bodies of the Golden Era. Notable bodybuilders from this era include Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Kai Greene, Phil Heath, and Shawn Rhoden.

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