All That Muscle

Inside the weird, randy world of “muscle building” books for men

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Have you ever encountered a vintage comic in the flesh? If not, you’d be forgiven. In this day and age, you’re more likely to encounter the tales of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Batman on the big screen than in the physical pages of a comic book.

But for those that remember, those old comics came with a hefty dose of homoeroticism that couldn’t be denied. Not only would comic books feature ads for cool toys, like BB guns and spinning tops and those hats with propellers on them—they’d also promise young men that they could build a new body and be the envy of the jocks at school, just by following a few simple steps.

Sadly, this promise was not altogether realistic. For instance, you’ve probably seen the old 1974 ad that promises how, with help from the Charles Atlas manual, “How Dynamic Tension Makes You a NEW MAN!”, you can go from a 98-pound weakling to a hunk of burning man in just a few short lessons.

Now you might be asking…why would someone want to buy this book other than for homoerotic reasons? I can’t answer that. I can only say that in the past, going to the gym wasn’t exactly a common thing. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s—with the rise of home workout tapes and celebrity endorsements—that the idea of home fitness really took on. Before that point, you could do solitary activities like running and weight training, but you probably weren’t running to a Jazzercise class to try and dance yourself into better shape. What these manuals promised—thanks to hunky celebs like Charles Atlas and, later on, Arnold Schwarzenegger—was that you could change your body at home, in private, and on your own time.

Was that promise disingenuous? Kind of. Was the advertising hilariously “no homo” despite being incredibly yes homo? Absolutely.

Books that promised to turn smaller-chested men into barrel-chested dynamos using the Weider Method claimed that had proof that it could be done, but in reality, it was more about getting men to spend money on books that did little to help them achieve any kind of sustainable physical change.

That said, they’re fun to look at, and to think about. Were the guys clipping these ads out doing it so they could lift beach beauties on one arm and best their rivals in the ring? Or were they just doing it to perv on pictures of hot muscle men? We may never know! (We definitely know.)

Gee, I’ve always wanted to be a human Jeep!

Even funnier is the implication that straight women are impressed by this kind of body. I mean…maybe back in the day?

And if the catchphrase “new bodies for old” doesn’t sound like the most trans thing you’ve ever heard, I’d like to know what IS the most trans thing you’ve ever heard!

One thing is certain: these ads, whatever their dubious claims, are extremely fun and campy to look at now.

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