An Introduction To Eugen Sandow- The Father Of Modern Bodybuilding

An Introduction To Eugen Sandow- The Father Of Modern Bodybuilding

The Father of Modern Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow was born on April 2,1867 in Königsberg, Prussia (today is known as Kaliningrad in Russia). His birth name was Friederich Wilhelm Mueller. This man was a pioneering bodybuilder and later named the “Father of Modern Bodybuilding”. By the age of 19, Sandow was already involved in performances that involved strongman stunts across a variety of sideshows.

A copy cast in 1885, displayed at the horticultural center in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

A copy cast in 1885, displayed at the horticultural center in Fairmount ParkPhiladelphia


Sandows Inspirational Story

Growing up, Sandow reflected in his adult years that he was somewhat of a pathetic child who was pale-skinned, fragile, and weedy. However, when he turned 15 he was taken by his father on an interesting trip to Rome, where his life was about to change for good.

The outstanding sculptures of the wrestlers and deities that he saw on his trip, that were contorted into poses of flesh, beauty, and brawn stirred up his imagination. It was from here that he started to dream about one day achieving this type of aesthetic apogee.

On his return home, this Prussian teenager dedicated all his time and focus to achieve this physical perfection. He also gathered tips and advice from the professional strongmen in circuses which helped him to set himself on a path to success.

In later years, he started measuring ancient sculptures that he visited in a number of museums. It was from here that he started to develop his “Grecian Ideal”, which was the foundation of his idea of the “perfect physique”.
At the age of 18, Sandow left behind his home and his family. From here he changed his name to “Eugen Sandow”, his stage name. He started traveling across all the major capitals of Europe where he performed as a professional wrestler and circus athlete.

Eugen Sandow, full-length portrait, standing, facing right, rear view, displaying arm muscles

Eugen Sandow, full-length portrait, standing, facing right, rear view, displaying arm muscles (Library of Congress)

About His Attraction And Poses

Sandow originally became well-known for his impressive abilities with barbells along with breaking chains that were locked across his chest. Yet, these audiences started to become far more interested in his bulging muscles, rather than the weight that he was capable of lifting. From this interest, Sandow began developing and performing poses. He went onto dub these displays as “muscle display performances”. This particular routine became the precursor for the bodybuilding posses that we see in competitions today. His physique and routines quickly turned Sandow into an attractive sensation, as well as a highly popular carnival attraction.

Sandow Is Compared To A Roman God

As Sandow progressed through his physical journey people started to compare his physique to that of a Roman god. His similarities to physiques of the classic Roman and Greek sculptures was definitely no accident. After visiting Italy as a young teenager, he developed a hunger and passion to sculpt his body into something that resembled these statues. Sandow eventually managed to build a physique that matched the precise proportions of the Roman and Greek Sculptures. In this process, Sandow became among the first of athletes that intentionally developed his muscles to dimensions that were pre-determined. Today, this exceptional athlete is regarded by many people as “The Father of Bodybuilding”.

Sandows Philanthropy And Teachings

Once Eugen Sandow achieved his personal goals in building and defining his muscles he started teaching his workout tips and techniques to others. This was followed by opening a number of “Institutes of Physical Culture” ( the forerunners to the gyms that we know of today). He also became involved in manufacturing and selling gym equipment.

He started coaching a number of celebrity clients, that included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also became one of his best and closest friends.

Sandow taught about his own secrets on how he was able to achieve such an incredible physique. He also imparted his theories about nutrition, weight training, and exercise, which at this stage was unheard of.

Then he went onto volunteer this knowledge to a number of philanthropic causes. One of these included the 1908 London Olympics which he sponsored. He also provided the financial aid for Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole, along with working to improve physical fitness for the recruits that signed up for fighting in the Boer War.

In the year 1906, Eugen Sandow was granted citizenship in Britain, and later in the year 1911, he became appointed as the Professor of Physical Culture to George V.

Sandows Was Cut Like A Statue

Sandow enjoyed telling his fans about how he started the journey of perfecting and shaping his body after his visit to Italy where he saw the Roman and Greek statues of gods. It was their chiseled biceps and sculpted abdomen which gave him inspiration, and on his return home, he soon became obsessed with a goal to develop his own muscles. However, none of these stories are true.

Sandow was known as a master when it came to creating a legend for himself, his biography is a patchwork when it comes to tall tales and great marketing. What we do know for certain is the fact that he was once a Prussian acrobat and he toured with the small-time circuses all over Europe during the 1880s. He eventually landed up in Brussels with no money and it was here that he came across Louis Durlacher, an educator in the industry of physical exercise and fitness. Durlacher was best known as Professor Attila.

During this time, it was believed that lifting weights that exceeded 5 lbs, could result in muscle cramps and even cause them to lock, which could even lead to paralysis. Professor Attila decided to buck this popular opinion. As a former strongman, he went onto develop his own system when it came to progressive weight-training whereby muscles start to strengthen in the way of slowly increasing the lifted weights over time. Today, this makes up the cornerstone and foundation of bodybuilding. When Sandow and Attila met, he believed he had discovered just the right specimen in order to test this system.


1894 poster for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, produced by F. Ziegfeld Jr. in one of his first productions

1894 poster for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, produced by F. Ziegfeld Jr. in one of his first productions

In the year 1889, Attila and Sandow moved to London in order to secure one of the strongman shows for Sandow. To attract as much attention as possible, they focused on the reigning duo known as Sampson and Cyclops. Sampson was famous for lifting “imperial tons” (2,240lbs), while Cyclops was famous for his abilities for tearing up coins.

Sandow started out by challenging Cyclops to see who was stronger. At the competition, Sandow walked out wearing a tailored, foppish suit. Once he reached the stage he proceeded to tear off his outfit, using one pull. He wore a pair of Roman sandals, tights, along with a physique that no person in that audience had ever seen before. The crowd was enthralled and quickly made the decision to side with this new mysterious and handsome challenger. Sandow defeated Cyclops soundly in a competition that involved barbell lifts.

Only a week later, Sandow returned to take on Sampson, where the pair were matched stunt-for-stunt. The last challenge of the competition involved chain-breaking whereby both contestants were required to break the chains across their chests. They were only allowed to use their muscles for this test. Sampson was the reigning champion in previous competitions, yet he had always cheated in the way that his chain was always rigged to break apart. Sandow had picked up on this trick a few weeks earlier, so he found a blacksmith to create his own set of fake chains. On the final challenge, Sandow’s chains broke off in record time, and Sampson left the stage furious. Sandow was then named the latest King of Strength in London.

Interesting Facts You Should Know About The One And Only, Eugen Sandow:

His Childhood Ambitions

Born Friedrich Müller, Eugen Sandow already had a passion for being active and fit as a young boy. According to a historian by the name of David L. Chapman, the author to the book “Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding”, before he became famous as one of the strongmen, Sandow also worked as one of the art models in Belgium in order to earn an income. This type of work was not very respectable for this time period and also didn’t pay very much. Yet most of the artists that Sandow modeled for went onto use his figure in order to represent Roman, Christian, and Greek myths and stories. These works can be viewed to this day in the Belgium Royal Museum of Art.

So in his own way, he managed to achieve the goals he had as a child early on, yet he wanted so much more. After struggling to make a name for himself in the circuses, he later met up with and was trained by Professor Attila, a German strongman, who recognized that Sandow had talent and potential. It was Professor Attila that convinced Sandow to start making a name for himself.

World Tours And Fighting Lions

Chapman mentions in his book, about an incident that involved Sandow going around and breaking every machine in one of the cities, which left many people wondering how he was able to do this. It also leads to the police arresting him. Even the police officers were amazed at his strength and decided to let him break another machine. When he broke this machine they decided not to lock him away, which helped him to attract the attention he needed for a show later that evening.

During one of his tours in the US, Ziegfield Follies (the circus he traveled with at that time) planned an event where Sandow would wrestle a real lion. In the practice fight, without an audience, everything went well, while the lion actively attempted to fight with Sandow. However, at the show, it was evident that the claws of the lion were covered. In addition, the lion used was much older and a lot less threatening. The crowds that night were not impressed, and the Newspapers scoffed at him.

A Movie Star

Well before the big-screen strongmen like The Rock, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, there was Sandow. In the year 1894, Sandow posed for Thomas Edison’s film camera. As one of Edison’s very first subjects for film, it shows what an icon he was during these times.

The Institute Of Physical Culture

Sandow was the founder of the “gym culture” when it opened The Institute of Physical Culture in 1897 in London. In addition, to opening his gym, he also started creating publications associated with physical fitness, where he started teaching on different workouts along with selling equipment and products. Sandow became an astute businessman where he authored 5 books, owned his own mail-order exercise equipment and physical instruction business. He also invented the spring-loaded unique dumbbell system. Sandow also promoted as well as produced Sandow Cigars, along with Sandow’s Health and Strength Cocoa and Sandow which was his magazine dedicated entirely to the physical culture. The book that he wrote named “Life is Movement”, was later used in World War I, by the British military. This seemed ironic since WWI eventually caused Sandow to lose the majority of his fortune, since his supplements, fitness equipment, and publications were all manufactured in Germany.

5 Books that Eugen Sandow Wrote 

  1. Strength and How to Obtain It
  2. Sandow's System
  3. Life Is Movement
  4. Body Building or Man in the Making
  5. The Movement That Resists and Defeats Disease

His Close Relationship With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sandow also had a very close relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of Sherlock Holmes. Sandow trained and mentored Doyle for a number of years, whereby Doyle cited that his training was the main reason he was able to survive an almost fatal crash on March 27, 1904. Doyle was also a judge at one of Sandow’s first bodybuilding competitions in London. This competition was called “The Great Competition”, which was also the very first Bodybuilding competition in association with modern history.

The Great Competition - IFBB Pro

This event included 66 competitors from all over the British Isles who were chosen as the strongest with the best physiques. The judges included Sandow, his best friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with sculptor Sir Charles Lawes. All the competitors stood on a stage wearing leather belts, black tights, and leopard-skin loincloths. The 3 finalists all received the very first Sandow statues in gold, silver, and bronze.

William M. Murray the winner of this prestigious event, used his trophy as a display in his own gym that he later opened in the town he was from.

The Trainer To The King

In the year 1911, Sandow was awarded a high honor in England where he was appointed as the Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V. It was mentioned by some historians that Sandow developed such a close relationship with the King, that even when he was on his death bed, Sir Thomas Horder, the King’s personal physician was sent to attend to him.

A Feminist Well Before His Time

Sandow also spoke very openly about how he believed women should be dressing for the purposes fo comfort rather than for fashion or style. These ideas stemmed from his beliefs that in order to care for their health and bodies, items such as corsets and heels were regarded as inhibitors in maintaining physical health. Sandow also applauded the women who were interested in physical fitness. He also stated that becoming fit or working out for a woman would not cause them to become less attractive. This was regarded as pretty revolutionary statements for the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Despite his efforts to encourage and inspire women to become more involved in physical exercise and fitness, the relationship with his two daughters and his wife Blanche were often strained. Some historians even report that Sandow was frequently unfaithful to his wife. Some of the historians which include Waller and Chapman also speculate on whether Eugen Sandow was, in fact, a bisexual. He frequently traveled with male partners as companions. However, since the majority of Sandow’s belongings which included his journals was burned by his wife once he died, it is highly unlikely that any of these speculations will ever come to light.

He Was Extremely Vain

If you have ever felt embarrassed about looking at your body in the mirror at the gym after completing a heavy set, you shouldn’t. Sandow was a man that was extremely vain and he was completely unashamed of this fact. Sandow states in one of his magazines that he finds it desirable to conduct exercises in front of a looking-glass. He goes onto state that exercising in front of mirrors allows you to follow every movement of the different muscle as well as see your muscles while they are working. He also says that you are then able to track your own steady development, and this in itself is pleasurable and helpful.

Sandow took his vanity even further when he commissioned sculptors and artists to design statues and well as images of his physique. Many are glad that he did, as it is these designs that later became the inspiration for statues that are awarded at Mr. Olympia.


The History Behind The Sandow Statuette

The very first of the Sandow statuettes were awarded at “The Great Competition”, in the year 1901, which was an event that Sandow assisted with judging and planning himself. Many believe he was highly egocentric in making the decision to use statues of himself. The first statues were created in 1891 when sculptor Fredrick W. Pomeroy took an interest in him.

The first Sandow trophy awarded at the 1977 Mr. Olympia was won by Frank Zane. The idea behind having this Sandow trophy as the Mr. Olympia trophy is associated with an agreement between Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Lormier, and Joe Weider.

The vanity and legacy of Eugen Sandow live on through the prominent culture and industry of bodybuilding, as more and more women and men appear on stages in their personal search to achieve greatness like Sandow.

Sandows Death

Tragically, Sandow died at the early age of 58 due to an aneurysm, yet experts today are not sure about what caused the actual event. In the days that led up to Sandow’s death, it was mentioned that he was in an automobile accident where he proceeded to lift his car from a ditch, yet it is unknown that this had anything to do with his passing.

Sandow at the time of his death was also alienated from family members and his wife, which probably had to do with his marital infidelities (some historians debate whether he was actually bisexual). Sandow also had a very close relationship with a male composer and musician that he hired to go along with him to his shows. The actual degree of the relationship between the men was never determined, but it was established that they lived in the same residence in New York for a period of time. It was made very clear that his wife Blanche was very jealous of the relationships that Sandow developed.

Eugen Sandow Grave Stone - Putney Vale Cemetery

He was initially buried by his wife in a grave that was unmarked, and every possession that he owned was burned, he was remembered many years later by a great-grandson. This is what makes the legacy and life of Sandow even more interesting and fascinating, as it is close to impossible to decide what is the truth about his life and what is fake and exaggerated. Sandow himself was known for telling tall tales and exaggerating his stories. Most of what the historians have is sourced from the public records about his published texts and performances.

Despite everything that we do not or do know about this man, one thing fitness enthusiasts and historians can agree on would be that Sandow definitely revolutionized the fitness culture of this time and that he left audiences in awe when it came to his strength and aesthetic physique.

In the year 2002, a black-marble plaque and gravestone were added to the site that he was buried at by Thomas Manly, an author, and admirer. The inscription on the plaque says "Eugen Sandow, 1867 to 1925, The Father of Bodybuilding".

Since the year 1977, as recognition of how Sandow contributed to the industry and sport of bodybuilders, bronze statues of Sandow are presented to the Mr. Olympia winners. This statue is known simply as “The Sandow”.

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