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How does Classic Bodybuilding Differ from Modern Bodybuilding?

By Mike Howells
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Classic bodybuilding evokes a variety of mental images, from 19th century muscle men in striped trunks to Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron in the 1970s. This unofficial classic era, which lasted nearly a century, differed greatly from the modern form of bodybuilding that has exploded since the 1980s. Factors, such as science and commercialization, have helped turn bodybuilding from a fringe novelty into a multi-billion dollar, worldwide industry.

One of the biggest differences between modern and classic bodybuilding, and perhaps the key distinguishing feature between the two eras, relates to aesthetics. Old photographs of bodybuilders from around the turn of the 20th century reveal large and clearly strong men, but not the kind of muscle definition that is so characteristic of the modern athlete. Organized competition and international organizations have promoted more rigid definitions of what successful bodybuilding should look like, and this unified goal has been the catalyst for many of the other developments made in the sport.

A more comprehensive understanding of how the human body turns exercise and nutrients into bigger muscles has greatly informed the state of modern bodybuilding. The classic bodybuilding approach, when viewed in the context of 21st century methods, seems unscientific and almost haphazard. Though the basic tenets of repeatedly lifting heavy weights and taking in great deal of calories were in place as far as back as the 1800s, they were imprecise and positive results were achieved largely through trial-and-error. Many other strategies were also employed that, in hindsight, seem, at best, apocryphal and, at worst, outright dangerous.

Classic bodybuilders, for instance, were not only known for the immense weights they were capable of lifting, but also for mammoth intake of foods that would make modern nutritionists cringe. Dozens of eggs and huge quantities of red meat — and other high-fat, high-cholesterol foods — were staples for many classic bodybuilding legends. 21st century bodybuilding stresses lean protein, such as chicken and fish, and, above all, a balanced approach that involves a large proportion of fruits and vegetables. Modern bodybuilders are often scrupulous in their diets, and know exactly what is going into their bodies.

Another way the modern sport has changed from classic bodybuilding is the use of nutritional supplements. In the past, bodybuilders relied exclusively on workout regimens and diet to help promote muscle growth. Their modern counterparts, with access to the latest in nutritional and chemical advances, incorporate a much more precise and scientific approach to maximize muscle gain. Exacting diets are supplemented with powdered protein shakes, multi-vitamins, and sometimes even illicit substances, like anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, to achieve results not dreamed of in the era of classic bodybuilding.

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Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Sep 09, 2014

@pastanaga - That's one of the reasons bodybuilding is popular among people who don't really care too much about their strength or the size of their muscles. The more muscle mass you have, the easier it is to keep weight off.

Although when I picture a classic body builder I think of someone who wasn't exactly skinny. I don't think they had the same perception of fat that we do now.

By pastanaga — On Sep 08, 2014

@bythewell - Classic bodybuilders didn't have the knowledge that we have today on how to create that particular look. Make no mistake, they wanted to look as strong as possible as well, particularly if being a strong-man was their job.

And you're talking about the bodybuilders who go into competitions, rather than the ones who are just doing the exercises in order to be healthier. A decent bodybuilding diet is a healthy one that includes a variety of different food types. Supplements aren't bad for you either if you use them properly. My sister does a lot of exercise because she competes in some events and she basically has to take supplements because she simply can't consume enough calories otherwise. I imagine that anyone with large muscles would be burning more calories because of it.

By bythewell — On Sep 08, 2014

I actually think it's a bit tragic that we focus so much on how people look as body builders these days instead of how they used to focus on their strength. I've heard of people on a bodybuilding diet who essentially starved themselves of everything except protein in order to make their muscles look more defined. There is no health justification for that.

That's why you end up with people taking steroids as well. It becomes all about the competition and the look, rather than about the health of their bodies.

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