Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano, was an Italian-born American bodybuilder. He was arguably the most popular bodybuilder of his era. Atlas was known for his ingenious advertisement campaigns and devised numerous training and diet programs that helped skinny folks build burly physiques, just like him.
Atlas batted for the “scrawny weakling” and built an empire centered around bodybuilding. Siciliano adopted the name “Charles Atlas” after a friend remarked he resembled the Atlas statue on top of a hotel in Coney Island. At the age of 30, Siciliano officially changed his name to Charles Atlas as he believed it sounded more American. This article covers Atlas’s story, training, and diet programs.
|Full Name: Angelo Siciliano (Alias: Charles Atlas)|
|185 – 195lbs (83.9 – 88.5kg)||5’10” (177.5cm)||American|
|47 inches||17 inches||32 inches|
|23 inches||16 inches||1900|
The Charles Atlas Story
Born in Acri, Cosenza, on October 30, 1893, Siciliano moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1904 to work in the leather industry. After trying and failing to build muscle using several methods, including weights, pulley-style resistance, and gymnastic-style calisthenics, Atlas developed the “Dynamic Tension” system.
Atlas lacked the funds to join the local YMCA, so he watched how exercises were performed in that gym and replicated them at home. After the show, he attended local strongman shows and questioned the athletes about their diets and training regimens. Atlas was an avid reader of the Physical Culture magazine. He picked up valuable information on health, strength, and physical development from the literature. 
Charles Atlas Transformation Programs
Atlas founded Charles Atlas Ltd. in 1929. At the time of writing, the company still offers transformation programs for the “97-pound weakling.”
Per Atlas’s favorite story, a bully kicked sand in his face at the beach in his younger years. He weighed 97 pounds (44 kilograms) at the time. The bully would never have imagined Atlas would make bank because of this incident. He would have shoved sand in his own face if he did.
Since Atlas dispised weight training, he kept looking for ways to build a chiseled physique without using additional resistance.
According to a story, Atlas was at the zoo watching a lion stretch when he wondered:
Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers? And it came over me. He’s been pitting one muscle against another!
Atlas took the fitness advertisement industry and spun it on its head. His ads grabbed the readers by their faces and spoke to their insecurities. Atlas’s ads were printed in cartoon form from the 1930s and started appearing in comic books in the 1940s.
Most of his ads revolved around the same idea. A skinny guy is walking down the beach with his girlfriend when a bully jabs him in the face. Disgusted with himself, the “97-pound weakling” picks up Charles Atlas’s free training program and vows to transform his physique. Lo-and-behold, the boney scarecrow molds into a macho man and avenges the bully. The Atlas protege walks away with his girlfriend, arm in arm.
The most popular Atlas slogans include “Battle Fought in Bed that made Fred a He-Man!”, “Insult that Made a Man out of Mac,” and “Let Me Give You a Body that Men Respect and Women Admire!”, “I’ll prove in only seven days that I can make you a new man.”
A Sculptor’s Dream
Things started clicking for Atlas when the publishers of the Physical Culture magazine awarded him the “America’s Most Handsome Man” in 1921 and “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” in a 1922 contest held in Madison Square Garden.
Atlas posed for several high-profile sculptors in his prime. Some of the most notable statues that he posed for include Alexander Stirling Calder’s Washington at Peace (1917–18) on the Washington Square Arch, Manhattan; Pietro Montana’s Dawn of Glory (1924) in Highland Park, Brooklyn; and James Earle Frazer’s Alexander Hamilton (1923) at the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.
Contrary to his claims, Atlas never won the “world’s most perfectly developed man” title in any contest.
The Dynamic Tension Program
Atlas’s first training program was called “Health & Strength by Charles Atlas” and launched in November 1922. Proclaimed health and fitness writer Dr. Frederick Tilney edited the program. 
Atlas’s trademark transformation program included twelve lessons and one final perpetual lesson. “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” supplemented the program with his photos to demonstrate the exercises. 
Atlas understood the importance of customer satisfaction and invited his readers to write to him with updates on their progress and stories.
Contrary to what most people think, it wasn’t only the boney weakling that bought Atlas’s programs.
Heavyweight boxing champions Rocky Marciano and Max Baer, Joe Louis, David Prowse of Darth Vader fame, and Allan Wells, the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games 100-meter champion, trained under Atlas.
Atlas was a New York City hotshot. He helped President Franklin Roosevelt celebrate his birthday at the Waldorf Astoria. Atlas stripped off his shirt at a party hosted by the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. His usual stunts included tearing apart phone books and bending railroad spikes.
Charles Atlas Workout Program
Atlas’s training regimen included isometric exercises that require holding positions that challenge opposing muscle groups. Furthermore, situps, pushups, and leg raises were a mainstay in Atlas’s training regimens.
Since Atlas’s training program exercises include constant movement, they aren’t textbook isometric exercises. He used the term dynamic tension to explain his training philosophy. Dynamic tension exercises are similar to isotonic movements as they use self-resistance.
For example, Atlas did ‘biceps curl’ for his guns. To perform this exercise, stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance. Extend your arms at your sides, perpendicular to the floor. Your wrists should be facing forward. Clench your fists and flex your arms as hard as possible. Slowly curl your arms by bending your elbows as if holding a heavy barbell. Pause and contract your pythons at the top. Slowly return to the starting position, mimicking a negative rep.
Charles Atlas Training Program
Atlas published multiple workouts. Given below is one of his most popular training regimens:
|2 Chair Press Up||1||10|
|Finger Lock Chest Pull||1||10|
|Good Morning with Leg Resistance||1||15|
|Lateral Raise with Resistance||1||10|
|Front Raise with Resistance||1||10|
|Bicep Curl with Resistance||1||10|
|Bicep Curl with Rear Resistance||1||10|
|Triceps Pulldown with Resistance||1||10|
|Triceps Pulldown across Chest with Resistance||1||10|
|Prone Leg Raise||1||10|
|Body Flex with Chair||1||10|
|Cross Leg Squat||1||15|
|Toe Raise Squat||1||15|
|Stepped Toe Raise||1||20|
Give me 15 minutes a day, and I can make you a new man.
Since each exercise in Atlas’s workout program consists of a single set, the workouts are relatively short. Ensure you apply enough resistance to hit failure within the stipulated reps. Contract your muscles as hard as possible and slow down the rep speed.
My system uses no apparatus. The resistance of your own body is the best and safest apparatus.
The lion in the jungle makes every other animal sit up and take notice as soon as he lets out a roar. He didn’t get that way through artificial paraphernalia or through springs and wires and trick dumbbells’. He became the king of the jungle through the constant natural use of every muscle in his body.
Charles Atlas Full-Body Workout Program
Choose one exercise from each table for a full body workout.
|1||2 Chair Press Up||Sets of 25 (100-200 daily)|
|2||Finger Lock Chest Pull||Repeat until tired. Do not strain|
|1||Good Morning with Leg Resistance||Repeat several times. Then work with other leg|
|2||Squat Thrusts||Repeat until tired|
|1||Lateral Shoulder Raise with resistance||Repeat both sides until tired|
|2||Front Shoulder Raise with resistance||Repeat both sides until tired|
|1||Bicep Curl with front resistance||Bicep Curl with rear resistance|
|2||Bicep Curl with rear resistance||Bicep Curl with rear resistance|
|1||Tricep Pulldown with resistance||Repeat both sides until tired|
|2||Tricep Pulldown across chest with resistance||Repeat both sides until tired|
|1||Prone Leg Raise||Repeat several times|
|2||Body Flex with chair||Repeat several times|
|Thigh & Legs Exercises|
|1||Cross Leg Squat||Repeat until tired.|
|2||Toe Raise Squat||15x slow, 15x fast ,15x slow|
|1||Stepped Toe Raise||Repeat alternately until tired|
|2||Heel Raise||Repeat until tired. Advanced-1 foot at a time|
Charles Atlas Low-Intensity Workout Program
Atlas lived to the age of 80. He remained active in his final years and exercised regularly. Below is Atlas’s training regimen that he claimed to follow until he was well into his 70s.
Charles Atlas Inspired Workout Program
If you came here trying to learn about Atlas’s training regimen, you might feel a little letdown. Some exercises mentioned in the workout routine are irrelevant, and others go by different names.
We have put together an Atlas-inspired workout routine to help you achieve your goal physique using bodyweight exercises. Use the 3-2-2-2 rep tempo for these exercises, meaning take three seconds on the eccentric (lowering) motion, two seconds at the pause at the bottom, two seconds on the concentric (lifting) motion, and two seconds pause at the static contraction at the top.
|Standing Bodyweight Chest Fly||1||10|
|Lying Leg Raise||1||10|
|Dumbbell Standing Calf Raise||1||20|
|Machine Seated Calf Raise||1||20|
Charles Atlas Nutrition Program
Atlas’s diet program could be labeled a fad. It is one of the reasons why his nutrition program faded compared to his bodyweight training regimen. America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’s diet was very straightforward. It is so straight that it might shock you, so you should hold on to your seats for this one.
Atlas recommended drinking milk to build muscle. What else? A little bit of fruit if you feel hungry, but that’s it. According to Atlas, this diet helps you “build a new and perfect body of sound flesh and muscle.”
Also, it shouldn’t be just any milk. “It must be perfectly pure, of superior quality. If at all possible, secure the sweet milk direct from healthy cows or high-grade pasteurized milk,” elaborated Atlas.
The Dynamic Tension program recommends drinking your first glass of milk at 8’o clock in the morning and then following it up with a glass of milk every half an hour until you fall asleep.
Atlas also suggested a new way of drinking milk. He was a proponent of chewing the milk before swallowing. He proclaimed that the “drink and chew” technique helped digest the milk.
Since Dynamic Tension is a professional program, it progressively increases your milk intake. Atlas suggests drinking a glass of milk each hour for the first few days of starting the program. The trainee then has to consume a glass every three-quarters of an hour. You must progress to a glass every half an hour by the end of the first week.
Atlas claimed that drinking five quarts of milk daily helps detoxify your body by increasing your bathroom trips, which can help build muscle mass.
More bodybuilding programs:
- Dexter Jackson Diet and Workout Program
- Jay Cutler Workout: Train Like a Champion
- Mike O’Hearn Diet and Workout Program
- Dorian Yates Workout: Train Like a Champion
- Tom Platz Leg Workout: Train Like a Champion
Atlas gained success because he was relatable. Many of us face bullying growing up. Atlas, however, decided that he wouldn’t take it lying down. He gathered every resource and consulted elite athletes and coaches to develop his original program, Health & Strength.
America’s Most Handsome Man proved that building a chiseled physique at home was possible using bodyweight exercises. He then replicated his physique transformation success with hundreds of followers. We hope Atlas’s bodyweight program will help you develop your dream physique. Best of luck!
- Reich, J. (2010). “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”: Charles Atlas, Physical Culture, and the Inscription of American Masculinity. Men and Masculinities, 12(4), 444–461.
- Benjamin Pollack, Janice Todd; Before Charles Atlas: Earle Liederman, the 1920s King of Mail-Order Muscle. Journal of Sport History 1 January 2017; 44 (3): 399–420. doi: https://doi.org/10.5406/jsporthistory.44.3.0399
- Todd, Jan. “Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of Feminine Form.” Journal of Sport History, vol. 14, no. 1, 1987, pp. 61–75. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43609326. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
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