Nobody picks on a strong man.” Those are the words of Angelo Siciliano, better known as Charles Atlas. Tidbits invites you to explore the life of this famous bodybuilder.

Angelo was born in Italy in 1892, and immigrated with his family to New York City via Ellis Island at age 11. By age 16, he had dropped out of school and was a leather worker in the City, making women’s purses.

As a small and weak adolescent, Angelo was the perfect target for bullies. He later described himself as a “97-lb. weakling” who had sand kicked in his face while at the beach. At age 15, after he was attacked and severely beaten by a neighborhood thug, he resolved to make a change in his life.

    After viewing a statue of the Greek hero Hercules at a local museum, Angelo set out to improve his physique, and began exercising, doing gymnastics and calisthenics, and lifting weights to make his body stronger. The result was painful muscles and no improvement in his size.

    A trip to the zoo changed all that. As Angelo watched a lion in his cage, he was struck how the huge animal sustained a muscular physique while confined to a cage with no exercise. Then he observed the lion rise and stretch its body. It was a process of pitting one muscle against another to create tension. He went home and began working on a system of exercises that required no equipment but the human body.

    A couple of local contests brought Angelo into the spotlight, first when he was named “America’s Most Handsome Man” in 1921, and “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” in 1922. After years of attending Coney Island’s strongman shows where he questioned the men about their diet and exercise regimens, Angelo himself took the role in the park’s Circus Side Show, performing feats of strength.

    In 1922, after being told numerous times by friends that he resembled the statue of Greek hero Atlas that stood atop a Coney Island hotel, Angelo legally changed his name to Charles Atlas. Later that year, he began marketing his first bodybuilding correspondence course, assisted by a health and fitness doctor. Atlas called his training manual “Health & Strength by Charles Atlas,” and included his exercise regimen along with advice on diet, grooming, and personal behavior.

    The demand was incredible, and in 1928, he worked with a Madison Avenue advertising exec, Charles Roman, who coined the phrase “Dynamic Tension” for Atlas’ mail-order program. The first ad mirrored Atlas’ adolescent experience of having sand kicked in his face, with ads in comic books and pulp magazines appealing to young teenage men. The ads pictured the “puny” weakling having his girl stolen by a bully. After engaging in Atlas’ program, the young man kicks sand in the face of the bully and gets the girl back. Within months, Atlas and Roman were millionaires.

Atlas increased his popularity by executing feats of strengths, including pulling six cars chained together for half a mile, and towing a railroad engine along the tracks with a rope. The heroic Atlas rescued occupants of a rowboat struggling a mile off the New York shore by swimming to the craft, tying a rope around his waist, and swimming back to shore, towing the boat behind him.   

•    Charles Atlas was the model for 45 sculpted works across the nation, including that of George Washington in New York City’s Washington Square and Alexander Hamilton at Washington, D.C.’s Treasury Building.

Boxing champions Max Baer, Rocky Marciano, and Joe Louis were among loyal Atlas devotees.