Charles Atlas’s ‘Special Secret for Rapidly Building Enormous Power’

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When Atlas Wasn’t Playing Tug-of-War he was giving out Diet Tips

“I realize you are anxious to build up great strength and power as soon as possible. Here is a simple secret which should help give you the results you hope for.”

Charles Atlas, Mail Order Workout Programme, Lesson Two, c.1930s

 In 1921 Charles Atlas won Bernarr McFadden’s ‘Most Perfectly Developed Man Competition’. In 1922, he won again and by this time McFadden ceased holding the competition. Rumour has it McFadden stopped because he felt Atlas would win every time. By the end of the 1920s Atlas was marketing his own unique mail order workout programme aimed at delivering fast results to his customers. The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man promised to turn his weak students into dynamic man, just as Atlas had done with himself. In just 12 basic lessons,  Atlas covered everything from diet and training to the right mind-set for building an awesome physique.

In the second lesson of the Atlas programme, aspiring muscle men (and women) were given a secret muscle-building programme by Atlas. It revolved around a single food…a ‘super food’ in modern day parlance.

In Atlas’s mind, this food had everything needed to build quality muscle. This food was…

“Quickly digested, requiring little energy to convert into muscle and blood. It is filled with all the elements necessary to sustain life for an indefinite period.”

It was none other than milk, which according to Atlas, “by its use in large quantities you can build a NEW AND PERFECT BODY OF SOUND FLESH AND MUSCLE.”

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The Drink of the Muscled

What Kind of Milk?

Atlas didn’t advise just any old milk, it had to be pure milk. Atlas wanted students to drink only the finest dairy available. He even advised students to get it straight from the farm if possible. Why was Atlas so precise?

We must remember that pasteurized milk was still a relatively new phenomenon in the United States and one that not everyone was behind. The process of eliminating bacteria from milk was only introduced into the US in the 1890s after the discovery of germ theory to control the hazards of highly contagious bacterial diseases, including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, which could be transmitted to humans through drinking raw milk. From some, pasteurisation of milk was desperately needed, while for others it was simply a band-aid that helped cover up lazy farming practices.

America’s relationship with milk production in the 19th century had been quite a chequered thing. In the 1850s, a scandal emerged in New York when it was discovered that cows were being fed the swill or waste from a nearby whiskey distillery. Feeding the cows waste had led to their milk becoming contaminated and resulted in the death of several thousands infants. The decision to feed cows the waste products from the distillery was, in the words of Randy Roach, “entrepreneurial and tactical lunacy.”

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Farmers used to feed cows the waste from distilleries

New York wasn’t the only city were such travesties occurred either but thanks to a series of investigations in The New York Times, it was perhaps the best known. The result of the ‘swill milk’ scandal was that by the time pasteurization came to the United States, efforts were made to introduce it throughout the entire country. By the 1920s milk pasteurization had become widespread, but it is interesting to note that Atlas was advocating raw, pure milk. Milk that had been pasteurized was the second best option.

“It must be perfectly pure, of superior quality. It at all possible, secure the sweet milk direct from healthy cows or high grade pasteurized milk.”

Remarkably, the raw versus pasteurized milk debate still exists today and has perhaps become even more polarized in the United States as food standards in the US have increasingly come under the spotlight.

But back to Atlas’s milk diet.

How to do it?

Atlas was very particularly about how the milk diet should be done. The Milk had to be digested as well as possible. It should be mixed well in the mouth, almost chewed, rather than drunk. It wasn’t a competition to see who could drink as much milk the fastest either. Clients were encouraged to sip slowly.

This diet was as simple as it got. It consisted of nothing other than milk, and perhaps a little fruit if one so desired. The ‘exclusive milk diet’

“Consists of drinking a glass of pure milk each hour for the first few days. After that period drink and ‘chew’ a glass every three-quarters of an hour, and by the end of week one of this diet, you can consume a glass every half hour.”

Clients were encouraged to try the diet out for a week and persisting on it for as long as they so desired. They were to

“Start at 8:00 in the morning and have a glass promptly every half hour. You can do this by taking two quart bottles in the morning, drinking a quart at noon, enjoying two more quarts in the afternoon and another at night.”

Was this beneficial?

Well if one considers people wanted to gain muscle on Atlas’s programme, the milk diet had the potential to be very beneficial. Five quarts of milk contains roughly 2900 calories, with 160g fat, 255g carbohydrates and 155g proteins. Combined with Atlas’s exercise programme, clients certainly had the potential to put on muscle. Atlas wasn’t the only Physical Culturist to recommend such a diet either. Steve Reeves, John Grimek and Reg Park all engaged in a milk diet at some point in their training. Whereas they used heavy free weights, Atlas recommended bodyweight exercises.

This diet was also relatively cheap. The price of five quarts in America in 1925 was roughly 42¢, which over a week would be $2.94. Considering the average weekly wage in manufacturing was $25, Atlas’s customers would have made some considerable savings.

Price of course was secondary to Atlas. The primary goal of such a diet was to detoxify the system and build muscle. Drinking five quarts of milk a day, would unsurprisingly encourage frequent trips to the bathroom, which Atlas assured customers was simple nature’s way of clearing out the system.

Have we moved on?

Arguably we have moved on very little in the muscle building community from Atlas’s ‘exclusive milk diet’ when one considers that the ‘Squats and Milk’ programme is arguably one of the most effective muscle building programmes recommended for people who struggle to gain weight.

The ‘Gallon of Milk a Day’ or GOMAD diet, recommends people drink four quarts of milk spread throughout the day in conjunction with their normal meals. Combined with an intensive programme centred on squats, one of the most anabolic exercises around, people have gained as much as 25lbs in a month. How much of that is muscle however is another story.

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GOMAD or Atlas? Little has changed.

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