Lies, Snake Oils and Downright Deception: Selling and the Fitness Industry


The fitness industry, was and is, a notoriously dubious business place. For every honest athlete seeking to help his fellow trainer, there are dozens of genetically blessed individuals who seek to make a living with half-truths.

This chicanery, is however, a time honoured tradition as evidenced by today’s article. Surveying the great names of the physical culture game, today’s post looks at the forerunners to the current market industry and demonstrates how many sought to promote their products over the truth. Unsurprisingly names like Sandow, Sick and Inch all feature.

So if you thought that deceit was a new phenomena in bodybuilding, you are sorely mistaken!

In discussing marketing practices in the early years of the twentieth-century it is important to distinguish between equipment and supplements, the two great money making goliaths of the Iron Game. Though the money made during these years pales in comparison to 2016, many lifters attempted to make a living through the promotion of dubious supplements, books and pieces of equipment.

Take for example, Eugen Sandow, the man many credit as the figurehead of the modern bodybuilding game. A man renowned for his remarkable physique and impressive strength, Sandow promoted a host of supplements, food products and devices, which he often claimed helped build and maintain his much sought-after appearance. This included cigars, cocoa powders, pulleys, light dumbbells and an odd milk based substance termed ‘plasmon‘.

What Sandow rarely marketed was a system of progressively heavier resistance training. This is an important thing to consider as under the tutelage of Professor Attila, Sandow had sculpted his early physique through continuous resistance training with barbells and heavy dumbbells. When it came time to reveal his secrets to the public, Sandow instead marketed a series of light Dumbbell exercises instead. No doubt because such a method was more amenable to an anxious and willing public.

Sandow’s half-truths were echoed by several other physical culturists such as Max Sick, who despite possessing one of the most impressive bodies of the early twentieth-century, claimed that lifting heavy weights would make one slow and muscle-bound. Perhaps owing to his business promoting bodyweight exercises, Sick neglected to mention that he himself was an accomplished weightlifter. Such forgotten truths were echoed by the legendary Charles Atlas, who, it is reported, lifted heavy weights early on in his training career. Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, Thomas Inch, one of the strongest men of his generation, once marketed a series of rubber expanders, which he claimed were the only tools necessary to build strength for sports.

What, you might wonder, is there to be gained in bringing up such falsehoods in the fitness industry?

Put simply… equality. Men like Sandow were among the most genetically gifted of their generations and sculpted incredible bodies through years of progressive resistance training. They took no shortcuts (lest we forget that steroids were not in existence) and focused on lifting heavy weights.

Yet when it came to business, such men turned towards quick-fixes, ‘miracle’ devices and suspect tools. A practice continued by those peddling supplements during these years.

Alongside Sandow, several athletes promoted foods such as Hovis Bread, Bovril and a range of other foods, which they claimed were necessary to build a legendary physique. Few it seemed were immune from such marketing. Though Arthur Saxon once proclaimed that

I have always been strong and can only guess what it feels like to be weak,

he too promoted food supplements.

The point of this brief article is not, as it may seem, to castigate these men who sought to make a living from their physiques but rather to highlight an issue that still plagues the modern fitness industry. And that issue is truth.

So often we are told that the latest fitness system or food will help us lose weight in the shortest amount of time, feel fantastic and finally get the job we deserve. The truth, as ugly as it is at times, is that health and fitness is a lifelong commitment with little room for shortcuts.

Those promoting new devices and supplements are often those who have built their physiques through time tested methods such as progressive resistance training. While it is always worthwhile listening to the advice such trainees have to offer, such advice must be taken in the knowledge that such trainees often represent the crop of the genetic elite.

Such trainees have to make a living and there is nothing wrong with that. It is up to us, as consumers of information, to separate the wheat from the chaff. So whether its Eugen Sandow or Phil Heath, always remember to question the advice, supplements and devices being peddled as the ‘latest’ in fitness technology.


Terry Tod and John Hoberman, ‘Yearning for Muscular Power’, Iron Game History, 9: 3 (2007), pp. 20-32.

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