The First Weightlifting Supplements

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Weightlifting supplements, despite their ubiquity nowadays, are a relatively new addition to the realm of weightlifting. While the practice of eating mystical substances in the hope of improved athletic performance dates to Greco-Roman times, the marketing of explicit ‘body building’ supplements is a far more recent phenomenon.

Dating really to the emergence of physical culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these supplements represented the first rudimentary efforts to market foods explicitly for those interested in picking heavy things up and putting them back down again. As expected, these supplements centred on muscle building, celebrity endorsements and benefits extending far beyond strength.

The First Protein Supplement? Plasmon!

Plasmon is admittedly a strange name for a supplement regardless of its era. Marketed first by Eugen Sandow in the late 1890s, plasmon came to be associated with countless athletes and physical culturists in the first decade of the twentieth century. It appears to have been the first milk protein substance of its time. In a ‘Plasmon Cookery Book‘, the supplement was described thusly

Plasmon is a  white granulated substance, devoid of scent or flavour ; so it can be easily manipulated, and when used in cookery  does not alter the taste of any dish. It is, therefore, safe  to use. Now let us consider the advisability of using it.

Well, Plasmon is the scientifically prepared albumen of pure fresh milk. It is an albumen which is in no way altered,  so that it possesses all the nourishing qualities of the albumen of meat, white of egg, or milk, without the bulk of water. Unlike the casein of cheese, the albumen in this preparation  is chemically unaltered ; consequently it is quite digestible and easily assimilated.

Certainly for Eugen Sandow, the supplement was promoted as a kind of wonder substance

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Fun fact about Plasmon: Though primarily the preserve of physical culturists, Plasmon biscuits was brought on Ernest Shackleton’s trip on his Antarctic expedition of 1902.

What makes Plasmon interesting for me at least were the efforts to incorporate it with existing foods. Besting the ‘protein pancakes’ or ‘protein waffles’ of today by several decades, Plasmon was ahead of the curve in marketing the idea that this supplement could enhance existing recipes. Owing to its supposedly neutral taste, the Plasmon cook book mentioned earlier recommended adding it to soups, sauces, meat dishes and everything else you can imagine (Personally I’ll stick with protein pancakes).

Though Plasmon still continues today in Italy as a baby food, its lifespan in the general weightlifting community was rather short lived.

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Modern Italian Plasmon Biscuits. Note the Strongman Logo.

Hot Drinks for Hot Bodies: Bovril and Cocoa

For anyone familiar with England, Bovril is perhaps the most British substance one can think of. Developed by John Lawson Johnston in the 1870s, Bovril is a mixture of diluted beef extract, vitamins and minerals. Its taste is a very individualistic thing, some love it, others loathe it. As preparation for this article I tried it after a workout. I didn’t hate it is the best compliment I can give!

Now in any case, Bovril was one of the most popular weightlifting substances of the physical culture age. Promoted by endurance Indian club swingers like Tom Burrows and strongmen like Arthur Saxon, a good drink of Bovril was recommend for those looking to improve their ‘vigour’ or ‘vitality‘.

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As detailed by Lesley Steinitz, Bovril came to be seen as a bodybuilding food with remarkable recuperative powers. In my own experience, it’s a warm drink but hey what do I know.

On the topic of drink, cocoa was another briefly marketed bodybuilding drink for gym goers. Returning to Eugen Sandow, he began to market his own ‘Health & Strength’ cocoa from 1911 when he opened up a Cocoa Factory.

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A quick investigation into the annals of history even finds reference to the product in the 1913 British Journal of Nursing, which suggested that British Doctors were happily prescribing Sandow’s cocoa for their ailing patients.

Sadly despite Sandow’s initial success, his supplement range would fold in 1916 thanks to a variety of factors ranging from underselling by rivals and anti-German sentiment in England thanks to the First World War. Cocoa, most notably the Cadbury’s variety, did continue to be marketed as a health giving supplement before everyone realised that it’s hot chocolate. The fetishisation of cocoa and cocoa nibs in recent culture suggests that we’ve gone full circle on that one.

The Supplement of Life: Hovis Bread

The least inspiring or glamorous supplement promoted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century was undoubtedly Hovis Bread. Again promoted by Arthur Saxon and Thomas Inch, Hovis bread was seen as a muscle building food. Inch recommended it as part of his daily diet for strength athletes and favoured it over white bread.

Bread proved to be an enduring bodybuilding food, at least in theory. When the American nutritionist Paul Bragg wrote to York Barbell’s Bob Hoffman in the 1940s about producing a supplement range, the only health food Hoffman thought feasible was a protein bread.

Wrapping Up

The early bodybuilding supplements do appear somewhat underwhelming at first glance. Milk derivatives, dubious drinks and bread. They don’t sound the same as your ‘If it Bleeds, Kill It’ pre-workout supplement (or whatever ridiculous names are given to pre-workouts these days) or the scientific sounding ‘branch chain amino acids.’

But take a closer look. Plasmon has effectively continued through the popularity of whey and casein protein. Similarly the plasmon cook book was an arguable pre-cursor to our protein powder recipes of today. Cocoa has undergone a resurgence in recent years as people have found a saintly way of eating chocolate while even the idea of bread for gym goers has a product in ‘protein breads’.

Plus ça change or the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

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