Eugen Sandow: The man with the perfect body

By Vanessa Barford and Lucy Townsend
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Eugen Sandow in three different poses

Wearing nothing more than a fig leaf, gladiator sandals and a handlebar moustache, Eugen Sandow was once an image of masculine perfection. He was the celebrity poster boy who made fitness popular. But how impressive is his physique today?

As a youth Eugen Sandow would visit museums and study the Grecian ideal depicted in the statues. These bodies became his formula for the perfect physique and he would adopt the poses as he flexed his muscles in picture postcards and on music hall stages, sending Victorian ladies - and men - into a frenzy.

But Sandow was a very modern man. As a body obsessive, he gave us the idealised image of ripped abs that have become the Holy Grail for many body conscious men.

Before him, no-one believed that a human could achieve the sculpted perfection of classical art.

But he not only made the look popular, he made it achievable.

"He was an early modern celebrity, an example of personal brand like a Madonna or David Beckham," says David Waller, author of The Perfect Man, which tells the strongman's now largely forgotten story.

He eventually managed to acquire celebrity endorsements and a reputation that won admirers around the world.

"There are lots of parallels with today - he made it in a talent competition," says Waller. He was first successful in the UK, then in the US, and it was at a time when the media was expanding rapidly, so photography images could travel around the world."

So who was Sandow, and would his perfect body still impress today?

Born in Prussia in 1867, Waller says the man who became a symbol of physical perfection spent his early years travelling Europe as a wrestler, living like a poor circus tumbler. His big break came in the UK, in an elaborate competition to find the strongest man in the world. It was "the late Victorian equivalent of X Factor," says Waller.

"He was an ordinary looking man, he had blond hair, and almost looked quite girlish. But when he took off his clothes, to the astonishment of the audience, he had this amazing torso.

Image caption,
Rugged: Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy are considered the male ideal today

"He immediately got a contract on the musical scene in London and became an instant celebrity," he says.

As a music-hall sensation, Sandow demonstrated his strength with feats like bending iron bars, snapping chains and supporting horses and soldiers on his back.

He also found fame in the US, at times posing in a specially constructed wooden box which shone light on his individual muscles.

Towards the end of the century, music halls were undergoing a transformation, from the bawdy drinking dens to something more respectable.

"They were a bit like Stringfellows is today," says historian and television presenter Tessa Dunlop.

"By the turn of the century you would get a mix of social classes there, and many ladies too. Beyond the Victorian etiquette, they were still human," she adds.

Sandow quickly became a sex symbol.

Ladies would pay a surcharge to attend private viewings backstage, where they were encouraged to fondle his muscles. But it is also believed he had a gay following. Rumours circulated that he was a bisexual philanderer, but shortly after his death his widow and daughters started a huge bonfire, burning anything that related to his personal life.

"I think he got away with it as he made the body be seen as healthy and respectable," Waller adds. "He created a craze for physical culture."

Sandow sought to capitalise on his success by patenting his own dumbbells, setting up personal fitness coaching from his Institute of Physical Culture, and publishing his own monthly fitness magazine with hints and tips on how to achieve his physique.

His methods and marketing would have fitted in well with modern society.

"Men are conscious of how they look, there are trends in body shape which people follow, but it is also that people want to be healthy," says Mike Shallcross, deputy editor of Men's Health magazine.

"For a long time, the ideal was David Beckham, very lean and toned, but over the last few years the cover stars that have done really well for us have been slightly bigger, but still functional and athletic.

"At the moment it is the more rugged look that people seem to be into, like Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy."

Shallcross describes Sandow's vital statistics as "pretty exceptional" - generally much larger than the average man, though with a slim 29in waist.

He had quite a scientific system, which was based on about 18 or 19 exercises with dumbbells, and boasted famous followers such as James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and even the Royal family, Waller says.

He was considered so perfect that the Natural History Museum took a plaster cast of his body as a representation of the ideal form of Caucasian manhood.

It is not surprising that men wanted to emulate him.

His biceps were an impressive 19.5in. His thighs were the size of Chris Hoy's. But what was perhaps most eagerly sought after, was his eight-pack, and his sizeable chest, which at 48in, could be flexed to 62in.

It only takes a cursory glance at men's magazines to see that his eight-pack - or more moderate six-pack - is still desirable today.

"Six-pack on a plate," "the TV Six Pack" the "10-minute six pack" are just three headlines on the Men's Health's website today.