Top 10 Biggest Bodybuilders

Crab most muscular, or brutal, pose.
Crab most muscular, or brutal, pose -- pretty self-explanatory, no?

How does a 97-pound weakling become the World's Most Perfectly Developed Man, as Charles Atlas did? Through the sport known as bodybuilding.

For most of us, lifting weights and exercising are things that we do to lose weight, gain strength and tone our bodies. Bodybuilders take it to a whole new level, following rigorous diets and exercise routines to create and maintain muscle hypertrophy, a state in which the muscle cells increase in size and create bulk.


A bodybuilder in competition is tanned and oiled, so you can see his or her muscle definition and striations (visible muscle fibers) all the better. Competitors flex different muscle groups in order to show them off in a series of poses. The pose pictured on this page is appropriately named crab most muscular.

There are two basic categories of bodybuilding: pro and natural. The main difference between the two is that natural bodybuilders are banned from using steroids, hormones and other supplements. The International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB), a pro bodybuilding organization, has been working to get bodybuilding sanctioned as an Olympic sport, but the increase in steroid use among bodybuilders has made this more difficult.

The sport still has a loyal following, however. In this article, we'll look at some of the greatest, most well-known bodybuilders to grace the stage -- starting with the man whose body fit the Grecian ideal.

10: Eugen Sandow

Eugen Sandow in his strongman days
Eugen Sandow in his strongman days
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

Many historians consider Eugene Sandow to be the father of modern bodybuilding. Sandow began as a circus strongman and then became a featured act at the 1893 Chicago World Expo. Strongmen showed off their bodies by lifting heavy objects such as barbells and by breaking chains and cables that had been wrapped around their chests.

He soon discovered that the crowds at the Expo were more interested in the actual movements of his muscles than his basic strongman routine. He began moving in different poses and flexing his muscles for the audience instead, which his manager Florenz Ziegfeld called "muscular display performances." Sandow's performances were incredibly popular at the Expo, and he became famous in both America and the United Kingdom. Some of his famous friends included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison. The latter featured him in a short film in 1894.


A few years later, Sandow built one of the first gyms dedicated to bodybuilding, called the Institute of Physical Culture, in London. He created his own line of supplements and exercise machines and published pamphlets and books on what was then called "physical culture." In 1901, Sandow organized the first real bodybuilding contest at London's Albert Hall. It sold out and paved the way for more bodybuilding contests and competitions.

Even decades after his death, Sandow's particular physique has still been recognized for its perfection as based on the Grecian ideal -- a body type that he formulated based on measurements of Greek and Roman sculptures.

Next, we'll meet the man whose ads in comic books made him a household name.

9: Charles Atlas

World heavyweight champion Joe Louis admires the flexed bicep of Charles Atlas.
World heavyweight champion Joe Louis admires the flexed bicep of Charles Atlas.
Keystone/Getty Images

If you're a fan of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," you may recall the song sung by Dr. Frank-n-Furter in which he references Charles Atlas and says that his creation, Rocky, "carries the Charles Atlas seal of approval." The real Charles Atlas started out as the object of bullies.

Before developing his fitness program, Atlas claimed that he tried all of the traditional ways to build his body: calisthenics, resistance training and weight lifting. None of them worked to his satisfaction. The story goes that he hit upon his methods while watching animals stretch. He pointed out that they don't use barbells -- they tense their muscles and then move against that tension, which keeps them fit. Atlas and his business partner Charles Roman eventually termed this "dynamic tension."


In both 1921 and 1922 Atlas was named "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" by the publisher of Physical Culture Magazine, a title that stuck with him throughout his lifetime. A few years later, he began selling his dynamic tension fitness course, which consists of 12 exercise and nutrition lessons, ending with a final routine that the user should continue to practice throughout his or her lifetime.

Atlas and Roman began marketing the lesson booklets in the backs of comic books, using print ads that showed his trademark "97-pound weakling" being bullied, then returning to defend himself after following the Charles Atlas course. The ads and their catchphrases became iconic, and his program made Atlas a celebrity. His physical measurements are still considered by many to be "perfect."

On the next page, let's get to know "The Glow."

8: John Grimek

John Grimek began his career as a strongman and weightlifter, representing the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His body has been described as different from other bodybuilders of his era -- his muscles were tighter, he was more sinewy, and he had a "glow" about him. Because of his skin tone, Grimek became known as "The Glow" during his bodybuilding career. Grimek has also been called the "Monarch of Muscledom" because he never lost a bodybuilding competition.

In 1939, Grimek won a Perfect Man contest in New York. The next year, he entered the first Mr. America contest, sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Mr. America was the first modern bodybuilding event in the United States. Grimek won both the 1940 and 1941 competitions by such a wide margin that the AAU changed the rules so that previous winners couldn't compete again. In 1948, he won the first NABBA (National Amateur Bodybuilders Association) Mr. Universe competition, beating out younger bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves. After winning the AAU Mr. USA in 1949, Grimek retired from competitive bodybuilding. He then began writing for and editing bodybuilding magazines such as Strength & Health and Muscular Development.


Some say that Grimek bridged the gap between strongmen and professional bodybuilders. He was known to be very skilled at striking poses and performing gymnastics (which helped him win Mr. Universe), but he was also extremely strong. Even into his 60s, Grimek could squat and lift more than 400 pounds (181 kilograms).

On the next page, we'll introduce you to Hercules.

7: Steve Reeves

Jane Powell as Athena Mulvain dances with Steve Reeves as Ed Perkins in the film “Athena” in 1954.
Jane Powell as Athena Mulvain dances with Steve Reeves as Ed Perkins in the film “Athena” in 1954.
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

While in high school, Steve Reeves became interested in bodybuilding and began working out at a local gym in Oakland, Calif. He was inspired by the son of a rancher friend of his mother's, telling a friend later in life that "when Vernon would take off his shirt and swing that hefty axe his muscles flexed with every move" [source: Steve Reeves International Society].

Reeves' first bodybuilding contest was the 1946 Mr. Pacific Coast. He went on to win the same contest the following year, along with Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948 and Mr. Universe in 1950. Unlike many of his fellow competitors, Reeves didn't have a long career in the world of professional bodybuilding. Instead, his physique and good looks eventually led to a film career, making him one of the first bodybuilders to become a successful actor. His most famous role was that of Hercules, who he played in a movie by the same name in 1957, as well as its 1960 sequel.


Throughout the 50s and 60s, Reeves starred in many "sword and sandal" or "pepla" movies. Most of them were made in Italy and were based loosely on mythology or historical events. These films made Reeves the highest-paid actor in Europe at the time. He famously turned down the role taken on by Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars," reasoning that an Italian filmmaker wouldn't be able to make a successful Western. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury while filming "The Last Days of Pompeii" in 1960 eventually led to Reeves' retirement. His last film was in 1968, after which he bred horses, promoted bodybuilding and wrote his book "Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way."

Click over to the next page for the story of the "Austrian Oak," a man you might know by another name.

6: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1985
Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1985, long before his days as governor of California
Harry Langdon/Getty Images

A natural athlete, Arnold Schwarzenegger began lifting weights in his mid-teens, deciding early in life to become "the best-built man in the world" [source:]. He became known as the "Austrian Oak" during his bodybuilding career. After a mandatory year in the Austrian army, Schwarzenegger began competing in bodybuilding events. In 1966, at age 19, he won Best Built Man in Europe, Mr. Europe and an International Powerlifting Championship.

By the end of his bodybuilding career, Schwarzenegger had won Mr. Olympia seven times and defended his Mr. Universe titles in both the amateur and professional divisions multiple times. He still holds the record as the youngest-ever Mr. Olympia.


He also starred in the 1977 bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron" along with other bodybuilders of the era. The film illustrated the Golden Age of bodybuilding, in which the sport focused more on definition and less on body mass and muscle size. This was just the beginning of his long and hugely successful film career.

Schwarzenegger retired from competition in 1970, returning once more in 1980 to win Mr. Olympia. He continues to support bodybuilding, beginning his own competition named the Arnold Classic (now the Arnold Fitness Weekend) in 1989.

Schwarzenegger has admitted that he used steroids before they were criminalized. Some have criticized him for his continued support of the sport, given that steroid use is known to be rampant in bodybuilding today, but Schwarzenegger's press secretary said in 2005 that "It's where he came from, and he's proud of it" [source: Fox News].

Now, let's take a look at the Hulk.

5: Lou Ferrigno

Lou Ferrigno in 1988
Lou Ferrigno in 1988
Bill Dobbins/Allsport UK /Allsport/Getty Images

If Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most well-known bodybuilder, Lou Ferrigno is a close second. Ferrigno lost 85 percent of his hearing after a childhood infection, and building his body was a way to deal with the taunts he received from other children. He idolized Steve Reeves and began training as a young teenager.

Ferrigno began his professional career after high school, winning the IFBB Mr. America in the teen category in 1971, then winning the overall competition in 1973. He became the youngest person to win Mr. Universe and the only person to win it in consecutive years. During this time, he also briefly worked as a defensive lineman for a Canadian Football League team, the Toronto Argonauts. At the height of his career, Ferrigno weighed 335 pounds (152 kilograms) and stood 6 feet 5 inches, which made him one of the largest bodybuilders of his era.


Ferrigno also starred in the bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron" -- his attempt to beat Schwarzenegger in the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition provided a major plot point. After placing fourth in the 1977 World's Strongest Man contest, he retired from competition. That same year, he was cast in the show "The Incredible Hulk." Ferrigno played the Hulk in 81 episodes, as well as several TV movies.

In 1993, Ferrigno made a brief return to bodybuilding. He continues to act and sell fitness equipment, and he has also worked as a personal trainer for celebrities like Chuck Norris. He was training Michael Jackson before the latter's death in June 2009.

One of the most famous women in bodybuilding, Rachel McLish, makes an appearance on the next page.

4: Rachel McLish

Rachel McLish in 1980
Rachel McLish in 1980
Tony Duffy /Allsport/Getty Images

In 1980, the National Physique Committee held the first national bodybuilding contest for women. That same year, the IFBB held its first Ms. Olympia. Rachel McLish won the inaugural competition. She placed second in 1981, but came back in 1982 to win the title. McLish helped to grow the sport for women as she had a very feminine physique while also being muscular. This helped to debunk the idea that female bodybuilding was "unnatural." However, the emphasis on bulk and mass grew. McLish retired from competition after coming in second at the 1984 Ms. Olympia in part because of the changing landscape. She starred in the women's bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron II: The Women" in 1985.

McLish started out working at a health club while she was a college student. She had an extensive background in dance and had already been weight training. A health club manager convinced her to consider competing in the "new" sport of women's bodybuilding. After only five months, she won her first Ms. Olympia title.


After retiring, McLish went on to small roles in film. She also wrote several books on weight training for women. Today, McLish is a proponent of the "fitness and figure" competitions, which are often held by the same governing bodies and at the same time as bodybuilding competitions. Both emphasize body tone and symmetry over bulk. The fitness competition also requires dance or aerobic routines. In 2006, nearly 26 years after her Ms. Olympia win, McLish posed for Iron Man magazine.

Who holds the nickname "Mass with Class"? Find out on the next page.

3: Lee Labrada

Lee Labrada's nickname is "Mass with Class." Like many bodybuilders, Labrada began building his body as a teenager. He entered his first competition in 1978 and by his own account, was rather thin at the time. After learning more about training and nutrition, Labrada began to really put on the muscle. He won his first competition in 1982 at the age of 22, in the National Physique Committee Texas Collegiate Championships. He became Mr. Universe in 1985. From 1987 to 1993, Labrada placed in the top four in the Mr. Olympia competition, a feat only duplicated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He never won the title, but he did go on to win a total of 22 titles during his career.

Labrada is known for having a very symmetrical physique. He is 5 feet 6 inches and weighed between 190 and 195 pounds (86 to 88 kilograms) during his competitions, so he stood out amongst the larger, bulkier competitors. Labrada has also been commended for his grace, pose innovation and aesthetics, but his nickname comes from his professional and respectful demeanor with competitors and fans.


Labrada admits that he did use steroids prior to their criminalization in 1990. However, he maintains that he was never a heavy user, pointing to the fact that his body weight changed little over the years. Labrada has spoken out in favor of drug testing in all bodybuilding competitions.

After retiring from competitive bodybuilding in 1995, Labrada started a sports nutrition company that has been very successful. He has also served as a fitness consultant on numerous TV shows.

On the next page, let's dig into a little controversy.

2: Bev Francis

Hailing from Australia, Bev Francis started out as a power lifter and a track and field star before moving to professional bodybuilding. She broke the Australian shot put record in 1977 and was also the first women to bench press more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Francis held 16 world power lifting records during her career and won six world championships from 1980 to 1985. She was undefeated in all of her power lifting competitions.

Francis was also featured in "Pumping Iron II." She was recruited from Australia by the filmmaker George Butler, who initially questioned whether she was actually a woman. Francis was much larger and more muscular than Rachel McLish, and was depicted in the film as the extreme of the sport. She's credited with putting an emphasis on muscularity in the sport, which also illustrated the ongoing struggle present in female bodybuilding.


Many consider Francis to be a victim of the IFBB's attempts to make female bodybuilders more feminine. She has stated that her "goal throughout [her] career in bodybuilding was to show how hard and muscular and big a woman can be" [source: Rosenthal]. Francis slimmed down for the 1990 Ms. Olympia contest in an attempt to better compete with the smaller women, only to lose to a larger competitor. The following year she went back to her usual routine and was more muscular, but still lost.

Francis retired in 1991 and opened a Gold's Gym (now called Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym) with her husband, Steve Weinberger. They both judge IFBB competitions and sell fitness supplements under the name Iron-Tek.

Next, let's meet No. 1.

1: Ronnie Coleman

Ronnie Coleman poses during his performance on Euroshow Nutrend 2006 on Nov. 16, 2006, in Presov, Slovakia.
Ronnie Coleman poses during his performance on Euroshow Nutrend 2006 on Nov. 16, 2006, in Presov, Slovakia.
Maria Zarnayova/isifa/Getty Images

We'll end our look at top bodybuilders with Ronnie Coleman, one of the heaviest competitors in the history of bodybuilding. During contest season, Coleman generally weighs in at 305 pounds (138 kilograms). In the off-season, he puts on another 25 pounds (11 kilograms).

While in college, Coleman played football and began building his physique, initially becoming a police officer after graduation. He remained a reserve officer for several years, even after his bodybuilding career began.

Coleman began competitive bodybuilding in 1990, winning Mr. Texas. The next year, he won the World Amateur Championships, which qualified him to enter professional competitions. He won Mr. Universe in 1991 and a string of smaller competitions around the world before taking on Mr. Olympia in 1998. Since then, Coleman has won Mr. Olympia for eight consecutive years, a title he shares with bodybuilder Lee Haney. He also holds the record for the most IFBB professional wins, with 26 titles.

Coleman stated that he would retire after the 2007 Mr. Olympia, after suffering a back injury that required surgery and kept him out of the 2008 competition. However, Coleman told Muscle Sport Magazine in June 2009 that he will return to compete in the 2010 Mr. Olympia. He counts Arnold Schwarzenegger as a close friend and supports the National Inner City Games Foundation, for which Schwarzenegger is Executive Chairman. The organization provides after-school programs in 15 cities nationwide.

If all of this talk of bodybuilding has you thinking about your own physique, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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