Charles Atlas was "America's Most Handsome Man" and an icon whose footsteps many fitness influencers have followed - perhaps without even knowing it!
Workout Summary
  • Main Goal
    Build Muscle
  • Workout Type
    Full Body
  • Training Level
  • Program Duration6 weeks
  • Days Per Week
  • Time Per Workout30-45 minutes
  • Equipment Required
  • Target Gender Male & Female
  • Workout PDF Download Workout

Workout Description

While everyone has his or her own reason for getting into training and fitness, there are normally two main reasons for the initial decision.

It’s either because someone is overweight and wants to focus on fat loss or someone is “skinny as a rail” and wants to get bigger and stronger.

For the latter group, there are many people who have shared their success stories and methods to help others do the same but there was one man in the previous century that was most famous for helping the little guy becoming the big guy.

That man was Charles Atlas.

Who Was Charles Atlas?

Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on October 30, 1893 in Italy. His childhood would see him move to Brooklyn, New York in 1903 and he would eventually take on a career as a leather worker.

Having a fascination with Eugen Sandow, he performed calisthenic exercises at his home and questioned strongmen athletes when he saw them at local competitions and exhibitions. He also studied information provided by the top magazine of the day, “Physical Culture”.

The story he told about his passion to grow is the story that made him famous for the rest of his life. He told that he had sand kicked in his face by a bully on the beach. At only 97 pounds, Siciliano felt there was nothing he could do about it.

After visiting a zoo and being inspired by the lions he saw, he developed a system based on dynamic tension and the result was a physique that led him to being called “America’s Most Handsome Man” in 1921. He also won the “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” contest at Madison Square Garden in 1922.

When he was at his peak physically, he stood 5’10” tall and weighed anywhere from 185 to 195 pounds. His measurements are below.

  • Chest: 47 inches
  • Arms: 17 inches each
  • Waist: 32 inches
  • Thighs: 23 inches each
  • Calves: 16 inches each

He would go on to become a traveling strongman for a circus. By 1930, he realized he could benefit from having a more American name. He came up with the name Charles Atlas (the last name after the Greek god) and the rest is history.

Atlas then met Dr. Fredrick Tilney who was a doctor and writer from Britain. Together, they collaborated together on a fitness course in 1922. Atlas wrote it and Tilney worked as an editor on it. They would go into business together going forward and sold the course for many years to come.

Comic Strips: Promoting His Programs Before Social Media

His most famous form of advertising for this course was developed in the 1930’s. A cartoon was added to comic books that featured the story that Atlas told of his youth with the bully at the beach. Only in this story, it ends with the skinny man taking on Atlas’ system and becoming muscular. He would return to the beach to defeat the bully and win the girl.

There were other versions that would be developed later on but the advertising was clearly his ticket to success. Atlas would spend the rest of his life as a pop culture sensation and one of the most famous figures of fitness.

Atlas passed away on Christmas Eve 1972 after dealing with chest pains that ultimately led to a heart attack. He was survived by a daughter and a son. Many of his advertisements were still being published in comic books after his death.

Nutrition: What Did Charles Atlas Eat?

Atlas had a nutrition philosophy that was considered controversial even by the standards of his day. He was a big advocate of milk. As a matter of fact, he would prefer to have the milk come straight from the cow or a high grade pasteurized version.

He recommended drinking a glass every half-hour starting at 8:00 a.m. and continuing throughout the day up to five quarts. He would have his followers start with a glass each hour and slowly increase over the first few days until they reached that half hour goal. He also suggested chewing as well as simply drinking.

His philosophy was that such a high amount of milk would encourage several trips to the bathroom which he felt helped the body cleanse and detoxified itself. He permitted a piece of fruit occasionally in the day if the person following his system felt it was necessary.

Dynamic Tension: Charles Atlas’ Training Philosophy

The system that Atlas created became known as “dynamic tension”. The philosophy is you challenge the body by performing various movements with the opposite muscle group you’re training offering resistance.

If you need an example of this, hold your hands down to your sides with your palms up. Perform a curl and pretend you have a heavy bar in your hand. Once you curl, lower your hands back down and flex your triceps while doing so. Since there is movement, it’s not an isometric method. It’s more of a combination of isotonic and isokinetic exercise.

His program included 12 lessons followed by one final “perpetual” lesson. Each lesson had instructions as well as photo demonstrations of how to perform the exercises by Atlas himself. He also invited readers to send him letters to let him know about their progress and stay in touch with him.

At the time, that was considered an innovative move. Several boxers took his course that would go on to become legends in that sport. Some of those names include Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Max Baer. Other famous students of Atlas were 1980 Olympic gold medalist Allan Wells and actor David Prowse who played Darth Vader in “Star Wars”.

Charles Atlas’ Favorite Exercises & Workouts

There were several workouts that Atlas published in the magazines and himself. The workout below is among his most famous. Among his taglines with these workouts were for the reader to “give me 15 minutes a day and I can make you a new man.”

There were two exercises for every major muscle group and none of them required a barbell or dumbbell. All of these exercises were to be performed until you strained or reached failure. Any exercise with resistance calls for you to use your own body to resist.

Exercise Sets Reps
2 Chair Press Up 1 10
Finger Lock Chest Pull 1 10
Good Morning with Leg Resistance 1 15
Squat Thrusts 1 15
Lateral Raise with Resistance 1 10
Front Raise with Resistance 1 10
Bicep Curl with Resistance 1 10
Bicep Curl with Rear Resistance 1 10
Tricep Pulldown with Resistance 1 10
Tricep Pulldown across Chest with Resistance 1 10
Prone Leg Raise 1 10
Body Flex with Chair 1 10
Cross Leg Squat 1 15
Toe Raise Squat 1 15
Stepped Toe Raise 1 20
Heel Raise 1 20

There was also a second daily routine Atlas claimed to follow until he was well into his 70’s. That workout was much more basic but he still found it helped him with health as he aged.

Exercise Sets Reps
Knee Bends 1 50
Sit Ups 1 100
Push Ups 1 300
Jog* 1 Appropriate Distance

*Atlas would run on the beach.

The Modern Approach: Charles Atlas Inspired Workout

While several of these movements aren’t very familiar to today’s generation of athletes and fitness enthusiasts, it can be argued that dynamic tension can have a place in the modern fitness program.

Below is a workout that can challenge the entire body and be performed in around 25 minutes. This workout will include movements and time for each. Squeeze and contract the muscle like you would with resistance. Feel a stretch before performing the next rep. Take 30 seconds of rest between each exercise before moving on to the next.

Exercise Sets Reps
Pushup (2 Sec Hold) 1 10
Standing Chest Fly (2 Sec Hold) 1 10
Row Squeeze (2 Sec Hold) 1 10
Vertical Pull 1 10
High Elbow Row 1 10
Shoulder Press 1 10
Bicep Curl (1 Sec Hold) 1 10
Close Grip Push Up (1 Sec Hold) 1 10
Squat 1 15
Good Morning 1 15
Seated Toe Raise 1 15
Standing Calf Raise 1 15
Crunch 1 10
Single Lying Leg Raise 1 10 Each

Give the program a shot for yourself. It can be performed as a beginner routine for up to 6 weeks. If you have any questions, please leave us a comment below.

Posted on: Wed, 02/28/2024 - 18:06

Is this done every day or every other day?
I read Atlas did high rep stuff like pushups and bodyweight squats every day.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Sat, 03/09/2024 - 20:15

Hi Javier, he did indeed to pushups and bodyweight squats every day. The full routine here was done a few times a week, but his exact schedule isn't known.

Posted on: Tue, 06/30/2020 - 02:34

What is a vertical pull?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 08/19/2020 - 12:14

Hey Frank

A vertical pull is an old school term for lat pulldowns.

Posted on: Thu, 02/27/2020 - 09:00

What is a vertical pull?

Simone Panda
Posted on: Wed, 12/29/2021 - 23:45

I think in this case they mean any pull motion from High to low. As in
Lat pull downs
Standing cable pullover

Vertical pulling motions