Charles Atlas will make a man of you!

Forget Wii Fit and Perfect Pushup suction cups. To get in shape, I went back to the original fitness guru -- "the world's most perfectly developed man."

Published July 15, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

When Nintendo introduced the Wii Fit, most of its media coverage could be reduced to a loud, desperate cry for help: "Is this how we'll finally stop being so fat all the time?" When Ellen DeGeneres demonstrated its exercise benefits on her daytime talk show, then rolled out a skid of Wii Fits, one for every member of her largely female and over-40-and-lovin'-it studio audience, the reaction was so tearfully ecstatic that it was easy to forget this was just a video game and not the second coming of Fen-phen.

My own friends -- people who seemed almost morally opposed to fitness -- were drinking the Wii Kool-Aid, too. One male friend boasted, "I'm even doing yoga now, thanks to the Wii" -- a claim that sounds uncomfortably similar to, "My sex life has really improved, thanks to this new electric vagina."

Video-game-as-exercise-solution might seem like a needlessly complicated way of achieving a simple desired effect. But the hype and hope behind the Wii Fit corresponds nicely with the entire exercise and fitness industry, which seems predicated upon the idea that the only thing more satisfying than stating self-improvement goals is creating pricey obstacles for achieving them.

Consider the amount of equipment that has been designed to stand between you and your first sit-up. Exercise wheels. Body balls. The Ab Rocket folding chair. One fitness company named Slendertone offers a line of wearable fitness equipment -- including thigh-and-ass-toning shorts -- designed to stimulate muscles through electrical pulses, even while you sit idly in your cubicle. (I would imagine wearing a full Slendertone outfit feels like being molested by ghosts.) As each emergent exercise trend -- and whatever equipment, DVDs, video games and vibrating shorts are associated with it -- presents itself as key to unlocking the Perfect Body, most of us just end up burdened with an unwieldy and expensive set of keys.

Charles Atlas never had this problem, and not just because he was born well before the electric vagina really hit its stride. In 1922, Atlas began marketing his Dynamic-Tension course, a complete fitness program requiring no equipment or weight training of any kind. Instead, it promised to "Make a Man of You" through a series of exercises that worked muscle against muscle -- basically, isometric exercise with an added range of motion.

Most people, including me, probably became familiar with the Dynamic-Tension course from one of its many advertisements in comic books -- the preferred reading material of anemic weaklings. The illustrated ads featured a "bag of bones" getting sand kicked in his face by a beach bully, then enrolling in the course, and returning to the beach later to sucker-punch his previous tormentor. Alongside the comic strip was an image of Charles Atlas, dressed in a tasteful leopard-print bikini swimsuit, urging you to order his mail-order course. If nothing else, one had to admire his confidence.

More than 80 years since Atlas first began pitching it, his Dynamic-Tension course is still available through mail order, although these days one can also download it as a PDF. Apart from that tiny concession to space-age technology, not much else has changed. I know, because I tried it for nearly a month. (You see, in addition to being a critic of the fitness industry, I'm also one of its many victims, and I have several barely skimmed books, a neglected gym membership, and two mint-condition speed ropes -- a "home" and "away" model -- to prove it.)

I knew almost nothing about the course before purchasing it but figured it would amount to little more than push-ups, sit-ups and occasionally pressing my palms together very, very hard. Turns out the 90-plus-page course book was slightly more rigorous, but who am I to judge a man who gained thousands of followers without ever having to put on a pair of pants? So, for the next several weeks, I awoke in the same ritualistic manner prescribed by Lesson 1. Almost immediately after planting my feet on the floor, I filled my lungs to capacity with air from my open bedroom window. Then I dragged two Eames shell chairs into my living room so they faced each other, about 2 feet apart, and performed a set of dips between them. Next, I stood before a mirror, held my hands as if grasping an imaginary rope just above my head, and pulled downward toward my knees while tensing my arm and chest muscles to provide resistance. According to my new fitness guru, if I "hold in the mind's eye AT ALL TIMES the Ideal of Physical Perfection," soon I could advance to other vitality-building exercises, such as gently and rapidly punching myself in the stomach, and washing my genitals with ice water. Yet somehow this still felt less degrading than a spinning class.

One thing I definitely hadn't counted on was Lesson 2: Nutrition. Here, Atlas outlines his mandatory dietary and lifestyle restrictions -- no caffeine; no refined sugar; no bleached flour; no white rice; no fatty meats; no pickles, mustards, vinegar or other acidic spices; no soft drinks, coffee or tea; no staying up past midnight, ever. Reading that chapter was like having Charles Atlas ask me to list all my favorite things in the world, then grab the list from my hands, crumple it up and toss it -- and some sand -- in my face. (Atlas does make one notable exception for candy: "If you must eat candy at times, be sure it is of the very highest quality." Sounds like someone can't live without his truffles.)

Atlas urges his students to "resolutely curb your impulses" and to "put pep and punch, vigor, vim and snap into every movement!" Those seemed like reasonable demands for exercise training. I figured I could summon a bit of pep and, if the situation called for it, maybe even a bit of vim. But after just two days without espresso or candy, I was forced to accept the fact that until now most of my pep and punch had been chemically induced. Instead of picturing perfection, I obsessed over how I would first cheat, or fail completely. Not "if," because there was no question. I knew I would fail. But how? It was a race to see which aspect of this program would become unbearable first. Would the exercises grow tedious, or too difficult? Would I backslide into my two-packs-of-Sour-Patch-Kids-a-day habit? Would the caffeine withdrawal headaches defeat me? Would I submit to temptation over a slice of pizza, or some lasagna? And how did I make it into adulthood with the self-discipline of Garfield?

Somehow, I slogged through the course with only an occasional transgression. (You win this round, beer.) Considering how quickly exercise trends get debunked -- cough Ab Rocker cough -- the most surprising thing about Charles Atlas' pre-Depression fitness philosophy is how well it has stood up over time. The course is one-part exercise, one-part diet, two-parts photographs of Atlas in a thong, with the remaining parts dedicated to motivational messages delivered by its author in loud, scolding tones -- ELIMINATE FEAR. CONQUER WORRY. OMIT DEPRESSION. NEVER CLOSE YOUR BEDROOM WINDOW. Putting aside his tenets' eerie similarity to a Scientology recruitment pamphlet, the general instructions within each lesson in the Dynamic-Tension course contain a thread of common sense that is just as relevant today. Atlas advises against over-exertion and encourages stretching for flexibility. He champions hydration, condemns enriched white flour and rice, and makes a prescient argument for organic foods, instructing the reader to "exercise care and choose only those [foods] that are called organic. That is, foods from which the life-principal has not been extracted by commercial processes."

In every lesson, I found something I'd heard echoed by contemporary fitness experts. Atlas' instructions to avoid acidic, spicy foods like pickles, ketchup, vinegar and mustard are remarkably similar to one of the main principles in "Dr. Joshi's Holistic Detox," a recent best-selling diet book heartily endorsed by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Although I'm not sure if Dr. Joshi, like Atlas, also recommends dousing one's genitals with icy water each morning until you experience a "pleasant warm glow in that region."

Of course, for each good idea contained within the Atlas course, there is an almost equal measure of bat-shit crazy. Sometimes I found his methodologies questionable, such as his advice for avoiding muscular stiffness: "feed the tissues by rubbing them gently with pure olive oil." (The course also suggests reserving some extra olive oil to rub into your scalp, which must have produced a smoky rotisserie-chicken aroma at the beach.) He also suggests a few too many bracingly cold morning baths. Combined with Atlas' insistence on leaving windows open year-round to let in fresh air, I wonder if he should have added an appendix to his course, titled "Coping With Pneumonia."

Dynamic-Tension also devotes a borderline obsessive amount of attention to developing manly breasts. Atlas believed the chest, rather than the abdomen, was the body's core source of power and that undeveloped chest muscles were evidence of systemic weakness and lowered resistance to disease. Throughout the course, Atlas returned to this subject again and again, never missing an opportunity to promote his own juiced and gleaming pecs, which he claimed were the pride of the health, fitness and science community. This singular emphasis on chest strength felt outdated, as did the course's exclusion of any kind of aerobic training. Despite Atlas' concern for deep-breathing fresh air -- he maintained fresh air was as much a food as any fruit or vegetable -- I never found anything in Dynamic-Tension that noticeably increased my heart rate, aside from the occasional fear of being laughed at while performing certain exercises.

Even casually ignoring select words of wisdom -- against Atlas' better judgment, I declined performing all of my exercises in the nude -- I surprised myself with the level of dedication I applied to both exercise and dietary restraint while on the program. I got a little shaky whenever I smelled coffee, and any time I passed by a display of delicious cakes -- why did I keep finding myself outside bakeries, anyway? -- but I held strong. Going to bed early, however, proved nearly impossible and I abandoned that instruction after just two days. In my defense, Charles Atlas created this program in 1921, when there was nothing much to watch on television.

In just a few short weeks of training I already noticed improvements. I could see a difference in my chest. It was slightly more defined, less in need of underwire support. I had more energy, and I could tell I'd lost a bit of weight -- maybe only 2-3 pounds, but enough to enjoy sitting again. It was impressive, especially when my work had consisted mostly of standing in front of my mirror, practicing Lamaze-style breathing and making myself extra tense, one muscle group at a time.

There was one very unexpected and unfortunate side effect of my new multi-grain diet, however: uncontrollable and constant flatulence. Really constant. Like, if Branford Marsalis held a note this long he would get a standing ovation. I never figured out exactly what caused that 24-hour methane stutter, but it might have been the sound of my gastrointestinal system gasping for its first breaths of air after being choked by whole milk vanilla lattes, cake frosting and Twizzlers for so long.

With just one month spent training, the results obviously weren't dramatic. I was still several lessons away from completing the course and gaining the strength and confidence necessary to walk around the beach shirtless, punching strangers in the face. Though I'm not convinced Dynamic-Tension was perfect for me, the structure certainly helped. It also confirmed my suspicion that the key to unlocking the Perfect Body is mental, not material. The incentive to get in shape has to exceed the novelty of participating in a virtual yoga class taught by a video game. Speaking of real incentive, Charles Atlas offers an inspirational "Feats of Strength" section at the end of his course, featuring party tricks such as Tearing a Telephone Book in Half, Holding Two Cars Each Going in the Opposite Directions and the ever-popular Lifting a Pony. ("You will be amazed to find how easily you can lift the pony on your back.")

Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the Dynamic-Tension course, those exercises will require some additional equipment.

By Todd Levin

Todd Levin is yet another freelance writer living in Brooklyn, and now an online diarist.

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