Charles Atlas and Isometrics is a funny topic for me. It never ceases to amaze me how many people recognize the term Isometrics when Charles Atlas is mentioned. The association is so ingrained between Charles Atlas and Isometrics that many “experts and isometric gurus” say that Charles Atlas’s course was based on Isometrics. It wasn’t and if they say it was they obviously have never read Charles Atlas’ excellent course, or they don’t know what Isometrics is…or possibly both.
With that said Atlas, whose real name was Angelo Siciliano was perhaps the most famous advocate of the isometric method. Atlas, at the time the World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man (an award he won in 1921, and again in 1922, at which point they decided not to hold the contest anymore cause Atlas was always going to win it) was a household name and hero to thousands of skinny boys around the world during the 1930’s.
His famous ads, featured mainly in the increasingly popular comic books, showed a skinny kid being picked on, getting sand kicked in his face by an older muscular punk. Laughed at and embarrassed in front of a group of girls the young kid, Mac, vows to never be picked on again. He sends away for the Charles Atlas course and builds the body of superhero using nothing more than his own bodyweight and a few chairs. Soon the bully is terrorising some other kid, when the now Muscular Mac shows up and teaches the bully a lesson with a stiff right cross to the jaw. With his muscle and heroism clearly on display the girls drape themselves adoringly over Mac, the man Charles Atlas built.
It’s a story fantastic enough to belong to a superhero, but it’s true. That was exactly what happened to small skinny Angelo, before he became the World’s most Perfect Man – Charles Atlas.
So why does everyone think that Charles Atlas and Isometrics go hand in hand?
Atlas’ system was called Dynamic Tension, and it’s probably the tension part that causes everyone to make the mistake. Atlas advocated squeezing the muscles tight, as we do in isometrics, BUT, and it’s a big but, he advocated full range movement while maintaining this tension – hence the name, Dynamic, as in movement, Tension.
The Atlas system was ISOTONIC not isometric. Isotonic comes from the Greek "iso-", equal and "tonos", tone = maintaining equal (muscle) tone. The muscle maintains equal tone while shortening in isotonic exercise. For instance if you keep your pectorals (chest muscles) tight with even tension as you perform a push up then that’s an isotonic exercise, and an idea of what Charles Atlas taught.
Now, Atlas himself did in fact use Isometrics to develop his legendary physique. He used many of the powerful Isometric contractions taught be Aolis P. Swoboda, who released his Swoboda System in 1898. Atlas also used the methods of the great Earle Liderman, (one of my favourite systems of isometrics is found in Liderman’s course on muscle control). Atlas was in fact featured prominently in Liderman’s course as his favourite and most promising student.
So that’s it, the mystery of Charles Atlas and Isometrics. Despite using many isometric techniques to develop his incredible physique, Atlas never taught them in his Dynamic Tension course, (although many can be made into excellent isometric exercises) and yet, it is probably Charles Atlas more than any other man that popularised this incredible system of exercise. Absolutely fascinating isn’t it.