Fitness vs Bodybuilding – Are They Really That Different?
Before the glamorous fitness lifestyle that we know today came to be, bodybuilding was nothing more than a simplistic sport with a very small following. Men and women with different goals and aspirations took it upon themselves to transform their minds and strengthen their bodies.
Even though Bodybuilding and fitness are very similar concepts, they are not the same thing. Bodybuilding –in theory- consists of building and transforming the human body into one’s image of perfection through weight training, diet, and recovery. Fitness, on the other hand, can be easily defined as any activity that consists of being physically active and healthy.
A Brief Look at the History of Bodybuilding
David Robson explains in one of his articles that the birth of weight training in ancient Egypt and Greece – lit the spark that started the whole bodybuilding/fitness movement that we know today. Believe it or not, these ancient societies would use stones as a way to transform their bodies and enhance their strength. He also mentions the fact that there are dumbbells that can be traced back to the 11th century, that’s pretty insane, right? By the end of the 19th century though, weight lifting stopped being a functional discipline and evolved into a freak show.
As the 20th century began to roll around, weight lifting became a rather large spectacle. Men from all corners of the world would showcase their incredible feats of strength as crowds would gather in awe and disbelief; weight lifting was a full-blown freak show act and people loved it. But like all good things, they eventually have to end. Sadly, people grew tired of watching overweight men lift heavy objects above their heads. They wanted something new and Eugene Sandow was there to take full advantage of it.
Born Friedrich Muller, Eugene Sandow is widely considered as the father of modern bodybuilding. He literally destroyed the image of what a weight lifter should look like and replaced it with his own. Sandow didn’t reinvent the wheel; he just knew how to sell it. See, while people were busy trying to figure out ways to become stronger while neglecting their image and health – he was perfecting his art. He took a lesson from the ancient Greeks and used weights (barbells and dumbbells) to sculpt a beautiful yet powerful body.
All that Eugene Sandow virtually did, was take advantage of his popularity to promote a discipline that dated back to ancient Greece and make it his own. The first bodybuilding contest in history occurred in 1891 and was led with great success by Sandow; soon after, people were hooked and couldn’t get enough of it. By 1921, Charles Atlas had joined the movement. In 1939 the Mr. America contest was born, only to be followed by the creation of the NABBA Mr. Universe in 1950 and the IFBB Mr. Olympia in 1965.
As soon as society got bitten by the bodybuilding bug, it spread like the plague. Joe and Ben Weider followed in Sandow’s footsteps and took the sport even further. By the time the 60s came around, bodybuilding was in the homes of millions in the form of magazines that featured muscular men surrounded by beautiful women at the beach. The entertainment industry wasn’t far behind and also wanted a piece of the bodybuilding pie.
As bodybuilding grew, a few well-known names took advantage of it when it was still in its first stages – the most famous of them all being Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other names like Sylvester Stallone, Lou Ferrigno, Lee Haney, Larry Scott, and Steve Reeves made bodybuilding look cool and attractive. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be cool and attractive? On the other side of the sport – female bodybuilders like Rachel McLish, Cory Everson, and Lenda Murray led the popular fitness movement.
As the bodybuilding demand grew, these larger-than-life personalities saw the opportunity to introduce bodybuilding into the mainstream and make a profit while doing so. The skinny kid wanted big arms like Arnold, the bullied teen wanted a fighting physique like Stallone’s, boxers wanted to be muscular like Lee Haney, and the stay-at-home mom wanted to look like the bikini girl that was on the magazine cover.
Magazines, TV shows, workout videos, training CDs, exercise equipment, books, workout clothes etc. flooded the market and quickly became an important part of society; giving birth to fitness. Fitness basically became the end result of people wanting to mimic the bodybuilding lifestyle but suiting it to their specific needs.
Steroid Use in Bodybuilding
A lot of people out there think that bodybuilding and competitive bodybuilding are the same. They’re not. When I talk about bodybuilding, I’m referring to the discipline that consists of building a strong, healthy, beautiful, and functional body. Competitive bodybuilding is a sport where judges compare a series of competitors and determine who has the best physique in the group. It’s very important to differentiate both terms as we move forward and discuss the controversial topic that is steroid use.
In the previous section of the article I talked about how competitive bodybuilding came to be and how it grew into a massive sport with a loyal following, right? Well… I forgot to mention that competitive bodybuilding lost all popularity as soon as the fitness industry boomed.
Competitive bodybuilding started out as a well-intentioned sport that tried to replicate the spirit of Ancient Greece, but, it quickly lost sight of its path and went backward. Competitive bodybuilding started as a freak show, transformed itself into art, and then went back to being a bigger freak show.
After the golden era of bodybuilding ended around the 80s, the men who popularized to sport began to retire and focus on promoting the basics of bodybuilding – which we now know as fitness (weight training, nutrition, recovery) – to the public. In the mean time, the new breed of competitive bodybuilders kept pushing the envelope by building bigger and freakier physiques.
The public wasn’t too happy and didn’t agree with the direction of the sport, so, they naturally stopped following it. They would much rather watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s instructional training program on television than sit through two hours of monsters posing in their underwear. People wanted to be healthy, fit, and attractive – not transform themselves into monsters.
These monstrous physiques were largely attributed to anabolic steroids, and these claims were nothing short of true. Steroids have always been a part of bodybuilding and, as humans, it’s our competitive nature to try to beat and be the best. Naturally, (no pun intended) bodybuilders did the same and began to abuse steroids to build bigger (but not better) physiques.
Throw in the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 and bodybuilding as a competitive sport -in the mainstream- was finished. When the media is constantly lashing out and calling you the poster image for steroid use – you know you’re in trouble. Since then, bodybuilding rarely makes the local news, unless it’s for something entirely negative.
With competitive bodybuilding being completely alienated from the masses – the fitness industry that focused on promoting people’s health and well-being grew dramatically. A lot of folks took advantage of it and promoted their versions of weight training and exercise to make some money; some of these are still popular today like Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, Zumba and Cross-fit. Competitive bodybuilding isolated itself and became the world’s largest cult sport.
Today, professional bodybuilding is making a comeback thanks to the growing fitness industry and its newly rediscovered interest in the discipline. As soon as fitness clashed with competitive bodybuilding and social media – it virtually created the modern bodybuilding & fitness trend. Whereas before it was acceptable to be healthy and have a nice looking body; now it’s absolutely necessary to compete in a bodybuilding contest and promote in on social media.
Bodybuilders took complete advantage of this movement and realized that they could easily showcase their bodies on the internet, while quickly growing a following and their pockets. The bodybuilding and fitness industries fed on each other and created a new type of monster.
Fitness and Health
If I were to define fitness I would start out by saying that it’s a physical movement (like bodybuilding) that is built around a group of ideas. People have figured out that they don’t need to compete in order to call themselves bodybuilders. They also know that a bodybuilder can be healthy and functional at the same time. The current fitness trend is popular because it takes the best of both worlds (competitive bodybuilding and fitness) and creates an entirely new image.
The fitness craze that we are so accustomed to today is virtually the equivalent of what bodybuilding was in the 70s. It’s nothing new but people have found a way to make it popular and reap the benefits; just under a different light. Competitive bodybuilding and its organizations have taken full advantage of the newly-shined spotlight and created new divisions (women’s bikini, men’s physique, and classic physique) that blow a breath of fresh air to the sport.
Today, more and more people want to join the fitness craze and be recognized for it. The new bodybuilding divisions perfectly accommodate these individuals while expanding their popularity and bringing in more money for the people who run them.
We’ve all seen the mother who won a local bikini show or the young kid who won a “bodybuilding contest” wearing board shorts. Not only are they “being healthy” but they’re also getting acknowledged for it by participating in a contest. See what I mean about competitive bodybuilding and fitness coming together to form a hybrid?
Right now everyone wants to compete, be healthy, and share their fitness journey on the internet. Back in the 70s, people wanted to train, eat, go to the beach, and showcase their physiques in a competition. Things have obviously changed but still remain the same in a way. Eventually, the same thing that happened a couple of decades ago will be bound to happen again. Maybe it actually already is. Bodybuilding contests are quickly being seen as unhealthy as the evident steroid use is beginning to surface.
Whereas a couple of years ago people thought that only massive bodybuilders took steroids – they are now beginning to realize that even those who look “natural” (women included) rely on anabolic steroids to build their physiques. So, with all of that being said, what can we take from all of this?
Well, I think that we can all agree that bodybuilding and fitness are virtually one and the same. And, anabolic steroids will always be a huge part of the puzzle. The art of bodybuilding will continue to take different shapes and forms but it will never die off. The current fitness craze will eventually start to fade until it eventually gets revamped with a new image.
Robson, David, (2014), “A History Lesson In Bodybuilding”, Available at https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson61.htm