A Return to the Golden Age

An Interview with Dr. Ellington Darden
by Chris Shugart


Sideshows Vs. Museums

Today, competitive bodybuilding is a freak show. From the late 1960's to the early 1980's - the Golden Age of bodybuilding - it was an art exhibit.

The magic decade was primarily the 1970's. The physiques were large, yet symmetrical and artistic. These were the types of bodies once carved into stone by the Greeks, the epitome of power and male aesthetics. In 1976, the Whitney Museum even "exhibited" muscular men (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a show called "Articulate Muscle: The Body as Art."

Along those same lines, I was lucky enough last summer to visit Kim Wood, an old Nautilus buddy of mine from the 1970s, who was also strength-training coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for almost 30 years. Kim is retired now and has a home in Cincinnati that contains a most remarkable collection of vintage barbells and dumbbells.

I counted 42 antique barbells, and that was in just one section of one of his multiple training areas, which he has located in and around his home. Many of his barbells are true collector items and a few are more than 100 years old. Talk about adding some variety to your workout, you'd probably never become bored from rotating in and out of Kim Wood's old-school equipment.

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This photo reveals a small section of Kim Wood's collection of old barbells and dumbbells. The large blue dumbbells on the floor are from the Milo Barbell Company, which was started by Alan Calvert of Philadelphia in 1902. Above the blue dumbbells, resting on boxes, is a huge globe barbell, which was lifted in the early 1900s by strongman Warren Lincoln Travis. The green globe barbell in the racks is a Milo Tri-Plex, and to the right are two Milo Du-Plexes. Mixed in are several solid Sandow barbells, which came from England. On the floor and on the wall are a few Milo kettlebells, with the original weights still inside. Along the back windows are some chromate-finished kettlebells from Black Iron Strength and on the floor are globe dumbbells and kettlebells made by Osmo Kiiha. On the racks to the near right are some retro barbells from Atomic Athletic.

This photo reveals a small section of Kim Wood's collection of old barbells and dumbbells. The large blue dumbbells on the floor are from the Milo Barbell Company, which was started by Alan Calvert of Philadelphia in 1902. Above the blue dumbbells, resting on boxes, is a huge globe barbell, which was lifted in the early 1900s by strongman Warren Lincoln Travis. The green globe barbell in the racks is a Milo Tri-Plex, and to the right are two Milo Du-Plexes. Mixed in are several solid Sandow barbells, which came from England. On the floor and on the wall are a few Milo kettlebells, with the original weights still inside. Along the back windows are some chromate-finished kettlebells from Black Iron Strength and on the floor are globe dumbbells and kettlebells made by Osmo Kiiha. On the racks to the near right are some retro barbells from Atomic Athletic.


T-Nation: Now, we're talking a lot about classic physiques, but what about classic diets? Do you have any insights to how these guys ate for muscle?

Dr. Darden: When I started training in the 1950s, there was only one health food store in metro Houston, and that was downtown. Funny, it was called Sunshine Health Foods, and it was anything but sunshine.

It was dark and vitamin smelling, and there was this little old woman, who must have been at least 80, who ran the place. She looked like the witch from "Hansel and Gretel." She told me once that she didn't even take a bath in tap water, that she had all her water flown in from Hot Springs, Arkansas.

But my oh my, that old woman was a super salesperson. She carried Bob Hoffman's products and sold Strength & Health magazine. She even had me take off my shirt one day and show her my muscles, which weren't much to look at when I was 15 or 16 years of age. But according to her, I had what it took to be a "real he-man," as she called the guys in Hoffman's magazines.

So, I'd leave every three or four months with a sack full of hi-protein powder, vitamin pills, wheat germ oil, and liver pills. And everything tasted awful. You had to hold your nose to get it down. But I took the stuff for a couple of years.

But I also ate three good square meals a day of what was called the Basic Four Food Groups: milk, meat, breads-cereals, and fruits-vegetables. I think most bodybuilders at that time did pretty much the same: they consumed protein powder (if you could get the stuff and could tolerate the taste) and ate plenty of nutritious food. No one back then had ever heard of the word "ripped." We all wanted what was called "muscular bulk." I never knew you were supposed to diet down to enter a physique contest until I read about it in 1967.

When I first visited California in 1963, many of the bodybuilders out there were consuming two or three quarts a day of certified raw milk. Most bodybuilders and lifters were big milk drinkers.

So, classic eating for bodybuilding was far different then the eating for bodybuilding today. There has been a huge improvement in products manufactured today, as far as taste, mouth feel, and nutrition. Of course, it's debatable whether many of the products are necessary or needed.

T-Nation: You know, what always strikes me looking at these classic physiques is that they seem very attainable. In fact, I know a lot of guys who are always disappointed with their physiques, yet they look as good as many bodybuilders of the 50's and 60's who scored magazine covers! What's going on here? Have steroids wiped out the idea of what a healthy, muscular body can look like? Have we forgotten... or developed unrealistic expectations?

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Classic symmetry and muscle: Steve Reeves through the years.


Dr. Darden: You know, I believe a lot of it goes back to unrealistic expectations. A training buddy of mine from the 1960s used to say that if he ever got maximum development throughout his body, then he'd "overdevelop" two areas: his shoulders and his triceps. His reasoning was that he never saw a man whose shoulders were too broad, or who's hanging triceps were too large.

I'd have agreed with him back in the 1960s and 1970s. But now, it's ridiculous. In the pro contests you see overdeveloped shoulders and triceps, plus overdeveloped everything else: buttocks, quads, hamstrings, pecs, traps - and most grotesquely - bloated, disproportionately shaped midsections.

I believe you're right, Chris. Steroids and other drugs, as well as the injectable shaping agents, have almost destroyed the image of how those healthy, athletic physiques of the 50s and 60s looked. That's why most of the bodybuilders who competed from 40 to 50 years ago can hardly even thumb through the current group of muscle magazines.

And to actually attend a professional bodybuilding show is downright embarrassing - not only what you observe on the stage, but what you see in the audience. Can you imagine, Chris, inviting your parents and relatives to join you in Las Vegas for the next Mr. Olympia? After the contest, you might never be welcome in West Texas again!

T-Nation: Probably not! I find the classic physiques (pre-1980) inspiring. I have no desire to look like today's pro; I don't think many people do. But can pro-bodybuilding ever make a return to the Golden Age physique? Or is that like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube?

Dr. Darden: That's a very good question. If we could unite enough guys who possessed enough savvy to just say "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more," then maybe a movement back to more of a Golden-Age type of physique could emerge.

You know, T-Nation has a big influence on the bodybuilding community, not only in the USA, but worldwide. Perhaps a challenge needs to go out to T-Nation regulars.

Recently, in fact, I talked with Tim Patterson about reinventing that Golden-Age look. The Iron Game needs the next Steve Reeves, Boyer Coe, or Casey Viator - a teenager with the potential and drive to succeed - to step forward, avoid the drugs and distractions, and lead the way back to the future. No doubt, this would bring real excitement - and perhaps, sanity - to bodybuilding.

T-Nation: Sounds like something that's much needed. Thanks for the interview, Dr. Darden!

This article was reprinted from T-NATION Bodybuilding's Think-Tank




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