If fame is your goal, bodybuilding is a pretty stupid way to try to get it. Even the most famous bodybuilders of all time generally had to do things outside of competition to get any substantial recognition.
A while back, WatchMojo.com came out with a video [link] listing what they consider to be the most famous bodybuilders of all time. Considering the fact that probably about zero people at Mojo have ever lifted anything heavier than a phone book, I think it was a pretty well put together list. (And judging by this video [link] I think my assumption is pretty fair.)
Anyway, what follows is my own list of what I consider to be the most famous bodybuilders of all time. I’ve put together this list by considering three things:
- How famous the person was during their prime
- How famous they are now, and
- How long their actions might be remembered for in the future.
Obviously, this list would look a lot different if it were The Most Famous Bodybuilders Right Now, but it’s supposed to be of all time, so yeah. ON WITH THE LIST!
Bet you didn’t expect this one. Starting off my list is a man who’s probably more famous at comic book conventions and nerd clubs than he is in any gym. David Prowse is the man who filled out the suit for Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.
James Earl Jones is more than likely the actor that you think of when someone says Darth Vader, but Jones only acted out Vader’s voice. Darth Vader had to be big and imposing, so director George Lucas hired English bodybuilder and weightlifter David Prowse to play the part. Unfortunately, Prowse had no idea that Lucas never planned on using his voice, only finding out he’d been dubbed over after Star Wars was released. His bitterness is probably why Lucas chooses to sweep him under the rug and why he isn’t more well known today.
As an actor and bodybuilder, Prowse isn’t really all that famous, but playing the most recognizable villain of all time? That’s gotta get you on this list.
Claim to Fame: The Man In The Darth Vader Costume
#9. Joe Gold
Joe Gold built his first gym in Venice, just south of the old Muscle Beach, in 1965. What had started out as a little gym for the local bodybuilders to get out of the odd, rainy day quickly became the gym of top competitors. The hulking physiques of Dave Draper and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the powerful Franco Columbu, and the majestic Frank Zane were all regulars. Everything was made by Joe Gold in his workshop – dumbbells, benches, racks, and machines made by an actual weightlifter. He innovated and perfected many of the machines we use today, from cables to leg presses.
Joe sold his gym and name in 1970, and the Gold’s Gym brand grew tremendously in the hands of some very smart business people. Six years later, Joe Gold opened his second gym, World Gym, using that same hand-built equipment his original gym had been so famous for. Today, the Gold’s Gym franchise is called the “McDonalds of the Fitness Industry,” with over 700 locations. World Gym has almost 200 locations worldwide as well.
Claim to Fame: His Name Is Probably On Your Gym
#8. Jack Lalanne
Jack Lalanne is often called the “Godfather of Fitness” and for good reason. When he was just 21 years old, Lalanne opened his first fitness center – one of the very first of its kind in the United States. This was so early in the days of weightlifting that local doctors warned their patients to avoid Lalanne’s gym at all costs.
In 1953, in a time when many were still getting their entertainment from radio, Jack Lalanne was teaching people how to exercise on TV. The show started as a 15 minute local program, but later went nation-wide. The Jack Lalanne Show was broadcast for 34 years straight, which is crazy. His message from back then is still good today: eat clean, unprocessed food and lift weights. Jack Lalanne’s prime objective was to get as many people fit as possible. To do that, he invented many weightlifting machines for the weak and elderly, including what eventually became the Smith Machine.
Lalanne earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is also in the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame for his efforts in promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Claim to Fame: Godfather of Fitness, The Richard Simmons Who Lifts
#7. Ronnie Coleman
With 8-straight Olympia wins and 14 other titles, he is the most successful bodybuilder to have ever competed in the IFBB. At 5’11” and 300 lbs, he’s also one of the most muscular. His look – that massive, shredded, X-shaped, monster look, is still the benchmark of modern bodybuilding that current competitors are trying to top.
Whether or not Ronnie is still remembered in the future really depends on if he can hold his record. If someone in the future wins 8 or more Olympias, I think the set will have gone to failure for Big Ron.
Claim to Fame: Record 8-Time Mr Olympia, His Freakish Muscular Development
#6. The Cast of Pumping Iron
There probably isn’t any other work of media that’s done more to promote bodybuilding than the film Pumping Iron. Bodybuilding was already starting to become more popular in the ’60s and ’70s, but it really exploded in 1977, after Pumping Iron hit theaters.
Part of that success comes from how well made Pumping Iron is. It was billed as a documentary, but it really isn’t about the what or how and is more about the who and why. Because of that, you get a lot of humor and drama that non-lifters can appreciate. The cast of characters is extremely memorable, from Ken Waller and Mike Katz to that Sardinian strongman, Franco Columbu.
The film launched the Hollywood careers of its two lead actors and kick-started the weightlifting / exercise fads of the ’80s. It’s an important part of bodybuilding history that will still be watched for decades to come.
Claim to Fame: The Only Good Movie About Bodybuilding
Named “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” in 1922, Charles Atlas milked that title for all it was worth. And I say that with as much respect as I possibly can.
Growing up as a poor, Italian immigrant, Atlas was inspired by men like Eugen Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden – strong, muscular, and successful. He quickly built up a striking physique of his own, and published a mail-order exercise booklet that combined many of the techniques he had learned along the way. He called his exercise regimen “Dynamic Tension,” and he taught his students how to build themselves up without weights, instead using the force of their own bodies through isometrics.
Isometric training wasn’t anything new, but the way Atlas advertised it was. A short comic about a 98 lb weakling named Mac that Charles Atlas trains into a He-man so he can face his bullies was seen in the back of muscle magazines and comic books for decades. It’s been called one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time.
Claim to Fame: The OG Six-Pack Shortcuts
Arnold and Ferrigno are the names most people think of when they have to name bodybuilders who made it in film, but Steve Reeves is the man who paved the way for them. Reeves is the archetype of that classic “V-shape,” with wide shoulders, a thick back, and a small waist. He was successful as a bodybuilder, winning both the Mr America and Mr Universe titles, but it was his role as Hercules in the movies that brought him real fame.
In the late ’50s, Reeves was the highest paid actor in Europe and the highest box-office draw in more than 25 countries. The movies were generally of a low budget and they’re mostly B-movie stuff, but the audiences of the day ate it up. His heroic, muscular physique blew everyone away, even though he was asked to lose weight for his part as Hercules. He was also offered the role of James Bond in Dr No and The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the latter of which he turned down because, quote, “Italians can’t make westerns.” Had he taken those roles, he probably would have placed at least one spot higher on this list.
Claim to Fame: 1950’s Hercules Movies
The end of the ’70s was a great time for a bodybuilder looking to get into the film industry, especially if he’d starred in Pumping Iron. Having won the IFBB Mr America and Universe titles (and a little heartbroken over his Olympia loss), Ferrigno left his home in Brooklyn for California, hoping to find a change of business. What he got was the role of The Incredible Hulk, and he became a household name overnight. The show went on for five seasons.
If this were a list of the most famous bodybuilders of today, Lou Ferrigno would be at the number two spot, without a doubt. To an entire generation, the Hulk is Lou Ferrigno covered in green body paint. But how well will he be remembered a couple decades from now when all of the Disney/Marvel Avengers movies have established a new Hulk? Still plenty famous, obviously, but just shy of being famous enough to hold onto that #2 spot, I think.
Claim to Fame: The Hulk As Seen On TV
#2. Eugen Sandow
Definitely one of the most celebrated bodybuilders of all time, Eugen Sandow was a Prussian immigrant who made his fame by being ridiculously aesthetic. Circus strongmen were a dime a dozen in Sandow’s time, and though he was strong, his strength isn’t what he’s remembered for. What really amazed his crowds was his amazing muscular development.
Sandow studied classical sculpture to find the perfect proportions for the male physique. The result that he came up with was leaner and more defined than most of his contemporaries, setting the standard for bodybuilders well into the 20th century. He was a pop star and sex icon for the late-Victorian era, hosting world tours and bodybuilding contests, opening gyms and meeting kings. He was one of the first people ever filmed and has been immortalized as the figure atop the Mr Olympia trophy since 1967.
Claim to Fame: Father of Bodybuilding, The Mr Olympia Trophy
Though Sean Connery did compete in the NABBA Mr Universe contest and went on to become more famous than almost everyone in this post, I am leaving him out of the Top 10 Most Famous Bodybuilders list.
Sean Connery’s website states that he placed 3rd in the Mr Universe contest in 1950. This is, as far as I know, untrue. The year was 1953 and, in fact, he did not place at all. If the man can’t remember his own bodybuilding career, then why should we?
All joking aside, Connery’s actually too famous for this list. It would feel like cheating to put him on here. Still, he does deserve a shout out at the very least.
It’s hard to imagine what a bodybuilder would have to do to become more famous than Arnold. He has accomplished many of the things multiple other people on this list did, and then some. By the time he retired from bodybuilding at 28, he had won the NABBA Mr Universe three times and the IFBB Mr Olympia six, effectively dominating his sport from every side. Then he came out of retirement five years later just to win again.
He was a millionaire before even starting his acting career and by his third movie, he’d already won a Golden Globe. I don’t need to list all of the movies he’s starred in – you already know them.
In 2003, Arnold won the recall election for the position of Governor of California. He won his reelection three years later, as well. And if he had been born in America, I guarantee he’d have been President of the United States by now, too.
Even after all of that, Arnold is still a bodybuilder at heart. His Arnold Classic bodybuilding contest is now second only to the Mr Olympia in prestige, surpassing even the Mr Universe contest.
Claim to Fame: 7-Time Mr Olympia, 3-Time Mr Universe, 4-Time Terminator, 2-Time Governator, The Arnold Classic, etc.
Do you agree?
Is there anyone I missed or that you think is worthy of a spot? Let me know in the comments below.