Muscle Sport Magazine

What Makes Some Physiques Classic?

Courtesy of Frank Zane

By Bill Dobbins – Definition of classic: Serving as a standard of excellence: of recognized value

of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans or their culture.


One definition of culture is “that which gets passed on.” And something that has gotten passed on for thousands of years is the ideal athletic male physique as invented by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Yes, “invented” because a common opinion is that Greek sculptors had as their models a whole class of professional athletes who had nothing to do in life but train for sports competition. So, they were the first group in history to have the leisure and resources to become serious “bodybuilders.”


The artists of the time had a brand new kind of body to work with.


These athletes were training for sports performance but one result was the achievement of outstanding aesthetics – muscle size, muscularity, symmetry, shape and definition. This kind of male body became a standard that has persisted through thousands of years and is still with us today. Knowledge of exercise and diet has evolved so the physiques we see today have tended to be more extreme, bigger and more muscular, but the underlying appreciation for the aesthetic male physique remains.



But the problem with “cultural norms” is that they can be left behind when the culture itself evolves and changes too rapidly. We’ve seen that happen with issue like race, feminism, and sex – and with bodybuilding, as well. When modern bodybuilding began in the 1930s and 1940s, bodybuilders were more simply more developed versions of Greek statues – and prototypical muscle men like Eugen Sandow (model for the Mr. Olympia trophy). Steve Reeves walking down the beach in Santa Monica in 1949 looked so amazing he drew crowds. He was arguably the most beautiful man on the planet – face and body. But his development was right in line with the tradition of aesthetic muscular males dating back to the Greeks.


The fact that we went on to star as Hercules and make other movies is proof that his body – while extreme – still fit into a tradition acceptable to the public.


Fast-forward to the 1980s and we see a trend toward a more extreme degree of development. Frank Zane and Franco Columbu won Mr. Olympia titles, both at under 200 pounds. But then everything changed. The era of the “big men” arrived with Lee Haney and Dorian Yates. These champions set new standards in terms of muscle size and density – and this was the point in which bodybuilding history was about to change radically. The development of the pro bodybuilding physique was ready to take a quantum leap… and his name was Ronnie Coleman.


Coleman, early in his career, still had a physique with a lot of the classic aesthetics but he was really big – and kept betting BIGGER!  He was more than 240 pounds at the beginning, then grew to more than 250 and then continued to gain mass that approached 300 pounds. “The King” won his first Mr. Olympia championship in 1998, but by the time he won the title in 2004, he and his competition were all getting increasingly huge. One commentator wrote that Coleman and many other “modern” bodybuilders no longer looked like they belonged to the same species as the rest of us!



The bodybuilding audience loves size so this level of development of the top pros was applauded. But one problem with this is that bodybuilding – and bodybuilding magazines –  have always presented top champions as inspirational role models. Sure, you might not have the genetics of a Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but with hard and consistent work, you could aspire to be as much like them as possible. Their achievements were out of reach, but not THAT FAR out of reach. You could look at them and be motivated.


But can that be said of Phil Heath or Big Ramy? Can changing our arm training routine really give you 23-inch biceps? Is there a way most bodybuilders can become 280 pounds ripped? This situation is reminiscent of sports car racing. In the 1950s and 1960s, you could buy a Ferrari, Jaguar or Maserati from the company, make some modifications and take it out racing with some possibility of success. Nowadays, it takes millions of dollars to field a racing team, which is far beyond the means of most.


Everything nowadays, in this age of rapid change, has become more complex, technological and expensive. Achieving elite status is more and more becoming out of reach. And this is true of bodybuilding along with everything else.


With the potential loss of interest from the audience, one strategy from the IFBB has been to introduce a competitive class called “classic physique.”  This category is intended for competitors with less muscle mass for their height, putting the emphasis on aesthetic qualities like shape, symmetry and definition. One advantage of this class is that a lot more bodybuilders can expect to become competitive, compared to the kind of physique that is winning in pro contests. The disadvantage is that this introduces a lot more subjectivity into the judging process. And, in fact, classic physique does not actually qualify as a sport.



It is hard to define exactly what makes a sport, but there are certain elements that have to be present. One is the idea of the extreme. A sport has to be based on the most extreme performance possible from athletes. It also has to be progressive – that is performances from later periods have to be superior to those that came before. Sports can be based on form rather than objective measurement (gymnastics compared to track), but the principles are the same.


The problem with classic physique as opposed to bodybuilding as we’ve known it is that it, by definition, rules out the extreme. Competitors are not allowed to work toward achieving the ultimate in development if they expect any success. Instead, they are evaluated by relatively arbitrary and subjective standards. The aesthetics involved are defined by a set of rules, which can be changed at any time by the officials involved.


There is a name for this kind of competition. It is called a “beauty contest.”


In fact, there is only one kind of muscle competition that can actually claim to be a sport (although some will still disagree). And that kind of competition is called BODYBUILDING. Anything else – including classic bodybuilding, physique, fitness or figure – are just some kind of specialized beauty contest for athletic competitors who may work very hard getting ready for a contest.


Of course, competing in contests is just one small part of being a serious bodybuilder. On stage, there is a set of criteria that are very specific and have evolved over a long period of time. When bodybuilding judges are scoring competitors, they are not supposed to put too much emphasis on what kind of physique they personally prefer – although that will always be a factor.


But once off stage, all that counts is what appeals to the individual observer, and comparisons are not necessary. You don’t have to decide who is “better” – Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, Serge Nubret, Shawn Ray or any other great bodybuilder. They are all special and unique and worthy of your appreciation.


But, of course, classic physique DOES take place on stage and the judges to have to evaluate the relative merits of the competitors. Since this class does not allow for extreme or maximum development and the physiques involved are limited by both intention and genetics, it can’t be classified as a sport and therefore objective assessments are not really possible. Also, the stage is going to include bodybuilders who simply aren’t good enough to compete in regular competition or those who have not been successful in bodybuilding contests or – as is happening – those who are older and can no longer maintain the kind of size and hardness that allowed them to be successful in the past.


But as long as there are competitors who want to enter this kind of event and audiences who enjoy watching these contests there is no reason not to hold them. As with men’s physique, although there is no attempt at achieving the ultimate involved, you do see some marvelous looked human beings, many of whom have achieved an aesthetic quality that puts them among the top faction of percentage of all men of all time. They certainly deserve to be appreciated for their outstanding qualities.


Definition of Beauty Contest

A competition in which the entrants are judged as to

Physical beauty and sometimes personality and talent, with the winners awarded prizes or titles.


Just be sure to remember when watching classic physique, fitness, figure, physique or fit bikini, what you are looking at is not a sport, per se, but instead a very specialized and demanding type of beauty contest.


Be sure to visit Bill Dobbins’s official website,

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