Published: April/May 2009High Performance: Bernarr Macfadden

Lessons of the Lost Guru

Forgo the latest health fads for these back-to-basics rules from America’s first man of fitness.

Text by Mark Adams
Illustration by David Plunkert

Bernarr Macfadden may have known as much about fine-tuning the human machine as any person who ever lived. The brawny brain behind a fitness system he called Physcultopathy, Macfadden was a self-taught wellness entrepreneur and America’s founding father of bodybuilding. (Time magazine dubbed him "Body Love" Macfadden, and Charles Atlas was just one of his discoveries.) Starting more than a hundred years ago, he gathered data from tens of thousands of clients, which he used to compile his 3,000-page Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, a reference work that offered natural remedies for every malady from kleptomania to cancer. His magazine Physical Culture dispensed advice on all subjects health related and sold more than 50 million copies between the World Wars. Crack any diet or exercise book today, from the Skinny Bitch series to Body for Life, and you’ll find ideas Macfadden first popularized.

In the course of writing a biography of Macfadden, I became fascinated by Physcultopathy and its driving principle that almost anyone could radically change his or her health virtually overnight using methods that would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks. His motto was "Weakness is a crime—don’t be a criminal!" A century before Oprah suffered her first diet relapse, Macfadden devoted his life to convincing his sedentary countrymen that strength and health weren’t inalienable rights; they were duties to be upheld by every man, woman, and child. Ideally, no one would ever visit a doctor or need a cup of coffee to feel ready to grab life by the lapels. In the pages of Physical Culture, bedridden asthmatics swore off meat to become cross-country runners, and stick-armed men sprouted bulging biceps by drinking nothing but milk.

As someone who’s covered the fitness industry for more than a decade and has a basement filled with gear once considered cutting-edge and essential—does anyone still repair StairMasters?—I was curious about the efficacy of Macfadden’s extreme back-to-basics techniques. In the spirit of Dr. Jekyll, I decided to try three on myself: a three-day water fast followed by cutting my daily caloric intake in half; a raw food diet; and a high-mileage walking regimen. I expected to lose weight. As it turned out, I also gained a whole new perspective on fitness.

Next: Experiment No. 1: Running on Empty

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  • I very much enjoyed reading your book and want to try the regimens you outline in the appendix. Can …
  • Questions to Mark Adams: Which book or articles did you follow under MacFadden's writing for your ow…
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