They’re now so ubiquitous—all the powders and pills, the whey, the creatine, citrulline, and glutamine, the pre-, intra-, and post-workout concoctions. They fill shelves in supermarkets, drugstores, and club warehouses, and pages on Amazon.com; and then there’s all the stores and sites selling them and nothing else. Their ads are on ESPN and seemingly every other page of every dying fitness mag. You can divide the 20th century down the middle. During the first half there was no sports supplement industry to speak of, while over the second half it was essential to the business of bodybuilding and expanded further and further into the mainstream.

THE DARK AGES

In the beginning, there was just a balanced diet in three daily meals. Some weight-trainers downed pint after pint of milk daily as an easy way to consume calories with no particular focus on the protein. (Beer consumption was also emphasized; it was “liquid food.”) The father of bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow, was also the father of bodybuilding supplements, endorsing both Plasmon (powdered skim milk) and Bovril (beef extract) in England at the dawn of the 20th century. For a few years, starting in 1911 with the launch of a massive London factory, he had his own “supplement”: Sandow’s Health & Strength Cocoa, pure cocoa which he sold as a “tissue-building” drink because of its high percentage of “albumenoids” (protein).[1] Cocoa has only about a gram of protein per tablespoon. Right idea, wrong execution.

Beginning in 1936, Detroit pharmacist Eugene Schiff processed whey from milk, launched Schiff Bio-Foods, and sold his product to drug stores as a nutrient-rich health food—a half-century before whey became the standard protein powder for bodybuilding. Whey went away. Schiff Bio-Foods focused on “whole-food” supplements, like desiccated liver and brewer’s yeast (bodybuilding staples in the ‘50s and ‘60s). Meanwhile, muscle magazines were mostly ignoring supplements, when not disparaging them.

Writer/editor Dr. Fred Tilney advertised a variety of supps in Joe Weider’s Your Physique magazine in the mid-’40s, including “Food No. 8” (minerals), “Food No. 16” (vitamins), and goat milk capsules. Tilney’s busy page of products wasn’t targeted to people who exercised but instead was headlined: “Thrill THE ONE YOU LOVE!”[2] Ads appeared in IronMan in 1950 for a “supplemental food beverage” powder oddly named 44, which included kelp and wheat germ, but was mostly made up of protein-rich soy beans. Still, nobody was marketing protein.

HI-PROTEIN

Irvin Johnson in 1951

Born in 1921, Irvin Johnson grew up on a New Jersey farm. Sickly and frail after losing a kidney at age nine, he didn’t expect to see his 20th birthday. But when he took up bodybuilding and downed great quantities of milk, he transformed his physique and his health. Though a high school dropout, he read voraciously on nutrition.

In Chicago in 1948, he opened his own ultra-modern health studio, which included a kitchen—a laboratory of sorts, where he experimented with foods and eventually his own nutritional products, including a B complex vitamin and a protein supplement made with powdered soy beans.

IronMan June 1951

Correctly, he proposed that eating six, smaller, high-protein meals would be better for gaining lean weight than the standard three meals. Incorrectly, he thought great gains could be made via supplementation without intense training. His groundbreaking “Build Bigger Biceps Faster with Food Supplementation” appeared in the December 1950 IronMan. The magazine’s publisher, Peary Rader, was so impressed by the vanguard thinker that he featured, in the July 1951 issue, “The Irvin Johnson Story” and Johnson’s “The Miracle Food—Protein.” In that same issue, Rader enthused about protein: “Progress that you would have considered a miracle in the past will become commonplace in the future.”[3] IronMan began regularly touting such “miracles” in hyperbolic prose. Ads for Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food, the first bodybuilding protein powder, along with other Johnson supplements, began appearing in IronMan and Strength & Health then.

HI-PROTEEN

Bob Hoffman in the late ’50s

When Bob Hoffman, the Pennsylvania weightlifting mogul of York Barbell and Strength and Health magazine, wrote the book Better Nutrition for the Strength and Health Seeker, published in 1940, he nodded to protein for muscle growth, but, following accepted guidelines, recommended only .045 gram daily per pound of bodyweight (a scant 9 g. for a 200-lb. person)![4] So it’s no wonder he dismissed suggests in the late ’40s that he should jump into the food supplement business.

But after he witnessed the quick success of Johnson’s protein, he changed his tune, claiming in the September 1951 Strength & Health that soil-depletion was reason enough to enhance one’s diet with extra vitamins, minerals, and protein.[5] Not coincidentally, that issue advertised the York Vitamin-Mineral Food Supplement. Hoffman had done the math. His York barbells were virtually unperishable, limiting sales, and those sales were further reduced by gyms where members used the same equipment. But customers would purchase food products again and again.

Strength & Health Feb. 1952

In the February 1952 Strength & Health, Hoffman pulled a bait-and-switch, replacing the ad for Johnson’s Hi-Protein Food with one for Hoffman’s High-Protein Food, blatantly parroting not just the name but everything. His “new and improved bodybuilding food” was sold in the same four-pound packages in the same five flavors for the same $4 as Johnson’s ($40 in today’s dollars). A customer might conclude Hoffman had purchased the rights to Johnson’s product, but it wasn’t so.

Hoffman explained: “The production of a ‘miracle food,’ such as High-Protein, is not a hit-or-miss affair. A world famous food research laboratory is put to work. Their chemists and doctors, who are a part of their organization, work out the product.”[6] According to Strength & Health editor Jim Murray, that was a lie:

“The sight that met my eyes that day was Bob Hoffman standing over a fiber drum half full of finely ground soy flour, stirring the contents with a canoe paddle. Next to the drum was a container of Hershey’s chocolate with a scoop thrust in it. After stirring a while, Bob dipped his fingers into the soy flour and sweet chocolate and tasted it. With a grimace he exclaimed, ‘Nobody will buy that!’ And he shoveled more scoops of chocolate into the drum and resumed stirring.”[7]

Hoffman’s soy protein concoction sold fast. Only increasing brand confusion, he changed the name from High-Protein to the heterographic Hi-Proteen. Spelling be damned.

HI PROTEIN

Joe Weider in the early ’50s

There was, of course, another muscle mogul. Joe Weider would later claim to have been on the vanguard of protein supplementation, but in truth he was late to the party, and his product was a copycat of Hoffman’s copycat of Johnson’s. Presumably, however, it was not mixed with a canoe paddle. In a letter, Weider editor Charles A. Smith remembered the genesis:

“I had seen what Irvin Johnson—aka Rheo Blair—had done with [food supplementation] and how he advertised in Hoffman’s mag, how Hoffman had obtained reports about Johnson’s success, had blown Irvin off and gone into it himself. I suggested to Joe that he do likewise and was immediately opposed by Bart [Horvath] who opined it was a passing fad and wouldn’t last. I pressed my argument and Joe finally decided to give it a three months run. Net of the first month—NIL. Net of the second month—around 100 bucks. Bart meanwhile laughing his head off and saying, “I told you so.” Net of the third month—400 bucks. Net of the fourth month—two THOUSAND BUCKS, and from then on I was smiling, Joe enthused, and we NEVER DID LESS than six or seven thousand a month of which AT LEAST 75% was sheer profit.”[8] 

That first month was June 1952, and, enhancing the name confusion, Weider added a third homonym to the baffling mix with Hi Protein. Overnight, articles dismissing protein were banished from his muscle magazines. Instead, ads proclaimed, “To develop hard muscles EXTRA FAST, you must eat an abundance of high protein food every day. Only PROTEIN builds strong, healthy, TOUGH tissue, because it nourishes and energizes the muscle cells of the body.”[9] Muscle Power emphasized rapid growth and sported cover lines like “SKINNY…HERE IS HOW YOU CAN GAIN WEIGHT!” and “I GAINED 30 POUNDS OF MUSCLE IN 3 MONTHS!”

Hi Protein was available in powder and pill form, and a one-month supply of either was $3 ($30 today). The recommended three tablespoons of powder supplied 22 grams of soy protein. Ads had an official-looking “Recommended by Medical Doctors” seal, which, among other things, declared of the Hi Protein pills: “You can show them to your family doctor and if he does not agree that this supplement is all we claim, you can return it for a complete refund!”[10]

Muscle Power Jan. 1953

In short order, Weider, copying Hoffman, had five nutritional supplements. In addition to Hi Protein, there was: Weider Vitamin Mineral Supplement, Weider Energy Tablets (main ingredient: dextrose, i.e. sugar), Weider Reduce Aid Supplement, and Weider Weight Gaining Supplement. A painting of the falsely buff publisher appeared on every label, as did “Joseph Weider” and his new title: “Trainer of Champions.” Unlike a barbell or a mail-order course, supplements required no exertion. A customer merely needed to swallow. Thus, Weider sold them as if they were potions to magically make you big or thin or euphoric. The Weight Gaining Supplement came in tablet form and a “liquid elixir,” as if at a medicine show.[11] The Reduce Aid Supplement was advertised with before and after photos of a man who supposedly lost 50 pounds of flab and added a “muscular, healthy body this easy Weider way.”[12] And something as ordinary as a multi-vitamin/mineral could change your outlook on life: “EVERYONE gets more pep-energy, solid JOY OF LIVING, this handy, Medically Approved way.”[13] 

THE BATTLE

Meanwhile, in late 1952, the man who launched the modern sports supplement industry, Irvin Johnson, founded a digest-sized muscle magazine, Tomorrow’s Man, targeted to a gay readership and featuring his nutritional and low-intensity workout philosophies. In turn, the conservative Rader ended any association with Johnson and his products with an IronMan editorial condemning “the growing tendency towards sexual abnormalities within society.”[14] Rader also got in on the act, launching his Super Protein, which, like Hoffman’s and Weider’s, followed Johnson’s soy formula.

Everyone retreated to a separate corner. There were four supplement lines, each owned by a different publisher, and each was advertised only in that publisher’s magazine(s). Any potential competitors were shut out of the bodybuilding press. The biggest clash remained a duel between the two superpowers—Weider versus Hoffman—and had merely spread to a new battlefield. As with magazines, weights, courses, and contests, Hoffman sold supplements before Weider, but Weider was determined to overtake his better-established foe. His ads were bolder, his claims were greater, his prices were lower. Charles A. Smith said of Weider’s supplements: “That is what made Joe his money…Cost so little, and gives back so much percentage-wise of the cost.”[15]

The battle raged on. The articles preached protein, protein, protein, vitamins, weight-gainers, weight-losers, and still more protein. Potions to transform bodies. The orders flooded in, and the pills and powders shipped out. An entirely new industry—what would much later be called sports supplements—was born in 1951, and by the end of 1952 it was already essential to success in the muscle business.

Weider supplements in the ’60s.

POSTSCRIPT

In 1953, Hoffman’s rewritten Better Nutrition for the Strength and Health Seeker was republished as The High Protein Way to Better Nutrition. In it, Hoffman claimed his own Hi-Proteen was “the most nearly perfect food in the world today” and enthused: “Hidden behind other glamorous members of the food family, minerals and vitamins, for a time it was partially obscured, but now it is recognized that protein is the most necessary food element….The way to superior health, greater strength, and a fuller, happier life is to consume a high protein diet.”[16]

Irvin Johnson remained at the vanguard of sports nutrition until his death in 1983. A few years after moving to Los Angeles in the late ’50s, he changed his name to the more dynamic Rheo H. Blair. The visionary who created bodybuilding’s first protein powder, copied by Hoffman and then Weider and then Rader, shed soy and developed a superior milk-and-egg formula. Larry Scott, Dave Draper, Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were devotees, even as they appeared in page after page of Weider advertising, extolling Weider potions to everyone who wanted to magically look like them.


[1] “To-Day’s Inauguration of a Great Enterprise,” Daily Telegraph, Oct. 9, 1911.

[2] Advertisement, Dr. Frederick Tilney, Your Physique, Feb./March 1945, 37.

[3] Rader, Peary, “Body Culture Progress,” IronMan, July 1951, 5 & 45.

[4] Hall, T. Daniel and John Fair, “The Pioneers of Protein,” Iron Game History, May/June 2004, 24.

[5] Hoffman, Bob, “Editorial,” Strength & Health, Sept. 1951, 3.

[6] Hoffman, Bob, “Why You Need Plenty of Protein,” Strength & Health, March 1952, 37-38.

[7] Murray, Jim, “More Memories of Bob Hoffman,” Iron Game History, Jan. 1994, 6.

[8] Smith, Charles, letter to Joe Roark, Sept. 21, 1985, IronHistory.com, Oct. 3, 2002.

[9] Advertisement, “Weider Hi-Protein Muscle Building Supplement,” Your Physique, June 1952, 47-48.

[10] Advertisement, “Weider Hi-Protein Supplement,” Muscle Builder, Aug. 1953, 35.

[11] Ibid, 8.

[12] Ibid, 9.

[13] Ibid, 43.

[14] Rader, Peary, Editorial, IronMan, March 1953, 5.

[15] Smith, Charles, letter to Joe Roark, June 30, 1987, IronHistory.com, Dec. 1, 2005.

[16] Hoffman, Bob, The High Protein Way to Better Nutrition (York, 1953), 113, 87.