How Barbell Magnate Bob Hoffman Transformed American Fitness

It’s a life worthy of a movie. A former World War I veteran returns to the United States, discovers weightlifting, and, in time, dedicates himself to it. Not content with competing, the man built his own equipment, published his own magazines, and sold supplements. An empire was built, one which changed the face of his industry. 

Not content with money, our unnamed figure began coaching athletes, brought the United States to the Olympic Games, helped them win gold medals, and became a force in world sport. His successes grew, even as the United States came across a new enemy, the Soviet Union. Embroiled in a Cold War rivalry, he used all possible means to win, everything from anabolic steroids to hypnosis. 

By this time, he was increasingly disillusioned. The America he once loved had changed. His athletes no longer hung on his every word. — he was under-appreciated. He slipped away from his sport but left a company that operates to this day. It’s a story of success and failure, of love and loss, and of Cold War politics. It is the story of Bob Hoffman

[Related: The untold history of the barbell]

Hoffman helped revolutionize American fitness. His York Barbell Company helped popularize strength training, his time with the American Olympic weightlifting team resulted in multiple gold medals and his theories on fitness influence us today. That withstanding, Hoffman’s biography, and indeed his legacy, is criminally under-appreciated in the modern fitness industry. 

Today’s article seeks, in part, to rectify the inattention shown to Hoffman. Beginning with a biography, we are going to detail his role in developing American fitness, weightlifting, and nutrition. Hoffman once wrote simple interest that became a life’s passion:

I am a weight lifter. I like weightlifting and weightlifters.

Early Life

I have to give credit to Dr. John Fair, whose wonderful Hoffman biography, Muscletown, uncovered a great deal of unknown stories from Hoffman’s life. (1) During his research, Dr. Fair went through hundreds of papers from Hoffman’s life, read magazines, interviewed confidants, and managed to draw everything together in an entertaining narrative. Like Dr. Fair, I share the belief that Hoffman was: (2)

A great man — chiefly because of his capacity to promote an ideology of success.

Where did this belief come from? All indicators point to Bob’s childhood. Born in Tifton, Georgia in 1898 to Bertha and Addison Hoffman, Bob’s formative years were spent in the pursuit of athleticism. Inspired by, and seeking to mimic his father — who was known for his physical prowess — Hoffman took to a series of different pursuits. 

Enjoying varying levels of success, Hoffman’s fondness for sport and strength was clear. This did not mean, however, that Hoffman’s childhood was one free from illness. When he was four years old, Hoffman contracted typhoid fever after he drank contaminated water. Despite his young age, the fever, which Hoffman claimed nearly killed him, had a profound impact on his life. (3)

From then on, Hoffman appeared to have an almost obsessive zeal for physical fitness. This often resulted in exaggerated claims about his strength and fitness but, more practically, it meant that his was a life now defined by exercise. This came at a time when American society, more generally, was coming alive to the possibilities offered by competitive sport and rudimentary gym cultures. (4

Not everyone agreed with Hoffman’s efforts, as evidenced by criticisms that he built ‘manufactured bumps’ on his body when he trained, but his persistence clearly distinguished him from his peers. (5) This explains why, in 1917, the athletic Hoffman joined the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 18th Infantry Regiment as part of America’s involvement in the Great War, 1914-1918.

Deployed in France in May 1918, Hoffman was celebrated for his bravery in battle. During his short time in Europe — Hoffman was honorably discharged in August 1919 — Hoffman was awarded the Belgian Order of Leopold, the French Croix de Guerre, and a silver star. Later in his career, Hoffman’s rivals cast aspersions on Hoffman’s wartime record but, as John Fair noted, his time in Europe was beyond reproach. (6)

Return to America

What happened to soldiers when they return from battle? This was the situation facing Hoffman when he returned home from Europe. He was a young man, perhaps aged by his experiences, but nevertheless had a great deal of opportunities available to him.

His first job back in the United States was in a steel mill where Hoffman divided his time between boxing for the company team and working in sales. Somewhat discontent with sales — Hoffman spent several months developing the nerve and banter required to succeed — he moved on to real estate and a series of other jobs to make due.

On the advice of his brother Chuck, Hoffman moved to York, Pennsylvania where he worked with cars before entering the oil burner business with his brother. Initially unsuccessful, Hoffman was undeterred, and soon after opened another oil burning company with the son of a local plumber Ed Kraber. This would be the beginning of Hoffman’s riches. (7)

Concurrent with his oil burner business, which became a great source of income, Hoffman’s interest in weightlifting grew. In 1923, Hoffman bought a barbell set from the Milo Barbell Company which he placed in the local York YMCA Club.

Trained by the local physical instructor, Hoffman increased his bodyweight from a svelte 177lb to a physique topping 240lb. As his weight rose, so too did his strength. It was during this time that Hoffman won several local meets, even winning a York’s Strongest Man competition in the late 1920s. (8) His growing involvement in the sport explains why, in the early 1930s, Hoffman made a decision which changed American fitness.

The Birth of York Barbell

In 1929, Hoffman started producing rudimentary barbells from York. At that time, barbell manufacturing in the United States was a rather low key affair. The key producer was Alan Calvert, whose Milo Barbells had been sold since the early 1900s. Hoffman’s ultimate goal was to surpass Milo and establish himself as a figurehead in American weightlifting. (9)

The process of manufacturing barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells is not particularly simple. Indeed the current spate of home gym purchases speaks to the time and care that goes into making a barbell. Where manufacturers today can rely on tried and tested methods, those in the 1930s were still figuring things out.

This explains why it took Hoffman roughly three years to establish himself as a low grade barbell manufacturer. The quality of his products was good, but the quantity was small. Illustrative of this was a company record of 22 barbells sold in one week in 1933. By the end of the decade, York was selling hundreds. (10) What then, made York so special? Two things: quality and brand loyalty.

Dominic Morais wrote a wonderful dissertation on this very topic in 2015. Surveying Hoffman’s enterprises from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, Morais stressed the importance of Hoffman’s image and personality for his customers.

In 1932, Hoffman published Strength and Health magazine, a weightlifting magazine which became the most influential weightlifting magazine in the United States. In a time before the internet, Strength and Health was a place where readers could get information on new training programs, on upcoming contests and emerging athletes.

Between his barbells and magazine, Hoffman helped create a “brand community”. Defined by Morais as a group who “think of themselves as distinct in some way from society”, brand communities ensure long lasting and engaged customer bases. (11)

Think of brand communities in 2020. I, like many of you, enjoy reading BarBend’s content over other websites. Shameful plugging aside, we all know lifters who only buy CrossFit® clothing or lifters who only use Rogue barbells. I know a bodybuilder who lives almost exclusively on one company’s whey protein shakes in the build up to contests. 

Put simply, brand communities arise when groups begin to buy, read, or enjoy one company’s products over another. For Hoffman, this proved profitable. From the 1930s until his relative disappearance from public life in the 1970s due to old age, York Barbell’s customers bought Hoffman’s books, his weightlifting equipment, read his magazines, and used his supplements.

To give you an indication of how much money Hoffman made during the 1930s and 1940s, the man didn’t cash many of his checks. He was so wealthy that he simply left them lying around or gave them to colleagues. When John Fair began researching Hoffman’s records, he found dozens and dozens of old uncashed checks scrunched into York Barbell boxes. If the lifting industry had a 1%, Hoffman was it. (12)

American Weightlifting

By the end of the 1930s, Hoffman was rich but, as stories of uncashed checks suggest, not particularly driven by money. Far more important was influence. From the early 1930s, Hoffman positioned himself as a figurehead in American weightlifting.

This began first with the American Athletic Union (AAU), under whom Hoffman headed the group’s weightlifting division and America’s Olympic weightlifting team. Hoffman’s motivations for doing so appear to have been a strange mixture of egotism and old-fashioned patriotism. 

In 1932, the Olympic games were held in Los Angeles and, to Hoffman’s horror, the United States failed to win a gold medal in weightlifting. They failed to win a silver medal. A single, paltry, bronze was all the US could muster. Hoffman was furious.

In the immediate aftermath, Hoffman published several scathing reviews in Strength and Health attacking those involved in American weightlifting. He also set about to create his own weightlifting “dream team”. (13) Thus, from the mid-1930s, Hoffman brought weightlifters from around the United States to train at his York barbell facility.

Done at a time when only amateur athletes could compete at the Olympics, Hoffman hired these men as workers and offered them the chance to train with other renowned weightlifters. It wasn’t “shamateurism” per say — that is the practice of paying amateur athletes while maintaining they aren’t being paid — but it was operating in a grey zone.

That withstanding, it was clear that Hoffman envisioned a golden future for American weightlifting. At the 1936 Olympics, the United States won a gold medal in weightlifting thanks to Anthony Terlazzo. Was Hoffman happy? Yes, and no. Delighted that a York weightlifter won a medal, Hoffman was furious with the rest of the team’s performance. Such was his anger that he physically attacked the American coach Mark Berry on the bus home from the Games. (14)

Hoffman’s attack on Berry was not his finest hour. Berry resigned soon after and few doubted that Hoffman would take up the mantle. Unfortunately, War got in the way. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 led to the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 games. 

When peace was restored in 1945, and the War ended, an Olympic Games was scheduled for 1948. This would be Hoffman’s first Olympics as the American coach and he was repaid with four gold medals, three silver medals and one bronze medal. This marked, in John Fair’s words, the ‘golden age’ of American weightlifting. (15

Boasting one of the most dominant groups of athletes in weightlifting history, Hoffman’s American teams of the 1950s included greats like Tommy Kono, John Davies, and Norb Schemansky among others. Under Hoffman’s watchful eye these men swept the board at Olympic and World weightlifting events. 

How dominant were they? From 1948 to 1960, the United States won 27 Olympic medals and over 40 medals at the World Weightlifting Championships. Predominantly featuring York weightlifters, America’s team became synonymous with Bob Hoffman and his company. 

His influence was reflected in the loyalty shown to him by this generation of lifters. Working in his company, writing for his magazines, and training under his eye, many considered Hoffman to be a father figure in every sense of the word.

America’s weightlifting performances at the Olympics have become rather paltry since 1964. Two factors are at play, one of which related to Hoffman himself.

At the 1964 Olympics, it became clear that Hoffman’s great generation had come to the end of their competitive life cycle. Kono missed the Games through injury, Norbert Schemansky struggled to a bronze medal in the heavyweight division, and the American team in general was a mix of aging stars and inexperienced recruits.

Hoffman himself sensed a changing tide. Fair’s writing on the York barbell man made clear that many of the Olympic weightlifters to the American team in the 1960s resented Hoffman’s paternalistic attitude and restrictive rules. Living at a time when questioning authority was increasingly popular, the age barrier prevented a meaningful relationship between Hoffman and younger lifters. This likely explains, in part, why the 1964 Olympics were Hoffman’s last as coach. (16)

Just as problematic was the rise of the Soviet Union and other communist states in Olympic weightlifting. Absent from the 1948 Olympics, the USSR competed at the 1952 Games. Although winning seven medals in total in weightlifting, the Soviets finished with three gold medals to the Americans’ four. This situation was repeated at the 1956 Games. 

It was at the 1960 Olympic Games that the USSR overturned the United States, winning five gold medals to one. Hoffman was worried. The Soviets now boasted better training facilities, were experimenting with anabolic steroids, and seemed much more focused on weightlifting than the Americans. In 1964, Hoffman’s last Olympics as US coach, saw the Soviets win four gold and three silver medals. The US, on the other hand, managed one silver and one bronze. (17)

It wasn’t a defeat, but an annihilation in the eyes of Hoffman. He had built his career, and indeed his life, around American weightlifting. Its successes were his successes and its failures were his failures. Soon after the Games, Hoffman resigned his position. He remained a key figure in weightlifting thanks to York Barbell but he drifted from the sport. Prior to his death in 1985, Hoffman was more involved in promoting softball than weightlifting. (18)

Despite his love of the Iron Game, Hoffman’s final years in weightlifting were marked by disillusionment with the sport’s direction. It was, in many senses, a sad ending. Not only was he phased out of American weightlifting, many of his business partners took advantage of his kind nature and poor bookkeeping practices. (19

Thus far we’ve examined Hoffman’s life. To do Hoffman justice however, it’s best to look at three definitive ways he helped shape the fitness industry today.

Popularized and Normalized Weightlifting 

Weightlifting equipment existed prior to Hoffman and indeed, sold quite well among pockets of weightlifters and rudimentary bodybuilders. What Hoffman did, more than anyone else in the twentieth-century, was make weightlifting far more accessible activity.

Through fifty years of York Barbell, Hoffman oversaw the sale of millions of pieces of workout equipment. This helped shape the direction of the fitness industry, especially during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

A wonderful book by Professors Jan and Terry Todd and Jason Shurley recently highlighted Hoffman’s role in selling weightlifting equipment during and after the War. (20) Hoffman sold equipment to military barracks so that men could train their bodies for war and, importantly, published magazines on weightlifting throughout the conflict. This helped indoctrinate an entire generation of men into the practice of lifting weights. In other words, it helped normalize it.

When men returned from the War, many wanted to continue the practice. The passing of a G.I. Bill in 1944 meant that veterans returning home were given tuition for colleges, low interest mortgages, and a small, but livable, stipend. Many of the young men who benefited from this scheme spent money purchasing a York barbell set or on a gym membership. (21)

Hoffman capitalized on this development by explicitly targeting veterans in advertising. He went one better during the 1950s, when he began reaching out to colleges and professional teams about using weight training for athletes. His success in doing so was not always high, but he enjoyed enough victories to make a difference. (22

Hoffman was not the only individual operating in this space, the Weiders being one obvious example, but he was a leading figurehead. Returning to Dominic Morais’ work, he found that thousands of American men and women saw Hoffman as a figurehead for weightlifters. (23) Hoffman helped spread the practice of lifting weights and, more importantly, normalized it for the average person looking to keep fit.

Celebrated Women’s Weightlifting

At the same time he targeted veterans and athletes, Hoffman played a vital role in promoting rudimentary forms of women’s weightlifting. Hoffman’s magazines were among the first to feature images of women engaged in Olympic weightlifting.

Prior to Hoffman, women’s physical culture tended to revolve around dumbbell work, calisthenics, and occasional light barbell work. It was, for want of a better phrase, rather underwhelming. (24

This began to change in the 1930s, but certainly in the 1940s when Strength and Health magazine featured small pieces on women’s weightlifting. Admittedly, many of the early instances of this came in the form of Hoffman’s girlfriends lifting fake weights, but change did come. (25)

During the 1940s, Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine gave American weightlifter Pudgy Stockton her own column on women’s weightlifting. Entitled ‘Barbelles’, Stockton’s articles helped galvanize and encourage women’s weightlifting at a time when the practice was still largely ignored. (26)

Through the column, Stockton published images of other weightlifters, organized weightlifting contests, published results, and provided advice. Done in one of the most popular fitness magazines of its time, the importance of ‘Barbelles’ cannot be overstated.

It introduced the idea to men and women that women’s weightlifting should not only be allowed, but encouraged. Furthermore, it supported women who wanted to get stronger and lift heavier weights. This was almost unheard of in mid-century America. As a quick insight into Pudgy’s importance for women gym goers, she served as inspiration for Jan Todd and Lisa Lyons who helped further the cause of women’s powerlifting and bodybuilding during the 1960s and 1970s. (27

Todd and Lyons served as inspiration for those lifts and bodybuilders of the 1980s and 1990s who, in turn, influenced the stars of today. It is possible therefore to draw a direct lineage between the strong women, cross fitters, bodybuilders and powerlifters of today back to Pudgy. Hoffman’s magazine served as her platform. 

Sold Supplements

Hoffman, as John Fair and Daniel T. Hall found, was a ‘pioneer of protein’ in every sense of the word. (28) From the 1950s onward, Hoffman sold a variety of protein powders, bars, fudges, and a host of other supplements to his readership.

Some of these products — like a short lived fish protein — were greeted with bemusement and disgust. Far more, however, proved incredibly popular. Part of this success came down to Hoffman’s unbelievable claims. At one point, Hoffman told customers that his high protein fudges and bars would build 10 to 20 pounds of muscle in a short period of time.

This, incidentally, explains why Hoffman got into so many disputes with the FDA in the United States concerning the validity of his marketing claims. That withstanding, Hoffman’s aggressive marketing meant that weight lifters purchased supplements in previously unheard of numbers.

It was Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine which first featured Rheo H. Blair’s protein powders. Blair became a darling of the bodybuilding world thanks to his protein powders. Hoffman mimicked Blair’s product and marketing before setting out a new course using bars, powders, pills. and fudges. 

Given that Hoffman did this at a time when York Barbell reigned supreme and Hoffman was coach of the United States, it is easy to see why people bought Hoffman’s supplements. Along with individuals like the Weiders, Hoffman helped kickstart our modern obsession with supplements. 

Conclusion

Hoffman was a complex, and at times unpleasant, individual. He did not suffer fools lightly and was defined by his driven nature. He was a man who revolutionized American weightlifting, loyally helped friends, popularized lifting weights, and supported women’s weightlifting. He was human, with the flaws and benefits that brings.

From his early twenties, Hoffman’s life was one defined by strength and the attainment of strength. His legacy survives not only in the continued presence of York Barbell, but the lifting of weights in every commercial and home gym across the United States. That, perhaps, is enough for a man known as the “Father of World Weightlifting”.

References

  1. John D. Fair,  Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell. Penn State Press, 1999.
  2. Ibid., 2. 
  3. Ibid., 3. 
  4. Dyreson, Mark. “The emergence of consumer culture and the transformation of physical culture: American sport in the 1920s.” Journal of Sport History 16.3 (1989): 261-281.
  5. Fair,  Muscletown, 16. 
  6. Ibid., 16. 
  7. Ibid., 21. 
  8. Ibid., 32.
  9. Todd, Jan. “From milo to milo: A history of barbells, dumbells, and Indian clubs.” Iron Game History 3.6 (1995): 4-16.
  10. Fair,  Muscletown, 40.
  11. Morais, Dominic Gray. Strength in numbers:” Strength & Health” brand community from 1932-1964. Diss. 2015.
  12. Fair,  Muscletown, 173.
  13. Fair, John D. “Bob Hoffman, the York Barbell Company, and the golden age of American weightlifting, 1945-1960.” Journal of Sport history 14.2 (1987): 164-188.
  14. Fair,  Muscletown, 56. 
  15. Fair, “Bob Hoffman, the York Barbell Company
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Fair,  Muscletown, 284.
  19. Ibid., 385. 
  20. Shurley, Jason P., Jan Todd, and Terry Todd. Strength Coaching In America: A History of the Innovation That Transformed Sports. University of Texas Press, 2019, 56
  21. Ibid., 97.
  22. Fair,  Muscletown, 107.
  23. Morais,. Strength in numbers
  24. Todd, Jan. “The origins of weight training for female athletes in North America.” Iron Game History 2 (1992): 4-14.
  25. Fair,  Muscletown, 84. 
  26. McCracken, Elizabeth, “Pudgy Stockton: The Belle of the Barbell.” Iron Game History 10, no. 1 (2007): 2-3.
  27. Todd, Jan. “The Legacy of Pudgy Stockton.” Iron Game History, 2, no. 1 (1992): 5-7.
  28. Hall, Daniel T.  and Fair, John D. , ‘The Pioneers of Protein’, Iron Game History, May/June (2004): 23-34

Feature image via York Fitness Australia’s Instagram page: @yorkfitnessaust

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