Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901, called the "Great Competition". It was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Judged by Sandow, Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the contest was a great success and many bodybuilding enthusiasts were turned away due to the overwhelming amount of audience members.[4] The trophy presented to the winner was a gold statue of Sandow sculpted by Frederick Pomeroy. The winner was William L. Murray of Nottingham. The silver Sandow trophy was presented to second-place winner D. Cooper. The bronze Sandow trophy — now the most famous of all — was presented to third-place winner A.C. Smythe. In 1950, this same bronze trophy was presented to Steve Reeves for winning the inaugural NABBA Mr. Universe contest. It would not resurface again until 1977 when the winner of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest, Frank Zane, was presented with a replica of the bronze trophy. Since then, Mr. Olympia winners have been consistently awarded a replica of the bronze Sandow.
The winner of the annual IFBB Mr. Olympia contest is generally recognized as the world's top male professional bodybuilder. Since 1950, the NABBA Universe Championships have been considered the top amateur bodybuilding contests, with notable winners such as Reg Park, Lee Priest, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Winners generally go on to become professional athletes.
Many other important bodybuilders in the early history of bodybuilding prior to 1930 include: Earle Liederman (writer of some of bodybuilding's earliest books), Zishe Breitbart, Georg Hackenschmidt, Emy Nkemena, George F. Jowett, Finn Hateral (a pioneer in the art of posing), Frank Saldo, Monte Saldo, William Bankier, Launceston Elliot, Sig Klein, Sgt. Alfred Moss, Joe Nordquist, Lionel Strongfort ("Strongfortism"),[6] Gustav Frištenský, Ralph Parcaut (a champion wrestler who also authored an early book on "physical culture"), and Alan P. Mead (who became an impressive muscle champion despite the fact that he lost a leg in World War I). Actor Francis X. Bushman, who was a disciple of Sandow, started his career as a bodybuilder and sculptor's model before beginning his famous silent movie career.
In the last week leading up to a contest, bodybuilders usually decrease their consumption of water, sodium, and carbohydrates, the former two to alter how water is retained by the body and the latter to reduce glycogen in the muscle. The day before the show, water is removed from the diet, and diuretics may be introduced, while carbohydrate loading is undertaken to increase the size of the muscles through replenishment of their glycogen. The goal is to maximize leanness and increase the visibility of veins, or "vascularity". The muscular definition and vascularity are further enhanced immediately before appearing on stage by darkening the skin through tanning products and applying oils to the skin to increase shine. Some competitors will eat sugar-rich foods to increase the visibility of their veins. A final step, called "pumping", consists in performing exercises with light weights or other kinds of low resistance (for instance two athletes can "pump" each other by holding a towel and pulling in turn), just before the contest, to fill the muscles with blood and further increase their size and density.

Site enhancement oil, often called "santol" or "synthol" (no relation to the Synthol mouthwash brand), refers to oils injected into muscles to increase the size or change the shape. Some bodybuilders, particularly at the professional level, inject their muscles with such mixtures to mimic the appearance of developed muscle where it may otherwise be disproportionate or lacking.[55] This is known as "fluffing".[56][57] Synthol is 85% oil, 7.5% lidocaine, and 7.5% alcohol.[56] It is not restricted, and many brands are available on the Internet.[58] The use of injected oil to enhance muscle appearance is common among bodybuilders,[59][60] despite the fact that synthol can cause pulmonary embolisms, nerve damage, infections, sclerosing lipogranuloma,[61] stroke,[56] and the formation of oil-filled granulomas, cysts or ulcers in the muscle.[60][62][63] Rare cases might require surgical intervention to avoid further damage to the muscle and/or to prevent loss of life.[64]

Sandow was so successful at flexing and posing his physique that he later created several businesses around his fame, and was among the first to market products branded with his name. He was credited with inventing and selling the first exercise equipment for the masses: machined dumbbells, spring pulleys, and tension bands. Even his image was sold by the thousands in "cabinet cards" and other prints. Sandow was a perfect "Gracilian", a standard of ideal body proportions close to those of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Men's physiques were then judged by how closely they matched these proportions.
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