On January 16, 1904, the first large-scale bodybuilding competition in America took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The competition was promoted by Bernarr Macfadden, the father of physical culture and publisher of original bodybuilding magazines such as Health & Strength. The winner was Al Treloar, who was declared "The Most Perfectly Developed Man in the World".[5] Treloar won a $1,000 cash prize, a substantial sum at that time. Two weeks later, Thomas Edison made a film of Treloar's posing routine. Edison had also made two films of Sandow a few years before. Those were the first three motion pictures featuring a bodybuilder. In the early 20th century, Macfadden and Charles Atlas continued to promote bodybuilding across the world. Alois P. Swoboda was an early pioneer in America.

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.
In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders aspire to present an aesthetically pleasing body on stage.[16][17] In prejudging, competitors do a series of mandatory poses: the front lat spread, rear lat spread, front double biceps, back double biceps, side chest, side triceps, Most Muscular (men only), abdominals and thighs. Each competitor also performs a personal choreographed routine to display their physique. A posedown is usually held at the end of a posing round, while judges are finishing their scoring. Bodybuilders usually spend a lot of time practising their posing in front of mirrors or under the guidance of their coach.

The first U.S. Women's National Physique Championship, promoted by Henry McGhee and held in Canton, Ohio in 1978, is generally regarded as the first true female bodybuilding contest—that is, the first contest where the entrants were judged solely on muscularity.[13] In 1980, the first Ms. Olympia (initially known as the "Miss" Olympia), the most prestigious contest for professionals, was held. The first winner was Rachel McLish, who had also won the NPC's USA Championship earlier in the year. The contest was a major turning point for female bodybuilding. McLish inspired many future competitors to start training and competing. In 1985, a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. It documented the preparation of several women for the 1983 Caesars Palace World Cup Championship. Competitors prominently featured in the film were Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Carla Dunlap, Bev Francis, and McLish. At the time, Francis was actually a powerlifter, though she soon made a successful transition to bodybuilding, becoming one of the leading competitors of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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.

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