• Written by Conor Heffernan, Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

The cultural obsession with six-pack abdominals shows no signs of abating. And if research into male body image[1] is to be believed, it will likely only grow, thanks to social media.

Today, there’s an entire industry centered on obtaining – and maintaining – chiseled abs. They’re the subject of books[2] and social media posts, while every action movie star[3] seems to sport them. Pressure is also mounting on women[4] to sport six-pack abs as body ideals for athletic women have evolved.

All of this raises the question, when did the six-pack craze start?

It may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, a byproduct of the fitness culture boom[5] in the 1970s and 1980s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger[6] and Rambo[7] reigned, and men’s muscle mags and aerobics[8] took off.

History proves otherwise. In fact, Western culture’s fascination with chiseled abdominals can be traced to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the ideal male body image in the West started to shift.

Greeks inspire envy

While I was researching Irish health and body cultures[9], I became fascinated with changing male body ideals.

French historian George Vigarello[10] has written about how the ideal male figure and male silhouette shifted in Western society. British and American cultures in the 17th, 18th and, to a certain degree, the 19th centuries valued large or rotund male bodies. The reasons for this were relatively straightforward: Rich men could afford to eat more, and a larger frame was indicative of success.

It was only during the early 19th century that lean and muscular physiques began to be highly coveted. In the space of a few decades, plump bodies came to be seen as slovenly, while lean, athletic or muscular builds were associated with success, self-discipline and even piety[11].

Part of this transformation stemmed from a renewed European interest in ancient Greece[12]. Kinesiologist Jan Todd[13] and others[14] have written about the impact that ancient Greek imagery and statuary had on body images. In much the same way that social media has distorted body image[15], artifacts like the Elgin Marbles[16] – a group of sculptures brought to England in the early 1800s whose male figures sport lean and muscular physiques – helped spur interest in male muscularity.

When men started to obsess over six-packs A piece of the Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum in London. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA[17][18]

This interest in muscularity deepened as the century progressed. In 1851, a grand commercial and cultural celebration known as the “Great Exhibition[19]” was hosted in London. Outside the exhibit halls were Grecian statues. Writing in 1858 on the impact those statues had, British physical educationalist George Forrest complained that[20] the British “are apparently devoid of that beautiful series of muscles that run round the entire waist, and show to such advantage in the ancient statues.”

Projections of military might

Statues and paintings mattered long before photography came to influence fitness standards in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Equally important, however, was the growth of military gymnastics at the beginning of the century. At the same time that ideal body types for men were changing, so, too, was European society.

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, several gymnastic programs were created to bolster and strengthen young men’s bodies around Europe. French soldiers were renowned for their physical fitness[21], both in terms of their ability to march for days on end and move quickly in battle. After many European states suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Napoleon’s forces, they started to take the health of their troops much more seriously.

Gymnast Friedrich Ludwig Jahn[22], through his Turner system of calisthenic exercises, was tasked with fortifying Prussia’s military strength.

In France, a Spanish gymnastics instructor named Don Francisco Amorós y Ondeano[23] was charged with rebuilding the physique and stamina of French troops, while in England a Swiss fitness instructor named P.H. Clias[24] trained the military and the navy during the 1830s. To accommodate the growing European interest in fitness, bigger and bigger gymnasiums started being built across the continent.

When men started to obsess over six-packs A mid-19th century drawing of a gymnasium in Paris. Strongman Project, CC BY[25][26]

Soldiers weren’t the only ones participating in these programs. For example, Jahn’s Turner system – which promoted the use of parallel bars, rings and the high bar – became one of the most popular exercise programs of the century among members of the European public and went on to gain a following among Americans[27]. Clias, meanwhile, opened classes for middle- and upper-class men, and Amorós y Ondeano – along with other European gymnastics instructors – was regularly quoted in gymnastics texts published from the 1830s onward.

The six-pack industry is born

So the seeds for modern six-pack mania were planted in two ways: First, men started eyeing Greek statues with envy. Then they developed the means to sculpt their bodies in those statues’ images. Meanwhile, writers from the 1830s and 1840s prodded[28] men to aspire to svelte bodies, strong trunks and no excess body fat.

But the obsession with six-packs truly blossomed in the early 1900s. By then, strongmen like Eugen Sandow[29] were able to build off the existing interest in Greek imagery and gymnastics by using photography, cheap mail postage and the new science of nutritional supplements to cash in on the longing for the perfect body.

When men started to obsess over six-packs Eugen Sandow poses in an issue of Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, which is considered the first bodybuilding magazine. Wellcome Images, CC BY-SA[30][31]

Sandow himself sold books, exercise equipment, nutritional supplements, children’s toys, corsets, cigars and cocoa. Sandow, who was once hailed[32] as the “world’s most perfectly developed specimen,” inspired countless men to shed excess “flesh” – the term given for body fat – to show off their abdominals. Abdominals, incidentally, was always the term used at this time.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter[33].]

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s[34] that getting a “six pack” referred not just to cans of beer and started serving as a stand-in for visible abdominal muscles. Searching through Google Ngram[35] shows that from the mid-to-late 1990s the term’s popularity grew exponentially.

“Six-pack abs” quickly became parlance thanks to ingenious marketers determined to sell a range “get fit fast” devices, from Abs of Steel[36] to 6-Minute Abs[37].

Few have stood the test of time. Yet the longing for the coveted six-pack – as the more than 12 million[38] Instagram posts with the #sixpack hashtag can attest – endures.


  1. ^ research into male body image (
  2. ^ books (
  3. ^ every action movie star (
  4. ^ mounting on women (
  5. ^ fitness culture boom (
  6. ^ Arnold Schwarzenegger (
  7. ^ Rambo (
  8. ^ aerobics (
  9. ^ While I was researching Irish health and body cultures (
  10. ^ French historian George Vigarello (
  11. ^ and even piety (
  12. ^ ancient Greece (
  13. ^ Kinesiologist Jan Todd (
  14. ^ others (
  15. ^ distorted body image (
  16. ^ Elgin Marbles (
  17. ^ Wikimedia Commons (
  18. ^ CC BY-SA (
  19. ^ Great Exhibition (
  20. ^ British physical educationalist George Forrest complained that (
  21. ^ were renowned for their physical fitness (
  22. ^ Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (
  23. ^ Don Francisco Amorós y Ondeano (
  24. ^ P.H. Clias (
  25. ^ Strongman Project (
  26. ^ CC BY (
  27. ^ and went on to gain a following among Americans (
  28. ^ writers from the 1830s and 1840s prodded (
  29. ^ Eugen Sandow (
  30. ^ Wellcome Images (
  31. ^ CC BY-SA (
  32. ^ who was once hailed (
  33. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter (
  34. ^ late 1980s and early 1990s (
  35. ^ Google Ngram (
  36. ^ Abs of Steel (
  37. ^ 6-Minute Abs (
  38. ^ more than 12 million (

Authors: Conor Heffernan, Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News


SANDRA BOOKER "Until We Meet Again" RELEASES WORLDWIDE MARCH 30TH There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create works that meet our collective moment at a time we most need their...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

How Can Music Itself Survive Without Rock n Roll?

Just because you don’t hear much straightforward rock and roll on the Top 40 charts these days doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere. Its time in the mainstream limelight may not be as popular as it was when I was growing up in the 70s and what we now...

Michael Mesey, American Greed - avatar Michael Mesey, American Greed

Is Rock Music a Dying Breed?

“Rock ‘n’ Roll [is here to stay, it...] can […will] never die” – David Ernest White, Neil Percival Young, etc. “Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead” – Leonard Albert Kravitz, Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, etc. “And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…” – S...

Eli Soiefer/Emodulari - avatar Eli Soiefer/Emodulari


“There’s Reason” The question mark (?) logo that Brisbane, Australia husband and wife rockers skinsNbones use in all their promotional materials in lieu of band photos reflects a fascinating aesthetic designed to create mystery, provoke and en...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

RAP without the F Bomb

Some would say that’s like peanut butter without jelly.  Hey, I am no prude and I shocked my best friend from grade school when I said “great detectives caught the Mo Foes, from my new song Clean Slate.”  She said:  whoa, you dropped the F word.”...

Rebecca L Davis   aka    DawgGoneDavis - avatar Rebecca L Davis aka DawgGoneDavis

My COVID Musical Journey by Kai Alece

It has been said that maybe one in 1 million musicians will make it to stardom. If you are in the top 5%, you are probably writing songs for top artists, scoring for blockbuster films and TV, a sought after session musician or maybe even playing ...

Kai Alece - avatar Kai Alece

Metropolitan Business News

Perfecting Web Design For A Health-Based Website

These days, when it comes to understanding what we put into our bodies, we are more focused than ever. It seems that everywhere we look, there is another health benefit, product, or trend on the...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

3 Realistic Reasons Why Physical Offices Are (Almost) Dead

Nowadays, more and more businesses are trying to find alternatives to traditional offices. For many years, brick and mortar offices have been at the heart of a company’s life. But work environme...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Advantages of no-code app development for businesses

A marketer may or may not have knowledge about coding. But even if you don't’ have knowledge in coding, it is easy to build an automation sequence between two apps by making use of a no code app bui...

News Co - avatar News Co

Do Directories Still Help SEO?

Directories were once one of the main staples of SEO and they were definitely in existence before search engines took over. Directories were once the main way that people navigated the world wide we...

News Co - avatar News Co

Shipping Container FAQs

If you are looking to rent or purchase a shipping container, you probably have a few questions. We have selected some of the most common questions and answered them here. We hope that you find this ...

News Co - avatar News Co

Is Duplicate Content an SEO Myth?

Any marketer you speak to about duplicate content is concerned about a “duplicate content penalty” but they are probably not very experienced with SEO. Google has specific guidelines on duplicate co...

News Co - avatar News Co

Writers Wanted

News Co Media

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion