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The Original Muscle Beach Santa Monica

Published on May 22, 2024

The Birth of a Fitness Mecca

Have you ever walked past hordes of sweating weightlifters at an outdoor gym in Venice Beach, California? You may be surprised to learn that the original Muscle Beach, a name synonymous with California fitness and beach workouts, is actually in Santa Monica, right next to the Santa Monica Pier.

Not to be confused with the Venice version, the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica was initially used for gymnastics and acrobatic displays. It became wildly popular and is considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States physical fitness boom. While the original exercise platform and weightlifting shed were bulldozed in the late 1950s, the original Muscle Beach is still in use—albeit at a different scale. Marked by a sign to indicate its historical significance, the stretch of sand features climbing ropes, parallel bars and swings.

Muscle Beach has had an enormous impact on the culture of Santa Monica and California as a whole. But where did it all begin, and how did Muscle Beach become the cultural phenomenon that it is today?

A Playground by the Pier 

In the early 1930s, what would eventually be known as “Muscle Beach” began as a simple children’s playground on the beach, built with government funds. A group of acrobats who were in-between vaudeville shows began to practice together at the playground. Other athletes began to join them, exercising on rugs and tarps laid on the sand.

Around this time, the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles brought a new obsession to Southern California: sports and competition. This was also the time of the Great Depression, creating high levels of unemployment and uncertainty.

Beachgoers began to flock to the area to watch the impromptu athletic performances. Word of the spectacle spread as acrobats, gymnasts, wrestlers, and stunt performers began to use the space to practice for films they were working on.

The New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) noticed and installed some simple exercise equipment like parallel bars and rings. The beach gym was a way to distract people’s attention from their struggles and provide free entertainment.

Soon, a low wooden platform was built, then a sturdier, raised platform. Gymnasts and athletes began providing their own gym equipment like bars, benches and weights, to help widen the breadth of activities that were offered at the park.

While the name “Muscle Beach” wouldn’t catch on until later in the mid-1940s, word of the beach attraction continued to spread. Thanks to its proximity to Hollywood, it became known as the place-to-be for celebrities, actors, stunt people and bodybuilders.

Eventually an L-shaped platform with its own equipment shed was built, with rows of benches to accommodate spectators.

During World War II in the 1940s, Santa Monica Beach became a social and recreational destination for soldiers stationed in Los Angeles during tours. The beach also became a workout area for famous bodybuilders.

The Emergence of Bodybuilding in Santa Monica

The 1940s and 1950s saw the emergence of bodybuilding as a popular activity at the beach. Figures such as Jack LaLanne, who later became known as the “godfather of fitness,” and Steve “Hercules” Reeves, who went on to become a famous actor, were among the muscle men who frequented the area. So was fitness superstar Joe Gold, who became famous for the Gold’s Gym and World Gym chains.  These athletes’ impressive physiques and feats of strength turned Muscle Beach into a spectacle, capturing the attention of both locals and tourists.

Beach Workout Culture at Muscle Beach

By the 1950s, Muscle Beach had gained worldwide fame. It helped popularize and bring legitimacy to physical culture with acrobatics and bodybuilding. The workout culture at Muscle Beach was unlike anything else. The open-air gym, the camaraderie among athletes, and the perfect California weather created an environment that was both competitive and supportive. Spectators could watch bodybuilders pump iron under the sun, and the athletes themselves thrived on the energy and attention.

Those who worked out and trained at Muscle Beach did so much more than perform. They taught each other, forming tight-knit fitness circles which would revolutionize the physical fitness industry in America.

A Hub for Stars 

Muscle Beach reached its pinnacle of popularity during the 1950s. It wasn’t just a place for bodybuilders to train; it had become a cultural hub that attracted Hollywood stars, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts from all over the world. Regulars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dave Draper  trained on the hallowed sands, solidifying Muscle Beach’s status as the place to be for aspiring bodybuilder-slash-actors.

Challenges and Closure of the Original Muscle Beach

In the late 1950s, Muscle Beach began to face challenges due to a changing landscape and general shift in public perception.

By now, many of the original Muscle Beach regulars had gone on to careers in the expanding fitness industry and had left the beach. Instead of acrobats and gymnasts, less family-friendly “iron men” weightlifters and bodybuilders were now the main attraction.

Muscle Beach had long been considered by the puritanical an “immoral place”. Conservative residents were concerned with what they considered “unsavory” aspects of the beach gym: bulging biceps and skimpy shorts, beauty pageants and swimsuit competitions.  Weightlifting and bodybuilding were still considered by the conservative public to be a little “weird”, a hangover from the sport’s circus sideshow beginnings.

After an accident involving a young boy, the Santa Monica City Council finally saw a way to get rid of Muscle Beach, which the conservative town had long considered a nuisance.

In 1959 the original Muscle Beach site near the Santa Monica Pier was dismantled. 

The Venice Beach Renaissance

In 1951, the Venice Beach Recreation Center set up an outdoor weightlifting platform two miles south of the original Muscle Beach location. “The Pen”, as it was known in the 1950s and 1960s, reignited the flame of California fitness and muscle culture.

Owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, The Pen became the unofficial successor to the original Muscle Beach and continues to be a popular destination for fitness enthusiasts to this day.

In 1987, the City of Los Angeles officially dedicated it “Muscle Beach Venice” with the added word of “Venice” in the title to distinguish it from the original “Muscle Beach” in Santa Monica.

The Venice Beach location remains an active fitness hub, complete with bodybuilding competitions, acrobatics, and a lively beach workout atmosphere.

The Original Muscle Beach Today

In 1989, the City of Santa Monica officially rededicated the Santa Monica beach park as the “Original Muscle Beach.”

Today the original Muscle Beach is an open playground with a gated area that encloses weightlifting equipment. The second area is a sand box with rope climbing, rings, and acrobatic bars. Many patrons still frequent the park to enjoy gymnastics and play in the sea and sun.

Legacy & Impact on Santa Monica Culture

Muscle Beach helped launch a nation-wide fitness boom. It also influenced the culture of Santa Monica for decades, promoting the city as a bastion of health, fitness and physical beauty.

In the 1950s, a group of  “original hippies”, known as the Nature Boys, frequented Muscle beach to preach their whole-food philosophy and sell fruit and nuts to the acrobats and bodybuilders. This healthy-eating predilection is still seen in the dozens of health food stores and salad bars in Santa Monica.

The era also helped popularize the “California look”—tanned skin, bleached hair, and bulging muscles—which was a big part of  American visual imagery from the 1950s and beyond.

Preservation and Recognition of the Original Muscle Beach 

Efforts have been made to preserve the history of Muscle Beach, with historical markers and events that pay homage to its past. Annual bodybuilding competitions and hall of fame inductions continue to recognize the contributions of those who have made Muscle Beach a legendary spot in the fitness world.

From its humble beginnings to its current status as a fitness landmark, Muscle Beach has played a pivotal role in the evolution of bodybuilding and fitness culture. Whether you’re a dedicated bodybuilder or a casual beachgoer, we recommend a visit to the iconic Santa Monica landmark!