Curator – Steve Ford
Growing up next to the beaches of Southern California, summers and sunsets on the sands of Santa Monica became my favorite teenage memories. Even as the name ‘Muscle Beach’ seemed familiar to me along those impressionable years, by high school I found girls far more fascinating than “weightlifting”. Yet like so many youths transitioning out of our teens as we entered the decade of the 1980s, I was destined to encounter a contagious new “presentation” about the topic of barbells and fitness.
Seeing the iconic movie “Pumping Iron” left me intrigued with the idea of the gym and barbells as part of a new view of what physical culture represented. Where my first job out of high school was working as an auto technician, I enjoyed using my technical skills to ‘soup up’ my own car to run faster and stronger. The movie Pumping Iron revealed to me the power of technique, resistance training and persistence can combine to allow us to develop our human ‘frames’ to run faster and stronger.
Another thing that intrigued me about watching Pumping Iron was that a scene in the movie was filmed at an outdoor weightlifting platform located on the beach. Friends told me that the scene was ‘Muscle Beach’. Even as I was familiar with stories of how Muscle Beach was associated with Santa Monica’s beach and famed fitness stars like Jack LaLanne and Steve Reeves, I couldn’t recall seeing barbells anywhere on the beach in Santa Monica. This prompted me to approach several of the veteran gymnasts whom I saw working out on a lawn area near the Santa Monica Pier and ask where the weightlifting platform was located.
The gymnasts I spoke with that afternoon next to the Santa Monica Pier were warm and patient in explaining to me that there used to be barbells and a platform right near the pier, but had been removed decades earlier. They said that if I wanted to see outdoor barbells and weightlifting, there was a similar site located two miles south on the beach in the Los Angeles community of Venice. That day I took a walk to Venice to discover the story of how Muscle Beach was somehow connected with the beaches of both Santa Monica and Venice.
Walking Into History
Into the bohemian and off-beat setting of L.A.’s famed Venice Beach Strand, I found myself walking by open-air storefronts with fragrant incense smoke wafting into the air, occasional hints of marijuana cigarette smoke floating by, as well as the classic street-scenes with jugglers and musicians performing mixed levels of talent. Then, suddenly there was a point where the storefronts were more crowded with people, leaving me wondering if there had been some kind of incident. There had been; there it was — a small chain link fence surrounding a cement platform with a handful of weightlifters in a space just slightly larger than a two-car garage. It was the Weightlifting Pit at the Venice Beach Recreation Center, a.k.a. “Muscle Beach”.
For that moment, without knowing more of the true history of the one and only ‘Muscle Beach’ in Santa Monica, I was just glad to start this journey. After joining the Venice Beach weightlifting club and across the adventures of the years, I discovered a hobby that would become a close rival to my earlier interests in girls and fast cars — physical fitness. Bodybuilding was a cheaper hobby than buying speed parts and custom accessories for my cars, and girls seemed to be more interested in guys with muscular physiques than big V8s.
Discovering Weightlifting & Bodybuilding
What started as a walk down the beach that day led to becoming the volunteer PR representative for both Muscle Beach Venice and eventually Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. Along the way, I discovered the fun and rewarding experience of oceanfront, open-air workouts and, eventually, and because of what I learned from Muscle Beach and the people in the bodybuilding sub-culture, I found myself becoming an amateur competitive bodybuilder lining up as a finalist in contests at both Muscle Beach Venice, as well as AAU-sanctioned “indoor” bodybuilding competitions.
This website was launched in 1999 to evolve and help share images and history intended to help spotlight the remarkable and inspiring story and images of the single source of the pioneering legends of fitness and physical culture: the “original” Muscle Beach – Santa Monica. Additionally, as the weightlifting platform in Venice has inherited a legacy earned by athletes who performed for two decades prior to the existence of this second beachfront barbell training location, today’s “correctly titled” Muscle Beach Venice pays a noble tribute to the radiant legacy of the brilliant pioneers of Santa Monica.
More photos here ahead!