The global value of the supplement industry was estimated to be worth over $150 billion in 2021, spread across protein powders, vitamin and nutritional supplements, sleep aids, beauty enhancers, and a host of other products. (1) While some supplements have stood the test of time, others fell victim to the abundance of selection and experience a relatively short shelf life.
Regarding fitness supplementation in particular, the market is divided between popular, long-lasting products (think whey protein, pre-workout, creatine, and omega 3s) and newer supplements that often promise a lot but deliver a little, or operate on the border of illegal and legal.
Fitness supplements only became a true staple of the gymgoers’ diet in the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, many of the supplements bodybuilders, powerlifters, and weightlifters took during this time would be unrecognizable today. What was once a popular product often becomes a niche supplement only utilized by the bravest of souls.
These are eight old-school fitness supplements you’ve (probably) never heard of.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
Dried Milk Powder
Dried milk powder can be thought of as one of the early precursors to dairy-based protein powders. The first supplement promoted by the “father of modern bodybuilding” Eugen Sandow in the early 1900s, it was effectively promoted under the name “Plasmon”.
In the 1950s, Steve Reeves used skim milk powder to boost his protein intake. (2) Likewise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, noted his use of milk powder to boost the protein content of his diet.
This supplement served as an effective and cheap way of increasing protein while keeping calories relatively low. (3) It could be added to a glass of milk, water, or even thrown into an existing shake to cheaply up its protein content.
The explosion of protein powders produced in the United States from the 1960s onward largely killed off the use of dried milk powder.
Desiccated liver is dried liver converted into a pill or left as a powder. It is an excellent source of iron, folate, and vitamin B12 and, for bodybuilders of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a staple in their fight for muscle growth and a stable energy supply.
The most outspoken supporter of desiccated liver was undoubtedly the “Iron Guru” Vince Gironda. One of the most influential coaches of the era, Gironda promoted desiccated liver as one of the best muscle-builders.
Gironda often quoted old scientific research that suggested that the “wonder supplement” could drastically improve one’s ability to exercise for longer periods. (4) Trainees, depending on their experience, would take two tablets with each meal or every few hours.
Packed full of protein and B-vitamins, brewer’s yeast was presented as a wonderful supplement for exercise enthusiasts from the 1950s to the 1980s. At the time, it was linked to muscle gain, fat loss, and more energy. It could be poured over food (one tablespoon with yogurt was a common recommendation) or mixed into a glass of water.
In the 1960s, the owner of Iron Man magazine, Peary Rader, recommended brewer’s yeast as a critical component of a DIY protein powder. (4)
- 2 cups of water
- 3 cups instant powdered milk
- 4 tablespoons peanut butter
- ⅓ cup honey
- 3 tablespoons malted milk mix
- 3 tablespoons soy flour
- 2 raw eggs
- 2 tablespoons brewer’s yeast
- 1 tablespoon imitation vanilla
- 1 pack of Gelatine
Regarding taste, brewer’s yeast is perhaps up there with Bob Hoffman’s Protein from the Sea protein powder, which was made from fish protein. Used also in the manufacturing of beer, brewer’s yeast has a bitter taste that can prove off-putting to people. This old-school supplement is still promoted today, although with far less fanfare.
FRAC (Ferulic Acid)
For a brief period in the late 1980s to early 1990s, FRAC was presented as an up-and-coming natural anabolic agent. Following an article by Luke R. Bucci in FLEX magazine in April 1989, entitled “A Natural Magic Bullet?”, aspiring bodybuilders took to their supplement shops to buy it in droves. (5)
A lack of consistent research on its effects proved to be the death knell for FRAC. Nevertheless, for trainees of a certain vintage, ferulic acid is remembered as one of those “miracle supplements” whose time in the spotlight was very short-lived.
Wheat Germ Oil
The origin of wheat germ oil can be traced back to the mid-20th century but, unlike FRAC or brewer’s yeast, it has a relatively long history.
Unlike other products, wheat germ oil was still being discussed in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Eugene Schiff, one of America’s first supplement manufacturers from the late 1930s, even sold wheat germ products personally.
Some, like Gironda, recommended individuals take wheat germ capsules, while others, such as York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman, sold it as part of a blend of other oils (which he branded as Energol).
What likely ended interest in wheat germ oil was the noted increase in popularity for fish oil beginning in the 1980s, and the fear that an abundance of omega-6 and omega-9 in the body could cause inflammation or injuries. (7)
Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) Capsules
How often do lifters care about their digestion and assimilation? Not their diet, but rather how well their body absorbs the nutrients that it is already consuming. This was a major concern for gymgoers in the mid-20th century, especially in the United States.
From the 1960s to the late 1980s, HCl Capsules were recommended by everyone from Hoffman to Joe Weider to improve gymgoers’ digestion and, it was assumed, their physiques.
This was an interesting approach to marketing supplements. (4) Rather than adding anything to an individual’s diet (i.e. more creatine, more protein, more calories, etc.), HCl capsules improved the absorption of a person’s current diet. Oftentimes HCl would be taken as part of a supplement stack.
For example, former Mr. Olympia champion Franco Columbu advice for champion bodybuilders in his 1985 nutrition book and promoted a supplement stack including, but not limited to:
- 1 essential amino acid tablet
- 3-4 HCl tablets
- 3-4 enzyme tablets
- 1 ribonucleic acid tablet (RNA)
- 1 organic iron tablet
- 3 tri-germ oil capsules/essential fatty acids (8)
Ribonucleic Acid (RNA Tablets)
In a time when anabolic steroids were transforming the bodybuilding industry in the 1960s and 1970s, many natural trainees scrambled for a healthier alternative. At the forefront of this wave was, again, Gironda, who promoted a supplement called RNA. Writing in Iron Man magazine in 1973, Gironda said:
“RNA and DNA. These two elements enable the body to read the master blueprint in the cells and thus repair worn tissue. These elements are indispensable in protein metabolism.” (9)
From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, RNA tablets were regularly promoted in bodybuilding magazines and books. They were thought to quicken the recovery process, help build muscle and increase strength. However, newer products and the realization that RNA would not drastically change the body led to the downfall of this particular product after a brief stint in the sun.
Weight loss supplements are, of course, a key part of most bodybuilders’ pre-contest diets. While many modern supplements are loaded with caffeine or caffeine substitutes, earlier weight loss products focused on altering a bodybuilder’s hormonal profile.
The use of kelp tablets or iodine for this purpose began in the 1960s, and it is still possible to find bodybuilding books promoting the use of iodine as a weight-loss tool. (4) Iodine is, at times, prescribed medically to help regulate thyroid disorders.
The logic for bodybuilders was that an abundance of iodine would help them to strip off unwanted body fat. As part of their pre-contest diet, bodybuilders would take either kelp tablets (which were a good source of iodine) or straight iodine tablets (which were subject to more regulation than kelp tablets).
When he was training for the Mr. America contest in the mid-1960s, eventual champion Bob Gajda followed a steak-and-eggs diet, supplemented with straight iodine drops to lower his body fat. (4) Likewise, when he published a how-to manual for bodybuilders in the early 1980s, bodybuilding writer, coach, and entrepreneur Joe Weider promoted iodine as a must-have for bodybuilders. (10)
What likely killed off the use of iodine in the 1980s was a new wave of bodybuilding pre-workouts and fat loss supplements, some of which contained now-regulated substances like ephedrine. Nevertheless, this supplement was a must-have for many in the latter half of the 20th century.
The above list is not exhaustive. Especially given the dozens and dozens of nutritional supplements which have come and gone in the fitness industry. Still, it is worth briefly mentioning three notable products and supplements which nearly made this list.
Beginning with protein powders, it is important to note that the first batch of products that emerged in the 1960s were soy-based supplements, rather than dairy products. As entrepreneurs began seeking alternatives, a brief opportunity arose for egg white protein powders to take the market by storm.
They were easily digestible, high in protein, and readily available in the United States. While some bodybuilders continued to promote egg whites in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably former Mr. Olympia Frank Zane, the majority moved to whey and casein powders. (4)
Equally transitory were energy and pre-workout supplements. This particular branch of supplements has long encountered regulatory issues. The primary issue for many now-forgotten energy supplements is that they sometimes contain illegal substances or substances which are eventually deemed to be illegal. A major problem is that regulation of these supplements often comes after they have reached the market and, in many cases, have developed a cult following.
Ripped Fuel, a late 90s and early 2000s supplement, is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this. Marketed as energy pills, Ripped Fuel contained ephedrine among other ingredients. Taken before a workout, Ripped Fuel became a major component in many lifters’ supplement stacks. That is until a series of high-profile accidents, including several deaths, was linked to the product in the United States. (11) In time, Ripped Fuel faded into existence, to be replaced by a multitude of other energy products.
Finally, the Cybergenics bodybuilding system. This was an all-encompassing product that spanned nutritional supplements, diet advice, and workouts. Made in the 1980s and early 1990s, Cybergenics was sold at a then hefty price of $139. It required trainees to incorporate fasting, restricted carbohydrate intake, cardio sessions, and high-intensity workouts. Fueling this approach were seven powders and formulas specially formulated by bodybuilder Franco Santoriello to build muscle and decrease body fat.
As fitness writer Vince Andrich noted, Cybergenics is arguably one of the earliest companies to sell supplement stacks in this manner and, by combining everything into one simple package, hooked thousands on the Cybergenics system. (12) This supplement was not necessarily revolutionary, but it set a standard for dozens, if not hundreds, of later entrepreneurs to iterate on.
In a still-relevant scene from the 2008 Chris Bell documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Bell aimed to create his supplements from the comfort of his home. He hired people to help him package it, created his own before-and-after shots on the same day, and, with relative ease, produced a product that vaguely promises to build muscle.
While supplement regulations have improved somewhat in the modern era, Bell’s comedic industriousness spoke to many trainees’ innate desire for a quick fix — an easy solution to improving their bodies. The rampancy of poorly-researched but highly-lucrative supplements available on the market in the 20th century speaks to that demand in the market.
Many were marketed as effective as steroids or as game-changers within the fitness industry. That they have long faded from memory gives pause for thought about the next time a “miracle’” supplement emerges.
- ‘Dietary Supplements Market Size,’ Grand View Research, first accessed 27 June 2022. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/dietary-supplements-market.
- Conor Heffernan, ‘Steve Reeves Definition Diet,’ Physical Culture Study, 19 January 2016, https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/01/19/steve-reeves-definition-diet/.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Dobbins. The new encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
- Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors. AuthorHouse, 2008.
- Bill Reynolds, Negrita Jayde, Sliced. Contemporary Books, 1991.
- Conor Heffernan, ‘The Workouts and Diets of Bodybuilding Champions,’ Physical Culture Study, January 11, 2019. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2019/01/11/the-workouts-and-diets-of-the-bodybuilding-champions-2/
- John D. Fair, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell. Penn State Press, 1999.
- Franco Columbu, The Bodybuilder’s Nutrition Book. McGraw-Hill Education, 1985.
- ‘RNA & DNA,’ Iron Guru, accessed 27 June 2022, https://ironguru.com/rna-and-dna/.
- Joe Weider, Joe Weider’s Ultimate Bodybuilding: The Master Blaster’s Principles of Training and Nutrition. Contemporary Books, 1999.
- Steve Chawkins and Dawn Hobbs, ‘Death of 15-Year-Old Fuels Concern Over ‘Energy Pills’, LA Times, April 16, 1998. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-apr-16-mn-39901-story.html.
- Vince Andrich, ‘Was Cybergenics a Scam?’ Muscle Insider, accessed 27 June 2022. https://muscleinsider.com/content/was-cybergenics-scam
Featured Image: Yuliia Ushakova / Shutterstock