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Default Grimek, Reeves, Park and the American Muscular Ideal
by BendtheBar 07-09-2012, 09:22 PM

Grimek, Reeves, Park and the American Muscular Ideal
by Alan Radley (2001)


By the end of the 1930’s, a new, American-led Physical Culture revolution seemed to explode into Western Culture. However, the Second World War dominated the early 1940’s. Therefore, the upcoming bodybuilding revolution was delayed and would have to await the end of the fighting. Had this war never happened, the popular 1950’s bodybuilding trend that occurred in America and, to some extent in Europe, would have arrived a full decade earlier. Nevertheless, Physical Culture remained popular during the war years and physical training exercises were common in the Armed Services on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was often the case that significant improvisation was required in order to train during an era of basic shortages and athletes made ad-hoc weights out of local objects. For example, in Hawaii during the war physical instructors led men in the use of heavy shells as barbells. In addition, the great American, Steve Reeves, was serving in the Pacific, where he and his buddies produced makeshift weighs to train in the hot jungles of the South Pacific. P.T. instructors also led he soldiers, sailors and the home guard volunteers of Great Britain in gymnastic bodybuilding exercises that owed much to the likes of Ling and Jahn, who had developed similar routines 150 years before.

After the war, weightlifting and bodybuilding again experienced a surge in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it was in America that these sports really began to develop. American weightlifters began to dominate with some amazing world records. At this time also, the modern sport of bodybuilding emerged from the California beach scene and then literally took off in popularity across the rest of America. The reasons why the Americans made so much progress in the strength sports are many-fold. Firstly, it was where people had plenty of time and money to spend on leisure pursuits, while in Europe, people were busy rebuilding their devastated cities and former lives. Rationing remained in England throughout the 1950’s, while conditions were very similar across most of Europe. America, on the other hand, found itself entering a period of unprecedented opportunity and optimism during the early 1950’s.

A man who came to epitomize the progress of American lifting at this time was the great John Grimek. He was somewhat different it that, like the old-timers, he was successful both as a weightlifter and a bodybuilder during this period. John Grimek is an absolute legend in the sports of weightlifting and bodybuilding. Not one single person’s name appears above his in the Iron Game hall of fame. The sheer diversity and high standard of his achievement and abilities make him, without a doubt, one of the greatest Physical Culturists of all time. To make a comparison with a photograph of Johnny Weismuller, the ideal body of the 1930’s male, one will soon get an idea of just how much men like Grimek changed the concept of the ideal body.

John Carl Grimek was born on June 17, 1910, in Perth, New Jersey. As a youth he was a keen athlete, but it was his brother who first took up weight training. When his brother left home, Grimek decided to make use of all the equipment left behind. Later, he joined a gymnasium and started on his path to becoming one of the world’s best. Throughout his youth, he grew stronger at an amazing rate, so much so that in his early twenties he came to the attention of the great weightlifting coach, Bob Hoffman. Starting in 1935, Grimek began a long association with the York Barbell Company, which was headed by the legendary Bob Hoffman, then the National Olympic Coach. In a may 1936 issue of Strength & Health magazine, Gerard Nisivoccia wrote an interesting article introducing Grimek, called “Super Star of Strength”. In this article, he describes how Grimek lifted the famous Rolandow Dumbbell which had a similar reputation as the Thomas Inch Dumbbell in that it had a thick handle about 2” in diameter that made it very difficult to lift. This feat was performed at Siegmund Klein’s Gymnasium in New York City, and Grimek lifted it overhead on his first attempt, a feat that had never been duplicated at the time.

On May 27th, 1934, Grimek broke the United States record for the Two Hand Military Press with a lift of 242 lbs. at a bodyweight of 188 lbs. It is worth checking the material to find the rules and strictness of this lift before passing judgment on its difficulty. He was also a keen hand balancer and tumbler, which he would quickly demonstrate on any occasion he could find. Also, he was a very supple man and could do back bends, the splits, flips and touch his elbows to his toes stiff-legged anytime he pleased. His strength also continued to increase over the next few years. By 1936, he had performed a the following lifts: a Two Hand Military Press of 253 pounds, a Two Hand Snatch of 220 pounds, a Two Hand Clean & Jerk of 300 pounds, and also a Two Arm Curl with a barbell weighing 175 pounds. Another feat he did at this time was Two Hand Deadlifts with a barbell weighing 420 pounds, ten consecutive repetitions, some performed with the legs stiff and some with the legs bent. Other lifts included a Right Arm Military Press with a 135-pound dumbbell, a One Arm Snatch of 178 pounds, a One Arm Jerk of 192 pounds and an Alternate Dumbbell Press with 116 pounds in each hand. These lifts are quite amazing for the period, but in later years he would go on to exceed each and every one by a significant margin.

In 1936, Grimek made the United States Olympic Team and competed in the Berlin Olympics as a lightheavyweight where he was placed seventh. Then, in 1938, he came second in the American Weightlifting Championships and later the same year made fourth place in the World Championships in Vienna, Austria. In 1940, he created an American lightheavyweight record in the Press with his lift of 129 kg. Later that same year he entered, and won, the Mr. America competition.

Early in his career, Grimek worked as a model and traveled to different universities such as Yale and Princeton. At Princeton, he met Albert Einstein and the two became quite close friends and would often go on long walks together. Grimek continued training for both strength and development over the next year and he won the Mr. America title again. In fact the organizers realized that Grimek would continue winning this title year on year, so they introduced a rule after his second win stipulating that you could only win it once. Then, in 1948, he entered the first NABBA Mr. Universe contest held in London, England, which he won over a young newcomer by the name of Steve Reeves. Grimek had won despite being in his late 30’s against Reeves who was barely in his 20’s. He was an outstanding athlete and proved that a muscle man could be both a good weightlifter and a physique star. He also served as the associate editor of the American publication “Strength”.

Grimek was also very much a dedicated family man, and had six children by the time he won the Mr. Universe title. In his heyday, he toured the entire world, including Europe, Hawaii and across the United States. Nobody was more famous in the Iron Game than John Grimek and his published methods were widely followed. He was said to train more like a weightlifter than a bodybuilder, favoring heavy basic movements over lighter pumping sets. As a result, he was capable of pressing 300 lbs. overhead anytime, and with a short spell of specialization he could manage as much as 375 pounds in this exercise. In his prime, his bodyweight varied from 180 to 230 lbs. and his measurements varied accordingly. When he was at his heaviest bodyweight, his arm measured over 18 inches cold with a 50 inch cheat and a 29 inch thigh. I remember reading recently that a favorite quote of John Grimek on the value of Physical Culture was that its function is “to build health and develop character.”

Even in his 70’s, Grimek was still squatting with 400 lbs. for 10 repetitions and more, and he would often go up to significantly higher poundages. He was ever the muscleman and retained his great strength even at this advanced age, and even at 75 he was still partial squatting with over 600 pounds. John Grimek died in 1998 at the age of 88 years, and for him the words “gone but not forgotten” will hold true for many years to come. The inspiration of many physique stars who followed him, he was to thousands of iron men around the world the lifter supreme. One of the top weightlifters in the world, he also excelled at bodybuilding and at feats of gymnastics and agility. As the first modern bodybuilder, he proved that the Physical Culturist who trains with weights gains not only unlimited amounts of physical strength, but that he can also have abundant health, agility and overall athleticism. Still writing about weight training in his 80’s, Grimek was an inspiration to us all to follow the healthy lifestyle that Physical Culture offers.



During the early 1940’s, the Muscle Beach area of Santa Monica near Los Angeles saw a burgeoning interest in all things related to Physical Culture. However, it was not until after 1945, when the young men came home from the war that this trend really took off. These men came home slowly and at first found little work. Many became idle and started naturally to hang out along the sea front. Soon, exercise programs and fitness displays started up right along the beach front, run by the young ex-servicemen who were used to keeping fit in the army’s P.T. training. Bodybuilding with weights became very popular at this time and many gymnasiums were opened along the beachfronts throughout California.

In fact, a gymnastic platform had first been built on Muscle Beach as early as 1938. Rings and parallel bars soon followed in other areas of the beach. Muscle Beach remained popular throughout the 1940’s, gaining widespread fame as a hangout for athletic types. During the 1950’s, with the opening of other gymnasiums in addition to Vic Tanny’s famous gymnasium along the same seafront, weight training became popular with the athletic young men and women naturally gathering in the area. As a result, musclemen became a common feature on the beachfront and the first permanent weights were donated to the beach itself in 1948.

Acrobatic displays were common throughout the next decade and the beach became a popular place to hang out. Every weekend, tourists would gather in the thousands to watch muscular people pose and perform open-air hand balancing and gymnastic displays. Bikini-clad girls would be thrown through the air and then caught by strong men. These acts were often called “adagios”. Circus performers also made the beach their home during the late 1940’s and wrestlers enjoyed displaying their skills in short exhibition bouts. Another important beachfront event during this period was the holding of open-air bodybuilding and beauty contests, which were widely publicized in the popular muscle magazines of the time. In addition, women acrobats and gymnastics were common on the beach throughout this period. In fact, their presence must have done much to progress the idea that women could be far more physically strong and athletically adept than was previously realized.

It is tempting to think of California as the temple of the worldwide Physical Culture movement during the late 1950’s. However, in some countries a love of Physical Culture had a more ancient heritage, as articles to follow will show in more detail. For example, in Russia we see evidence for the general public’s long-term love affair with Physical Culture. In the book, “Sport and Physical Culture in the USSR”, Lyubomirov tells the story of National Physical Education in the USSR. The Russians organized Physical Culture for the young on a massive scale in the 1950’s, with all children and students undertaking a compulsory two to four hours of physical education classes a week. Special schools were established at this time for promising athletes, in which 120,000 of the very best athletes would train fulltime to beat the best of the Western athletes in the Olympic Games and other competitions.

In fact, all the citizens of the then Soviet Union were encouraged to take part in Physical Culture, and Russians would commonly exercise in state-organized gymnasiums and clubs. So many people participated in this training that at one time it was said that the Russian Physical Culture movement had SIX MILLION members in the early 1930’s. Of these, some 155,000 were known to be regular weightlifters! Since before the Second World War, a national network of Physical Culture clubs and gymnasia had been set up in Russia, to which workers could go and exercise after work or during lunch times. The Russian coalmining industry alone set up a network of 1800 gymnasiums and clubs across the country with a total membership of around 200,000 people. Here the men, and sometimes women also, were encouraged to partake in exercises of all kinds. Most clubs had a good set of weights and they did not want for use, as across Russia there were many, many thousands more lifters than there were contained within the entire Western World put together. Physical Culture itself was a state led activity and operated under a program called GTO, where individuals gained awards as they reached certain standards of achievement. Even today, the Russian love for Physical Culture and especially weightlifting remains as strong as ever.

Nevertheless, despite interest in Physical Culture in Russia, America would lead the coming Physical Culture revolution in the 1950’s and 60’s. A leading American fitness guru who became famous during the 1950’s was Jack Lalanne, who opened his first gymnasium in 1931. Later, in 1936, he opened his ‘Modern Physical Culture Studio’ in Oakland, California. LaLanne was an early pioneer of fitness equipment and often designed his own equipment for this gymnasium, having his blacksmith friend, Paul Martin, manufacture these machines to his own special prescriptions.

In fact, LaLanne claimed to have produced some of the first ever leg extension machines, smith machines and selector weight stacks in this small gymnasium during the late 1930’s. As an aside, the author has found a photograph from 1927 in an early ‘Health and Strength’ magazine that shows a young woman exercising with an adjustable, selector weight stack wall pulley machine. This appeared to have been wonderfully constructed and shows that these kinds of machines have an even older lineage than even LaLanne had realized. Nevertheless, his gymnasium became one of the most wonderfully equipped in all of America during the 1950’s.

A famous woman bodybuilder of the time, Abbey “Pudgy” Stockton, and her husband, Les, opened one such gym. It was called “The Salon of Figure Development” and opened in 1948, on Sunset Boulevard, the first of several to be opened by this couple. Their establishments, like many opened during this period, catered for women as well as men. Weight training for women was becoming very popular during this period and women across the country were interested in improving their bodies.

However, it was bodybuilding for men that really took off in popularity at this time. Bodybuilders were everywhere, on television, advertising products and especially in newsagents on the cover of muscle magazines. One such young icon was Alan Stephan, and many magazine articles appeared in the summer of 1946 about this handsome new muscle star. When he won the Mr. America contest, a new era of bodybuilding began, characterized by stars that would not only have great muscle mass, but also fantastic levels of muscle definition, proportion and a pleasing overall shape. Most of these great new stars would come from California and Stephan was the first of a new generation of bodybuilders who would hail from this Mecca of bodybuilding. John Grimek was undoubtedly the true king of bodybuilding at this time, having started the trend towards large but shapely muscle mass combined with great muscular definition.



Possibly, only three other men in the history of Physical Culture can rival John Grimek’s impact on the sport. One of these men is Steve Reeves. The others, of course, are Eugen Sandow and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, Steve Reeves recently said that John Grimek was his original hero who had inspired him to train with weights. What can be said about Steve Reeves that has not already been said a thousand times before? That he possessed the greatest natural physique ever is beyond argument, for as Reg Park once said of Steve, he had, “a wonderful combination of God-given shape, muscular proportion and physical beauty.” Immortalized also in the Hollywood Hercules movies, Steve was at one time the number one box office draw in the world. His handsome looks were a great advertisement for the bodybuilding lifestyle. Even today, the Reeves physique is resoundingly admired throughout the Iron Game and outside it as well. No less than Sir Winston Churchill said that Steve Reeves was one of his two favorite personalities, the other being John Wayne. Another fan who was inspired to start weight training by Reeves was Sylvester Stallone, star of the ‘Rocky’ films, who said of Reeves after seeing him in Hercules, “Sly, do you want to be a bum, or do you want to be like Steve Reeves?”

Although admired widely by the public in the 1950’s and 1960’s for his television and big-screen roles, it was his physique that shall always be the root of his fame. However, before we look at this man and the methods by which he built his incredible body, I can’t resist the temptation of telling the story of my own brief meeting with Steve. In October, 1999, I was attending the 50th anniversary of the NABBA Mr. Universe competition in Birmingham, England. There were a couple of hundred people present, including many former champions of the sport, but all my friends and I cared about was seeing the great Steve Reeves. Then we saw him, sitting several tables in front of us. I plucked up the courage and went to try and meet him and was soon sitting down next to him for a brief chat. Looking closely at the man, who was then 72 years old, I was amazed that he appeared much younger, twenty years younger in fact! I am afraid that I could not think of too much to say to him, being somewhat in awe at meeting my boyhood hero. Here he was, vital and full of energy, the man who had inspired just about all of the champions I had ever heard of, and who was virtually single-handedly responsible for starting the modern weight training craze. He was Mr. Bodybuilding to all the athletes of his, and later generations. He still looked great and I could not help but think what a fantastic advertisement he had been for the bodybuilding lifestyle. Later that evening he gave a speech in which he praised the benefits of the natural bodybuilding lifestyle.

Steve Reeves was born on January 21st, 1926, in Glasgow, Montana. He claimed to have inherited his great genetics for bodybuilding from his father, Lester Reeves, who weighed in at around 200 pounds of muscle and was over six feet tall. Reeves himself had much to thank his father for, as he possessed the greatest genetics that anyone has ever possessed for bodybuilding, and he is today still the ultimate standard by which we measure male physical perfection. On how he got his start with the iron pills, Reeves tells of an incident, when 16 years old, when another smaller boy beat him in an arm wrestle. Reeves was amazed at first being beaten, but later found out the boy had gained his strength through working out. He then joined him for a few weeks, before purchasing his own 200 lb. set that he would use in his own garage. Also at this time Steve became acquainted with muscle magazines, and remembers being very impressed by a picture of John Grimek. Reeves said of Grimek, “I knew, at the instant I first saw that shot of Grimek, that this was how I wanted to be built.” At 16, he weighed 156 pounds and was 6 feet tall when he first began working out. Within three months, following his own routine, he was up to 163 pounds. This first routine was as follows:

Warm up – dumbbell swings, one set of 20 reps, followed by 1 set of 10 reps of each of the following exercises –
Clean
Military Press
Supine Press
Rowing
Reverse Curl
Regular Curl
Squat
Breathing Dumbbell Pullover
Good Mornings
Breathing Lateral Raise

Soon afterwards, he began working out at Ed Yarick’s Gymnasium in Oakland on a more extensive routine that included breathing squats specifically used to gain size in the rib box, as well as overall weight gains.

This combination must have worked incredibly well for Reeves. It soon became obvious that he was a natural, gaining 30 lbs. of muscle in four months using this routine. Of course, he also included a normal set of other exercises to round out the routine. He trained at Yarick’s for two hours at a time, three times a week. After achieving these amazing muscular gains he became one of the best-built men at this gymnasium, even though many other patrons had been at it for up to three years. At this time, his routine consisted of the following exercises:

Upright Rowing
Bench Press
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Incline Press
Triceps Pushdown
Barbell Curl
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Full Squat supersetted with Pullover
Deadlift
Good Morning

He was now 17 years old, but had to train for another year before reaching 203 pounds. Then Reeves spent a couple of years in the army overseas, where his weight remained around 200 pounds, while taking weight training sessions whenever he could with a 100-lb. barbell set he purchased in the Philippines.

In September, 1946, after demobilization, Reeves returned home to California where he immediately joined Yarick’s Gymnasium again and again set about his training. Within only a few weeks, he was back up to 205 pounds, and in May, 1947, he entered and won the Mr. Western America title held in Los Angeles. Then, in June, he won the Mr. America contest. His physique and overall looks were incredible, at the time he won this contest and were widely hailed as being perfect. However, his dream was to improve further and face tougher competition. With this aim in mind, and still just 22 years old, Reeves next found himself competing for the 1948 Mr. Universe contest in London, England, on August 13th, 1948. The results of this contest have already been mentioned in the section on John Grimek. The 1948 Mr. Universe was a very close run thing and Reeves was very unlucky not to have won on his first try. Never one to let a setback get him down, he vowed to return the following year and win the big title.

The Mr. Universe competition was not held the following year, but the contest was held again in London the next year, 1950. Reeves entered and won the competition in heroic style and it is worth telling the story again as it makes interesting and dramatic reading. The contest was held at the Royal National Hotel, Woburn Place, London. Let us allow John Mendes, writing in a 1950 issue of ‘Health and Strength’ to tell us how things turned out.

“Saturday, June 24th, 1950! A day that will long be remembered in the history of bodybuilding. As I watched the seats rapidly filling, I sensed again the thrill of excitement that always fills a theatre a few minutes before the opening of a show. Then the announcement we were waiting for. Mr. Universe Class I, posing by competitors six foot and over. There was a round of applause for Belgium’s Georges Dardenne, slim but finely proportioned, whose posing routine is so artistic. Then our own Reg Park, a colossus with incredible muscular definition, received a tremendous welcome and his routine was one of the finest of the evening. Bob Woolger came to the microphone again, announcing “Steve Reeves of Oakland, California.” There was just one mighty roar and the idol of countless thousands of bodybuilders appeared on the rostrum. As the Editor afterwards said, Reeves is just out of this world, and the audience agreed whole-heartedly. The orchestra played some music while Steve posed, but what it was I could not tell you. All I can remember is that continuous applause, while Reeves, a master of pose, went through his routine and then with a modest bow returned to the wings. Later on the final selection of overall Mr. Universe had to be made from the 12 finalists of all four height classes, and George Walsh came to the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr. Universe 1950, STEVE REEVES!” Again the roof-raising roar and Steve was receiving the priceless Sandow trophy. Seconds later he was at the microphone, breathless with emotion, and thanking “all you lovely people” for the grand ovation the audience had given him. The Statuette he had been awarded was the same one given by Sandow in his great competition of 1901, and Steve still has it in his possession to this very day.”

In truth, the contest had been a very close run between Steve Reeves and Reg Park. George Greenwood was also present and got to see quite a bit of the two contestants throughout the contest, later writing about them in “Strength and Health”. Reg Park was himself a very great bodybuilder with a powerful and highly defined physique.

A few outtakes from Greenwood’s commentary are interesting to read.

“How can I describe Reg Park? Massive, Herculean, staggering, gigantic, they all seem to fit. 22-year old runner-up Mr. Universe 1950 Reg is without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest bodybuilder this country has ever produced and I think that Steve Reeves is the only man in this world to beat him, and only just beat him. Reg is very modest, on his entry form he has simply put, “I train with weights. Swim and do a little track work.” Steve looked magnificent. Deeply tanned and in super condition, he was a credit to New York, USA, where he underwent special training for the contest.”

The measurements of the two men, taken at the time of the contest:

Reg Park
Age – 22
Height – 73 in.
Weight – 218 lbs.
Neck – 18 in.
Chest (expanded) – 53 in.
Waist – 32 in.
Upper Arm – 18¼ in.
Forearm – 14¼ in.
Wrist – 8 in.
Thigh – 27 in.
Calf – 17½ in.
Ankle – 9½ in.

Steve Reeves
Age – 23
Height – 73 in.
Weight – 214 lbs.
Neck – 18 in.
Chest (expanded) 52 in.
Waist – 30 in.
Upper Arm – 18½ in.
Forearm – 14½ in.
Wrist – 7¼ in.
Thigh – 26 in.
Calf – 18 in.
Ankle – 9½ in.

These two men were indeed physically very close, but it seemed that Reeves, with his handsome good looks and unbelievable muscle shape won because he was a more beautiful prospect. Steve Reeves seemed to have everything, from wide clavicles, square shoulders and pecs, flaring latissimus muscles, small waist, great thighs and amazing calves. Altogether, this physique became something very special.

After his Mr. Universe victory, Reeves retired from bodybuilding competitions in order to concentrate on his Hollywood career. With his handsome looks and classical physique, he was soon starring in some great movies. His big break came with Hercules, a movie that was perfect for him and one that he seemed destined to star in. Over his career Reeves starred in many top movies, and was at one time the biggest box office draw in the world. Consequently, he must have inspired a great many young men to take up weight training.

Despite the beauty of his physique, we also know that Reeves was a strong guy. He would often use heavy weights for many exercises. For example, he usually used 400 pounds for squats, and 110 pounds for dumbbell incline presses, as well as 70’s for incline curls, all in perfect exercise style. These weights do not seem especially exceptional by themselves, but try doing them as part of a whole body workout as above and in perfect style for the number of repetitions that Reeves did.

Reeves said in a 1960’s interview, “The beginner should train three times a week an for about one hour each workout. More will cause him to lose too much precious energy. The more advanced bodybuilder, on the other hand, can train with profit by exercising six days a week, working the upper body one day, and the legs the next, and so on throughout the week.” Steve also believed in the power and value of heavy weights, and said in the same interview, “I maintain a strict exercise form always, using as heavy a weight as I possibly can. This style suits me best, for I like to feel and fight the weight at all times. My favorite exercise is the Incline Bench Dumbbell Curl. In this exercise, I can feel my biceps working and responding more than any other type of curl. I’d say that it definitely is my favorite.”

Some of the feats of strength which Reeves was capable of are a two handed barbell clean from the kneeling position of 225 pounds, and also while lying on a flat bench he could leg curl himself up to the upright position for several repetitions. Steve’s calves were especially fantastic, a bodypart whose development he often put down to all the cycling he had done as a youth. They were wonderfully shaped and completely developed, despite the fact that Reeves claimed to have only ever done toe presses on a leg press machine to develop them. He was justifiably proud of his broad shoulders and often spoke with pride of his great shoulder/waist differential, which was undoubtedly the greatest in bodybuilding. In an interview during the 1980’s, Steve said his primary aim in bodybuilding was to get a maximum differential between his chest and waist measurements, and the widest shoulder width, which he got up to 23.5 inches. He also claimed that his chest had been 52 inches when his waist measured just 29 inches.

On the subject of nutrition, Reeves was, in the main, very much in time with modern beliefs on the value of a well-balanced diet complete with a wide variety of wholesome ingredients and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Perhaps he had an advantage here, for his mother was a nutritionist who provided her son with a sound education in this field. Steve also believed in the power of a daily protein drink, consisting of fresh orange juice, Knox gelatin, 2 to 4 raw eggs, a banana, honey, and some protein powder. He made his own powder consisting of egg-white powder, skimmed milk powder and soy protein powder, and also believed in the power of a special energy drink that he used to take during his workouts, which consisted of lemon juice with honey. Figs were another favorite and it also seems that he liked to eat steak with salad. Reports that he was almost a vegetarian are untrue, although he certainly ate a large quantity of fresh vegetables and fruits. He also liked goat’s milk and would often drink two quarts of it on a daily basis.

In the last 50 years of the 20th Century, Steve Reeves had come to represent the ideal bodybuilder, with his unparalleled combination of handsome looks and unbelievably balanced and beautiful physique, combined with great genetics for muscle shape. Over the years, reams of paper have been dedicated to discussing the Reeves look and physique. Steve himself largely ignored this attention, seemingly oblivious to the many great accolades that his contemporary bodybuilders heaped upon him. One wonders if he actually knew what an inspiration he had been for thousands of Physical Culturists across the world. I think he probably guessed as much. Photographs of his physique are a fantastic reminder to young men and women today of the rewards of natural training. This is especially true in the modern era of steroid champions, who gain their physiques in a somewhat dishonest manner.

None of the drug-enhanced physiques of today possess the magical, almost Greek God-like impression engendered by his amazing natural muscular proportions and symmetry. His photographs often invoke feelings of awe in those who first see them. Amazingly, friends of mine who saw Reeves in his prime assure me that he was even more impressive in the flesh. His name remains a beacon showing where the true path lies towards our physical ideal. Over and above anything I can say about this man stands the Reeves physique, immortalized in pictures and film, which in the author’s opinion, will never be equaled for its overall visual impact. Steve passed away in April, 2000, to widespread disbelief and sadness in the Physical Culture community, but will surely forever be remembered as the absolute peak of male physical perfection.
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Old 07-09-2012, 09:22 PM   #2
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Grimek, Reeves, Park and the American Muscular Ideal, Part Two
by Alan Radley (2001)


Reg Park, Reeves’ great combatant in the Mr. Universe contest, will also have a place in the hearts and minds of all true Iron Game fans. Park, an only son, was born in Yorkshire, England, and attended Leeds Grammar School. It is said that right from the start he was a promising athlete, enjoying most of the sports offered at the school. He won medals for running at which he was considered a natural. Reg also started training at home, and at the age of 16, his photograph appeared in “Health and Strength” magazine. He trained hard, and in the next few years he managed to place fourth in the junior Mr. Great Britain competition. Then, like Steve Reeves, he was called up for national service and served in the Far East. Nevertheless, he managed to continue weight training while overseas.

Returning to England in 1948, he arranged to attend the first Mr. Universe contest, where he saw Steve Reeves for the first time, and of whom he described as appearing “Out of this world.” On seeing Steve, he remarked that he would be as good, if not better than Reeves in only one year’s time! The following year, pictures of Reg Park and rumors of his genuine 18 inch arms started appearing all over the Physical Culture press, along with the news that he had bulked himself up to as much as 230 pounds. He then dieted down to a weight at which he felt he achieved maximum muscularity. Park now weighed in at 205 pounds, with a neck of 18 inches, chest 49½, waist 31, thigh 25, and a 16¾ inch calf. In November 1949, he entered the Mr. Great Britain contest at this weight and won the title easily. By now, his bench press was up to 325 pounds, and he could perform a standing press of 250 pounds. He was only 20 years old at the time of his win, and when his birthday came his parents sent him on a trip to the United States as a present. He traveled widely in America and impressed many of the pundits there with his strength and great physique.

Returning to England in 1950, he met Steve Reeves in a battle for the Mr. Universe contest in London. Despite many callouts and comparisons between the two men, for it was a close contest, Reeves emerged victorious. The two men were similar in size, but unfortunately for Park, Reeves appeared to have the edge in overall shape and general physical beauty. The following year, Park trained like a demon. He always trained in a small, unheated garage hear his home and along with two training partners he would go training both in summer and winter, no matter how cold it became. All that they had to light the little gymnasium were candles! Reg filled the holes in the broken windows and it was a gloomy little place. However, Park completed some great workouts here with very basic equipment, consisting of nothing more than a mass of solid discs, a few barbells and dumbbells, squatting stands, un-upholstered benches and dipping and chinning bars. Here he engaged in brutal workouts, pounding the iron with incredible concentration and copious amounts of sweat for up to 2½ hours at a time, always using the heaviest possible poundages.

Reg Park entered the 1951 Mr. Universe contest and won in heroic style, despite stiff opposition. A lithe Indian bodybuilder by the name of Montosh Roy gave a valiant challenge to the British man. Roy was an adept of Yoga and muscle control and gave an awe-inspiring demonstration of both techniques. At the time, it was common for physique contestants to prove their abilities by performing feats of strength and dexterity. Roy had a beautiful, well-proportioned and defined physique, which was admittedly lighter then Park’s, but he gave a wonderful posing display. Nevertheless, Park was announced the winner of this prestigious contest and found himself on his way to immortal fame. He continued to train for the next twenty years or more and won the Mr. Universe contest on several other occasions. He also started his own magazine, “The Reg Park Journal”, which sold well for many years, and also developed his bodybuilding courses which sold very well. Later in his career, he started to appear in several movies, including a re-enactment of Hercules.


Park’s training was mainly centered on the development of ultimate strength. He liked to use basic exercises that allowed him to really pile on the plates. A few out-takes from one of his courses are interesting in order to obtain a flavor of his methods.

From his ‘Back Specialization Bulletin’ he said, “The wide grip rowing motion. For real power in the Latissimus Dorsi, the wide grip rowing motion cannot be excelled. Besides imparting an imposing appearance, power can be built up when body motion is used in conjunction with heavier poundages. The chin behind neck. This exercise is the favorite of dozens of top flight bodybuilders including Alan Stephan, Armand Tanny, Marvin Eder, etc. There is something fascinating about the manner in which this movement broadens the upper back and builds definition, and that makes it such a popular exercise with weight trainers. At first you will have to work into the manner of performing the exercise before you tie any weight on your feet. Later on, as you get more powerful, you will be able to use quite an amount of added poundage to your bodyweight and 100 pounds is well within the possibilities of most trainers. The power upright rowing motion. Here is a favorite exercise of the top American bodybuilders and I have seen several in New York gymnasiums use up to 250 pounds. One famous bodybuilder is so powerful in this exercise that he can clean 300 pounds to the shoulders without any bending of the knees.” Other exercises he recommended in his back development course were the barbell shrug and the one-arm dumbbell row. For other bodyparts, he recommended a similar number of power exercises.

Another interesting fact is that Park placed significant emphasis on the development of forearms in his arm training. Again, it is useful to listen to his own words, taken from ‘How to Build Bigger Arms’. “The superb development of the arms still holds a magical fascination for the vast majority of men and women, and is synonymous with virility and manhood. To get big arms you must work them until they ache. Hard, progressive and persistent training produces this quality of muscular power. Strive for balanced development, great strength in muscles and tendons, and not coarse, inflated, bulky tissue. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, wrist strength is most important to the lifter; gripping power and latent forearm strength is transmitted via this medium. Strength and development of the forearms is to a large extent governed by tendon and wrist strength, in order that the powerful forearm muscles can exert themselves to the full. The oldtime strongmen depended upon superlative gripping power to accomplish the prodigious feats of strength they achieved. The Reverse Curl should take precedence over the normal curl! Also, routines for the forearms should take preference over the upper arms! And, in forearm work, anything that taxes the gripping power of the fingers rather than the muscular power of the forearm muscles themselves should be emphasized.

Park recommended the wrist curl and reverse curl, and the wind up with a newspaper to develop the forearms. He also recommended the use of 2½ inch diameter handles in dumbbell training for developing greater gripping power in the forearms. In addition, he recommended one-hand swings and one-hand clean & jerks for building extra power in the grip. Like the early strongmen, Park therefore places significant emphasis on the development of the muscles of the lower arm.

Known for his outstanding strength and incredibly high training poundages, Park set many strength records. Some of his training lifts were cheating barbell curls with well over 200 pounds, heavy rowing with well over 300, bench presses for repetitions with over 450, bent arm pullovers with over 200, presses behind the neck with 250, and squats with 460 for sets of 6 repetitions. He loved setting strength records and pressed two 135-lb. dumbbells overhead for a world record. Late in his career, he moved to South Africa where he still lives today. Reg Park still maintains his connections to the Iron Game, regularly attending reunions such as the 50th Anniversary dinner of the Mr. Universe contest, held in Birmingham, England, in October, 1999, where he gave a wonderful speech about the good old days of the sport. He also continues to be one of the best-loved and most respected individuals who ever participated in the sport.

As the 1950’s came to a close, bodybuilding in America reached new heights of popularity. Entrepreneurs saw opportunities in the new climate where going to the gymnasium was seen as “smart” and even chic. By now, Physical Culture had grown to such an extent that there were several thousand gyms across America. In 1958, the Wall Street Journal ran a lead article on the vast moneymaking possibilities of this new exercise trend. Health and strength was seen as an obtainable goal for all. Men like Vic Tanny, “The Gym King of America”, who owned 50 gymnasiums worldwide and annually grossed over 100 million dollars, began to make inroads into the American way of life as never before. Eventually he would own 84 gyms at the peak of the fitness boom during the 1960’s. Additionally, women were also especially welcome in these new gymnasia, many of which were posh establishments with chrome weights and well designed machines of all kinds.

Overall, it is certainly true that the Americans still had higher quality physiques during the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time, many assumed that the Americans had secrets they were not sharing with the rest of the world, so far ahead were their athletes in terms of muscular development. Nevertheless, the Physical Culture boom in England proceeded unabated during the 1950’s and 60’s. In seaside towns like Blackpool, Southampton and Brighton. Physical Culture displays became a common sight during the summer. Gymnastic displays were often seen on the beachfronts and promenades, as were tumbling and balancing shows. Also, high-diving and aqua shows were a standard feature in these seaside towns.

The use of weights to perfect the physique was also a notable part of the summer beach scene in England, somewhat mirroring the goings on in America. A close friend of mine, Roy Adams, used to showcase his great weight-trained physique in a diving team for summer crowds in Southport during the early 1960’s. Also in my own hometown of Blackpool during the 1950’s and 60’s, Physical Culture fans organized diving and physique contest in the open-air baths along the famous promenade.

The British also challenged the Americans with beauty contests and the like. The introduction of the bikini, in place of the older full length bathing costumes heralded a new interest in Physical Culture for women. Physical Culture was booming and both weight training and weightlifting contests became a noteworthy feature of the period. A particularly famous British Physical Culturist of the period was Reub Martin, who was a great all-rounder, as was common at the time. But he was most uncommon in his physical abilities, being at the same time, a great weightlifter, hand balancer, strongman, and bodybuilder. Appearing in his great stage act, “Trois Des Milles” in the early 1950’s, he never failed to bring the house down at the London Palladium. Touring with the “Folies Bergere” throughout England, Europe and Australia, he and his colleagues amazed audiences wherever they went. Reub would sometimes support his partner while in a handstand position and then walk up and down steps while, at the same time, balancing wine bottles in various positions.

During this golden age of muscle, the sport of bodybuilding continued to grow in sophistication in England. The great English bodybuilder, Oscar Heidenstam, is an important figure in the development of British Physical Culture. He had won the NABBA Mr. Great Britain title in 1937, followed by Mr. Europe in 1939, and was twice runner-up for the Mr. Universe title. In addition, he was later made NABBA secretary and editor in chief of “Health and Strength” magazine. He wrote a weekly column throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, answering bodybuilders training questions. He was a towering example to young, up-and-coming bodybuilders during this period and possessed a very fine physique that was much admired both in Europe and America. A guiding light to many great bodybuilders in the early stages of their careers, he is today remembered with great affection whenever people talk of the golden era of British Physical Culture. Additionally, his legacy is today continued by the fine organization that is the Oscar Heidenstam Foundation, which dedicates itself to promoting the older values of Physical Culture with its Annual Awards Dinner.

Throughout the 1950’s the NABBA Mr. Universe contest became recognized as the leading bodybuilding competition worldwide. As a result, musclemen from around the world would travel to compete at this event each year. Many famous American champions made visits to England for that particular contest. Over the years, some of the visiting Americans included John Grimek (1948), Bill Pearl (1953), Enrico Thomas (1954), Jim Park (1954), Mickey Hargitay (1955), Ray Schaeffer (1956), Jack Delinger (1956), Bruce Randall (1959), and Joe Abenda (1962). At the time, American physique stars were generally thought to be of a higher standard than those from other countries, although England could also boast a few stars of high quality. Some English winners of the Mr. Universe title included Arnold Dyson (1953), John Lees (1957), Len Sell (1959), Henry Downs (1960), and, of course, the great Reg Park (1951, 1958, and 1965). However, some of the more popular bodybuilders never won these top competitions. One example is Spencer Churchill, Reg Park’s training partner during the 1950’s. Spencer was by far the most popular bodybuilder in England during the golden age of bodybuilding.

Men like Grimek, Reeves and Park virtually invented bodybuilding during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Prior to this time, by and large, but with some exceptions, the overall muscle mass of a weightlifter had been of a much lower degree than demonstrated by John Grimek. He was the first modern muscleman with well-defined, giant muscles. Others had, throughout history, also developed large muscles but they had not, in the main, developed the same degree of definition and separation between the muscles that Grimek managed to achieve. All three of these great men achieved their physiques by concentrating as much on the newly “discovered” bodybuilding isolation exercises like curls, calf raises, abdominal exercises dumbbell flyes, as on the familiar weightlifting and power exercises.

In the earlier part of the 20th Century, most Physical Culturists had developed their physiques as a direct byproduct of weightlifting. Of course, these two activities go somewhat hand-in-hand, but in the 1950’s and 60’s, for the first time, these two sports diverged into two different specialisms. One ha the aim of a great looking body whilst the other maximized physical strength and power. This is seen for the first time in someone such as Reeves, who was primarily concerned with the effects that lifting had on the appearance of his physique and did not care much about specifically lifting maximum weights.

Overall, during the 1950’s and 60’s, weight training became a more sophisticated activity that involved the invention, development and construction of new kinds of equipment and machines. These allowed bodybuilders to exercise and develop certain muscles to a greater degree than before. Men of this age had larger, more defined muscles in the lower legs, chest, triceps and abdominals, in addition to more flaring back muscles than in the past. At the same time, the emphasis on high protein, low carb diets gave bodybuilders massive muscles that were nearly devoid of obscuring fat. This new approach resulted in a completely new physique ideal, one embodied by the likes of Grime, Reeves and Park, whose appearances on the covers of muscle magazines and in films would take this new idealized muscular look to young men around the world. At the same time bodybuilding was becoming big business, and many thousands of gyms were opened on both sides of the Atlantic. This was truly the golden age of Physical Culture, and tens of thousands flocked to the newly equipped gymnasia in the hope of building a stronger, healthier and more muscular physique. This tradition in fact continues to the current day, and weight trainers now number in the millions worldwide. If only Thomas Inch, Arthur Saxon and W.A. Pullum were alive today, I feel sure they would be amazed at the shear scale of activity they had pioneered.
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