John Grimek: Insightful Look & Interview with Bodybuilder John Grimek

John Grimek

A fascinating look into the life of bodybuilder John Grimek

John Grimek was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on June 17,1910. His mother died when he was little. John grew up with a passion to become as strong and muscular as the strongmen he admired. An influence closer to home was his older brother George, who had a set of weights and trained with some friends. Young John first started playing around with the weights-usually when no one was looking-when he was 12.

By the 1930's the little boy had become a champion weightlifter, representing the United States in the '36 Olympics, and a successful artist's model, traveling all over the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Recruited into the '40 Mr; America contest in New York City against his will, he won that show and every other bodybuilding competition he ever entered, thus gaining his reputation as the first great modern bodybuilder; An exceptional poser with a rugged, muscular physique, he retired from physique performing in 1954 but has continued to train right up to the present. In addition to his stature as the godfather of modern bodybuilding, for years he was the York Barbell Company in the eyes of the bodybuilding public, although he didn't own the company. From 1963 to '85 he was also the editor in chief of Muscular Development, which was then a York publication. In all he spent almost 50 years with the York Barbell Company. Now retired, he and his wife, Angela, still live in York, Pennsylvania, and last year they celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. They have six children, 12 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

On his initial motivation for weight training:

My first ambition was to be a lifter. At that time there was no such thing as bodybuilding or being a physique person. That was what they call a pretty boy situation-someone who would be strutting around and showing off his muscular development. That had no appeal to me. I just wanted to get the results without being in any kind of parading situation, going around saying, 'Here I am! Look at me! I've got this and that." No, that sort of thing always irked me, and anytime I encountered a person who was always strutting around, I couldn't stand 'em. I just had to walk away because I thought he was a nut. That wasn't the whole idea of training-at least not in my case. And it wasn't the idea of making any money out of the situation either. I simply wanted to get a little stronger and heavier-for, you see, I was sort of undersized when I was young.

How he developed his physique:

I never stuck to a set system of exercises for months or years. No! I did everything that I could possibly think of that would be instrumental in causing some reaction in a muscular way. If I thought I needed more chest development, then I would concentrate or do a little more, put a little more effort in chest work. Particularly I would do a lot of squatting, so I'd be huffing and puffing, and then instead of sitting around until caught my breath, I would quickly lie down on a bench and do what you'd call pullovers, or lying lateral raises, trying to supplement that oxygen that was required and expand the rib cage. If I thought my arms needed some extra work, then I would finish off my regular workout by concentrating more on the exercises relative to the arms-using heavier weights and maybe not doing 10, 12, 15 repetitions with some of 'em but just three or four with maximum resistance. And that's why it was never the same thing every day. Even if I would do the same exercises sometimes, each day I would do them slightly different. Maybe I would be on an incline, then maybe on a decline-if I were doing the pullovers or the lying lateral raises for the rib cage and the shoulders and so forth. But that would expand my rib box to the point where it got so big, it was almost too large for my frame.

I remember I had some suits made in Chicago by this tailor who had been recommended to me. Then two years later I went back to him and he took my measurements again land told me my chest was four inches or something larger than it was the last time. I said, "What are you talking about? I haven't been doing anything different than what I normally do." And he said, "No, look!" So he took out my old chart from the time I'd visited him about two years earlier, and my chest then was about 46 1/2 to 47. Now it was around 50. And he said, "You don't look like you've gotten fatter or anything. So I don't know what it is." I said, "Well, I guess I must be expanding my rib cage." That's how I learned my training was working.

On his body measurements when he was in his prime:

At the 1949 Mr. USA I was about 59 1/2" and weighed about 218. My waist was always small. It never went over 30 inches, and usually it was 28 1/2 to 29. Even when I was coming back from Berlin in 1936, where I had bulked up to about 237 because I was competing in the Heavyweight class, when I really should have been in the Light Heavyweight class, my waist was still only about 301/2. My arms were about 19 1/2, my thigh measurement was 29 1/2, and my calves at one time got up to 20 1/2, although they were usually 19 or 19 1/2. My neck was anywhere from 18 1/2 to 20, depending on my weight. I'm large boned; my ankle bones and my wrists are relatively heavy My wrists used to measure a little over 8 1/4 to 8 1/2. Now they're down to about eight, I guess. And my ankles measured about 14 or something-very big. But my knees were small, which would give you a better shape to your leg in a sense. As it is, I always thought my leg mass was too large, and for years I tried to trim my legs down by doing excess-repetition squats. I'd do so many squats-like hundreds of repetitions in a workout- just so I could overwork them, and in that way reduce my thighs. But whether I overworked them, underworked them-and I tried both-it never happened.

On how his training changed after he stopped competing in weightlifting:

I guess I just started planning or figuring out what is the most effective exercise or exercises I could do that did the job for me. In other words, what I wanted, these exercises would do for me and in half of the time that I was doing it in the past. And after a while I just didn't give a damn whether I weighed 500 pounds or 120 pounds, see? That's the attitude I took. And it worked wonderfully for me. I never put on weight unless I wanted to put on weight. Then I would increase my food intake. But otherwise I could eat all the darn ice cream and all the cream puffs you could give me, and it wouldn't have any effect on me; my weight would remain the same, and my muscularity would remain the same.

On his typical workout pattern in the mid-to-late '40s:

I'd usually train about five days a week and sometimes six. How long? Sometimes when I felt ambitious and I wanted to do more, it would take four to five hours. Normally it would not last more than two hours at the most. I trained everything in every workout-I didn't do what they call split workouts and train legs and arms one day, back and other stuff the next day. No, the only way I ever isolated a group of muscles was when I was finished with my routine for the day and I still thought I needed more for my back or chest or legs or whatever. Then I threw in an additional two to three exercises and much heavier-you know, trying to maximize the thing. And that was it. What is called split training wasn't used then, although I had read somewhere that Hackenschmidt was using a method where he would isolate certain groups on certain days or else put more emphasis on a specific part while training the entire body on a given day. But I never had a yen for that. I was making progress all over, so there was no need for a concentration on a certain area. And I never found that training the whole body in each workout was too tiring. In fact, when I got through, I was feeling a helluva lot better and more ambitious and energetic than I did when I started.

On his use of the training technique now known as pyramiding:

I would take a weight that was well within my ability and do a higher number of repetitions with it. If I was working the legs, for example, I would start off with about 225 pounds and do about 20 to 22 repetitions-the highest I think I would go up to would be 28 repetitions consecutively. Then I would do some chest exercise, then put on another 90 pounds and do another 15 or 18 repetitions. After doing the chest exercise again, I would add still more weight, maybe 35 pounds on each side. So I would keep on building the weight up and dropping the repetitions slightly. The next set would be about 12 repetitions, and then the next set would be about nine or eight repetitions, with the weight gradually getting higher and higher. Eventually I would work up to 600 and some pounds. I remember with 645 I did two or three reps, and then I knew I was coming to my maximum. The next time I squatted, I would take on maybe five or 10 pounds more and do maybe one with it. If I could do three with a weight, I would increase the weight and do a single repetition the next time I did the exercise.

And that applied to whatever area I was training-my arms, my chest. Any exercise I did, I would begin with a medium weight and then just keep on building it up and cutting down my repetitions. But when it was all done, there would be enough repetitions to equal, say, somebody doing four sets of 10 to 12. So there would be ample repetitions, and at the same time the resistance would climb so that it would be almost the maximum at the end. That way I was achieving both ends. Whereas everyone worked the opposite way. They started out with a heavy weight, did a couple of repetitions, then as they reduced the weight they would do more repetitions.

On his penchant for variety and flexibility in his training:

Instead of always taking an exercise and repeating it in sets four, five, six times, I often preferred, if I was working the arms, for example, to do five, six or seven exercises that were different. I felt that there were some deep-seated muscles that needed an extra jolt. And the only way to get that jolt was to either exercise it from another angle and see if you could make it function as fully as the other part of that muscle was working. And that's what I always tried to do. I did a lot of exercises for the same part of the body. And it worked! At least it felt like it was working. That's why, when people ask me how I trained, I can't think back right now and say, "Oh, yeah, that was the one exercise I did which promoted everything." No, I cannot say that, because I did a variety of movements even for the same part of the body. And I would also do what I felt like doing on that day That's the thing. If I felt I needed additional repetitions or additional exercises, I did it. But if I felt, "Oh, the hell with it! I've had enough of that," I would quit! See, there was no sense of a routine that was stringent in any way, something that I felt I had to do. The hell with it! I did what I wanted. If I started an exercise, and I found that I didn't like it or need it that day, I just bypassed it. In the beginning, of course, I followed a more formal system of training, like the kind you would get when you ordered a set of weights from a company like the Mb Barbell Company.

On why he felt competed toblaze newtrails in training:

How are you going to get beyond [a sticking point] if you're doing the same thing over and over again? You have to try a new approach. Of course, as you gain more experience, you have better control of what you're doing, and you're able to come up with something that your body is in need of. It's all right to change your training by listening to your body if you can interpret that in such a way to know what you're doing. A lot of younger people just think, 'Hell, I'm gonna change my routine," but they don't know why they're changing it. They may simply be bored with the exercises they're doing right then, but that isn't the real answer. It's just a diversion. When you're sincere about doing it in such a way that you promote muscle growth or whatever you want to call it, that's the basis on which you should change it. Otherwise it's just a diversion. When you make a change, you should know that the new exercises you'll be doing will be reacting upon your system more effectively and you'll be getting the results that you are trying to get.

On his attention to strict exercise form:

Whatever I did in my training, I tried to do it as completely and strictly as possible. I never did much cheating exercise, like swinging the weights up and getting extra muscles to help me get the weight up instead of concentrating on that particular muscle and doing the exercise as it should be done, getting everything into the muscle from the exercise and the effort I was putting forth. And, again, it worked!

On competing in the '36 Olympics:

If I had competed in the Light Heavyweight division, where I should have been, I'm sure I could have had a medal-first, second or third. But I had to enter the Heavyweight class because was the national Heavyweight champion that year, which automatically meant I had to compete as a Heavyweight in Berlin. But my normal bodyweight then was 186, and the Light Heavyweight limit was 182, so it would have been no problem for me to lose those four pounds and compete as a Light Heavyweight. Since I had to compete in the heavier class and some of those guys outweighed me by as much as 200 pounds, I foolishly tried to put on about 20 pounds very quickly, and, of course, that didn't do me any good at all. I've always said that I could have strapped a 20-pound dumbbell around my waist and lifted just as well for all that extra weight did for me. Also, I drank a jar of honey before the competition, and that made me nauseous. So I finished only eighth or ninth. Even so, the total I lifted in Berlin would have been good enough to win the Light Heavyweight class.

On the eye-catching routine he did at the '48 Mr. Universe, where he defeated Steve Reeves:

When we were doing the preliminaries, I didn't do much, and a couple of our York men were in the front row, telling me, "Do something! Do something!" I said, "Oh, nuts"-to myself, see? I just stood there relaxed, wouldn't even flex a toenail, for the love of Pete. But then they had a posedown between me, Reeves and a guy from France. We pulled straws to see who was going to go first. This Frenchman got first, so he went on. He didn't do much-just a couple of poses and that's it. I went on second and went through a whole routine of about 30 poses. Then I did muscle control on top of that, and as a conclusion I jumped off the pedestal into a full split, did a handstand, a couple of handstand pushups and flipped back up to my feet. That tore the house down because they had never seen anything like that before. So that was the end of it. And Reeves, who was watching me at the time, I think he got kinda nervous. And when he went out, he kinda wobbled in his footing. And in one case he missed his step and came off the platform. And I think that just put him out of the picture. Later on the guys from York bawled me out and said, "Why didn't you do something earlier?" I said, "Look, I was waiting for the final event," which was the pose- down. Then, of course, I went through the whole routine, and the people went crazy. It was the longest routine they'd ever seen. But that was my normal routine. I wanted to do muscle control because I saw several of my friends-particularly Sig Klein-do it. And I thought, "Gee, I'd like to do that!" So I tried, and I found I could move just about any muscle in my body if I practiced a bit on it and watched myself in the mirror to see where it's moving and how it's moving and why it's moving.

On his reaction to the accolades people heap on him:

I always say, "Forget it!" I mean, in some ways it embarrasses me when they come up to me and say, "Oh, you're this and that!" I tell them, Ahhh, if you wanted to do it, you could have done the same damn thing or even better" I don't know, but I was always sure anyone could. That's why I never made any big deal about it. Yet people who I might have met when they were 10, 12, 14 years old come up to me and say, "Gee, you still look terrific!"-and they go into kind of a big rigmarole, and I say, Ahhh, well, hell, I just stayed with it, I liked it, and I felt as long as I enjoy it, I'm gonna do it!" See, to me this was never a kind of job or something that I had to do. This was nothing serious when I started-and it never was later! Eventually, of course, I had a vocation with it, yes, but it just turned out that way.

His impressions of Steve Reeves and Sergio Oliva:

I've known them for years, and to me they've always been very nice. They're friends, and they were always willing to help you if they could, just like I was willing to help them if I could. Before Steve Reeves finally won the Mr. Universe, he spent about two months here in York, and I helped him with his routine, which was the routine he won with when he beat Reg Park I just watched him and said, "You could try a little more of this, a little more of that." I didn't actually change his routine. I just found out the poses that he liked to do and could do best; I wanted him to do them the way I felt would look best for him. I didn't want to teach him any new poses. I wanted him to show me what he could do, and I was only going to help him to turn into the position where his physique would look best to the audience and the judges. And that's exactly what he did.

He was a good-looking kid, and he had the height, which gave him an edge. But actually in his case I think if he had concentrated a little bit more on lifting his rib box to get him rounder, he would have been super! More super than he was. He had good-shaped arms, he had terrific legs, he had a very good [lat] spread, and he just looked perfect. I wasn't surprised that he became so successful in the movies. In fact, I thought he should have got into the movies and been a big success long before it really happened. My first contact with Oliva was when he had moved to Chicago. I had written him through somebody else and said to him, "I would like to get kind of a brief story on you for the magazine because I think you're terrific!" Here was another person who started as a lifter. He didn't do any bodybuilding. He was only interested in lifting at the beginning. He was terrific [as a bodybuilder] in that he had very wide shoulders and a very slim midsection, and that gave him something that looked fantastic. And his muscle mass was so unusual that you could call it phenomenal, outstanding. He's packed up plenty. And his legs were also very good.

So he did very well, and I'm glad that he's still able to present himself in such an impressive way that people say, "Gee, this guy's still terrific!" That's the one good thing you can say about people: If they have [a great physique], do they have it for a year or two and then it disappears? Or does it continue? And the last time I saw him, in Columbus, which was a couple of years ago, he still looked impressive. So he's been holding himself up pretty good.

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