Steeve Reeves Bodybuilding Legend | In-Depth Interview

Steeve Reeves

Complete In-Depth Interview with Bodybuilding Legend Steeve Reeves

Although his image and bodybuilding career are inextricably linked with California, Steve Reeves was actually born in Glasgow, Montana, on January 21, 1926. His father died tragically when Steve was only a toddler; and his mother moved with her young son to Great Falls, Montana, where for the next eight years she worked as a cook in a hotel. When Steve was 10, he and his mother moved to Oakland, California, and it was there that he started weight training at age 16.

He won the Mr. America contest in 1947 in Chicago; just as importantly, a theatrical agent saw him in that show and suggested he enroll in acting school. By the time Reeves won the Mr. Universe title in 1950, it was clear to anyone who looked at him that this stunningly handsome, extraordinarily built man was something beyond special. But it took six to seven years from the time he retired from physique competition before he made it big in the movies. The picture that did it for him was "Hercules", filmed in Italy. A series of other successful Italian-made movies followed, including "Hercules Unchained," "The Thief of Baghdad" and "Morgan the Pirate." In 1959 he was the number-one box- office star in the world.

A shy, private man who never really sought or enjoyed the spotlight, Steve Reeves made his last film in 1971 and returned home to the U.S. and life as a gentleman rancher and breeder of champion Morgan horses-his family on his mother's side are prominent ranchers in Montana to this day First, he operated a ranch in Oregon; now he lives the good life, looking more like 49 than 69, his actual age, on a 10-acre ranch in northern San Diego county in southern California. Widowed five years ago when his wife of 25 years passed away, he and his fiancé, Deborah, plan to marry soon.

On his parents, from whom he inherited his unparalleled genes.

I guess as far as the physique aspect is concerned, I took after my father. He was 61", weighed 200 pounds of solid muscle without ever working out in his life. He had wide shoulders and was extremely strong. And we look quite a bit alike. I may be just a little bit more refined looking than him in the face, but otherwise we look very much alike. In other words, without ever working out, my father was built like I am now- not like I was built when I was in championship form, of course.

My father's name was Lester, which is my middle name. He was born in Minnesota and raised in Montana. He was a rancher, but mainly his family was in the construction business. He was killed when I was 20 months old in a farming accident. They were threshing wheat, and some guy got his pitchfork caught in the belt between the tractor and the threshing machine. The belt swung the fork around like a catapult, and when it flung off, it went right into my father's stomach.

An injury like that might not be fatal today, but this was 1928, and the nearest doctor was a few hundred miles away. So there was no help. They kept him overnight, and the next day a train came through, and he had to go to the next state- this happened in eastern Montana and he had to go to Minot, North Dakota, to the nearest doctor who could do anything for him. And all that doctor there gave him was some peppermint water. So my dad died at age 27 of gangrene. It was considered such a tragedy in that small town in Montana. He was so popular that actually a crowd gathered and they were going to string up that doctor, but the sheriff came along and talked them out of it. I still have the newspaper article about my father's funeral.

My mother was a native of Montana. See, my father was actually from a farming-contracting family, and my mother was from a strictly cattle ranching family. They lived maybe five miles apart there in the Scoby-Richmond area, and that's where they met. She was considered the prettiest girl in that area at that time. Growing up on a ranch, my mother was an extremely good horsewoman. Her brothers used to break horses halfway, and she used to break them the rest of the way. Her brothers were cattlemen, and one of them was a champion bucking-horse rider. So they were real cowboys. The family name was Boyce. My mother's first name was Golden, but she went by the name Goldie. My mother, who remarried when I was 13, died about seven years ago. She lived almost to 80.

On how he built his physique

Well, contrary to most people, I worked hard on the bodyparts where I was lacking and didn't work on the parts where I was the best. For instance, when I first started working out, I had 16 1)4-inch calves from all the bike riding I'd been doing as a kid and only 13 3/4 inch arms. So I never worked the calves at all. Unlike some bodybuilders I could name who may have a terrific bodypart but in their enthusiasm to make it even better they destroy their symmetry.

So what I would do is, I would find my weakest part and work hardest on that-do the most sets and the most reps for the weakest part. And I would choose people to emulate-oh, I'd say, £1 want to have legs like John Grimek, arms like John Grimek, lats like Alan Stephan, definition like Clancy Ross." In other words, I would choose a group of people to emulate, not just one person. And when I worked out, I would concentrate deeply on the exercise I was doing and the muscle I was working. I would picture those strands of muscle working and getting bigger. I'd put myself into almost a hypnotic trance when I was working out. And I never knew it was difficult to get a physique, so I wasn't held back in that respect. Nobody said, "Oh, that's going to be difficult." In fact, in the first four months I worked out, I gained 30 pounds of solid muscle. I went from 163 to 193. Of course, from 193 to 203 took me a whole year.

But anyway, I was always encouraged because [laughs] I was growing in leaps and bounds, and it seemed like it was impossible to fail. So I was an easy gainer in that respect. I think it was my knowledge of exercises and the deep concentration I had. In other words, I tried to get a real good line of communication between the brain and the muscle. In fact, my saying is, No brain, no gain-not, No pain, no gain. I would concentrate very deeply, so I would be working that muscle only and get every rep out of it possible. Also, I would do my exercises real strict, real correct. You know, slow and perfect form-no cheating.

That meant I wouldn't use any more weight than I could handle in strict form. I mean, I would use as much weight as I could and hit every rep, but it had to be perfect form and flow. I could have used maybe 10 to 20 pounds more on some exercises if I wanted to, but I would have had to have a little push here, a little cheat there, a little bend there. And I didn't believe in that. What I did also is, I practiced a lot of muscle control. Because if you can control those muscles and make them flex and jump and this and that, when you go to do the exercise, that mind-and-muscle connection is already there. You see what I mean? You have a stronger connection than a person who doesn't do muscle control.

On his typical routine in the late '40s

To me it wasn't the sport of bodybuilding; it was the science of bodybuilding. I have kind of a scientific-type mind, so I would approach it as the science of bodybuilding rather than the sport of bodybuilding. In my training I would choose three different exercises for each muscle group and stick with those, rather than doing a large variety of exercises. So my approach was three sets of three-three sets of three exercises for the deltoids, three sets of three exercises for the pecs, etc.

My reps would be eight to 12. I'd start at eight reps with a certain weight and work up to 12. When I got up to 12, I would add five or 10 pounds, depending on whether it was a dumbbell or barbell, and start at eight again and work up to 12. Anyway, for the deltoids I would do upright rowing, press behind the neck and bent-over laterals. For the pecs I would do wide-grip bench presses, really wide-almost to the collars-followed by incline dumbbell presses and then a fly motion; in other words, dumbbell flys or wall-pulley flys. And for the back, the lats, I would do the wide chins behind the neck, seated pulley and one-arm rowing.

For triceps I would do push-downs, followed by a lying French press in which I would hold two dumbbells above me, palms in, curl them down to my ears and then come back up again while keeping my elbows straight up and motionless. Then I would do the French press-you know, behind the neck-with a single dumbbell, holding on to the plates. For biceps I ended up doing only incline bench curls, which I invented. At one time I would do regular curls, but I found that incline dumbbell curls were so effective, I dropped everything else and did this exercise exclusively. So this is where I changed my routine. Instead of doing three sets of three exercises for the biceps, I would do nine sets of one exercise.

Thighs, I would do half-squats, which are called parallel squats today. I used to use a stool, a very substantial stool that was just the right height, so when I touched the top of the stool, I'd know it was time to come back up again. And I'd do this exercise quite heavy. I would follow this with hack lifts, where you hold a barbell in back of your thighs. Then I would do front squats with my heels raised a few inches and the weight held in the clean position. In other words, the bar held across the upper chest, mainly supported by the palms of my hands.

For my calves I would only do toe presses on a leg press machine. This is not a bodypart I emphasized very much. My calves went from 16 1/4 to 17 1/4 just from training my thighs and gaining weight in the rest of my body. I did work them from 17 1/4 to 181/4 by using the leg press. I'd raise the weight up above me and then work the calves by moving my toes back and forth-as high as I could get the weight and as low as I could get it. I didn't do the standard calf raise, because I didn't like it that well. And I didn't have that apparatus [the calf raise machine] to begin with; that came later. We didn't have those in the late '40s. I'd also do good mornings-in other words, forward bends-for the lower back. At one time I did some deadlifts for the lower back, but then I just went to forward bends after that. I didn't work the abdominal area. I figured I didn't need it. Because every exercise you do, you tense the abdominals. Like when you're doing pushdowns for the triceps, your abdominals are really tensed. I also didn't work my abdominals because I didn't want my waist to get any bigger, and it stayed nice and lean and tense just by doing all those other exercises.

This is the routine I stayed with for two or three years-all the time was trying to build my body for championship form. This was back in '46, '47, '48. I trained my whole body every workout. I'd work as hard as I could for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Whatever it took. The split system of training came later, but I don't believe in that approach anyway. I think if you really train hard, you use up everything- your nervous energy and all the rest of your energies. So you need to recuperate the next day. Recuperation is just as important as training. I'd train three days a week and rest four. I'd train the entire body almost to failure, then take the next day off.

On his strength Capability

I'd say I had medium strength. I never went in for super strength, because if you get the tendons and ligaments too strong, then the muscles are not going to develop as fast. Because the tendons and ligaments will do all the work for you. That's my approach. That's my theory. I was always as strong as I wanted to be. I could have been much stronger if I wanted to be, but I wanted to have a classic-type physique, and to get much stronger I would have had to enlarge the size of my waist, my buttocks, my trapezius and do things I didn't want to do. Those are the three power places-your glutes, your waistline and your traps. I didn't want to enlarge those to be super- strong. I was considered strong but not super strong.

On his body measurements during his peak as a bodybuilder

I was 61" and 2l5 when I was in my best condition. My chest was 52, my waist 29, and my calves, arms and neck were all 18 1/4. I forget what my thighs were-maybe 26 1 / 2, 27. I don't know. I think my wrist was only 6 1/4.

On his training during the time he was a movie star

I maintained my physique by weight training only one month a year. It wasn't difficult for me to get a physique, and it wasn't difficult to maintain it. It wasn't something that you had to pump, pump, pump to get and you lay off for two months and it went - pssst, like air out of a tire-back down again. It was nothing like that. It went up fast and it stayed there a long time without much maintenance.

The reason I didn't train more during that time is, I didn't have any facilities in most of the places we were filming. But the main reason, I guess, is that in motion pictures they don't want you too big, because the camera puts 15 pounds on you as it is. If I'd been too big, I'd only have been able to play the part of Hercules. I wouldn't have been able to star in "Thief of Baghdad," "Morgan the Pirate," "The Last Days of Pompeii" and other pictures. In fact, when I was in my mid-20s and I'd go to studios like Universal, they'd tell me, "Well, guy, you have a great-looking face, but that body is just too big. We can't use you- I mean, if you just had a normal body, with a face like that we'd put you under contract with Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. But with that physique we might be able to find one picture a year for you at the most." So my physique actually held me back in the acting business for the first 10 years of my life after bodybuilding.

On how he got the role of Hercules in Italy

Well, I had done a couple of pictures here in the States. I did a picture called "Jailbait" with this guy Ed Wood, There was a picture out last year about Ed Wood-you might have heard of it. He was a director. That's how I got my Screen Actors Guild card. I played a young detective, and there was only one scene where I had my shirt off. The rest of the time I was in a shirt, tie and suit. Then after that I got the role of Jane Powell's boyfriend in a picture called "Athena," a musical comedy at MGM. So I did that, and nothing much happened in the States here for me afterwards. But in Italy this director, Pietro Francisci, had written a script for "Hercules" and was going to direct it. He'd been looking for an actor for five years and couldn't find anybody. You know, in Italy he could find a guy who was good-looking, but he wasn't tall. Or he was good- looking and tall, but he was skinny. Or fat. Or something. He just couldn't find a guy who had the physique, a good-looking face, had a little acting experience and was tall.

One day his daughter, who was 13, went to the movies and saw me in "Athena." I played a Mr. Universe in that picture. And she went home and said, "Daddy, I think I found your Hercules." So he went to the movies the next day, he pictured me with a beard, a few years older and things like that. Then he contacted me, and we negotiated from there.

On movies vs. bodybuilding

When I started doing films at the age of 31, I told myself, "By age 45 1 want to earn enough money so I can retire-I want to retire at 45 and get a 20-year start on most people to do exactly what I want to do in life." And that's exactly what I did. Being an actor, being a star, wasn't my cup of tea. It was stressful for me, let's put it that way And the thing is, I would never have left bodybuilding if there was any money in it. But there was no money in it back then. If I had been paid to do it professionally, just work out and have a bunch of products I could endorse and things like that, then I would have stayed in bodybuilding. But there was no way for me to make a living in it.

So I thought, "Well, to make a living you have to be some kind of actor or professional athlete or something like that." So it came down to, "Well, I guess I'll be an actor. Everybody has been telling me I should be all my life." And everybody always thought I was. Everywhere I'd go people would ask me if I was, and I'd say, "No, I'm not. No, I'm not. No, I'm not." One day I thought to myself, "Well, maybe I should be." You know, you put the person in the part long enough, eventually they're going to play it.

His impressions of John Grimek and Sergio Oliva

Well, I've known John Grimek for many years, and as a person I find that he's always up- he's always jolly and positive about things in life. And as far as physique is concerned, he was our idol. Particularly I was impressed by his legs and arms. I also admired him because of his athletic ability. He could do splits, handstands, all those different things. That showed strength and agility at the same time. And he was a master poser. He was just tremendous on stage.

He had a very rugged type of physique. Kind of a Herculean type of physique. I would say I had more of an Apollo-Adonis type of physique. You know what I mean? Let's say his physique is Herculean and rugged, and mine was more of a classic physique. He was very thick; he had a lot of muscle on him. What I concentrated on was getting the greatest size difference between the waist and the chest as possible. I don't know anybody in history who's ever had more. I got up to 23 1/2 inches- and I was trying to get to 24, but then I had to make a living as an actor, so I lost weight. My waist and chest measurements in those days were 29 and 52.

John's chest was about 50, I've been told, but with a 50-inch chest on a person his height and a 52-inch chest on a person my height, his chest will look much bigger than mine. His chest was thick, but he didn't have big pecs and big lats, so the size of his chest was mainly in the depth of it. Mine was mainly in the width of it-with the lats. Sergio Oliva is a person I don't know quite as well. I did a tour of Europe with him around 1977, and he was very friendly to me, always very pleasant and didn't have a bad word to say about anybody.

As far as his physique is concerned, I think he was tremendous. He had a huge chest, huge arms, a small waist and good width of shoulders. I would say he had more muscle, more thickness than anybody I've seen other than the steroid people of today. He's very well proportioned. An interesting thing I noticed when we were on that tour together is how different we approach our training. I got my physique by training everything absolutely slow and with perfect style.

I watched him train, and he does half movements. Mine was full extension and full contraction; his is half movements-half extension, half contraction. Yet he got himself a fantastic physique. So there's really no one way to train. He and I trained exactly the opposite way. He would train with super-eights and maybe do five to six reps. I would train with medium-heavy weights and do eight to 10 or eight to 12 reps in perfect style. So you never know which technique, which routine is going to do it for you.

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