John Grimek, The Greatest Bodybuilder of All Time
by David Gentle

John GrimekThe above sub title is just an opinion and not necessarily a fact. An opinion though I must add, shared by thousands of fans throughout the world during a whole era of bodybuilding history, often referred to as the Golden Age of Bodybuilding, a time of muscle discovery. Judged in his time by the most recognized authorities of that period, John C. Grimek was unbeaten in all of the contests he entered, a record which to the best of my knowledge still stands to this day.

John has literally devoted a lifetime to physical culture, bodybuilding or pumping iron, or call it what you will. When at his peak in the 1950’s he was as great an inspiration as Sandow was to an earlier generation of bodybuilders, and John helped overcome enormous prejudice (his demonstration of flexibility helped squash that old muscle bound tag) and helped popularize the muscle building years that followed his career.

Of Hungarian parents, John was born in Perth Amboy in New Jersey, USA on June 17th, 1910 and despite spending most of his time in York, retained a New Jersey accent. His mother died when he was young, so John was brought up by his father and family. Never a weakling, John commenced training early in his teens using his brother George’s barbell set. John was one of a family of six, three boys and three girls.

Even at this early period he was naturally endowed with good health and a touch constitution. Very active, swimming and jumping with a great appetite. By 1932, he began to achieve local fame as a weightlifter. His enthusiasm encouraged all the more after meeting with Sig Klein in Sig’s famous New York gym. It was through Sig’s influence that John developed a liking for training with dumbbells. Sig had a pair of clumsy 100’s dumbbells which he could alternately press. These proved too tough at first for Grimek but with practice he eventually emulated Sig’s performance. John always used dumbbells in his schedules. I believe being able to alternate 2 x 140 lbs or more. Later in life John confessed despite his huge biceps (larger by far than any of his contemporaries) he rarely did curls, obtaining enough exercise form rowing, pulldowns, power cleans, etc. but when he did do curls it was always with dumbbells.  

John came into contact with several of the once named “Strongest Man in the World’, titled men. Canadian, Louis Cyr’s huge thick handled dumbbells, one in particular weighed 269 lbs, John bent pressed it – no less than nine times in an afternoon (note: a bent press is an old time single arm lift). John could side press unofficially 245 lbs and one arm swing with a specially loaded dumbbell weighing 230 lbs or more. Extremely creditable poundages without attempting limits.

A Foundation of Power

John GrimekMark Berry, Editor of the old Strength magazine and author of now coveted collectors items, had a great influence on John, and encouraged him to incorporate plenty of heavy leg work into his schedules. Berry had noticed John’s obvious potential and invited him to stay for specialized training, always with the accent on heavy lifting. Thus John built up a great foundation of power.    

It was during this time that he first practised supporting exercises, so accustoming his body to withstand and get used to the feel of heavy weights. With further training he supported weights of around 800 lbs overhead and lifted well over 1000 lbs with straps in the straddle lift (a sort of squat/deadlift combination).    

Limited only the toughness of the straps he wore, which often broke, and also the general discomfort of the exercise, these early power movements helped to develop muscle fibres of great strength which remained with him through his training life.

Strength was a Milo Barbell Co. magazine, which claimed John as a pupil of their system, but in fact John was nobody’s pupil, then or at any other time. He trained exactly when, and how he liked over the years experimenting with just about every conceivable method of muscle and strength building. He never stuck rigidly to any system of exercises but simply did everything possible to influence his muscle improvement and strength and fitness. Through continually changing his workouts to see what worked best for him, he was performing sets, super concentration systems, power movements, flushing, etc. long before anyone else had even given the methods a name or invented hyped up muscle building terminology, that has become popular in later bodybuilding magazines.    

The Mil Co. was eventually bought out by Bob Hoffman in the early 1930’s and John remained loyal to the York Barbell Co. with his great strength he was a natural choice for weightlifting and in 1936, he was the American Senior National Weightlifting Champion in the heavyweight class with a 786 total. Later he was selected to represent American at the Olympic games in Berlin and there he placed a very credible 8th in the Heavyweight class, despite probably being the lightest heavyweight of them all, if not he was certainly the most muscular – not at all bad for a man who never specialized on the lifts!     

He also represented America at the 1938 World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, this time he placed 4th. Officially in strict style, John pressed 285 lbs. In competition, He could, however in loose style, press over 300 lbs, and once settled, pressed with lots of back bend, 364 lbs. Further demonstrations of his lifting power, was his ability to jerk form the shoulders, 400 lbs. dead lift without any warm up, 600 lbs and bent press (note: that's bent not bench) near 300 lbs, i.e. side lift over head with one hand 300 lbs. John could curl poundages in excess of 200 lbs when that weight was considered a good poundage. Never an advocate of bench presses, or big pecs, despite lack of practice, John could bench press around 480 lbs after a warm up. But he maintained that heavy pec development was unsightly especially in an older man and even hindered the full expansion of the chest. 

A THOUSAND AND ONE WAYS

John GrimekJohn trained in a thousand and one ways not only for muscular development, size or strength but also for ability and flexibility. His training included at times a thousand free squats for endurance and twists, bends and stretches for flexibility, being capable of full splits and high kicks. His demonstrations soon debunked the old muscle bound notions of non-believers in training with weights.     

He also practiced lots of muscle control, to counter balance tension, and of course posing and muscular display.  

Posing was an art at which John excelled, with his early years as a professional art model laying the groundwork for this. Amongst other things, he was for a time the model for Tarzan illustrations. Later in his career he helped many up and coming physique starts with their posing routines.  

One prime example being a young Bill Pearl in formulating a routine for contests. Reg Park and even Arnold Swarzenegger openly admit that his routines gave them inspiration. 

The 1948 Mr. Universe

British fans, who had for a long time seen many photos of John in Health and Strength (first pictures I found were from 1933) and in Superman, Vigour, Bodysculpture and others, were to finally see him in the flesh in London at the time of the 1948 Olympic Games. The venue was the Scala Theatre for the title of Mr. Universe. This classic contest has been thoroughly documented and has remained one of the supreme events in the history of bodybuilding. John was the winner, at a mature age of almost 40. His posing and strength feats like bending iron bars over his forearm and breaking chains around his chest, will never be forgotten by the two thousand fans lucky enough to witness them that day. Steve Reeves took second place and French resistance fighter, later wrestler, Andre Drapp was third. The very first Universe in London was sponsored by Health and Strength magazine and this year (1998) NABBA will be presenting a special 50-year anniversary show that we hope he will attend.      

John attempted to retire from contests, but was coaxed out of retirement to abate the many challenges thrown down at him (this was back in the days of the so-called Muscle Wars between rival publications and their champions). In 1949 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on March 26th before a huge audience of 7,000 people and with indisputable unbiased judges. John competed against 20 top caliber competitors, all being high title holders, including Floyd Page, Steve Reeves, Clancy Ross, George Eiferman, Armand Tanny and others. After a lengthy decision, brought about I must add by much debate over who should be second, the winner was finally announced as none other than our subject John Grimek, Clancy Ross was second and Steve Reeves came third.

A Happily Married Man

John is married, and like his own parents had three boys and three girls with now 12 grandchildren who regularly keep in touch being a close family. “They are the most active bunch I’ve ever met”, says wife Angela. The Grimek’s Golden Wedding Anniversary was held in 1991, and the grant event was attended by 300 of the biggest names from the world of bodybuilding. Back in 1954, John retired from contests, but thereafter still gave countless guest posing spots, attended literally thousands of shows and dispensed with always sensible advice and training knowledge through his columns in Bob Hoffman’s and his own magazine and even more recently, as a regular writer for Robert Kennedy’s MuscleMag International, where he has his own column entitled Wisdom of Grimek.

John, who could adjust his weight almost at will form 190 lbs to 230 lbs was probably at his best around the 210 lbs mark at a height of 5ft 8 ins. His arms were over the 19-inch mark when most other competitors were measuring with a slack tape, 16 or 17 inches. He certainly built a physique that endured from a foundation of heavy and varied training and a healthy diet. Even when in his 70’s John was still squatting on a regular basis with incredible poundages of well over 600 lbs.

Shoes Impossible to Fill

“Shoes impossible to fill,” said Bob Hoffman when John finally retired from York Barbell Co. in 1985 age 75, after almost 50 years service. Even Bob Hoffman admitted Yorks popularity was propped up by John, who received 98% of all the mail. The awards till continue to arrive despite the length of his retirement. Vice Boff’s Association of Oldtime Barbell And Strongman, awarded John special recognition and tributes as did the Oscar Heidenstam Foundation with their premier award in 1992, and as recently as 1994 American bodybuilders voted him Most Inspirational and Lifetime Achievements awards. From Sandow to Schwarzeneggar, John Grimek has positively influenced bodybuilding beyond measure.

More to a Man than Just Muscles

In an imperfect world, with a sport that regrettably has always had its share of jealousies and accusations, John C. Grimek has remained impeccable, never once lowering himself to reply to abuse, sometimes hurled in his direction. He has always chosen to follow the positive path, to try to help and encourage devotees of the physical culture and to always set a good example. With his friendliness, modesty and approachability we hope that other bodybuilding champions will try harder to follow his example.  There is more to a man than muscles. It also takes courage and integrity to achieve maturity. John Grimek’s devotion to physical culture for a lifetime makes him for me at least, The Greatest of Them All, The King of Bodybuilders. *   

*Since the original publication of this article, the world sadly mourned the passing of John Grimek on November 20th, 1998 at the age of 88.  

John Grimek, The Greatest Bodybuilder of All Time Copyright by David Gentle All Rights Reserved

John Grimek

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