Posted on 21 Feb 2014
6 min read
I have become increasingly disillusioned with modern bodybuilding of late – and I know I’m not alone.
Over the last few decades the sport has changed drastically, and for the worst.
Although some might disagree, the way I see it, the halcyon days of aesthetics and beauty have been snuffed out by a depressing parade of chemicals and mutants.
I miss the Golden Age.
I miss the aura of majesty and magic, the camaraderie and showmanship, the NATURAL beauty of the human form.
Above all I miss John Grimek – for many, the greatest all-natural bodybuilder of all time.
Grimek (pronounced ‘grimmek’ not ‘grymeck’) dominated the sport of bodybuilding in the 30s and 40s, winning the AAU Mr. America twice.
Over the course of his career he never lost a contest – a record which is still unsurpassed today.
In his era Grimek’s physique was unmatched, breathtaking, revolutionary.
He had a chest as wide as the M6, biceps like basketballs, deltoids like cannonballs, a tiny waist, and looking into his eyes was like losing your virginity.
At the time, leading art critics were even heard to remark that they had never seen the human form so beautifully evoked as it was by John Grimek (gaaaay).
But, significantly, his rippling physique was also supremely functional and athletic.
He was also one of the strongest men in the world, competing as a weightlifter in the 1936 Olympic Games, and he could also perform backflips and the splits with the dexterity and grace of a gymnast.
It was this sensational blend of physical grandeur, lithe athleticism and Herculean strength, along with his good looks and charisma, that made Grimek such an iconic figure and an inspiration for millions.
He was the ‘Monarch of Muscledom’, and always will be.
John Carroll Grimek was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey on June 17, 1910 to Hungarian parents.
Like many of us, he started lifting iron in his early teens to build his physique.
However, unlike most of us, his muscular development was so swift and impressive that he quickly caught the interest of many professional photographers in New York who wanted to take his picture.
No matter how hard I work out, I can only dream of this level of validation.
The only person who has professed an interest in taking my picture was a man called Dougie who smelt of piss and used to walk around the gym changing rooms in his slippers and y-fronts.
Haven’t seen him for years – I assume he has since been incinerated.
Anyway, I digress.
Grimek found employment as a male model and worked up to 100 hours per week posing for University classes and magazines.
He earned around $80 per week which was a huge sum considering this was the Great Depression.
Someone should have told Tom Joad to pick up a dumbbell!
Realising his strength in the gym, Grimek quickly developed an interest in Olympic weightlifting.
In 1936, after becoming national champion, he was picked to represent Team USA as a weightlifter at the 1936 Olympic Games.
He finished 9th in the Heavyweight category.
However, the expert consensus what that if he competed in the Light Heavyweight category he would easily have medalled.
Grimek also went on to claim the American and World Record for the Military Press, one of his most formidable lifts.
After his moderately successful venture into weightlifting, Grimek decided to focus his attention exclusively on bodybuilding.
(However, he would still compete in – and win – weightlifting contests right up until his retirement.)
In 1940 and 1941 Grimek won the AAU Mr. America competition.
His victories in this prestigious competition were so overpowering that the contest organisers decided to subsequently introduce the ‘one victory only’ rule in order to stop Grimek dominating the competition for the foreseeable future.
However, Grimek really caught the world’s attention in 1948 when, at age 38, he won the NABBA Mr. Universe contest in London, defeating the inimitable Steve Reeves in the process.
After his defeat, Reeves famously declared: “John Grimek is the greatest bodybuilder that ever lived”.
But it wasn’t just his beautiful physique that enthralled crowds.
It was also his incredible athleticism.
During his posing routine, John Grimek would glide nimbly across the stage like a gymnast, performing, in addition to the ‘classic poses’, backflips, frontflips, tiger bends, the splits, and handstand push ups.
Just imagine some of today’s crop trying to pose in this manner.
I doubt Jay Cutler could even flip a pancake!
John Grimek was a true showman – or, as one commentator would later put it, “a young man with a massive physique and an uncommon talent for showing it off.”
In 1949 Grimek competed in his last contest, at AAU Mr. USA, where he was once more victorious, defeating the likes of Reeves, Clarence Ross, and George Eiferman.
He retired from the sport undefeated.
For me, the most appealing thing about John Grimek was his approach to training.
Grimek did not train like a bodybuilder in the modern sense.
By that I mean he didn’t spend hours working on muscle isolation, cycle through a conveyor belt of chemicals, or make shitty YouTube videos.
His mighty physique was forged in a furnace of Olympic lifts, dumbbell presses and endless heavy squats.
And he did it all in the same monstrous workout:
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. 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.
Incredibly, such was his love for squats that he would often complete 100s of repetitions in the same workout.
My legs are quivering like a baby giraffe just thinking about that!
And Grimek trained hard, hitting the gym five or six times a week and training for up to several hours a session!
And his advice for anyone that wanted to start building a muscular physique?
Well it was refreshingly simple:
“Train consistently 2-3 days per week and add weight to the bar whenever possible and get lots of rest, eat good food and drink plenty of water.”
Grimek’s best lifts were as follows:
After retiring from the sport, Grimek went on to write articles on bodybuilding and strength for a range of publications including ‘Strength & Health’ and ‘Muscular Development’.
During this time he still continued to train with the same intensity in the gym.
Well after retirement, for example, he could still squat 400 pounds for reps.
John Grimek died on November 20, 1998.
He was 88 years old.
A year after his death, in 1999, he was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame.
John Grimek was undoubtedly of the most important bodybuilding icons of the twentieth century.
His achievements, like Sandow, Park and Schwarzenegger, did much to advance the sport, inspiring generations to pick up a dumbbell in a bid to become the ‘next John Grimek’.
He was also kind, humble, a true gentleman, and he never once turned down a challenge.
But, perhaps most sadly, John Grimek was the last of a generation of bodybuilders that were just as strong and athletic as they looked.
He earned every ounce of muscle the old fashioned way.
Bring back the Golden Era, I say.
Who’s with me?
Although Big Ron could do the splits
That’s true, but I doubt he could backflip.
That would be a sight to behold!
Ha it sure would!
Love reading articles like this about old legends.
I’m definitely sharing this with my training team and members at my gym!
Thanks Chad, I love writing them!
Great article! I’m with you – I miss men like this who not only looked strong but were strong. Great job!
Great article, thank you for sharing.
I must admit I was not aware of the legacy he left, but after reading this I can now understand.
Hi Dan, thanks for reading.
It’s a pity Grimek isn’t as revered as some of the other personalities from the Golden Age.
His impact was just as substantial.
Wow, he’s amazing!
I now know a bit of his history.
Thanks for this post.
No worries Sammy, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it 🙂
Henry, how do I follow your posts?
Hi Chad – just subscribe to our mailing list 🙂
These total body workouts are hard as balls, and yes, I literally have spent 4 to 5 hours in the gym before, though I am lucky enough to have the time to devote to this.
In the process, over about 7 years, I have gone from 350 pounds to 225, 55% bodyfat to roughly 19% right now, and am slowly working my way down to, hopefully, 12%, or less.
They flat out work, as long as you get enough rest, food, and minimize stress.
There’s nothing like the looks I get when I roll into the gym doing total body… and even more notable, the looks I get because I roll into the gym and squat every single damn day, regardless of what else I am doing.
Just do it.
I knew Joe Weider well.
One time in a conversation with him and another lesser known but incredible bodybuilder named Bob DelMonteque (you just HAVE to look DelMonteque up) they told me what it was like to know and be acquainted with John Grimek, the greatest drug free bodybuilder who ever lived.
They were in awe of him.
So am I.
And I loved your article about him.
I’m 65 and I still own some issues of Strength and Health that contain articles by Grimek.
They say he had a huge appetite and that he was an enthusiastic and talented dancer.
John Grimek – was Slovak origin.
His parents were born in country of Slovakia – now Slovak republik – in region Orava – in Wilage Ustie.
He was GREAT BODYBUILDER.
In Slovakia we are very proud of John.
Great Robert Kennedy, excellent publisher and editor of MMI from Canada (former GB) sent me a complimentary TOP issue of MMI with article (4-pages) on John Grimek in 1998.
Fans of Jon Grimek can write me for change opinion.
Many thanks in advance.
What a wonderful article on Mr Grimek.
My husband is going to be 87 in July and is a very devoted fan of Mr Grimeks.
He will be so happy that I was able to find these articles on Mr Grimek and he hopes that when he passed away that he did it peacefully in his sleep.
Thank you again.
I am going to put my email so maybe you can send some more articles on Mr Grimek that my husband would enjoy reading.
His name is Edward Ledwos.
I agree that John Grimek was the “Monarch of Muscledom” and I agree with Steve Reeves that “John Grimek was the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived.”
You can take today’s chemically bloated “bodybuilders” and dump them in the sewer.
John Grimek described them to me as “those monsters of the midway”.
“Grimek trained hard, hitting the gym five or six times a week and training for up to five hours a session!”
Total BS, sorry I am a huge fan of John Grimek and my mentor Fraysher Ferguson knew him well and trained together and he did not lift for 5 hours at a time.
He did trained very hard for sure, but for a natural person 5 hours session would be counter productive.
You can sprint or run a marathon, but no one can sprint a marathon and weights are no different.
I have every Strength and Health from 1939 to 1958 complete, and have read many articles from Grimek himself, at most he trained 5 to 6 hours a week not in a day.
Apologies, this was a typo, I have amended the article.