When John Grimek first strode onto a California beach in 1940, most bathers could not believe their eyes. One of the most amazed of them all was Earle Liederman, writer and muscleman emeritus. "When I first saw him on the Santa Monica bathing beach," the older man later wrote, "I must confess my eyes opened a bit wider, for seldom have I seen such a highly developed body. Criticism cannot find one weak spot."
John Grimek had that effect on many people who saw him for the first time. His physique was unlike anyone else's; he had defined a new type for his generation. A few remarkable athletes in the history of bodybuilding can lay claim to changing the sport's course. Eugen Sandow did just this in the early years of the century, Steve Reeves caught the imagination of physique athletes in the 1950's, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has done the honors for contemporaries.
Liederman and the others on the waterfront that day were amazed because, quite literally, no one had ever seen a body quite like the one belonging to John C. Grimek. He had changed the ideal form of the masculine physique forever. The tight, sinewy, muscular form of the previous generation had been relegated to a back position. From now on, all muscle builders wanted to look like Grimek. Though perhaps he was unaware of it, as he walked across the beach, John Grimek was leaving footprints in history as well as the California sands.
John Carrol Grimek was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in June of 1909. Ironically, he might never have started working out with weights if it had not been for his elder brother. While John was still in his early teens, his brother George became very interested in physical culture. He bought nearly every piece of bodybuilding apparatus that was advertised in the back of the old Strength and Physical Culture magazines. It was George's kid brother, however, who ended up using and benefitting from all the equipment. John had, as an associate confirmed in 1952, "an intense desire to build a magnificent physique, and he had a magnificent foundation on which to build."
By 1929, John was ready to send in a few pictures to the muscle magazines. When they were published, the photos created something of a sensation in the physical culture world despite a rather rough photographic quality. They were outdoor poses using the rocks and pines of the New Jersey countryside as a rugged backdrop, but it was the dynamic posing ability of the subject that most amazed the readers. In many of the photos John wore the headband and loin cloth of an American Indian, and he displayed his muscles by portraying a spear thrower, bow puller, and other similar attitudes. It must have been clear to anyone who saw the pictures that here was a young man with a massive physique and uncommon talent at showing it off.
Eventually, Mark Berry, the editor of Strength magazine and weightlifting guru, became interested in Grimek, and he helped to develop both the young man's muscles and his reputation. Eventually, John even moved in with Berry so that he could benefit fully from the editor's expertise and training advice. It must have worked, for succeeding photographs taken by Barry show that Grimek was bulking up and getting more defined at the same time.
Soon the muscular young man was posing in ads for Berry's Milo Barbell Course, and by the time he was in his early twenties, Grimek had become well known. Berry was also using John as a guinea pig for many of his pet theories. One of these was that if the athlete gained a lot of weight and then trained it off, it would improve his build. Before he started training, Grimek had weighed around 120 pounds, but under Berry's direction John had gotten up to 250. However odd these fluctuations in weight might sound, the expert's advice seemed to have worked.
As the decade of the 1930's progressed, so did John's improvement on his physique. Unfortunately at this time, there were few opportunities for bodybuilders to display their muscles, so Grimek turned to other things. America was just starting to emerge as a world class power in weightlifting, and John began to rack up impressive victories in that field, too. He ended up with the highest total of anyone else in the U.S. team. Thanks to his tremendous strength, Grimek was very good at the slow lifts, and his pressing was particularly good. In 1936 he became the U.S. heavyweight lifting champion, and in that same year he qualified for the Olympic team and was soon on his way to Berlin in order to compete.
Although he would have done better as a light-heavy, Grimek went to the Berlin games as America's second string heavyweight. Since he was the lightest athlete in his class, he was quickly outlifted by just about everyone else. When the dust settled, John had come in ninth in a field of thirteen.
After returning from Europe, John began to put on bulk once more. From 193 pounds before the games, Grimek grew to around 230 pounds of solid muscle. Perhaps this weight gain meant that John was still under the influence of Mark Berry who had been the Olympic coach for the recent games. Whatever the reason, he was as one witness claimed at the time, "built like a brick comfort station."
In 1938 Grimek switched coaches and residences when he moved to York, Pennsylvania in order to train with Bob Hoffman's York Barbell Club. At first he lived in rooms at the YMCA, but his principal interest at this time was training as hard as he could. He was also entering weightlifting contests all over the country, but John never seemed able to win any of them.
Around 1939, Grimek's training began to change course. He started using more and more bodybuilding exercises in his routine, and found that he preferred muscle building to power lifting. In those days, there was usually a physique meet after weightlifting meets, and John was constantly called upon to display his physique and his muscle-control routines. Gradually, weightlifting lost its allure for him as bodybuilding occupied more of his time. He stayed close to York, trained hard, and practiced his graceful posing routine.
Grimek's hard muscles and perfect symmetry were certainly impressive, but many witnesses from this time noted that there were other things that made John's physique notewor thy. More than one commemtator has remarked on Grimek's healthy skin tone. There seemed to be a radiant energy that shone through the pores. Harry Paschal, a writer at Strength & Health dubbed Grimek "The Glow" because of the athlete's obvious good health. That luminous epidermis must have given John an advantage in the contests that he participated in.
A brand new competition, the Mr. America contest, had been started in 1939, and Grimek was ready to try his luck by the following year. It should be remembered that the typical muscle man of the era was rather skinny looking when seen next to John, so Grimek would have a big surprise in store for his adversaries when the time came. Although his pictures had appeared regularly in muscle magazines, John had never really displayed his physique to a large audience.
This all changed when Grimek entered the Mr. America contest. New York's Madison Square Garden was packed with spectators who had come to see the best developed man in America. Among the judges were publisher, Bernarr Macfadden, Bob Hoffman, Sig Klein, and several other prominent men. Even some of these knowledgeable arbiters were not ready for Grimek and his new, bulky look.
Ironically, John never officially entered the 1940 contest but only in the lifting event that preceeded it. Since he failed to make the 181 pound class because he weighed a little over the limit, he was convinced to enter the physique part of the competition. It took a little persuasion, but Grimek eventually agreed, and he appeared in the preliminaries and won the "best developed arms" trophy. This proved to be just an hors d'oeuvre to the main course, however. Grimek was set to gobble up the competition.
When John mounted the platform on the evening of May 25, 1940, even he was surprised at his effect. "Many judges who have never seen J.C.G. before," wrote an astonished witness, "rubbed their eyes; they never saw such grace, such development, such magnificent physical majesty." It must have been clear to everyone that here was a new force in athletics, and the verdict of the judges was a foregone conclusion. When the night was over, the nation had a new Mr. America and John Grimek had a new place in the pantheon of sport.
Almost before the satisfied crowds had exited Madison Square, Grimek was receiving all kinds of new oportunities. He was offered roles in movies and on stage. He even considered starting a company of male dancers who would glorify "the super-perfect physique." Sig Klein was certain that Grimek could parlay his Mr. America victory into stardom. If the bodybuilder could be induced to go into the movies or to give exhibitions for the theatrical public, he would almost certainly popularize the physical culture business to unimaginable heights. If John would only allow himself to be managed Klein argued, "he could be just as famous as [nineteenth century muscleman, Eugen] Sandow ever was." Grimek, however, had other plans. He was content to remain in York and to raise his body to ever-greater levels of perfection.
Grimek continued to build his muscles, and one year after his first victory, John scored another first place spot in the next Mr. America competition. His massive physique seemed to be unbeatable, and he might have kept on winning even longer. The powers at the AAU, however, decided that they would change the rules of the game. From 1941 on, a man could win the Mr. America title only once, then he must retire from the competition. Thus John was forced to look for other worlds to conquer.
Unfortunately, this was not the only setback at the time. First, he was busy with his new job as senior editor of Strength & Health magazine. Second, John had suffered a serious eye injury while working in the iron foundry in York. Third, he had recently gotten married and family duties kept him occupied. Finally, World War II was soon to put a stop to most athletic competitions. For the duration of the conflict, therefore, John had to be content with working out and preserving his muscles as best he could.
Although he was only able to compete in small contests during the war, John kept himself in good shape. Finally, in 1947 the World's Weightlifting Championships were set to be held in Philadelphia. Since many of the greatest musclemen in the world would be there, several planners thought it would be a good idea to hold a physique contest after the main event. They decided to call the victor of this competition Mr. Universe.
Incredibly, John was not allowed to compete in this first international contest. Several days before the contest he was informed by the authorities that he was suspended from the AAU because he was a "professional." Although he believed this ruling was unjustified, Grimek stayed out, preferring not to stir up trouble. It was John's good friend, Steve Stanko, who eventually grabbed the honors.
The next year, 1948, the Olympic Games were held in London, England. The British magazine Health & Strength had decided to put on a second Mr. Universe show, but this time professionals were also to be allowed to compete. The way was finally opened for Grimek to compete against athletes from around the world. The finest physique athletes would be there, and John's stiffest American rival, Steve Reeves, would be a hard man to beat.
As bad luck would have it, John was experiencing some family problems, and he was forced to stay behind while the rest of the American athletes left by boat for Europe. At virtually the last moment, however, Grimek decided to participate. He boarded the fastest plane and flew across the Atlantic, arriving with little time to prepare himself. If John had wanted a dramatic entrance to the competition, he certainly got one.
The American bodybuilder was also uncertain of his reception in England. John had been told that the English audiences preferred slender physiques with prominent abdominals, not a massive musculature like his. There was no telling how the British would react to Grimek's heavily muscled body since they had never seen anything like it before.
There were other unexpected problems facing him in England. Before he left for the competition, John had weighed well in excess of 200 pounds. By rigid diet and hard work he was able to get his weight down to around 195 pounds before leaving for Europe. Accustomed to America's bounty, however, he had forgotten that Britain was in the throes of a postwar food shortage, and adequate nourishment was difficult to get. After only a few days in London, Grimek found that his weight had plummeted. "My hip bones seemed to grow more prominent each day," he later complained. "My midsection grew thinner. I was afraid to perform a full vacuum for fear the abdominal wall would stick to my vertebrae." Grimek's mass was being involuntarily reduced to a size more in conformity with the European ideal.
John need not have worried about his reception by the British public. When the Ameri can stepped on the stage of the Scala Theatre on August 13, and began posing, there could be no doubt about the warmth and sincerity of the crowd's reaction. Thousands of spectators from around the world rose to their feet and shouted and carried on joyfully when the great Grimek began his routine. As one official explained, "John Grimek has been for years a symbol and an inspiration." Small wonder then that the audience was so enthusiastic.
The men who shouted themselves hoarse that evening were not, in the words of a witness, "novices or masculine bobby-soxers." The crowd gave John a terrific ovation largely because "they appreciated the inspirational value of his work over the last fifteen years and win or lose, they wanted him to know something of their feelings in the matter."
After the preliminaries, the three finalists were announced to the excited crowd. Steve Reeves of the USA, André Drapp of France, and John Grimek would each be allowed three minutes of freestyle posing. When John's turn came, he was ready to give the audience a show they would not soon forget. The master poseur wowed the crowd with stunning poses, muscle control, and gymnastic displays including a split, handstand, and roll-over. Grimek had succeeded in stealing the show and winning the first prize trophy. When this was announced, the crescendo of cheers rose to deafening proportions.
It was then that Steve Reeves fought his way to the microphone on the stage and gestured to speak. The crowd hushed as Reeves made his simple announcement. "I think that John Grimek is the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived!" The cheers that this statement elicited proved that most members of the audience agreed with him.
A short while after receiving the plaudits of the crowd, John announced that he was retiring from competition. After all, Grimek was pushing 40 years old, and he could not maintain the string of victories forever. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than the sputter of defeat. He had not counted on the bitterness of bodybuilding politics, however. There was a monumental feud going on between publishers Joe Weider and Bob Hoffman. Each had his champions and favorites, and these followers became soldiers in the bitter war of words that was fought in the pages of the rival magazines.
In 1949 there was to be a contest in California to determine Mr. USA. Many famous athletes from all over the country would be there, and emotions between the opposing forces ran high. As a representative of the Hoffman camp, John was inevitably sucked into the hostility that the contest engendered. Reluctantly, Grimek agreed to participate. "I am willing," he confirmed, "to retrieve my jock strap out of the mothballs and stand prepared."
This time the competition was stiffer than it had been in London, but luck was with him once more. Despite strong showings by Steve Reeves, George Eifferman, and especially Clancy Ross, Grimek was once more declared the winner. It had been a bittersweet victory, however, and Grimek's promise to give up competition was kept from then on.
During the 1950's and early 60's John stayed very busy with his editorial duties at Strength & Health. During this time bodybuilding was taking off as a popular sport, and John was there to guide his readers and give them the benefit of his many years of experience. Bob Hoffman, publisher of S&H had always been more interested in weightlifting than in bodybuild ing, so with the trend heading away from his favorite sport, the folks at York decided to launch a new magazine.
In January of 1964 the first issue of Muscular Development rolled off the presses, and its editor was John Grimek. As he stated in the first editorial, Grimek's goal was to satisfy "the crying need for a genuine, honest-to- goodness, factual bodybuilding magazine." For the next twenty-one years John Grimek continued to guide through the medium of "The Posing Platform," "Your Training Problems Answered," and other articles.
After directing and shaping MD for so many years, John retired in June of 1985. Since then he and Angela, his wife of many years, have traveled around the country and the world visit ing friends and accepting the praise that has been generously showered upon them. Despite being an octogenarian, John Grimek shows no signs of slowing down. His healthy lifestyle has assured him of an energetic and happy life.
The adulation that John Grimek now receives is certainly well deserved. The Pennsylvania strongman has made many contributions to the sport of bodybuilding that justify his being remembered. First of all, John knew how to show off his superb physique to good effect. Grimek showed that even a huge man could display his physique in a graceful, flowing, dynamic way. John's fine sense of balance and coordination meant that he could utilize gymnastic-like moves, and his unbelievable flexibility allowed him to bend his body like a contortionist. Few poseurs could keep up with him, especially when he ended his routines with the splits.
As a writer and editor, John was a tireless advocate of bodybuilding. He took obvious pleasure and pride in being able to help younger athletes achieve their goals. He was always happy to share the experience that he had earned over the years, and thus became one of the sports best coaches.
Probably the most important reason to celebrate John Grimek was his revolutionary musculature. Grimek possessed the first really massive physique the world had ever seen. He created a sensation because of it and changed the ideal masculine form forever. He formed a link between the old and the new. "If you can show me a more superior specimen of humanity than John Grimek," challenged one incredulous associate in 1942, "I would like to see him." Clearly, Grimek changed the parameters of muscularity for his entire generation, and many people realized it.
As soon as Earle Liederman saw John Grimek walking on that Southern California beach so many years ago, he knew that the young man was destined for big things. The writer declared that John "stands out as one of the brightest stars in the athletic firmament, outshining most of the past and present lights." Liederman predicted a bright future for Grimek. "He has the world in his grasp and what he will do with it in the near future remains to be seen; but, even though he did no more than he has done, the mark he has made will remain long after most of us are forgotten."
Earle Liederman, "Strong Men I Have Known," Vim (June 1940).
Gordon Venables, "John Grimek As I Know Him," Your Physique (April 1952).
Siegmund Klein, "Mr. America Contest," Strength & Health (July 1940).
George Walsh, "The Mr. Universe Contest," Strength & Health (October 1948).
John Grimek, "John Grimek, Mr. Universe, Comments," Strength & Health (November 1948).
David Webster, Barbells and Beefcake, (Irvine, Scotland: author, 1979).