Meet the first generation of bodybuilding legends who inspired the Golden Era: John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Reg Park
It didn’t start with “Pumping Iron.” It didn’t start with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Dave Draper, Sergio Oliva, or Frank Zane. It didn’t even start in the 1960s. The original trailblazers of the sport came decades earlier.
Without them, there never would have been a Golden Era of bodybuilding. If they didn’t come along when they did, Arnold Schwarzenegger would probably be a quiet businessman in Vienna today instead of a global superstar.
The truth is, bodybuilding originally began in the 1800s with Eugene Sandow; he was often thought of as the first “modern day bodybuilder.” Joe Weider, the founder of the Mr. Olympia contest, recognized Sandow’s achievement and named the Mr. Olympia trophy in his honor. But it wasn’t until 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, decades after Sandow’s accomplishments, that the sport became a serious passion.
Three men in particular— John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Reg Park —pushed the envelope on what was possible in the development of the male physique at the time and gained millions of fans around the world in the process. Even today, Grimek, Reeves, and Park are still renowned for their amazing development for their era.
Of the three, Reeves is the most well-known, mostly due to his starring role as Hercules in popular action movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but even Park had his star turn in sword-and-sandals movies.
Let’s take a closer look at these pioneers and how they helped create a global movement.
John Grimek: The Original Strongman-Bodybuilder
Born in 1910 in New Jersey, Grimek began his career as a weightlifter after training with his older brother’s collection of barbells during his teenage years. Seeking a more serious commitment to gaining strength, he came under the tutelage of famous strongman Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein.
Under Greenstein’s influence, Grimek mastered lifts used in competitive weightlifting matches, including snatches, clean and jerks, squats, and lots of cleans and presses. Using his natural abilities and new skills, he entered his first weightlifting competition: the New Jersey State Championships. He won it easily. That same year, the young phenom competed in the United States Weightlifting Championships and broke the national record in the press with a 242½-pound lift.
In 1936, Grimek moved to York, Penn., to begin working for the legendary York Barbell Company. He defended his championship of the United States Weightlifting Championships in the heavyweight division the following year, then competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, the same Summer Games where Jesse Owens became a legend. Grimek placed ninth in his weight class at the Olympics, which was actually the highest total of any American lifter up to that time.
Back in the States, Grimek continued to compete at the highest levels in weightlifting competitions. His totals indicated he was easily one of the strongest men pound-for-pound in the world. He achieved his personal best totals at the 1940 United States National Weightlifting Championships with a press of 285 pounds, a snatch of 250 pounds, and a clean and jerk of 325 pounds at a bodyweight of only 183 pounds!
A Bodybuilding Juggernaut
At 5’8”, Grimek’s physique was as impressive as his strength. Entering the 1940 AAU Mr. America bodybuilding contest that was held in conjunction with the U.S. National Weightlifting Championships, Grimek won easily. The following year, he took first place in the 1941 AAU Mr. America for the second time in a row. At that contest, he was 30 pounds heavier and was so dominating against his competition that the AAU Physique Committee created a new rule that would only allow a person to win the Mr. America title once. They feared Grimek would continue to enter and never lose!
Grimek traveled overseas to find new challenges, and won the 1948 NABBA Mr. Universe contest in London, where he beat the young star, Steve Reeves for the title. After Grimek’s win, Reeves went to the microphone and announced to the audience, “I think John Grimek is the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived.”
Earning the nickname “The Monarch of Muscle,” Grimek ruled the sport like a king. At the 1949 Mr. USA contest, he beat a “who’s who” lineup of the best bodybuilders competing at that time. The Monarch bested Reeves, George Eiferman, Floyd Page, Armand Tanny, and Clancy Ross. Grimek retired after this big win with an undefeated record in bodybuilding.
Though he retired from competing, Grimek stayed involved in the world of bodybuilding as he worked for magazines such as Strength & Health and Muscular Development. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 88 in York, Penn., after a long life of being one of the first true superstars in the history of bodybuilding. He’s been inducted into nearly every Hall of Fame connected to bodybuilding and strength sports, and will always been one of the greatest of all time.
Steve Reeves: The Movie Hero Who Looked Like One
Steve Reeves, a bodybuilding legend in the 20th Century was responsible for inspiring millions of young men to start weight training in the hope of developing a muscular physique. He had the unique combination of an incredible body and stunning good looks. He was the first bodybuilder to become an international movie star with his role in a series of movies based on the Greek legend of “Hercules.” These films were box-office sensations that would go on to be replayed on television for years, inspiring generations of future bodybuilders all over the world to build their bodies.
Before he got his first star turn in the late 1950s, Reeves begun building his body as a teenager in his hometown of Oakland, California. At 15, he started to workout at Ed Yarick’s Gym, a famed muscle dungeon that allowed him to train alongside great bodybuilders of that time, including Jack Delinger, Clancy Ross, and Roy Hilligen.
After high school, Reeves enlisted in the Army and served in the Philippines during World War II. While he was there, the local villagers would marvel at Reeves’ astounding muscularity. They began calling him the “White God.”
After his discharge from the Army in 1946, Reeves moved to Santa Monica, California, where he trained with legendary bodybuilder George Eiferman at the soon-to-be famous Muscle Beach. In 1947, Reeves competed and won his first bodybuilding contest: the AAU Mr. Pacific Coast. Later that year, he won the overall title at the prestigious AAU Mr. America contest. Reeves was on his way.
A Classic Hollywood Story
The next year, Reeves took runner-up to the great Clancy Ross at the Professional Mr. USA contest in Los Angeles. Though he didn’t win, Reeves’ appearance in the contest turned out to be his most significant. Sitting in the audience was legendary movie producer Cecil B. DeMille (director of “The Ten Commandments” and other classic movies). DeMille was looking for a man with the perfect physique to play the role of Samson in his new movie “Samson and Delilah.” In Reeves, DeMille had found his man.
After being chosen for the part, Reeves began taking acting classes under famous drama coach Stella Adler. However, when the studio told Steve to lose weight for the movie role, he refused and decided to drop out of the movie. Instead, he travelled to London to compete in the 1948 NABBA Mr. Universe and continue his bodybuilding career. Reeves won his height class at this prestigious event but placed second to John Grimek for the overall title.
When he re-entered the Mr. Universe two years later in 1950, he won the overall with a close victory over the up and coming bodybuilder Reg Park from England. At only 24 years old, Reeves was at his physical peak. The famous Reeves physique consisted of wide shoulders, a small waist, and massive, proportionate thighs and calves. His combination of perfect symmetry, shape, and pleasing muscle mass along with his handsome features made him one of the best bodybuilders to ever grace a physique contest.
The Scene that Launched a Thousand Bodybuilding Careers
After winning both the Mr. America and the Mr. Universe titles, Reeves decided to return to Hollywood to try his luck at being a movie star. After being typecast as the muscular bodybuilder in some small television roles, he finally got his big break when he was hired to play the title role in “Hercules” in 1957. The film was a huge hit throughout the world, earning more than $5 million in the United States alone, an amazing amount of money at the time.
Reeves’ role as “Hercules” electrified a generation of young men to pick up a weight for the first time. The scene of Reeves pulling down the massive columns of the Roman Coliseum in the movie inspired millions of men around the world to start weight training. Famous bodybuilders like Mike Katz, Boyer Coe, Bill Grant, and Franco Columbu have all mentioned that particular scene in “Hercules” as their motivation to begin lifting weights. Even film superstar Sylvester Stallone credited Reeves in “Hercules” for inspiring him to start building his body, which changed his life forever.
After a series of “Hercules” sequels, the muscular leading man was ranked as the number one box office draw in 25 countries around the world in 1960. He continued to make movies until 1968 when he had to retire due to a serious shoulder injury. Reeves became an advocate for natural bodybuilding in his later years, and published several books about bodybuilding and training. He passed away from lymphoma in Southern California on May 1, 2000 at the age of 74. He will always be remembered as a leading inspiration in the birth of a worldwide movement.
Reg Park: Arnold’s Inspiration On- and Off-Stage
The third legendary bodybuilder who launched the Golden Era was Reg Park. Like Steve Reeves before him, Park won the Mr. Universe title and then parlayed that success into a film career playing Hercules in several films. He also mentored Arnold Schwarzenegger, who often publicly acknowledged that Park was his hero and inspiration for becoming a bodybuilder and actor.
Park was born in Leeds, England, on June 17, 1928. He played soccer and competed in track and field events as a youngster, then began weight training at the age of 17 by training at home with a set of dumbbells and a barbell set. In less than a year, He won the Junior Mr. Britain title and began to appear in muscle magazines. It’s fitting that his main inspirations were John Grimek and Reeves.
Park was inducted into Britain’s Army National Service while still a teen and served in Scotland for a short time. When he was discharged, he attended Leeds College of Commerce and continued working out. He attended the 1948 Mr. Universe contest in London and was inspired by watching his idols John Grimek and Steve Reeves onstage. He vowed to win the Mr. Universe title himself one day.
In 1949, Park won the Mr. Northeast Britain and trained hard to enter the Mr. Britain title later that year. Training at Henry Atkin’s gym and under his supervision, Park packed on an amazing 30 pounds, then won the Mr. Britain that year over many of the top favorites.
Europe’s Version of Steve Reeves
In 1950, Park won the coveted Mr. Europe title and then competed in the NABBA Mr. Universe contest in London. At only 22 years of age, he took a very close second place to the legendary Reeves. The following year, he won the NABBA Mr. Universe title that he set his sights on several years ago. He came back to win the professional division of the NABBA Mr. Universe in 1958 and 1965. He retired from bodybuilding competition at the age of 45 after placing fourth at the 1973 NABBA Professional Mr. Universe contest.
Like many bodybuilders of his era, Park was also a competitor in weightlifting and strength competitions. In 1954, he became the second person in the world to bench press 500 pounds at the Health and Strength League show.
Like Reeves, Park had his star turn in films as Hercules. From 1963 to 1965, he starred in five motion pictures playing Hercules. As a bodybuilding champ, movie actor, and successful businessman, Park was the perfect mentor to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. He met Arnold in 1966, shortly after the 19-year-old had taken second place in his first Mr. Universe contest. Park promised Arnold that if he won the contest the following year, he could travel with him on an exhibition tour in South Africa. Arnold did win, and joined Park on his tour. The two became close, with the older bodybuilder bringing the young Austrian into his home, where Arnold became part of Park’s extended family. Their bond remained tight until Park’s death many years later.
Honored by Arnold Himself
Park was also a great business man and partnered with Joe Weider in 1952 to create the Reg Park Barbell Company. That same year, he published the magazines Mr. Universe and Muscleman and began the Reg Park Journal the following year. At its peak, the magazine had a circulation of 60,000.
Park was well-regarded as a leading light in bodybuilding long after he retired from the stage. He gave popular seminars and posing exhibitions all over the world for more than three decades. After meeting his future wife, Marion, Park moved his family to South Africa and began promoting bodybuilding competitions there.
Park appeared on the cover of 51 bodybuilding magazines throughout his career and was inducted into the IFBB Bodybuilding Hall of Fame in 1999. In an emotional ceremony, Arnold presented his mentor with the Arnold Schwarzenegger Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio. That night Arnold told the audience, “I wouldn’t be here today if this man hadn’t inspired me the way he did.”
Reg Park passed away from advanced skin cancer on November 22, 2007, at the age of 79. His daughter, Jeunesse, and son, Jon-Jon Park, owner of Legacy Gym in West Los Angeles, both carrying on his name.
These three legendary bodybuilders helped pave the way for future generations of bodybuilders to follow in their path. The physiques and accomplishments they achieved helped to inspire future bodybuilders to train hard and develop their physiques to create their own legacies. The names of Grimek, Reeves, and Park will always be remembered as the first generation of bodybuilding superstars, and the men who launched the Golden Era.
What do you think? Have these three legends received the recognition they deserve for launching the Golden Era and the modern age of bodybuilding?