Steve Reeves: Hercules of the Pre-Golden Era - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Steve Reeves (1926 – 2000): The Hercules of the Pre-Golden Era

Steve Reeves (1926 – 2000): The Hercules of the Pre-Golden Era

August 19, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. Steve Reeves only spent a few years as a professional bodybuilder, but his impact on the industry was huge.
  2. He was most well known for his roles in films including playing Hercules, Sandokan, and Goliath.
  3. He wrote quite a few books and had even more written about him by various authors.
  4. His knowledge of health and wellness was before his time, and he is considered the creator of Powerwalking.

Prior to the Golden Era of bodybuilding, there were the Original Trailblazers of bodybuilding. Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and John Grimek all made names for themselves as bodybuilding champions.

They paved the way for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Larry Scott and gave them goals to aspire to. 

Steve Reeves paved the way for bodybuilders like Arnold Shwarzenegger.

Steve Reeves was one of the best bodybuilders of his time, even though that time was short-lived. His stats at the age of 21 were:

  • 6’1” height
  • 215 weight
  • 18” biceps
  • 51” chest
  • 29” waist

He stayed between 215 – 230 pounds throughout his adult life. He trained well when he was younger, but did not have to train much while working in movies. 

Steve Reeves
Steve had a brawn & impressive physique which was maintained with little effort.

Reeves was so successful because he was able to maintain his physique with little effort. His brawn and impressive build made him a natural for the types of movies he was featured in.

Though he didn’t stay in bodybuilding competitions for long, he built a legacy that is still talked about today. Without the Trailblazers influence, some of the greats from the Golden Era may have never been realized.

Let’s take a look at the life of Steve Reeves.

  • What got him into bodybuilding?
  • Why did he switch careers to do movies?
  • What else did he do with his time, both career and personal?

Steve Reeves: The Early Years

Stephen Lester Reeves was both in Glasgow, Montana on January 21, 1946. He was raised on a farm there and moved to California at the age of 10. Steve was just a toddler when his father died in a farm accident.

Steve was not someone who aspired to be a bodybuilder at first. There were two moments in his life that moved his path toward bodybuilding.

Young Steve Reeves
Steve was inspired by his young experiences to start lifting weights.

The first was when his mother made him wear a posture correcting device due to his constant slouching. The device was designed to cause pain when slouching, so Steve always had perfect posture as a result.

The other time was when he was a little older. He was beat by someone younger and smaller than him in an arm-wrestling match at school. When he learned that the boy was lifting weights, he started to consider going down the same path.

During high school, he was noticed by Ed Yarick, owner of a bodybuilding gym. He talked Steve into training at his gym, which he did until he enlisted in the Army once he graduated.

Steve Reeves young
Reeves joined the army & served in the Philippines in WW2.

Steve served in the Philippines during World War II and then was stationed for some time in Japan. When he returned stateside in 1946, he went back to Yarick’s gym.

Like his friend Jack LaLanne, Steve also went to chiropractic school when he got home for the military. He went to California Chiropractic College in San Francisco, minoring in physical therapy and massage. 

It was at this time that Reeves got his first inclination that acting might be in his future. He got a letter from a New York City agent who thought he had potential. But first, he wanted to give bodybuilding competitions a try.

Steve Reeves: Bodybuilding Competitions

The year he returned to the gym, Steve entered and won the 1946 Mr. Pacific Coast bodybuilding contest. He also took the title the following year.

Steve Reeves competition
Reeves won the title of Mr. America, Mr. pacific Coast & Mr. World in 1947.

That same year, he took the title in the Mr. America contest as well. In 1948, he won Mr. World and placed second in the Mr. USA bodybuilding competition. He also took second place in the Mr. Universe competition the same year.

In 1949, he tried the Mr. USA competition again, this time only taking third place. His final competition was in 1950 at the Mr. Universe competition, where he took the title.

Steve Reeves competition
In 1950, Steve participated in his last competition, Mr. Universe, & claimed the title.

That’s about the time that he decided he needed a change from bodybuilding. Steve Reeves was about to leave the world of competitive bodybuilding and enter into another entirely.

Steve Reeves: The Actor

The bulk of Steve’s career centered around acting, not bodybuilding. He lived in New York City for a few years to go to acting school and did vaudeville acts. He also had bit parts in shows and movies before he got his big break.

Steve Reeves acting
Steve officially became an actor when he was 22.

There, a talent scout for Cecil B. De Mille found him and he was on his way to Paramount Studios in LA. De Mille had been looking for the perfect Samson for his movie Samson and Delilah and Reeves was it.

Steve moved on his 22nd birthday and officially became an actor. After a few months, the part of Samson ultimately went to Victor Mature. Steve was unable to lose the necessary 15 pounds for the role, and De Mille wasn’t willing to wait.

In 1954, Steve Reeves landed a role in Athena under director Richard Thorpe. He starred in another role in Jail Bait before he got another big break.

Steve Reeves in Duel of the Titans
Virna Lisi & Steve Reeves in Duel of the Titans.

1. Where He Becomes Hercules

By then, Athena was appearing in Italian theatres. Director Pietro Francisci had written a script for Hercules five years prior and had been looking for the right man. His daughter saw Athena in theaters and ran home to tell her father she believed she had found his Hercules.

Francisci went to see the movie and agreed with her. He sent a letter, which Reeves ignored at first. The director then sent another letter with a plane ticket and advanced payment, spurring Steve to head to Italy.

Francisci realized that Steve Reeves really was the perfect Hercules for his movies. He signed him up for a seven movie contract and they began working on production.

Steve Reeves athena
Steve starring as Hercules.

When Hercules made it to America in 1959, it grossed over $40 million at the box office. It made him the biggest box office hit in the world at that point. He could have come back to the states to act, but he was still under contract in Europe.

From 1954 – 1969, Steve Reeves made a total of 18 movies. He starred in Italian peplum movies and small budget sword and sandal movies. He was not the best actor, but his presence and build made up for it.

2. His Reason for Retiring

During filming The Last Days of Pompeii, Reeves hurt his shoulder crashing into a tree when a chariot went out of control. He continued to film, injuring it further during an underwater scene for the movie.

Steve Reeves last days of pompeii
Steve reeves in The Last Days of Pompeii.

He continued to work for a decade, with the shoulder getting worse over time. At the age of 45, he decided it was time to retire from making movies.

Not only was he dealing with his shoulder injury, but he had seen other actors die early from the stress involved. Costars Errol Flynn at age 50, and then Tyrone Powers at the age of 45. 

Steve Reeves last days of pompeii
Reeves injured his shoulder while filming The Last Days of Pompeii, but persisted acting for a decade before retiring.

He realized that the work was putting a toll on him, mentally and physically. He didn’t want to end up like his friends, so a choice was made.

Having worked exclusively in mythology and action movies, and seeing a tide change to western films, the timing was right. Besides, he had been living in Europe, mainly Switzerland, for years. He missed being back in Oregon on his farm, and he was ready to head home.

Steve Reeves Makes Appearances

Before getting his big break in Italy, Reeves worked for American Health Studios in public relations.

His role was to open new fitness studios and go to the grand opening ceremony and ribbon cutting. He didn’t have to work too hard and he was paid well for the position. The owner of American Health hoped he would forget about show business.

Steve Reeves at a gym opening
Steve Reeves at the opening of a Gym.

And Steve did, at least, for a little while. Then he got that first letter, and then the second, from Pietro Francisci. Realizing how serious he was, Steve flew to Italy and walked away from public relations.

Once back in the states, he enjoyed his retirement for a while. It was in 1973 that Dan Lurie, one of the founding fathers of bodybuilding, got him back into the spotlight.

World Bodybuilding Guild

At the time, Dan was promoting World Bodybuilding Guild (WBBG) Professional Mr. America contests. After years of persuasion, he was finally able to get Steve to come back to NYC to help promote.

Steve Reeves and Dan lurie
Steve Reeves and Dan Lurie.

Steve made several appearances on different shows and at events at that time. He was presented with the Dan Lurie Award that year for his leadership in fitness.

Over the next few years, Steve made various appearances with Dan at events and they formed a friendship. For Dan, getting Steve back into the fold was a highlight of his career.

Steve Reeves: The Author

Throughout his career, Steve found time to become an author of several books. He also had various autobiographies and books written about him by others as well.

Here are some of the most impactful books that were authored by Steve Reeves:

  • PowerWalking (1982) – Steve is considered the original authority on powerwalking. He believed that brisk walking with weights was key to health. Just 20 minutes per day, 3 – 4 times per week is all you needed.
  • Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way (1995) – a book on steps to building the perfect physique using nutrition and exercise, without using steroids or artificial methods
  • Dynamic Muscle Building (2003) – his thoughts on training and bodybuilding, his diet and nutrition
Building the classic physique reeves book
Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way (1995) focused on natural bodybuilding.

There were also quite a few books written about Steve over the years. A few were by long-time pal and business partner George Helmer. George now owns the rights to Steves name and image and uses them to write books and update his website.

Here are just a few of the books that were written about Steve and his life:

  • Steve Reeves Hercules Cookbook by George Helmer and Dr. Joe Vitale. This book showcased his nutrition and diet knowledge, as well as recipes and secrets he used for optimal nutrition.
  • A Moment in Time: The Steve Reeves Story by George Helmer
  • Steve Reeves: His Legacy in Films by Dave Dowling and George Helmer
  • Steve Reeves Bodybuilding Journal: An Analysis by Clinton L Elmshoff
  • Training and Eating the Steve Reeves Way by Greg Sushinsky
  • Steve Reeves – One of a Kind by Milton T. Moore Jr.

Steve Reeves Workout & Exercises

As we mentioned before, Steve was one of the lucky ones in that he had perfect proportions with minimal effort

Steve Reeves working out
Reeves worked out for hours at a time 3 times per week.

Rather than spend hours upon hours at the gym, he chose to work out three times per week. He also favored full-body workouts over specific muscle groups.

He was always making personal goals to improve himself from his last gym session. It helped with motivation and constantly applying himself to get to the next level in his fitness.

He was fiercely determined and put his all into every workout to achieve amazing results. We’re sure that it would be a sight to behold to watch him at the gym.

Steve Reeves Workout Order

He had a specific order he preferred to do his workouts in too:

  • Deltoids
  • Pecs
  • Lats (mid and upper back)
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Lower back
  • Abs
  • Neck

He used free weights pretty much exclusively and preferred heavier weights with lower reps. Reeves spent several hours working his body each time because he wanted to focus on form and slow movements

His typical sweet spot for reps and sets would be 8 – 12 reps for a total of three sets. Use a weight that’s heavy enough to produce muscle failure – the inability to proceed without proper form.

He also enjoyed power-walking and swimming several days per week. He saved these cardio days for the days he didn’t go to the gym. Steve also preferred to get his workouts in first thing in the morning, especially when he was working on the farm.

Steve Reeves power walking while lifting
Steve enjoyed power-walking several days per week.

He believed his methods were key in maintaining the much sought after classic physique. We believe he was right, and he had the proportions for decades to prove it.

Steve Reeves on Nutrition and Health

Steve wasn’t one to take short cuts in his career or bodybuilding and the same was true for his diet.

He followed roughly the same format each day, eating 60 percent carbs, 20 percent each of fat and protein. 

Here’s what a typical daily diet looked like for Steve Reeves:

  • Breakfast: he made himself a homemade energy drink each morning to start the day
    • 1 banana
    • 3 raw eggs
    • 3 spoons of his homemade protein powder
    • 1 tablespoon of honey
    • Orange juice
  • Lunch: seasonal fruits, nuts, raisins, and cottage cheese
  • Dinner: salad with fish, steak or turkey. He also included a carb like pasta, bread or potatoes with this meal
Reeves didn’t cut back carbs, & he often used honey in his breakfast shake.

While steroids weren’t available in his time, he wouldn’t have taken them anyway. Steve was an avid reader and took his nutrition and health seriously. He credited his energy drink, way of eating, and workout routine for his perfect physique.

Health and Wellness Tips

Most of the books he authored centered around health, wellness, and positive habits. This was his life’s passion, and he wanted to get the word out to as many people as he could. They were all things he did himself and found benefit from.

Here are some tips you can use to be more like Steve Reeves.

Eating Honey Daily

Honey is something that other pre-Golden Era trailblazers consumed as well. Honey has many nutritional and wellness benefits, and it was something that was added to Reeves energy drink each morning. 

If you can get it, raw, local honey is best to provide optimal benefits to your health. Honey is a great source of energy, which makes it particularly attractive to athletes and bodybuilders. It can also be used externally for wound care and other ailments.

Take a Cold Shower Every Morning

We’re not sure where Steve got this tip, it may have been from the great Charles Atlas. Studies have been done to support Reeves recommendation. 

Taking a cold shower even just a few times a week has a host of health benefits. It can reduce depression, reduce the common cold, and increase metabolism.

Walk for Your Health

Steve Reeves has been given the recognition of creating the concept of Powerwalking. In fact, he wrote a book about it, as mentioned above. 

The concept of Powerwalking is to take extra long strides and carry light weights. The weights help to make the walking exercise an entire full body workout. 

Steve started encouraging bodybuilders in the 60s to powerwalk as a supplement to their workouts. It’s something that most lifters don’t do enough of. In fact, most people, in general, don’t walk enough in their daily lives.

Anyone who is able to walk should, and powerwalking elevates the benefits further. Powerwalking is a resistance exercise that can 

  • Boost immunity 
  • Has cardiovascular benefits
  • Improve mental health
  • Helps with maintaining a healthy weight
  • Is low impact enough that most people can do it

Sleep and Recovery

We’ve discussed the importance of getting enough sleep to aid in recovery from workouts before. The body does its best work in repairing and rebuilding muscles during our sleep cycles.

In fact, not getting enough sleep can actually reduce muscle mass and prevent muscle recovery. The exact opposite of what you want when you are working towards your bodybuilding goals. 

Sleep also restores our mental abilities, increases our immune response, and replenishes our endocrine system. Proper sleep affects every single cell in our bodies positively. Conversely, poor sleep affects all of our cells as well, just not in a good way.

If you struggle with getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, we have a product that can help. Vintage Bliss™ helps you fall asleep, get into a deep sleep faster, and aids in muscle recovery.

Steve Reeves Wife & Personal Life

In his lifetime, Steve Reeves had a total of three spouses. He married his first wife, Sandra Smith, in 1955. By the next year, they were divorced.

He married his second wife, Aline, who also happened to be his secretary, in 1963. They remained married until her death in 1989. 

Steve Reeves & Aline
Steve married Aline from 1963 until her death in 1989.

Steve remarried in 1994 to Deborah. His third and final marriage ended when he died in 2000.

Steve didn’t have any children. Once he retired from acting, he chose to return to his roots once again and work on a ranch. He purchased a horse ranch in California with Aline. They also had a cattle ranch in Oregon.

Estimates on Steve Reeves net worth is between a few million dollars to upwards of $50 million. Steve was one to invest in stocks and by his own admission did quite well. We believe his worth would have been on the higher end.

Steve Reeves Death

In early 2000, Steve was diagnosed with lymphoma. He had surgery and ended up passing away two days later from a blood clot.

He passed at Palomar Hospital in Escondido, California at the age of 74. 

Steve Reeves had quite an impact on many people in his lifetime, and still does for many today. He was a proponent for health and wellness and embodied the principles he taught until his death.

What is your greatest take away from the life of Steve Reeves? If you’ve read his books, what has had the greatest impact on you? Let us know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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