The Iron Guru
Mercurial and brilliant, Vince Gironda devised some of the most enduring training and nutrition methods in bodybuilding history. But his temper and hard-headed approach made him an outcast. Decades after his death, his legacy grows.
They called him the Iron Guru. At the peak of his powers, his physique and legendary training methods were ahead of their time. His unique and highly-effective workout principles attracted masses of aspiring and established bodybuilding champions, and even movies stars. Vince Gironda was a Golden Era original, and his influence is still felt to this day.
Like many visionaries, Gironda was cranky with those who he thought were wasting his time. Eccentric and boldly innovative, he ruled his famous gym with a style of his own. Likable and charming one minute, he could suddenly turn vitriolic towards those who attracted his wrath.
Some say he was bizarre; others considered (and still consider) him a genius trainer of unparalleled importance. He was one of a kind, a legendary figure in the history of the iron game, a true Golden Era icon.
Vincent Anselmo Gironda was born in the Bronx, New York, on November 9, 1917. His father, a stuntman, moved the family to Los Angeles to work on a movie called Ben-Hur. At age 22, Gironda began devoting his life to iron to build his body after realizing he was too small to pursue his own stunt career.
Gaining size for the big screen was soon superseded by an express desire to take it further and craft a beautiful physique. His gifted shape earned him kudos at Easton Brothers Gym in Hollywood, where he would develop some of his first training principals. After cementing a reputation as a top-line trainer and owner of one of the most impressive physiques of his day, he opened his own gym in 1948 and began expanding on the countless protocols that have made him famous.
Simply called Vince’s Gym, Gironda’s reputation as a trainer now had the ideal environment in which to flourish. Located in a small and sparsely-equipped building in Studio City just outside of Hollywood, Vince’s Gym soon began attracting the masses. While no larger than a four-car garage, it was a true hardcore facility. Vince’s Gym was lined wall to wall with free weights and equipped with an eclectic mix of purpose-built machinery (which some would say resembled medieval torture devices) that fit its sole trainer’s notion of bodybuilding.
The Inland Mecca
Vince’s Gym became a Mecca for many devoted trainees. Many came for the knowledge and guidance from the master himself. And though some verbally rebuked (but seldom to his face) his training insights (such as his abhorrence for traditional barbell squats), there was an important reason why his gym ultimately became arguably the biggest and best of its day: results.
This hallowed training ground, which closed for good in 1995, is still spoken of in reverential terms among those who trained there. Vince’s Gym attracted a who’s who of the entertainment and sporting worlds. Among Gironda’s esteemed clientele was first Olympia winner Larry Scott and Golden Era greats like Mohamed Makkawy, Lou Ferrigno, Frank Zane. and Don Howorth. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger also called Vince’s Gym home for period of time.
Vince’s Gym was ahead of its time. Back then, the public viewed weight training as an activity for weirdos. The greater population considered gyms the strict preserve of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals with IQs no larger than the circumference of their biceps.
Vince’s Gym, however, overcame the stereotype. Before the Gold’s Gym franchise and the fitness movement were to become an established part of popular culture, Vince’s Gym was the place to go. Over the years, Hollywood superstars trained there, including Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Jeff Goldblum, Sean Penn, Robert Blake, Cher, and James Garner.
The Iron Guru’s training philosophy centered on nutrition, optimal muscle stimulation and recovery, as well as a few unorthodox ideals. If a training method didn’t work, it had no place at Vince’s Gym. He made damn sure of that.
The proof was in his own astonishing physique. Gironda, at 5’ 7” and weighing in at a ripped 175 lb, was blessed with the kind of aesthetics many would kill for today. He had super-wide shoulders, a tiny waist, with no apparent weaknesses from top-to-bottom and side-to-side. He came within a quad-flex of winning both the 1952 Mr. America and 1962 Mr. Universe events, placing second in both.
Bodybuilding’s Mr. Intensity
Inside Vince’s Gym, a single sign hung on an otherwise Spartan wall: “No pool. No chrome. No Music. Just iron.” When it came to bodybuilding, Gironda was all business. No talking was permitted. Intensity ruled the day. And while many have since used the term “intensity” when training, Gironda was the first to coin the word in relation to muscle building.
To maximize intensity, his gym had a free-weight bias. Gironda believed free weights required the “holistic efforts” of multiple muscle groups, a “coordinated functioning of the body” that led to faster and more impressive results.
Gironda was no fan of the scale. He considered bodyweight irrelevant and a waste of time. And time was of the essence at Vince’s Gym. He commanded his trainees to move fast between sets. This was to extract the maximum amount of intensity from the smallest amount of total volume. One minute rest between sets might seem short by today’s reckoning. Gironda often expected as little as 30 seconds, sometimes less. This method, according to the master himself, compounded the intensity of a lift. He believed it produced prodigious muscle pumps, and led to startling size gains in the shortest possible time frame.
Efficient, Quick, and Fanatical
Cumulative fatigue via perfect execution, not volume and excess weights—that was the center of his system. For instance, take his “10×10 method,” one of his inventions that earned him the Mad Guru title. While others have since claimed credit for 10×10, it’s Gironda’s – hands down. This technique requires a person to complete 10 sets of 10 reps on a given movement with as little as 15 seconds rest between sets. This, and Gironda’s many different variations on this approach, were brutally difficult to complete. But they did produce excellent improvements in size, strength, and cardiovascular functioning.
In fact, there doesn’t appear to be a single negative comment (as far as bodybuilding results) from any one trainee who dedicated themselves to doing exactly as Gironda instructed. Those who had the heart and desire to succeed never failed to improve under his tutelage. He advised against long workouts, such as the 1-2-hour marathon sessions made famous by the Gold’s Gym contingent at Venice Beach. He considered such sessions testosterone-depleting. Gironda claimed it would lead to “overtonus”: a word he invented that meant “loss of muscle pump caused by overtraining.” Instead, he believed in hitting a given muscle group as hard as humanly possible within a period of no more than 45 minutes. To him, that was just enough stimulation to force fresh gains.
Use Perfect Form—or Else!
Combined with his revolutionary training methods was an iron-clad insistence on proper exercise form. And woe to anyone who had the audacity to display sloppy technique in the Guru’s presence. When seeing someone use poor form in his gym, Gironda would stop what he was doing, approach the offending member, and give them their money back. Then he would promptly throw them out. Once again, his reasoning was sound, even if his methods were a bit harsh.
He banned traditional situps at his Gym. A devoted student of human anatomy—legend has it that Gironda could name every muscle of the human body and describe its function—he knew situps were ineffective at best and could lead to serious injury. Again, he was ahead of his time, but his temper got the best of him occasionally. Do a situp in his gym, and you would quickly find yourself on the receiving end of a severe lecture and in search of a new training establishment.
Gironda also had a peculiar dislike for the traditional barbell squat. He believed there were superior variations to this cornerstone mass-builder. Instead, he believed that sissy squats and hack squats better isolated the quads. Again, many exercise scientists now agree with this assessment. The squat is performed by many now as a way to systematically induce mass gains more uniformly. Gironda stressed directly stimulating a target muscle. He advocated for a mind/muscle connection before this term was popularized in the glossy bodybuilding periodicals of the ‘80s.
Nutrition Innovations Ahead of His Time
Nutrition was central to his overall philosophy, capped by his famous claim that bodybuilding progress was 85% nutrition. He advocated low-carb eating many decades before it became popular with athletes and everyday people. He recommended copious servings of high-protein/high-fat fare. Dozens of fertile hens eggs, raw cream or half-and-half milk, and steak cooked with butter, fueled the workouts of many Gironda disciples.
Gironda was also big on supplementation long before supplements became a staple part of the serious bodybuilder’s regimen. Protein drinks, desiccated liver tablets, kelp tablets, digestive enzymes, vitamin C, and raw glandular products formed the basis of his supplemental strategy. Gironda advocated post-workout nutrition before it was fashionable. Many thought he was crazy at the time. Now they may peruse the research to see the validity of his statements.
Eccentric or Genius?
Few individuals could go against the grain to the extent that Gironda did and achieve the same degree of success. He refused to compromise his principles and eventually closed his gym, two years before he passed on October 18, 1997 at age 79.
Controversial to the end, Gironda never wavered in his contentious views. To Gironda, being true to one’s word meant something, even if his honesty attracted enemies along the way.
The Iron Guru had his detractors, but he also had people who supported him. This includes Robert Kennedy (Musclemag publisher) and John Balik (Ironman publisher). Gironda received the inaugural Peary Rader Award (named for the founder of Ironman Magazine) for Lifelong Contribution to the Sport of Bodybuilding in 1994. He also earned a Los Angeles Athletic Club award in 1991.
He is like many visionaries. Only in death has he been fully appreciated. Today, the full magnitude of his impact on bodybuilding and fitness has been accepted and acknowledged. When he died, even the great Joe Weider, his long-time rival, gave Gironda his due.
Love him or hate him, Gironda was his own man. He produced real results for his countless disciples. His contribution to bodybuilding and fitness was vast and will live on forever in those who have, knowingly or not, adopted the principles he championed. Genius or madman, Vince Gironda’s influence on millions in the fitness industry can’t be denied.
What do you think? Have you heard of Vince Gironda and his influence on the sport? Is his reputation deserved? Let us know in the comments below.
David Robson is a New Zealand-based professional freelance writer specializing in health and fitness. As a trainer and coach, David has helped thousands of people achieve their health, fitness, and bodybuilding goals. He is Founder and President of the New Zealand Wheelchair Bodybuilding Federation. David’s main passion is to provide sporting opportunities for people with disabilities.