Grimek, Reeves, Park and the American Muscular Ideal, Part Two
by Alan Radley (2001)
Reg Park, Reeves’ great combatant in the Mr. Universe contest, will also have a place in the hearts and minds of all true Iron Game fans. Park, an only son, was born in Yorkshire, England, and attended Leeds Grammar School. It is said that right from the start he was a promising athlete, enjoying most of the sports offered at the school. He won medals for running at which he was considered a natural. Reg also started training at home, and at the age of 16, his photograph appeared in “Health and Strength” magazine. He trained hard, and in the next few years he managed to place fourth in the junior Mr. Great Britain competition. Then, like Steve Reeves, he was called up for national service and served in the Far East. Nevertheless, he managed to continue weight training while overseas.
Returning to England in 1948, he arranged to attend the first Mr. Universe contest, where he saw Steve Reeves for the first time, and of whom he described as appearing “Out of this world.” On seeing Steve, he remarked that he would be as good, if not better than Reeves in only one year’s time! The following year, pictures of Reg Park and rumors of his genuine 18 inch arms started appearing all over the Physical Culture press, along with the news that he had bulked himself up to as much as 230 pounds. He then dieted down to a weight at which he felt he achieved maximum muscularity. Park now weighed in at 205 pounds, with a neck of 18 inches, chest 49½, waist 31, thigh 25, and a 16¾ inch calf. In November 1949, he entered the Mr. Great Britain contest at this weight and won the title easily. By now, his bench press was up to 325 pounds, and he could perform a standing press of 250 pounds. He was only 20 years old at the time of his win, and when his birthday came his parents sent him on a trip to the United States as a present. He traveled widely in America and impressed many of the pundits there with his strength and great physique.
Returning to England in 1950, he met Steve Reeves in a battle for the Mr. Universe contest in London. Despite many callouts and comparisons between the two men, for it was a close contest, Reeves emerged victorious. The two men were similar in size, but unfortunately for Park, Reeves appeared to have the edge in overall shape and general physical beauty. The following year, Park trained like a demon. He always trained in a small, unheated garage hear his home and along with two training partners he would go training both in summer and winter, no matter how cold it became. All that they had to light the little gymnasium were candles! Reg filled the holes in the broken windows and it was a gloomy little place. However, Park completed some great workouts here with very basic equipment, consisting of nothing more than a mass of solid discs, a few barbells and dumbbells, squatting stands, un-upholstered benches and dipping and chinning bars. Here he engaged in brutal workouts, pounding the iron with incredible concentration and copious amounts of sweat for up to 2½ hours at a time, always using the heaviest possible poundages.
Reg Park entered the 1951 Mr. Universe contest and won in heroic style, despite stiff opposition. A lithe Indian bodybuilder by the name of Montosh Roy gave a valiant challenge to the British man. Roy was an adept of Yoga and muscle control and gave an awe-inspiring demonstration of both techniques. At the time, it was common for physique contestants to prove their abilities by performing feats of strength and dexterity. Roy had a beautiful, well-proportioned and defined physique, which was admittedly lighter then Park’s, but he gave a wonderful posing display. Nevertheless, Park was announced the winner of this prestigious contest and found himself on his way to immortal fame. He continued to train for the next twenty years or more and won the Mr. Universe contest on several other occasions. He also started his own magazine, “The Reg Park Journal”, which sold well for many years, and also developed his bodybuilding courses which sold very well. Later in his career, he started to appear in several movies, including a re-enactment of Hercules.
Park’s training was mainly centered on the development of ultimate strength. He liked to use basic exercises that allowed him to really pile on the plates. A few out-takes from one of his courses are interesting in order to obtain a flavor of his methods.
From his ‘Back Specialization Bulletin’ he said, “The wide grip rowing motion. For real power in the Latissimus Dorsi, the wide grip rowing motion cannot be excelled. Besides imparting an imposing appearance, power can be built up when body motion is used in conjunction with heavier poundages. The chin behind neck. This exercise is the favorite of dozens of top flight bodybuilders including Alan Stephan, Armand Tanny, Marvin Eder, etc. There is something fascinating about the manner in which this movement broadens the upper back and builds definition, and that makes it such a popular exercise with weight trainers. At first you will have to work into the manner of performing the exercise before you tie any weight on your feet. Later on, as you get more powerful, you will be able to use quite an amount of added poundage to your bodyweight and 100 pounds is well within the possibilities of most trainers. The power upright rowing motion. Here is a favorite exercise of the top American bodybuilders and I have seen several in New York gymnasiums use up to 250 pounds. One famous bodybuilder is so powerful in this exercise that he can clean 300 pounds to the shoulders without any bending of the knees.” Other exercises he recommended in his back development course were the barbell shrug and the one-arm dumbbell row. For other bodyparts, he recommended a similar number of power exercises.
Another interesting fact is that Park placed significant emphasis on the development of forearms in his arm training. Again, it is useful to listen to his own words, taken from ‘How to Build Bigger Arms’. “The superb development of the arms still holds a magical fascination for the vast majority of men and women, and is synonymous with virility and manhood. To get big arms you must work them until they ache. Hard, progressive and persistent training produces this quality of muscular power. Strive for balanced development, great strength in muscles and tendons, and not coarse, inflated, bulky tissue. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, wrist strength is most important to the lifter; gripping power and latent forearm strength is transmitted via this medium. Strength and development of the forearms is to a large extent governed by tendon and wrist strength, in order that the powerful forearm muscles can exert themselves to the full. The oldtime strongmen depended upon superlative gripping power to accomplish the prodigious feats of strength they achieved. The Reverse Curl should take precedence over the normal curl! Also, routines for the forearms should take preference over the upper arms! And, in forearm work, anything that taxes the gripping power of the fingers rather than the muscular power of the forearm muscles themselves should be emphasized.
Park recommended the wrist curl and reverse curl, and the wind up with a newspaper to develop the forearms. He also recommended the use of 2½ inch diameter handles in dumbbell training for developing greater gripping power in the forearms. In addition, he recommended one-hand swings and one-hand clean & jerks for building extra power in the grip. Like the early strongmen, Park therefore places significant emphasis on the development of the muscles of the lower arm.
Known for his outstanding strength and incredibly high training poundages, Park set many strength records. Some of his training lifts were cheating barbell curls with well over 200 pounds, heavy rowing with well over 300, bench presses for repetitions with over 450, bent arm pullovers with over 200, presses behind the neck with 250, and squats with 460 for sets of 6 repetitions. He loved setting strength records and pressed two 135-lb. dumbbells overhead for a world record. Late in his career, he moved to South Africa where he still lives today. Reg Park still maintains his connections to the Iron Game, regularly attending reunions such as the 50th Anniversary dinner of the Mr. Universe contest, held in Birmingham, England, in October, 1999, where he gave a wonderful speech about the good old days of the sport. He also continues to be one of the best-loved and most respected individuals who ever participated in the sport.
As the 1950’s came to a close, bodybuilding in America reached new heights of popularity. Entrepreneurs saw opportunities in the new climate where going to the gymnasium was seen as “smart” and even chic. By now, Physical Culture had grown to such an extent that there were several thousand gyms across America. In 1958, the Wall Street Journal ran a lead article on the vast moneymaking possibilities of this new exercise trend. Health and strength was seen as an obtainable goal for all. Men like Vic Tanny, “The Gym King of America”, who owned 50 gymnasiums worldwide and annually grossed over 100 million dollars, began to make inroads into the American way of life as never before. Eventually he would own 84 gyms at the peak of the fitness boom during the 1960’s. Additionally, women were also especially welcome in these new gymnasia, many of which were posh establishments with chrome weights and well designed machines of all kinds.
Overall, it is certainly true that the Americans still had higher quality physiques during the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time, many assumed that the Americans had secrets they were not sharing with the rest of the world, so far ahead were their athletes in terms of muscular development. Nevertheless, the Physical Culture boom in England proceeded unabated during the 1950’s and 60’s. In seaside towns like Blackpool, Southampton and Brighton. Physical Culture displays became a common sight during the summer. Gymnastic displays were often seen on the beachfronts and promenades, as were tumbling and balancing shows. Also, high-diving and aqua shows were a standard feature in these seaside towns.
The use of weights to perfect the physique was also a notable part of the summer beach scene in England, somewhat mirroring the goings on in America. A close friend of mine, Roy Adams, used to showcase his great weight-trained physique in a diving team for summer crowds in Southport during the early 1960’s. Also in my own hometown of Blackpool during the 1950’s and 60’s, Physical Culture fans organized diving and physique contest in the open-air baths along the famous promenade.
The British also challenged the Americans with beauty contests and the like. The introduction of the bikini, in place of the older full length bathing costumes heralded a new interest in Physical Culture for women. Physical Culture was booming and both weight training and weightlifting contests became a noteworthy feature of the period. A particularly famous British Physical Culturist of the period was Reub Martin, who was a great all-rounder, as was common at the time. But he was most uncommon in his physical abilities, being at the same time, a great weightlifter, hand balancer, strongman, and bodybuilder. Appearing in his great stage act, “Trois Des Milles” in the early 1950’s, he never failed to bring the house down at the London Palladium. Touring with the “Folies Bergere” throughout England, Europe and Australia, he and his colleagues amazed audiences wherever they went. Reub would sometimes support his partner while in a handstand position and then walk up and down steps while, at the same time, balancing wine bottles in various positions.
During this golden age of muscle, the sport of bodybuilding continued to grow in sophistication in England. The great English bodybuilder, Oscar Heidenstam, is an important figure in the development of British Physical Culture. He had won the NABBA Mr. Great Britain title in 1937, followed by Mr. Europe in 1939, and was twice runner-up for the Mr. Universe title. In addition, he was later made NABBA secretary and editor in chief of “Health and Strength” magazine. He wrote a weekly column throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, answering bodybuilders training questions. He was a towering example to young, up-and-coming bodybuilders during this period and possessed a very fine physique that was much admired both in Europe and America. A guiding light to many great bodybuilders in the early stages of their careers, he is today remembered with great affection whenever people talk of the golden era of British Physical Culture. Additionally, his legacy is today continued by the fine organization that is the Oscar Heidenstam Foundation, which dedicates itself to promoting the older values of Physical Culture with its Annual Awards Dinner.
Throughout the 1950’s the NABBA Mr. Universe contest became recognized as the leading bodybuilding competition worldwide. As a result, musclemen from around the world would travel to compete at this event each year. Many famous American champions made visits to England for that particular contest. Over the years, some of the visiting Americans included John Grimek (1948), Bill Pearl (1953), Enrico Thomas (1954), Jim Park (1954), Mickey Hargitay (1955), Ray Schaeffer (1956), Jack Delinger (1956), Bruce Randall (1959), and Joe Abenda (1962). At the time, American physique stars were generally thought to be of a higher standard than those from other countries, although England could also boast a few stars of high quality. Some English winners of the Mr. Universe title included Arnold Dyson (1953), John Lees (1957), Len Sell (1959), Henry Downs (1960), and, of course, the great Reg Park (1951, 1958, and 1965). However, some of the more popular bodybuilders never won these top competitions. One example is Spencer Churchill, Reg Park’s training partner during the 1950’s. Spencer was by far the most popular bodybuilder in England during the golden age of bodybuilding.
Men like Grimek, Reeves and Park virtually invented bodybuilding during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Prior to this time, by and large, but with some exceptions, the overall muscle mass of a weightlifter had been of a much lower degree than demonstrated by John Grimek. He was the first modern muscleman with well-defined, giant muscles. Others had, throughout history, also developed large muscles but they had not, in the main, developed the same degree of definition and separation between the muscles that Grimek managed to achieve. All three of these great men achieved their physiques by concentrating as much on the newly “discovered” bodybuilding isolation exercises like curls, calf raises, abdominal exercises dumbbell flyes, as on the familiar weightlifting and power exercises.
In the earlier part of the 20th Century, most Physical Culturists had developed their physiques as a direct byproduct of weightlifting. Of course, these two activities go somewhat hand-in-hand, but in the 1950’s and 60’s, for the first time, these two sports diverged into two different specialisms. One ha the aim of a great looking body whilst the other maximized physical strength and power. This is seen for the first time in someone such as Reeves, who was primarily concerned with the effects that lifting had on the appearance of his physique and did not care much about specifically lifting maximum weights.
Overall, during the 1950’s and 60’s, weight training became a more sophisticated activity that involved the invention, development and construction of new kinds of equipment and machines. These allowed bodybuilders to exercise and develop certain muscles to a greater degree than before. Men of this age had larger, more defined muscles in the lower legs, chest, triceps and abdominals, in addition to more flaring back muscles than in the past. At the same time, the emphasis on high protein, low carb diets gave bodybuilders massive muscles that were nearly devoid of obscuring fat. This new approach resulted in a completely new physique ideal, one embodied by the likes of Grime, Reeves and Park, whose appearances on the covers of muscle magazines and in films would take this new idealized muscular look to young men around the world. At the same time bodybuilding was becoming big business, and many thousands of gyms were opened on both sides of the Atlantic. This was truly the golden age of Physical Culture, and tens of thousands flocked to the newly equipped gymnasia in the hope of building a stronger, healthier and more muscular physique. This tradition in fact continues to the current day, and weight trainers now number in the millions worldwide. If only Thomas Inch, Arthur Saxon and W.A. Pullum were alive today, I feel sure they would be amazed at the shear scale of activity they had pioneered.