Grimek, John (1910-1998)

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Grimek, John (1910-1998)

During John Grimek's career as a weightlifter, bodybuilder, and magazine editor—which began in the late 1920s and ended in the mid-1980s—he saw weight training change from being an activity shunned by athletes and exercise scientists into an activity universally embraced by these groups. What's more, because of his remarkable combination of muscle mass, athleticism, and flexibility, he was one of the main instigators of the change in attitude. In the mid-1920s, when young John first began to lift, following the example of his older brother George in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, there were very few men and virtually no women in the United States who trained with heavy weights. It was not that heavy lifting was unknown; it was that lifting was anathema throughout the culture. How such nonsense came to be believed by so many people is important to an understanding of the role John Grimek played in demystifying the notion of heavy lifting.

Beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, several influential writers began to argue that the lifting of heavy weights would make a person slow and inflexible, and a new word came into the English language: musclebound. These writers, who included Dr. Dio Lewis, William Blaikie, and Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, warned prospective weight trainers that, in the words of Blaikie, "If you do work suited to a draft horse, you will surely develop the ponderous qualities of that worthy animal." The arguments of these men, who misunderstood genetics as thoroughly as they misunderstood physiology, were soon bolstered by a group of unscrupulous lifters who had built muscular bodies with weight training and wanted to use those bodies to make money. These lifters realized that it would be difficult to prosper by selling barbells and dumbells through the mail because such weights were expensive to manufacture and costly to ship. However, they also realized that if they denounced heavy weight training in their mail order advertisements, they could then either sell equipment that was very light (e.g., rubber expanders) or simply sell a course of instruction explaining how to do various callisthenic exercises that required no apparatus.

Together, the misguided writers and the dishonest entrepreneurs gave birth to the myth of the musclebound weightlifter, and almost all coaches, athletes, and trainers came to believe that the worst thing an athlete could do was to lift heavy weights. Thus it was that, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, young men such as John Grimek were looked on with suspicion and even hostility as they pursued their dreams of size and strength. Perhaps because of the belief that weights would make a person slow and "tie you up," many lifters during that period worked on their flexibility and athleticism so they could disprove the belief. As for Grimek, it became especially important, as he gained muscular size very quickly and easily. In a few short years, his robust constitution and genetic predisposition combined to produce a body of previously unsurpassed perfection.

During most of the 1930s, there were no bodybuilding contests, and the only place where a young lifter/builder could compete in the "iron game" was on the weightlifting platform. Grimek's first competition was the New Jersey State Championships in Newark, which he won easily, lifting in the heavyweight class (over 82.5 kg or 181.75 pounds). Later that same year he entered the U.S. National Championships, and exceeded the national record in the press, with 242.5 pounds. He moved to York, Pennsylvania, in 1936 to train with the York Barbell Club and to work for the York Barbell Company, and by winning the National Championships that year he qualified for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

For the next several years, Grimek continued in competition, reaching his best total in 1940 at the National Championships with a press of 285 pounds, a snatch of 250, and a clean and jerk of 325. That same night, he won his first Mr. America title, and by that time he was far more famous in the small subculture of heavy lifting as a bodybuilder than as a weightlifter. In order for him to compete with the true heavyweights in America and around the world, some of whom weighed up to 300 pounds, it would have been necessary for him to gain 40 or 50 pounds, which would have spoiled the symmetry of his already legendary physique. Robert (Bob) Hoffman, the coach of the York Barbell Club team and owner of the York Barbell Company, analyzed the situation correctly: "I frequently say that a man can't have everything. John Grimek has more than his share and has done more than his share for weightlifting…. He became a weightlifter to prove that there is power in a shapely physique … Grimek would be stronger if he was heavier, but he would not have his present physique. I think his physique does weightlifting and the entire cause of weight training more good than would his winning of the world's championship."

One of the ways Grimek helped the "cause of weight training" was to serve as the prime example of flexible muscle in Bob Hoffman's magazine, Strength & Health, for which Grimek worked as a writer/editor. From 1932 on, in every issue of his magazine, Hoffman hammered away at the myth of the musclebound lifter and Grimek was his biggest weapon. Photographs of Grimek's flexibility and stories of his athleticism filled the pages of Strength & Health and helped to convince skeptical readers that heavy weights would help them, as Hoffman always said, "in their chosen sport." Another important way in which Grimek helped the "cause" was by taking part in the many exhibitions arranged by Hoffman. Whenever Hoffman was asked to bring some lifters and put on an exhibition, he would accept if at all possible. He knew that only by exposing the public to the truth that heavy lifting would help a man or a woman at his or her chosen sport, could he hope to dispel the myth of the musclebound lifter. All of these exhibitions chipped away at the myth, as audiences saw for themselves how quick and flexible the lifters were, but in the spring of 1940 Hoffman took a group of lifters, including John Grimek, to Springfield College in Massachusetts. What happened there became a pivotal event in the destruction of the myth.

Fraysher Ferguson, a student at Springfield College (where most of the country's Y.M.C.A. directors were trained), invited Hoffman to bring the lifters to Springfield for an exhibition because none of his professors believed him when he said that his lifting helped him as an athlete. One of those professors was Dr. Peter Karpovich, the most widely respected physical educator in America at that time and an avowed enemy of heavy lifting. The hall was packed with students and staff that day, and after Hoffman introduced the two top lifters, John Grimek and world heavyweight champion John Davis, Davis did some heavy lifting and Grimek gave a posing exhibition. Although physiques such as Grimek's had become common by the last decades of the twentieth century, none of the people in attendance in 1940 had ever seen a man with such huge, defined muscles. Following the exhibition, Hoffman invited questions, and the students turned to Dr. Karpovich. True to form, he rose and asked if "Mr. Grimek would mind scratching the back of his neck." After drawing a laugh by saying his neck didn't itch, Grimek obliged, then went on to a series of stunts that included standing on a low stool and touching the floor, straightlegged, with his fingertips and then doing a full side to side leg split. John Davis then did a back flip while holding a 50-pound dumbell in each hand. The audience burst into shocked applause at each new shattering stunt, and afterward Karpovich came down and privately apologized, vowing to undertake research studies that would help him understand how he could have been so mistaken. Indeed, though World War II intervened, when Karpovich returned to his lab in the late 1940s he directed a series of studies that proved to his satisfaction that far from slowing a person down, weight training increased a person's speed. In time, these studies were published in the most important journals in the field, and the musclebound theory was gradually laid to rest.

It is doubtful whether a person with significantly less muscle mass could have caused such a change in the thinking of those who saw Grimek perform his feats of flexibility. If anyone appeared visually to symbolize the word "musclebound" it was John Grimek during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet if such a man was both limber and graceful, it flew in the face of the myth. Part of Grimek's power as a performer came from his dramatic ability to pose his body. Many who saw him in his prime have said that his posing was a "ballet of power," in which he moved from pose to pose in a fluid, natural manner. Most historians of physical culture place Grimek above all bodybuilders before or since in his mastery of physical display. According to Joe Weider, who began his publishing empire in 1940, Grimek "invented modern posing, and no one has ever matched his ability on the posing platform." Films that remain of Grimek on the platform reveal a performance that combined grace, power, drama, masculinity, and beauty. He was never defeated in bodybuilding competition, and he was the man to whom all other lifter/builders would point when they were told that "lifting will make you musclebound." As Grimek himself told a group of skeptical Y.M.C.A. directors after an exhibition in which he posed and performed his seemingly miraculous stunts, "Can you do what I do? If you can't, then you're the ones who are musclebound."


—Terry Todd

Further Reading:

Fair, John. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. State College, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Todd, Jan and Terry, editors. "John Grimek: The Man." In Special Commemorative Issue of Iron Game History. Vol. 6. April 1999.