For why should we stand reverent before waterfalls and mountain tops, or a summer moon on a quiet sea, and not before the highest miracle of all’a man who is both great and good?
Since the dawn of time man has told tales of heroes, from biblical accounts of David and Samson to the epic poems of Homer. Throughout history we’ve taken as our heroes individuals who were strong in body and in mind, capable of kindness and compassion’and capable of fighting for justice.
Our movie heroes have come in all shapes and sizes, from six-gun-toting cowboys to police detectives, but in 1959 a new hero presented himself’Steve Reeves. He stood 6’1′, he was incredibly handsome, and he brought to the silver screen’for the first time’the body of a god. Moviegoers everywhere were riveted by Reeves’ animal magnetism. With 215 pounds of Mr. Universe muscle, power and grace, he had a truly heroic physique and played characters who did truly heroic things. The world of cinema would never be the same again.
What moviegoers didn’t know, however, was that Steve was every bit as heroic as the characters he portrayed.
The Birth of a Legend
He was born Steven Lester Reeves in Glasgow, Montana, on January 21, 1926, the only child of Golden and Lester Reeves. Lester passed away when the boy was 18 months old’the result of a freak farming accident. That left Steve’s early upbringing solely in the hands of his mother, Golden.
The boy seemed to be predestined for fame in the world of health and fitness: He won an award for the healthiest baby in the county at the tender age of six months. By the time Steve entered high school, he’d discovered bodybuilding.
As misguided as it may seem today, bodybuilding was looked down upon by the general public in the early 1940s, and athletes were actively discouraged from lifting weights because it would make them ‘musclebound.’ Reeves, however, liked what he saw in the muscle magazines’the images of John Grimek and other bodybuilders from that era inspired him’and he began to work out in the garage of the family home, using a simple barbell set and writing out his workout routine in crayon on the garage wall. As he once told me:
When I first started training, I used to look at pictures of different bodybuilders, but there was no one bodybuilder who made me think, ‘Well, I want to be like him.’ For instance, I would look at a picture of John Grimek and say, ‘I’d like to have legs like that. Now, there’s a good pair of legs: He has calves and thighs that balance. I’d like to have a pair of legs like Grimek.’ Then I’d look at a photo of Alan Stephan and say, ‘Now, there’s a great pair of lats’that’s a great back!’ And then I’d think, I’d like to have legs like Grimek and lats like Stephan. Then I would choose arms like somebody else’s and maybe a chest like John Farbotnik’s or whatever, and maybe definition like Clarence Ross’, and that’s the way I’d do it. I’d make a composite of the different bodybuilders.
Reeves soon joined a bodybuilding gymnasium and came under the tutelage of legendary Oakland gym owner Ed Yarick. Working with the raw material of the greatest genetics the world of bodybuilding has ever seen, Reeves gained more than 30 pounds of muscle in a mere four months.
I was 16 1/2 years old and I weighed 163 pounds. I worked out for a month, and I went on the scale’looking a little better; more firmed up, more in shape’and I still weighed 163 pounds! But that month toned up my body and got my metabolism working well. Then the following month I went on the scale again, and I weighed 173 pounds’I had gained 10 pounds of solid muscle! You could see it growing! The following month I’d gained another 10 pounds of solid muscle, and the following month another 10. In other words, after working out with weights for four months, I was the best-built guy at the gym. There were guys there who had been working out for three and four years, and they couldn’t believe it! They thought a miracle had happened there!
During that period the Reeves philosophy began to materialize; he strove not only to build a balanced physique but also to live a balanced life. He had no interest in building size merely for the sake of size. Proportion and shape would be his primary goals’and he achieved them through dedicated, purposeful training.
I think to be fit and in shape is a great thing. But it shouldn’t rule your life. I believe life should be balanced. I would recommend that a person have a symmetrical, classical-type physique. When I started working out, my arms were 13 1/2 inches and my calves were 16 1/2 inches’so they were three inches out of proportion. I didn’t work my calves at all until I got my arms to 16 1/2 inches, and then I built my arms, my neck and my calves up together to 17 inches, 17 1/2 inches, 18 inches, 18 1/4 inches, and I left them there. That was plenty for me.
By the way, I think a person’s ideal weight should be determined according to height. Let’s say you’re 6′ tall; you should weigh about 200 pounds. And then as you progress, for each inch over 6′ you add 15 pounds. For example, if you’re 6’1′, you should weigh 215 pounds; if you’re 6’2′, you should weigh 230 pounds, and so on. And if you’re less than 6′, you should drop 10 pounds per inch’so someone who’s 5’11’ should weigh 190 pounds. Even for bodybuilders I think that would be great. It worked for me.
In fact, it worked so well that Reeves was encouraged to compete, with many people believing that he would be a shoo-in to win the coveted Mr. America title. The bodybuilding laurels would have to wait, however, as World War II had begun.
When Reeves graduated from Castlemont High School in 1944, the war was at its height, and on September 12, 1944, he was inducted into the Army. Soldiers were being shipped overseas quickly; after six short weeks of basic training his division got orders for the Philippines. As part of Company A of the 25th Infantry Division he fought in the Battle of Balete Pass, which included some of the bloodiest action of the war. He received the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and several other awards for his valor under fire. Reeves would later recall the mind-set he developed in order to cope with the carnage he witnessed.
It could have been devastating [psychologically] if I’d had the wrong mentality, but when I went in there, I adopted a mind-set that made it as if I was watching a motion picture. In other words, I was kind of the observer. I would see people being killed all around me, and I would see people carried out on stretchers. In fact, when we were walking on the front lines, we saw people carried out on stretchers with a leg missing. If it was particularly hilly terrain, it was not uncommon to see a leg fall off the stretcher, and they’d simply pick it up and throw it back on. Or we’d see a guy with his intestines just hanging, dragging on the ground, and they would pick them back up. That could have been devastating to a guy who had just turned 19 and was going into the service on the front lines for his country.
Not long after that Reeves contracted a severe case of malaria, which required a long hospitalization. During this time he lost more than 30 pounds, and after several more bouts of malaria, he was transferred to the quartermaster corps and, shortly thereafter, assigned to Japan. He was stationed to the town of Otaruon on Hokkaido Island during the Allied occupation, eventually ending up in Tokyo with General MacArthur’s troops.
Reeves knew that he was considerably below par physically and that he had to do something to get himself back in shape. Rather than relying on calisthenics, he sought out a Japanese interpreter, and the two tracked down a local foundry where, with the aid of sketches and a lot of gesturing, he had a 210-pound barbell set manufactured. Despite the crude equipment, it didn’t take long for Reeves to build his strength’and physique’back up. He kept his weights under his bed in the barracks and eventually built an exercise bench that passed Army inspections because it looked enough like an ironing board to fool the officers. Reeves later joked that the bench was ‘a success both ways.’
Almost immediately his physique began to respond to the stimulus of barbell training. In fact, his strength and physique became so impressive that his fellow soldiers started referring to him as ‘The Shape,’ a name that stuck with him throughout his military career. His superior officers took note of his inspirational physique and dedication to fitness and requested that he start training his fellow soldiers.
With the end of the war, Reeves cast his gaze homeward and toward a career that would make him a legend in the world of bodybuilding.
The Bodybuilding Legend
On September 18, 1946, Reeves found himself standing once again on good old American terra firma. Discharged from the service, he headed almost immediately back to Ed Yarick’s gym in Oakland. This time, however, he was no longer Yarick’s pupil; he was now his equal and would soon eclipse not only his former mentor but also every other bodybuilder in the world.
A mere three months after his return, in December ’46, Reeves entered his first bodybuilding contest, the Mr. Pacific Coast, which was held that year in Portland. With his tremendous blend of shape, symmetry and size he blew away the competition and was awarded the title.
Fueled by his success, Reeves dug in and trained even harder. He entered’and won’his second contest, the Mr. Western America, in Los Angeles. Those two titles were merely steppingstones for the ambitious young man, steps on the road to the most coveted title in bodybuilding’Mr. America’which would be held just three weeks later, on June 29, in Chicago.
One of Reeves’ main competitors for the ’47 America, legendary muscle man George Eiferman, recalled how word of Reeves got out’unnerving some of his competitors:
No one in the Midwest had seen him. A few days before the contest we heard rumors about a man who had throngs of people following him along the Lake Michigan beachfront, and we could not imagine who could draw crowds by merely walking along a beach. I was anxious to see this man’and when we did see him, we knew he was Mr. America for that year.
What his fellow competitors didn’t know was that Reeves was not only training hard physically but also employing a psychological technique not known in post’World War II America. It was called visualization, or positive visual imagery, and it helped him stay focused and motivated’and ultimately helped him win the Mr. America title. According to Reeves:
When I was training for the Mr. America contest, I would try to do 10 reps, and my training partner would count, ‘One, two, three, four, five,’ and on the sixth rep he would name one of the competitors who was going to be in the Mr. America contest. So on number six, I would have my training partner say, ‘Eiferman!’ and I’d go [mimes a very determined bench press]. Vrooom! That meant that in my mind I had beaten Eiferman with that rep. For my next rep, instead of ‘seven’ he would say, ‘Farbotnik!’ Vrooom! Then instead of, ‘Eight’ he would say, ‘Eric Pederson!’ Vrooom!
I knew who the five guys that I had to beat were, so instead of six, seven, eight, nine and 10, the reps became ‘Eiferman,’ ‘Farbotnik,’ ‘Pederson,’ ‘Joe Lauria’ and ‘Kimon Voyages.’ In fact, that’s the way they placed. They were in the first six, and I was number one. That type of imagery and psychology played a big part in my victory, as I was mentally winning the contest before the contest took place. I believe that if you can’t conceive of an idea, you can’t realize it.
The word of a phenomenon was now out in the bodybuilding world. Reeves was sought by the top physique photographers in the industry, including the legendary Tony Lanza of Montreal, whose photographs of the young Mr. America would set the standard for physique photography for the next 40 years.
It is unbelievable that anyone could have such huge muscular size and yet retain the perfect balance in proportions.
‘Iron Man, July ’47
Breathtaking. A perfect physical specimen. His tremendous breadth of shoulders and extreme slenderness of waist are symbolic of the new physique.
‘Strength & Health
But it wasn’t just the bodybuilding scribes who were euphoric about the phenomenon that was Steve Reeves. Even veteran bodybuilding photographers couldn’t believe their eyes. Legendary lensman Russ Warner had this to say:
I don’t think there is one chance in 50 trillion that the particular mix of genes that produced Steve Reeves will ever occur again. He has the overall beauty that no other bodybuilder has ever been able to achieve. I have had the occasion to work with most of the top bodybuilders in the world. But when the good Lord made Steve Reeves, He threw away the mold. There has never been another man’going back through all written-word and graphic representation’who from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes ever came out like Steve Reeves. He is from another galaxy.
Unlike the situation today there were no endorsement contracts for the bodybuilders who competed in the 1940s’not even if they won the America. Reeves later recalled, ‘It was hard to make a living from bodybuilding, which is one of the major reasons I went into acting.’
As luck would have it, he was approached by a New York agent and offered a chance to study the renowned method system of acting with Stella Adler, who had worked with such superstars as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. Reeves didn’t get along with Adler, however. In his mind she was looking to turn out leading men who slurred their speech, shuffled their feet and did not represent what, in his estimation, a leading man should be: strong, confident and masculine looking. He left Adler’s school and entered the Theodore Irving School, where he performed on weekends with a comedian named Dick Burney, working theaters and small clubs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
At about this time, Reeves was approached by a new fan’Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who not only commissioned a special poster of Reeves for his office at Universal Studios but also wanted Reeves to star in his new biblical epic, ‘Samson and Delilah.’ DeMille had a request, however: He wanted Reeves to drop muscle mass so he would not dwarf the other members of the cast. Reeves obliged and took off 10 pounds, but he felt as if he wasn’t being true to himself. After all, he was a bodybuilder, and he’d worked hard to create physical perfection. DeMille was offering to make him a star’but at the cost of his soul. The price was too high. Reeves returned to the gym and built his body back up to its Mr. America proportions, and the role of Samson went to Victor Mature.
Reeves recalled the difficulties he had breaking into Hollywood:
Having the build that I did was a detriment at first. I went to Universal Studios and had an interview, and they said, ‘You’re a good-looking guy’you’re tall and everything’and we could probably put you under contract like we did with Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. The trouble is you have that big physique, and we could only use you in one movie a year’and that would be limited. So we can’t sign you up to a contract.’ In fact, there were actors’Gregory Peck, for example’who would not work with me in a film because they did not want to be seen next to me. Gary Cooper did not want to be in a picture with me, and Burt Lancaster, likewise. But then when the pictures came along where you had to have a good physique, my body was a great advantage.
Those pictures were still many years away, however, and Reeves grew frustrated waiting for his big break. He decided to return to his passion’bodybuilding’and he set his sights on a new contest, the Mr. Universe, which was to be held 13 months later in London, England.
The Mr. Universe was the Mr. Olympia of its day, the Superbowl of bodybuilding. Reeves’ motivation was fueled by the fact that he’d at long last be competing against the man whose photo had first inspired Reeves to take up the sport’the legendary John Grimek.
Steve’s preparation was his hardest yet. His reputation had preceded him, and by the time he arrived in London, thousands of bodybuilding fans had turned out to see his first appearance on European soil. The mob was so big, in fact, that Reeves had to check into two hotels to escape it, signing into the second one under an assumed name to get some peace and quiet and better focus on the battle to come.
On the night of August 23, 1948, the contest came down to Grimek and Reeves, but was too close to call. The judges, one of whom was Grimek’s patron, Bob Hoffman, declared it a draw, but then quickly determined a way to break the tie. They would have a gymnastics competition between the two finalists, with the Mr. Universe title being awarded to the better gymnast. ‘I knew right then I had lost the title,’ Reeves said, as Grimek was a gymnast par excellence. The legendary iron man pressed into a handstand, then walked over and went into a full split, hitting a double-biceps pose. He won the ’48 Mr. Universe.
Not that Reeves didn’t have his share of supporters. British movie star Patricia Plunkett wanted her picture taken with him’not Grimek’while Frederick IX of Denmark asked Reeves to become his personal trainer. Steve declined the invitation, and as he left the stage, he was told that the Mr. World contest was being held in France just three days later. Having come too far to return home empty handed, he decided to go to Cannes and enter the competition.
The mobs in France were hardly smaller than the ones in London. Reeves enjoyed the attention, however, and after going through a simple workout for the benefit of the paparazzi, he was ready for action. He took to the posing dais like a tiger and hit pose after mind-boggling pose, causing the French judges, who had never before seen a body of Reeves’ caliber, to be completely overwhelmed. And so on August 26, 1948, Steve Reeves was declared ‘le plus bel athlete du monde.’ After the contest he wowed the spectators at Cannes with an impromptu posing display before heading home to consider his future.
After taking some much-needed time off, Steve found meaningful employment, but his interest soon returned to the one title that had eluded him’Mr. Universe. There was only one problem: By the time he’d made up his mind to enter the contest, it was only four weeks away. Still, Reeves was nothing if not determined. He headed out to York, Pennsylvania, and trained at the famous York Barbell Club’the home of John Grimek. By all reports he trained with such ferocity and concentration that he amazed all who were present with his quick transformation, gaining no less than 19 pounds of muscle in two weeks! In an interview that was conducted the week after the contest’and that appears in the forthcoming book Dynamic Muscle Building’Reeves recalled what he did:
Q: When did you make up your mind to enter the Mr. Universe contest?
Steve Reeves: About one month before it was to take place. I had already won the Mr. America and Mr. World events’the two top amateur crowns. To make my career complete, I decided to try for the Mr. Universe title, which is the biggest professional crown. I made up my mind overnight, and the next day I took my first workout on the comeback trail.
Q: Just how long was your layoff?
SR: More than a year.
Q: What did you weigh and what were your measurements at that time?
SR: I weighed 198 pounds. I do not recall my measurements, for truthfully, I have never been too concerned with measurements, working always for proportion and symmetry instead of tape-measure size.
Q: Did you break in gradually, or did you plunge right into a tough routine?
SR: For the first week I broke in very gradually, using very light weights.
Q: Did you make any progress that first week?
SR: Not in measurement or bodyweight. I didn’t expect to. All I was interested in was getting back good muscle tone and getting set for harder work the next few weeks.
Q: After the breaking-in routine, what schedule did you follow?
SR: I selected what I considered to be the best exercises for each part of the body, one for each major muscle group. Then I performed each of those exercises for 10 sets, 12 repetitions per set. I worked out fast, going from one exercise right into another. Even then this routine took me about three hours to complete.
During my workout, I consumed considerable water to replace what I lost in sweat’which poured off my body. I dressed very warmly during the workouts to eliminate as much as possible any muscular stiffness. Of course, I do not recommend such a program for the average bodybuilder, for all I did was eat, rest, sleep and train. I couldn’t have done it if I’d had a regular job to take care of besides.
Q: How about your diet, sleep and so on?
SR: I retired at 8:00 each evening and slept until 9:00 the following morning. I was careful to eat a well-balanced diet consisting of a lot of high-protein foods, large green salads, baked potatoes. I ate a lot of beef’mainly steak. My diet also included raw eggs, honey, bananas, cheese, dried and fresh fruits’all wholesome foods’which gave me energy and muscular bodyweight.
Q: When did you begin to see real results?
SR:It was during the second and third weeks that I packed on all my bodyweight’a solid 19 pounds.
Q: Did you change your training then?
SR: Yes, it was about time to leave for the contest. I traveled to London by plane and arrived a few days before the event. Since I had gained all the weight I thought I needed, I spent the rest of my training days in lighter exercise, designed to give me more definition. For this purpose I found it handy to use cables in my hotel room, and I took several workouts daily with them until the day of the contest.
Q: What was your weight on the day of the contest?
SR: Two hundred seventeen pounds. I had taken one pound off, had trimmed down my waist a bit, and the cables had given me a lot of extra muscularity.
Q: On the day of the contest were you confident of victory?
SR: I am never overconfident. I felt that I was in peak shape, but I also knew that I was up against stiff competition.
Indeed. Reeves’ chief competition that day came in the massively muscled form of young Reg Park, a man who would gain fame in America via the Weider publications and who also would go on to star in several Hercules movies himself’inspiring another young bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger into entering competition.
Despite a brief bout of pneumonia, Reeves was big, ripped and ready when he got to London’s Scala Theatre on July 24, 1950. After a close, hard-fought battle, he was finally awarded the one title that had eluded him’Mr. Universe. The bodybuilding public went wild! Here was the most incredible physique they’d ever seen. Bodybuilders were falling over themselves to find out what his ‘secret’ training methods were. To Reeves, however, it wasn’t a secret at all. In fact, it was more mental than physical.
I didn’t give myself any limitations. I didn’t know it was difficult to build muscles. Not that I was different, but for the fact that no one told me, ‘Boy, that’s really hard to do,’ or ‘You have to work for years before you can gain an inch on your arms.’ I had no limitations, and I used extreme concentration: When I worked out, I concentrated exclusively on the muscle being worked. I’d concentrate on the movements, doing them nice and slow so that I could really feel the movement all the way up and all the way down. I used a full range of motion, and it really worked out well for me.
You have to create a superior line of communication between your brain and your muscles. And you can only do that two ways: by concentration and by practicing muscle control in your spare time when you’re not working out. When you can flip those muscles [i.e., get your muscles to twitch through brief, voluntary flexion], that means you have great communication between your mind and your muscle tissue. So, by building up a greater superior line of communication between the brain and the muscles, I was able to develop much faster and easier. In other words, I didn’t have to put so much time into it. I worked out three days a week for about two to 2 1/2 hours a day’counting my upper body and lower body together in each workout’and then the other four days a week I rested because rest is just as important as working out.
Reeves had now gone as high as he could go in bodybuilding. He announced his retirement from competition and made a new goal for himself’to become a movie star. Little did he know that his incredible physique would open the door to his becoming the most famous motion picture actor in the world.
Editor’s note: Next month John Little relates the incredible story of Reeves’ movie career and highlights his final years, including his campaign against steroids in bodybuilding and the development of his revolutionary Powerwalking system. And, of course, there will be more rare, inspirational photos.
John Little is the creator of the Max Contraction Training system and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s the writer-director of the new film, ‘Steve Reeves: The Man. The Legend,’ and the editor of the new Steve Reeves’ training book, Dynamic Muscle Building.
Article copyright ‘ 2003, John Little. All rights reserved. All photos used in this article are property of Steve Reeves International Inc. and are used with permission. IM