The Story of John Grimek, the Renaissance Man of Fitness

Grimek was considered a true pioneer in the early 20th century for mixing aesthetics and performance.

John Grimek is one of the greatest athletes to ever touch a barbell. That is a big claim, but one which the “Monarch of Muscledom” most surely deserves. Born in New Jersey in 1910, Grimek represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in weightlifting before becoming a two-time Mr. America winner in 1940 and 1941. So impressed were the Mr. America judges with Grimek’s physique that they changed the competition’s rules to prevent winners from re-entering the contest. 

Much like Bill Kazmier, who was banned from entering the World Strongest Man contest in the 1980s owing to his dominance, Grimek was effectively banned from the Mr. America contest. Undeterred, he won the 1948 Mr. Universe title and then the Mr. USA title in 1949. Grimek retired from bodybuilding soon after having never lost a competition.

Discussing Grimek is a challenge. Not because he was a difficult personality — if anything he was known for his friendliness — but because he accomplished so much across so many different fields. He helped pioneer barbell lifting in the United States, inspired millions to train, and remained as a key figure in American fitness until his death in 1998.


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When the highly-respected bodybuilding entrepreneur Earle Liederman saw Grimek on stage in 1940, he wrote: “I must confess my eyes opened a bit wider, for seldom have I seen such a highly developed body. Criticism cannot find one weak spot.” (1)

In a touching obituary for Grimek, famed bodybuilding promoter and founder of Muscle & Fitness magazine Joe Weider wrote, “From the 1930s through the 1960s, John Grimek was the most dominant force in the world of bodybuilding.” (2) Bill Starr called him “the most admired man in all of physical culture.” (3)

Grimek was at the forefront of American fitness in the twentieth century. What follows is a detailed look at his life and legacy.

The Early Years

John Grimek was born in New Jersey in 1910 to George and Maria Grimek. Somewhat oddly given his successes, Grimek’s interest in weightlifting was not innate, but rather something he developed thanks to the mentorship of his older brother George. (4)

As retold by David Chapman, George was consumed by his growing interest in physical culture. He was a reader of prominent health magazines at the time like Physical Culture and Strength. (5) More importantly, he bought nearly every fitness device advertised in the back of these publications. George earnestly used the equipment, encouraging John to do the same. When the iron touched his hand, John found “an intense desire to build a magnificent physique, and he had a magnificent foundation on which to build.” (6)

At the age of 19, John began sending photographs of himself to muscle magazines which, as David Chapman explained, caused a stir in the fitness industry. Posing outdoors and often wearing headbands, loincloths and other costumes, the young Grimek was praised for his posing ingenuity and abilities. It was clear, even from this age, that he possessed the potential to build a truly remarkable physique. (7)


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It was for this reason that Mark Berry, the editor of Strength magazine, eventually contacted Grimek about the possibility of the two training together. During the early 1930s, Berry was one of the foremost experts in American weightlifting. He coached the Olympic weightlifting team, was the editor of Strength, and published multiple books on training.

Living with Berry, Grimek gained both strength and size. Under Berry’s methods, Grimek brought his weight up to 250 pounds. (8) Although he trained like a bodybuilder, and was presented as such during this time, Grimek displayed a much greater affinity for weightlifting than with muscle posing. 

In 1936, Grimek was selected for the United States Olympic Weightlifting team alongside other stars like John Terry, John Terpak and Tony Terlazzo. Terlazzo was the only American to come home with a medal (he won America’s first Olympic gold in weightlifting), but Grimek’s presence was still celebrated in American fitness magazines. Going into the tournament as the AAU Heavyweight Champion, Grimek finished ninth with a 788-pound total across the clean, snatch and military press

Notably, Grimek was originally scheduled to compete as a light heavyweight. He was bumped up to heavyweight and still managed to finish ninth despite being the lightest competitor. (9) Grimek continued to train with Berry after the Olympics and did so until 1938 when his coach, and his fortunes, changed.

Creating “The Glow”

Grimek moved to York, Pennsylvania in 1938; he was invited to train with Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell Club. Entering weightlifting contests under Hoffman’s tutelage, Grimek was encouraged to take part in the 1939 AAU Mr. America competition. This was one of the first bodybuilding shows to come to the United States. 

At that time, informal bodybuilding shows were usually held at the end of a weightlifting meet. After the lifters had completed their lifts, whoever was willing and able to compete in a posing competition was invited to do so. Grimek was routinely asked by his fellow competitors and coaches to take part, owing to his amazing physique. (10) Grimek was capable of rippling the muscles around his body like a wave, could do one-handed handstands and strike unusual but powerful poses. He was a force to behold.


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In 1939, Grimek competed in his first ever physique competition, the York “Perfect Man Contest,” which he won. The following year, Grimek took part in the Mr. America contest against future winner Frank Leight and former Olympic team mate Tony Terlazzo. Grimek was far and away the best competitor. He won the most muscular award and the overall prize. (11)

Even more impressive was his lifting performance. Although weightlifting was not required in the contest, Grimek lifted and managed a total of 860 pounds across the snatch, clean and press all while wearing his street shoes. (12)

In both the strength and bodybuilding worlds, Grimek’s legend was growing. It was around this time that Strength & Health writer Harry Paschal began calling Grimek “The Glow,” owing to his radiant skin.

When Grimek won the Mr. America contest the following year, the AAU was faced with a serious problem. They simply couldn’t see how another bodybuilder could beat Grimek in competition. So, they decided to ban winners from re-entering the contest. This gave Grimek the distinction of being the only elite bodybuilder banned from competition for being too successful.

All was not lost. In 1948, Grimek was invited to compete in the Mr. Universe competition organized by the National Amateur Bodybuilding Association (NABBA). The Mr. Universe was held in Philadelphia in 1947, but none of the competitors made the trip to London for the NABBA show the following year. Held in conjunction with the 1948 Olympic Games, this show pitted John Grimek against the new up-and-coming star in bodybuilding Steve Reeves.

Writing for the British Amateur Weightlifter and Bodybuilder, Ron Chifney praised Reeves before acknowledging that Grimek was still the pinnacle. Indeed, he went so far to state that, “the man has not been born who could have followed Grimek’s great display without suffering a little by comparison.” (13)

The below video gives a rare, but amazing, example of Grimek’s posing in action: 

Grimek actually beat Reeves again the following year at a newly-created AAU Mr. USA competition, in what proved to be his last competitive event. It added another title to his undefeated competitive record. 

Retired from competition, Grimek became a figurehead as an editor with both Strength and Health magazine and Muscular Development. He became Senior Editor of Strength and Health in the early 1940s and was given full control over Muscular Development after its creation in 1964.

For the next 20 years, Grimek strove to produce a factual bodybuilding magazine while simultaneously encouraging the next generation of bodybuilders. He passed away in 1998 at 88 years old. He was physically active until the very end. (14)

How Grimek Changed the Fitness Industry

Aside from being a prestigious competitor, Grimek helped to challenge the stereotype of the muscle-bound lifter. A single look at an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit champion is enough evidence that weight training does not make you inflexible, slow, or uncoordinated.

Remarkably, there was a time when the myth prevailed among the medical community. In 1940, Professor Peter Karpovich of Springfield College was one particularly strong proponent of the idea that athletes must avoid weight training. Karpovich believed one of his jobs was to “fight against the muscle-builders” of his era. (15)

Such was Karpovich’s demonization of weight training that one of his graduate students wrote a letter to Bob Hoffman of York Barbell asking for help. The student helped organize a forum for Dr. Karpovich, at which John Grimek appeared. 


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Facing Karpovich head-on, Grimek proved his flexibility by scratching between his shoulder blades. Next, he did the splits to display beyond any doubt that he was not restricted by his physique and that weight lifting was actually beneficial. (16)

This may seem like a small victory but it completely changed Karpovich’s opinion. He became a crusader for fitness, began producing academic studies on weight training and even helped to write one of the first academic books on weight lifting (Physiology of Muscular Activity). Grimek’s physique, character, and feats of fitness helped drive medicine’s acceptance of resistance training.

Building John Grimek

Grimek was blessed with several genetic advantages. He was known for his training intensity and consistency, but even his contemporaries agreed that Grimek’s body was made for bodybuilding

Professional bodybuilder Bill Pearl tells a story of traveling to a competition with John Grimek. At that time, Grimek was the experienced veteran and Pearl the young protégé. As the journey continued, Grimek offered Pearl some food.

Anxious to discover what secret food the great John Grimek ate before competition, Pearl was shocked to see his hero eating a Hersey’s chocolate bar. Grimek’s diet was primarily made up of whole foods, but it was clear that he was able to eat what others couldn’t. Grimek’s wife once remarked that John ate anything she put in front of him. (17)


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When it came to training, Grimek was very much a Renaissance lifter. He spent periods doing Olympic lifting, circuit training and full-body workouts. According to fitness historian Brooks Kubrick: (18)

What matters is how he built his foundation: heavy barbell exercises, including lots of squats, cleans, snatches, military presses, and one-handed lifts. Simple, but effective.


How does one summarize Grimek’s career? Was he the bodybuilder who was banned for being too successful? The Olympic lifter turned bodybuilder? The man who proved weight training was beneficial? Or the man who inspired generations to take to the iron? Perhaps he was all of it and more.

Grimek was a true Renaissance man. He was proficient in multiple fields and, through his passion for lifting, made an impression wherever he went. Yes he was genetically gifted but he was talented and passionate in equal measure. When that was combined with an indefatigable work ethic, magic happened. 


  1. David Chapman, ‘John Grimek: The Glow That Never Failed’. Available at
  2. Joe Weider, ‘John Grimek,’ Iron game history, 5.3 (1998), 1-3. 
  3. Bill Pearl, Legends of the iron game (Bill Pearl, 2010) 56
  4. Chapman, ‘John Grimek: The Glow’ 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. ‘John Grimek,’ Greatest physiques. Available at
  8. Chapman, ‘John Grimek: The Glow’ 
  9. ‘John Grimek,’ Greatest physiques.
  10. John Fair, Mr. America: The Tragic history of a bodybuilding icon (University of Texas, 2015), 126.
  11. Ibid, 137-145.
  12. Joe Roark, ‘The Mr America Contest: A Brief History,’ Iron Game history, 2.4 (1992), 19-20.
  13. Joe Roark, ‘The Roark Report: A History of the Mr. Universe and Mr. World contests before 1950,’ Iron game history, 3.4 (1994), 20-21. 
  14. Chapman, ‘John Grimek: The Glow’ 
  15. Todd, Jan, and Terry Todd. “Peter V. Karpovich: Transforming the strength paradigm.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 17, no. 2 (2003): 213-220.
  16. Ibid. 
  17. Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke And Mirrors (Bloomington, 2008), 217.
  18. Notes on John Grimek, Brooks D. Kubik, Dino Files (2000). 

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