Entering a North Hollywood gym, a six foot European bodybuilder, soon to become one of the sport’s greatest ever athletes, is told that he looks like a ‘fat f***’. Cue gasps: a young Vince Gironda had just told Arnold Schwarenger that he needed to lose weight.
Two weeks later, Arnold walked back into Vince’s gym having lost the 1968 Mr. Universe to Frank Zane. Strolling up to Vince’s desk, he admitted that Gironda had done what few others could do: tell him the truth.(1)
Gironda, later known as the ‘Iron Guru’, built his career on truth. His workouts were called the ‘honest’ workouts, his advice was always direct and his beliefs unshakeable. Vince, no matter what people thought about him, was defined by innovation and results. At a time when bodybuilding was moving towards the mass monster looks of today, Vince promoted ketogenic diets, leanness, and vast amounts of supplements. He created several bodybuilding champions, including the first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott. Furthermore he helped create exercises, like the preacher curl, which are used by countless lifters.
Despite his importance and influence in the Iron Game, Gironda’s name is often only known among weightlifting anoraks. Today’s article seeks to rehabilitate the Iron Guru’s reputation and in doing so, discuss his life, results and innovations. By the end of the article, you’ll know who Gironda was, why you should know who he is, and perhaps pick up some new techniques along the way.
Vince Gironda Biography
Born in 1917 in the Bronx, Gironda’s upbringing was not a traditional one. His father, a stuntman, moved his family to LA in the 1920s when he was offered a role in the 1925 Hollywood classic Ben Hur. Although many early stuntmen in the 1920s were also avid physical culturists, Gironda’s father doesn’t appear to have taken to lifting in any real way.(2) Growing up, Vince was initially interested in dance before his father’s discouragement shifted him back to traditional sports.
In high school, Vince took to athletics, setting regional records in hurdles, relay, cross country and pole vaulting. Some years later, and attempting to build his body up in an attempt to join his father in the stuntman business, Vince joined his local YMCA gym.(3) Aged 23, Gironda saw a picture of John Grimek, who many called the mid-century’s greatest bodybuilder.(4) Excelling in both weightlifting and bodybuilding, Grimek encouraged a generation of men to build their bodies.
Inspired, Gironda carried his 148lb frame day after day to the Burbank YMCA for eight months. Thoroughly hooked, Gironda next moved to Harvey and Dale Easton’s gym in West Hollywood. Seen by Randy Roach as one of the original LA ‘dungeon gyms’, the Easton gym was known for the work ethic of its members.(5) Under the owner’s guidance, Vince’s gains continued. As he grew familiar with the staff, Vince was eventually offered a personal training role.
As a personal trainer, Vince was given the opportunity to experiment with his many training philosophies among a willing public. When it became clear that Vince’s ideas were onto something, he decided to open his own gym. In 1948, Vince established his own gym in North Hollywood at 11262 Ventura Boulevard.(6) From then until its closure in the 1990s, Vince’s gym was home to bodybuilders, Hollywood stars, athletes and regular citizens.
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Still a competing bodybuilder — he placed second in the 1951 Mr. America Contest — Gironda began taking on clients on a one to one basis.(7) One such individual was Larry Scott, the first bodybuilder to win the Mr. Olympia competition in 1965. When Scott met Gironda in the 1950s, he weighed just over 150 pounds. When Vince was done with him, Scott possessed one of the greatest physiques of his age.(8) These were the sort of transformations that Gironda built his reputation on.
Viewing his clients, it is difficult to disagree with Vince’s claims to genius. After Scott, Vince trained a series of well known bodybuilders from the 70s and 80s including Frank Zane, Don Howorth, Lou Ferrigno and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.(9) What’s more, Gironda was recruited by Hollywood executives keen to ensure their leading men and women were lean on film. Vince’s list of actors and singers was a veritable who’s who of famous people. From the 1950s to the closure of his gym in the early 90s, Vince oversaw the transformations of Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, James Garner, Brian Keith, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) and Erik Estrada among others.(10) His fame extended past the bodybuilding arena and into the wider world. It was for this reason that Vince wrote for popular bodybuilding and entertainment magazines from the 1970s. Everyone from Joe Weider and Arthur Jones to ‘Dirty Harry’ counted on his advice.
Vince came at a time when bodybuilding and the Iron Game was undergoing great change. According to John Fair, the period 1950 to 1980 witnessed a revolution in bodybuilding.(11) New competitions, like the Mr. Olympia, were coming to the fold. Competitors were appearing leaner and bigger every year and bodybuilding, thanks to movies like Pumping Iron, was slowly becoming more acceptable. Vince rode the crest of this way producing diets for champion bodybuilders, actors and the average public. For each demographic, Vince got results.
So far I’ve alluded to Vince’s genius but I’ve yet to explain it in detail. While it would take a time to give the Iron Guru full justice, we’re going to focus in on some of the training and diet innovations that can be traced to Vince and his gym.
Vince Gironda: Inventor of the Preacher Curl?
It’s a familiar scene to many of us. Lifter enters gym in tank top, loads up the EZ bar and proceeds to frantically rep out on the preacher curl using a range of motion invisible to the naked eye. We can thank Vince for the Preacher Curl. (I’ve yet to find the right person to blame for shoddy reps.) Training a then aspiring bodybuilder, Larry Scott, both men came to the conclusion that Scott needed to isolate his biceps more in order to impress the judges.(12)
The history is sadly unclear as to whether Scott or Vince first devised the Preacher Bench now commonplace it gyms.(13) The likelihood is that Vince was the driving force behind its creation and Scott was responsible for popularizing it. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that while the preacher bench was called the Larry bench by many during the 1970s, contemporaries always asked Vince how best to perform the exercise.(14) For interested parties, Gironda defined the perfect preacher curl rep as performed with the chest covered by the bench, the arms close together with the elbows pointed outwards.(15)
So Vince helped the average gym bro build their biceps. What else? He was also responsible for numerous creations and twists which have sadly disappeared from the general lifting public’s toolbox. For anyone interested, google terms like ‘body drag curl’, ‘motorcycle rows’, ‘sternum chin ups’ and ‘Gironda Dips’. Heck even Sissy Squats — which become sadistic after a set of back squats — can be traced to Gironda.(16)
The Invention of the Guillotine Press
Emblematic of Vince’s curiosity and innovation was the guillotine press.(17) Interested in isolating the the chest, Gironda began to experiment with different angles and grips on the bench press. Fearing that the bench press was an inefficient means of building the chest (he thought it was more a shoulder exercise than a pec one) he set to work. After several weeks of trial and error, he realised that by bringing the bar to the neck on a flat bench, he could isolate the upper chest far greater than on an incline bench.
Called the guillotine press for obvious reasons, the move is not something I’d recommend for the general public, especially those with shoulder problems. For bodybuilders or those with the requisite flexibility and the sense not to overload the movement, the press is a hidden training gem. In 2010, Bret Contreas found that the Guillotine Press was superior to the bench press and incline bench press for activating the pectoral muscles.(18) While the movement increased one’s chance of injury, it nevertheless signalled the fact that before sport science had moved into the lifting community, Gironda was able to devise clever and effective ways of isolating muscle groups. His controversial disavowal of the bench press resulted in one of the most effective chest exercises in a lifter’s arsenal.
‘Honest Workouts’ and Hatred of Back Squats
Vince has also been credited by Christian Thibaudeau with the later popularity of German Volume Training, a style of training people either love or loathe.(19) Under GVT, you train 10 sets of 10 reps on a select number of exercises. The heavy volume, combined with a hearty appetite, has been known to increase many a trainer’s muscle mass. Where GVT came to the lifting community in the early 1990s thanks to Charles Poliquin, Gironda was promoting his 8 x 8 (8 sets x 8 reps) workout several decades previous.(20) Called the ‘honest workout’ by Gironda, 8 x 8 sessions are defined by short and intense periods of training. During his career Vince would routinely promote 6 x 6 (6 sets x 6 reps) or 8 x 8 schemes. For 8 x 8 sessions, Gironda stressed good technique, good tempo and a good deal of weight.
Controversially, Gironda also limited the use of the back squat for his trainees. Although later stories would claim Gironda disagreed with squatting in general, Gironda’s critique was solely limited to the back squat. Vince was primarily interest in symmetry and protection and it was for this reason he believed that the back squat was an inefficient quad movement. It, he believed, recruited the hips and glute muscles far too much to be considered a quad movement. He’d regularly complain about the big butts being built through too much squatting, a point which regularly brought him into conflict with the great Tom Platz, whose love of back squatting is almost mythical. For those interested in Gironda’s own, unique style of training the legs, Alan Palmieri’s book on the subject is a great introduction. A sample leg workout Palmieri gives, based on Vince’s descriptions is as follows
- Sissy Squats
- Hack Squats
- Leg Curls
- Standing Calf Raises (21)
Simple? Yes. Easy? Given the rest period was 15 to 30 seconds, I can safely say no. As in other workouts, Vince stressed the importance of the mind body connection and the need to isolate the muscles. So when doing the leg curls, he’d recommend ever so slightly leaning up, to hit the hamstrings more. He’d add weight to sissy squats and slow tempos to isolate the quads even more. Heck he even had very specific views on toe placement during calf raises. Nothing with Vince was without its instructions.
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The Low Carb Pioneer
Vince asserted that bodybuilding was 85% nutrition. He, along with Rheo H. Blair, was one of the first trainers to promote extreme fat loss diets for bodybuilding competition. More importantly, Gironda promoted low carbohydrate diets for weight loss. He was, in effect, the first low carb, high fat guru of the bodybuilding circuit. Gironda’s low carb diet, his “maximum definition diet,” was used by countless golden age bodybuilders to get stage lean. Gironda only recommended the use of such diets for very short periods of time. As mentioned in our history of the keto diet, we remember that Vince’s maximum definition diet was meat and eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and on the third to fifth day of this regimen, one small carbohydrate meal was allowed to restore muscle glycogen. While some versions of the diet allowed for a small salad with dinner, Gironda’s ‘maximum definition’ diet was nicknamed “the steak and eggs diet” for a reason!
Vince, as was clear from his maximum definition diet, was not afraid of questioning broader nutritional trends. At the height of his popularity and influence, the general dietary consensus in the United States was that dietary fat was problematic for health. Given that Vince regularly used cream, eggs, milk, red meat and butter as part of his diets, it is perhaps unsurprising that he disagreed, oftentimes vocally, with the nutritional powers that be. When questioned about his staunch promotion of dietary fat, Vince responded that results were what he cared about most. Whenever a doctor disputed his methods, Vince would invite them to strip down and show what they knew about bodybuilding!(22) (Few took the invite.)
Vince Gironda and Vegetarian Bodybuilding
At other parts of one’s training cycle, Vince recommended vegetarian diets or heavy meat based bulking diets. A strong proponent of animal fat in the diet, Vince nevertheless also catered for vegetarian bodybuilders. The great Bill Pearl had famously turned vegetarian in the 1960s owing to health troubles.(23) Aside from Pearl, few bodybuilders, that is to say top bodybuilders, dabbled with vegetarianism or veganism during this time. Vince not only catered to vegetarians, his lacto-ovo vegetarian diet was recommended for lifters who had plateaued on their bulking diets, as well as those suffering from intermittent stomach trouble. The diet, detailed below, showed both Vince’s shrewd eye for health, as well as his love of supplementation to cover any potential gaps:
Vince’s Special Protein Drink
- 12 oz. half & half
- 12 raw eggs
- 1/3-1/2 cup milk-and-egg protein powder
- 1 Banana
- (Make up to three of these drinks per day in a blender. Sip between meals.)
- 1 multivitamin tablet
- 1 chelated mineral tablet
- 3 Vitamin B complex
- 1 Vitamin B12 Tablet
- 1 Vitamin B15 Tablet
- 1 Vitamin C Complex (500mg)
- 3 Lysine tablets
- 3 Multi-glandular tablets (Nucleo Glan male or female)
Raw Mixed Vegetable Salad
- Ingredients: Avocado, bean sprouts, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower heads, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce, mushrooms, parsley, spinach, water chestnuts, watercress, zucchini or squash.
- Toss and serve with olive oil, vinegar and chopped garlic or garlic powder.
- No salt or sugar.
- 1 Iron Tablet
- Same as breakfast
- Same food and supplements as lunch
Special Supplements Taken at Other Times
- 5 Amino-Acid Tablets or 1 oz. liquid amino acid (every 3 hours)
- 4 raw orchid-tissue tablets, 1 Vitamin B complex, 1 niacin tablet (before and after workouts)
- 5-10 grams of arginine, ornithine (before retiring)
- 3-5 grams of tryptophan plus 6 calcium tablets (before retiring).(24)
A cornerstone of Vince’s diets was supplementation and in this regard Vince was once more a pioneer. Prior to the 1960s, lifters took supplements but not in the quantities seem today. At the forefront of this movement was Gironda who regularly prescribed liver tablets, choline, kelp and a host of vitamins to his lifters as well as protein powders.(25) For Vince, supplements could and should be used as part of a lifter’s diet.
What made Vince doubly unique is that although he endorsed supplements, he didn’t run his own supplement line. There was a sense then that he cared more about results rather than profit margins. Many of the supplements he recommended are no longer popular among lifters, but his promotion of liver, brewers yeast and a host of other pills paved the way for today’s world of BCAAs, creatine and pre workouts. Furthermore the fact that Vince also trained a host of clients away from bodybuilding meant that he helped to normalize the practice, at least somewhat, among the general public.
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Vince, as the opening anecdote with Arnold suggests, could be difficult to get along with. He told the truth and was not afraid of stepping on anyone’s toes, no matter how important they may have been. He cared about results and it was this drive which encouraged Vince to trial new diets and new exercises. Not everything was successful but it hardly mattered. What worked, worked and did so for numerous training populations. The ‘Iron Guru’ rightly held a reputation as one of the sport’s greatest coaches.
Nowadays Vince’s influence is remembered by those who trained under him and a handful of lifting anoraks. For modern day trainers, Vince’s coaching serves as inspiration to experiment with your training and diet, to see what works best for your own body and, above all else, to train with intensity.
Remarking on his own life, Vince once wrote that
There’s no doubt about it, I am hated and I am loved. Why? Because I am dogmatic. I have this unforgivable feeling inside me that when it comes to bodybuilding, I know what I’m talking about. If it ruffles feathers, so be it. I can neither compromise to save feelings nor stretch the truth to flatter and please. I am my own man – ego-centric, controversial, and proud.(26)
- ‘1993 Vince Gironda Interview – T.C. Lumoa’, The Tight Slacks of Dezco Ban.
- ‘Vince Gironda Biography’, Iron Guru.
- John Fair, ‘The Weightlifting Exploits of John C. Grimek’, Iron Game History, 5, no. 4 (1999), 64-71.
- Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Volume 1 (Bloomington, 2008), 373.
- ‘Vince Gironda Biography’.
- Rick Wayne, Muscle Wars (New York, 1985), 54.
- ‘1993 Vince Gironda Interview – T.C. Lumoa.’
- John D. Fair, Mr. America: The tragic history of a bodybuilding icon (Texas, 2015)
- Wayne, Muscle Wars, 54.
- ‘The History of the Preacher Curl’, Physical Culture Study.
- ‘Using the Preacher Curl Correctly’, Iron Guru.
- ‘Gironda – The Mad Guru’, Old School Labs.
- Bret Contreras, ‘The Best Damn Bench Article Period’, T-Nation.
- Christian Thibaudeau, ‘The Gironda System’, T-Nation.
- Charles R. Poliquin, ‘German Volume Training’, Bodybuilding.com.
- Alan Palmieri, 8 Sets of 8 (c. 2011).
- Daryl Conant, ‘The Importance of Supplements’, DarylConant.com.
- ‘1993 Vince Gironda Interview – T.C. Lumoa’.
- ‘Gironda’s Lacto-Vegetarian Diet’, Physical Culture Study.
- Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Volume 1, 492-495.
- Vince Gironda and Robert Kennedy, Unleashing the Wild Physique (New York, 1984), 11.