Sunday, December 7, 2008

Unforgetable Moments - John Grimek

Milo Steinborn, John Terpak, Steve Stanko. Primo Carnera,
Stan Stanczyk and John Grimek
Click Pics to ENLARGE

The Cyr Dumbell


John Grimek hanging from ankle loops to stretch
and perform various pullover and raise movements





Unforgettable Moments
by John Grimek


During the years I’ve been involved in the Iron Game, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many old-timers who were responsible for enhancing the wide field of exercise and muscle building. Because of my interest in the accomplishments of these men I gathered some knowledge about their training – the incentives that stirred them on. Many had some interesting tales to tell, while others got involved solely because of what they thought they might accomplish. Yet most of them admitted that they continued such activity because it made them feel better. Today, individuals still get into it because they like it and decide to make it their life’s vocation and indeed, there are enough profitable activities around to make weight training one’s vocation and reap considerable health benefits in the process.

I remember back in 1966 at the Universe contest in London when a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger first came upon the international scene. Through his Austrian trainer I learned of Schwarzenegger’s goals and ambitions, which then seemed out of reach for anyone. But I was assured that Arnold had the desire and confidence to accomplish his ambitions.

I will never forget the tense, prolonged time it took during the prejudging posedown before the decision was announced. As I sat studying each contestant while they moved from pose to pose, two or three British judges were behind me making their decision. I heard them all agree that it was Chet Yorton’s calves that gave him the edge over Arnold; so Yorton won by a pair of larger, better developed calves. Yet this defeat only increased Arnold’s ambition, because the following year he came through to win with flying colors. After that he came back again and again and won each event he entered. He deserves credit for his tenacity and his unfaltering ambition which led to success and the achievement of his goals.

I remember when Arnold had plans to come to the States. His trainer and others wrote asking me if we had an opening for him at the York Barbell Club. I discussed it with others but was told we had nothing right then. I passed on the bad news while continuing to seek something for him. But before I knew it Arnold was already in the States and doing quite well.


This brings to mind the time when Bob Hoffman asked me to settle in York and train with the champions. This was during the 1934 Nationals in Brooklyn. I liked the idea. However, I was then working as an artist’s model and had numerous engagements to fulfill. But after the Nationals, in 1935, I stopped briefly in York, looked over the training facilities and promised to be back to train for the 1936 Olympic Games.

I arrived in York in April of ’36. Most of the York lifters were already engaged in hard training. They had only one goal in mind – to make the Olympic team. It became an obsession as the time approached to tryout for the team. And most of them achieved their goal.

The area where we trained was rather small, but eventually the area where the oil burners were assembled was moved out, making room for larger training quarters. The place was a beehive of activity. Clanging iron resounded throughout the neighborhood and visitors from local and far-off places were always stopping by to watch the action.

The York Gym, in spite of its popularity, was not the kind of place you’d expect to see more than one visitor expressed disappointment. For those who came to train, the place grew on them. I know, I experienced the same feeling. Even after a new place was built, equipped with various training equipment, I still preferred the old place and continued to train there after it was deserted. It wasn’t until the whole building was taken over by a machine shop that the place was dismantled. I had no other recourse but to train at the facility that was available – the new place. But after that I never trained as hard nor was as interested in training as I was before, in that old, drab, floor-broken gym.

Champs like Jack Delinger, Steve Reeves, Dick Dubois, Ray Schaefer, Mickey Hargitay and scores of others who came to train at the old place may have been a bit disappointed at first, but as they mingled and continued training they found it offered something they could not find elsewhere – camaraderie. Everybody was friendly and willing to help one another because of similar goals.

That old place didn’t have training machines or fancy equipment, just tons of iron. If you wanted a pair of dumbells, you had to find them. Dumbells of all sizes were strewn everywhere. We didn’t let them down slowly. You’d merely drop them. Dumbells were bouncing everywhere, even going through the floor. There were enough holes in the floor to substantiate this since it was patched up with odd pieces of lumber. But that’s what made this old gym so unique and different!

Weightlifting was popular then and everybody wanted to become a lifting champion. Physique contests began in 1938. It was the first Mr. America contest, sponsored independently and again in 1939. In 1940 the AAU was urged to sponsor it, and has sponsored it ever since.

When Jack Delinger arrived in York to complete his Mr. America training, there was no lat machine for him to use. Ed Yarick, the trainer of Delinger and Reeves, sent a lat machine for Jack to use. Then for Reeves, we fashioned a hack machine and long cable-pulley rowing arrangement which he and the others employed for maximum results.

It was during the 40’s that a bench with bar supports for bench pressing made its appearance, followed by a leg curling and extensor apparatus. I wanted something different, so I installed loops in the doorway leading to the gym so I could hang by my ankles to stretch my spine, and to do some exercises in an inverted position. This was the only spine stretching method known although earlier I used it in my home training program.


The most vigorous lifting activities took place over the weekends in that old gym. Various odd lifting contests were tried just for fun but also provided plenty of exercise. We chose sides to stimulate competition and did the three Olympic lifts in various ways: while kneeling down on both knees and sometimes while sitting in a low full squat. Balance was always critical. It was amazing how much exercise one got from such odd lifting positions. After each contest everyone agreed they obtained quite a workout even if he wasn’t able to lift his maximum.


During this time loads of visitors came in from everywhere to join forces, and since it didn’t cost them anything, there were more men than one could keep count of. It got so we could not remember all their names, so we dubbed them from the states they came from. If there were too many from the same state, they were often known by the city or town they hailed from and it turned out to be a lot of fun. One of the more interesting individuals was a young man from Ecuador, a president’s son. He had a photographic memory. He could recite anything he saw or read but his main interest was in gripping power. No matter what lifts were being used, he always butted in and asked, “How’s the grip?” It got so we called him “da Greep.” He bugged everyone about their grip and tried to inveigle anyone to compete against him in testing their grip. And though he himself appeared quite slender, his grip was quite impressive.


We had a large iron block around the gym in those days and lifting it with a pinch grip was quite a feat. Very few men in the gym could handle it. It was about a foot high, six-inches wide with one end slightly over three-inches thick and with the other side slightly less; gripping it on the tapering end was rough. “Da Greep” eventually could lift it and he began challenging anyone who was interested. Steve Stanko and I got so we could clean it from the floor to the shoulder. That stopped “Da Greep.” Later we even succeeded in curling it.

One might ask, what’s so great about curling a 55-pound weight? Yes, a 53-pound dumbell cannot be considered any sort of feat, but curling a tapering iron block of that weight is quite another thing. Only those who have tried it know there is no comparison; and to my knowledge no one else who tried it ever succeeded. We only succeeded because we persisted in training to accomplish this feat. And Stanko was then the best pinch-gripping lifter in the gym. He would grasp a large 55-pound Olympic plate by the hub and lift it with as much as 35 more pounds on top of it.

Also, the Cyr dumbell we had was always a bone of contention. Men from all parts of the country came to see if they might get it overhead. It weighed “only” 202 pounds empty but it could be loaded with lead shot to over 270. We never loaded it over 269 ½ pounds, and even then it defied most men who tried it.


One time, Milo Steinborn and four or five other wrestlers stopped by on their way to Baltimore. Milo had Primo Carnera with him – truly an impressive individual. When Carnera shook hands you could feel your whole hand being swallowed by something that felt like an octopus. Because all the men were wrestling that evening none of them cared to train that afternoon, but most of the lifters kept on training. In the center of the gym was the awkward Cyr dumbell that seemed to be in the way of everyone. Without thinking I picked it up off the floor and tossed it aside so it wouldn’t be in the way. I remembered the huge hands Carnera had when he shook my hand, and knew if anyone could handle this weight it was him. I called out to him to try it. He smiled as if to say, “that’s easy,” and no one would doubt him. he came over, very casually gripped the stubby handle and made a half-hearted attempt to lift it. A look of surprise came over his face as the weight slipped from his grip. I offered him some chalk to absorb the moisture of his hand. With some disdain, instead, he grabbed the handle and though he lifted it a little you could see that the weight was a great surprise to him.

I tried to explain that there was a slight technique to handle this weight. He just kept looking at me and the awkward hunk of iron mass that was defying him. I chalked up, especially the heel of my hand, gripped the weight and tossed it a few feet to one side. Carnera only growled. However, I feel sure that with his banana-like fingers he could have done things with that Cyr dumbell that no one else could do. Others felt much the same way about this big man.

I must point out that many men who tried to lift the small clumsy dumbell failed. This awkward hunk of iron required lots of practice before one learned the little details needed to be successful at lifting it. No one played around with this weight more than I did; and eventually I was the only one who lifted it off the floor to an overhead position using one and only when it weighed 254 pounds. Stanko was the first man who picked it up off the floor in one sweeping movement. Unfortunately, I do not remember how much it was loaded to at the time. The weight of that dumbell was always being changed. It always looked formidable and defying. Those who tried it remember that only too well.


There were times when the lifters were not in a lifting mood, so we thought up odd ways of training so we could still get a good workout. One such way was to sit on a low bench, feet outstretched, and lift up a dumbell overhead that had been sitting between the legs. Sounds easy but it wasn’t. Once you began lifting heavier dumbells the balance of sitting on the bench became more precarious. It took lots of preparation to get it overhead. Another stunt was to lift a dumbell overhead while sitting on the floor with the legs outstretched. This took lots of power in the arm and shoulder of the lifting arm. And there was a big difference when each arm was used alternately, emphasizing the lack of balance and stability one would normally get from the legs, hips and back.


My specialty was lifting two dumbells with one hand. I gripped the handle of one dumbell while holding the other dumbell with the heel of my hand as it laid across the handle of the dumbell I gripped. To do this you should have a fairly thick palm, otherwise you just cannot hold it securely. I must add that very few lifters were eager to try this stunt with the heavy dumbells. Even light weights were tricky for them. Eventually, however, I managed a 90-pound dumbell with an 85-pound dumbell lying across and held by the thickness of my palm. But no one should try it unless they know precisely how to do it, otherwise it might slip and cause injury.

I did two other stunts that were in a sense, stupid. One was dropping weights from an overhead position into the crook of my arms, which many old-timers used in their stage exhibitions. But if you caught it too far out on the forearms, it just straightened your arms and crashed to the floor. That happened to me at an exhibition. I jerked 305 pounds overhead and without much thought made an effort to catch it into my arms. Instead it landed slightly forward on my forearms, came down close on my thighs and chaffed the skin down to the knees. I was bleeding. It was embarrassing.

Another stunt was to drop a weight from overhead onto the trapezius muscles behind the neck. If one’s timing is good, there’s no problem, but otherwise it can be a big problem. I was practicing this stunt with 245 pounds, lifting it overhead then dropping it onto the back to balance it. Somehow while explaining it to one of the visitors I bent forward a bit too much and the weight of the barbell sent me crashing down to the platform with such speed I really didn’t know what happened. Afterwards I was more cautious and not long after that incident I gave up all those silly, stupid stunts and am glad I did. And I still say: never do anything which you are not familiar with unless there are spotters around, and that that they know exactly what you are trying to do. You’re better off to train and exercise and derive healthful benefits from your effort than to risk injuries. Keep that in mind always.

One more incident. A young fellow from California came to York to demonstrate the power of applying pressure with his thumbs. I believe his name was Ed Smith. He would lay an empty Coke bottle on the edge of a table or any convenient ledge and with hands clasped, grip the end of the bottle with his thumbs, and lift it. That was his forte and according to him, no one on the coast could beat or match him. I gotta admit, he seemed to do it easily, but he made the mistake of challenging Stanko.

When Steve first tried the stunt, he got the bottle off its resting place but it sagged. Ed insisted the bottle must remain straight out. Stanko tried it a couple more times but couldn’t keep the bottle horizontal. Ed seemed to rejoice at this performance. The next time, Stanko wiped the moisture from his hands (no chalk or resin was allowed) and he applied enough pressure to keep the bottle straight out. Ed looked surprised and walked away. The next day Ed came back and began to needle again. By then, Stanko had no trouble lifting the Coke bottle, and quite easily at that. Ed repeated his performance with Stanko duplicating the same thing. Then Stanko got a larger and heavier bottle. He showed Ed he could still do it. Ed tried but couldn’t hold the larger bottle out straight. He tried it three times but the bottle dropped. to add insult to injury, Stanko, who was now all worked up, lifted the bottle easier than before and laughed as he did it. This seemed to infuriate Ed Smith, and try as he did, Ed could not keep he bottle from sagging. Somewhat disgusted, he stomped out of the place and that was the last we saw of him. Ed’s thinking that he could do something that no one else could was wrong. One must remember: no matter what you can do, if someone else tries it and favors it, almost for certain he will improve upon it. It happens all the time.

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