John Grimek’s Life as a Weightlifter

“Ever since the York Barbell Club was organized back in the late twenties, a champion or two was always found among its membership, although in those days the club was known as the York Oil Burner A.C. However, by 1937 its members dominated all championships and the majority of national records were held by this club.

I didn’t become an active member until 1937, although I lived and trained in York with the other members a year before. I found the environment pleasant and inducing. However, it wasn’t the method alone that was so unique which made each and every champion a champion, but chiefly the championship that existed among these fellows which helped to mold them into the fine fellows they were.

They talked, ate, slept and lived weightlifting. Every man tried to help another and pointed out his faults. To be sure, competition on a friendly basis was always keen, and some rivalry existed, but this only stimulated rather than hindered their interest or ambition.

Even to-day, while we do not have the large number of lifters training in York as we had twenty years ago, those of us who are still here try to offer a helping hand to those who show any ambition and possess potential ability for lifting.

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Examples of this are Chuck Vinci and Isaac Berger, both of whom were fair lifters before coming to York but improved sufficiently to win the Olympic title in Melbourne recently. Vinci’s average total was little over 600 pounds before coming to York, while Berger used to frequent our local meets and compete against Yas Kuzuhara, totalling 635 to 670 when in top form.

However, in winning the 1955 Nationals he did total a little over 700, which was excellent, but compare that total with the record total he made in Melbourne and you get some idea of his improvement. But these men worked for their goal and received encouragement from everyone here, in particular Bob Hoffman, who seemed to have more confidence in these two men than they had in themselves!

But wishing will not make anyone a’ve got to buckle down and work hard towards that goal!

At the time I took part in championships we trained, as now, on the average of three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturdays, which was our heavy day. On this day we have friendly contests, try-outs and attempts to surpass existing records, but on the other training days we would workout according to our physical conditions or desires, thus, if we had a “rugged weekend” and not up to par, we’d be satisfied with a medium or light workout. On the other hand if we felt like going “all out” we would worked rather hard.

The same was true of Wednesday’s workout. Occasionally we would employ a few heavy assistant movement, on Thursday, but mostly we would rest two consecutive days and lift out limits on Saturday.

Our usual work-out was something like this; Warm-up for press. Take light weight and do eight to ten rep., rapidly. Then load bar about 60% or 70% of one’s limit and repeat five times, keep increasing weight in ten pound jumps until three reps can be done, then two and finally doing five to six single attempts.

To finish most of us would cut back to about 70% or 75% of the weight we just pressed and make five rapid presses to give the muscle fast pressing-out power. If any supplementary exercises for the press was required, it would be done at the finish of the work-out, such as press behind neck, push-press, supine press, one arm press, etc., to keep shoulders and arms strong.

The snatch lift was practiced in much the same manner; progressive increasing of weight with sets of five’s, three’s, two’s and finishing with several single attempts. All repetition snatching was done in the “dead-hang style,” except the single attempts, which were done either in the “dive” or “get set” style.

Assistant exercises were often included, such as rapid deadlifts, hi-pullups, stiff legged snatch etc.

The clean and jerk was sometimes omitted in order to concentrate more on the two lifts just mentioned, but when included the repetitions were about the same.

However, because some fellows were poor in the jerking part of the lift, they would specialise on this portion, and those whose ability wasn’t as good in “cleaning,” such as my own, more cleaning was done. I recall one lifter with terrific pulling ability, but who faltered on his jerks. This was John Terry the negro featherweight, who could clean around 300 but only once, to my knowledge, made 280 jerk. I have jerked 400 overhead but was limited by my cleaning ability to 345, which I pressed perhaps not holding a “strict military position” one is supposed to do, but more or less the same style used and passed in competition to-day!

I recall I trained harder on the snatch and clean lifts my last year of competition than ever before and found my ability greatly improved. Had I realised this earlier, I’m confident my lifts would have gone beyond my expectations. But I reiterate, before that time I never took lifting seriously and played around with any odd lifts that caught my fancy, and believe me, we had a few “dandies” those days.

Interest was always high until they finally succeeded or gave up in disgust, but one Saturday we had an unusual contest, doing all lifts in kneeling position. There was little difference in the poundage lifted between the press and jerk lifts, although I cleaned 280 in this manner which remains a record to this day. Of course no one practices this lift anymore otherwise it might have been surpassed. These events provided us with fun and strength-building exercise.

One Saturday after completing my training for a contest a week away. I saw one of our fellows, Wally Zagurski, a fine all-round lifter and national champion, playing around with the bent press.

His best was little over 270 but he was anxious to know how 300 felt at his shoulder. I joined him and we worked up from 250 to 300 pounds, and it felt so light we tried pressing it.

To our surprise the weight went up easily but as we started to get up, lost the weight more than a dozen times we tried. I admit I had poor form in recovering, because I never squatted under the weight but straightened up in a side bend fashion, which often caused me to lose the weight when I straightened up too fast.

Wally Zagurski had a very fine style in bent pressing and we all thought that he was capable of 300 and more, had he practiced more seriously. Later he took to archery, golf and bowling and did remarkably well. Even to-day he’s considered a fine golfer and excellent bowler, resulting from his lifting days.

sig klein bodybuilding

On another occasion Sig Klein invited me to his bent press show. I accepted but stated I didn’t want to participate. He did every thing to make me compete, and then pulled a fast one; he gave out news that I was going to lift 300lb!

I was on the spot and could have refused to appear as I have so often when false publicity was given out. However, those days I would accept any challenge and try anything to prove them wrong.

It was less than a week away from the event. I decided to get in bent pressing shape fast, and four days before the contest I handled my first bent press in over a year. I pressed heavy weights and supported heavier ones at my hip, pressing over 300lb and holding as much as 390 at my shoulder, to “get the feel.”

I trained every day until the contest and learned a very valuable lesson; I depleted my strength by all this training so that when the time came I had great difficulty with 275, which I missed coming up with, and 300lb felt like a tou!

I was disgusted I was sure I would press 300 to 325 to arms length and with luck, thought I could recover, but the weights felt impossible. This, however, was a lesson I never forgot and we always rested two, three even four days before an important event and always did bettter.

Another lift I favoured was the one hand side press. Tom Inch, you may recall, held the record at 201 pounds and authorities then claimed it was physically impossible to do more than that, since the lift required to keep both legs locked with bending only from the waist.

I took delight in proving such claims false, if I could, and proceeded to practice this unusual lift. At first I was ready to concede the claim, but after a few forced attempts, “I passed the sticking point” and felt more confident.

Eventually I had successes with 245 and officially made 237 but was never given credit for it. But in practice I used what was called in “continental side press” which permitted one leg to bend, the one opposite the lifting arm.

Actually, this was similar to my bent pressing position so experienced no difficulty and felt my flexibility was the prime reason for my ability in this lift, which lifters of that time never achieved and were much stiffer than lifters are to-day.

One year as an added attraction for Bob Hoffman’s birthday show the fellows decided to have  a one hand swing contest. After seeing me do a few practice lifts, it was decided to exclude me and as a result the heaviest poundage was 165.

In training I succeeded with 200 on numerous occasions and in competition could always do more, but the opportunity never occurred. For a time I thought it would when I was invited to appear in London back in 1949 at the time your editor, Reg Park, won the Mr. Britain title.

It was suggested I do a lift or two besides posing. Knowing the lift was very popular in England in years past, I decided to perform a record lift, which still stands at 209.

In training I seem to do very well and more than once 230 was elevated to arms length, and shooting for at least 240 with a possible 250 if conditions proved favourable.

However, only a couple of weeks before I flew to London I developed a very painful elbow which made it impossible to do the lift even with light poundages. I was thoroughly disgusted and nothing I tried seemed to help. I had no other alternative than abandon the lift and perform some iron bending and chain breaking stunts instead.

Sorry to say I have never done the lift since! and I’m sorry, for I feel the lift is an excellent back developer and teaches muscles to co-ordinate better.

Dumbbells have been a favorite of mine, but only because I was handed an unexpected but simple challenge and failed to meet it. This happened some years ago when I first met the old maestro, Sig Klein, who always had a few “pet stunts” up his sleeves those days to stump those who thought they were “strong men”. I was too young then (in my twenties) to feel important or strong, but any challenge in strength or stunts delighted me.

The two dumbbells weighed only 100 pounds each, but they were two different shapes and clumsy to handle. It surprised me that I failed the first two times, succeeding on the third, although the press offered no difficulty.

I vowed I would return in two weeks and play with them. Klein seemed dubious, but on the appointed hour I appeared at Klein’s studio and, without removing any clothes, took the dumbbells off the rack, pulled them to my shoulders easily and began pressing them in rapid succession until Klein shouted stop!

Many others have failed with these dumbbells, including the pre-war champion, Manger, who failed to clean them after a dozen attempts.

Few years later I did swing curls with them, or cheating curls as they are known, and with less trouble than I previously cleaned them. But I learned another lesson from Klein that time when I complained about the clumsiness of the two unmatched dumbbells, to which he replied:

“A real strong man doesn’t complain about any weight – he just goes ahead and lifts it!” Somehow that bit of advice etched itself deep in my mind and I never forgot it, nor did I complain when I failed to lift something, unless it was in jest: But failures meant lack of practice and to succeed you must practice. I learned this the hard way!

To this day dumbbells remain a part of my training in fact practically all my training is done with dumbbells. Of course I am not trying to establish records or surpass my previous lifts. I leave that up to those who have such ambitions.

My main objective is to stay fit,keep reasonably strong and retain good health…and dumbbells can aid in that direction if properly employed. But any exercise is better than none regardless of what type of apparatus you employ to develop strength and health, just do some training. It will pay in the end.”

source: old S&H mag, date unknown, title:”My Life as a Weightlifter by John C. Grimek”

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