Classic Bodybuilding: Famous Bodybuilders of the 1950s

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The 1950s was a defining decade for the world economy, international relations, and humanitarian advancement. The ‘50s was a decade marked by the Korean War, the introduction of the color television, the creation of the Polio vaccine, the opening of the first McDonald’s, the launch of Sputnik, and the founding of NASA. [1]

While the list of major events in this decade can go on for pages-upon-pages, the focus of this article is three Golden Era bodybuilders of the 1950s – Vince Gironda, Reg Park, and Steve Reeves. The careers of these bodybuilders spanned multiple decades but many people consider their prime physique and conditioning to be the ‘50s.

Related: Top 50 Best-Selling Bodybuilding Supplements

These bodybuilders played a critical role in increasing the social acceptance and popularity of bodybuilding as we know it today. This article examines the background, diet, and training style of these three athletes.

1950s Classic Bodybuilding

Vince GirondaVince Gironda (1917-1997)

Vincent “Vince” Gironda, also known as the “Iron Guru”, was an American professional bodybuilder, personal trainer, and actor active during the 1950s. Vince featured in five different films produced between 1944 and 1957, playing roles ranging from “Pirate Crewman” to “Muscleman.” [2] In the bodybuilding community Vince was famous for his low-carb approach to nutrition, unconventional yet highly effective exercises, and high-volume short-rest workout routines.

Vince recommends the Maximum Definition Diet, a ketogenic-style diet with one carbohydrate -heavy meal every three to five days depending on energy levels, gym performance, and physique progress. [3] Most trainees utilize this eating style during fat-loss or contest-prep phrases.

The healthy fats act as the primary fuel source in this diet since carbohydrate intake is minimal. Choose fat and protein-rich food sources like heavy cream, eggs, fatty cuts of beef, chicken wings, and bacon. The carbohydrate meal was designed to replenish glycogen stores and upregulate thyroid hormones that often decrease during periods of low-carbohydrate intake.

Vince introduced the bodybuilding community to a number of unconventional exercises, some of which named after him, that he found to me most effective in targeting specific body parts. The Gironda neck press is the guillotine press exercise performed with the feet raised in the air.

Set up for the movement by placing your back flat on the pad, taking a very wide grip of the barbell, and raising your thighs to be perpendicular with the floor, and bending your knees so they are parallel with the floor. Unrack the barbell and slowly lower the barbell to your clavicles (upper chest/lower neck) and press upwards.

Gironda dips are wide-grip dips performed on v-shaped or parallel bars about 32 inches apart and are designed to build the lower and outer portions of the pectoral muscles. [4] Perform this movement slowly, focusing on the engagement of the chest muscles and terminate immediately if you feel any shoulder discomfort.

Vince also popularized the body drag curl, a movement in which the bar slides up your body and your elbows move backwards, and sternum chin-ups, a variation in which you pull yourself up until chest or sternum touches the chin-up bar. This increased range of motion enhances latissimus dorsi engagement and exercise intensity.

Vince Gironda’s workouts are infamous for their volume, intensity, and short rest periods. His 8×8 “honest” workout is his most famous routine designed to increase work capacity and trigger significant gains in muscle size. Pick three or four exercises per muscle group, perform 8 sets of 8 repetitions per exercise, focus on two or three muscle groups per workout, and rest between 15 and 30 seconds between each set. [5]

You will be working each body part one to two times per week. This routine is no joke; performing 24 to 32 sets per body part in under an hour using the same weight across all sets requires serious focus, determination, and recovery.

Reg ParkReg Park (1928-2007)

Roy “Reg” Park, also known as “Reg the Leg[end]”, is a United Kingdom-born professional bodybuilder, 3-time winner of Mr. Universe, and actor. His bodybuilding career spanned from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s and he appeared in five movies between 1961 and 1965, playing roles ranging from Hercules to Maciste. [6]

In the bodybuilding community Reg was famous for his full-body approach to weightlifting, use of moderate rep ranges to build both size and strength, emphasis on compound movements engaging multiple muscle groups, and straightforward nutrition approach.

Reg Park build his coveted Golden Era physique using movements like the bench press, chin-up, squat, barbell curl, wrist curls, pullover, leg extension, and calf raise. [7] For beginner and intermediate lifters Reg recommends performing 5 sets of 5 repetitions on the compounds movements like squats and bench press and 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 20 repetitions on isolation movements like barbell curls and calf raises.

This full-body approach builds considerable size and strength designed to build both size and strength in a time-efficient manner. Each workout, performed on non-consecutive days, should contain one compound push, one compound pull, one compound leg exercise, and two to four isolation exercises.

Reg recommends using the first two sets of the 5×5 as warm-up exercises, resting one to five minutes in between sets, and adding 5 to 10 pounds to the bar when you can perform all of the prescribed repetitions. [7] Even advanced lifters feeling beat-up or looking to switch up their training routine can benefit from a training cycle implementing full-body workouts.

Cardiovascular activity was not a cornerstone of Reg’s training regime during his prime bodybuilder years. Reg believed that heavy and intense full-body workouts sufficiently trained the cardiovascular system.

Reg Park ate a relatively simple diet that incorporated all food groups, macronutrients, and even alcohol. Breakfast typically consisted of fruit juice, raw fruit, oatmeal cooked with cream or milk, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, toast, and tea. Lunch was a large bowl of vegetable and bean-based soup, bread steamed vegetables, two to four pounds of steak, a dessert of some sort, tea, and wine or beer during mass-gain phases. Dinner looked very similar to lunch and also incorporated wine or beer when Reg wanted to pack on additional mass. [8]

Some fitness enthusiasts heavily discourage the consumption of alcohol with the belief that it significantly blunts fat burning, encourages fat storage, and negatively impacts hormones but Reg’s results speak for themselves. Reg was also known to consume up to two liters of dairy like full-fat cream or whole milk and over two kilograms of steak during his mass gain phase. [8]

Reg embodied the “eat big to get big” mentality, gave his workouts 110%, and as a result developed one of the most aesthetic and balanced bodybuilding physiques in the Golden Era.

Steve ReevesSteve Reeves (1926-2000)

Stephen “Steve” Reeves is an American-born professional bodybuilder known for his classic physique, high volume full-body workouts, and prolific acting career. Steve won Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948, and Mr. Universe in 1950. [9]

Like many other professional bodybuilders during the Golden Era he acted in 23 movies produced between 1949 and 1968, playing roles ranging from Hercules to Mike Sturges. [10] Steve was a big proponent of drug-free bodybuilding so he developed one of the most aesthetic physiques in the Golden Era using a straightforward no-nonsense approach to bodybuilding and nutrition, combined with hard work and consistency.

Broad shoulders, sweeping lats, and a narrow waist are key elements of a balanced Golden Era physique. Reeves employed high volume full-body workouts performed on three non-consecutive days per week (e.g. Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday). His intermediate routine prescribes dumbbell swings as a warm-up and incorporates 14 different exercises and 36 working sets. [11]

The exercises range from upright rows to squats to incline press. Reeve’s is a firm believer in moderate and high-rep barbell pullovers to expand the rib cage as well as build and stretch the lats. He also prescribes one set of 20 breathing squat repetitions towards the end of the workout. [11] 20-rep sets of breathing squats are a tried-and-true method for building serious wheels. This routine is not for the faint of heart and should be adjusted for beginners.

Steve Reeves consumed a simple diet comprised of three meals per day considered low-calorie and low-protein by the contemporary bodybuilding community. In competition-shape Steve weighed about 215 pounds, 50 to 70 pounds lighter than professional bodybuilders competing today.

For breakfast Steve consumed a “Power Drink” comprised of freshly squeezed orange juice, gelatin, honey, banana, raw eggs, and homemade protein powder. [12] This drink was rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats from the eggs, and carbohydrates from the honey and banana.

Lunch was typically meat-free, cottage cheese with nuts or raisins and fresh fruit.13 This lunch is a stark comparison to Gironda’s protein and fat-rich meals of eggs and beef. Dinner was Steve’s last meal of the day and typically carb-free; a large salad with swordfish, turkey, tuna, or lean ground beef patty. [13]

Steve Reeves took simple approaches to both lifting and nutrition. His choice of high-quality nutritious foods and compound exercises engaging multiple muscle groups produced one of the most iconic physiques of the Golden Era.

Who is your favorite bodybuilder active during the 1950s? Let me know in the comments below!

References

1) Rosenberg, Jennifer. “History Timeline of the 1950s.” About Education. About.com, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. June 2016.
2) “Vincent Gironda.” Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., 2016. Web. June 2016.
3) “Vince Gironda Maximum Definition Diet.” Iron Guru. N.p., 2009. Web. June 2016.
4) Venuto, Tom. “5 Famous Vince Gironda Exercises.” Tom Venuto’s Bodybuilding Secrets Blog. N.p., 14 Oct. 2011. Web. June 2016.
5) “Vince Gironda’s 8 X 8 Workout.” Old School Trainer. N.p., 28 Dec. 2009. Web. June 2016.
6) “Reg Park.” Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., 2016. Web. June 2016.
7) Croft, Henry. “Reg Park’s Beginner Routine.” Gym-Talk. N.p., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. June 2016.
8) “Reg Park’s Diet.” RegPark.net. N.p., 2012. Web. June 2016.
9) “History of Body Building.” Bodybuilding History. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 June 2016.
10) “Steve Reeves.” Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., 2016. Web. June 2016.
11) “Steve Reeves Intermediate Full Body Workout Variation.” Muscle and Brawn. N.p., 9 Jan. 2011. Web. June 2016.
12) “Eating for a Classic Physique: The Steve Reeves Diet.” Classic Physique Builder. BlogSpot, 30 Sept. 2007. Web. June 2016.
13) Reeves, Steve, John R. Little, and Bob Wolff. Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way. Calabasas: Little-Wolff Creative Group, 1995. Print.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.