Steve Reeves Biography and Bodybuilding Secrets
By Dennis B. Weis "The Yukon Hercules"
Yes… all bodybuilding enthusiasts younger
than fifty years of age… there was a bodybuilding superstar
before Arnold. The immortal Steve Reeves. Reeves’ had the rugged
handsome good looks, golden tan and magnificent incomparable
physique of classic lines and proportions that were and continue
to be appreciated not only by bodybuilders but the average
man or women, and that is a rarity, too! Reeves impact muscle
aesthetics, of impressive shape and symmetry, set a standard
that still exists today. Broad champion shoulders, colossal
wide back, tidy etched waist, trim hips, formidable thighs
and diamond shaped calves.
It is interesting to note that
many Bodybuilding historians point to the mid 20th Century emergence
of Steve Reeves on to our sport scene as the beginning evolution
of the modern pure Bodybuilding period. This being due to his
training methods and innovative techniques which conflicted with
the hardcore strongman period that preceded Reeves. At the Reeves
neo-classical physique schism crossroads, old world weightlifting
and modern specialized Bodybuilding took off on different directional
Although Reeves did have good
genetics, genes alone did not get him to the top. Reeves was
defeated a number of times in physique contests and whatever
success he achieved he did so through persistence and hard work.
As a mater of fact hard work is synonymous with Steve Reeves
whether his business life, movie career, personal life, or bodybuilding,
Steve Reeves committed himself completely and totally giving
Reeves worked hard his entire
life, even as a youngster. As a young boy growing up in Oakland,
California Steve had a newspaper route. In his later years Steve
credited his superb leg development, especially his calves, to
peddling a bicycle (with only his toes on the pedals and his
buttocks firmly on the seat) daily up and down hills. No one
can dispute the fact Reeves had some of the best calves in bodybuilding
and even by today’s standards they are impressive.
Steve’s early bodybuilding workouts
were at Ed Yarick’s, Gym in Oakland California. Ed took a real
liking to the young Reeves and put him on a routine and worked
with him for a couple of years. During that time Reeves made
steady progress. He experimented with various angles and methods
during his career. Many articles have been written concerning
his workouts and some seem to contradict one another when in
reality they are in fact accurate. They were however, written
at different times during Reeves training.
It has been said by many who
knew and worked out with Reeves that he could change his physique
dramatically in only a few shorts weeks time. Most credit this
to the fact Steve put forth all the effort he had in each and
every workout. His workouts lasted from two to four hours and
he took very little rest during his sessions. Steve’s workout
pace consisted of moving from one movement to another and he
didn’t waste anytime between sets or exercises.
Each exercise would be repeated
until he couldn’t do another rep. Each workout he would increase
the poundage, reps, sets or exercises he did. He knew and used
the progressive system and one way or another forced progress
each workout. This is one reason his workouts would take up to
four hours in length. As the body becomes accustomed to a particular
load, you must increase the resistance placed on the muscles
in order to make them grow. Steve knew this and each workout
was an all out attack on forcing his muscles to do more than
the previous workout.
Reeves was the lynch pin for the evolution of pure isolated
bodybuilding functionality and had
several movements he preferred and liked such as Incline Dumbbell
Curls, Hack Squats off a platform table, Incline Dumbbell Presses,
Donkey Calf Raises, Bent- Over Low Pulley Long Cable Lat Pulls.
Although Steve used a great amount of variety in his workouts,
these movements are well known as being his favorites and he
incorporated most of them in each workout.
Reeves usually started a movement
with a weight that was near his maximum and with each set he
would reduce the weight but continued to perform as many repetitions
as possible. He would sometimes perform straight sets while at
other times he would perform what we now call tension super-sets
(using two movements one immediately following another), barbell
curls followed immediately by incline dumbbell curls for example.
Other times he would rotate movements, one for his back then
one for his chest.
Steve knew the principle behind
muscular growth and he also knew how quickly the body and muscles
adapt to a workload. Steve was constantly changing, modifying,
and adding to his workouts. Here’s some examples.
While working out at the old
York Barbell Club in York, Pennsylvania, in preparation for
the 1950 Mr. Universe in London, England, Steve used a special “yoke” apparatus
for his calves that he favored. The unique “yoke” or harness
rested on top of an old parallel bar set-up. Steve then loaded
plates on either end and then draped the “yoke” harness webbing
straps over his shoulders and then assumed the position for
Standing Heel Raises.
He would also perform Donkey Heel
Raises and it would not be unusual to see two people on his back
as he did them. Steve would rise as high on his tip toes as
he could and would stretch all the way down on each rep. There
were no half reps or jerking and bouncing just full contraction
and extension each rep.
more than that, Steve punctuated his calf training by pointing
out that you only get a full contraction of the calf muscle
if you roll forward, putting your weight right onto your big
toe---which feels as if you're turning the movement inward
rather than going straight forward. The natural tendency doing
calf raises is to roll outward onto the other four toes, turning
your ankle as you do the movement. But when you do calf
raises like this you can't totally peak the calf muscle, which
means you end up losing training intensity.
You can compare peaking the calf
muscle to getting a full peak contraction of the biceps. You
can contract your upper arm as hard as you want, but unless you
supinate your hand (twist your wrist, bringing your little finger
around toward the centerline of your body) you won't feel a full
peak contraction of the biceps.
Having superior calf development
was not something Steve had due to genetics alone; he worked
them hard and heavy. Admittedly calf training was one of Steve’s
favorites. The diamond shape calves he had may have been a genetic
gift but the size they obtained was brought about by pure hard
work and sweat. I have been told that he used backward running
as a further means to stimulate development on his calf muscles.
Reeves’ was also known for his arm development.
His favorite biceps movement was the Incline Dumbbell Curl.
He would use a bench set at approximately a 45 degree angle
and would extend his body straight out. From this position
he would let his arms drop to his sides. As he curled his arms
up, he would keep the upper arm stationary and would not allow
it to move during the movement. He also lowered the dumbbells
almost twice as slow as he would raise them. Reeves believed
in and utilized the negative part of a movement in almost all
of his exercises.
For a twist while performing Incline Dumbbell
Curls, Reeves would start with heavy dumbbells resting on his
knees. They would be heavy enough that he could not curl them
without some assistance in getting them up. To get them up
he would use his knees to get them up and then he would lower
them as slow as possible resisting all the way. Once down he
would repeat the movement again until he could no longer hold
the weight up.
Reeves popularized the Incline
Dumbbell Press (120+ pound Dumbbells were not uncommon for him
to use), he didn’t invent it. Back in Steve’s day most bodybuilders
were performing the Flat Bench Press. A few did the Incline Barbell
Press and fewer if any incorporated the Incline Dumbbell Press
into their workouts. Until that is, Steve Reeves came along.
Steve had a very unique square pec development and the upper
part was particularly thick. Everyone tried to duplicate the
pec’s of Steve Reeves and that meant doing incline work. Ask
him what he did for his chest and he would, without hesitation
say, “the Incline Dumbbell and Barbell Press.”
Starting with the maximum poundage he could
use for ten reps he would press the dumbbells up with a forceful
thrust and lower them slowly under full control. Once he completed
ten reps he would pick up a slightly lighter pair of dumbbells
and again force them up lowering them in a slow controlled
motion. He continued to lower the poundage he used on each
set while still trying to pump out ten reps in strict form.
Even with heavy weight Reeves kept perfect form and constantly
fought the weight on the negative part of the movement.
Hack Squats performed the Reeves way were
unique compared to how others were doing them. When Steve was
training at the old York Barbell Club in his bid for the 1950
Mr. Universe he used part of the old Milo hip lifting wooden platform plus a fabricated cold rolled steel T-Bar.
The hip lifting platform had a hole in the middle of it and
the “T” end of the bar extended through the hole. Plates were
loaded or anchored on the bottom part of the “T” bar underneath
the platform. While standing atop the platform Reeves would
squat down with his hands behind his back and take a strong
knuckles forward grip on the “T” (holding it tightly against
the underside of his buttocks) and then would straighten his
legs up to almost near lock-out but not quite. Once in the
up position he would lower himself and repeat the movement
for about fifteen reps. Doing the reps in non-lockout fashion
would keep tension on his thighs the entire time.
An additional frontal thigh movement
Steve relied heavily on for mass was the Barbell Front Squat...which
was his answer to the buttocks building and supposed hip widening
full Barbell Back Squat. With the barbell cradled in front
of his neck across the shoulders (starting press position)...elbows
high Steve's non-bending forward torso when squatting achieved
maximum quadriceps muscle stretching and contractile force.
Another movement Reeves’ made generous
use of was Low Pulley Long Cable Rowing. Not performed as most
people today perform it in a sitting position however. Steve
performed the movement from a bent over “crouched” position.
He would bend his knees and lower his torso to about a forty-five
degree angle. From this starting position he would pull the
bar into his lower chest using only the lats. As he returned
to the starting position he would resist with his lats until
his arms were almost completely extended. Performed in this
manner, the movement feels very awkward and requires practice
to get it down. Once able to execute it properly, it provides
a feel unlike any other lat movement.
Reeves also liked the Barbell
Press and the Dumbbell Press for his shoulders. Often he would
alternate one set of Barbell Press’s and one set of Dumbbell
Press’s. Back and forth he would go thrusting the weights up
with a strong forceful movement and lowering them slowly. While
performing pressing movements Reeves would extend his arms all
the way and lockout his elbows on each rep, something most bodybuilders
don’t do today.
As mentioned earlier, Reeves’ altered
his training methods and routines quite often. Two of his favorites
were full body three days a week and also a split routine consisting
of movements for the Chest, Arms, Shoulders on Monday – Wednesday – Friday
and Back, Abs, Legs on Tuesday – Thursday – Saturday, as well
as variations of those. Already noted were his marathon two
to four hour workouts but he also would train full body workouts
employing 1-2 sets per movement using mainly multi-jointed
exercises to failure three times a week, training briefly,
infrequently and intensely to facilitate progress in his bodybuilding
endeavor. When he worked at his training he really worked at it. At other
times, he just worked at it.
The magnitude of Steve Reeves
way of training can be summed up by saying he trained intensely
using moderate to heavy weight for relative high reps (10 -15
range). He was persistent and dedicated yet he would take extended
layoffs from time to time. He knew just how far to push his muscles
to make them grow. It was a very rare incident if Steve talked
during his workouts. He would do all his clowning and talking
after he showered but during workouts he kept completely focused.
Reeves rarely trained alone, usually had a training partner with
him. One of his favorites was his long time friend George Eiferman.
They were not only training partners but entered various contests,
traveled and socialized together. Over the years they formed
a real bond.
Incidentally...many of the hardcore
lifters at York considered Steve's training approach and exercises
to be sissified at that time. In fact someone at the gym questioned
whether Steve was really strong or not. Upon hearing that comment
Steve was quoted as saying “I can be as strong as I want to
be. Follow me.” Without another word he loaded a 7 foot
Olympic bar to approximately 400 pounds. Then he reached down
and with his arms fully extended to span more than six feet,
gripped the lip of the 45 pound plates with only his fingers
and preceded to dead-lift the enormous poundage. This demonstration
of the fingertip or Snatch-grip dead-lifting quieted his doubter’s
Back in 1986 the late ‘Monarch
of Muscledom’, John C. Grimek paid me a surprise visit here in
Ketchikan, Alaska and during a conversation we were having about
Steve Reeves he confirmed the Snatch-grip dead-lift story as
he had seen it first hand. I have a photo of Steve doing the
lift on page 24 of my eReport: ‘Massive Muscle Pumping’. Grimek
also went onto say that Steve could as an impromptu feat of strength
clean a 225 pound barbell from the floor while kneeling. I know
just how difficult an accomplishment it is because I have in
years past, never impromptu but with lots and lots of practice,
emulated Steve’s feat and beyond with 250 pounds.
As all bodybuilders do, measurements
go up and down depending on the season and stage of training
one is in. Steve Reeves was no different; he considered himself
to be in his peak shape and condition when his measurements were
- 18 1/4"
- 18 1/4"
- 14 3/4"
- 7 1/4"
- 18 1/4"
own words here is what Steve had to say with regard to building
the classic physique the natural way.
Quotable Quote by Steve Reeves
“Today, everything about the
top bodybuilding champions is oversized; they have lost the whole
purpose of bodybuilding which is to create a harmonious whole,
not to exaggerate the development of one part or parts, of the
body. A body has hands, legs, feet, arms and a head. If a man’s
arms appear bigger than his head, his body is thrown out of proportion.”
“Today’s bodybuilders are carrying
too much muscle for their frames, which distorts and obscures
the natural lines of the body. Why these men would aspire to
deform themselves at such tremendous sacrifice is incomprehensible. This
has been indulged in to such an extreme that I’m thinking of
sanctioning a special Steve Reeves Trophy to be presented
at shows to the man whom I think has the most classical proportionate,
tastefully developed physique. The man who doesn’t actually
win the contest might win my trophy, which in the long run might
be more prestigious.”
“I don’t believe in bodybuilders
using steroids. If a man doesn’t have enough male hormones in
his system to create, a nice hard, muscular body, he should take
up ping pong.”
“I’m often asked how I would compare
myself with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger
is in great shape. But if there were two buttons, and I could
push one button and look like Steve Reeves did in Hercules, and
push another button and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in
Conan, I’d push the Steve Reeves button.”
Steve’s quote regarding anabolic
steroids is interesting because they have been for decades the
key to contemporary size but back in the 50s, before anabolic
steroids were used, Steve evidently was into Vitamin B-12 shots
as a means to up the muscle gain factor in his dynamic physique.
A true physique champion and not
just a paper tiger or movie star, Steve captured innumerable
- Mr. Pacific Coast
- Mr. Western America
- Mr. America (AAU)
- Mr. World
- Mr. Universe (NABBA)
Reeves was one of the first, if not the first, real bodybuilders
to become a world renowned movie star. His
films inspired millions across the entire planet...in their
many language versions... to take up some version of muscle
training. Sound familiar? And you thought Arnold was the first.
The following is a list of some films and
television programs Steve, appeared in.
A Long Ride from Hell (1968)
The Pirates of the Seven Seas (1964) Also known as Sandokan the Pirate,
this film is a sequel to Sandokan the Great
Sandokan the Great (1964) with Rik Battaglia
The Slave (1963) (aka The Son of Spartacus)
The Shortest Day (1963)
The Trojan Horse (1962)
The Avenger (1962)
Morgan the Pirate (1961)
Duel of the Titans (1961) with Gordon Scott
The Last Days of Pompeii (1960)
The Thief of Baghdad (1960)
Giant of Marathon (1959)
Goliath and the Barbarians (1959)
The White Warrior (1959)
Hercules Unchained (1958)
Hercules (1957) with Sylva Koscina
Athena (1954) with Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, and Linda Christian
Jail Bait (1954) with Ed Wood regular Dolores Fuller and Lyle Talbott
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1952)
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1953)
Love that Bob with Bob Cummings
The Ralph Edwards Show (1954) The late, great Ed Wood was watching
this show when he first saw Steve Reeves
Topper (1953) with Anne Jeffreys and Leo G. Carroll. Steve Reeves'
guest shot garnered the most fan mail of any Topper show, which
ran from 1952-1955.
on Broadway, on the legitimate stage, in the 1955 comedy musical
called...THE VAMP starring Carol Channing. playing the
role of a comic foil ‘Samson’. During
this time he trained at the immortal strongman Sig Klein's
Gym on Broadway...while seeking ways to further his professional
acting career. And guesting on various television
Cecil B. Demille
considered Steve for the role of Samson in the famous movie Samson
which went to Victor Mature. He was close personal friends with
Mario Lanza .
the one considered for the Sergio Leone movie A Fist Full Of
Dollars which started
the Italian spaghetti western cycle of films and made Clint Eastward
a major star. Steve turned this down...because he felt it too
violent. He did seem to regret it. Additionally...George Pal
considered him for the role of pulp character Doc Savage for
his return to the screen out of retirement. Reeves
reportedly turned down $100,000 for the role of James Bond in "Dr.
No" (1962). Reeves produced and starred in his last movie,
a western called "A Long Ride from Hell" in 1967.
Reeves was not only one of the worlds most popular bodybuilders
but perhaps the best know and most widely accepted Hercules
of the silver screen. Many famous actors and bodybuilders,
among them Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, credit
Steve as being a continuous inspiration to them.
Reeves was also an accomplished author. In 1982, Reeves published
a best-selling book, Powerwalking, in which he encouraged
runners to slow down and save their knees, ankles, and hip
joints. Instead, he advocated a form of fast walking using
ankle and wrist weights as a safer and equally effective form
of aerobic exercise. He was in many ways a pioneer in the field
of exercise walking, and in the years since the publication
of his book Powerwalking millions of people have switched
from running to walking. And in 1995 he published Building
the Classic Physique--the Natural Way.
BONUS! – A Steve Reeves Favorite Drink
the following ingredients until smooth. Makes one serving.
oz. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
Tablespoons of Wheat Germ
Tablespoons Bee Pollen
Tablespoons Knox Gelatin Mix
Tablespoons Raw Honey
Medium Ripe Banana
Steve Reeves was born in Glasgow
Montana January 21, 1926 and passed away on May 1, 2000 at the
young age of 74. Even today Reeves had what can be considered
as perfect and socially accepted proportions. His rugged features,
brown hair and blue eyes left no doubt he was a movie star and
his physique left no doubt he was Hercules.
Oh one final irony...there may not have
been a MuscleMag International in existence for close to 35 years
of publishing had it not been for the awesome inspiring classical
physique of Steve Reeves...since the Steve Reeves persona may
have been the main influence of MuscleMag publisher and executive
editor Robert Kennedy in his personal training life.
Thank you Steve...the iron game
has been made richer by your existence. And may your memory be
honored for as long as men and women pump iron in quest of the
perfectly proportioned strong attractive physical structure!”