Updated: May 17, 2019
Steve Reeves has always been a legendary figure in the world of bodybuilding. What he accomplished naturally will never be repeated. The stories of his life are so incredible it can be difficult to distinguish myth from fact. Perhaps the greatest legend associated with Reeves are the events that surrounded his training for the 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe contest where he defeated Reg Park and brought the original bronze Sandow from the 1901 Great Competition home to America. With so many stories surrounding these events they must be investigated thoroughly.
Who can be trusted when it comes to Reeves’ training for this event? Reeves drove from California to York, Pennsylvania to train for the contest at the York Barbell Company. John Grimek was an employee of York Barbell and witnessed Reeves’ workouts firsthand. Grimek wrote a famous article titled, “How Steve Reeves Trained”, that was printed in the November 1964 issue of Muscular Development. Grimek’s words can be trusted over other articles and interviews as this article was only written 14 years after the events took place. Grimek was known for having an incredible memory of which prolific iron game writer, Terry Todd, described as, “remarkable for faces and names”, “prodigious”, and “elephant-like.” If Todd trusted Grimek’s memory we can also.
According to Grimek, Reeves arrived at York on Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 30th (until it was made an official holiday in 1971, Memorial Day was always on May 30th). He states that the next day, Wednesday, May 31st they arrived at the gym a little before noon and got their first workout in. Reeves was adamant about getting three full-body workouts in a week and would typically get a workout in every 60 hours. According to Chris LeClaire’s superb biography on Reeves, Worlds to Conquer, Reeves flew to London on June 22nd. The NABBA Mr. Universe reception and dinner was held on June 23rd and the contest was on June 24th so his workout schedule would have looked something like this:
Based on this calendar it appears Reeves got in around 10 full-body workouts if he stuck to his typical workout protocol. Reeves mentions in Dynamic Muscle Building that while in London before the contest he only performed lighter exercises with cables to give him more definition. It is truly phenomenal that Reeves could go from an extended layoff of not working out to Mr. Universe winner so quickly. The last time Reeves had seriously trained for a bodybuilding contest was in March 1949 before the Mr. USA contest. This was about 15 months before the NABBA Mr. Universe.
Now that we have a good idea of how long Reeves trained before the contest, we can dive into the next legend associated with this event, how much weight he gained during this training. This is harder to quantify since Grimek only commented on Reeves’ change in physical appearance during the training but did not comment on his weight. Sources are tougher to come by as Reeves makes no mention of the weight he gained in Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way or in his interviews with Chris LeClaire for Worlds to Conquer. In unspecified interviews contained in Dynamic Muscle Building, Reeves claims to have gained 17 pounds of muscle during his training and in another interview in the book claims he started at a weight of 198 pounds and the day of the contest weighed 217 pounds for a 19-pound gain. The interviews are not sourced so we cannot be sure when these statements were made. In a 1981 interview with WABBA contest promoter Tony DeFrancisco, Reeves states that his weight went from 190 pounds to 225 during his training at York for a 35-pound gain.
According to Reeves’ official entry form for the 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe contest he weighed 214 pounds although we cannot be sure when that measurement was taken. We can be highly skeptical of the DeFrancisco interview as Reeves was never known to be much heavier than 215 pounds as he considered that his top form measurement. Reeves was known to keep in contest shape year-round and did not believe in bulking up and slimming down for contests as is commonly done today. The Dynamic Muscle Building interviews are more believable as they credit Reeves with a weight gain between 17-19 pounds. If done starting at 198 pounds this would have put him in the 215-217 range which is much closer to what his entry form lists.
Another legend associated with Reeves’ training for the Mr. Universe contest is that he contracted pneumonia during his time at York, PA and trained through it for the contest. In Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way, Reeves states that he, “caught pneumonia halfway through my training. That temporarily weakened and demoralized me somewhat – but surprisingly, it also served to increase my muscular definition!” Chris LeClaire, through his interviews with Reeves states, “What others in the gym didn’t know was that two weeks after he arrived in York, Reeves had contracted the flu.”
The only one who could be completely trusted on this issue is Grimek and he makes no mention of Reeves contracting any sort of illness during his stay in York. For this reason, we can eliminate pneumonia as it is doubtful Reeves could have hidden something like that from Grimek. The flu does not seem like something Reeves could have trained through successfully either. Grimek significantly added to Reeves’ legend with his article, so if Reeves would have contracted something that would have substantially affected his ability to train Grimek certainly would have let the readers know how incredible a feat that was. For this reason, we can conclude that no significant illness occurred.
Based on articles, interviews, and our knowledge of Steve Reeves, a few legends surrounding his training for the 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe contest can be distinguished as closer to fact than myth. Reeves training probably consisted of around 10 full-body workouts from May 31st until he left for London on June 22nd, the weight he gained during this training was probably in the 17-19-pound range, and his training was not affected by serious illness.