How to Develop Big Powerful Arms [Part 1 – John Grimek] (1956)

Who doesn’t like to train arms in the gym? In fact, many beginning weight trainees may be so enthusiastic in their desire to train their biceps that they perform endless curls to the neglect of other muscle groups! Nevertheless, well-developed arms can be quite impressive in conjunction with balanced overall physique development.

Today we feature the first out of five sections of a classic article with thoughts on arm training from physique champions of the 1950s, as presented in the March 1956 issue of Bob Hoffman’s magazine “Strength and Health.” Naturally, the champions cited herein were those associated with Hoffman’s own York Barbell enterprises, and they did not fail to throw in a few plugs for Hoffman products. In the article, the sections do not actually appear in the same order laid out in the introductory paragraph, and there does not appear to actually be a portion attributed to Jules Bacon.


A photo of the incomparable John Grimek which accompanied the article below. Click to enlarge (opens in new window/tab)

The first and longest part, presented below, was ostensibly written by York Barbell strength and physique star – and multiple Mr. America winner – John Grimek. Intriguingly, right in an article on arm training, he began by stating clearly that he had basically given up biceps curls, considered by many to be a staple exercise!

Grimek’s preferred arm exercise was a pulley movement which engaged the biceps as well as the latissimus dorsi muscles in the back, and a form of this movement would become a favored exercise of the “iron guru” Vince Gironda. Grimek explains here that it is beneficial to go beyond the usual biceps curls when it comes to exercising the upper arms. Would you like to read more about arm training as it was done by the champions of decades ago? Stay tuned for the remaining sections of the “Big Powerful Arms” article over the next few weeks here at FOUNDATIONS OF IRON, in between posts on a variety of classic, old-school iron game topics.

Magazine excerpt:

Where would you go to find the BEST ARMS and the most authentic advice on developing them? You’d ask the Champions themselves, wouldn’t you? So that’s just what we did. We walked into the York Gym and asked them about their favorite arm exercises, and Johnny Terpak snapped the pictures right during a workout. Here is what they said . . . in their own words . . . in order, we hear from Champions JOHN GRIMEK • DICK BACHTELL • STEVE STANKO • JULES BACON • JIM PARK • CHARLES VINCI.


For a number of years I’ve done very little actual curling exercises for my biceps. The reason for ceasing this particular exercise was because I developed a rather annoying pain in the crook of my arm, in the elbow, where the biceps joins the forearm. This appears to be a common ailment because I get numerous questions pertaining to it frequently. Any attempts to curl weights was annoying and, at times, downright painful. I finally gave up all types of curling and felt certain the condition would improve if it wasn’t irritated, altho’ the use of infra-red heat and the Hoffman Athletic Rub was used two or three times a day. The condition improved rapidly but during this time when I didn’t use the curling exercise I began to acquire a dislike for it, consequently employed the curl only on rare occasions thereafter.

Most people assume I curl everyday and sometimes all day, and since many of them had a chance to observe me doing some training, they would always inquire; Where and when do I curl? What I considered the BEST arm exercise and what methods I would recommend? When I nonchalantly told them I didn’t do any curling, that my biceps take care of themselves in many of the other exercises I do, they expressed amazement and doubt. To this day I know that many of these fellows think I told them deliberate lies . . . but too many have seen me exercise and asked the same questions and got the same answers!

How do I manage to retain biceps size? I reiterate, muscles acquired the proper way without forcing or cramping will remain almost indefinitely. However, when I ceased my regular curling exercises; two hands, one hand, bending over, alternate curls, etc. I did other exercises that helped to activate the biceps and kept them in fine condition. Exercises like the high-pull-up, cleaning weights to shoulders, all types of rowing exercise influence the biceps much more than most body builders realize.

Nevertheless, the one exercise that in recent months has been employed more often than any other since I’ve given up curling is, the “pull-down to chest” with an overhead pulley, using both the supinated and pronated grips; palms facing towards you and away. This exercise is very similar to regular chinning except, I make an effort to arch my body (see picture during training on this page) and pull bar down to the thoracic arch of the chest. For a warm up I may repeat the movement 12 to 15 times, then keep adding weight and repeat eight to 10 times. In this manner I have done over body-weight with added weight strapped to body, but most of the time only body-weight is employed. I find my biceps get plenty of work, and the upper back, “Lats,” get their share of exercise from this movement. However, when doing it for “lats” simply keep the upper back tensed while doing the exercise and you’ll feel the difference within eight reps.


An accompanying photo of Grimek performing the pulley exercise described in the article. Click to enlarge (opens in new window/tab)

Some feel that they can derive the same benefits from chinning with weight attached to feet. I mentioned before that this exercise has all the earmarks of chinning, but when you arch the body and pull the weight down to the lowest ribs, here the similarity vanishes, altho’ I have done chins where I hit the bar with my ribs, but somehow the exercise still remains different––to me. Furthermore, even when your arms and shoulders develop soreness or pain, this exercise doesn’t seem to aggravate it, and even if you can’t handle your limit, you can still exercise the arms and give them a thorough flushing!

For variety I may, occasionally, include a regular curl, but the various types of rowing motions gives the biceps a lot of work and from angles that most “in the groove” bodybuilders miss. No doubt sometime in the future I may again develop a desire to do regular curls of some sort, but meanwhile, I find this “pull-down to chest” with pulley one of the easiest and best “congester” for the biceps and upper back, and those who haven’t tried it should give it a try for a few weeks . . . you might like it too!

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