Shelter Masthead

Getting Stronger 20th Anniversary Edition

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Other Books by Bill Pearl
Getting Back in Shape
by Bill Pearl
Bob Anderson
author of

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Laminated Fitness Poster
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The Bill Pearl Story

Here is Bill Pearl’s introduction to his book, Getting Stronger. Bill tells the story of his life, his interest in weight training, and how he came to write books on the subject.

I’ll never forget the day the circus came to town. The town was Yakima, Washington, the year was 1938 and I was an impressionable 8 years old. Fliers were posted throughout the town, showing the usual elephants, lions, clowns and best of all . . . the strongman! He was an impressive sight: handlebar mustache, leather wrist straps, powerful muscles and a seemingly immense barbell held overhead at arm’s length with one hand. From that time on, I wanted to be a bodybuilder. My friends dreamed of being policemen, firemen or baseball players, but not me.

My father owned a restaurant and our entire family worked long hours there. I celebrated my 11th birthday by standing against the wall of the restaurant kitchen, marking my height and noting that I weighed 111 pounds. I started training at that early age by taking gallon cans of corn or green beans and pressing them overhead like dumb bells. I would also lie on the floor, haul a gunny sack full of potatoes onto my chest and press it up as many times as I could. I kept a record of how many times I could do this and tried to lift more weight each day.

A few years later my dad sold the restaurant and bought a tavern and pool hall. This freed my brother, sister and me from the hard work of helping run a restaurant, since minors were not allowed on the premises. My training devices were now left behind so I graduated to heavy manual labor where I could lift heavy objects and build the muscles I was hoping for. I found summer work digging ditches, working in lumber yards or doing concrete work. I don’t know how much actual muscle I got for my efforts, but I do know that I never had any trouble eating whatever was put in front of me. I also learned, when I was quite young, that if anything is worth having, it usually takes a lot of work to get it!

One day in 1944 my best friend Al Simmons, who knew of my Superman dreams, rode over to my house on his bike with an issue of Strength and Health magazine — eager to tell me that he had found the secret. What a revelation — here were black and white photos of strongmen John Grimek, Clancy Ross and Steve Sanka lifting beautiful barbells and dumbbells — a far sight from my cans of beans and sacks of potatoes!

Al and I — then 14 years old — resolved to get a set of weights and with another friend, Pete Trusley, agreed to buy a York Big — 10 Special (a 110-lb. set), splitting the cost three ways. I worked hard that summer saving up my one-third of the $38.95 and we sent off for the weights. However, York’s ad had failed to mention the iron shortage in those war years and we had to wait nearly a year for our set to arrive.

The three of us agreed to meet in my basement Monday, Wednesday and Friday to work out for an hour. We also agreed that, if one of us quit, the weight set would remain intact so the other two could continue to train. The third stipulation was that if I quit training, either Al or Pete would get to take the set home. But I knew in my heart that no way in hell was I going to let that set out of my sight.

I studied the instructions that came with the set and followed them to a “T.” Even though my muscles didn’t grow as fast as I’d hoped, I stuck with it. I never missed a workout. Eventually Al and Pete lost interest, but I kept on training. Even when the football, track, swimming and wrestling seasons came along, my weight training was first and foremost. By this time I had added a couple of apple boxes and a four-foot-long plank for a bench, extra plates, expansion springs and grippers — giving me what was probably the only home gym in town.

One day, cold weather forced me to train in the living room. I felt I had been making progress so I thumbed through some back issues of Strength and Health as I looked at my physique in the mirror. After close observation I called Al to come over and have a look. I was sure I looked as good as some of the guys in the magazine.

Al came over on his bike in sub-zero weather and agreed that, although I may have lost a little of my “pump” waiting for him, I did look about as good as some of them. That was close enough for me!

By the time I was 16 I felt I was also getting stronger. In the summer months I’d take the weights out on the front lawn and practice the “clean and snatch” (where the weight is raised from ground to overhead at arm’s length in one rapid motion). I got to where I could do this with 110 pounds. The whole practice infuriated my father, since for every one time I’d get the weight overhead, I’d drop it about ten times on the lawn. The front lawn looked like it had bomb craters.

From the time we were quite small, my brother and I always wrestled with my dad and we continued to do so as we grew up. One night I came home later than my curfew and my dad started wrestling with me, trying to get me on the floor. I knew that I was getting stronger from my weightlifting and when I got my dad down with a figure-four wrestling hold I kept telling him I’d back off if things got too rough. He didn’t say a word and I kept applying pressure until it dawned on me he was no longer struggling. I had squeezed him so hard he had passed out! I felt terrible and apologized and gave him a hug as soon as he got his breath back.

My weight training eventually graduated from the house to a local YMCA gym in Yakima. The “Y’s” weight room wasn’t much better than what I had at home, but there were people to talk to and working out with others provided inspiration and encouragement. Another person who used this gym was Eric Beardsley. Eric was a few years older than me, the best athlete in the valley and the “best-built” man in town. Eric was my first idol. When I’d hear he was working as a lifeguard at a public pool, I’d ride my bike down to admire his physique. It seemed he rippled with every step.

One summer day I was standing near the fence at the pool and I overheard one of Eric’s friends remark that if Eric didn’t spend more time training “that Pearl kid over there” was going to pass him by. Man! I was out of the pool, on my bike and heading for the weight room.

The day after I graduated from high school I started hitchhiking south to Fullerton, California to visit my brother. It took two days just to get to Sacramento and rather than spend another night roaming the streets I checked into the YMCA. After cleaning up and resting a few hours I asked if there was a weight room and was told to go down to the basement. I put on my shorts and T-shirt, went downstairs and opened the door to the first real weight room I’d ever seen. It was Monday night and the place was packed with bodybuilders and lifters and ten times as much equipment as I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Everyone looked like a monster!

One person I remember well was Tommy Kono, a former world record holder and Olympic weightlifting champion. Tommy weighed 148 pounds then and during that particular workout was doing military presses with two 110-pound dumbbells, squats with over 400 pounds and bench presses with 320 pounds. After his workout he took off his shirt and struck a few poses. He was the most muscular person I’d ever seen.

I was so overwhelmed by the whole scene — the muscles, the equipment, the energy and camaraderie — that I just stood around staring for an hour or so, an 18-year-old country boy star-struck at the sights of the “big city.” I didn’t even consider working out there. Finally I went back to my room and pulled on my set of expander springs until I was ready to drop. What I’d seen had given me a vision of the future and the incentive to work even harder.

That summer back home, I dug sewer ditches for $1 an hour and gave swimming lessons on the weekends. I had made up my mind to go to college (I had been offered 14 scholarships for football and wrestling), but my friend Al intervened, insisting that we go down to the local Navy recruiting office and talk to the recruiter. At this time the United States was approaching the Korean war and we were both of draft age.

As we came out of the recruiting office we ran into some friends. “Guess what,” said Al. “We just joined the Navy.” By the time we got back to the swimming pool all our friends had heard about it. The next day, to save face, we went down and enlisted.

I spent two years at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington and was then transferred to a station in San Diego, California. The best thing about being in San Diego was meeting Leo Stern and working out in his gym. Leo had trained one of my heroes, Clancy Ross (Mr. America, 1942) and rapidly became the most important influence on my career. Not only did he teach me how to train, he also taught me how to run a gym. He instilled in me the importance of setting realistic goals, and helped open the doors to my lifelong dream of a career in physical fitness.

In 1952, under Leo’s guidance, I entered my first bodybuilding competition and placed third in the Mr. San Diego contest. It was one of the proudest moments of my life and I was so inspired that I practically lived in Leo’s gym when I wasn’t aboard ship. Leo gave me a key to the club so I could come and go as I pleased. Each weekend I would sleep on the couch and have the gym all to myself on Sunday. I was on my way.

In 1953, I won the Mr. Southern California, Mr. California, Mr. America and the amateur Mr. Universe titles. I started getting requests for magazine articles, photos and posing exhibitions. I got calls to appear at grand openings, stock car races and I even got a few movie roles. One producer wanted me to become the new Superman; he suggested that I appear at different events, wearing a cape and tights for the publicity. I had to pass on that one . . . I didn’t think the Navy would approve.

My enlistment ended in 1954. I had saved $2800 by buying war bonds with my Navy salary, I had some gym equipment I had made and a burning desire to run a gym. Since I didn’t want to compete with Leo’s gym in San Diego, I moved to Sacramento and opened a gym there. Before long I expanded to nine gyms, but soon cut it back to one when I learned I didn’t have the ability to manage such a large operation. Eventually I sold the Sacramento facility and opened a gym in Los Angeles. During these years I continued to compete. My last competition was when I won the professional Mr. Universe contest in 1971 at age 41.

By then I had been a professional bodybuilder for over 30 years and had trained literally thousands of people. But the pressures of living in Los Angeles and the long hours I spent each day running my business were getting me down. I started thinking about moving out of the city.

At this time the great American fitness revolution was picking up steam, and there was an unprecedented interest in all types of exercise. I knew I couldn’t train enough people personally and also that there was a need for a reference manual — something that anyone could use, with or without a teacher, to illuminate the somewhat garbled concepts of a mysterious and generally misunderstood activity. I hit upon the idea of producing a book on weight training — one that would allow me to serve many more people than could ever come into my gym for one-on-one instruction and selling the book, along with a personalized training program, by mail.

There had been mail-order training programs before but never a reference book listing several hundred exercises. This would allow me to communicate with anyone who could speak English, and anyone in the world could become a member of my mail-order course.

My wife Judy (also a bodybuilder) and I set to work on the book. (If we’d known what we were getting into we probably would never have started!) We took photographs of me doing the various exercises and an illustrator did pen and ink drawings from the photos. But for each exercise we documented we realized there were a dozen more to show. As long as we had gone that far we decided to show every exercise on every piece of equipment that anyone could use under any circumstances for bodybuilding.

A project we thought would take six months took us four years and cost over $200,000. We ended up with Keys to the Inner Universe, An Encyclopedia on Weight Training, a 638-page, five-pound book with 1500 exercises and over 3000 drawings. We invested every penny we could scrape up and printed 10,000 copies. We began selling the book at $32.95.

The book sold surprisingly well. Most people also bought our personalized training course in which I designed a program tailored to their needs. They would start on the program, send me feedback and I sent revisions when necessary. This soon started getting out of hand, as in a few years I was getting 100-150 letters a week asking for advice. I simply couldn’t type long enough and fast enough each day to answer all those questions.

One day I showed the book to a good friend, Jim Morris, an ex-Mr. America who also ran a gym. “My God, Bill,” he said, “I’d love to have the book for my gym. You could sell thousands.” I didn’t think anyone would buy a book this specialized in a store, but Jim disagreed and eventually talked me into distributing the book through fitness and weight training stores.

Jim was right. We started selling the book wholesale (although not in bookstores) and the orders started coming in. There are now over 60,000 softcover books and 10,000 hardcover books in print.

We did finally moved — in 1980 — to a small town near Medford, Oregon. We bought a ranch with 2-1/2 acres, fruit trees and a barn where I set up my own gym. I opened up a general conditioning store nearby that sold weightlifting equipment, vitamins and nutritional supplements. One day, as the sales of the book were increasing, it dawned on me that if there was this much demand for a $32 book on just one aspect of weight training — bodybuilding — there was an even greater need for a book that also covered weight training for sports and general conditioning. I had seen the fitness revolution start and blossom in America to the point where the town of Medford (60,000 population) had 20 health food stores, three fitness stores, seven health clubs and two YMCAs. I’d also seen the phenomenal increase in the use of weight training by athletes; top competitors in almost every sport were using weights to increase strength, muscular endurance and flexibility and to speed up recovery from injuries.

From my 40-odd years of bodybuilding and training others, I knew I could create good programs for general conditioning and bodybuilding. I had also worked with a variety of athletes in achieving their individual aims. But I knew that by consulting specialists in each sport, we could devise weight training programs that would pinpoint the muscular needs of each sport. Twenty-four of the country’s top coaches, trainers and athletes — including two world record holders and 11 Olympic coaches — have helped us develop the strength training programs on pages 82-175.

Since many aspects of athletics, including weight training, have been studied and analyzed by scientists in recent years and more sophisticated training methods are evolving every day, Gary Moran, a runner, triathlete and weight lifter with a doctorate in human anatomy and kinesiology and a master’s degree in exercise physiology has helped provide the book with a scientific overview. Knowing what goes on inside the muscles when you work out, how food and drugs affect performance and how to diagnose and treat injuries are all part of the modern athlete’s commitment to understanding, achievement and excellence.

Weight training is one of the most versatile of all athletic activities. It can be used for a variety of purposes: getting stronger, improving looks, losing fat, strengthening weaknesses or preventing injuries. It is an excellent foundation for improved performance in almost every sport and can be a cornerstone in the development of good health. I sincerely hope this book will help you to begin, continue or supplement a lifelong program of physical fitness.

To Your Very Best Health,
Bill Pearl

Excerpted from Getting Stronger, by Bill Pearl and Gary T. Moran, Ph.D. ©1986, Bill Pearl and Shelter Publications, Inc. Distributed in bookstores by Publishers Group West.

Eight photos of Bill Pearl at different times in his career.