– Old School Weight Training Strength Strongman Power Vintage Bodybuilding: Bill Pearl: A Workout and Memories

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     Last month, when I heard the news of the passing of bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl on September 14, my first thought was that the Iron Game has lost another legend.  My second reaction was to look back twenty-seven years ago to the Spring of 1995, when I had the good fortune to have met the legendary Mr. Pearl.

     It was at the Club Industry trade show, which was being held in Manhattan.  I went there with Drew Israel and several other members of Iron Island Gym.  There were several “Iron Celebrities,” including two former World’s Strongest Man winners, a former world champion powerlifter, and a well-known former Mr. Universe.  They were there representing various exercise equipment companies and, in that capacity, they would meet and greet the crowds of people who attended the trade show.  Just about all of them were friendly, approachable, and willing to spend time with the attendees, with one notable exception.  The former Mr. Universe, who had been very popular during the 1979s and early 1980s ( thanks to his popular television show), was a big disappointment.  Instead of being friendly to those who had stopped by his booth, he actually had the nerve to charge people for his autograph.  All while being compensated by the company he was representing!  We all walked away thinking the same thing:  What an incredible jerk!

     Fortunately Bill Pearl was nearby to restore our faith in human nature.  He was there as a representative of a company that produced weight training machines.  Naturally, we knew who he was and wanted to speak to him and ask questions.  He couldn’t have been nicer.  After spending what seemed like a long time speaking to a bodybuilding legend in the flesh, I walked away with two thoughts uppermost in my mind.  One, was that Bill Pearl looked great.  He was nearly sixty-five at the time, but he looked at least twenty years younger.  Lean and still muscular, he was very impressive looking.  The other thing I remember was that his reputation as one of the true gentlemen of the Iron Game was well-founded.  He patiently answered our questions, and as you can probably imagine, we had many questions to ask.  Naturally, we asked him if he was still training in the early hours of the morning, and he answered that he still, indeed, woke up at 3:00 A.M. to lift weights.  Talk about motivation!

     I’m not going to go into detail about his many accomplishments because any serious fan of the Iron Game should be familiar with Mr. Pearl and all he has done.  And if you’re not then take a moment to research one of the truly remarkable figures in the world of weights.  While you’re at it, if you can get your hands on any of the books he has written, by all means do so.  The most notable of his books is the seminal “Keys to the Inner Universe,” which was written about forty years ago.  You will not find a more detailed, comprehensive book on real bodybuilding anywhere.  What is interesting is that you do not necessarily have to be a bodybuilder to appreciate this remarkable book.  Anyone who has an interest in lifting weights could benefit from Mr. Pearl’s masterpiece.

     Long before “Keys to the Inner Universe” came out, Mr. Pearl published a series of articles in Strength and Health magazine.  In 1953, after winning the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, he wrote his first article for Bob Hoffman’s flagship magazine in November of 1953.  He would write several more articles for Strength and Health, and I’m glad to have back issues from that period of time.  As I’ve often stated, quality strength information is timeless, and this a casual glance through his articles would confirm this fact.  

     The March 1954 edition of S &H has an article titled “Conditioning the Body for Wrestling,” by Mr. Pearl.  Among his many other strength training feats, Mr. Pearl was also a champion wrestler in High School and also while serving in the U.S. Navy.  I decided to write about this article because the program he utilized can be easily adopted by any person seeking to get bigger and stronger.  

     The salient point that he makes in describing the program is the fact that the exercises he recommends are “mostly for the large muscle groups with some specialization on the legs and grip.”  Heavy weights are encouraged with good form being maintained.  Do not cheat on the exercises.  Any person who lifts weights would be wise to adhere to this philosophy and encourage others to do the same.  

     The exercises that make up the program are well-known to most readers, but there is one minor exception.  Instead of full squats, half-squats are substituted.  A minor alteration, and if you insist on doing full squats I’m sure there will be no negative repercussions.  

     There is only one exercise in his program that I do not recommend, and that’s the “Wrestler’s Bridge Pullover and Press.”  My personal preference would be to use a HeadStrap or a four-way neck machine if you have access to one.  Most people do not know how to bridge properly, and even if you do, I think it is inherently safer to use one of the other methods to train the neck.  I always think back to Dr. Ken and the fact that he would always advise against the use of bridging movements.  

     So, here is Mr. Pearl’s workout program to strengthen your body for wrestling:


Chins   3 Sets of 7-10 Reps

Half-Squat    3 Sets of 10 Reps


Barbell Rowing    3 Sets of 10

Barbell Curl     3 Sets of 10

Deadlifts    2 Sets of 10

     If I were to make any changes to this program, I would probably perform the Deadlifts either before or right after the squats.  The sets of ten reps will build conditioning as well as strength.  Remember, this program was intended for wrestling, so if you’re after maximal strength then you could lower the reps.  But if you’re a beginner, or if you’re coming back after a layoff, then the higher reps are an excellent way to build basic strength and at the same time allow your body time to recuperate.  Additionally, you may have to limit yourself to one Deadlift session per week so as to prevent your lower back and hips from being overworked.  

     Sometimes it is beneficial to look to the past to rediscover what works.  Unfortunately, for many of us, the only time we look back is upon reflection when a legendary figure passes away.  Men like Norbert Schemansky, Tommy Kono, Marvin Eder, Bruno Sammartino, and Bill Pearl have left us in the last several years.  While they may no longer be with us, their ideas and their inspiration will be with us always.

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