If you ask the average guy in the average gym to describe bodybuilding's Golden Age, he could say a bunch of different things about the classic physiques or engaging personalities, and you'd agree. Half a lifetime later, we still want to know how they trained, what they ate, what drugs they took, even what they said to each other when no one was around to record it.
When I asked Dave Draper, an actual participant, to describe that same era, this is what he wrote:
"The atmosphere was gentle as an undisturbed rhino, rugged as a mountain gorilla, and honest as a wholesome child (with 18-inch arms)."
I confess I hadn't been thinking about rhinos, disturbed or otherwise. But it helped me understand why Draper had insisted on doing the interview by email, rather than by phone. He likes to put his thoughts into writing. What emerged from our keyboard conversation is a distinctive house blend of Draper's memories, philosophy, advice, and, in places, something resembling poetry.
"Bodybuilder-poet" probably wasn't a future anyone predicted for Draper back in 1962, when the 20-year-old Secaucus native won the Mr. Jersey title. He worked for the Weider Barbell Company back then, when Joe Weider's nascent empire was still based in Draper's home state. Weider, Draper, and Leroy Colbert worked out together on their lunch break. When the company moved to Santa Monica, California, in 1963, Draper moved along with it.
Under Weider's guidance, he became known as "The Blond Bomber," the prototypal California golden boy (even though Weider had given him the nickname when they were still in New Jersey), and won three major IFBB-sanctioned titles: Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 1966, and Mr. World in 1970.
That's when he decided he'd had enough, leaving bodybuilding competition just as it was poised for liftoff.
He still worked out at the original Gold's Gym with the biggest names in bodybuilding history, but made his living building oversized furniture – working with wood rather than iron. That's when he got in the habit of drinking and smoking pot to pass the time, and eventually drugs and alcohol came close to sending him to that big weight room in the sky. By the time he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1983, he was living in a garden shed with no electricity or running water.
You wouldn't be reading about him today if he hadn't turned his life around. He opened a gym in Northern California in 1989, and another several years later. He launched a popular website, created Bomber Blend protein, and published several books.
More recently, he's suffered through heart and back surgeries.
The one constant in the 66-year-old Draper's life is his loyalty to the iron, which is why we asked him to share some of his thoughts and experiences for this interview.
Testosterone Muscle: Let's start with a flashback: Who was David the Gladiator?
Dave Draper: Shortly after I moved to California in 1963, I was chosen from the local beef to play the off-the-wall dungeon-dweller character. David the Gladiator was a burly, bare-chested character fitted with leather and equipped with a sword, who introduced old muscle flicks to L.A.'s largest television viewing audience, KHJ-TV, every Saturday for a year.
Corny, but fun and insightful for me, and the audience loved it 'til KHJ ran out of films. The Hollywood scene, cattle calls, and casting were new to me. I never pursued an acting career. The few things I did in filmdom (most notably Don't Make Waves in 1967, with Tony Curtis and Sharon Tate) were sort of accidental.
TM: What was pro bodybuilding like in the '60s, before Arnold's arrival?
DD: In 1960, if all the guys who lifted weights and had muscles stood side by side, they'd stretch halfway down a football field.
By 1965, they'd crowd the whole darn field, goalpost to goalpost. The word was out and a good thing was becoming a rage. It wasn't Arnold who set it in motion. Bodybuilding was accelerating at exponential speed by the time he showed up.
TM: In 1970, you competed against Reg Park and Arnold for the NABBA Mr. Universe. At the time, Arnold had won that contest three straight times, and Park, although he was older, was also a three-time winner. So what do you remember about it?
DD: I stepped out of a desirable, low-key training limbo to enter a series of shows in the fall of 1970. I went from a scrawny 205 to a meaty 235 in less than six weeks, and competed at 230. My heart was in my training, but the competitions were like pulling my teeth one by one with rusty pliers.
Reg Park – three times Mr. Universe and five times Hercules in cheesy Italian movies – flanked by the Bomber and the Oak.
Except for my physique, I was so unready for the London Mr. U that I found myself anxiously late for pre-judging and globbing on wheat germ oil, all I had in my gym bag, minutes before my lackluster, blink-of-an-eye onstage performance. It's not one of my favorite recollections.
I went because it sounded like a good idea while squatting, benching, and curling in the security of the gym. Plus, I was offered a round-trip ticket to Europe, and this poor Jersey boy couldn't turn down the opportunity to travel for free. Nevertheless, the experiences, good and not-so-good, were plentiful and priceless.
TM: It seems like back then, titles like Mr. Universe and Mr. America were just as important and just as recognizable as Mr. Olympia, but that's not the case today. How does that affect the way the public views the sport?
DD: We're talking about different animals, Chris. I'm not sure how today's public views the sport. The title "Mr. Olympia" and the subsequent pro titles were introduced post-1965 to accommodate and excite the growing mobs of participants and spectators.
Mr. America and Mr. Universe, though real, original, and admired, became quaint. Bodybuilding grew like a weed. Lean bodies were "in," gyms were on every other street corner, muscle mags featured girly foldouts and hyped enough exotic supplements to kill a racehorse. Did I mention someone, not the bodybuilders, was making big bucks?
As with most things that grow quickly, something was lost in the expansion. Throw excess, commerce, greed, and power into the mix, and you produce separation, occasional bitterness, and too much to digest.
TM: You've written that you decided to retire from competing because "living in Venice [California] in the '60s was like living in a junkyard with a bunch of junkyard dogs." But that doesn't really sound like the classic Venice Beach we always hear about, full of camaraderie, where bodybuilders helped each other out. What happened?
DD: I enjoyed Venice as one might enjoy a lunch of hot dogs and pop in the bleachers of the Super Bowl. Oddly satisfying, not exactly healthy, exciting, and exhausting.
I stopped competing because I didn't like to compete. For a reasonable season of my life, it seemed like the thing to do, but competition stood between me and the relief of hoisting the iron – the private exertion, the pure delight, and the daily fulfillment of building muscle and strength.
TM: When you stopped competing, you also stopped working for the Weider Barbell Company. Were those related?
DD: I was less-than-enamored with Weider Barbell's "fair treatment" policy [toward] employees and muscleheads, and my already thin coat of enthusiasm for competition eroded further with the absence of promise and honor, silver and gold.
I also had the peculiar notion, call me old-fashioned, that muscle and strength were most complete when put to work at something you love. I continued to blast the weights around sunrise, and dug into building oversized furniture with my hands.
I morphed into an authentic, long-haired '60s dropout with 19-inch biceps. The Dungeon [the original Muscle Beach gym] was heaven, Joe Gold's was paradise. I loved my training companions, but the devil lurked in the shadows.
TM: I take it you're talking about your battle with drugs and alcohol. How'd you get wrapped up in the drug scene?
DD: In the mid-'60s in liberal and radical Venice, one was seduced and absorbed by drugs without really noticing it. You were an exception to the norm if you were straight. My fellow bodybuilders were a good bunch and didn't indulge carelessly, if they indulged at all. I stepped over the line.
TM: I know that, in 1983, you spent four weeks in a hospital with near-fatal congestive heart failure. But just last year, you had a quadruple bypass. Figuring the doctors knew you were a bodybuilder, did they want to blame steroids for your heart problems?
DD: The clear diagnosis by each and every doctor was, "We don't care about Dianabol, son. It was Jack Daniels that did you in."
TM: Not to make it sound like you're falling apart, but just a few months ago, you had a lumbar laminectomy. Are injuries unavoidable for the weight-lifting crowd?
DD: Injuries are avoidable if the lifter is sensible, cautious, controlled, and mildly motivated. The lifter with these personality traits generally lasts seven to 10 days under the iron before he escapes.
A determined bodybuilder is driven, daring, intense, and injury-bound. Comes with the territory. It's the last rep and the extra plates that kill you. These are also the ones that build large, powerful, and well-shaped muscle.
What's a lifter to do? Eat right, rest a lot, warm up plenty, focus on muscle engagement, maintain proper form, take exertion to 99%, not 101%, and learn from the inevitable injuries that strike you down.
TM: To get back to your training, who were the guys you turned to for training or diet advice?
DD: We all learned from each other as we worked out and observed one another. Oddly, when not in the gym, our conversations didn't turn to shop talk. It was never like, "What do you do for your shoulders, Don?" Or, "From whence doth thou achieve symmetry, Master Zane?"
From Howorth and Scott at Gironda's, to Frank, Franco, and Arnold at Joe Gold's, to Zabo, Shuey, and Eiferman at the Dungeon, we never spoke of workouts and bodybuilding.
We trained and ate as we did, applying the basics, guesswork, instincts, adequate intelligence, prayer, tacitly shared understanding, and voodoo. We knew and respected what each other did, and enjoyed each other's company immensely.
Bill Pearl was the only champ I sought advice from. "Should I or shouldn't I enter Mr. America?" "How do I behave and train when traveling out of the country for exhibitions?" "Can I borrow your posing trunks for Mr. America next week?"
He was generous, forthcoming, and right on 45 years ago, and he's practiced and perfected the rare art form since.
TM: You've obviously had a bunch of great lifting partners over the years, but is there any single workout from back then that still sticks out in your mind?
DD: During my first year at the Muscle Beach Dungeon, working out with Dick Sweet, Mr. California, who was five years my senior. I think of early morning press-behind-necks from a squeaky, shaky upright bench engineered by impatient muscleheads with two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, and spikes.
Those were supersetted with lateral raises with my backside snugly fitted for support into the long-collapsed plasterboard of a heavy-duty column substructure of an eroding 1920s hotel. You had to have been there. Perfection, pure and simple.
TM: What's something that lifters today could learn from the pros of the Golden Age? And what should guys in my generation stop asking about?
DD: Don't compare yourself to the pros and want, or need, to be like them. Be open to inspiration – seek it, even – but train for yourself. Set realistic goals, but realize and train for the larger vision of training itself.
There's far more to the daily workouts than muscle and might. You're developing character and health of the mind, emotions, and soul at once. There are no secrets, no shortcuts, but there's always the search for another good workout, another stimulating combination of food and exercise.
It's the basics – simple, but not easy. You've got to sensibly blast it. You must love your workouts, though you might hate them. A good workout isn't just an outline of exercises, sets, and reps. It's focus and form, pace and rhythm, exertion and feel, instincts and knowing. That all comes with time, practice, guts, and understanding.
In a word or two, never quit!
Or, you can just take a tank full of pharmaceuticals and avoid all the stuff I just said.
TM: Actually, I know you're solidly against steroid use for recreational lifters. You've also written that you were 235 pounds and had already won Mr. America before you started taking them with a doctor's supervision. In your day, what did a cycle consist of?
DD: Between 1965 and 1970, a reasonable outline would consist of a 12-week cycle of Durabolin injectable, one cc per week, plus Winstrol, Anavar, or Dianabol in pill form, four to six tabs a day.
Levels would be higher or lower according to results, need, or the rascal's daring, ignorance, desperation, ingredient availability, mood, and so forth. Every six weeks during the non-competition season, a short and light cycle might be engaged to sustain muscle and strength.
TM: I know that Bill Pearl once told you, "You've got to get out of shape to get into shape." So I get it as advice from one pro to another. But what's your take on bulking and cutting for recreational lifters?
DD: There's a season for bulking and getting strong, and a season for trimming and getting ripped. They both work well as the lifter makes his way toward his goals. There's the enjoyment of a change in menu and training methodology, and there's the education gained from experiencing different approaches. The various schemes are productive and the variety stretches the trainee's understanding of himself and the sport.
The recreational ironhead will experiment less, and will be content to eventually find a middle ground of training output and desirable year-round bodybuilding development. Less stress and strain, easier to maintain and appreciate.
TM: What would today's Bomber want to tell the little Bomber back in 1962, before he won Mr. New Jersey?
DD: There are a few possible choices. "Save your five winning trophies. In 45 years you can sell them on eBay."
Or, "Too late now, little Bomberino, hold on for dear life. There are no secrets, simply toil, sweat, years, and tears. Get huge and ripped, thank God, say no to drugs, and drink your Bomber Blend."
Dave Draper in 2005, at 63 years old.
TM: If someone wanted to get a better idea of your take on lifting, life, and everything else, should they start by reading Brother Iron, Sister Steel or Iron on My Mind?
DD: Brother Iron, Sister Steel is a balance of personality, facts, fiction, and tips. The book offers the basics I followed from a small pile of weights stashed under my bed to the tons of iron spread all over the world. Those simple and intuitive basics are a credible guide to lifters of all levels and purposes. Fun, encouraging, and packed with photos from the day.
Iron On My Mind is a revisited collection of my IronOnline Newsletters designed to entertain, inform, and motivate. Muscleheads of all shapes and sizes say it gets them to the gym when they least want to go.
TM: Sounds good. Thanks for your time, Dave.
To sign up for Dave Draper's weekly newsletter or to order his books and products, visit his website.