One of the first real icons of bodybuilding history. Bill Pearl was a real driving force of the industry. Launching several gyms and fitness clubs throughout his esteemed career, Bill did not only become a fantastic bodybuilder, he was creating them too.
Being onstage all the way up to the age of 41, Bill lived and breathed the sport. With an incredible strongman posing routine, and one of the best classic physiques in the business – you’ll be hard pressed to find a finer bodybuilder than Bill Pearl.
|Full Name: William Arnold “Bill” Pearl|
|235 – 245lbs (106.6 – 111.1kg)||5’10” (177.5cm)||21″||53″|
|Year of Birth||Nationality||Profession|
|1930||American||Bodybuilder, Gym Owner, Author, Mentor|
|1950, 1960, 1970|
|Weight||235 – 245lbs (106.6 – 111.1kg)|
|Year of Birth||1930|
|Profession||Bodybuilder, Gym Owner, Author, Mentor|
|Era||1950, 1960, 1970|
- 1952 Mr. San Diego, 3rd place (San Diego, California)
- 1952 Mr. Oceanside (Oceanside, California)
- 1953 Mr. Southern California (Los Angeles, California)
- 1953 Mr. California (Los Angeles, California)
- 1953 A.A.U., Mr. America (Indianapolis, Indiana)
- 1953 N.A.B.B.A., Mr. Universe Amateur (London, England)
- 1956 Mr. U.S.A., Professional (Los Angeles, California)
- 1956 N.A.B.B.A., Mr. Universe, Professional, Tall Man’s Class (London, England)
- 1961 N.A.B.B.A., Mr. Universe, Professional (London, England)
- 1967 N.A.B.B.A., Mr. Universe, Professional (London, England)
- 1971 N.A.B.B.A., Mr. Universe, Professional (London, England)
- 1974 W.B.B.A., World’s Best-Built Man of the Century (New York, New York)
- 1978 Entered into W.B.B.A., Hall of Fame (New York, New York)
- 1978 Elected the I.F.B.B. National Chairman of the Professional Physique Judges Committee (Acapulco, Mexico)
- 1988 Entered into Pioneers of Fitness Hall of Fame
- 1992 Entered into Gold’s Gym Hall of Fame
- 1994 Guest of Honor of the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen 12th Annual Reunion
- 1994 Entered into The Joe Weider Hall of Fame
- 1995 A.A.U. Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1995 Oscar Heidenstam Foundation Hall of Fame
- 1996 American Powerlifters Federation Hall of Fame
- 1997 International Chiropractors Association Sports & Fitness Man of the Year
- 1999 I.F.B.B. Hall of Fame Inductee
- 2000 Spirit of Muscle Beach Award
- 2001 World Gym Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2001 Society of Weight-Training Injury Specialists Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2002 Canadian Fitness Award for 60+ Years of Inspiration to the Industry
- 2002 National Fitness Trade Journal Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2003 Iron Man magazine Peary & Mabel Radar Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2004 Arnold Schwarzenegger Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2006 PDI Night of Champions Lifetime Achievement Award
Early Life and Discovering Bodybuilding
Born in 1930, up in Prineville, Oregon, Bill found himself in a financially desperate family scratching a living in the great American depression. They were always on the move looking for work, until eventually settling down a little further north in Yakima Washington.
From age 10, it was already pretty clear that Bill was going to be a bodybuilder – all he wanted to do was build his muscles and grow his physique. To achieve this, Bill took on every odd-job and chore he could find to exercise and see results.
Even as a child, Bill was renown for wanting to develop himself. It was only when he was a teenager that he finally found the answer he was looking for; bodybuilding. After a friend had shown him a wartime copy of the magazine ‘Strength and Health’, all Pearl wanted was to be on the cover of it.
Desire for Greatness
Now Bill had his priorities in order. He needed to take the next step: buying a barbell set. To achieve this, he worked all summer, taking any job he could find to afford the equipment.
However, his dreams were put on hold. America was still in the heat of World War 2, and iron was being reserved for more pressing matter. It would take 2 years for Bill’s barbell to arrive – however when it did, Bill appreciated it all the more and used it as his first step to becoming one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time.
In school, Bill’s desire to become a bodybuilder was also bleeding into his work. He would write long essays about strongmen like Eugen Sandow and Louis Cyr, while also competing ferociously in as many sports that he could.
All he had in his mind was the cover of ‘Strength and Health’ and the wonder of when he was going to appear on it.
A young Bill Pearl.
The Navy, California and Leo Stern
Bill joined the Navy after graduating high school in 1950, and was stationed down in San Diego. It was there that he found Leo Stern’s gym – his next step to becoming one of the world’s greatest.
Leo’s gym not only gave Bill access to free-weights so he could train, but it was also a resource for him to learn the best methods to get the most out of his body.
It did wonders for Bill’s physique, and by 1952, Pearl had already placed 3rd at the Mr. San Diego competition.
Becoming the Legend, Opening a Gym, and becoming a Global Sensation
1953 is when it all started happening. Mr. Oceanside, Mr. Southern California, Mr. California, Mr. America, and the Amateur Mr. Universe – all were dominated by Pearl at just 23 years old. He was becoming a legend on the scene.
In 1954, Bill had finished his service in the Navy. He withdrew his savings ($2,800 in war bonds), moved to Sacremento and opened his own gym. He’d been inspired by Leo and he wanted the same for himself. This led him to create many future leading lights in bodybuilding, with one of the more notable being Chris Dickerson.
Bill did well in the gym business, expanding to nine individual clubs throughout Northern California. However, missing that personal connection with his customers, he eventually scaled back down to one.
After a short hiatus, Bill returned to competing in 1956 winning Mr. USA. This made him a known name in industry, and helped him confirm his greatness when he won the Professional Mr. Universe in 1961 in London.
Bill Pearl: Strongman
After Britain, Bill was in constant demand to guest pose at shows. To ensure the fans were more than satisfied with his performance, he designed a strongman routine to accompany his poses – and boy, was it a sight.
Pearl would blow into hot water bottles until they burst, bend 70-penny spikes, break chains and tear license plates apart – all with his bare hands. He’d also do more conventional – yet still impressive feats; pressing 310lbs (140kg) from behind his head, military pressing 320lbs (145kg), bench pressing 450lbs (205kg), squatting 605lbs (275kg) and even front squatting 500lbs (225kg). The man was an animal.
Bill was also known for breaking horseshoes in half, and tearing up phone books.
Due the success, Bill sold his gym in Sacremento and bought another in Los Angeles, moving down to the state’s capitol in the process.
The 1967 Mr. Universe and ‘Health and Strength’ Magazine
Now owning a gym with booming business down in Los Angeles, Bill wanted to concentrate more on training others, rather on his career as a bodybuilder. Bill decided he’d compete one last time, at the age of 37 in the 1967 London Mr. Universe.
Again, Bill won outright, scoring top marks from every judge at the competition. At a point where many competitors were well past their prime, Pearl was thriving.
He even caught the eye of Oscar Heidenstam of ‘Health and Strength’ magazine, the British equivalent of ‘Strength and Health’. This is what he had to say about Bill’s performance:
“Let us be honest, focus was on the amazing Bill Pearl, and who, if anyone, could in any way match up to him… Surely the news that someone like Pearl is competing must inevitably deter those who come from a long way and at considerable cost. Class 1 – All the way it was Pearl, here he was the supreme.
Physique, posing, personality, the man himself, everything a champion should be. No superlative could describe this man; he was perfection itself, the master. It was easy for him, yet so inspiring. Who could be second to such a man? … The Overall Professional Mr. Universe 1967 just had to be Bill Pearl, and was there ever a better one?”
He’d finally got into the magazines he had dreamed of as a boy.
After 1967, Bill thought he’d given enough. He retired from bodybuilding, sold his gym, and opened a health club in Pasadena, California.
This would be a universal fitness establishment that catered to all types of athletes and skill levels. However, as nice as the business was, there was trouble brewing back over in the bodybuilding community.
People were talking smack about Pearl. They said he retired because he didn’t have what it takes, that he was too scared to compete with the younger athletes. Naturally, Bill didn’t care, he was now 40 and satisfied with his new life – but his old friend Leo Stern cared deeply.
Leo Stern and the 1971 Mr. Universe
Leo had seen Pearl’s progression throughout the years, and thought that he had more in the tank – enough to not only compete again at the 1971 Mr. Universe – but take home first place.
Pearl needed some convincing, he had settled into his new life, and was running a business. Leo eventually convinced him this could be worked around, and get into the best shape of his life for the event.
After months of training, and against all odds, Bill was victorious – there’s even rumor that the crowd at the time started to chant ‘Pearl is King!’ by how inspiring the win was.
Shortly after winning the event, Bill went into almost immediate retirement.
He stopped guest posing, and dropped everything related to the industry that didn’t directly involve his business. When asked why the sudden walkaway from bodybuilding, Bill replied:
“My main reason for entering the 1971 Mr. Universe contest was to prove a point and I did. The trophy or the title meant very little to me. I wanted it forgotten and over. I actually felt strange onstage and felt I should have been there as a consular or a judge rather than a competitor. It reminded me of an old man trying to act like a kid. I felt I had my day and enough was enough.”
He was definitely done with the lifestyle.
Shortly after Bill opted for a new sport and started competitive bicycle throughout the early 70s. He’d revisit bodybuilding from time to time, fluctuating in weight – but he never returned to the competitive circuit.
Bill now spends his final years with his wife. The two live together in Southern Oregon.
“Everything you do in the gym has to be done on a positive note. You must condition your subconscious mind to think that you are getting bigger and training with more intensity, and your body will have to respond accordingly.”
Bill was a very technical bodybuilder, and has one of the most complicated splits out there to achieve that thick powerful physique.
Here’s what a standard week looks like for Pearl:
Monday: Full Body Workout
Tuesday: Chest and Back
Wednesday: Full Body Workout
Thursday: Legs and Shoulders
Friday: Full Body Workout
But that’s not the whole routine. There’s even more to it, Bill have a series of rules that apply to each weekly split:
- Each full body workout uses alternative exercises to the last one.
- Train calves every session.
- Train Forearms, Abs, Legs, Biceps and Neck every day (one exercise for each muscle groups, 6 sets)
- Aim for 18 – 20 sets per exercise in your main workout at around 8 – 10 reps.
It’s a seriously intense workout, and can last for hours at a time.
Bill claims his top lifts were 450lbs for Bench Press, 605lbs for Squats and 310lbs for Seated Press behind the neck.
He was one of the strongest bodybuilders of the time.
“The last two Universe contests I won were done without eating red meat. Think of it this way. If you feel the secret to bodybuilding is how much red meat you can consume every day, don’t you think the smart thing to do is put down 2 or 3 pounds of that stuff on a regular basis?
You’d be bigger than anyone walking the streets. So meat is no more than another substance to put in your body, and what little bit of protein and carbohydrates and minerals that are there, your body will extract it and use it like any other food. Meat is definitely not the secret to bodybuilding.”
For the earlier part of his career, Bill at that many of the other classic bodybuilders – lots of meat, and whole foods.
However, at 39, Bill discovered his body was starting suffer under the food choices he was making. During his health club days, Bill consulted on fitness for all kinds of groups – one of which being the North American Rockwell Aerospace Program. Bill recalls the situation:
“I had a blood test done one day, and the company doctor called me into his office and said, ‘Bill, do you have a family doctor?’ I said ‘Yes, I have a family doctor,’ and he said, ‘I strongly suggest you see this man and he puts you in the hospital.’ I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding, doc,’ and he said, ‘No, Bill, if you were my patient, I’d actually put you in the hospital.’”
After finding that his blood pressure, uric acid and triglycerides were way above average, Bill realized that keeping up his high-meat diet could have long term consequences. He even believed his joint pain when training was in-part down to his large meat consumption.
During his health club days, Bill consulted on fitness for all kinds of groups – one of which being the North American Rockwell Aerospace Program. Bill recalls the situation:
To remedy the situation, Pearl made an immediate change to lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Focusing more on grains, vegetables, eggs and dairy products, while excluding foods that meats and fish.
Idols and Influences
The making of Bill Pearl goes all the way back to that fateful day when he was first shown ‘Strength and Health’. The first big names that inspired Pearl to take up the sport were John Grimek, Clancy Ross and Steve Reeves.
Later on Bill was also heavily influenced by Leo Stern, who showed him the proper way to use equipment and tutored him weightlifting during his time in the navy.
This relationship with Leo was also long-lasting, as he convinced Pearl to enter the 1971 Mr. Universe – which resulted in Bill’s final victory at the age of 41.
What we can learn from Bill Pearl
Bill Pearl is a fountain of wisdom. There’s so much you can take away from both his career and lifestyle.
From a career point of view, you’ve got to admire Pearl’s dedication. From as early as 10, he knew he wanted to be a well-built man, and years later he had one of the greatest physiques in history. Find your dream, follow it through, and don’t let anybody get in your way.
Whereas outside of bodybuilding, Bill also shows us how to give back. Even in the height of career as a competitor, Bill was opening gyms and making sure he was teaching others how build a fantastic physique.
His direct work made many great athletes, and even the Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson. He knew that bodybuilding wasn’t just an isolated sport – it was about community and bringing people together to keep the industry great for years to come.