The strongest “natural” man of all time

Karl could hold a 45-pound Olympic bar at arm’s length and “twirl” it back and forth – try it!

John Charles Grimek is one of the most highly credentialed strength athletes of all time. Known primarily for possessing the best male physique on the planet during the 1930s and 40s, Grimek is less well known for his prowess as an Olympic weightlifter and all-around athlete.  Grimek set national records in the clean and press. At 190-pounds he strict pressed 300-pounds in the gym and in 1940 pressed 285 officially weighing 181. This was done using a bolt upright “military” style barbell press technique.

JCG was an amazing athlete. He would end his posing routine with a standing back flip.  His flexibility was legend. Despite being stout and thick, he could sink into the deep splits anywhere anytime and once, with straight legs, Grimek touched 18-inches below the surface of the table he was standing on. Dr. Karpinsky and the other scientists that were measuring John, his capacities and capabilities, as part of a “muscle-bound” study were astounded. Grimek out-stretched the gymnasts, upsetting the scientific apple cart. Later asked how he had been able to elongate his spine to such an astounding degree, Grimek responded. “Ten years of stiff leg deadlifts off a box.”

JCG was a member of the 1936 Olympic Games. He shook hands with Adolph Hitler and placed 5th. For a decade he was inarguably the best built man in the world.  This was a man possessing the best body in the world, world record level strength and uncanny athleticism.  In 1941 Grimek was traveling around the country putting on exhibitions.  In San Francisco he posed and lifted as part of a bodybuilding/strength show. Grimek was the star of the show and the featured attraction. During the lifting portion of his exhibition, some rowdy longshoreman, dockworkers in the audience, yelled that one of their roughneck compadres could outlift Grimek.

John, age 31, was thrilled, “Well show this stud on up here!” Karl Norberg was a (then) 48-year old Norwegian longshoreman working out of the San Francisco docks. He had never lifted barbells or dumbbells in his life. He stood 5-10 and weighed a stout 260-pounds, with the Lion’s share being in his massive torso. Karl was born in Sweden in 1893. In 1927 Karl emigrated to San Francisco where he worked the docks for decades. He was a dock legend, a man amongst men.

Karl made his way onstage and after introductions, John motioned for Karl to match him, overhead press for overhead press. The barbell was loaded to 225-pounds. Without any warmup, Grimek whipped the barbell to his shoulders and in an instant rammed the bar overhead. Norberg grinned and awkwardly bent over and grasped the barbell using an underhand curl grip. He stood erect in a slow deadlift. To get the 225-pound bar to his shoulders, Norberg curled the weight to his chin. He then awkwardly switched his grip and pressed the weight overhead effortlessly.

The two men traded attempts. John eventually made a tough but good attempt with 285. Karl made 270 and could not clean the 285. Norberg had a terrible time getting the weight to his shoulders. He wasted way more strength on his cleans. Had he been able to press out of the racks, avoiding the clean, he would have slaughtered Grimek, a point John conceded to me in conversation over lunch in 1992 at the Arnold Classic.

Ever afterwards Grimek would tell anyone that would listen, “Karl Norberg is the strongest untrained man I have ever encountered.” Grimek lived to be 80 and never saw a “natural man” that could match Karl. At age 56 Karl Norberg took up weight training. Retired and with time on his hands, Karl commenced weight training at San Francisco’s Sports Palace gym. He confined his weight training to upper body exercises as leg injuries from work prevented him from squatting.

It soon becomes apparent that this man’s strength was otherworldly. Nature’s gifts enabled this totally untrained natural to attain a 470-pound raw bench press at age 70.  The 470-pound bench press was done using ultra-strict technique.  His legs were straight – Norberg’s feet were not on the floor. His entire body lay flat on a long, extended weight bench. He was handed the barbell by two training partners.  This makes the bench press so much harder and so much more difficult.  Karl bench pressed 460 at age 73 years old. At age 80 he could still bench press 400.

Norberg’s hand strength was legend. He could take a 45-pound Olympic bar, extend it to arm’s length in front of his face and then “twirl” the bar back and forth. At age 73 he did a seated front press with 330 and even more amazing, at 73 he was also able to press 310 while sitting on the floor and unsupported in any way. Karl Norberg was so strong in his arms and shoulders that he could throw away that advantage and still push unbelievable weights using the worst possible leverage.

Karl never practiced the deadlift, yet at age 69 he deadlifted 600-pounds.  When he had the 600-pound deadlift erect he then walked ten steps forward with the 600-pounds. This type of raw human power is attributable to ideal physical genetics combined with hard physical labor. This type of strength was so prevalent at one time it had its own cliché, “farm boy strength.” Karl was the epitome of forged passion. A lifetime preceded his introduction to weight training; he stayed vital and strong. He was once pickpocketed in Vegas at age 82. He grabbed the pickpocket’s wrists and broke it, like snapping a dry twig. “It is not nice to take advantage of old people!” He yelled as he inflicted the punishment.

My old training partner Mark Chaillet was this type of natural powerhouse. Mark was built as if he were the missing link between man and gorilla. Chaillet stood 5-10 and had the widest shoulders I’d ever seen on a man his height. Mark had thick 8.25-inch wrists and huge hands. His bones were over-sized, and he had long arms and short legs. This made for incredible natural leverage, this was combined with superior athletic ability. Mark “barely” trained, yet Mark deadlifted 880 weighing a ripped 270-pounds.

Norberg and Chaillet, Coan and Karwoski, these are men genetically predisposed to pick up heavy objects effortlessly. When men like this. physically blessed by Nature, genetic wonders, when men like this take up formalized weight training, magical things happen. The forged passion occurs when men like this, physical marvels, find their true calling.  They forge the body and they forge the mind. Norberg serves as one incredible late-in-life role model.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.