By: Josh Bryant
In the late 1990s, where I grew up in Southern California, hardcore, old-school training regimens of Arnold, Franco, and Bill Pearl had given way to flushing routines on the smith machine, spandex and synthol.
The old-time bodybuilders like Pearl and Grimek supplemented their incomes by performing extraordinary feats of strength, others worked as debt collectors or doormen at illegal drinking pens. Lacking syntax, these cats were all around bad asses.
I heard stories about the old timers from some of the Old Heads at the YMCA—it was a relief, I knew there was more to physical culture than spandex, chrome machines and artificially pumped muscles.
A crisis produces opportunity.
My struggle led me to endlessly research the history of the iron game. One individual that I learned of who inspired me was ‘The Noble Norseman” Karl Norberg. Even later in college, I wrote a paper on Norberg; unfortunately, my professor did not see the nobility of this pumped Swedish Stevedore.
I have a feeling you will.
The Noble Norsemen
“The Noble Norsemen” Karl Norberg is the strongest longshoremen of all-time. He was born in Sweden on January 5, 1893. By 12 years old, Norberg, one of a dozen siblings, worked at a saw mill 12 hours a day, generally six days a week.
Norberg continued working manual labor jobs and eventually migrated to the United States in 1927. With no pretense of trading in his blue collar for a white one, Norberg found his calling as a longshoreman in San Francisco. Long before the days of forklifts, overtime, mandatory breaks and other labor rights, Norberg worked around the clock every day of the week.
From day one on the docks, The Noble Norseman dazzled coworkers and passer-byers with amazing feats of strength he acquired from years of “strongman training.” aka, heavy manual labor.
Grimek Meets Norberg
John Grimek, a forefather of modern bodybuilding, like other greats prior to chemical warfare, had an extensive strength background. This background went beyond strength feats at travelling carnivals or on Tijuana street corners. Grimek was a national weightlifting champion and even competed in the Olympics. In those days the overhead press was contested as an Olympic lift; this was Grimek’s forte.
Fast forward to 1941, the esteemed John Grimek was performing an overhead press exhibition in San Fran, Norberg and a few of the booze hounds from the ship yard went down to check it out. The dock workers began to heckle Grimek and faithfully believed one of their own could defeat him. After all, Norberg was functionally strong and had begun a weight training regimen.
Putting things in perspective, a 31 year old Grimek was in his prime; Norberg was two years away from getting his AARP card and, furthermore, lacked any formal instruction.
Norberg was reluctant to go against Grimek at first, but once he saw John was up for it, it was on like Donkey Kong!
The most Norberg had ever pressed was 255, the contest ensued at opening weight of 240 pounds. Initially, Norberg matched Grimek attempt by attempt. Eventually, Grimek ended up winning with a 280-pound press. Norberg made a 270-pound press. Norberg nearly defeated Grimek—even more impressively, Norberg cheat curled the barbell to chest level, then switched from a underhand to an overhand grip at chest level—then pressed the weight overhead.
Grimek nearly met his match. This would be akin to an unknown 50 year old street fighter losing to a top UFC Champion by split decision in the octagon.
Norberg Defies Age Limits
Like a fine Bourbon, as Norberg aged, he improved! At 74 years young he performed a double with 460 pounds in the bench press and held a pair of 80-pound dumbbells straight out from his body in a crucifix style; at 80 Norberg benched 400 pounds.
Another impressive, less-documented lift, according to Jeff Everson of Planet Muscle, made after the age of 65, was a deadlift of 600 pounds. This was the first time he tried the lift! Years of heavy loading paid off, he walked with the barbell after locking the weight out. In addition, Norberg hit a seated Military Press with 325 pounds.
Noble Noreseman Training Routine
Karl did this routine three days a week. He did not train legs heavy because of severe arthritis in his knees and hips:
1) Benches: work up to a top set of 6 reps, then top triple and then a daily max single
2) Behind the Neck Presses: Same Set/Rep Scheme
C) Incline or front barbell presses: Same Set/Rep Scheme
D) Dumbbell rows: Multiple rep ranges
Michael Angelo said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”
The mighty longshoreman grabbed the bull by the testicles and spit in the face of preconceived age notions.
Norberg is a legend, an inspiration and cannot be forgotten; it is important to pay tribute to our forefathers in the iron game.