Leo Stern

1921 - 2009

David Gentle pays tribute to one of bodybuilding's greatest authorities and champions... Leo Stern.

Reprinted with permission of The Iron Master.
By David Gentle

Like a pebble casts out ever increasing ripples when thrown into a pond, so do the efforts of a small group of men, who started long ago and today continue to produce greater waves and success in bodybuilding. The positive influence in the world of bodybuilding and powerlifting of Leo Stern is almost immeasurable, but alas, also often overlooked. Long associated with the dynamic and ever legendary Pearl, Leo also trained, encouraged and assisted many hundreds of other muscle, and power champions, winning more than his own share of awards along the way.

They say the first 30 seconds count when you meet someone. It took me a lot less than that to know I was going to like and respect Leo Stern. When first we shook hands in 1992 at the O.H. Foundation Awards in London, both Bill Pearl and Leo received well deserved accolades. I had known of Leo for decades and also read many of his knowledgeable articles in Iron Man and contemporary magazines form the late 1940's, so we are not exactly strangers and had similar views and opinions.

Unlike the Charles Atlas adverts, Leo Stern never was a 7 stone weakling. Prior to training with weights, he specialized in wrestling in high school, not a sport for "sissies." When he graduated in 1939, he took up bodybuilding following routines prepared by Bill McCandless. After a while, Leo and some friends organized a weightlifting club in San Diego, California called the Hillcrest Barbell Club, which was forced to terminate at the outbreak of WWII, with the gang joining the armed forces keen to fight U.S. aggressors.

Leo spent his nearly 4 year enlistment as a physical training instructor (PTI) in the U.S. Air Corps meeting up and making life long friends with Clarence "Clancy" Ross. Leo organized all lifting and bodybuilding sessions, training literally hundreds of men, including Clancy. Leo said later of Ross, who became world famous via the Joe Weider magazines, winning Mr. America, Mr. California, and Mr. Universe amongst others, "He made the most while having the least potential."

Leo, no genetic favored giant, had to build sound lasting muscle the hard way, from 150 lbs. at 5'8 ½". He put on over 50 lbs. of tough useful muscle, winning the Mr. California title in 1946 against the best bodybuilders the West Coast of U.S.A. (and for at that period, the World) had to offer. He then on Sunday June 2nd, entered and placed 3rd in the Mr. America contest in Detroit in 1946, won by the popular ever smiling Alan Stephen, the man with the wide, wide back.

​Leo, no genetic favored giant, had to build sound lasting muscle the hard way, from 150 lbs. at 5'8 ½". He put on over 50 lbs. of tough useful muscle, winning the Mr. California title in 1946 against the best bodybuilders the West Coast of U.S.A. (and for at that period, the World) had to offer. He then on Sunday June 2nd, entered and placed 3rd in the Mr. America contest in Detroit in 1946, won by the popular ever smiling Alan Stephen, the man with the wide, wide back.

Leo Stern

A month prior to entering this contest, Leo had been working up to 16 hours a day, preparing to open his new studio, "The Studio of Progressive Health Training" in San Diego. It was not the greatest of preparations for a contest. His measurements at that period were BWT 196 lbs., chest near 49", biceps 17 ½", later he grew even larger. He did however, lose weight for the Mr. California title and all those years could bench press 320 lbs. military press 245 lbs. and curl 190 lbs., great strength standards, even in today's terms, with no other assistance, than pure muscle power, built on good nutrition and sensible training. Leo like most of his contemporaries practiced and enjoyed lots of all around lifting, or "Odd Lifts," not only heavy dead lifts e.g. 500 lbs. plus, and squats over 400 lbs., but side presses with one hand of 210 lbs. etc.

Recently (1998) in a letter to me, Leo wrote and said, "We had a lot of fun with impromptu contests. I remember attempting to break Jack LaLanne's pressing of a 155 lb. barbell with a small inch diameter bar. He did 23 or 26 reps, and I was equaling it on my last rep, but failed to complete the lift and it came crashing down to my chest so hard I thought it was going to cut me in half. This was in Bert Goodrich's gym in Hollywood."

In early times Leo favored bench exercises like bent arm pullovers, and lateral raises, along with bench press. He also did lots of heavy dumbbell side bends for lifting strength and oblique development.

Leo's next and last gym was his Health Studio at 4294 Menlo Avenue, San Diego, (he sold it eventually in 1989) where he trained for the Professional Mr. America contest (editor's note: This is incorrect, this was actually Stern's Gym on Granada Ave. which Leo sold to Shannon Brown in 1994).

He first opened on May 13th, 1946 and recalls recently of working up to 90 hours a week to get it established making little if any profit, even later in his gym career he worked 11 hrs. a day 6 days a week. Not an easy job. Leo unlike today's promoters had a mountain of prejudice to climb, remembering how bodybuilders and weightlifters and general muscle trainers, were ridiculed and people put off through old chestnut arguments that "strong men die young" and weight lifters become "muscle bound."

Like Jack La Lanne said in Vic Boff's July 1998 newsletter, how fashions and beliefs have changed, "Then I was a crackpot and charlatan. Today I am an authority." Leo later said, "We did it because we enjoyed it. We believed in what we were doing and in any case. I didn't give a damn what anyone else thought." Nothing changes, Leo's attitude and tenacity and individuality never wavered or changed. He still doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Leo Stern

To promote weight lifting, Leo and gym members hosted a range of events from exhibitions in schools and colleges to full scale Olympic lifting (this was during pre-Powerlifting days) and physique contests, along the way designing super posing trunks to allow bodybuilders better advantage to display upper thighs and lower abdominals along with a lot of photography.

From 1947, Leo staged physical culture variety shows to make it far more interesting for non weight lifting fans (i.e. the whole family were entertained not bored by endless limited lifting or compulsory posing.) The incredible 1940's World champion Olympic lifter John Davis gave exhibitions including "odd lifts." Later, the basic of these developed into full scale powerlifting. On June 24th 1949, a distinguished group of bodybuilders, lifters and officials met to consider forming a new professional association for the benefit in the main for its members and lifters. Reported and listed in Iron Man October 1949, it included such notaries as Bert Goodrich, Walt Baptiste, Gene Jantzen, Peggy and George Redpath, David Willoughby, Pudgy Stockton, and Peary Rader, also with Leo Stern, Frank Thompson, Walt Marcyan and several others.

Real people, real lifters, real bodybuilders. On June 25th and 26th the 1949 Mr. Professional Championships were held, which included both lifting and bodybuilding posing. John C. Grimek a possible contender had to miss it due to wife Angela's illness. It was held at the Embassy Auditorium and acts included Pudgy Stockton demonstrating lifting for ladies, and Armand Tanny single arm cleaning 250 lbs. Later Leo Stern and Bob McCune featured in an early bench press competition. Warming up with 250 lbs. they both made 356 lbs. with Bob McCune (a far larger guy than Leo) getting 371 lbs. for a then record lift. Leo lifted the same weight, but because he "allowed his back to arch slightly, was disallowed the lift" (although he did lift it). Have you seen the acrobatic, contortions and super arches of today's bench pressers in their special bench suits!?

​Other lifts followed for the contestants to drain their strength, hardly the best of warm ups for a physique contest, which concluded the lengthy program. Entrants were judged by an applause meter (great if you bring along a large family) With Armand Tanny top and Leo taking a respectful 5th place. Leo it was reported at the time, "looked better than ever, and is developing a ruggedness from his recent lifting activities that many pure physique contestants lack.".

Leo Stern

"We did it because we enjoyed it. We believed in what we were doing and in any case, I didn't give a damn what anyone else thought."

Bodybuilding Contests

1945 Mr America - AAU, did not place. Competed with Clancy Ross (winner), Harold Zinkin, Jack Delinger and other greats.
1946 Mr America - AAU, 3rd Place. Competitors included Alan Stephens (winner) and John Farbotnik.
1946 Mr California - AAU, 1st Place Medium and Overall Winner over Kenneth Graham, Rex Ravelle, and others.
1946 Pro Mr America, 4th Place competing with Clancy Ross (winner), Norman Marks and Phil Courtois.
1948 Mr USA, did not place. Competitors included Clancy Ross (winner), fitness guru Jack LaLanne, and Hollywood star Steve Reeves.
1949 ​Mr USA, did not place. Fellow competitors included John Grimek (winner) , Armand Tanny and Clancy Ross.

In January 1950, Leo's superb physique graced the cover of Bob Hoffman's Strength and Health, with the inside blurb crediting Leo as "ranking as one of America's most outstanding physique champions." Leo was linked from the start with fabled powerlifters like Peanuts West, George Frenn and the great Pat Casey, all the while recording physique and powerlifting/strength history, via his dual skills of reporting and photography, ultimately helping to make many an unknown face famous.

Many stars of bodybuilding, lifting and strength world passed through the portals of Leo's gym including Lou Ferrigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the fabled Bill Pearl. I also recall Leo and Bill visited the U.K. and were guests of the then Worlds Richest Man, J. Paul Getty in 1967. Those were the days. Drinking tea, with the little finger raised...Ha Ha...

Along with one to one training, and physique photography (and remember folks, Leo's masterpieces are still available to buy, see his ads elsewhere), Leo has all along been a prolific author and main contributor to many a muscle magazine, including writing many a fine series for Peary Rader's Iron Man. He penned for instance, Bill Pearl's first write up "The Man on the Cover" in the July 1953 issue of IronMan.

Writers are always open to snipes and pot shots. Churchill once wrote "Authors alone, with more than savage rage, unnatural war with brother authors wage." Back in 1953, Leo was under attack from another writer (mainly in Strength and Health), Harry Paschall, the famed inventor of the character BOSCO, in an almost anti bodybuilding article. Leo replied at length and with vigor as is want, to various criticisms and concluded with "One thing I learned as a small boy was that if a person is good in any particular field he does not have to publicly praise himself or spend a great deal of time telling people about himself. If you have it, people will come to recognize it by your works, not by ones own word for it. It is the purpose of most men to help their fellow men. This I feel is the way it should be, and you will find that more can be done constructively if one tries to do it without hurting the other fellow. I entered the gymnasium business with the idea of setting myself up with a job where I would always be able to train and secondly to help others."

Well Leo certainly stuck to his word, and there's not much I can add to that except the wise words of the late Peary Rader who also said in the same issue of Iron Man Vol. 13 No. 2 of Leo. He is "One of the finest fellows we have known in the game." Amen to that...