It was the mellow mid 1950s when Dave Draper was just a kid and he lifted his first set of barbells. Virtually nobody was doing that sort of thing. Weightlifting and muscle building wasn’t popular like it is today and 99 out of 100 athletic coaches gave it a thumbs down. Imagine that! It was an era of meat and potatoes, makeshift weights and gnarly, heavy weightlifting. By the age of twelve, barbells and dumbbells had become his best friends. They spoke his language. He had fallen in love with the basic oneness, where he controlled. He says, “I wrestled with those little monsters for hours on end, pushing and pulling randomly to exhaustion until patterns of exercises formed.”
Slowly and surely his body took shape and his muscles and strength became evident. He knew of no muscle magazines nor sought any reward, only the pleasure of pressing metal and the exclusiveness and aloneness of the adventure. In high school he pressed on and landed a job with Weider Barbell Company after winning Mr. New Jersey and that lured him to Santa Monica, California. There at Muscle Beach he lifted with the cornerstones and heroes of bodybuilding such as Joe Gold, George Eifferman, Bill Pearl, Armond Tanny, Clancy Ross and Steve Reeves, Hercules.
These were men of instinct around the weight room. The 60s’ the Golden Years of Bodybuilding, when these big men pressed methodically and with intense concentration. They lifted more and intellectualized less. The various training principals were set down and stand today. It is to these men that Dave Draper attributes his creativity and fundamentals in the weight room. Dave Draper went on to win Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 1966 and Mr. World in 1970. He is a member of the Hall of Fame of Bodybuilders and is considered today one of the great teachers and voices in fitness.
Joseph Grassadonia Can you give our OnFitness readers a thumbnail sketch of your career in fitness and bodybuilding? When and how did it all begin?
Dave Draper A small boy in a small New Jersey town outside New York City wants to be bigger and stronger and more significant doesn’t necessarily like baseball and the usual team sports offered up like mash potatoes. Chins and dips and pushups became my favorite pastimes when I was 10 years old and I bought a pair of slightly used dumbbells at 12. For five dollars my future was molded in steel.
I played with these disagreeable objects as most kids played football, stick ball and tag in empty lots during their vigorous and formative years. I could tackle the next guy, but when they weren’t looking I was lifting weights in the corner of my crowded basement. “Dave, your supper’s getting cold.” “Be right there, Ma.”
One day at Weehawken High the coach began calling me “Arms” and aimed to recruit me for the wrestling team and football squad. What? Spend another second longer in school than I absolutely have to? I don’t think so. I have overhead presses, standing barbell curls and bent-over rows today. See ya.
The basement gave way to the Elizabeth, NJ YMCA to be followed by a Vic Tanny’s in Jersey City, which led to a job for Joe Weider at Weider Barbell Company in Union City. I won Mr. New Jersey in 1963. I was 21 when I moved to Santa Monica, California to join George Eifferman at Joe’s new West Coast office and train to the beat of Muscle Beach champs. There I learned “what it was” and “what it took”. Train hard, eat right and be strong.
I won Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 1966 and Mr. World in 1970.
Over the past 15 years I have owned and managed two World Gyms, Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley, and continued my training like a hound dog on a hunt. My wife, Laree, and I are committed to a website, davedraper.com, which we began in January of 1999. The themes are weight training, muscle building, health and fitness straight talk for all ages. The IronOnline newsletter and discussion group are the highlights of the 1,500-page website.
I write books on muscle building and fitness and Laree publishes books on related subject matter.
Joseph Grassadonia If the president of the United States came to you and asked you to lead the war on obesity in America what would your plan of attack be?
Dave Draper Get sugar and junk food out of school halls and cafeterias and include compulsory classes on balanced nutrition and right eating and classes on exercise and physical fitness. Politics, like scorpions, would kill the obvious, yet magnificent idea. We are witnessing societies growing soft and weak because they submit to laziness, nonsensical distractions, quick fixes, irresponsibility and deteriorating disciplines. The few corrupt the many, and the many have stopped thinking and caring. “Wakeup” is the message we all need to hear, before it’s too late, and “too late” is a heartbeat away.
What do I know? Grass roots and state government programs with the wisdom and will to educate the populace might work. Exercise, eat smartly, care for yourself and those you love and reap the rewards: vigor and long life. Success would become evident and followers would follow. Dream on.
Our values are slipping and importance is placed on the temporary promises presented by advertisers and the imagined liberties offered by overly tolerant activists and the destructive allurements of decadent Hollywood. Folks, we need to watch where we step.
Joseph Grassadonia You say you started lifting as a boy and as time went by, almost by accident, your body took shape. At what point did it become a real science for you?
Dave Draper Science is for scientists. I don’t regard weight training any more a science than the ordinary act of growing from infanthood to adulthood. You naturally gather and assimilate information from your environment and apply it in a positive direction — crawling and growing up, squats and curls. You practice it, organize it, observe and expand it, improve it and grow. The more I intellectualized, the less I understood my training. The more I questioned what I did, the less confident I was. The more I researched, the more tedious the act became. “Do it” is my credo. It doesn’t work, do it again … another way.
I learned about protein and its importance from my mother, and everybody with a brain knows sugar and junk food is bad for you. I was a kid. I lifted weights and my muscles grew. I was in high school. I lifted harder and my muscles grew bigger and stronger. Science 1A.
The Muscle Beach experience was the university of superior learning and the characters who trained there were the instructors and professors in ragged t-shirts. It was 1963. I was 21 and super setting intensely. The crash course took a few years and I’ve been active ever since — modifying, adjusting, tuning by ear.
Buy This Issue - this interview was originally featured in the April 2004 issue of OnFitness Magazine.
Joseph Grassadonia Do you believe that genetics play an important role in body shaping, or is it all hard work and dedication? Certainly a man with good bone structure has an advantage?
Dave Draper Of course, genes are significant determining factors in our muscle-building potential. All the training and determination an adult might rally cannot add ten inches, or one-tenth of an inch, to his height or change his hip-to-shoulder ratio. However, the real muscle builder comes from the heart, and his hard training and impervious determination decide the grand total of his possibilities. You can beat a rug, but you can’t beat a bodybuilder with heart.
I dare say there are one or two giant muscle guys walking across the stage who don’t have the heart, but they do have a dandy pharmacist.
Joseph Grassadonia You have said that nothing you possessed in the way of large bone structure or body chemistry was outstanding. If this is true, what do you believe was the most important element to your incredible success?
Dave Draper The first thing I must do before answering this question is remove the word incredible from the sentence. Success is dubious enough. Now, I can’t complain about being six feet tall and having bones like clubs and I wasn’t shaped like a pear when I was a kid, big relief. But somewhere along the way I got the desire to be muscular, strong and respected. This desire was backed by determination.
In one word, determination, we have that single most important element. Yet, attached to that single element, like tin cans strung to an alley cat’s tail, are perseverance, commitment and hope. Discipline and patience come later as the tug and rattle of tin has you ripping forward.
Joseph Grassadonia You started weight training at 12 years old. Some personal trainers think that may be too young for developmental reasons. What are your feelings on this?
Dave Draper Pushups, chins and dips, leg raises and crunches, running and jumping are great conditioners for kids as soon as you can get their attention. Encouragement from generous adults to properly engage the rascals helps them understand the purpose of the activities, instills priceless disciplines and directs the safe and effective execution of the exercises without diminishing the playfulness. Oh, boy, do we need some of this. Take the TV and video games to the dumpster and don’t forget the soda and chips.
When weight training comes into the picture, wouldn’t it be nice if they were already prepared for the activity with the above healthy fortification? A little thoughtful coaching goes a long way for a twelve-year-old who stands before a barbell for the first time. Teaching the basic exercises to a healthy youngster with an earnest heart is okay in my experience.
The kids will listen to you as you caution them against poor form, over-straining, injury and goofiness. You can direct them toward moderation in effort, focus on exercise performance and the action of the muscle. They won’t be growth-halted, bent-boned or joint-separated if they are instructed favorably and encouraged to eat properly.
What an opportunity to mold a fine young person. Why, he or she may grow up to be the governor.
Trouble begins when the movements are done with too much weight, really poor form and very little focus on the purpose of each exercise. We usually see this in adults who should know better, but it seems they never learned. Nobody took the time to teach them.
Joseph Grassadonia Do you feel weightlifting is more about instinct than science?
Dave Draper We covered that earlier, but I’ll elucidate further in case I didn’t confuse you enough the first time. It’s a mix of the two and I suppose it depends on the personality/mentality of the willing and able individual. Give me instincts and a dash of science.
There’s plenty of science if that’s what fascinates you and makes this business of building muscles more understandable. I know I never heard of the techniques and terminology and ingredients that are being propagated or advertised in the magazines and on the Internet today. If I was stepping into the arena of bodybuilding for the first time and thought it was as complicated and scientific as it appears, I’d give it up and become a nuclear physicist instead.
Do not be led astray. This wonderful sport is built on basics and simplicity, hard work and devotion. Yes, brains, but the brains of a mother or miner, carpenter or store clerk, pastor or cop.
Yeah, you need to know carbs from protein and supersets from single sets, but after that it’s hard work, involvement, consistency, focus, discipline, courage and prayer … on the gym floor. Never give up, doubt less, and be strong.
Joseph Grassadonia Did you concern yourself with learning much about physiology and nutritional biochemistry or did you just go by what others told you?
Dave Draper I wouldn’t mind having formal background in these areas, but I don’t. Not having been educated in any real depth has not interfered with my regular progress. It has not once frustrated me or left me wondering what the heck I was doing. Both nutrition and physiology are fascinating subjects and must be important to doctors and healers, but they remain 90 percent a mystery to me. I know my hip bone’s connected to my leg bone and my leg bone’s connected to my foot bone.
What I know, I picked up from listening, observing, reading sufficiently, applying and experiencing. I strongly believe that concern about these areas would have interfered with my straight-forward thinking, logic and personal trust — my instincts — and frustrated my muscular growth. Spare me the details and take me to the gym. I’ve got work to do. Have you asked Sergio Oliva this question? Just curious. What would Steve Reeves have to say?
Joseph Grassadonia You won Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 66, and went on to win Mr. World in 1970. You say you sensed a shifting of the gears in bodybuilding and stepped out of competition. What had changed for you?
Dave Draper I was out of step with the competitive world of sports. What has popularly become known as bodybuilding over the years has to me always been a sport about lifting weights and building muscle and building strength. Title holding never entered my mind, while having big arms and a powerful back have never left. The Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World titles are cool companions that have never left my side, but they were never my passion, my driving force.
I won the titles and I was honored and grateful. I still am. But in the short time I competed, the world around me warped. Lifting weights, building muscles and building strength lost their identity in the confusion of the competitive world. Poses and posing, posing music and posing trunks, oil and lighting, the drama, the judges. Okay, fine. On top of that the humble, relatively unfettered and wholly original diversion was being rapidly redefined by big selections business. It was becoming an industry. Big, cluttered and greedy. Excuse me, conductor, wrong train. No need to stop, I’ll just jump off here.
Joseph Grassadonia Today big muscle is big business. What are your feelings about anabolic steroids as they are being used by the top competitors?
Dave Draper Well, it’s an extreme world supporting extreme sports, and bodybuilding has not been spared. As such, it is truly remarkable what the top participants are able to do if they’re willing and committed. Drugs have been added to the equation of many professional sports and we’re hearing loud noises in the locker rooms, the media and law enforcement. Greatness comes at a great cost and the price has been raised with the technology of the times. Good, better and best has been replaced by right or wrong, genuine or artificial, real or fake and life or death.
We need to be careful with the excesses in our lives, and they are before us in abundance today. It’s tough and takes guts to be real when imitation and make-believe and deception are created in laboratory test tubes, studio sound stages and under the Beverly Hills surgeon’s skillful knife. Train hard, eat right, get real.