Bill Pearl, the legendary bodybuilder, died this morning at 91. This is his story.

Bill Pearl was born on an Indian reservation in Oregon on October 31, 1930, and grew up in Yakima, Washington, where his dad owned a restaurant. “We all helped out; it was kind of a family affair. Every day after school I’d lug 100-pound bags of grain and beans over and over, and that eventually built up my endurance,” he remembered. Amazed by the physiques in a muscle magazine, Pearl saved up for a weight set. He began training regularly when a teenager, idolizing 1948 Mr. Universe John Grimek. While serving in the Navy and stationed at San Diego, he worked out at Stern’s Gym, coached by Leo Stern, who encouraged him to compete in bodybuilding.

Bill Pearl
The massive triceps of young Bill Pearl

Pearl entered two San Diego area bodybuilding contests in 1952, winning one. Then in 1953, the year he turned 23, he won, in order, Mr. Southern California, Mr. California, Mr. America, and Mr. Universe. He had only just begun and already he’d conquered the world of bodybuilding. “No one was more shocked than I was,” Pearl remembered of the Mr. America win. “Until that moment I hadn’t given competition serious consideration; my only real goal was to gain strength and size. Winning that contest changed me in a fundamental way. It opened up a door to another world. After the service I went into the gym business and began living and loving bodybuilding 24-7.”

Bill Pearl purchased a gym in Sacramento in 1954 and competed a couple times in 1956, winning the Mr. USA and the tall class of the Mr. Universe. He franchised his gyms to locations throughout Northern California. At 5’10″ and around 230 lbs., he competed only three more times, each time in the prestigious NABBA Pro Mr. Universe (held in London), winning in 1961, 1967, and 1971. The last two times he was a vegetarian, having removed meat from his diet (but not dairy or eggs) at 35 after a doctor warned him about his cholesterol levels. Let’s focus on that final show. He was 41, goaded into competing by those who said he was over-the-hill, and he defeated, among others, the legendary Reg Park as well as 3-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva and future 3-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane. And all that 18 years after winning his first Mr. Universe title. Take that, haters!

Bill Pearl Arnold Schwarzenegger
1967 Mr. Universe: Bill Pearl won the pro title and 20-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger won the amateur title.

Bill Pearl never competed in the Mr. Olympia, nor in Joe Weider’s IFBB. He could make a good argument that the NABBA Pro Mr. Universe was the superior contest in the 1960s, at least until Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger first faced off in 1969—and maybe not even then if you listened to Pearl. “I didn’t compete in the Olympia because I considered it a Mickey Mouse affair,” he explained. “Hell, there was one Olympia where only Arnold and Sergio competed [1969], and some guy from the audience jumped up and started to pose, so they gave him third place. I’m not knocking the IFBB, but at the time I thought the Olympia was created to promote the Weiders and their organization.”

Bill Pearl outside his Los Angeles gym

Bill Pearl downsized his gym business. He moved to Los Angeles and focused on one gym, first a trailblazing bodybuilding place he purchased in southern-central Los Angeles and later a health club in Pasadena. He also traveled the world, guest-posing and performing strength feats like blowing up hot water bottles until they burst, spike bending, and tearing license plates in half with his bare hands. He mentored bodybuilders, including Chris Dickerson, who became the 1982 Mr. Olympia. He wrote frequently for muscle magazines, and he authored books, most notably Keys to the Inner Universe, an exhaustive compendium of weight-training exercises (over 1500 of them!) and bodybuilding knowledge. He remained a lacto-ovo vegetarian for the final 47 years of his long life.

In “retirement,” Bill and his longtime wife Judy moved to southern Oregon, where Bill woke at 3:00 AM each morning to train in his home gym. A consultant for Life Fitness training equipment, Pearl appeared at fitness expos and trade shows and conducted motivational seminars; and he continued to write in the Internet age, imparting his vast training and nutritional knowledge. “America was formed on a work ethic. It’s just like bodybuilding. you have to work for your physique. Nobody gives you those muscles. You have to put in your time; otherwise, you’ll have nothing,” the four-time Mr. Universe said.

Bill Pearl
Three ages of Bill Pearl

A legend who dominated in three decades, Bill Pearl was one of the greatest bodybuilders of the ’50s and ’60s and into the ’70s. Our condolences to his family, friends, and many fans.

To learn about Bill Pearl’s training philosophy, check out: Bill Pearl Workout: Top 10 Tips