The Barbarian Brothers were viral superstars decades before social media. The twins, David and Peter Paul, were world-famous for their strength and physiques, yet they never competed in a powerlifting meet or bodybuilding contest. Think Bradley Martin, but all while working out in jeans, flannel shirts, and lumberjack boots, breaking norms in and out of the gym. They were like pro wrestlers who never wrestled professionally. And, improbably, they were movie stars for a brief period in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This is the incredible and incredibly strange story of the twins who took muscledom by storm: The Barbarian Brothers.

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In tank tops for a photo shoot: David Paul presses 365 pounds behind his neck as his twin brother Peter spots and Gold’s Gym co-owner Pete Grymkowski looks on.


Fraternal twins David and Peter Paul were born on March 8, 1957, in Hartford, Connecticut. Their dad had been a college track star. Their older brother and sister had grown up peacefully, but the twins were regularly finding trouble. David, especially, was teased for being “dumb” and constantly fighting. They later discovered he and Peter were severely dyslectic. In high school, David (always a little bigger than his twin) excelled in football, and they both made All-New England as wrestlers. But what they really loved was pumping iron. David was bench pressing 300 pounds when only 15.

The Pauls bounced in and out of colleges, and then, in 1977, opened a gym, P & D’s House of Iron, in Narragansett, Rhode Island. David once said, “The mirrors all came from men’s rooms at the University of Rhode Island.” They drew attention from the local police, largely for all their driving violations, and from local bodybuilders for their workout intensity and strength. “Vacation times, like Christmas, we didn’t go home; all we did was train,” Peter remembered. “New Year’s Eve, all we did was squat. Saturday, people would come by our apartment, and we’d be doing neck exercises at 12 o’clock at night.”  

Though not identical, it was tough to tell them apart, and all the more so as they both developed very similar bodybuilder physiques. In May of 1979, after encouragement from one of Gold’s Gym’s new owners, pro bodybuilder Pete Grymkowski (whom they met at a New York bodybuilding contest), the duo moved across the country to the opposite coast to Los Angeles, to follow in the footsteps of rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger and TV’s Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.


“We pulled up together on a motorcycle the first day and people stared at us as if we were Martians. You know, we had the jeans, the boots, the flannel shirts, the headbands. We walked in, went to the bench press, and started warming up. We got up to our work sets with 500 pounds, which we could both do for a lot of sets and reps. That was a normal weight for us, nothing special, but the members of Gold’s were freaking out. We built a reputation fast as these two incredibly strong twins,” David Paul reminisced about his and Peter’s early days in Southern California.

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Training in Gold’s Gym, Peter does triceps extensions with the stack + 25 pounds + his 245-pound brother, David.

They were East Coasters used to training in their own dank gym in long winters with little heat. They dressed in flannel shirts and jeans, hats or bandanas, even in July, while the regulars in the mecca of bodybuilding, Gold’s Gym, including Mike Mentzer, Samir Bannout, Chris Dickerson, and Tom Platz wore much less: T-shirts or tank-tops and shorts, even in January. They quickly earned a nickname: “The Lumberjacks.” Often, their only visible body parts were their necks, but their necks, which they both trained heavily, were their best body parts then, said to be 20 1/2 inches.

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Peter shoulder pressing 150-pound dumbbells as David spots.

But what really got the Paul twins noticed was their strength, those 500-pound bench presses, which they could do with a reverse grip, 365-pound presses behind the neck, cheat curls with the biggest dumbbells in the gym. Peter was 6’ 235 pounds and David was 6’1” 245 pounds. David said they weren’t the world’s strongest men then, but they were the world’s strongest bodybuilders.    


By the early 1980s with Arnold’s Conan the Barbarian on the way, the Paul twins became “The Barbarians” or “The Barbarian Brothers.” And that’s what the press ran with. Oh, and the press loved them! They were profiled in Muscle & Fitness and MuscleMag and Powerlifting USA, where they made the January 1982 cover. They were in the Los Angeles Times and appeared on local and national TV talk shows.

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Heavily armed barbarians on the cover of “Powerlifting USA.”

Then in the summer of 1982 with Conan in theaters, the Paul twins truly broke into the mainstream with an 8-page article in Sports Illustrated magazine, titled with a bad pun: “Honin’ the Barbarians.” Sports Illustrated then was near its peak, with a circulation of 3,000,000.

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Opening of the “Sports Illustrated” feature on the Barbarian Brothers (pictured here and above with David’s girlfriend, Lisa Schultz).

It’s difficult to parse how much of what the Barbarian Brothers presented in the press was true. They seemed to have an endless stream of outrageous stories. How barbaric were the Barbarians? They each ate 36 eggs a day and sometimes puked them from the balcony of their Venice, California, apartment to the horror of denizens on the street below. They had $6000 in parking tickets, unpaid, because rules didn’t apply to barbarians. They poured chocolate milk on a guy in a Ferrari, because…well, just because. “We would always do the things people were afraid to do, but we did it,” David boasted. They ate every half hour, 7000 calories per day, much of it the junkiest of junk food (ice cream, cookies, Doritos, Cap’n Crunch cereal…) and yet maintained 6% body fat. Or so they said. A barbarian wouldn’t lie, would he? Print the legend.


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Pressing 315 behind the neck for reps at an exhibition.

What was certainly true were the weights. There were eyewitness accounts, photos, and even videos of the Barbarian Brothers hoisting truly heavy metal. They did paid exhibitions without their own equipment. In a video from an exhibition at Disneyland in 1982, David (the stronger of the two) is seen bench pressing 500 pounds with a reverse grip and Peter does four reps of behind-the-neck presses with 315. David does seated shoulder presses with 150-pound dumbbells, and Peter uses those same massive dumbbells for a few reps of alternating cheat curls.

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Peter Paul alternative curling 150-pound dumbbells.
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David reverse bench presses nearly 500-pounds as Peter spots.

The self-proclaimed “world’s strongest bodybuilders” never competed in powerlifting or bodybuilding. In interviews from the time, the Paul twins said they would conquer bodybuilding when they achieved perfection, and they were almost there. But the truth was their legs, which they always kept covered up in the gym but revealed in their movie The Barbarians, lagged their upper bodies. In the photo below, a barbarian is squatting 495 pounds (in jeans), but that seems pedestrian next to the bench presses and shoulder presses. One could argue that the never-answered question of how successful they could’ve been had they pursued competitive bodybuilding only added to their mythos. Probably they were right to stay covered up most of the time. Print the legend.

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A barbarian squats five plates in jeans.


Ironically, though the Barbarian Brothers were experienced amateur wrestlers and with the physiques, costumes, and tag-team name set to go, they never competed in pro wrestling. Perhaps, they were just a little early for the WWF boom of the mid-’80s. By then they were already making their way in Hollywood. They had small roles in D.C. Cab (1983) and The Flamingo Kid (1984) and a guest spot on TV’s Knight Rider.

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The bearded Barbarian Brothers with Gary Busey and Mr. T in “D.C. Cab.” / Universal

In 1986, the Paul twins journeyed to Italy to star in a cheap Conan knockoff titled simply, The Barbarians (1987). “We got there a month early to train in sword fighting and to ride horses so that we looked good at what we were doing. Thank God we had practiced a lot of sword fighting. We had those helmets on; you couldn’t see out of those things. It had to be like a dance, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked out,” David remembered. “But it was a blast riding horses. Italy is amazing: the food, the culture, the people. What a beautiful country. That was the most fun movie we did, by far.” The movie bombed.

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The Barbarians in “The Barbarians” (1987). / Cannon

“I don’t know what happened, but something happened to our careers after this movie. There were a lot of articles in magazines and newspapers all over the world that my brother and I were going to take over,” David Paul continued. “We were funny and we were different. I can’t say for sure, but something did happen. After that movie, we only did B-movies. The Barbarians was a B-movie, but it looked expensive. It didn’t have B-movie written all over it.”

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Doing barbaric things in “The Barbarians” / Cannon

Sometime before and perhaps after The Barbarians, the Paul twins got plastic surgery, strengthening their jaws and narrowing their noses, and they took to wearing their Barbarian wigs on- and offscreen. And then came those B-movies, a trio of straight-to-video comedies in which they starred: Think Big (1990), Double Trouble (1992), Twin Sitters (1994). They’re all bad, but they may have enough cheesy moments to slip into the so-bad-they’re-good category. Some members of Gen Y remember these movies fondly from their VHS childhoods, as if the Paul twins were their affable sitters. The Barbarian Brothers’ one A-movie would’ve been Natural Born Killers (1994), in which they appear in a bizarre, nearly three-minute scene opposite Robert Downey, Jr., with, literally, no legs. It got cut.

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Promotional poster for “Twin Sitters” (this was their off-screen fashion, too). / Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment

The Barbarian Brothers also pursued a rap career, but that went nowhere. Their song “What You Looking At?” from the Twin Sitters soundtrack, can be heard here.


I saw the Barbarian Brothers frequently in Gold’s Gym Venice in the ’90s and early ’00s. They weren’t as big as they once were, in any respect, and they no longer trained heavy. They no longer dressed like lumberjacks, either, but their outfits had grown more outrageous: scarves, elaborate hats and boots, cut-off or flowing shirts and parachute pants, and the long wigs. They were like Captain Jack Sparrow, twinned. One thing they didn’t look like was barbarians. However, whether lumberjacks, barbarians, or pirates, the Pauls always brought their own unique style to the gym, where so many others were striving to conform.

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The unique style of an aging barbarian.


“My mother understood my [learning] disability, so she just pushed me towards the arts,” David Paul remembered. “I spent a lot of time in art galleries. She got me a camera at 13, and I’d develop pictures in the basement. I was always doing art, building s**t. I had a mother who understood.” After his film career, David Paul reinvented himself as a photographer. His excellent physique shots captured such bodybuilding greats as Flex Wheeler, Jay Cutler, and Lee Priest in unique, artistic scenes.

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Photo of Lee Priest by David Paul on David’s 2009 book.

David later returned to Rhode Island, and lived with a Great Dane in a two-story barn, circa 1820, which he had repurposed into a stunning home. “It was always my dream to live in a barn and create this ancient looking place with a clean, modern feel,” David said in 2019. Working as a designer and furniture maker, he helped others adopt the same rustic aesthetic. “My specialty is making things look ancient,” he said. David Paul died in his sleep on March 6, 2020, two days before his 63rd birthday. He is survived by a son, Wyatt.

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David Paul in his barn-house in 2019. / Instagram

Peter Paul also relocated to the East Coast. Beginning in 2009, videos of him hanging around the University of Rhode Island appeared online. From his rambling dialogues and erratic behavior, he was clearly in need of mental healthcare. David Paul made a dreamlike movie about his brother Peter’s mental struggles titled Faith Street Corner Tavern (2013), which played at film festivals but was never released. (You can watch the trailer here.) As Peter Palpin, Peter, who lives in Vermont, posts and responds to posts on YouTube. Sadly, his videos and comments are mostly incoherent.

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Peter Paul in “Faith Street Corner Tavern,” directed by David Paul. / YouTube

In 1987, when The Barbarians was in theaters, Peter Paul said: “Bodybuilders have a very rigid approach to things, and we’re outcasts in that world because we’ve done things our own way—we ate junk food, trained on heavy weights, and wore earrings and work boots instead of sneakers. One of our goals is to change people’s preconceptions about bodybuilders.” They certainly did that, if only for a few years in the 1980s. Long before social media, the Barbarian Brothers went viral for their outrageous strength and their more outrageous style and showed the world there was more than one way to be a famous bodybuilder.