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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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"I feel no different in health, stamina and energy then I did when I was in my late 20s and early 30s" - Roy Hilligenn, 77

Roy Hilligenn, a Marvel - Then & Now

(Update: Roy dead at 85; details below)

Roy Hilligenn, the 1951 Mr. America, was one of my boyhood heroes and now, at 77, he's still one of my all-time favorites. In the early 1950s, Roy not only had a knock-'em-dead physique, which adorned the covers of all the muscle magazines of the time (some several times), he was arguably the strongest man in the world for his size. Weighing 173, he equaled the world record in the Clean & Jerk with a lift of 375 pounds. The nearby photo shows Roy Clean & Jerking 405 at a slightly heavier body weight, also an unofficial world record at the time. What's more, Roy told MuscleMag International magazine last year that he believes he could have done 440 or more, if he had specialized on lifting and had better coaching.

 Roy with 405 overhead, an unofficial world record!
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

Great as those early achievements were, Roy's over-70 performances may be even more noteworthy. As I wrote in Challenge Yourself, "When it comes to physical strength and stamina, Hilligenn has given new meaning to the word longevity."

As detailed in Challenge Yourself, Roy was the proverbial "90-pound weakling" when he began training with weights. At 18, he weighed only 83 pounds after falling off a four-story building and spending nine months in the hospital.

Working out with a homemade set of weights given to him by a neighbor, Roy's weight climbed gradually at first, from 83 pounds to 101 in the first year, and then spurted to 159 by the end of the second year. Obviously, weight training agreed with him.

The rest, as they say, is history. He won the Mr. South Africa title in 1943, 1944, 1946 and 1976. He was also the first South African to Clean and Jerk double body weight. His lifts in 1946 were 245 press, 255 Snatch and 321 Clean & Jerk. As mentioned earlier, he won the Mr. America title in 1951--he was born in California, but grew up in South Africa--and eventually did a 405 Clean & Jerk.

 Roy makes cover of Joe Weider's Muscle Power after Mr. America win.
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

Roy has always had amazing stamina and recovery capacity. His six-day-per-week workouts prior to the Mr. America contest are legendary. Monday, Wednesday and Friday he did bodybuilding exercises from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then returned to the gym for a second session from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. And as if that wasn't more than enough, he practiced the Olympic lifts on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in preparation for the U.S. national championships, which were held in conjunction with the Mr. America contest. (Even though he sprained both wrists badly a few days before the contest, Roy still placed second to then world champion Norbert Schemansky.)

 Another photo of Roy's 405 C&J
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

Roy's Training Poundages, A Comparison

In a far-ranging interview in the May 1995 issue of Iron Master (edited and published by Osmo Kiiha, (1-541-667-8123) Roy listed his training poundages in standard bodybuilding exercises prior to the 1951 Mr. America contest. The table below compares those poundages with the poundages Roy used at age 54 while preparing for the 1976 Mr. South Africa contest, as given in an article by my South African friend Cecil Grigst in IronMan magazine, and the poundages which he uses now, as detailed by Roy in a letter to me late last year.


                                                                1951 (29)                    1976 (54)                    1999 (77)

Full Squat 420 x 10 400 x 8 240 x 8
Bench Press 250 x 10 320 x 8 230 x 8
Seated DB Press 90s x 10 90s x 8 140 (BB) x 8
Dumbbell Row 155 x 10 ? 110 x 8

(Roy generally does 3 sets of each exercise with progressively heavier weights. To simplify the comparison, we show only his top weight in each exercise.) Remarkable, to say the least!

 Roy at 54, after winning the 1976 Mr. So. Africa
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

An even more impressive, mind-boggling actually, indication of the strength and endurance Roy has retained is a feat performed in March 1995, when he was 72. Here's what happened, as Roy related it to me in a recent letter.

"We had a contest for the Deadlift, doing repetitions; no belt, and no straps were allowed. The finalists were a man who weighed 264, one who weighed 235, and [me] at 165. We had to take a 400 pound barbell, and see how many reps we could do; we could take 2-10 seconds rest to re-grip the bar. The first man [235 lbs.] could do only 9 reps, claiming back trouble, the big guy did 29 reps and I did 35 reps."

A Lifelong Vegetarian

Roy credits diet for a large part of his amazing strength and vitality. "I believe being a vegetarian all my life is a secret to [my] youthful countenance and longevity and perfect health." Roy says he has "never" eaten, turkey, fish, chicken or red meat. "I truly believe," says Roy, "that fruit is the body's cleanser, vegetables are the bodies healer, and meat is the bodies premature aging agent."

My friend Jeff Novick (a/k/a Chef Jeff), director of nutrition at the Pritikin longevity Center in Florida, frequently extols the health-giving benefits of fruit and vegetables in his Weekly Health Update. In his Jan. 16 issue, Jeff cites a recent study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which found that just three daily servings of vegetables cuts a man's risk of prostate cancer nearly in half. Jeff says there are many studies showing that the consumption of fruits and vegetables protects against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, diverticulosis and cataracts. When it comes to diet and health, it sounds like Roy has been on the right track for all of his 77 years. What's more, Roy's experience suggests that meat is not essential to building a strong and muscular body.

 The wonderful physique Roy developed - without eating meat.
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

Always Wanted to be the Best

Roy has always had a strong desire to excel and a tremendous competitive spirit. He recently told MuscleMag "Star Profile" contributor Lorie Grannis that he can remember saying to the other children in the orphanage where he spent 11 years, "I want to be the strongest man in the world." And that was before he discovered weights!

In the same interview, he told Grannis, if he was competing today, "I would've been Mr. Olympia... I do think I would be that good." Obviously, Roy's confidence hasn't waned over the years. He still believes in himself.

 Still the Best--at 77
(Photo courtesy Roy Hilligenn)

As related in Challenge Yourself, Roy has always been ready for a challenge. He used to boast to anyone who would listen: "I can do anything you can do - and better." He says now, "I always wanted to be greater than I was. I could already beat everyone in athletics, but I wanted to do that with everything."

Clearly, Roy has never stopped challenging himself. He's truly an inspiration to everyone interested in lifetime fitness and vitality.

Take a cue from Roy. Challenge yourself!


Newsletter Judges Hilligenn’s Clean & Jerk "the Greatest"

Denis Reno’s highly respected Weightlifter’s Newsletter (June 23, 2000) includes an article evaluating Roy Hilligenn’s 405-pound clean & jerk (see photos above). The author concludes that in the context of the time (1953) Roy's lift was, pound per pound, "arguably the greatest of all time."

Weightlifting historian Jim DeCoste writes that he didn’t fully "digest the enormity of this feat" until research revealed that it was only a year and a half earlier that John Davis broke the heavyweight world record by clean and jerking 402 pounds, which was the most anyone of any weight had officially lifted overhead. Davis, of course, outweighed Hilligenn by about 50 pounds. Norbert Schemansky held the record in the 198-pound class at 399. And in the 181-pound class, where Roy would have competed, the record was 370.

"What we are looking at," says DeCoste, "is basically an overweight middleweight" lifting as much as the reigning heavyweight. "Imagine the media stir," DeCoste speculates, "that a present-day Roy Hilligenn would cause if he appeared in the 2000 Olympics prepared to break the super- heavyweight record."

In his concluding paragraph, DeCoste marvels at the fact that Hilligenn’s primary focus was bodybuilding. One wonders, he writes, "What could he have done with prolonged specialization?" DeCoste says Roy’s comment that the lift was "not too shabby for a bodybuilder" may be "the understatement of the century."

Yes, in more ways than one, Roy Hilligenn really was/is "The Best."

(For More Information on the Weightlifter’s Newsletter, contact Denis Reno at RENOSWLNL@RCN.com.)

Roy Hilligenn Dies After Fall

Nancy Morais, who operates a transition center for seniors in Florida, has informed us that Roy passed away on August 3, 2008; he was 85. He had just received his passport, Nancy tells us, and was looking forward to moving back to his home in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Unfortunately, he hit his head in a fall and developed a blood clot. He went into a coma during surgery to relieve pressure on his brain and never came out of it.

It was an amazing coincidence that Roy spent some of his last months in her complex. She confided to Clarence that she had a crush on him as a young girl. "Of course he was the ultimate male specimen," she added with a shy "he he he." That he was. We are happy that she was able to assist him at the end.

"He had a fun disposition and will be missed by many in the park who had gotten to know him," she wrote. "He had an adventurous life and overcame obstacles because of his positive demeanor." (As many know, he spent some time in prison. We have not written about this, because we don't know the details.)

We received a letter from Roy in February. His writing was the same as always, and he seemed in good spirits--as he always did. In addition to thanking us again for telling about him on our site, he enclosed some fuzzy Xeroxed photos showing his one-arm deadlift with 500 pounds performed in Oakland, California. The date isn't clear from Roy's letter, but Denis Reno reported that the lift was made in 1978. Roy said he weighed 158 at the time--and that it was an unofficial record for lifters under 160.

Always the optimist and full of confidence, he closed with this about himself: I'm still perfectly healthy, still have all my hair and all my teeth and still a great six pack!

That's how we'll remember him.     

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