and Mr. America
When I began weight training as a teenager, Roy Hilligenn was one of my idols, a regular in the muscle magazines and often featured on their covers. The first gym I belonged to was the iconic Yarick’s Gym in Oakland, California, and he sometimes trained there. No exaggeration, the man was an amazing athlete.
He passed away in 2008, at age 85, the result of hitting his head in a fall.
I wanted to write about him. So I began a search for his obituary and then looked for articles from the old muscle magazines.
One of the places where his name always pops up is on lists of well-known vegetarian athletes. He was a lifelong follower of the vegetarian lifestyle, claiming to have never eaten fish, foul, or red meat.
Someone in a forum I came upon was debating with someone else over whether he was a vegan or a lacto-ovo (dairy and eggs) vegetarian. I don’t know that anyone is certain. But, either way, he did not eat meat.
His long, hard workouts are legendary. And from what I gather, he seemed to be well-liked, a happy-go-lucky, exuberant guy who was always up for a challenge. Moreover, his exuberance lasted well into old age. The few times that I saw him at Yarick’s, I remember that he always had a big smile on his face. I was 16 or 17 years old at the time. I thought, “Wow! That’s actually Roy Hilligenn, the guy on the covers of Strength & Health and Iron Man magazines!”
As I searched for more information, I was once again reminded and in awe of his athletic ability. Unlike pro-bodybuilders of the steroid era, he combined bodybuilding workouts with Olympic style weightlifting, sometimes doing a bodybuilding workout one day and training in the Olympic lifts the next. So the man not only looked strong, he was strong. Really strong, and athletic. He was good at tumbling and hand balancing and liked to entertain by doing back-flips, often in spaces so small you would not think there would be room to do them.
He was born in California in 1922, but grew up in South Africa. He won the Mr. South Africa title four times, the last time at age 54. He won the Mr. America title in 1951. In his prime and in top shape, he was about 5’6” and approximately 178 lbs.
At 173 pounds, he equaled the world record in the clean & jerk, lifting 375 lbs. When he was slightly heavier, he did 405, an unofficial world record then.
As we have often heard about other strongmen, Roy Hilligenn began his training as a frail youngster. At 18, he weighed just 83 lbs. He began his training with a homemade set of weights.
I have not seen them, but have read that there are photos of him, at a bodyweight of 158, doing a one-arm dead-lift of 500 lbs., circa 1978. It was an unofficial world record for lifters under 160 lbs.
I have seen a photo of him, weighing about 180 lbs., cleaning a pair of 142 lb dumbbells! Astonishing. And I think it took place at Ed Yarick's.
Still going strong as a senior
In a letter to Clarence Bass in 1995, he wrote:
“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.”
Hilligenn was 72 years old at the time.
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