Harold Zinkin, 82; Muscle Beach Pioneer Invented Weight Machine

Times Staff Writer

Harold Zinkin, a champion bodybuilder who won the first “Mr. California” title in 1941 and invented the Universal Gym Machine that expanded the possibilities for weight training, died Wednesday. He was 82.

Zinkin fell and hit his head at his home in Fresno on Monday. He lapsed into a coma during the night and was taken to nearby St. Agnes Medical Center but never regained consciousness, said Bonnie Hearn Hill, a longtime friend.

As a teenager in Los Angeles, Zinkin became a regular at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, and fell in with a group of athletes who were not only bodybuilders but also had an acrobatic bent. They would form human pyramids, and Zinkin, who was just 5 foot 7 inches tall and in incredible shape, was often the guy at the bottom.


“Harold was an exceptionally well-rounded athlete,” longtime fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who met Zinkin in the late 1930s, told The Times on Thursday. “He was a bodybuilder, an acrobat, a tumbler. He was a champion in every way: physically, mentally, morally and spiritually.”

The beach was a training center for a number of future fitness legends. In addition to LaLanne, there were Joe Gold -- Zinkin’s high school classmate and the founder of Gold’s Gym -- and Vic Tanny, who went on to start one of the first national chains of health clubs.

Some of the young athletes brought their own weights to Muscle Beach, an oddity in those days, and used them to build strength for their acrobatic routines that drew spectators every weekend.

“Practices, we squeezed out after school and on weekends,” Zinkin recalled in his book “Remembering Muscle Beach,” which he wrote with Hearn Hill and was published by Angel City Press in 1999. “Then we might try one out on the Sunday crowd. If we got a few claps, we figured it was a good trick. But the applause wasn’t our motivation. It just told us we were making progress.”

Perhaps their most memorable trick was a four-man pyramid, which Zinkin believed was never repeated in the United States.

Astonishingly, Zinkin was the man on the bottom anchoring the other three while his body was in a backbend. A photograph of the stunt shows the three other acrobats -- LaLanne is the third from the bottom -- standing on his torso. A small crowd -- including spotters, who stood ready to catch any falling acrobats -- is gathered around what looks like an impromptu performance.


The trick, however, took some effort. Zinkin recounted in the book that it took two years of practice before they could hold the position long enough for a photograph.

Tanny, who owned a gym in Santa Monica, entered Zinkin, then a 19-year-old, in the first Mr. California bodybuilders contest in 1941, but told him about it only after the fact.

“I didn’t like bodybuilding for posing purposes and told Vic so,” Zinkin recalled in his book. “I also reminded him that at five feet seven inches, I didn’t stand a chance of winning against the giants who were competing with me.”

Tanny held the competition at his gym.

“I was a kid, he was a successful gym operator. I did what he said,” Zinkin recalled, noting that he had never seen a bodybuilders competition and took his posing ideas from muscle magazines. “And I won over several future Mr. America contenders.”

In the 1940s, Zinkin belonged to the Professional Strongmen’s Assn., an elite group of weightlifters. He won a number of weightlifting competitions. In 1945, he was first runner-up in the Mr. America bodybuilding competition.

“Harold was the strongest in the bunch,” said Gene Mozee, a bodybuilding historian who was also the founder of the now-defunct Pasadena Gym and Health Club.


When Zinkin developed his Universal Gym weight training system over several years in the mid-1950s, barbells and dumbbells were the main equipment available. His multistation machine allowed as many as eight people to work out at one time, exercising different parts of the body. The equipment was compact, with adjustable weight plates that were easy to use.

Within a few years it was standard machinery in several gyms, including Tanny’s chain. A number of professional football teams used it. College coaches discovered it and brought it into school gyms for their athletes.

“Harold did more for the acceptance of weight training by college athletes than anyone,” Mozee told The Times on Thursday.

“If a coach wants to move 30 athletes through training in a short period of time, he can do it on that machine. No one has to stand around waiting for another guy to put down the barbells,” Mozee said.

“Universal was the forerunner of all the modern equipment to come along in the past 25 years,” Mozee said. “Now there are individual machines for working body parts, but you can still get the same results on Harold’s equipment.”

Zinkin opened a number of gyms in the 1950s and produced his first Universal Gym machines by custom order. In 1963, he began to mass-produce the equipment and market it worldwide.


In the 1970s, Zinkin and several partners developed commercial real estate in the Fresno area. He also owned a fitness consulting business, Zinkin Fitness International. He remained in good physical condition and continued to work out all of his life.

Born in San Francisco, Zinkin dropped out of high school in Los Angeles when his father died.

During World War II, he was a physical therapist in the Navy and continued working as a rehabilitation therapist for sailors returning from the war.

He relocated to Fresno in 1953 and married his wife, Betty, on Valentine’s Day the following year. It was a second marriage for both of them. She survived him. Also surviving are his son, DeWayne, from his first marriage; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was among those who recalled Zinkin on Thursday. “Some of my fondest memories of our friendship are of the two of us doing balancing acts together on Muscle Beach,” Schwarzenegger said in a written statement.

“Harold was a great mentor,” Schwarzenegger said. “I am deeply indebted to him for the friendship we shared and the counsel he gave me. He was a trusted confidant and supported me personally and professionally throughout my bodybuilding, movie and political careers.”


A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Northwest Church, 5415 N. West Ave., Fresno.

Contributions in Zinkin’s name can be made to Break the Barriers, a nonprofit sports center for able and disabled people, infant to adult. The address is 8555 N. Cedar Ave., Fresno, CA 93720 or the SPCA animal shelter, 103 S. Hughes St., Fresno, CA 93706-1207.