While researching our first book, Jailhouse Strong, we wanted to leave no stone unturned. We talked with the former Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates (who started lifting while incarcerated), an outlaw motorcycle club president, gang leaders, old-time prize fighters, and a legendary British hard man. During this exhaustive process of discovery, one name came up again and again: Craig Monson.

His name was echoed with a hushed reverence. A member of an LA street gang during the 1960s called the Avenues, which would influence the founding of the infamous Crips, Big Monson spent time in the California state prison in Tracy and at San Quentin. He was said to dwarf his lifting partner, the notorious Stanley “Tookie” Williams. It was rumored that he was doing back-arms (triceps extensions) with 315 and that he could easily rep out well over 500 pounds on the bench press.

During a number of our visits with a co-founder of the Crips, Angelo “Barefoot Pookie” White, we tried to locate Monson. Alongside “Barefoot Pookie,” we drove across South Central Los Angeles. But, it was to no avail. Word on the street was conflicted. We heard that he was hiding out, still locked up, or maybe no longer alive.
Not of the temperament to be easily dissuaded or discouraged, we finally found Craig Monson. And we found that the truth was greater than the legend.

At an unassuming gym in sunny Southern California, we interviewed Craig. He shared the grand saga of his life. A cultured man who enjoys European travel and was an accomplished artist, Craig speaks with passion and intelligence about his incredible journey from early backyard lifting alongside fellow gang members to becoming an international bodybuilding sensation who brought audiences to a point of collective fervor and trained alongside Danny Trejo and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the heyday of Muscle Beach in Venice, California.

Part 1: Starting Training, Venice Beach, and Competing

  • (0:15) Introduction and Monson's start in training
  • (2:48) Training as a teenager and building equipment
  • (5:50) Venice Beach
  • (8:30) Red wine after training
  • (9:45) Bumping into Arnold and Dave Draper
  • (14:50) Going into prison
  • (18:45) Training in the same gym as Charles Glass
  • (19:20) Competing against bodybuilders on steroids
  • (22:00) Benching 500 pounds for the first time

Part 2: Steroids, Competing at the Next Level, and Feats of Strength

  • (0:24) Unknowingly taking steroids
  • (3:15) Knowingly taking doctor-prescribed steroids
  • (10:11) Going to Mr. World
  • (15:30) Competing in Europe for the first time
  • (17:42) Fans rushing the stage when Monson loses
  • (23:00) Showing up to prejudging flat and eating for the show
  • (28:17) Feats of strength, best lifts, and Danny Trejo friendship
  • (33:40) Drug  addiction and rehabilitation
  • (37:28) Starting chest days with back exercises
  • (40:05) Training in prison
  • (46:30) To be part of the gang, you had to train

Part 3: Muscle-Specific Training, Friendships with Other Bodybuilders, and Coming Back 

  • (0:18) Paying the price and the change in bodybuilding over time
  • (4:09) God's impact on Monson and the craziness of San Quentin
  • (6:00) Three quarter curls
  • (7:45) Biceps and triceps training
  • (10:05) Triceps kickouts vs. skullcrushers
  • (15:12) When black people weren't allowed in the pit at Venice Beach
  • (16:03) Relationship with Bill Pettis
  • (18:50) Calves and forearms every day
  • (22:30) How Monson avoided going back to prison
  • (28:53) Coming back after years away from the gym
  • (34:01) Being introduced to growth hormone
  • (38:43) Training legs and arriving to prison
  • (44:20) "Bodybuilding saved my life"