But now the sport has become financially rewarding, with some bodybuilders making up to $300,000 a year. "I have to deal with the fact my family needs to eat," he said.
And he likes the idea of being on the stage when he's 50, with his daughters watching him.
Leidelmeyer, a devout Christian who doesn't drink or smoke, is an avid fisherman and aspiring actor. "I want to fulfill the potential of my physique and one day be on the great silver screen," he said.
Leidelmeyer has trained Jack Youngblood, a former football player for the Rams, and Tony Mandarich, a lineman with the Green Bay Packers.
He also trained Mark Humbert of Ontario, a psychologist at the Youth Training School in Chino, and helped turn him into a Mr. Orange County.
"He's very inspirational," said Humbert, who had been warned about Leidelmeyer's intensity and training method that sometimes includes 100-repetition exercises rather than conventional low-repetition exercises with heavy weights.
At their first session, Humbert endured hundreds of repetitions. "He wanted to know how strong a will I had," he said. "He'd drag me to the next machine. I was dying. He gets right in your face. And what are you going to do? This guy's as big as a house.
"When it was over, he threw a towel on my face and said, 'OK, I'll train you.' "
Humbert recently invited Leidelmeyer to visit the youth prison for juvenile felons. "He had an impact," Humbert said. "The guys are still talking about him."
They've also written to Leidelmeyer, saying he has inspired them to become dedicated, not only to bodybuilding but to a reformed way of life.
"He is real genuine," Humbert said. "He's not a typical bodybuilder who needs to condescend to others. He keeps his small-town kindness and generosity."
On a day in 1986, Leidelmeyer saw a car go off the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim, roll over and catch fire.
"The driver was trapped and the door was jammed," he said. "Others tried to get it open but couldn't. I stopped, went back and ripped off the door and dragged him across the freeway."
And then the car exploded.
Leidelmeyer's dark eyes looked down at his powerful arms and he said he had known then that that one Herculean effort would always be enough. That future titles would not matter. That his sport had fulfilled him.