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Train Like Arnold

Bill Geiger, MA

Arnold didn’t accidentally become the world’s greatest bodybuilder—he planned and prepared for it. Here are the 8 key training principles that were at the foundation of his success.

Mediocrity isn’t a word that would ever be used to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was simply the best at everything he did. From bodybuilding to movie star in the highest grossing films, from centrist politician who continues to shine a light on societal problems to consummate businessman who’s seen his Arnold Classic brand grow to all the major continents, “just good” was never good enough.

That zeal made him a champion bodybuilder in the ‘70s and ‘80s that to date, only two men have overtaken: Arnold’s seven Mr. Olympia titles are second to only Lee Haney’s and Ronnie Coleman’s eight.

In fact, one memorable quote attributed to Arnold that speaks to his passion for bodybuilding says it all: "The worst thing I can be is the same as everybody else."

How does one man make so many extraordinary achievements? It starts with extraordinary action, commitment, and a champion’s mind-set. Here, Muscle Insiderexamines the training principles and the approach Arnold took with his training that were, even at the time, legendary.

Fortunately, we have windows into that based not only on articles Arnold penned for Joe Weider’s muscle magazines back in the day, but also Arnold’s own The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding (for which I wrote the forward and helped edit at Arnold’s request), as well as many articles I researched and wrote over the years for Mr. Weider’s magazines.

If you’re looking for secrets, you won’t find any. The prescription is hard work, sweat, smart training, and an all-consuming drive multiplied over the course of many years. The most important ingredient for success, Arnold wrote, was self-confidence.


1. Don’t Just Train Hard, But Harder Than Everyone Else. This one is geared toward competitors because most gym rats aren’t competing against one another, but when your goal is to be the best in the world, nothing less will suffice. It’s been written that when Arnold trained, the entire gym stopped to watch.

Still, one can train really hard and still not maximize gains. How so? “You need to concentrate on the basic movements. Rely on barbells and dumbbells instead of cables and machines.” For Arnold, there were no shortcuts, so he intentionally chose the most difficult exercises, avoided machines, and made every set a challenge. And he did it again and again and again.

2. Choose the Best Exercises. The man known as The Oak didn’t just train hard; he trained smart, too. “To get big you have to get strong. Beginning and intermediate bodybuilders shouldn’t be as concerned with refinement as with growth.”

Today, just like yesterday, that means focusing on multi-joint exercises in which two or more sets of joints are working in tandem. Why is that important? Because more joints recruit more muscle groups working together to complete the lift, which allows you to push much heavier loads. Exercise scientists today know that’s the single most important factor for endogenous hormone release, which is critical for muscle growth.

Bench presses, squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bent-over rows, and power cleans are all examples of multi-joint exercises that require several muscle groups to work in coordination. Sure, they’re difficult to master, but the payoff is far greater than using single-joint exercises, which although they better isolate a muscle, don’t allow you to go heavy.

Rehearse and mastering multi-joint exercises and then load up the weight to challenge yourself. It’s as true today as when Arnold wrote it decades ago: You won’t find a more critical component of gaining strength and size.

3. Favour Heavy Weights for Low Reps. You’ve read too many bogus interpretations of scientific studies that say you can build muscle with light weight and high reps. That’s plain B.S. You can surely build some muscle, but in no way will you maximize it, and that’s simply backward if you’re seeking gains in strength.

Arnold preached the value of heavy training. He argued squatting for a set of 8 reps of 365 pounds to failure would elicit a far better muscle-building stimulus than a set of 135 pounds for 40 reps also taken to failure. “Start with a few warm-ups [well short of muscle failure] and pyramid the weight up from one set to the next, decreasing the reps and going to failure. Usually I’ll have someone stand by to give me a just a little bit of help past a sticking point or cheat the weight up just a little.”

For Arnold, the importance was less about moving the load, which a powerlifter or strength athlete might focus on, but rather on feelingthe sensation in the muscle group, so long as the load corresponded to muscle failure at a particular range.

“I make a point of never doing fewer than six repetitions per set with most movements, and nothing higher than 12. The rule applies to most body parts, including calves.”

4. Mental Muscle Is Mandatory. The biggest misconception about bodybuilding, Arnold wrote, was that it was purely a physical pursuit. Success demanded the mind lead. "The first step is to really believe that becoming massive is possible. … In the same way you can command your muscles to lift heavy weights when everything else suggests you cannot, so you can mentally coax your muscles to grow larger and stronger.”

Whether that was actually true was irrelevant; one had to believe it to be so. If your mind visualizes failure or doubt, there’s no way you’ll continue to progress.

Arnold also used visualization when training individual body parts. His techniques are widely known; he tells us he often imagined his biceps as big and peaked as mountains, and he harnessed that mental imagery when training them to take his arms to legendary size.

5. Never Get Comfortable with a Routine. Muscles adapt to a demanding workout by growing bigger and stronger, which is what we call adaptation to the overload. However, that doesn’t go on indefinitely. In fact, with each successive workout, as your body becomes more accustomed to the stimulus, the marginal improvements begin to shrink. That’s a phenomenon called the law of diminishing returns. Follow the same workout for too long without making significant changes and its value falls over time. That’s when you can find yourself in a rut despite the fact you’re still training hard. Essentially, you’re figuratively spinning your wheels.

“Within a basic framework I was constantly changing my exercises,” Arnold wrote. “I liked to shock the muscles by not letting them get complacent in a constant routine.”

Arnold paid keen attention to his training and when given exercises or even his routine stopped producing gains. Changes can be as small as simply changing exercises to swapping out a complete phase, as when going to an off-season workout to a pre-contest one.

Hitting a plateau in your training plagued Arnold just as it will you, but how you handle it will determine how you go forward. Never be afraid of experimenting with new exercises or alternative training methods. Looking for ways to make a given movement harder, rather than easier, is another place to start. Arnold was on a perpetual search for new ways to continue making gains when old ways became stale.

6. Train for the Pump (Toward the End of Your Workout). Who hasn’t heard of Arnold’s famous analogy that achieving an incredible muscle pump was as pleasurable as, well, sexual orgasm? No wonder Arnold used a battery of set-extending techniques to work well past the point of initial muscle failure. He even practiced posing between sets, flexing the target muscle as hard as possible to amplify the pump.

Arnold wrote of the muscle pump: “If there is no muscle pump, there is no muscle growth.” Exercise scientists today refer to this mechanism linked to muscle hypertrophy as metabolic stress, but it’s only one of three such important processes. The other two, mechanical tension and muscle damage, require relatively heavy weights and volume, so don’t think high-rep pump training is all that’s needed to build maximal size.

7. Focus on Your Weaknesses. Every one of us has a body part that’s a strength, whether it’s nicely defined abdominals, thick pecs or legs, or heavily muscled arms. It’s just natural for you to want to show them off, whether you’re in the gym or not. And frankly, a little extra work can further accentuate what makes us stand out.

But Arnold took exactly the opposite approach. He famously recalls how utterly weak his calves were when he came to the United States. They’d fallen decidedly behind the rest of his physique in overall development. But rather than hide the glaring weakness, he wrote that he cut off the pant legs on his workout gear or wore shorts to constantly remind himself of his weakness and redouble his efforts to bring them up. The result: He trained calves more frequently and early in his workouts when he was fresh, sometimes even between sets for larger body parts.

8. Never Stop Learning and Self-Experimenting. During the time Arnold competed, getting the latest word on proven techniques was limited to word of mouth and the telephone. Not so today. Most likely, you’re overloaded with advice, and it’s often contradictory. While Arnold was keen on gaining as much knowledge as possible as critical to success, the only judge and jury that ultimately matter is how something works on you.

“Success, in and out of bodybuilding, is having as much knowledge as possible,” Arnold said. That includes not just seeking out information and experimenting with new approaches, but also separating the wheat from the chaff. No one’s genetics and circumstances are exactly like yours, so the only way you’ll find out if a particular routine or exercise suits you is to simply try it.

Because, quite frankly, there’s so much bad information available on the Internet, start with a trusted source. What does the scientific literature have to say? Does something make theoretical sense? Is there an ulterior motive, like you’re being sold a bill of goods? Try new ideas and incorporate those that you like, ditching the bad.

Arnold expressed the idea of creating a physique out of a mold of clay, and you have the same opportunity he once did. Have at it!

Arnold Talks Training. Muscle & Fitness. July 1997.
The Summer of Arnold. FLEX. May/June 2007.
Schwarzenegger A, Dobbins B. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1999.

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