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Workout Routines

Arnold Schwarzenegger Training routine

Strong as an Oak: an authoritative retrospective of Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding workout  program every bodypart, every exercise from the last 35 years of muscle & fitness


It's misleading, really, to mention Arnold's chest and back routines separately; he supersetted the two exclusively for most of his bodybuilding career. (We can, however, focus on the exercises for each bodypart separately, keeping in mind that he paired them up in his routines.)

He had a few simple reasons for employing supersets: One, it saved time and allowed him to train chest and back in just one hour combined; two, he felt he could handle more weight this way and develop greater muscle density (as is the logic behind training opposing muscle groups together); and, of course, he relished having both his chest and back--essentially, his entire upper body--pumped up at the same time. "When the chest and the upper back are pumped simultaneously, there is an indescribable feeling of growth stimulation and massiveness," he said.

But Arnold warned beginners about this style of training, recommending that they work into it slowly because of the demands it places on endurance and stamina. Even non-beginners can struggle. Arnold once told a story about how he introduced his chest/back workout to several experienced bodybuilders while visiting South Africa. According to The Oak, two of his training partners "passed out cold and a third became so ill that he lost his breakfast!"

Did we mention that he performed this workout three days a week?

* Despite relatively high rep ranges, Arnold went as heavy as he could when training chest to elicit maximal growth. He typically used the pyramid principle, increasing weight and decreasing reps on each set of a given exercise.
* He also regularly employed straight-arm pullovers in his training using either a dumbbell or barbell, despite their exclusion from this routine. Arnold felt that pullovers expanded the thorax and enlarged his ribcage, though this was never proven to be fact.
* In addition to supersets, he also frequently performed forced reps, iso-tension (holding poses between sets and after workouts) and peak contractions (squeezing the muscles at the top of each rep) in his training. He did whatever it took to increase intensity.

EXERCISE            SETS       REPS

Bench Press               1          30-45 (warm-up)
Bench Press               5          20-6*
Incline Barbell Press   5          10-15
Flat-Bench                 5          10-15
Dumbbell Fly              5          10-15
Weighted Dip             5                15

* Pyramid up the weight and lower your reps set to set.

Arnold did flys much like anyone would, with one small yet noticeable difference: Instead of bringing the dumbbells together to touch at the top of each rep, he stopped when they were about 10 inches apart, then lowered them back down. He felt this offered constant tension on the pectorals, especially the outer pecs.

It wasn't just recently that bodybuilders of all levels coveted an immensely wide, thick and chiseled back, a la Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates. Arnold, along with Franco Columbu and others from their generation, also knew the importance of the back double-biceps and lat-spread poses for winning major competitions.

When Arnold trained back, he didn't just concentrate on lifting the weight to a desired position--that would've been way too concrete and typical. He would never be the best doing, and thinking, the way everyone else did. With lat pulldowns, he attempted to pull the sky down on top of him, not simply move the bar to his upper chest. When deadlifting, those weren't weight plates on the ends of the barbell, they were massive planets. The thinking was abstract, sure, but effective nonetheless.

Which brings us to Conan the Barbarian, naturally. "Had I been aware of Conan during my competition years, I probably would have imagined I was him during my workouts," Arnold said leading up to his role in the movie. He was intent on developing his back for the picture because he knew it would be easily visible from many camera angles. The last thing he wanted was less-than-stellar lats if he was to be a proper barbarian. "I'll want my back muscles to bristle with power," he said. "If my back is writhing and rippling during fight scenes, the public will know that I am a rugged fighter."

* Arnold believed that the best way to train back was to train all areas of it--outer, upper, lower and middle--and finish the workout with a power movement, like deadlifts or cleans, that works all the back muscles.
* After each back exercise, Arnold stretched his lats by pulling hard on a stationary object with either one or both arms fully extended. This, he figured, helped him achieve great overall lat development, and remain flexible and limber in the upper body.
* When he wanted to hit the lower lats, he always used a narrow grip for chin-ups, pulldowns and any type of row. The lower lats were important to Arnold when doing twisting back poses onstage, as they complemented his immense width nicely.

EXERCISE                 SETS         REPS

Wide-Grip Pull-Up         5            15-8*
T-Bar Row                     5            10-15
Bent-Over Barbell Row  5            10-15
Chin-Up                         5             12
Barbell Deadlift               3             6-10
* Pyramid up the weight and lower your reps set to set.

When Arnold said wide, he meant it; many vintage photos show his hands much wider than shoulder-width apart when doing pull-ups. (Hint: That makes it tougher.) He started from a complete hanging position and pulled himself as high as possible, usually touching the bar behind his head. His first eight or so reps were strict, then he'd cheat a bit to get the last few up.


Legendary Weider writer Dick Tyler once wrote of Arnold's first visit to a gym, inspired by photos of Reg Park in the German magazine Der Muskelbilder. The young Oak watched gym members lifting weights and did his best to commit to memory the exercises they did so that he and his friends could do them at home. Four in particular stood out, all arm exercises: the cheating barbell and Zottman curls for biceps, and pressdowns and the close-grip bench press for triceps. At the time, having big arms interested Arnold the most and would serve as his starting point in bodybuilding.

When Arnold arrived in America, he'd never even seen a preacher bench, an apparatus he would soon use religiously to build biceps that would surpass those of predecessors Larry Scott, Rick Wayne and Sergio Oliva, who Arnold once regarded as having "the biggest arms I've ever seen."

He found that bodybuilders in America trained more methodically, and had a firm understanding of anatomy and physiology. Despite having already won a Mr. Universe title and possessing two of the biggest arms in the world, he felt he could do better. "I wasn't reaching my fullest potential," he said. "The deep fibers of my muscles were untouched. It was as if I had built a large building on top of a foundation of sand." He recalled watching Larry train and was "particularly fascinated watching him bomb his biceps on a curling machine. His arms looked deep and thick from training."




* Arnold wasn't afraid to cheat on arm exercises, especially standing curls. He felt that going very heavy was the best way to gain size, and if a little body english was required to get the weight up, so be it.
* To achieve full development, Arnold always included at least one exercise in his routine, like a dumbbell curl, in which he rotated his palm up (supination) as he lifted the weight.

EXERCISE               SETS       REPS

Barbell Cheat Curl      6-7          6-8
Incline or Seated         6-7          6-8
Dumbbell Curl             6-7          6-8
Preacher Curl              6-7          6-8
Concentration Curl *    5             6-8

Barbell Reverse Curl    5             8-10
Reverse Preacher         5             8-10

Barbell Wrist Curl         7                10


The Oak didn't always sit down for this one, as most people do nowadays. He'd often just bend over at the waist, holding a 65-pound dumbbell in one hand and supporting himself with his elbow on his knee. He kept this one strict--no cheating.


Though the majority of credit for his 22-inch-plus arms was attributed to his eye-popping biceps, Arnold acknowledged early on that two-thirds of that girth resided on the other side of his humerus. After initially focusing more on his bi's, Arnold wised up and sought to build hulking triceps by employing multi-joint movements like the close-grip bench press and weighted dip to go along with his old-standby pressdowns (on a lat pulldown machine) and french presses.

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