Arnold Schwarzenegger Bodybuilding – How Did he Rise to the Top?


arnold schwarzenegger bodybuilding guideQuick, say out loud the very first body builder’s name that comes to mind. Who did you say? Chances are unless you’re someone who follows the sport, you said Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a name that everyone knows (even if nobody can spell it correctly).

From watching his movies growing up to doing your best impression of his catchphrases, Arnold is a truly incredible individual.

Few other people have managed to go from a simple teenager to Mr. Universe to action star to the governor.

But you’re likely not here to learn about his acting chops or how a Republican politician happened to marry into possibly the most known and powerful Democratic parties in the United States (the Kennedy family).

Instead, you’re probably here to find how what really separated Arnold Schwarzenegger from the rest of the pack in order to become one of the most prominent individuals in the history of bodybuilding.

Well don’t worry, we’ve got all the answers you’re searching for, some of which might help you with your own quest to build muscle and become the very best bodybuilder possible.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Bodybuilding 101

Alright, we just want to get this one out of the way so we can dive into the meat of the workouts and what it took Arnold Schwarzenegger to become the most important professional bodybuilder in the history of the sport. It is true Arnold took steroids during his competitive years. He has admitted as much, so we’re not breaking any new ground with that.

He said he did not use steroids to bulk up though, but instead, he turned to steroids to maintain his muscular size when he switched his routines from bulking to shredding (where his main goal was to burn calories and ditch body fat instead of building muscle).

During the 1960s and 1970s, when Arnold made it big time in the sport, most steroids were not illegal. Most professional bodybuilders were using steroids at the time. In modern bodybuilding, most mainstream competitions have banned the use of steroids.

The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) has instituted a ban on steroid use, although it is more of a veiled ban than a realistic one.

The IFBB did have goals of becoming a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and in order to do as such, a ban on doping would prove necessary.

However, the IFBB also realizes big muscles and shredded bodies is what draws attention to the sport.

Due to this, while it does perform basic testing, someone knowledgeable on the subject can and will take steroids while testing negative (Arnold Schwarzenegger Wiki).

We won’t dive further into the subject of steroid use. It’s known to be used throughout major bodybuilding, similar to other professional sports. There are also major health risks and side effects that accompany taking steroids, so we will never endorse or recommend taking steroids.

Arnold’s Genetics Play a Part

Here’s the thing about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He has fantastic genetics. You can deny it all you want, and maybe it’s wishful thinking, but genetics really do play a vital role in bodybuilding. It’s like no matter how much you want to play in the NBA and no matter how filthy of a jump shot you have, if you’re 5’7”, it doesn’t really matter. You’re genetics just aren’t having it.

Arnold became known as the Austrian Oak because he really was built like a tree.

Even into his older age, you can tell he’s well built, with broad shoulders and a solid frame. There simply are certain things you can’t train and mold yourself into. Your genetics are your own and plays a huge role in your ability to perform as a bodybuilder.

Realistically, this became the foundation of Arnold’s success.

He just worked his butt off from there.

Banish the Machines

Arnold Schwarzenegger has what you might classify as the classic bodybuilder physique. He featured a solid frame, broad shoulders, the desirable V-shape running from his chest down to his abdominal muscles, and tree trunk like legs.

Basically, he had that Greek god-like body.

Bodybuilding has changed over the years, and in some instances, has shifted away from this classical look (although many competitions still have a classic competition where the competitors are judged based on a classical physical appearance). One of the main ways Arnold trained and toned his body was he more or less banished machines.

Arnold comes from the old school form of lifting and bodybuilding. After all, he not only competed in overall bodybuilding but in different lifting categories as well. To do this, he focused on the classic lifts and still, to this day, he points to these lifts as essential.

He primarily focused on lifts including the clean and press, snatch, clean and jerk, squat, bench press and deadlift. Of course, he also heavily relied on flys and individual dumbbell presses (there’s a reason one of the best shoulder lifts out there is known as the Arnold Press).

Arnold uses free weights because it trains stabilizer muscles. These smaller muscles engage in order to help the main muscles engaged in the lift.

In the world of professional bodybuilding, it is crucial to hit every single muscle group.

Because there is only so much time in the day, why wouldn’t you want a single lift to cover not only the targeted muscles but secondary muscles as well?

Beyond free weights, Arnold typically trained with individual dumbbells and not barbells. Naturally, in some instances, he would turn to barbells, such as when performing most squats, cleans and deadlifts.

However, for all other lifts, including most presses and flyes, he used dumbbells. This is because When using the barbell, one side can overcompensate for weaknesses in the other side. With dumbbells, this is not possible.

Each side is independent of the other arm, which means it must carry its own weight. To get the most out of each set and rep, it’s important for the muscles do not receive outside help. This helped him target each muscle group and avoid accidentally compensating for weaker muscles (Arnold Schwarzenegger Wiki).

Don’t Save Yourself

Arnold found a way to maximize his time in the gym by putting everything on the line during every set.

Instead of shooting for sets of 12/10/8 or for an any set number, Arnold pushed himself to failure on every set. He suggests for anyone looking to improve their own physical appearance to go to failure on every set.

According to Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s only so much time a person can spend at the gym every day, so it is important to maximize effort with intensity. If Arnold would pass 12 reps (for example) he would increase weight on the next set.

However, he would not just stop at 12 reps. He’d continue on until he could not put the weight up another time.

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Building Arnolds Chest and Back

If there’s anything Arnold is known for (at least in the world of bodybuilding), it is the extreme width of his chest. This helped accentuate the overall v-shape of his upper body.

According to Arnold, he focused on three different chest exercises that needs to be done during every chest day (with additional lifts based on what he wanted to target).

These three exercises are the bench press, the incline bench press (which he would set to different angles) and the dumbbell fly.

He actually pointed to the fly as being the most important exercise for pectoral development.

For Arnold, the different bench variations helped increase the sheer strength of the pectoral muscles.

However, the dumbbell fly provides the greatest stretch. The stretch increases resistance on the muscles and forces the muscles to work in more extreme conditions. You will find this to be similar throughout all of his workouts.

In order to increase the sheer size of a muscle, it’s important to increase the stretch of the lift, as this puts added resistance on the muscle where it normally wouldn’t receive such training.

As for the Back, Arnold again went to many of the more trusted and tried workouts. Chin-ups served as a primary exercise, as did bent-over barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and the T-bar row.

Arnold Schwarzenegger said performing any kind of rowing movement puts greater strain on the back and helps with increases muscular thickness. He does recommend though to perform rows without laying on a mat or having any kind of chest support.

By going without chest support, it places added strain on the lower back, which helps build muscle in this region.

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Arnold Schwarzeneggers Bodybuilding Workouts for Arms and Shoulders

Arnold had huge biceps. Heck, even now he sports massive guns.


He’s all about muscle confusion. He would start out pumping out a single rep of 275 pounds (yeah, you read that right). He’d then lower the weight and pump out two reps, and then lower the weight and do three.

Naturally, you probably won’t be hitting the weights at 275 pounds, but it’s about the confusion the bicep muscles so they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

So what kind of curls did he do?

He loved the barbell curl, but he also performed the incline dumbbell curl.

This is a great exercise because it allows you to again increase the stretch on the arms. This stretch, along with concentration curls, allows you to not only isolate the bicep, but it helps strengthen the muscle peak for greater size.

When turning to the shoulders, Arnold Schwarzenegger focused on a series of presses (it allows you to put the most amount of weight on the muscle group). He pumped out the military press, a behind the neck barbell press and a press that started with him holding dumbbells out in front of his delts and then fully flex the weights above his head. This put a twist and maximum stretch on the delts. Of course, it is better known now as the Arnold Press.

Hitting the Legs and Torching the Abs

Arnold was no slouch when it came to leg day. He did as many different kinds of squats as you could think of. This included front squats, back squats, and single leg deadlifts, lunges.

As for abs, Arnold has said he would probably train his abs a bit differently now than he did then. However, back in his training days, he’d get most of his ab workout form leg raises, sit-ups and crunches. He’s also shooting for around 500 reps of Roman chair sit-ups.

A Workout You Can’t Replicate

We’re not giving any exact rep or set numbers because Arnold didn’t perform exact reps and sets. He was so into muscle confusion that he would switch it up, almost on a weekly basis. Now, is main go-to was what is known as the 1-10 method. This is where you put on your max weight for one rep.

You then take off a little bit of weight, rep it out twice, and so on, until it’s light enough to do the lift 10 times.

Of course, he would have people take off the weights in real time, so he never put the weights down (for added resistance on the lifts).

He’s move between this lift method to a max effort lift day, which is where you almost go the opposite. You put on a weight you can lift 20 times. Rest, put on more weight and lift it 15 times, repeat at 10, then 8, 5, 3 and finally 1 max rep (do this three times).

In Conclusion

Arnold didn’t rely on any crazy tricks or specialty training devices to obtain his title of Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia. He used traditional weights and traditional lifts to do it. He just focused on constantly confusing his muscles in order to ensure maximum growth and development.

Most importantly, he had dedication. This is one of the key essential elements in bodybuilding. If you want to make it, you need to be dedicated to giving it your all, every single day.

-Terry Asher

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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