Although Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training methods caused me enormous frustration during my first few years in bodybuilding—because they didn’t work for me—he still played a major part in enabling me to make a career out of bodybuilding.
The frustration motivated my search for training methods that work for natural bodybuilders with normal genetics for muscle-building, which in turn led to my books and magazine articles on bodybuilding instruction.
And it was the poor results that countless bodybuilders got from conventional training methods that drove many of them to try the alternative methods I promote.
Although I craved to be a professional bodybuilder, it was an unattainable goal because my heredity didn’t provide me with the potential to build huge muscles, and I wasn’t willing to take bodybuilding drugs. But the lessons I eventually learned enabled me to build about 45 pounds of muscle, transform my physique, and deadlift 400 pounds for 20 reps—drug-free, and with normal genetics.
I started bodybuilding in 1972, aged 14, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was in his prime. I particularly recall an album of photographs taken mostly in the 1960s, including four astonishing shots of the 19-year-old Schwarzenegger taken at the 1966 London Mr. Universe. (I still have that album, nearly 40 years on.)
Arnold’s physique, and the persona promoted by the muscle magazines, produced an icon that dominated bodybuilding. Although his Mr. Olympia physique was modest compared to today’s behemoths, it was spectacular for that era.
During my teenage years I was consumed by bodybuilding. Not only did Arnold’s images dominate bodybuilding back then, but so did the training methods he used. The other champions at the time employed the same format, albeit with their own tweaks. The mantra promoted by the mainstream bodybuilding magazines was, “Train like a champion to become a champion yourself.” So that’s how I trained, as did countless others.
Those training methods worked for Arnold, of course, but two essential requirements were never mentioned in print at the time—at least not anywhere that I came across. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other big names of that era (and subsequent eras) inherited genetic good fortune that the vast majority of bodybuilders lack; and drug assistance for bodybuilders took off in the 1960s. But the huge majority of bodybuilders don’t have those advantages, and thus can’t respond well, if at all, to those training methods. Another approach is required.
Here’s what I’m calling “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Program for Hardgainers.” It can work wonders for natural bodybuilders with normal genetics for muscle-building. (The program also works well for other types of gainers.)
1. Cut volume
Never mind the high-volume training that the champion bodybuilders prosper on. But for low-volume workouts to be effective, you must use the best exercises—the ones that give the biggest return. This means, for example, squats rather than leg extensions, deadlifts rather than back extensions, benches or dips rather than flyes, and overhead presses rather than laterals. Your specific selections must be exercises that you can perform safely, with correct exercise form.
2. Boost effort
The more training you do, the less likely that you’ll train hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. Once you’ve cut your volume, it should be easier to train hard, but you’ll still need to intentionally crank up your effort level.
3. Train safely
Injuries limit if not prohibit bodybuilding progress. You must avoid injuries. To do that, you must use correct exercise technique, and avoid overtraining.
4. Boost recovery time
The more often you train, the less recuperation time you have, the harder it is to recover between sessions, and the harder it is to maintain workouts of sufficient quality. Hardgainers should have a ceiling of three workouts per week, but with just two sessions being a better standard for most of them. Some exercises take a heavier toll on the body than others, and require more recovery time. The most striking example is the conventional bent-legged deadlift. When you’re working hard on the deadlift, train it no more than once a week.
5. Boost recovery ability
Once you’ve cut training volume and frequency you’ll increase your ability to recover between workouts. But further boost your recovery ability by sleeping more each night, and eating better. Get eight or more hours of sleep each night, and really get all the nutrients and calories you need each day. Consume plenty of protein-rich food, healthy carbs, and dietary fat. Consume at least 25% of your calories as fat—from healthy sources, of course. Insufficient fat intake will kill your progress even if you have plenty of protein, carbs and calories.
6. Build strength
You must train hard enough to stimulate muscle growth and be able to make gradual improvements in your poundages while always using correct exercise form. This is the principle of progressive overload. (Keep written records of your workouts so that you can track your progress in strength.)
If you’re not progressing in strength, it may be because you’re not recuperating properly. But even if your recuperation is good, if you’re not training hard enough on the best exercises (without overdoing total volume), you won’t stimulate any growth to begin with.
7. Accommodate your lifestyle
Your lifestyle can greatly affect the blend of volume, frequency and intensity that’s effective for you. As an illustration, imagine yourself in two contrasting scenarios at your current level of development.
First, you’re on a long summer vacation from college, not working, single, and spoiled by your parents so that you can eat well, live leisurely, and have about nine hours of sleep each night. (Many top-level bodybuilders have near-optimal recovery conditions akin to these, together with drug support. No wonder they can prosper on high-volume training and very frequent workouts.)
Second scenario now: you’re married, 10 years older, have two young kids, work 60+ hours each week at a stressful job, and have only six to seven hours of sleep each night (that’s often interrupted). With the latter scenario you may need to cut back to two major exercises for your upper body and just a barbell squat or the parallel-grip deadlift for your lower body, for a workout of just six to nine work sets (plus warm-ups) every four to seven days. Bodybuilding progress can still be made even under severe circumstances provided that you adjust your training accordingly and ensure that you consume enough nourishment.
As the antithesis of a hardgainer, Arnold could make amazing progress on a volume and frequency of training that’s hopeless for hardgainers. But some of what he applied is fully applicable to hardgainers:
a) He had tremendous desire to improve his physique. You must have tremendous desire, but you should apply it differently to how he did. A big part of desire is persistence, but it’s essential that you persist with a program that has the potential to work for hardgainers. Persistence that’s not properly applied will get you nowhere.
b) He included the most important exercises in his programs—squats, benches, deadlifts, chins, rows, and overhead presses—and so should you. But whereas Arnold also used many isolation exercises in each workout, hardgainers should focus on just a small number of multi-joint, compound exercises each session.
c) He was dead serious about his training, trained hard, and built strength. And you must be dead serious about your training, train hard, and build strength!