Long before he was paid $25 million for his movie roles, Arnold Schwarzenegger penned monthly articles for bodybuilding godfather Joe Weider’s muscle magazines. Arnold’s writing didn’t win any journalism awards, but he later collected his ideas and training philosophies in his best-selling “The New Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding,” which is still used as a reference tool by bodybuilders today.
Perusing Arnold’s signature tome requires some effort: The hardback version comes in at an even 800 pages, after all! While it’s hefty weight might make it a nice addition to your coffee table, the nuggets of training gold take a little work to find. In the interest of mining the best knowledge from one of the strongest minds in bodybuilding, here are 31 Arnold-approved training tips to help you build your best body ever!
GENERAL TRAINING TIPS
1) CHOOSE THE BEST EXERCISES FOR GROWTH
For the Oak, training hard was as important as training smart. “To get big, you have to get strong,” he wrote. “Beginning and intermediate bodybuilders shouldn’t be as concerned with refinement as with growth.”
With this in mind, focus less on single-joint movements (sometimes called isolation exercises) in favor of multijoint ones. The bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, bent-over row, and power clean are examples of solid multijoint exercises that require several muscle groups to work in coordination. These exercises should form the foundation of your training plan.
While these movements are more difficult to master than their single-joint counterparts, they offer the added benefit of allowing you to train very heavy to overload the target muscle groups. Arnold believed that performing these moves and challenging yourself with heavy weights was the single most critical component of gaining strength and size.
2) USE HEAVY WEIGHTS FOR LOW REPS
For Arnold, choosing the right load was just as important as selecting the right exercise. After all, 8 reps of squats with 365 pounds taken to failure elicits a far better muscle-building stimulus than a set of 95 pounds for 40 reps.
“Start with a few warm-ups [not taken to muscle failure] and pyramid the weight up from one set to the next, decreasing the reps and going to failure,” Arnold wrote. “Usually, I’ll have someone stand by to give me just a little bit of help past a sticking point or cheat the weight up just a little [once I’ve reached muscle failure].”
Arnold wasn’t just concerned with feeling the weight; he wanted to make sure the load induced muscle failure at a target range: “I make a point of never doing fewer than six repetitions per set with most movements,” he notes,” and nothing higher than 12. The rule applies to most body parts, including calves.” Make sure to choose the right weight to fail within that rep range.
3) DON’T GET COMFORTABLE WITH A ROUTINE
Few people know that Arnold has a business degree, but he didn’t need his diploma to realize that diminishing returns applies to workouts, too.
Do the same workout for too long without making significant changes, and its value will fall over time. That’s when a bodybuilder finds himself in a training rut.
“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 did his homework when it came to planning his training sessions. If he found that an exercise was no longer producing gains, he’d switch it for another.
Never afraid to experiment with new exercises or alternative training methods, Arnold was on a perpetual search for new ways to become bigger and better as old ways became stale.
4) GO PAST FAILURE WITH ADVANCED TECHNIQUES
In his book, Arnold identified the use of a number of advanced training techniques as a weapon to bring up a lagging body part. Arnold used just about every intensity booster in the book, so to speak, but he zeroed in on what worked best for him simply through trial and error.
Don’t be afraid to apply such techniques as forced reps, negatives, dropsets, partials, rest-pause, or other ideas you may read about to your own training. Be sure to evaluate how you feel after using one, and remember not to take every set past muscle failure; save it for your 1-2 heaviest sets of each exercise.
5) GUARD AGAINST OVERTRAINING
In your zeal to bring up a stubborn muscle group, you might be tempted to employ the “throw everything at ’em but the kitchen sink” approach, but Arnold warned that this strategy might be counterproductive. “There will be times when a body part lags behind because you are overtraining it, hitting it so hard, so often, and so intensely that it never has a chance to rest, recuperate, and grow,” he wrote.
“The answer to this problem is simply to give the muscles involved a chance to rest and recover, and then to adjust your training schedule so that you don’t overtrain [the same body part] again. Remember, too much can be as bad as too little when it comes to bodybuilding training.”
6) OVERHEAD PRESSES ARE YOUR BEST MASS BUILDER
Multijoint movements like presses and upright rows are the best mass builders for shoulders, since they engage the greatest degree of deltoid musculature. Arnold would go heavy with these movements, especially early in his workouts when his energy levels were highest. He commonly did presses both behind and in front of his head for complete development.
7) LEARN MULTIPLE WAYS TO DO THE SAME MOVEMENT
Small differences in how similar movements are done work the target musculature in slightly different ways, allowing for greater overall stimulus.
Arnold sought out alternative exercises that worked a target muscle from slightly different angles. When using dumbbells rather than the barbell on overhead presses, for example, he deliberately lowered the weights several inches below the bottom position of the barbell movement, and he brought them together at the top to elongate the range of motion.
8) ATTACK EACH DELT HEAD WITH A SINGLE-JOINT MOVE
Arnold used single-joint movements to complement overhead presses and isolate each delt head individually. Here, too, he sought subtle differences that would, over time, build better overall size. For example, the cable lateral raise in front of the body has a slightly different feel than when the cable runs behind you. Knowing how to do a given movement pattern on different pieces of equipment is, according to Arnold, essential for a bodybuilder to take his physique to the next level.
9) TRAIN UPPER TRAPS WITH DELTS
Because the upper traps get some degree of stimulation during many shoulder exercises, Arnold trained them with delts. His main upper-trap exercise was the shrug, though he noted that maximizing the size of this muscle required a number of other movements, including power pulls, cleans, and upright rows. Because the range of motion in a shrug is fairly short, Arnold recommended backing off on the weight in favor of being able to fully shrug your shoulders as high as possible.
10) BUILD MASS WITH THE STANDING BARBELL CURL
Arnold loved the standing barbell curl for building baseball biceps. When looking for a major mass-building move, Arnold preferred exercises that allowed him to push heavy weight, let him achieve a full range of motion, and could be hammered for 6-8 heavy reps. That’s how he built his biceps into mountains, and it’s a great start for your workout, too.
11) DON’T STOP AT FAILURE
While the Oak commonly took his curls to muscle failure, he didn’t stop there. Once he reached a sticking point, he’d use just enough momentum to keep the set going. Such cheat curls allowed him to complete an extra couple of reps, helping to further stimulate the muscle.
12) SUPINATE YOUR DUMBBELL CURLS
Arnold wrote that he always included at least one dumbbell movement in his routine. By supinating his hand (turning it upward as he curled), he felt he got a greater “peaking” effect because the brachialis is recruited into the motion when the hand starts in the neutral position. Arnold performed supinating dumbbell curls simultaneously and with alternating reps. The latter allows more body English and a bit of rest between reps.
13) USE HIGHER REPS ON CERTAIN EXERCISES
Not every biceps movement was done for 6-8 reps. Arnold identified certain exercises that he called “definition-building movements,” which he performed with relatively lighter weights for sets of 8-12 reps. Here, his focus was on squeezing and contracting the muscle, and holding the peak contraction for a long count. Concentration curls, preacher curls, and alternating dumbbell curls were among his favorites.
14) EXPERIMENT WITH A STRONG BODY PART
Arnold’s chest and triceps were particularly strong body parts, so he didn’t train them in the same ways he did his biceps. Because his triceps were already strong, Arnold allowed his rep range to drift up to 20 per set in an effort to hyperpump the muscle.
15) FIND THE TARGET OF AN EXERCISE
“It’s silly doing a triceps movement and not knowing precisely which part of the triceps you’re hitting,” Arnold wrote. Great advice, but how should you apply it?
Arnold suggested a tip he learned from legendary trainer Vince Gironda: Do 20 sets of a particular movement, and then nothing else for that body part.
See where the soreness is most concentrated the following day.
16) ADD PARTIALS AFTER FAILURE
With triceps, Arnold’s advanced technique of choice was partial reps. After doing a set of full-range push-downs, for example, he’d extend the set with 5-6 partials, either over the top or bottom half of the movement.
Even though he couldn’t do any more full-range reps and was limited by the sticking point, he could still manage a few more reps to really spur growth.
17) DO SUPERSETS TO INTENSIFY THE PUMP
Arnold frequently supersetted biceps and triceps movements—or, in other words, performed exercises back to back—to bring an enormous amount of blood into his arms. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients critical for growth, but these supersets also enabled Arnold to achieve his ultimate training goal: a killer pump. Supersetting a smaller muscle group like arms is easier than a larger one like legs, though Arnold often did that pre-contest as well.
18) PRIORITIZE YOUR WEAKNESSES
If you’ve got big pecs, it’s only natural to want to show them off, and you probably also give them a little extra effort in the gym. But Arnold took exactly the opposite approach. In fact, at one point, Arnold decided his calves had fallen behind the rest of his physique in overall development.
Rather than hide the glaring weakness, he famously cut off the lower half of his pants and wore shorts to constantly remind himself of his weakness and redouble his efforts to bring them up. He trained calves more frequently, early in his workouts when he was fresh, and sometimes between sets for larger body parts, a strategy that helped him claim the world’s biggest bodybuilding title.
19) TEST EVERYTHING
Being long-legged, calves weren’t Arnold’s only shortcomings early in his career; his thighs were also comparatively small. That meant throwing out the usual playbook on leg day. “Building up legs was hard for me because I have long legs and long leg muscles,” he wrote.
“The long-legged bodybuilder has to explore a wider variety of exercises in his lower-body routine. That means incorporating other exercises until you find out which ones make your legs respond best. And you have to keep varying your routine so that your muscles are constantly surprised by the demands you’re putting on them.”
20) ADJUST YOUR STANCE AS NEEDED
When squatting, Arnold found that different foot positions worked different areas of the thighs. “With my feet farther apart and toes pointed out, I feel squats on the insides of my thighs,” he wrote. “The position of the feet largely determines which part of the thigh is most affected.”
Arnold liked to use various squats and squat machines, both standing and lying, so he could to use various foot placements and target every part of his legs.
21) USE MACHINE SQUATS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Machine squats may not be superior to free-weight ones, but Arnold goosed them to make them harder. Here, Arnold used a shortened range of motion—going about three-fourths of the way down to a quarter of the way from the top, a technique he called “tension squats”—which allowed him to induce an incredible burn without having to balance the weight.
22) ADD HAMSTRING EXERCISES
While the hammies get worked during basic squat and leg-press movements, contracting to control the speed of the descent as the quads are being stretched, Arnold argued that you still need to do exercises that directly target this area.
Deadlifts are a great total-body movement, and single-joint leg curls and Romanian deadlifts also focus on the rear thighs. Hamstring strength is important to reduce the risk of knee injuries, which can occur when the strength of the quads overpowers the strength of the hams.
23) TRAIN YOUR ABS INDIRECTLY
Arnold’s approach to ab training was fairly simple, and he had a few favorite moves that he did for fairly high reps. Then again, when you consider how hard he trained his core with his thrice-weekly leg and back workouts, you’d venture he probably didn’t even need to train his abs at all.
Heavy, multijoint free-weight movements clearly played a bigger role both in the strength and aesthetics of his midsection than his limited abdominal workouts.
24) BUILD STRENGTH TO BUILD SIZE
For Arnold, building a big chest started with training for strength since he competed as a powerlifter early in his career. With a foundation of strength, Arnold discovered that gains in size came easier. Consider an offseason powerlifting cycle to help boost all your numbers before shifting back into bodybuilding-style training. For the record, Arnold once benched 225 pounds for 60 reps!
25) USE MULTIPLE ANGLES
Arnold included basic multijoint movements in his routine that hit the pecs from a variety of angles. “I knew the routine had to be basic and very heavy,” he wrote. Basic, for Arnold, meant sticking to flat, incline, and decline benches while occasionally training like a powerlifter rather than trying a multitude of machines or using trendy techniques. Arnold saved pumping sets for the end of his workout.
26) CYCLE TRAINING VOLUME TO SPUR GROWTH
What makes Arnold’s routine stand out today is the volume and frequency with which he trained every body part. His offseason chest routine consisted of up to 26 working sets on a high-volume day, and he trained his pecs three times a week! Arnold also cycled heavy and light days to work the muscles with different relative intensities and ensure he wasn’t overtraining his pecs.
That kind of volume and frequency suited the Oak during his competitive years, but cycling off periods of high volume or high-frequency training ensures you’re less likely to overtrain.
27) GET TO KNOW DUMBBELL VARIATIONS
While Arnold favored barbells in the gym because of the heavier weights he could lift, he knew the advantages of dumbbells. “I feel a better stretch when doing dumbbells, especially with incline movements. The dumbbells can be lowered deeper than a barbell,” he noted.
Dumbbells allow you to work through a longer range of motion, but be careful not to overstretch the shoulder joint at the bottom of the move.
28) VARY YOUR PULL-UPS AND PULL-DOWNS
Arnold typically divided his back training into two types of movements: chinning and pull-downs for width, and rows for overall thickness. With the former, he used all kinds of variations, in part because he had to bring his back up to match his pecs.
So he did underhand-grip chins and pull-ups with and without added weight, and he varied his pull-downs, sometimes bringing the bar behind his head and other times to his chest. The net result was an assault that worked the lats from multiple angles for better overall development.
29) MIND YOUR ELBOWS
“Wide-grip pull-ups coax the upper lats to come out,” Arnold wrote. Understand that with wide-grip movements, the elbows stay out away from the sides, which engages the upper lats more effectively. With closer-grip and reverse-grip back exercises, the elbows stay in tighter to the sides, which reduces the emphasis on the upper lats and instead places more of the focus on the lower lats. So depending on elbow position relative to your torso, you can effectively focus on some areas of the back over others.
30) SHOOT FOR A REP TARGET
Most trainers typically do 3-4 sets of an exercise, but with chins Arnold commonly used a technique in which he aimed for a total number of reps—say, 50—rather than target a particular number of sets: “On the first set you may do 10 reps. Perhaps you struggle with 8 reps on the second set. You have 18 reps now. If you make 5 on the third set, you have 23 reps. You continue to add them until you’ve reached 50, even though it may take you 20 sets to do it. That’s how I built up my chinning power, and I was very successful with it.”
31) DO ROWS, PYRAMIDING THE WEIGHT UP
Exercises in which you pull the weight perpendicularly into your body—often called rows—were a big part of Arnold’s back workout. He favored all kinds of variations—seated cables rows, T-bar rows, bent-over barbell rows—but each one was done with high volume and progressively heavier weights. Arnold followed a pyramid scheme in which he increased the weight on successive sets for fewer reps. Only the heaviest sets were taken to muscle failure.
GROW LIKE THE OAK
Armed with these 31 ironclad tips, it’s your turn to train and grow like Arnold! Get to the gym, get under the bar, and be sure to hit compound exercises for some heavy weight. Oh, and if you have any favorite tips to share on your way out, drop them in the comments section below!
Schwarzenegger, A. (1997, July 1). Arnold Talks Training. Muscle and Fitness.
Schwarzenegger, A., & Dobbins, B. (1998). The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon and Schuster.