“Don’t follow the training of bodybuilding champions! Those guys are all genetic freaks on boatloads of drugs!” This is the common advice given to your average drug-free lifter. Is it good advice? While it is wise not to blindly follow the routines of elite bodybuilders, you would be foolish to ignore everything they do and say. At the top, it is a level playing field. Everyone follows similar pharmaceutical practices and everyone has great genetics. However, in the last 57 years, only six men have dominated Mr. Olympia (the Super Bowl/world championships of bodybuilding) winning this prestigious title four or more times. Success leaves clues! Here are 10 training lessons from the greatest bodybuilders of all time that can help every drug-free, genetically average lifter build more muscle.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: 7x Mr. Olympia: 1970-1975, 1980
Lesson 1: Building training ≠ refining training
When you read an article or see a post about how an elite bodybuilder trains, you find out what they are doing now. That means that you are seeing what they do now to maintain and refine a large muscular body – not what they did to build that body in the first place. While Arnold is famous for his high volume, high-frequency gym marathons, this was his pre-contest training. However, through books and articles, you learn how he used to train. Arnold built his muscle mass lifting heavy weights, on basic lifts, with less volume. Once he had most of his muscle mass (which happened at a young age for Arnold), he was able to shift his training focus to refining his physique. This is where Arnold cranked up the volume and added more isolation exercises.
Application: As a drug-free genetically average lifter, you need to focus on building mass. Forget about bicep peaks, pec/delt tie-ins, quad sweeps, and all the other detail work that only matters to elite competitive bodybuilders. Once you have built as much muscle as you reasonably can, you can experiment with some refining and detail work.
Lesson 2: Fix weak body parts – the right way!
Calves are a notoriously difficult body part for most people to build. Many lifters throw in a few lack-luster sets of calves at the end of their workout and then whine that their stubborn calves will not grow.
Despite having excellent chest and biceps genetics, Arnold lost the genetic lottery when it came to calves. When he came over to America, Joe Weider told Arnold he would have to bring up his calves if he wanted to be a bodybuilding champion. Instead of blaming his parents for his calves and wallowing in self-pity, Arnold took action and turned his calves into cows! In two years, he made one of the most impressive body-part transformations the sport of bodybuilding has ever seen!
In his book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold shared his calf-transformation protocol. He started by cutting off his sweat pants just below the knee. This exposed his scrawny calves to ridicule, highlighted the problem, and motivated him to take action. He practiced flexing his calves as he walked. He trained calves at the beginning of a workout, multiple times per week. He thought doing standing calf raises with 500-600lbs was good, until he trained calves with his idol Reg Park who used 1000lbs. Arnold wisely headed Reg’s advice and got much stronger on standing calf raises.
Application: Yes, Arnold’s approach is likely excessive for drug-free mere mortals. Yes, your genetics and structure may never allow you to achieve perfect symmetry. However, you can learn from Arnold, and dramatically improve a weak body part if you do the following:
- Stop hiding it and ignoring it
- Regularly practice flexing that muscle to develop a strong mind-muscle connection
- Give it priority attention in your training program (e.g. earlier in the weak, earlier in a training session, “spend” more of your weekly total training volume on that muscle and less on stronger muscles)
- Get substantially stronger on key exercises for that body part.
- Be patient. Forget about trying to “fix” a problem body part with some magical 6-week program. Remember, Arnold invested two years to fix his calf deficiency.
Lee Haney: 8x Mr. Olympia: 1984-1991
Lesson 3: Train for longevity
Lee Haney was able to develop a body good enough to win the Mr. Olympia resilient enough to stay at the top of competitive bodybuilding for 8-straight years! Today in his early 60s, he is pain-free, moving well, and looking great. Lees is a true model of athletic longevity.
Application: Lee Haney’s training philosophy is summed up in his most famous quote, “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.” Yes, gyms are full of people who get no results because their work ethic is pathetic. However, many lifters go to the opposite extreme and fail to grow by over-bombing, blitzing, and pulverizing their muscles. Lee had the work ethic to train hard and the wisdom to not over-do it. He knew how to check his ego at the door and let his brain guide his training decisions. He learned to split up his training to avoid over-working one area in a single training session (e.g. training chest and shoulders on different days). He also used the pyramid style of training where you start light and gradually increase the weight of each set to ensure his muscles were warm and ready for the big weights!
Lesson 4: Use Explosive AND Rhythmic training tempos
Today, many lifters fall into the trap of thinking every training question has only two possible answers. One classic example of this is tempo (lifting speed). Some say you should use do fast, aggressive reps and explode the weight up. Others say you should use a smooth, controlled lifting speed. Lee Haney says you should do both. For example, when training biceps, Lee would perform barbell curls (a big mass builder) with an explosive emphasis and a little more body “English” than the internet form police would deem acceptable. Then he would do preacher curls (an isolation movement) with a nice, controlled, rhythmic tempo.
Application: Consider adjusting your lifting style and speed to match the exercise you are training. Both explosive, compound movements and rhythmic isolation exercises can have a place in your mass-building routine.
Dorian Yates: 6x Mr. Olympia: 1992-1997
Lesson 5: Track everything
Dorian kept meticulous training and nutrition logs. This let him see what was working, and how he responded to training or nutrition changes. Instead of blindly following someone else’s training system, tracking allowed Dorian to develop his personal best training system.
Application: I know it is a lot of work, but if you are serious about your results, commit the time to track your training and nutrition. Use apps or old-school pen and paper. This is how you actually go about “finding what works for you.”
Lesson 6: There is no exercise you “have” to do
Dorian grew up in the era where Tom Platz squatted his way to the best quads in the history of bodybuilding. However, Dorian realized that he did not have the right structure for back squatting. He dropped them in favor of leg extensions, leg presses, and hack squats and built amazing legs! Dorian ignored the mantra, “A wide grip builds a wide back!” Instead, he built one of the most incredible backs using narrow-grip rows, pulldowns, and pullovers. Dorian did an incline bench instead of a flat bench. He developed his own style of deadlift and bent-over row to get what he needed out of those exercises.
Note: go to 1:58 in the video to see his Yates Row and 6:00 to see Dorian's Deadlift
Application: everyone should squat, hinge, push, and pull. However, each of these movements has endless variations. In addition, there are different technique styles you can choose from depending on your structure and needs. For muscle building, there are no “mandatory” exercises!
Lesson 7: Do not try to build muscle in a calorie deficit
Overall Dorian used good technique and stayed quite healthy. However, he did run into some injury when he was dieting down for a contest. In hindsight, he realized that his injuries happened when he tried to force his muscles to grow while he was in a calorie deficit.
Application: when you are trying to build muscle, push progressive overload while you are in a calorie surplus. When you are dieting down, accept the fact this is not the time to build muscle. Be content to maintain, and if needed, take a small drop in training loads to stay healthy while you get lean.
Ronnie Coleman: 8x Mr. Olympia: 1998-2005
Lesson 8: Get stronger for reps!
After seeing how beat up Ronnie was in recent years, many are quick to hate on his style of training. However, with a closer look, Ronnie can teach you what to do, as well as what not to do. What Ronnie did well was get stronger for reps. At his peak, Ronnie did the following lifts:
- Bent-Over Rows: 495lbs for 8 reps
- Dumbbell Bench press: 200lbs for 12 reps
- Bench Press: 500lbs for 5 reps
- Barbell Shoulder Press: 315lbs for 11 reps
- Less Press: 2,300lbs for 8 reps.
Ronnie was able to accomplish all this without shoulder, elbow, or knee injuries. However, despite having a history of back problems, Ronnie would push through pain, on exercises that were hard on his lower back. This included extremely heavy low-rep work on squats and deadlifts (both of which he did 800lbs for a double). This led to his string of surgeries.
Application: If your goal is building muscle, check your ego at the door and do not worry about doing heavy triples, doubles, and singles. Do not continue to use exercises that hurt you. Use more joint-friendly alternatives (e.g. hip belt squats, trap bar deadlifts, chest-supported rows) as needed. Remember, you will not get “big” until you are substantially stronger in the 5-10 rep range on your major lifts.
Jay Cutler: 4x Mr. Olympia: 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010
Lesson 9: Work harder with your eating
Show me a huge bodybuilder, and I’ll show you someone who knows how to eat! In Jay’s interviews and seminars, his answers (even to training questions) kept coming back to nutrition. Jay would eat 300-400g of protein and 1000g of carbs per day. At the peak of his career, he would often spend 7 hours a day eating. I know this doesn't sound as exciting as a "new never before-seen biceps curl", but this is what actually helps you build muscle.
Application: now, I know what you read this, the first thing going through your head is, “Yah that’s fine for a professional bodybuilder to spend all day eating, but that doesn’t work for the rest of us with real jobs!” True, it would be impossible for most non-professional bodybuilders to devote the same eating time as a pro. However, since you are not 300lbs with visible abs, you do not need as much food or as much time eating. Do not miss the point: the fact that the best bodybuilders spend so much time eating should tell you eating is really, really important! Look in the mirror and ask, “Am I honestly working has hard as I reasonably can with my nutrition? Am I willing to sacrifice some non-essential time (e.g. TV, social media, video games) to reach my training goals?” Here are some practical ways to work harder on your eating in the real world:
Step 1: Eat at least three large, nourishing meals per day.
Breakfast: 3-5 egg veggie omelet with oatmeal/sprouted grain toast, fruit, and 1-2 scoops of protein powder.
Lunch & Dinner: meat, fish or poultry, with potatoes or rice, and veggies. If you cook dinner at night, you can simply cook extra to have for lunch the next day. Alternatively, invest an hour 2 twice a week to do meal prep.
Step 2: Get 1-2 snacks in per day.
Example: 1-2 cups of cottage cheese, piece of fruit, a handful of nuts.
Step 3: Use protein and carbs before and after training.
This will add helpful calories, protein, and carbs without cooking or chewing.
Example: protein powder with fruit (e.g. banana) or a carb powder (e.g. maltodextrin)
Step 4: Have protein bars on hand for emergencies
Life is never perfect. Things will come up, that will derail your eating plans. In this case, scarf down a bar and keep going.
Phil Heath: 7x Mr. Olympia: 2011-2017
Lesson 10: It takes time!
Phil is one of the most gifted bodybuilders to ever step on stage. Yet, he said it took him 10 years to get to the top.
Application: forget all these 6-week transformations promises of fairytale fitness marketing. Stop thinking in weeks and months and start thinking in decades. You need at least a solid decade of consistent training and eating to build your best body. Without drugs and great genetics, it will likely take even longer! While you may not have the genetics a Mr. Something title, you can impress those who knew you before you started, build a body you can be proud of, and reap the benefits of the inner and outer strength you gain on your training journey.