Written by Lisa Allen, MD
If you asked the average person walking down the street to name a bodybuilder, 9 times out of 10 you’re going to hear “Arnold Schwarzenegger”. Even many that are familiar with the sport today will concede that the 60s through the 80s were the glory days of bodybuilding. Perhaps the bodybuilders of yesterday found their way in to the spotlight because of their revolutionary appearances and training principles, but many believe that lack of concern for aesthetics by modern bodybuilders has damaged the credibility of the sport.
All of this aside, there are still many things we can learn from the bodybuilding forefathers like Arnold (of course), Franco Columbu, Dave Draper, Frank Zane, and the many others who set this sport in motion. Below are some of the training principles that were observed in the routines of these bodybuilding greats.
Remember that these principles were followed by professional bodybuilders whose entire profession centered around lifting, eating, sleeping, and performance enhancing “supplements”. Their entire lives were poured into this, and chances are you are not a professional bodybuilder, so we will include some ways that you can follow their principles.
Principle 1: Change it Up!
What the pros did: Obama isn’t the only who likes change. Arnold’s training routine was constantly changing, consistent with the theory that you need to shock your body into growth. For example, Arnold may workout twice a day for an entire week and then only once per day the following week. Columbu and Zane were also students of this principle.
How you can do it: The beginning to intermediate bodybuilder should probably stay away from 2-a-day workouts. It is incredibly difficult to support lean muscle with this intensive of a routine. However, everybody is different so it could possible work for some. But lets find a way to incorporate change into your routine.
Changing your routine up could be as simple as choosing different exercises. You should probably keep the same routine for around 3 weeks, so you give your muscles a chance to gain strength in certain lifts. So during this 3 week interval, you could alter the number of sets and reps you perform.
Perhaps you could have a “strength week”, where you perform high sets with low repetitions, an endurance week (which would be the exact opposite) and a week where you focus solely on hypertrophy (performing the perfect ratio of sets to reps that promotes muscle growth).
Once you reach the 3 week mark, try changing up the individual exercises that you are performing and go from there.
Principle 2: Lift Heavy!
What the pros did: Take it from the old school bodybuilders like Franco Columbu, who was a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, and a strongman competitor: strength is important. Even modern bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Branch Warren know the importance of this principle. Franco Columbu, who was known for having one of the most impressive backs in bodybuilding, was also a champion deadlifter, who, at one point was the strongest man in the world, pound for pound. If that doesn’t tell you something about the importance of lifting heavy, I don’t know what does.
How you can do it: Its fairly obvious what were getting at here: lift heavy! But still keep it mind that you are (most likely) not a professional bodybuilder or powerlifter, and your knowledge of proper form and injury prevention may not be perfect. Pro athletes face injuries all the time, so bear in mind that you are not invincible either. Our main point with this principle is that if you are not increasing the weight you use, you are not going to get results.
If you have been squatting 275 for each of your sets for the past year, you are definitely doing something wrong, assuming that you want to keep growing. I know this sounds incredibly obvious, but time and time again I hear people complaining that their not growing yet they never increase the amount of weight they are using.
So remember these principles: stretch and warm up thoroughly, find a trainer that can help you learn proper lifting form, and lift heavy!
Principle 3: Train to Failure!
What the pros did: Training to failure is consistent with Principle 2. If you are lifting heavy enough, you should be going to failure on your last set. Most of the old school pros would reach failure on their last set of a certain exercise. By training to failure, your body will correct itself by rebuilding muscle that is strong enough to lift that extra rep for your next workout.
How you can do it: If you are a beginner, training to failure may be foreign to you, as most beginners I see in the gym curl the same 20 pound dumbbells for what seems like an endless amount of time, and leave the gym having accomplished absolutely nothing. Try this out for starters, pick two to three exercises out of your routine that you feel are the most important. Then, on your last set of that exercises, do as many repetitions as you can until you cannot perform anymore. Ideally, this should be in the range of 8-10 repetitions. Intermediate bodybuilders may choose to go to failure on every exercise they perform in a day.