Old School to New School: Timeless Tips from Bodybuilding Legends

The sport of bodybuilding has been around for a long time, and bodybuilders of today have built physiques of such massive proportions that nobody 50 years ago could have imagined possible. But despite all the advancements in knowledge, technique and equipment that bodybuilders have access to today, there are still some great ideas that can be learned by looking to the bodybuilding legends of the past. Below are five timeless tips from some of the greatest bodybuilders of their time.

1. Get Stronger – Reg Park


One of the most basic principles of bodybuilding is that a big muscle is a strong muscle. If you go back to before the advent of anabolic steroids in modern bodybuilding, you find that the early bodybuilders from the 1960’s and earlier were all very focused on gaining strength along with size. In fact, they recognized that strength gains are the path to larger muscles.

Bodybuilders from that era used mostly compound exercises and even Olympic lifts as the foundation for their training routines. Bodybuilders were strength athletes, and many of them even competed in the Olympics and in strongman and powerlifting competitions.

But it seems that in recent years many bodybuilders have become overly obsessed with eliminating brute strength from their training routines. It’s not uncommon to see aspiring bodybuilders in the gym, pumping away with light weights for hours. They seem to be there every day, for years on end, yet their physiques aren’t making much progress.

If they enjoy what their workouts and are satisfied with their level of accomplishment, then that’s fine. Nobody can take that away from them. They are no doubt healthier and more aesthetic than the masses of their peers who never step foot in the gym and lead sedentary lifestyles. But if you want to get bigger, then you need to get stronger. The greatest bodybuilding physiques of all time were built using basic compound, multi-joint exercises with heavy weights.

So if your progress seems to have leveled off, get back to the basics. Focus on those exercises that allow you to use the most weight, and then load up the bar and push yourself to set new personal strength records in the gym every week.

2. Don’t Overtrain – Mike Mentzer


Overtraining has long been the greatest enemy of all serious bodybuilders, especially those who train without the use of anabolic steroids and other strength-enhancing drugs. For the natural bodybuilder, overtraining is extremely common because many of them emulate the routines of the stars.

But what many of you guys don’t realize is that the professional bodybuilders in the magazines have been juicing for years. They are not natural. They use various drugs to help their bodies recover faster from their workouts and pack on the gains at unusually high rates. Following their routines will likely lead to overtraining.

And even many of those guys are chronically overtrained. That was the case from the 1960’s into the 1990’s when most pro bodybuilders were spending two to three hours in the gym, six days a week. Then along came Mike Mentzer and others who challenged these routines and instead aimed to stimulate muscle growth with short bursts of high-intensity exercise and avoid the long marathon training sessions.

As a result of the work of high intensity training (HIT) pioneers like Mike Mentzer, the physiques of bodybuilders took a giant leap forward, pushing the standards of what it means to be a mass monster.

3. High Protein/Low Carb Diet – Ric Drasin


In order to fulfil your bodybuilding potential and pack on mass as quickly as possible, you’ve got to eat for growth. This means not only devouring enough calories to keep up with the demands of your hard-trained muscles, but it also means eating specific types of foods that support those gains.

Old school bodybuilders used to follow a high-calorie diet that was high in protein and fat and low in carbs – specifically starches and sugars. For breakfast they might have a cheese omelet, then a salad with chicken or tuna for lunch, followed by a pound or more of meat with some vegetables for dinner. In between meals they would drink protein shakes made with a simple protein powder and milk or even cream.

This type of diet went out of style in the 1980’s and 1990’s as bodybuilding become more mainstream and the nutrition trends led bodybuilding authorities to recommend high-carb diets with moderate protein and as little fat as possible. These low-fat diets often recommended keeping macros of 60% starchy carbs, 30% protein and only 10% fat.

Today, however, the pendulum has swung back the other way with the paleo diet and other variations of the low-carb bodybuilding diet from back in the 1960’s.

4. Full-Body Workouts – Steve Reeves

Steve Reeves

Most bodybuilders today have been exposed to countless debates about the ideal training split, but few of them know that bodybuilders of the past often made their best gains while performing full-body workouts. Steve Reeves – often regarded as having the greatest natural bodybuilding physique of all time – was a proponent of full-body training routines back in the 1950s, and his proportions and symmetry are still idolized to this day.

But before you object and begin to think that Steve Reeves wasn’t nearly as big as modern bodybuilders and that a full-body routine cannot possibly be effective, consider another bodybuilder who made great gains early on in his career with full-body workouts: 6-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Dorian made great progress in his early years, packing on dozens of pounds of solid muscle by training his entire body every other day.

5. Focus On Your Weaknesses – Arnold Schwarzenegger


No article about “old-school bodybuilding tips” would be complete without mentioning the training strategies of the most famous bodybuilder of all time: Schwarzenegger, and one of Arnold’s greatest tips for competitive bodybuilders is to never ignore your weaknesses. Going all in on your strengths may work well in other endeavors in life, but the physique of a bodybuilder must be well-balanced, with no glaring weaknesses.

Walk through any gym in American today, and you’ll see bodybuilders with obvious weaknesses. Many have great chests and arms, but their backs lack width and thickness or their legs look downright scrawny.

Well, the greatest of all time once fell into that same trap himself. In his early years as a competitor, Arnold was embarrassed by his lack of calf development, but he was able to dominate his opponents in his early competitions with his massive upper body size, particularly his chest and biceps. But eventually he realized that to be the best in the sport, he would need to correct his poor calf development, and he did so in style!

He actually took all his training pants and cut the legs off right at the knee, leaving his weak calves exposed for everyone in the gym to see – including himself. He worked extra hard over the next year, working calves as often as possible. He prioritized his calves by placing them at the beginning of his workouts, so that he could hit them with maximum strength and focus, rather than saving them for the end of his workout like he had done in the past.

All this effort paid off, and a year later his calf development rivaled that of any of his competitors.

Bodybuilding is a fantastic sport, and our training knowledge has come a long way over the years. But if you’re experiencing a plateau in your training results, or if you just want to shake things up a bit, try practicing some of these tips from the bodybuilding greats of the past and see what a difference it makes in your physique development.

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