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Ask any bodybuilder over the age of 40 what motivated them to get into the sport, and chances are high they'll cite a magazine cover featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In those pre-internet days, shots of the Austrian Oak, whether posing or casual, were awe-inspiring. And, while there's no doubt that those Swiss Alps-like biceps were impressive, it was Arnold's massive chest that truly blew us away.
Four decades later, Arnold's 1970s pec development still ranks among the best ever. In this article, we'll discover exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger's chest workout looked like - the sets, reps, frequency, weights, and techniques that propelled Arnold to seven Mr Olympia titles.
Table of Contents:
Stiff Arm Pullover - 5 x 15-20
*We don't recommend doing behind the neck anything due to the increased chance of shoulder injury. Instead, stick to regular wide-grip pull-ups.
If that looks like a lot of work, that's because it is; nine exercises for a total of 45 working sets! And those sets are done with no rest during supersets and no more than 60 seconds between them.
Amazingly, Arnold and Franco got through all this in about an hour. Typically, this workout would be done between 10 and 11 am. Then, they'd return to the gym at around 6 pm for their second workout of the day - thighs, calves, and abs. So, at his peak, Arnold was training chest, back, and quads on the same day!
Arnold's favorite split was to combine chest and back. He believed that the muscles responded more favorably if you did a pushing exercise, like the bench press, immediately followed by a pushing exercise, such as pull-ups. Done in superset style, with no rest between exercises, this was a grueling way to train - but it produced remarkable results.
Supersetting chest and back allowed Arnold and his training partner, Franco Columbu, to maximize their gym time. It also gave them that incredible pump that Arnold famously claimed to be better than sex!
According to Arnold, training chest and back in superset fashion also produced greater definition and muscle separation. Here's what he told Flex magazine in a 2011 interview, "One of the most important reasons why a chest-back superset program works so well is the fact that most chest exercises are pushing movements, while all back exercises are pulling exercises. The chest muscles are resting during the lats exercises and the lats are resting during the chest movement. While each muscle is alternately resting and working, it stays fully flushed and pumped up ... when the chest and upper back are pumped simultaneously, there is an indescribable feeling of growth stimulation and massiveness."
This article has a chest focus, so we'll be passing over each superset's back component. Just know that Arnold put as much intensity and effort into working the back as he did the pecs.
The workout begins with a single set of flat bench presses with a light weight, and wide-grip pull-up . On the bench, Arnold would load a single 45-pound plate on each end (135 pounds, including the bar) and pump out 30-45 quick reps. The idea is to get the blood pumping and every part of the pectoral muscle engaged.
Arnold's first working set for the chest had him pile more weight on the bar for 15 reps. This was the first of five sets, shuttling back and forth with pull-ups. The typical rep scheme would be 15, 15, 12, 8, 6 reps. In terms of weight lifted, Arnold would increase the poundage on each successive set to a maximum of between 330-350 lbs on the final set of 6 reps.
Arnold and Franco would allow themselves just a minute's rest between supersets or enough time for the other one to complete his set. During this rest period, Arnold would take deep breaths and flex his chest and back muscles.
After completing his first superset, Arnold would move to the incline bench. In the original Gold's Gym, the T-bar row saw right alongside, allowing for fast and furious supersets.
According to Arnold, the incline bench press is the ultimate exercise for building the upper chest. He advocated going as heavy as possible on this exercise, even if it meant reducing the rep count. But he also cautioned making sure that you've got a good spotter who knows what he's doing.
Arnold's rep scheme on the incline bench press was 15, 12, 12, 10, 10.
Arnold viewed dumbbell flyes as his secret weapon when it came to shaping and defining his pectoral muscles. He was very particular about how he did the movement. Unlike how most bodybuilders do the dumbbell flye, Arnold focused on bringing his elbows down as far as possible so that the dumbbells reach bench level. He would then return them back up in a perfect arc, stopping when they were about a foot apart. This was the point where the tension in the pecs was reducing.
Arnold described the movement as replicating 'hugging a tree.' He would perform 15, 12, 10, 10, and 10 reps on this exercise. The weight would increase as the reps dropped, but Arnold would ensure that the dumbbells weren't so heavy that he lost control of the movement at any time.
At this point of the workout, Arnold's pecs would be on fire. But that didn't stop him from heading to the dip station, strapping up to 80 pounds to a dip belt and pumping out five sets of 15 reps on weighted dips. Here's what the Austrian Oak told Flex magazine about how his body responded at this stage of the workout:
"By the time I get to the fifth set, the pecs and lats are totally engorged with blood. And I have such a colossal pump that the muscles feel like they're going to burst through the skin!"
Arnold's final exercise in this marathon chest-back workout was the stiff arm pullover. The science of whether you can expand your ribcage is dubious, but back in the day, most bodybuilders, including Arnold, believed that you could. The movement to do it was the stiff-arm pullover.
Even if his efforts on this exercise didn't actually make his ribcage larger, they did work both the lats and the serratus, while also giving the chest a great stretch. Arnold's preferred method was to lie across the bench, allowing his hips to sink low, enabling maximum thoracic stretch.
Arnold and Franco would go back and forth with five sets of 15-20 reps to cap off the mammoth workout.
Even though he just completed a marathon 45-set upper body pulverizing workout, Arnold wasn't done yet. he'd spend 10-15 minutes in front of the posing mirror, flexing and posing his chest and back. As well as prepping for the stage, this practice pushed even more oxygen-rich blood into the chest and back. Arnold was convinced that these iso-tension contractions contributed to the definition and hardness of his pectorals.
We've all marveled at the images of Arnold's 57-inch pecs, providing ample evidence that his chest and back superset workouts worked wonders. But how did they make him feel? Here's what he told Flex ...
"As I head to the shower, I feel exhausted but exhilarated, like a boxer who has gone 15 rounds with the heavyweight champion and beaten him with a knockout in the final round!"
(All image credits to their original owners)
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