The movie industry has provided many indispensable lessons, but among the most important is a simple truth: nothing beats the classics. After all, many of today’s best movies are remakes from those that succeeded in the past or sequels to great concepts that everyone enjoyed. So what does this have to do with muscle building?
In an age where the latest technology is favored over time-tested advice, and “get fit quick” infomercials clog our expectations with smoke and mirror sales pitches, we have a tendency to overlook the best advice simply because it’s old.
Some watches are old. Some cars are old. Hell, some might even consider Arnold old (not me, boss). But we can all agree that sometimes the most valuable things in life are those that have age, character, and a track record you can trust. Nowhere is this more accurate than the sage muscle building advice from yesteryear’s bodybuilders. As the great Mark Twain once said: “Age is just an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
As you work to give your extra 1% this year—whether that’s starting your journey to a better body or be better than ever—one place you should not ignore the are the history books. Here are some of the best bodybuilding tips developed back-in-the-day that today’s best fitness coaches think could use a refresh in the gym. Add these to your fitness plan—including a favorite technique from Arnold—and the only thing that will be old is the body you used to have.
The Expert: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Muscle Building Technique: The Strip Method
“Without stripping there is no excitement,” says Arnold. Before you get the wrong idea, the legendary bodybuilder is referring to mega-drop sets that he used to quickly and efficiently challenge his body. The idea is simple and an instant way to shock your system and pack on muscle.
Here was Arnold’s approach in his bodybuilding days, with the dumbbell overhead press as an example:
1) Use 100-pound dumbbells for 6 reps
2) Immediately grab 90-pound dumbbells and do another 6 reps.
3) Complete this pattern—without rest—until he reached 40 pounds
“By the time you’re on the lower weights, the burning is so intense that 40 pounds would feel like 110,” says Arnold.
It’s time efficient, and your muscle activation increases as fatigue sets in. But one of the biggest benefits comes from using less weight. You don’t need to use heavy weights to see results and have an incredible workout. “Even if you started with 15 pounds and worked down to 5, it’s a great way to work your muscles quickly and always keep them guessing.”
The Expert: Rob Sulaver
Muscle Building Technique: The Pump
“The greatest feeling you can get in a gym, or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is… The Pump.” -Arnold
One of Arnold’s most famous lines captures the incredible feeling and reason that many people lift weights. “Anyone who’s ever had a tough resistance training session knows the feeling well – massive, engorged, tight vascular muscles,” says Rob Sulaver, owner of Bandana Training.
While a little vanity is fine, training for a pump actually has benefits for your body that go beyond the “most satisfying feeling.” In a scientific sense, the pump is the vasodilation of your capillaries, says Sulaver.
This means that you’re increasing blood flow to your body tissues, which helps transport the nutrients in your body more efficiently, and can improve your recovery. On a hormonal level, the pump can help increase testosterone and growth hormone naturally; this potent cocktail means more muscle and less fat.
What’s more, the pump also triggers feel-good endorphins and enkephalins—nature’s painkiller. “That’s why the pump is associated with wonderful, euphoric superhero feelings of invincibility and extremely good looks,” says Sulaver.
You can receive a pump in a variety of ways. Try combining heavy movements like squats and bench presses (3 to 6 reps per exercise) with bodyweight movements (think pushups and lunges) for higher reps (8 to 12). Or, you can simply keep all exercises in the 3 to 10 range (a mix of lower and higher reps), but shorten your rest periods to about 30 seconds to create the pump.
Whatever your choice, training for the pump isn’t the only key in the muscle building process, but it does play a role in packing on size and reminding you of the work you’re putting in.
The Expert: Tony Gentilcore
Muscle Building Technique: Wave Training (PAP)
One of the fundamental aspects of adding muscle is becoming stronger. For most people, this can be a frustrating process. That’s why wave training was so useful. Scientifically speaking, wave training is a technique known as “post-activation potentiation.” (Now you can see why bodybuilders used a different name.)
The technique involves alternating sets of low rep training with sets of higher reps, says strength coach Tony Gentilcore.
The low rep set (with a heavy weight) activates more muscle fibers so that when you do the higher rep set, you can lift more weight than you normally would.
For example: After a proper warmup, perform 1 rep of squats at 225 pounds. Rest 2 to 3 minutes, and then lift 185 pounds 5 times. The 185 pounds should feel lighter because the heavier set activates more of your motor units (the trigger in your body that causes your muscle fibers to fire), which allows you to move more weight, says Gentilcore.
From there, you can then do another set at 225 or maybe even 230, rest another 2 to 3 minutes, and then try to do a set of 5 reps with 190 pounds—your goal being to increase weight with each set.
And remember—don’t get caught up on the weights. Progress at your own level, and while this might seem like magic, you’ll experience real instant strength gains, which will lead to faster results.
The Expert: Jim “Smitty” Smith
Muscle Building Technique: Partial Reps
In general, focusing on giving only 50 percent on anything is a formula for failure. But when it comes to lifting weights, it might be one of the best ways to improve your workouts. Partial reps—where you focus on a limited range of motion—can help spark muscle building, improve your weaknesses and add serious strength, says strength coach Jim Smith, owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning.
To start, you need to determine you sticking point—the area in an exercise where you struggle and the weight doesn’t seem to move. On the bench press, this is usually the point where the bar is about 3 to 6 inches above your chest.
Partial reps allows you to use heavier weights because you have to move the weight a shorter distance, which allows you to “feel” what it’s like to handle heavier loads, says Smith. For this reason alone, it builds confidence that you can become stronger.
On the bench press, you can perform board presses or pin presses. On board presses, you place different size wooden boards on your chest, which limits your range of motion. This is best performed with a partner. Don’t have a training buddy? Then do pin presses in a power rack. Set pins to the area of your sticking point (say 6 inches above your chest), and perform reps where you are only pressing out at the top of the exercise.
It might seem like cheating, but when you return to the full range of motion, you’ll discover that your weak point is now stronger, and you can begin making progress again.
The Expert: Clifton Harski
Muscle Building Technique: Pre-exhaust
Basic logic would tell you that a tired muscle won’t “work” as well as a fresh muscle. And yet, bodybuilders were notorious for a technique known as “pre-exhausting,” where they would purposely fatigue a muscle with an isolation exercise, and then follow with a compound (multi-muscle) exercise to cause more growth, says strength coach Clifton Harski.
Here’s how to make it work: Pick an isolation exercise. If you’re working your chest, you’d do a series of chest flys for 8 to 12 reps. That would exhaust your pecs. Then, follow that with a compound exercise like an incline chest press for another 8 to 12 reps.
You might have to use less weight on the incline chest press, but your muscle fibers should be working more in your chest, and as an added benefit, your triceps will work harder because your tired chest requires your arms to assist more with the lift, says Harski.
Use this technique with any of your major muscle groups to help jump-start a stalled program, or simply to help you “feel” the muscles you should be working and improve your focus.
The Expert: Brad Pilon
Muscle Building Technique: Forearm Training
“One traditional muscle building method that is absolutely essential for naturally skinny guys looking to build a powerful physique is direct forearm training,” says Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat. Before you insert your favorite forearm joke, remember that all the bodybuilding greats—Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman—had meaty, well-trained forearms.
And for good reason: big forearms don’t just make you look impressive, they help you perform better too. Everything from direct arm work like biceps curls, to your presses and pulls that build a stronger, healthier body start with your ability to grip the weight.
“Somewhere in the early 2000’s we got the idea that the muscles of the forearm got enough stimulation from ‘grip training’ like heavy deadlifts, and that we didn’t need to do any direct training for forearms,” adds Pilon. But nothing could be farther from the truth—especially for people who have trouble becoming stronger.
Begin with a few sets of direct forearms work, such as forearm curls, and then add more weight and volume as you become stronger.
Putting It All Together
Adding any of these techniques to your workout can help provide the spark that you need to push forward, feel better, and look the way you want. But like anything in life, too much can be a bad thing. So start with one of these techniques and give it a try for 4 to 6 weeks.
Once you see progress, then try another to keep you heading in the right direction. If we all start practicing these techniques, we’ll make sure that the classics of yesteryear are not only preserved–but also reestablish the foundation of success for the future.