A lot of myths surround the training style of the Golden Era greats. Were the workouts really that crazy? In this article, we explain how the legends of the 1970s actually trained to create their incredible physiques.
To understand the Golden Era of bodybuilding, you need to imagine a time when health clubs were almost nonexistent and weight training was considered unusual. Even most competitive athletes and professionals, didn’t lift weights for fear of being “muscle-bound.” Today, weight training is an integral part of every athlete’s preparation, and most college and professional teams have weight-training facilities and employ strength coaches.
Fitness and bodybuilding were not endeavors practiced by the general public back then. At the time “Pumping Iron” was released in 1977, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was introduced to the world at large, bodybuilding was a niche sport practiced by a tiny segment of the population.
The best bodybuilders of that era trained at small hardcore gyms. Most of these facilities were filled with barbells and dumbbells and some basic equipment that was designed to inflict pain and build muscle. The fancy, advanced machines that fill modern day health clubs were not available until years later. That left free weights and bodyweight training to get the job done.
Back in the Golden Era, there was little science or instruction manuals on how to train. It was a time of trial-and-error and instinctive training. Because the Golden Era greats were a small group, they were able to share their knowledge and often trained together. The results speak for themselves.
The old-school legends built incredible bodies the old-fashioned way, with high-volume training and intensity techniques. But over the years a lot myths have grown up around Golden Era training styles. Were their workouts really that crazy? They were certainly intense.
Let’s look at how the top bodybuilders in the 1970s actually trained.
Split Routines & Twice-a-Day Training
The bodybuilders of the 1970s trained their physiques with high-volume workouts that involved a split routine. Instead of training the whole body in one workout, the split training program consisted of training different muscle groups on each day, working all the body parts two to three days per week. This is common practice now, and one of the innovations of the Golden Era.
The six-day split was common in the 1970s. Splitting up the muscle groups over three days and then repeating that cycle (training six consecutive days) was what most bodybuilders did then. A typical cycle during this era might be training chest and back on Mondays and Thursdays, legs on Tuesdays and Fridays, and shoulders and arms on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with Sundays a rest day.
When the top bodybuilders would get ready for a competition, they would step up their training to a double-split routine and increase the frequency of their workouts. Instead of training each muscle group twice a week, they would train every body part three times a week.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of the other top bodybuilders who trained at the famed Gold’s Gym in Venice would train their chest and back on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. Then, they would come back later that day to train their legs. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, the bodybuilders would train shoulders, arms, and abs.
Because of the high volume of sets performed during their workouts, most of the bodybuilders would not engage in any type of cardio workout. Some bodybuilders ran along the beach a few times a week, but the typical cardio workouts performed today at the gym were nonexistent back in the 1970s.
In place of cardio were intensity techniques that raised heart rate while building muscle. Here are the three most common intensity techniques used back then.
To make the workouts even more intense, many of the bodybuilders would use supersets in their workouts. A superset is when you do two exercises training opposing muscle groups with no rest in between. Pairing chest and back or biceps and triceps work best when doing a superset training session. Below is an example of a superset for chest and back:
- Barbell bench presses superset with lat pulldowns*
- Incline barbell presses superset with barbell rows
- Dumbbell flyes superset with seated cable rows
- Dumbbell pullovers superset with cable cross-overs
*Each superset would be performed for 5 sets of each exercise.
The above workout would consist of a total of 40 sets, so it’s definitely a high-volume workout that would train each body part from many different angles. The intensity of the workout is increased by the pace of doing the supersets, making it that much more challenging.
Running the Rack
Another popular training technique used during the Golden Era of bodybuilding was running the rack. This is a high-intensity, high-volume way to train a muscle to exhaustion. It can be used with any dumbbell exercise, but it was most often used during a shoulder workout. Arnold used it when performing dumbbell presses or side lateral raises. Here’s how to do it.
- Start off doing a set with a light weight.
- Immediately after finishing the light set, grab another pair of dumbbells that are 10 pounds heavier and do another set.
- Continue this protocol until you can no longer perform the set with the usual number of repetitions.
- After reaching near failure, work your way back down the rack, doing set after set until you reach the weight you started with.
Running the rack is a great way to pump and exhaust the muscle you’re training to near failure. By doing a continuous number of sets with no rest in between and using progressively heavier weights, you force blood into the muscle and increase the amount of lactic acid burn during each set. It’s a killer if done right.
Of course, you need to be in the gym at a slow time of the day to be able to have access to the range of dumbbells you’ll want to use, but it’s worth the effort.
Staggered sets was a popular training technique in the 1970s. It was used to bring up a lagging body part. With the staggered sets technique, a bodybuilder would perform a set for a muscle group after every set in his workout. For example, if a bodybuilder had weak calves, he would do one set of calves after every set he did in his workout. At the end of the workout, he may have performed 30-40 sets just for his calves.
Roy Callendar used the staggered sets technique to bring up his lagging calves during his bodybuilding career. He would perform a set of standing calf raises after every set he did in his workout. The amount of sets he did at the end of his workout gave his calves a great pump. And, they eventually started to grow to be more in proportion with the rest of his massive physique.
There are a lot of different ways to incorporate staggered sets into a workout, so experiment and see what works for you.
The Proof Is in the Results
The bodybuilders of the 1970s developed their physiques by shocking and blitzing their muscles into growth. They used a high volume of training by employing many sets and exercises, training six days per week. Training techniques like supersets, down the rack, and staggered sets forced their muscles to grow due to the sheer volume and pump of the workouts.
Were the workouts crazy? Maybe sometimes. But they worked. Today, most people don’t have the time to dedicate to weight training to do the volume workouts of the Golden Era greats. But the methods of these legends can still be used today to create a classic physique.
Do you use any Golden Era training methods described in this article in your own training? Have you tried any of the intensity techniques? Let us know what you think.