How Arnold Built His Legs And Abs

Imagine enduring the grueling pain of a high-volume, heavy-leg workout—then repeating it three times every week. That's how Arnold brought up his legs, which were once considered his biggest weakness. Part 3 of a 4-part series.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

If you've ever done a grueling leg workout—lots of heavy sets of all the most challenging thigh movements—you know it takes several days to recover. Even walking up a flight of stairs can be test of iron will. But for one professional bodybuilder whom we know as The Austrian Oak, the task was made three times as difficult as he completed his high-volume leg workout on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A monster front-and-rear-thigh crusher that included up to 46 sets—not counting calves and abs, which were also done in the same workout—that would cripple mere mortals.

Today, many would consider Arnold's approach bordering on—if not spilling considerably over—the threshold of overtraining, but legs weren't his strongest suit, and his 6'2" frame made building leg mass more difficult. Who could argue with this take-no-prisoners approach that earned Arnold seven Mr. Olympia titles and acclaim as the best bodybuilder of all time?

In this exclusive third installment examining Arnold's training and techniques, we'll focus on his thigh and ab workouts.

ARNOLD'S THIGH WORKOUT

Arnold wasn't renowned for building massive quads and hams the way competitors like Tom Platz were, but he developed extremely cut and well-proportioned front and rear thighs. Because he was tall and long-limbed, Arnold was always going to face an uphill battle when aiming to build overall leg mass. Ultimately it was his dogged determination that enabled him to bring his legs up just enough to balance the strengths in his upper body: his arms, chest and shoulders.

Here are some keys to his success:

ARNOLD'S ADVANCED TRAINING SPLIT

Day A.M. P.M.
Day 1 Chest, back Legs, Abs
Day 2 Shoulders, Arms Rest
Day 3 Chest, Back LEgs, Abs
Day 4 Shoulders, Arms Rest
Day 5 Chest, Back Legs, Abs
Day 6 Shoulders, Arms Rest
Day 7 Rest Rest
  • After warming up the quads with leg extensions, Arnold went right into squats, which he favored as a mass-builder. "The squat increases the power, spring and speed of the legs," he said. "It increases the size of the thigh. When practiced with heavy breathing it permanently expands the rib cage ... With these multiple benefits the squat goes on record as being the best all-around exercise."
  • Arnold started squatting back in Austria in a ritual worth noting. "I'd go into the forest with my friends and do squats for three straight hours—more than 50 sets—just to shock the muscles into responding. In that kind of atmosphere, there was no room for anything but 100 percent effort. All out and insane."
  • When squatting, he found that different foot positions worked different areas of the thighs. "With my feet farther apart and toes pointed out, I feel the squat on the insides of my thighs. The position of the feet largely determines which part of the thigh is most affected." That's one reason Arnold also liked to use various squat machines, both vertical and horizontal. They allowed him to alternate foot placement.
  • Machine squats also had a unique advantage. Here, Arnold could use a shortened range of motion. Going about three-fourths of the way down to a quarter of the way from the top—a technique he called tension squats—allowed him to induce an incredible burn without having to balance the weight.
  • While Arnold's routine had direct hamstrings exercises as well, it would be a mistake to think the hammies weren't also working hard during many of those basic squat and leg-press movements. By controlling the speed of the descent, the hamstrings are contracting while the quad muscles lengthen. Deep squats also work the hams to a greater degree.
  • If The Oak had any one fault when he came to America in 1968, it was that his calves were conspicuously undersized. He realized calves grow fairly slowly because of their high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers. "They are used to handling your bodyweight for 10-15 hours daily," he noted. He tackled them with very heavy weights and super high intensity.
  • To bring attention to his weakness, Arnold famously cut the lower legs off his sweatpants, thus exposing his calves to ridicule around the gym. Later, he said, "I knew if I exposed only my better body parts—my arms, chest, or delts—all I'd get from my peers would be wonderful comments, and I'd soon forget about my horrid lower legs. So I continued to wear the cutaway sweatpants that invited ego-bruising pain ... and it worked."
I knew if I exposed only my better body parts—my arms, chest, or delts—all I'd get from my peers would be wonderful comments, and I'd soon forget about my horrid lower legs. So I continued to wear the cutaway sweatpants that invited ego-bruising pain ... and it worked.

ARNOLD'S AB WORKOUT

Arnold's approach to ab training was fairly simple. He had a few favorite moves that he did for fairly high reps. Then again, when you think how hard he trained his core with his thrice-weekly leg and back workouts, you'd figure he probably didn't even need to train his abs at all.

Training Volume Thighs, Calves, Abs

Muscle Group Low-Volume Workout High-Volume Workout
Thighs 16-20 sets 20-26 sets
Hamstrings 12-16 sets 16-20 sets
Calves 10 sets 15 sets
Abs 3 exercises 4-6 exercises

Arnold was one of the few big men in the history of professional bodybuilding to sport a 34-inch waist in competition shape. His midsection served to accentuate the massiveness of his upper torso while enhancing the aesthetic appeal. While not as ripped to shreds as those displayed today, Arnold's deeply etched six-pack was noteworthy for the exaggerated taper it added to his physique. This was aided, of course, by his wide shoulders and broad back. To refine his midsection, Arnold would focus on high reps, aiming to hit nothing fewer than 25 per set, and often going for 10 minutes continuously on some movements.

Arnold's Leg and Ab Workout
1

Leg Extensions

1-2 warm-up sets of 15 reps
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

2

Barbell Squat

6 sets of 15, 10, 8, 8, 6, 4 reps
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

3

Smith Machine Squat

4 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Smith Machine Squat Smith Machine Squat

4

Hack Squat

4 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Hack Squat Hack Squat

Superset
5

Smith Machine Leg Press

4 sets of 8 reps
Smith Machine Leg Press Smith Machine Leg Press

Lying Leg Curls

4 sets of 10 reps
Lying Leg Curls Lying Leg Curls

Superset
6

Standing Leg Curl

4 sets of 10 reps
Standing Leg Curl Standing Leg Curl

Romanian Deadlift

4 sets of 10 reps
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift

7

Donkey Calf Raises

4 sets of 10 reps
Donkey Calf Raises Donkey Calf Raises

8

Standing Calf Raises

4 sets of 10 reps
Standing Calf Raises Standing Calf Raises

9

Seated Calf Raise

4 sets of 12-15 reps
Seated Calf Raise Seated Calf Raise

10
Hanging Leg Raise Hanging Leg Raise

11

Seated Leg Tucks

4 sets of 25 reps
Seated Leg Tucks Seated Leg Tucks


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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

References
  • Muscle & Fitness, July 1997: Arnold Talks Training.
  • Schwarzenegger, A. & Dobbins, B. (1999). The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon and Shuster: USA.