The era of superhuman action stars in the 1980s and '90s was an incredible time for movie fans. It was an emergence flooded with hardcore heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Steven Seagal. But one man owned the Hollywood hierarchy and stood atop the throne: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Growing up in those decades, I wore out several Arnold VHS classics including "Conan The Barbarian," "Commando," "Running Man," "Terminator," and "T2." I spent most of the money I made mowing lawns to purchase new copies and drove my parents bonkers saying "I'll be back" in Arnold's accent when I left the dinner table.
Arnold had a lasting effect on me as a kid—he still affects me as an adult—because of his illustrious movie career playing characters I wanted to be. For instance, instead of shaking hands to greet people like a normal person might, I'd blurt out, "Dillon! You son of a bitch!" and then launch into a "Predator"-style hand clasp while looking them straight in the eyes.
More to the point, I admired Arnold for being jacked and unmatched in the sport of bodybuilding. Like his contemporaries in the '80s and '90s, old-school bodybuilders like Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno, Dave Draper, Sergio Oliva were stuck looking up to Arnold in the glory days of bodybuilding.
Golden Era Grit
Golden age bodybuilders are famous for their unparalleled aesthetics and bodybuilding prowess, but these guys didn't just look the part, they were insanely strong! It was a generation of true athletes who didn't see gaining strength and building muscle as two distinct training goals.
Arnold won several strongman and powerlifting competitions before ever stepping on a bodybuilding stage. He won a prestigious stone lifting contest by hoisting a 560-pound rock in Munich, West Germany, while he was Mr. Universe.
For people who need concrete evidence that Arnold was strong, take a look at some training numbers the Austrian Oak himself mentioned in his Blueprint training program:
- Squat: 545 pounds
- Bench Press: 500 pounds
- Deadlift: 710 pounds
That's beast mode, kids!
Likewise, Franco Columbu, who weighed less than 190 pounds, competed at the World's Strongest Man competition within months of winning the Olympia and posted even more ridiculous numbers than Arnold:
- Squat: 665 pounds
- Bench Press: 525 pounds
- Deadlift: 750 pounds; though it's rumored Franco hit 780 pounds in training
Franco could deadlift four times his bodyweight! Hell, he deadlifted a car in the documentary "Pumping Iron."
The accolades for golden age bodybuilders are endless. For instance, Sergio Oliva competed on the Cuban National Weightlifting Team prior to his bodybuilding career. You'll find similar strongman, powerlifting, and Olympic lifting backgrounds for guys like Dave Draper, Larry Scott, Frank Zane, Serge Nubret, and Tom Platz, who probably could have squatted Godzilla.
The point is that golden age bodybuilders placed a premium on strength and understood that it was, in fact, the key to reach their aesthetic goals. That's where many modern-day bodybuilders miss the boat.
Strength Trumps All
A fair portion of my clientele consists of athletes who are generally more concerned with performance in their respective sport than with the size of their biceps. I instruct clients to understand that strength is the foundation for everything. You can't have other attributes like power, agility, and explosiveness without a foundation of strength to work from.
Strength is paramount even if you're not an athlete and could care less how hard you can throw a baseball or how high your vertical jump is. Hell, the only thing strength doesn't improve is your atrocious pickup lines and bad hair.
As history indicates, champion bodybuilders built impressive and admirable physiques by focusing on strength. Sure, it's possible to build an Adonis-like look without strength assuming you have good genetics, but the road is far more difficult.
Here's a short two-step litmus test:
Can you perform 10 strict, sternum-to-bar bodyweight chin-ups? If the answer is no, you have no business scheduling a biceps day.
Can you squat at least 1.5 times (ideally 2 times) your bodyweight? If the answer is no, don't be concerned with your quad sweep.
One of the best analogies to explain the parallel between strength gains and aesthetics is to think of strength as a glass—any glass. The idea is to make the glass bigger. The water inside the glass has the "qualities" we train for—whether performance- or physique-based.
The smaller your glass, the fewer "qualities" you can express, especially at a high level. The larger you make the glass, the more liquid you can place inside it and, as a result, your performance (and arm girth) will improve.
Taking time to focus on loading the squat, bench press, deadlift, chin-up, and other major lifts can produce valuable dividends—even if it's only for 1-2 training cycles per year.
Build Strength, Build Muscle
My friend Bryan Krahn says, "Competing against a training log and getting stronger on a consistent basis is the best thing you can do for your physique." Consistent competition teaches you to recruit a maximum amount of motor units, especially high-threshold motor units which have the greatest propensity and potential for growth. Slow tempo, high rep, and traditional hypertrophy training won't accomplish this as effectively.
Rate coding, or discharge frequency, is improved with strength training. Strength training also improves your inter- and intra-muscular coordination, which synchronizes activity between synergistic muscle groups and allows you to produce more force.
Lifting loads 85-95 percent of your one-rep max (1RM) and performing more strength-based work will have profound effects on your training and physique when you return back to the typical hypertrophy 8-15-rep zone.
As an example, let's say your deadlift 1RM is 315 pounds. If you're focused solely on aesthetics, you'll typically train in the 70-80 percent range, which means you'd use 220-250 pounds for 8-15 reps.
For the next three months, you decide to get stronger and increase your 1RM to 405 pounds, which isn't out of the question for people who have never committed to strength training. What used to be 80 percent of your 1RM—250 pounds—is now 62.5 percent. When you return back to a hypertrophy-based program, 70-80 percent of your 1RM is now 285-325 pounds.
By performing multiple repetitions of your previous 1RM, you'll have hamstrings and an upper back larger than Arkansas!
The biggest guys in the gym are often the strongest, so it's no coincidence that many of the most well-known bodybuilders—past and present—have a history of competing in strength-based events. They recognized that competing against the barbell was essential to aesthetic success.