By the late 1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was no longer just the best bodybuilder in Venice Beach or a six-time Mr. Olympia. On the eve of his 15-mile migration to Hollywood, his level of dominance transcended any superlative or official title. "Arnold was the king," recalls former training partner Danny Padilla.
The intensity of Schwarzenegger's Gold's Gym workouts, while legendary, couldn't explain it all, or what came afterward. Surely, the Styrian Oak had found some taproot to future success. Ask Arnold himself, as many did, have, and will continue to do, and you'd be likely to get an unsatisfying and straightforward reply. "If there were any secrets, I would have found them by now," he said at the time. His answer was that there was no substitute for hard work.
Then, against all odds, Arnold became king twice again: First, of the action blockbuster film genre, and then the chief executive of the Great State of California. None of us could say we saw these other victories coming, but when they did, it all seemed to make sense somehow. Three very different crowns, but all three were built on fundamental strengths of this unique giant's mindset.
Here are six surefire strategies for success that Arnold forged in the crucible of Gold's Gym, and made work for him in every other part of his life.
Secret 1: Break Down the Barrier Between Training and Life
Arnold always stressed the need for rest between sets. But over time, following the advice of trainer Joe Weider, he began devoting an increasing percentage of his rests to what Weider called the "Isotension Principle." You might know it by another name: flexing.
Here's how it works in its simplest form: After a final set, continue hitting the targeted muscle by flexing to peak contraction for 3-6 seconds. The action maintains connections of myofibrils, the building blocks of muscle, without resistance. The longer and more repeated the flex, the greater those connections, and over time, the greater the tension your muscle fibers will generate.
This tension—and the ability to hold it for a prolonged period of time—make a competitive bodybuilder stand out onstage. Arnold called posing and flexing a very important part of a bodybuilder's workout, but beyond that, it also helped him extend his mind-muscle connection beyond when he was lifting. You can see it in "Pumping Iron," when Arnold is flexing even at mealtimes—at least, when he's not taunting his fellow competitors.
Like fellow isotension devotee Bruce Lee, who blazed the path from cult-sport standout to international film star, Arnold continued this practice through his acting career, keeping the mind-muscle connection front and center.
The lesson for the rest of us: He eliminated the division between his training and his life. Sure, he "rested," but he never took a break from improving, and he never let his skills lapse. His boundless commitment enabled his return to Mr. Olympia competition in 1980, five years after retiring, when he took the crown with just a few weeks to prepare. That seventh win, over then-superior opponents, helped launch Arnold's first action film, "Conan The Barbarian," and he was on his way to a second crown.
Secret 2: Keep Your Strengths Guessing
As Arnold often pointed out, he was intensely loyal to his favorite movements, like incline bench presses, concentration curls, and Arnold presses. But within and around these exercises, nothing was sacred. He changed weight amounts, switched grips, added reps, paired exercises for opposing muscle groups, and decreased rests or cut them all together. If one day's routine began to feel familiar, he'd perform it in an unfamiliar order or style.
One of his favorite ways to turn the norm on its head was to convert barbell exercises to dumbbell movements. His signature dumbbell movement, the Arnold press, came out of this intuitive approach, and the switch helped him identify any right-left imbalances.
He was never the strongest, but Arnold was always the most proportioned, and this technique was crucial to creating a physique that seemed devoid of weaknesses.
"Changing constantly really worked for him, and he seemed to grow right before my very eyes," recalls former training partner Ric Drasin. Embracing unpredictability as a way of life kept him ready for anything, and in his later career, helped him make sure his most ambitious career choice achieve the maximum possible impact.
This is, after all, a man who, en route to promote "Terminator 3" on "The Tonight Show," decided to use the interview to announce that he was running for governor.
Secret 3: Find A Contrarian Collaborator
Arnold's third crown required true mass appeal, and he had it, in the form of 89 percent approval ratings when he took office. Some responsibility for this unprecedented momentum has to be chalked up to his decision to ease out of the 1980s action genre and into lighter fare like comedies, where he co-starred with opposites: Danny DeVito, Sinbad, and the child cast of "Kindergarten Cop." Such unpredictable pairings came easily for Arnold. He'd been doing it for years.
Arnold trained with many different lifters at Gold's, but he was inseparable from 5-foot-3 Franco Columbu through the six consecutive Mr. Olympia titles. "Two restless racehorses in the starting blocks" is how Dave Draper, Arnold's first Gold's partner, recalls the two Europeans when they trained together. They may have both spoken with accents and sported similarly tousled hairdos, but far more important was what separated the two: the 100 extra pounds Franco squatted.
Standard wisdom pairs partners of more or less equal strength. Not Arnold. He did back days with Frank Zane, shoulders and chest with stronger men, and legs with Mike Katz, whose NFL career-ending leg injury had led to oversized recuperation. Arnold was similarly quick to help other partners learn from his personal strengths, and his strategy became a maxim at Gold's: "Working together to defeat one another."
Though he was a big believer in compliments to motivate, his contrarian approach also allowed free use of negative feedback. You'd never cut corners with Arnold or, God forbid, not finish. "If he did his 15 reps and you didn't do your 15 reps," recalls Danny Padilla, "it was like, 'Vat's wrong, I got to do your reps now?' What's up with that? If you can't hang, go back to something else!'"
Secret 4: Live For Your Goals
They say that nothing motivates like success. This is true, of course, but what about early in your career, when success is elusive? In bodybuilding, there's always someone bigger or stronger, and this applied to Arnold, too. But nobody had goals that were bigger, and nobody clung to them more tightly than him.
Arnold's goals were no secret. He wrote them at the start of each year on index cards, and made reference to them often. Some, like a new car or a mail-order business, were short-term, recalls Padilla. Four others, which he announced shortly after arriving at Gold's, took longer: He would "become a movie star, make millions of dollars, marry a glamorous wife, and wield political power."
Easier said than done, of course. But in Arnold's case, they did get done. He was unique in recognizing that the difference between his short-term and long-term ambitions was one of degree, not kind. A goal is a goal; what matters is how you pursue it.
Secret 5: Keep it Real
Arnold would later scandalize the bodybuilding community by speaking openly of grass and hash, whiskey in his protein shakes, and a host of other taboo topics. Part of why he felt OK doing this was that he'd arrived at the peak of the freaky 1960s, and he saw that Venice Beach was only a small part of Los Angeles, a community where he and his cohorts were often seen as overgrown freaks.
Even while he was laboring day and night to be the best bodybuilder in the world, he knew how to turn his ego off and look at himself as others saw him. "It's outside of me and also part of me," he said of his body in an interview with "Playboy" in 1977. "I don't say, 'Arnold, how do you look?' but rather 'Let's check out this body in the mirror and see what it looks like today.' Professionally, I have to be detached in order to be critical of it. I don't criticize myself; I criticize my body."
When he looked in the mirror, Arnold saw what he wanted quickly: "The goal is to carry the weight but keep the proportion and symmetry." In layman's terms: Keep it real.
To the uninitiated public, proportion and symmetry were what separated the freak from the superhuman. Arnold was always the latter, never the former. And when he set his sights on being an actor, he was more than willing to put his hard-earned mass on the line. For instance, when director Bob Rafelson asked him to drop from 240 to 210, not wanting him to dwarf Sally Field in 1977's "Stay Hungry," Arnold didn't blink.
Secret 6: Make the Most of Your Victories
"The weightlifters shone with sweat … powerful looking, Herculean," Arnold wrote of his first visit to a bodybuilding gym, age 15 in his first autobiography, "The Education of a Bodybuilder." "And there it was before me—my life, the answer I'd been seeking." To this day, Arnold says he's a bodybuilder at heart.
As he continued training, however, Arnold found that simply getting big and strong wasn't really his heart's desire. He had to look deeper. "I discovered that the secret of successful workouts," he later wrote, "had to do with competition." He wanted to win, and he wanted to be noticed for it. In short, he wanted to be famous, and the documentary "Pumping Iron" gave him the perfect launching pad.
The film opened huge, and just as importantly, it opened when Arnold was up for a Golden Globe for his work in "Stay Hungry." "Of course this brought out the competitor in me," Arnold recalls in his autobiography, "Total Recall." He used the documentary's premiere to build his star power as much as possible. He invited members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose members select Golden Globe winners, to the premiere and to a star-studded pre-release lunch featuring celebrities like Andy Warhol—the man who had made fame an art form—and Jackie Onassis.
All of a sudden, everyone seemed to know who Arnold was, and just in time. He won the Golden Globe, and proceeded to leverage his victory into more parts, more fame, and more victories. It was what he had been looking for all along, and once found he'd never lose it.