05 Jun 5 Things We Can Learn From Arnold About Building Muscle
I still remember ordering a copy of my first Arnold book back in high school, the ‘Education of a Bodybuilder’.
A friend of mine had bought it earlier in the week and brought it into school. I remember reading parts of it during lunchtime and immediately being hooked on Arnold’s story. That night I went home and ordered a copy.
Over the weeks and months to come, I began to read and watch everything Arnold had produced. As I was starting my own fitness journey, Arnold became a real mentor and guide, and to this day, his principles in bodybuilding, business and life overall continue to leave a mark.
In fact, one of the three hexagons in our RNT logo is a silhouette of an Arnold signature pose.
None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Arnold. He shaped fitness in the 1970s and planted the seeds for what has grown into a multi-billion pound industry across the globe.
While there are many ways I could approach an article on Arnold’s lessons, I thought I’d stick to how he’s helped shape my own muscle building endeavours.
Arnold’s Lesson #1 – Build A Strength Foundation
When most people think of Arnold’s training, they picture the brutal 6 days a week, twice a day programs that he used while preparing for Mr. Olympia.
What people forget is that in his early years, he was a proponent of basic full body programs with an emphasis on building a foundation.
His advice for beginners is to focus on training three days a week with a focus on getting stronger in the big compound exercises.
As you progress into your intermediate years, he’d recommend splitting your body up into two on a variation of an upper / lower split.
Throughout this period, he’d recommend setting goals for your key lifts, and keeping them at the forefront of your mind in each training session.
Arnold was all about progressive overload as the best means of building muscle. In fact, in the 1960s, he competed and won various weightlifting and powerlifting contests, and over the course of his bodybuilding career, squatted and bench pressed over 500lbs, and deadlifted over 700lbs!
It was only once he’d built a solid foundation did he transition to the crazy high volume workouts that he eventually became famous for.
The mistake many newbies make is starting straight out on these programs, and wondering why they can’t make any progress – they need to get strong and build a foundation first!
Arnold’s Lesson #2 – Visualisation
Arnold used many visualisation and mind-empowering techniques throughout his life.
His most famous examples of this was with his arm training, where in his mind, he saw his biceps as ‘mountains’ that were ‘enormously huge’.
During every rep of every set of curls, he’d maintain this picture in his head that they were capable of lifting any amount of weight, and growing beyond any perceived circumference limit.
Using visualisation in your training can be powerful, and it certainly works.
I use it in a few ways.
If I’m attempting a PR, I’ll complete the set in my head before having the weight in my hands.
In most cases, I’d have done it multiple times before the session, so that when it comes to it, it’s just a case of executing it.
This was particularly powerful when I was into powerlifting. I’d spend every night before sleeping visualising the PR: from the feel of the bar, to the bar path, through the sticking point and then the completion.
Now that my focus is on bodybuilding, I use visualisation to play the movie of my set from both an internal and external perspective.
If it’s a hack squat, the external view will be the execution of the set, completing all the reps, and setting a new record.
The internal is where I’ll think of my quads lengthening, contracting and tearing apart. I’ll put all my focus into my quads, and make sure that they’re the muscles being overloaded with every rep.
If your goal is muscle building, it’s important to combine both performance visualisation with the intrinsic stimulation of correct musculature during the movement.
You need to be, as Arnold said ‘tuned into your body like a musical instrument’.
Arnold’s Lesson 3 – Feel The Muscle Working
Arnold famously said that the greatest feeling you can get in the gym is the pump.
I agree. It’s hard to beat the feeling of when your muscles are so pumped and engorged with blood that you can barely move it.
The pump is an important part of training. Achieving a cell swelling effect and generating a ton of metabolic stress into the muscle is something Arnold’s been talking about since the 60s, and the research has now caught up to prove correct.
This doesn’t mean that you should train to just chase a pump. That’s actually one of the biggest mistakes people make.
Instead, you should arrive at a pump with heavy weights and quality sets.
That’s why I love training in a wide variety of rep ranges, and enjoy sets/reps schemes such as a few sets of 5-8, followed by a set of 8-12. This allows you to get the best of both worlds and finish your workouts with a big pump.
The pump is also indicative of your body’s readiness to train and overall recovery. If you’re training in a moderate rep range and struggling to get a pump, there’s usually something wrong. You may need to address your hydration, sodium intake and/or increase your carbs around training.
If you’re struggling to get a pump in a muscle you’re training, it may also be due to an inability to contract or feel the muscle.
Arnold was big on establishing a mind muscle connection at all times; not only through your visualisation, but through flexing, posing and squeezing the muscle in and out of your training sessions.
For example, if you’re struggling to feel your chest during incline dumbbell presses, try squeezing your chest as hard as possible for 8-10 seconds between your warm up sets. This should activate and drive more blood into the chest so that you can get a pump and put all the tension in the right area.
Arnold’s Lesson #4 – Pay Attention To Your Body’s Feedback
Arnold was obsessed with analysing his physique and paying attention to what his body was doing.
He was incredibly self-aware, and was a master of finding the right exercises and training systems that worked for his body.
While I don’t agree with Arnold’s six day high volume approach to training in his later years, or his thoughts on ‘shock tactics’, it’s hard to argue with his own results on it. He knew what worked for him, and exploited it.
When other bodybuilders tried his routines, it didn’t work the same. He knew this, and wrote: ‘Bodybuilders hung on to me like fleas, because they thought if they did the same exercises as me they would get the same kind of muscles. But I watched them fall away with absolutely no results except exhaustion’.
Besides this, Arnold talked about regularly making an inventory on how different exercise felt and how different rep schemes impacted his body. He knew how important it was to pay attention to your body, and never to only go through the motions.
What this taught me was to challenge my thinking on the traditional ‘big three’ of squats, benches and deadlifts forming the foundation of any program.
For years I was locked into this belief, but it was only when I began to look at my results, examine how different exercises felt and what my body’s feedback was telling me, that I changed the paradigm and started training with exercises that worked for my body type.
Arnold’s Lesson #5 – Prioritise Your Body’s Weak Points
Arnold’s first major defeat in bodybuilding came at the hands of Chet Yorton, who exemplified a complete physique where no body part powered over another.
Arnold learnt from this that he needed to bring up his weak points, especially his calves, in order to achieve the complete physique.
He prioritised them by training them first in his workout so he’d be full of energy, and was able to provide the mental focus necessary to turn his weak points into a strength.
While my progress since employing this principle for calf training hasn’t been quite as successful, it has worked tremendously well for my hamstrings.
Having switched hamstrings from later in the workout, to now being the first on the cards every leg day has paid dividends from both a strength and size perspective over the past three years.
The success Arnold has reached across all platforms of life has been truly remarkable. He first made his name in bodybuilding, and it was how I was first exposed to his work and achievements.
Over the years, few have influenced my muscle building endeavours more than Arnold. His early philosophies which helped build his foundation are often forgotten, but it’s these pieces of advice that can be true gold to anyone looking to take their physique to the next level.