Think big. We don’t mean typical rep ranges or average daily protein consumption. Those are crucial components of success, but think bigger. Consider what philosophical approaches help the crème de la crème rise to the top.

Here, we focused on the most accomplished bodybuilders of all time: the four men who’ve won six or more Mr. Olympia contests — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman. Analyzing the lifestyles of these men before and during their Olympia reigns, we discovered seven habits that distinguished them from their fellow pro bodybuilders. These are the tendencies that separate the very best from the rest and which everyone should utilize to maximize their physique potential.


Backstage after bodybuilding contests, some competitors from second to last have ready excuses for their performances. These range from illness and injury to incompetent judges to “a freak of nature” victor — any of which may or may not be true. Meanwhile, some accept all blame for their fate — whether or not they deserve it — and are already strategizing what they’ll do different next time. Invariably, the latter make the greatest improvements, while those who always have an excuse for losing almost always have cause to use it.You can either be reactive or proactive. When you’re reactive, you blame outside circumstances and other people for obstacles or failures. By inference, there was nothing you could’ve done differently. When you’re proactive, you take responsibility for everything in your life and, because you’ve assumed control, you can anticipate difficulties, then devise a plan and take actions for overcoming any circumstance.

Perhaps no bodybuilder and, indeed, few people have ever been more proactive than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since childhood, he’s planned to win and acted accordingly. Those rare times when things didn’t go his way, he focused not on opponents or uncontrollable factors, but instead worked diligently to make certain he wouldn’t feel the sting of defeat again. In Pumping Iron , he playfully dismissed his fellow Olympia contestants as insignificant to his eventual victory — a demeanor some may see as arrogant, but it merely reflected the proactive mindset that he had no control over their physiques, so he focused entirely on himself, feeling, as he must, that if he’s as good as he can possibly be, he’ll win again.


Whether or not you pose competitively, your approach to bodybuilding must be proactive. Don’t rely on excuses, however legitimate, for why you don’t have the physique you desire. Such a reactive mindset can only slow your progress. Instead, assume full responsibility for your current condition, seize control of your fate in all aspects of your life, and plot a course to achieve your bodybuilding goals.

“I taught myself discipline, the strictest kind of discipline: how to be totally in control of my body. Bodybuilding changed me entirely. It gave me confidence and pride and an unlimited positive attitude, and I can apply my success to everything. I always had a positive attitude about going to the top. Never was there even the slightest doubt in my mind that I would make it.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1977


On and off the stage, the four greatest bodybuilders never avoided competition. Instead, they reveled in it in order to drive themselves to greater heights. In six of the past seven years, Ronnie Coleman’s workouts and diets were fueled by his chief competitor, Jay Cutler. Schwarzenegger trained with one of his main rivals (and one of the all time strongest bodybuilders), Franco Columbu, just as Haney worked out with Rich Gaspari and, later, Ty Felder — hungry up-andcomers who pushed Haney ever onward. Dorian Yates had both a brutally intense gym cohort (for three of Yates’ O victories, Leroy Davis was that man) and the entries in his logbook to beat at every workout.


Bodybuilding may be the ultimate individualistic sport, but it’s easier to improve if you’re driven onward and upward by your peers. Consider entering a contest, starting with a local or novice show. Many bodybuilders who will likely never be famous compete annually to push themselves to their prime condition. Whether or not you pose in public, either train with someone who is at least as strong as you to challenge you in every workout, or keep a training diary so you’re always vying against your previous best.

“I love competing. That’s what brings out the best in me in the gym and on the stage. But, to me, the competition is always really with myself. I go up against other people not to beat them, but to beat my previous best, to make myself better than ever before.” — Lee Haney, 1989


It’s comically predictable that within a month of putting on a less-than-stellar performance, certain IFBB pros will drop one “guru” and hire another, bouncing about as if in a pinball machine. Likewise, many bodybuilders change routines so regularly they have no way to discern what works and what doesn’t. Even if they know that a certain exercise or technique is most effective, they’ll underutilize it just for the sake of variety.

Coleman, on the other hand, does virtually the same workouts he was doing years ago, focusing on the same free-weight, compound basics because he knows they pack on the most mass. No Mr. O had a more structured strategy than Yates. Before he began serious bodybuilding, he read all he could about it and, feeling high-intensity training made the most sense, he adopted a regimented HIT system and stuck to it throughout his career (and still does in his retirement). Our four legends found the systems that worked best for their physiques and, although they made subtle adjustments, never wavered.


Believe in something, and then make certain it justifies your belief. Don’t stick with what doesn’t work best for too long, but don’t stop doing what’s proven effective just to try something else. If you picture a line representing your journey between point A (today’s physique) and point B (your ideal physique), note that it takes longer to travel a zigzagging line than a straight one. If it zigzags wildly, the route can be many times longer. Keep an open mind during your quest, but set out on the straightest, shortest path and don’t stray too far or too often.

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Hardcore gyms were the “workplaces” of our four legends during their Olympia reigns. Schwarzenegger trained in the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, and later in nearby World Gym alongside peers such as Columbu, Dave Draper, Frank Zane and Ed Corney. Haney worked out mostly at his own hardcore haven, Animal Kingdom, in Atlanta, Georgia, just as Yates toiled in his own Temple Gym, a dungeon-like basement in Birmingham, England. And Coleman hit the weights, sans air conditioning and other “luxuries,” in brutally intense MetroFlex Gym, located in Arlington, Texas.


Sometimes you don’t have gym choices, and an unfortunate consequence of barbells going mainstream is that hardcore pits are slipping into history. Still, if you want to be serious about bodybuilding, try to train in a place that fosters such seriousness. Wherever you work out, be aware of how environmental factors, from the available equipment to the music they play, can affect your intensity, and don’t let the actions of others, inside or outside the gym, negatively impact your training.


Yates failed to win only two of the 17 pro contests he entered, and it’s difficult to see a runner-up placing in his professional debut and another in his Olympia debut as “losses.” Still, he couldn’t be satisfied with less than the first-place trophy. After finishing second to Mohamed Benaziza in the 1990 Night Of Champions, Yates dismissed the widespread belief that he should’ve won and instead focused on the NOC champ’s superior back muscularity. He kept two photos of Benaziza’s back on permanent display — one at home, the other at Temple Gym — as he set about building the best back the physique world had ever seen.

Smooth, pale, 250-pound, 21-year-old Schwarzenegger also lost his first contest in America. His defeat came in the 1968 IFBB Mr. Universe to defined, bronzed Frank Zane, whom he outweighed by 65 pounds. The Oak learned that bigger wasn’t necessarily better and vowed from then on to give his all to factors like dieting, posing and tanning, and to never compete at less than his best again. In a similar vein, all five of Haney’s pro losses came his rookie year — 1983 — and 160-pound Mohamed Makkawy placed ahead of him in each, winning four. The much bigger Haney refined his superior mass the following year, bringing a combination of density and details that proved unbeatable over his eight-year O reign. Already a five-time Mr. Olympia, Coleman was shocked to lose the 2002 Show of Strength, but he used the sting to fuel his hardest, heaviest workouts ever. Stepping onstage at the 2003 Olympia at 287 pounds — 42 more than the year before — he simply eclipsed the competition.

Most bodybuilders never pose in public, but still there will be failures in training, eating and recuperating, from injuries to lagging bodyparts to lackluster workouts or missed long-range goals. When Schwarzenegger lost to Zane, his undersized calves were a crucial flaw. So he began always training in shorts or sweat pants cut off at the knees. The natural tendency would’ve been to keep his lower legs covered in the gym, revealing them only if they sufficiently improved, but he highlighted his flaw, thus fueling his desire to correct it during set after set of calf raises and eventually turning his biggest physique weakness into one of his greatest strengths.


Everyone fails. A loser fails to make necessary changes, only to fail again and again. A winner is always trying to correct errors, however small. Speak to judges after a bodybuilding contest to find out why you placed where you did and what needs improving. Whether or not you ever compete, analyze photos and videos of your physique with an eye for what’s lagging. Welcome constructive criticism. Measure success by how much you improve your greatest weaknesses. The common proclivity is to dismiss failures and move on as if they never existed — say you should’ve won, cover up weak points and focus on strengths. Resist that urge. Target lagging areas and let the sting of defeat drive you to never feel that sting again.

“For my first few years in the pros, it seemed like all I did was lose. But it never got me down. I was still having fun. I was still training every day, and I was still growing. I’ve lost, but I’ve never been a loser, because I was learning from mistakes and making myself better all the time.” — Ronnie Coleman, 2006


If your only goal is a longterm quest like adding 30 pounds of muscle, it’s difficult to focus every workout and meal on it. You’ll more readily accept low-intensity training sessions or eat junk food if you feel you have, literally, years to make up for those diversions and, as a consequence, your lofty goal will grow ever loftier. Yates had longterm goals, but, most important, he also had a clear purpose for every workout and meal. Like a director detailing each shot before ever calling “action,” Yates plotted out exactly what he wanted to get from each set before he even arrived at the gym. Then, he made it happen. Having reached his daily goals, he plotted his next workout the same way, knowing that every step brought him closer to another Sandow.


Have a purpose for every set. It’s not enough to merely do what you did the time before. Always strive to use a heavier weight, do more reps with the same weight or boost intensity. Likewise, have a purpose behind everything you eat, as well as your rest and sleep. These daily steps forward eventually carry you to your distant destination.

“Here is the seeming contradiction of bodybuilding: in a sport where physical prowess appears to be the most visible overriding asset, inner mental strength is the determining factor for success. The major reason I’ve won six Mr. Olympia titles is because I was prepared to ask more of myself mentally than other more physically gifted guys. It’s called the will to win!” — Dorian Yates, 1998


Our four legends had long-term goals lofty enough to propel them to greatness, and when they achieved one goal they set another distant mark to meet. They strived to become pro bodybuilders, then win the Mr. Olympia, then fend off all challengers for another 

Sandow and another, and, eventually (although injuries cut Yates’ quest short), match or set the record for most Olympias. No bodybuilder aimed higher than Schwarzenegger, and none has achieved more. Even as a skinny teen in rural Austria, he set his sights on conquering not just the physique world but also the movie and business fields, and when he eventually turned his dreams into reality, he still wasn’t (and isn’t) satisfied, conquering politics, as well. If there’s a secret to his immense success, it’s that he never rests on his laurels, but always looks onward, seeking a new and greater challenge.


It’s important to have daily goals, but if you don’t have a long-range mark to strive for, you likely won’t attain all you can. Set bodybuilding aspirations that challenge you, such as winning a higher-level contest than you ever placed in before, gaining 15 lean pounds in a year or, if you’ve gone soft, attaining your best-ever conditioning by six months from today. When you reach that (or even if you fall short), set a higher mark that you feel may be just beyond the border of what’s possible. Again, work with all your will to get there, only to then set another distant summit. It’s this pattern that carries you higher and higher. You’ll always be striving to be your physical best. That’s the essence of bodybuilding, and living that daily quest separates you from virtually all the rest. – FLEX