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Long before he began marketing “The Zane Experience” as a personal seminar in which one could train with and learn from a bodybuilding legend at his personal gym in Southern California, three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane had a less formal “Zane Experience.” It was all in his head, literally.
We’re talking about Zane’s mental approach to training. Nothing was random; everything he did had a purpose. His focus was intense, and, consequently, so were his workouts. The results spoke for themselves: arguably the most aesthetically pleasing physique of all time and a legacy carved in stone.
We recently got Zane on the phone for a question-and-answer session that had very little to do with sets, reps, posing, or even his famed six-pack abs. Rather, we asked him what went through his head when building his iconic physique back in the 1960s and 1970s. His responses were every bit as insightful as we’d hoped for. Enjoy this exercise for your brain.
Athletes talk a lot about “taking it one game at a time” or “one practice at a time.” Did you approach your training in a “one workout at a time” sort of way?
No, I didn’t. One workout doesn’t lead to anything. It’s continuous workouts, and how that goes depends on my motivation. You’ve got to have a reason for doing any kind of hard training. That’s what it takes to get in shape. It’s not just going to the gym three times a week. It’s more of a dedicated thing, and the only way you can get that maximum motivation, I think, is through competing. That’s why I did it for so long, for 23 years.
Did you follow a strict program?
I did everything on schedule. I kept journals, and I planned my peaking out in advance. I generally allowed six months to get into top shape. Some people call it periodization, but I like to refer to it as seasonal training because there are four distinct emphases in what I did. My hard training was always spring and summer, peaking in the autumn for competition. After that, basically what I would do is go into maintenance training and just work weak points. That lasted a couple of months, then I’d come back in early spring and start building strength. And then after building my strength and size up to the level I wanted in the springtime, by about July I was already going into training for definition by increasing intensity. Also, my workout spacing was closer together. I would be training for a competition three days in a row and resting on the fourth day, whereas before that I would train three out of five days.
That’s pretty much how I did it all the time. And then after I retired my whole concept was basically to work out with my clients, and I still do that. When I don’t have clients, at my age two workouts per week is all I need to stay like this. I train upper body one day a week and legs another day, and that’s it. Simple.
“If you want to get good at something, you have to do it a lot. The basis of learning is repetition.”
What about the micro approach? How were you approaching individual workouts?
I’m not thinking about anything when I’m in the gym. I’m just doing it and getting a good workout. As far as psyching myself up to get a good workout, if that doesn’t happen on its own, then I’m not motivated and I don’t train as hard. It takes care of itself. I don’t really have to do anything to psych myself up—ever. If I was training for a competition, the mindset automatically fell in place the closer I got to the contest. Because I did it for so long.
By the time I was winning Olympias, I had already been training for so long. No overnight sensation here. That was always my approach—take your time and do a good job. Pay attention to details. Over time, by taking a lot of photographs, I got to see what was what. And when I went onstage, I already knew what I looked like because I saw it in photographs. At a show, nobody asks you how big your arms are. What do they do? They look at you. In any scientific experiment, if you want to be successful, you have to cut out extraneous variables. Get things out of there that don’t matter. Don’t waste your time looking at measurements. That’s what I did. I concentrated only on what I looked like.
Would this also apply to the exercises you do? Meaning, get rid of the exercises that are extraneous and make sure every movement you do serves a specific purpose?
Yes, as my overall purpose. But actually, when I do each exercise, my purpose and my goal is to get a good pump on every set. And if I don’t, something’s wrong. Get a good pump in the area I want it—that was the whole thing. That’s not something I had to think about; that’s just something I did because I had been doing it so long and practicing it. It was just habit.
Aesthetic perfection in his day, Zane’s body of work still reigns as the ideal physique for many of today’s iron athletes.
So if you’re not getting a good pump, what’s usually the culprit? Exercise form?
Form is always a culprit, but what you eat before your workout is also important. If you’re on a low-carb diet in the final stages before a competition, for example, it’s hard to get a pump. You need some carbs before your workout to get a pump. So I always looked at that. I looked at everything. I was pretty well-adjusted. When I got to the gym, it always worked.
What were those training sessions like?
When I would be in the gym, I never wanted to talk to anyone during a workout, especially if I was training for something, because that’s a distraction. In my training, my purpose was always to go to the gym when there was hardly anybody there. Or if there were people there, they’re very serious people. Like Gold’s Gym in the late ’60s, early ’70s. If you go to the gym at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, the people there are serious about their workouts and are there for a purpose. There’s no talking, no noise. Come 9 a.m., all the loudmouths come in. I’d be leaving then. So that was my goal: Get there when there’s no distractions, and take advantage of that. If someone comes in when you’re training and starts asking you questions, your workout’s already gone. Just because you rest between sets or between exercises doesn’t mean you should break your focus. What I always did in my training was stretch between sets. After every set, I would stretch for 15 seconds, and then go into the next set.
Third from left, Zane adopts his trademark “relaxed” pose.
So the stretching between sets helps you stay engaged?
That, plus it keeps you warmed up.
Consistency is obviously critical for success on any program. What does consistency mean to you?
To me, being consistent means being on a program and following it. This whole concept of changing your routine every month to something entirely different— the problem with that is you never get to be good at anything. If you want to get good at something, you have to do it a lot. The basis of learning is repetition. Do it over and over and over again. That’s what you do in the gym; we’re educating the muscles by doing a lot of sets and reps.
The way I see it, there are really two kinds of bodybuilding. One is “get big fast” and the other is “training for longevity”—and they’re just the opposite. Get big fast is what a lot of young people do, where they do anything it takes to get that way. Usually that kind of bodybuilding is short-lived, because they’re not motivated to stick with it. Training for longevity is where you basically commit to doing it for the rest of your life. And in the course of doing that, your goals and the way you train is going to change over time. That’s part of growing up. I’ve experienced both ways.
With wife Christine and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1970 Mr. Universe.
A lot of people have trouble staying motivated enough to make that commitment to keep training. What motivation advice can you offer?
Motivation is based on two things. When you start out, it’s a different kind of motivation. Most people start working out because they don’t like where they’re at and they want to improve. It’s called deficiency motivation. That’s good motivation to start with. Then, after you do it for a while and you’ve made improvement, now you’re motivated to keep going because you want even more improvement. That’s the best kind of motivation if you’re going to keep doing this—to get rewarded for what you’re doing. Give yourself a reward, and I don’t mean eating junk food or doing something that’s contrary to your goals. Reward yourself in a positive way.
One way I was able to stay motivated all those years was through the seasonal training approach I mentioned before. Every year I would come back in the springtime with a new look, because I had worked on my weak points harder, and now they’re in better relation to the whole body.
So focusing on your weak points helped you stay motivated?
The thing is to always have goals. Set sensible goals and work hard at reaching them. But don’t sacrifice yourself to your goals to the point where you can’t be happy in the moment. Because if you’re always striving for something you don’t have, what does that say about right now? Try to have both. I know that’s not easy. I remember when I was training hard all those years, I would have these great photos from Artie Zeller, and I would look at them and always think, “I still need this, I got to do that…” and so on. I never found anything that good with them. And now when I look at the same photos, I think, “Wow, how was I able to do that?” It’s all a matter of perspective.
Repping out leg curls under the watchful eye of Weider.
In his book The Workouts: Personal Training Diaries, Frank Zane chronicled a workout he performed the morning of Sept. 9, 1977, which at the time he called his “best back, biceps, forearms training yet.”