Arm Exercises

Austrian Alps: Understanding Arnold's Arms Workout

Getting to the bottom—and top—of Arnold’s biceps and triceps. We combined all of The Oaks arms training tips!


Even by today’s standards, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms were, at their peak, impressive and many agree that when it comes to biceps developmentArnold Schwarzenegger has never been bettered. With arms stretching the tape to nearly two feet, they were his one- two knockout punches in his seven Mr. Olympia victories, punctuating a physique that was also, head to toe, ahead of its time.Speaking of peak, his biceps had plenty—his right one in particular, which he cannily displayed more often than his left. His triceps, while perhaps slightly less imposing than his biceps, showed a remarkably full horseshoe when at his sides and in his signature side- arm pose. Sometimes maligned for his forearm development, Arnold’s lower arm limbs actually complemented his uppers perfectly, and while they may not have impressed in repose, they jumped to life when he hit his biceps shots, seeming to double in thickness and vascularity.

SEE ALSO: Arnold's Complete Physical Evolution

Over the past five decades, the question has been asked: “How can I get my arms to look like Arnold’s?” In short, you can’t. Just as you were born with your own unique set of genetic attributes, so was Arnold, and among his was the DNA for a stunning set of pipes. That said, hope isn't lost. Arnold hammered his biceps hard, using myriad advanced training principles. He also mastered the art/science of visualization, which allowed him to almost will his biceps’ transformation from mere muscles to mountains.. It’s founded on principles Arnold read about in this very magazine when he was cutting his teeth in the gym. Just as his idol, Reg Park, influenced the training of young Arnold, so, too, can you follow the formula that worked so well for the Austrian Oak. It’s based on tried-and-true techniques that have been serving the bodybuilding community since Day 1. And that’s what we have here: a 42-set of nuts-and-bolts moves with a high- intensity barrage that annihilated, and consequently grew, the biceps, triceps, and forearms of the man many label the best bodybuilder the world has ever seen.

From Tiny Seeds Grow Mighty Oaks

It’s significant (and encouraging) to note that Schwarzenegger wasn’t born with massive guns. In fact, when he first started training seriously, in 1962, the 15-year-old future Austrian Oak was a mere sapling—all six feet and 150 pounds of him. But, he’s quick to point out, “When I was 10 years old, I was already flexing my arms every day. By the time I started bodybuilding at age 15, biceps were the most noticeable muscle group on my body. By flexing my biceps so much, I’d learned to control them more completely. This mind-link ability then translated into my bodybuilding when I began training with weights. When I did a curl, it felt special, because I could instantly sense blood rushing into the muscle.”

See the Biceps. Be the Biceps.

Many of us are aware of the mind games Schwarzenegger played in an effort to psych out his opponents come competition time (as illustrated in the film Pumping Iron). However, he didn’t reserve such tactics only for Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu or Sergio Oliva. In fact, the person to whom he applied his most intense psychological stratagems was himself.

“Throughout my bodybuilding career,” Schwarzenegger reflects, “I was constantly playing tricks on my mind. This is why I began to think of my biceps as mountains, instead of flesh and blood. Thinking of my biceps as mountains made my arms grow faster and bigger than if I’d seen them only as muscles.” He continues, “When you think of biceps as merely muscles, you subconsciously have a limit in your mind, which for biceps is something in the area of 20” or 21”. When you limit yourself to that measurement, it is very hard to get to that level and, needless to say, impossible to get past it. But when you think about mountains, there is no limit to biceps growth, and therefore you have a chance of going beyond normal mental barriers.”

That being said, Schwarzenegger makes the point that it is important to temper our zeal with a healthy dose of pragmatism. “Enthusiasm is extremely important at all levels of bodybuilding. However, a beginner must learn to be satisfied with small gains —overjoyed, in fact. He must not be told that giant gains come easily, or that he can get super big overnight as long as he trains like a champion. His progress should be a history of small successes, and he should look forward to each gain with great anticipation.” But always keep your eye on the prize.

“Whether it’s muscle or money, you have to make it with your mind,” reminds the Oak. “I once asked a fellow whom I had seen train for four years whether he had ever thought of winning the Mr. Universe. His answer was ‘Nah, I could never do that.’ He was right. With that attitude, he could never experience serious progress.” Got your head on straight now? Good! Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.


A Shocking Development

As he did with every aspect of his life, Arnold Schwarzenegger analyzed exactly what steps would be required for him to build the greatest biceps ever. Although his earliest biceps workouts consisted primarily of barbell and dumbbell curls, as he became exposed to American bodybuilding magazines, he picked up new exercises, such as the preacher curl.

By the age of 19, Schwarzenegger had already devised a method of training biceps unlike any other—one to which his still-developing muscles couldn’t help but respond. “A typical training program would include barbell curls, dumbbell curls (seated or standing), preacher bench curls and concentration curls. Keep in mind, though, that the way I trained changed a lot of times, because I’d always try to shock the muscles,” Schwarzenegger says. “I recall days when my training partners and I would do 20 extremely heavy sets of biceps work, with only four or five reps each set. Another day—maybe only two days later—we would do 10 more sets, 15 reps each, using a lighter weight.

“This shocking method was extremely important to my training. Your muscles tend to become complacent and resist growth if you are constantly doing the same workout for them. But if you try all different types of training methods, exercises, weights, set-rep combinations and training tempos, you keep the muscles off balance. They sort of say to themselves, ‘Wow, there’s a new thing here. He just did 10 sets of 20 reps, and the next workout he’ll do 20 sets of five reps. I’ll never get used to this. I can never build up a resistance to the training, so I guess I’ll have to grow!’”

And his arms did just that. They grew to 17 inches when he was 17, 18 inches at 18 and past 19 inches by the time he was 19. In fact, Schwarzenegger used this seemingly haphazard, yet carefully planned, system of shocking his biceps to stretch the tape measure past the 20-inch mark. Interestingly, despite the great success he achieved with this program, he instinctively knew he could create even bigger and, more important, better biceps by making a few alterations to his training system.


Ever the perfectionist, the Oak decided to modify what had been a wildly successful biceps routine for him. Whereas previously his sole concern was with packing on beef, now, as a professional competitor, he realized that he’d have to become more discriminating as to how and where he placed it.

To this end, he chose to break up his biceps training into two distinct routines: offseason, which comprised the nine months following the Mr. Olympia contest, and pre-contest, which accounted for the three months leading up to the Olympia. The offseason routine concentrated on building quality mass, while the pre-contest routine focused on etching crystalline detail into his massive boulders of muscle.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

It could be argued that Arnold Schwarzenegger is at least as, if not more, physiologically gifted than any pro bodybuilder ever. His recuperative powers are almost otherworldly and his threshold for pain legendary. So trying to emulate either of these two workouts may not be advisable, or feasible, for even an experienced bodybuilder.

But, gifted or not, Schwarzenegger can also be credited with being history’s hardest thinking bodybuilder. Nothing he ever did throughout his bodybuilding career was accidental or haphazard, which means his programs can serve as tried-and-true templates for your own bodybuilding success, regardless of your experience level or development. “For beginners, I’d simply advise doing five sets of barbell curls and five sets of dumbbell curls—10 total sets of eight to12 repetitions,” Schwarzenegger says. “Concentrate on a strict movement, and try to gain some strength. Experiment with different curling arcs until you find the one that puts maximum resistance on your biceps.” After training for a year or so, a bodybuilder is considered to be at the intermediate level, at which point Schwarzenegger advises, “I’d look at your biceps development and determine where you have weak points. Then I’d give you a tailored program to bring these weaker areas of your biceps up to par. “If you lack biceps fullness,” he continues, “do heavy dumbbell curls. If you lack peak, do everything with dumbbells. Do plenty of concentration curls and dumbbell curls lying back on a high bench, like Reg Park used to do them.” Schwarzenegger says 12 sets total for biceps should serve the intermediate bodybuilder nicely.

Finally, Schwarzenegger reserves his most surprising bit of advice for advanced trainers. “The biggest post-intermediate-level mistake is to burn the biceps out. Biceps are basically a small muscle group, and you can’t do too much for them without overtraining,” instructs the Terminator of training. So, what constitutes overtraining? “I’d say the upper limit for biceps would be 15 sets in a hard workout, but I see all kinds of bodybuilders doing 25 to 30 sets on a regular basis.” Not that there would be anything wrong with hitting the biceps with 25 to 30 sets per workout—if your name happened to be Schwarzenegger.

Hasta la Vista

Schwarzenegger spilled the beans and gave readers his sage advice for building massive biceps; now it’s your turn to put his wisdom to use. Put this magazine down, get to the gym and start bombing! Before you do, let the Oak offer you one last bit of wisdom, an axiom regarding muscle growth that spurred him through every workout to ultimate success: “It’s a case of mind over matter. If you’ve got the mind for it, only one thing matters—reaching your goal. And you will!

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