10 Lessons from the Strength Legends

Get Big. Get Strong. Go Old School.

To make progress, look to the past. Here are the best training and lifestyle lessons from legendary bodybuilders, strongmen, and coaches.

The legendary physiques of yesteryear remain the gold standard of physical development. Few bodybuilders today can blend size and symmetry like the classic bodybuilders did. And strength feats today are rarely as impressive as those of old-school strongmen.

History is the best teacher, but only if we’re willing to heed its lessons rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Simplify things with these time-tested lessons.

George Hackenschmidt

Health can never be divorced from strength.

For decades, fitness focused on jogging, walking, riding the bike, and other means to stimulate aerobic conditioning. Luckily, the tides have begun to turn in favor of strength training.

Oddly enough, old school wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt hinted at the importance of strength and longevity during his 90-year life. Now, research is finally reinforcing his words.

One example is a 44-year cohort study of over 2,239 men which examined the relationship between grip strength and longevity. Those who lived the longest had the highest third of grip strength mid-life, didn’t smoke, performed physical activity outdoors, and had long-lived mothers.

There’s no doubt biological factors play an important role in longevity. But making smart lifestyle decisions, staying active, and building strength provides a protective mechanism against age-related strength and muscular loss. Heavy strength training will lead to a longer and better life.

Reg Park

Too many bodybuilders spend too much time exercising the smaller muscle groups such as the biceps at the expense of the larger muscle groups such as the thighs. Then they wonder why it is that they never make gains in size and strength.

Best known as the original Hercules and mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reg Park was an absolute monster in the weight room, hell-bent on building as much strength and symmetrical size as humanly possible. Today, his simple training style will work for damn near every lifter.

Limit your isolation work for the time being. Focus on the compound lifts first to train your largest muscles. Build a foundation of strength. Then, continue to pursue stronger muscles if you have any hopes of them growing bigger.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold might be more known for high volume body-part splits, but don’t be fooled. Arnold’s original training was built on a foundation of heavy strength work and total body routines.

In fact, it wasn’t until Arnold began adding anabolic steroids and going “all-in” on bodybuilding that he tweaked his routines to focus on the insane volumes and training splits he’s known for today.

Arnold now recommends beginners get started with total-body workouts performed three days per week, like his Golden Six program:

  1. Barbell Back Squat: 4x10
  2. Wide Grip Barbell Bench Press: 3x10
  3. Chin-Up: 3 x Max Reps
  4. Behind the Neck Overhead Press: 4x10
  5. Barbell Curl: 3x10
  6. Bent Knee Sit-Up: 3-4 x Max Reps

If you’re a beginner it’s easy to get bogged down into training like a pre-contest pro bodybuilder. Don’t. You don’t have the foundation skills, the drugs, nor the all-in lifestyle to maximize the demands of these workouts.

Take a lesson from history: damn near every legendary physique was built on the foundation of compound, heavy lifting and total body training splits in the beginning.

Lee Haney

Stimulate, don’t annihilate.

Lee Haney, the eight-time Mr. Olympia Champion, dominated bodybuilding through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. His words, “stimulate, don’t annihilate,” serve as a gentle caution to those looking to build strength and muscle: there’s a fine line between training hard, risking injury, and maximizing recovery.

Push hard, but should you find yourself beat up and sore, with training quality decreasing from workout to workout, dial it back. Train hard, add weight to the bar, and feel your muscles doing the work, but don’t chase failure as your goal.

Sig Klein

Use the two dumbbell clean and press.

Sig Klein was known for his herculean strength from 1920’s to the 1940’s. His feats were outstanding for a man standing a mere 54 inches tall and weighing 147 pounds. Klein performed a strict overhead press of just over 229 pounds, a one-arm snatch of 160 pounds, and a one-arm clean and jerk of 190 pounds.

Klein is known for his love of the dumbbell clean and press, a true total body strength and power lift. At the time of his dominance, Sig said that fewer than 12 men in America could clean and press 75 dumbbells for 12 reps. Today, the challenge remains a popular: perform 12 dumbbell clean and presses with 75 pounds. If you succeed with crisp form to boot, you’re in rare air.

Also, during Klein’s time, leg training was pretty rare. He noticed that most men only trained their upper bodies, and some only trained their arms. (Sound familiar?) He’s often credited as one of first “fitness pros” to recommend plenty of leg and back work to really build strength.

Eugen Sandow

Life is movement. Once you stop moving, you’re dead. Choose life.

Eugen Sandow, born in 1867, is known as the father of modern bodybuilding. That trophy still awarded to the Mr. Olympia winner today? That’s Sandow.

His message resonates today more than ever: move more. Compared to today’s bodybuilders, old school strength athletes were known for their incredible strength and aesthetic muscular development, as well as their health and well being.

Lifting and maintaining strength is essential, both for aesthetics and for life expectancy, but four lifting workouts per week can’t be all you do. Go out for a walk. Perform manual labor occasionally, or hell, compete in something outside the gym. Lifting is great, but as Emerson said, health is the first wealth. Take care of your health along with your strength and performance.

Ronnie Coleman

Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but no one wants to lift heavy ass weights!

While you don’t need to train with the eye-splitting intensity of Coleman, take heed to this message: big muscles require big weights.

Lifting heavy prompts an anabolic hormonal response to build muscle while improving central nervous system function and muscle fiber recruitment. This means heavy lifting creates the hormonal environment, overload, and muscle fiber recruitment needed to maximize muscle growth. Your take home message: building strength allows you to create more stress within workouts and drive muscle growth.

Vince Gironda

If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, what difference does it make what the scale says?

Men and women alike obsess over the number staring back at them from the scale. What they need to be focused on is true body composition. The mirror is the ultimate judge, not your weight.

For many guys who want to look bigger, get lean first – the ideal is 10% body fat or lower. This alone will have you looking your best and it will make building pure muscle exponentially more effective.

If you’re a naturally skinny-limbed dude, consider your expectations. Can you expect to develop the body of an NFL running back? More often than not, the average 5’7 to 6’0" guy looks much better at 165-185 pounds and 8-12% body fat than at 200-plus pounds at 15% body fat or higher.

If your goal is fat loss, take girth measurements around your waist, chest, arms, and thighs every two weeks as well as progress photos in your skimpies. The scale rarely cooperates. Many folks end up building lean muscle and losing fat concurrently. They see the scale hasn’t changed much and proceed to throw in the towel. Stupid scale.

Use other tools of measurement, especially the mirror. It may be humbling at first, but you’ll be astonished at how little scale weight means when you transform your body.

Dorian Yates

If I listened to my instincts I’d be at the pub chasing women, not under a barbell squatting 400 pounds.

The six-time Mr. Olympia is more known for his HIT style training and taking one all-out working set to build his incredible physique. Still, the above quote is important. To radically transform your physique, all-out intensity in the gym isn’t enough. You need incredible discipline and focus on your goals.

One great hour in the gym can’t undo 23 hours of eating like a jackass, drinking beer, and staying up to binge-watch Netflix rather than getting your sleep. For most, training is the easy part. If you want to maximize your efforts in the gym, you need to place as much focus on your diet, lifestyle, and sleep as you do on the weights.

Dan John

Everything works, but only for so long.

As important as it is for beginners to stick to strength and master basic movement patterns, there comes a time when everyone needs to make a change in their training. For fat loss, the most effective exercises are often the exercises you’re least efficient at. In other words, whatever sucks the most will generally yield better results.

But how about building strength and muscle? There’s a fine line between program hopping and making subtle changes to your technique to prevent overuse and create a new stimulus. If you’re hitting a plateau in your training, try tweaking your stance, grip, or tempo of your lifts every few weeks. This is enough to change the neural recruitment patterns of your lifts for a “new” stimulus without starting a new program.

Or consider a daily undulated periodization (DUP) approach. One such example was popularized by Charles Poliquin in 1988 when he theorized that strength training programs lose their efficiency after two weeks. He supported two-week cycles of a training block while alternating between volume and strength blocks.

Poliquin pointed out that alternating volume/strength blocks eliminates the physiological and psychological stagnation caused by an overemphasized specialization on volume or intensity.

While keeping your exercises the same, you could simply alternate intensity and your set-rep schemes for a novel stimulus.

Weeks 1-2 3-4 5-6
Reps 10-12 4-6 8-10
Sets 3 5 4
Intensity 70-75% 82-88% 75-78%
Volume (reps x sets) 30-36 20-30 32-40

This fluctuating intensity and volume are enough to improve strength and size, yet novel enough to keep the training stimulation fresh.




  1. Poliquin C. Five steps to increasing the effectiveness of your strength training program. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 10(3). 1988.
  2. Rantanen, T., Masaki, K., He, Q., Ross, W., Willcox, B., & White, L. (2011). Midlife muscle strength and human longevity up to age 100 years: a 44-year prospective study among a decedent cohort. American Aging Association, Jun (34), 3rd ser., 563-570. doi:10.1007/s11357-011-9256-y