T Nation

Breaking Down Old School Routines


I made a previous thread asking a few questions about a routine i made based on other routines i studied of old school body builders. I base both my nutrition and workouts around the ideas/philosophies from the 50’s. They built great bodys with little or no supplements, 3 square meals, and full body routines. It wasnt until the 70s and 80s that split routines and eating 6 meals a day was promoted by steroid users and for some reason it stuck with natural lifters. Its my belief that most split routines are not as effective as full body for natural lifters.

So what im doing here is looking at several routines i found online that were supposedly used by some of the greats. This is my only source of information currently but im hoping to pick up some books and get some more info on these guys. I have read steve reeves book however and i got at least one perspective from that era. Ive watched a lot of videos by leroy colbert as well, but again im definitely not an expert.

Also id like to note that im well aware each of these lifters used probably 100s of different routines and these are just a few. However these are there favorites apparently and for a reason.

So breaking these down the first thing i see is the rep ranges and total number of sets are varied. I think most of us would agree everyone responds differently to different rep ranges, and the total number of sets are based on your skill level or how long youve been lifting. Arnold and many others supposedly recommend starting at 3 sets per body part for beginners and increasing the sets as needed.

The second thing i notice is they all have Bench Press as there main chest exercise. Every one of these guys has awesome chest development and each have completely different bodies. This might be good evidence for someone whos undecided about what exercise might be the ‘best’ for chest development.

A second thing i noticed was most have squats as one of the first exercises. I personally do this and i like the flow and ill admit i prefer to walk out of the gym with my upper body pumped up, not my legs. Im not sure the reasoning behind this but maybe some of you have an idea. If squats arent done first, theyre done last. I havnt seen many routines where legs are done in the middle of a workout except for reeves. And i probably dont need to mention that squats are the dominant leg exercise. However its interesting to see in some routines squats is the ONLY leg exercise aside from calf raises.

Another thing i noticed is theres more pressing exersizes compared to pulling exersizes. I believe this is on purpose and im thinking it has to do with asthetics. I think we all want and like the look of a large chest and arms, and broad shoulders. On top of more than one pressing movement, some ven have additional shoulder exercises. How they could handle that much shoulder work is impressive…i know i wouldnt be able to handle it, at least not at my current level. Note they all use shoulder presses…must be a good exercise?

The next thing i noticed was the amount of bicep work compared to other exercises. This is probably another asthetic thing. Who doesnt want huge biceps? But possibly they all felt they needed those extra sets to make there biceps grow, which could say something about the muscle fibers and how they respond.

Next is pullups or pulldowns. I think this one is obvious. Its my understanding that to get a wide back, nothing beats wide pullups. Its worked wonders for my back, and who doesnt want that v taper. I definitely see pullups more than rows or deadlifts in these older routines.

So these are some things ive noticed and would love to hear your thoughts. Here are some routines i found online.


Barbell Squat 4 10
Wide Grip Barbell Bench Press 3 10
Chin Up 3 Max
Behind The Neck Overhead Press 4 10
Barbell Curl 3 10
Bent Knee Sit Up 3-4 Max

Larry Scott:

Bench presses to neck - 6 sets of 6to 8 reps
Barbell squats - 6 x 8
Calf raises - 6 x 15-20
Behind the neck presses - 6 x 6-8
Front pulldowns - 6 x 8-10
Lying barbell triceps extensions - 6 x 8
Preacher bench curls - 6 x 8
Bent-leg knee raises - 1 x 100-150

Leroy Colbert:

Bench Press 10 8
Bent Arm Lateral Raises 10 8
Lat Pull Down 10 8
Behind Neck Pull Ups 10 8
Behind Neck Sitting Press 10 8
Standing Lateral Raises 10 8
Alternate Curl 10 8
Sitting Barbell Curl 10 8
Bent Arm Pullover 10 8
Squat 6 12

Reg Park:

45-degree Back Extension 3-4 10
Front Squat 5 5
Back Squat 5 5
Bench Press 5 5
Military Press 5 5
High Pull 5 5
Deadlift 5 5
Calf Raise 5 25

George Eiferman:

Hack Squat 3 7-10
Bench Press 3 7-10
Dumbbell Flys 3 7-10
Lateral Raises 3 7-10
Alternate Dumbbell Press 3 7-10
Single Arm Row (Cheat) 3 7-10
Barbell Curl (Cheat) 3 7-10
Dumbbell Concentration Curl 3 7-10
Dumbbell Wrist Curl 3 7-10
Dumbbell Side Bends 3 7-10
Sit Ups 3 8-12

Steve Reeves:

Dumbbell Swings (warmup) 3 15-20
Upright Rows 3 8-12
Bench Press 3 8-12
One Arm Row 3 8-12
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3 8-12
Incline Bench Press 3 8-12
Tricep Press Down 3 8-12
Barbell Curls 3 8-12
Seated Dumbbell Curls 3 8-12
Squats (super set with next move) 3 8-12
Pull Overs 3 8-12
Breathing Squats (super set with next move) 1 20
Breathing Pull Overs 1 20
Deadlifts 2 8-12
Good Mornings 2 8-12


The Colbert routine is complete overkill and should be avoided, the Arnold and Scott routines will work well.
Plenty of articles here on that sort of training…


You’ve done an impressive amount of research and thats great. The internet, for all it gets knocked, has more than enough good information on training for a motivated person to be successful. Don’t overthink this though … Those guys all got big because they were immensely dedicated to training often, training hard, and eating like nobody’s business. Don’t “major in the minors” and get caught up in the minute details of each routine. Get in the gym and bust ass with big compound movements and watch yourself grow. As long as the weights on the bar and the number on the scale are going up consistently you are doing it right.


It’s just an interesting subject for me.

Trust me I’m the king of simplicity. My routines generally consist of just a few compound exercises. My diet is 3 square meals. I eat when I’m hungry, I increase weight and reps when I can, and I adjust the load based on instinct and feel. I don’t keep notes, I don’t weight food or count calories.


I feel you may be letting romanticism cloud your judgement. If you read John McCallum “The Complete Keys to Progress”, I think you’ll find that guys wanting to put on weight were eating many times a day AND consuming a prodigious amount of supplements available to them. Instead of NOXplode, they were taking Energol, and beef liver tablets and all sorts of stuff like that. Specialization programs were also pretty heavily recommended for bringing up a bodypart, and one essentially trained in cycles, focusing on a lagging part while still training the rest of the body, simply in a de-emphasized state.

Hell, the eating exploits of J.C. Hise are legendary, and I don’t think that man ever ate only 3 meals a day, unless you count the story of him being stuck in a traincar all day where he ended up eating for 2 solid hours at the first restaurant he could find.

The routines you posted would essentially be base routines, the things that were followed when one was not specializing. Definitely a good start, but it’s false to believe that it was exclusively what was utilized to bring success.

If you really want to analyze the common variables for success among these guys, it was effort, consistency and time. They busted their asses, they were always in the gym, and they did it for a LONG time. The 1s and 0s of the programs REALLY don’t matter.


I think its also important to note that the specialization and focus on particular body parts for these guys came only after they had built a VERY reapectable base physique. I see teenage kids in my gym saying they need to bring out their “medial delts” when they weigh a buck fifty and probably could fit their waist through a keyhole. These guys spent a lot of time putting on solid all-around mass. IMO you shouldn’t have to worry about specific physique weak points until you are getting ready to step on stage.


Like Pwnisher said, I think you’re missing a lot of info and there’s plenty out there that contradicts many of your assertions. Definitely pick up a copy of the Complete Keys to Progress, like he said. You’ll find tons of different training methods and that’s just from one guy.

Bodypart splits started coming into play in the 1950s, not the '70s; Plenty of legends trained with a strength-focus for years (usually Olympic lifting) before training strictly for bodybuilding - Reg Park, Arnold, Sergio, John Grimek, etc.; Lots of early guys used primarily free weights and bodyweight exercises because many machines simply didn’t exist until the '60s or '70s, and many of the early machines were built by gym owners.

Reeves did often suggest training legs in the middle of the workout, but some classic 20-rep squat routines have one or two upper body exercises before the big squat set, followed by more upper and/or lower work after.

All in all, for sure there’s plenty to learn from old school bodybuilders. But it’s important to remember that, just like today’s bodybuilders, there’s no single routine that any guy did for their entire career, so looking at things “big picture” is important.


I mean it’s cool that your fascinated with old school bodybuilding… But a lot of things have changed since then.

  1. Bodybuilders back then did not always train specifically for bodybuilding, a lot of them where Olympic/strength athletes aswell.
  2. Our understanding of exercise science and nutrition has improved greatly since the 50’s.
  3. Steroids where available through the the 40’s and 50’s.
  4. 6 day splits and more frequent meals weren’t promoted during the 70’s simply due to steroids. It was largely because bodybuilders started realising that once at a certain point fullbody workouts become inefficient. Also there is a limit to how much food one can consume in 3 meals.

I guess what I’m trying to say is bodybuilders have found better ways in the years since then. The principles are still the same as they were, the application has just become more efficient.