​Old School Bodybuilding

Does it still hold up in 2020?

You hear the arguments all the time. Cranky old bodybuilders insist everything was better back in their day, while the younger crowd is certain things are superior today in every way. Who’s right? The only way to settle this is to break it down.

Training then

If you go way back, as in to the 1940’s and into the Sixties, men like John Grimek and Steve Reeves performed marathon full-body workouts twice a week. By the time Arnold and his peers ruled Muscle Beach in Venice, most trained twice a day, six days a week, working each bodypart twice weekly with substantial volume. Their training tools were barbells and dumbbells with a sprinkling of cables and a machine here and there. Understand that until the late 70’s, there simply weren’t many machines in existence. The guys back then busted their butts on basics like the barbell bench press, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, chins, dips, and military presses. By the 1980’s, machines were commonly used to augment free weight movements. Many who have been training since then insist that the best machines were produced in the final 20 years of the Twentieth Century by companies like Nautilus, Icarian, Cybex, Bodymasters, Flex, and Hammer Strength. All the intensity techniques in use today such as drop sets, supersets, forced reps, pre-exhaust, rest-pause, and so on were all ‘invented’ in the Twentieth Century between 1940 and 1970.

Training now

It would be safe to assume that with all the advances in training research and machine design that bodybuilders train far more efficiently today. That’s debatable. One thing that has certainly changed is training frequency. Though the late Mike Mentzer had championed the need for recovery and the superiority of briefer, less frequent workouts in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the idea didn’t catch on until Dorian Yates started winning Mr. Olympia titles in 1992. Since the best bodybuilder in the world only trained four days a week for about 40-45 minutes, aspiring Dorians around the world followed suit. For a solid 10-15 years, most bodybuilders scaled back to training bodyparts once a week and gave their bodies more time to rest. Since then, twice-weekly bodypart hits have come back into vogue, though plenty still work them once. The biggest difference you see today is the absence of many free-weight staples and the prevalence of machines in training. It was unheard of for a top bodybuilder in the old days not to bench press, squat, or deadlift. These days plenty of men substitute machines for these and other barbell and dumbbell basics. We also see the use of bands and chains to alter the resistance points and curves, as well as complex routines in which one must work within specific percentages of a one-rep max, and rep speeds and rest periods are carefully timed. Finally, though there have been a few exceptions, most of the exercise equipment produced today does not seem to work the target muscles as well as the ‘dinosaur’ pieces of days gone by.


The old-school guys had it mostly right. Though training twice a day, six days a week was definitely a bit much, they spent most of their time on tough yet exceedingly productive free weight staples. Machines can be fantastic training tools, but no one should rely on them to form the brunt of their workouts. And if you believe in keeping things simple and not overcomplicating matters, old-school wins hands down. The only area I feel they were sorely lacking in was respect for recovery.

Nutrition then

Right up front, it needs to be said that most of the same foods we eat today have been around for a very long time: chicken, beef, turkey, eggs, fish, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables. In the old days, bodybuilders ate plenty of meat and potatoes to bulk up, then would lower their carbs drastically to get in shape for contests. They weren’t as aware of the effect certain foods had on bodyfat stores, such as breads, pasta, and fruit juice, which is partly why they didn’t achieve the same level of condition we see today. Their meal plans were about as simple as it gets, with some eating nothing but canned tuna and plain salads for weeks to get lean. Sugar-free items were rare, and gluten wasn’t even something anyone was concerned about. As for daily

Nutrition now

There have been major advancements in nutritional knowledge, though to be fair, the old-timers were far ahead of their time in areas like low carb and ketogenic diets. Some newer strategies such as intermittent fasting and IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) have never caught on with top bodybuilders as they fail to demonstrate significant advantages over standard ways of eating. We do recognize that gluten has inflammatory effects on the body, and most bodybuilders avoid it at least at certain phases such as contest prep. We also avoid saturated fats for health reasons, as well as simple sugars for the most part. We tend to eat smaller meals more frequently today.


Let’s give this one to the modern era. While many of the changes are relatively subtle, knowledge is still power. The modern bodybuilders eat healthier and more efficiently with more awareness and respect for pre and post workout nutrition and recovery.

Supplements then

This won’t take long, as the supplements of the past were primitive in all ways: cheap and dubious ingredients and they tasted like crap. Though there were some stalwarts like liver tablets that have endured, most of the supplements from the old days were worthless. You were better off blending up powdered milk and eggs, as many did, than struggling to choke down the garbage that passed for protein powder. Bodybuilders of the golden era relied on food, because even they instinctively knew the supplements weren’t worth their time or money.

Supplements now

Supplements have come a very long way. We now have a wide variety of proteins powders from whey to casein as well as blends of those or protein sourced from meat or poultry. We have various types of creatine, L-glutamine, branched-chain and essential amino acids, nitric oxide boosters, thermogenics, pre-workout formulas, faster-absorbing carbohydrates, digestive enzymes, and much more. If you absolutely can’t get to a meal, there are high-quality meal replacement powders and bars available.


The modern age wins this category in a landslide.

Drugs then

A lot of guys today roll their eyes then the old-timers state that in their day drugs were considered the ‘finishing touch,’ but that’s accurate. Most men until into the 1980’s didn’t even use steroids for most of the year, only embarking on cycles during contest prep for preserve the muscle mass they’d built in the off-season as they dieted. You didn’t need to be a chemist or a pharmacist to understand the substances back then, as there were a mere handful of different steroids such as testosterone, deca-durabolin, D-bol, Anavar, and Primobolan. Dosages were moderate, not out of concern over health, but because the smaller amounts worked and they saw no point in using more. You certainly didn’t see the ravages of heavy drug use we’re all too familiar with today: gyno, bald heads, excessive acne, and big guts. Furthermore, it was unheard of for a man to die young from a heart attack or kidney failure brought on by drug abuse.

Drugs now

Bodybuilders today use such a myriad of drugs that they need to hire coaches to guide them through their cycles. Not only are there more steroids commonly used such as tren, Masteron, and Equipoise, there are other drugs such as growth hormone, insulin, clenbuterol, thyroid meds, DNP, aromatase inhibitors, and IGF-1. It’s not uncommon for a man doing a local contest today to use ten times more drugs than a man in the Mr. Olympia 30-40 years ago was on. Unfortunately, we see the negative impact not only in superficial side effects, but also in serous health issues. Bodybuilders dying young has become so common that it only phases us now if it was someone in the very top echelon. Most bodybuilders today never even come off steroids. Instead, they alternate phases of mega doses with more moderate cycles in a process referred to as ‘blasting and cruising.’


Easy – things were simpler and far safer in the old days. Most of the older stars live well into their 70’s or 80’s with some, like 3X Mr. Olympia Frank Zane, continuing to look muscular and fit well into their twilight years. Drugs today have turned the sport into what many feel is chemical warfare, with those who have access to the best drugs, the money to buy them, and the willingness to risk their lives with high doses having the upper hand.

Physiques then

Bodybuilders were notably smaller in the old days, and this is mainly due to their conservative drug regimens. Nobody was 250 pounds in shape or more. To put things in perspective, the heaviest Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed during his Olympia reign was 240 pounds at 6-2 in 1974. Today, Big Ramy competes at 300 pounds at 5-9. But forget about weight for a moment. The men in the golden era had more aesthetically pleasing physiques, so much so that today’s Classic Physique is an attempt to harken back to those ideals: wide shoulders, narrow waist, small hips and glutes, and they could all hit a vacuum. Not one of them had a weak chest or a big gut. Legs were not as developed as what we see today, because that wasn’t the standard until Tom Platz came on the scene and changed the game.

Physiques now

The men today are much bigger, but are their physiques better? A semitrailer is much bigger than a Ferrari, but few would say it’s more attractive. We do see better overall balance, but we also see some unsightly things like gyno, lumpy Synthol delts and arms, and again, those bloated guts. Muscle quality is often missing, meaning there are huge muscles with poor separation and detail – just big and puffy. This chemical look turned off so many fans that they had to start Classic Physique in an attempt to win them back. Today’s men do get far leaner, to the point where you’re considered ‘off’ if your glutes aren’t striated. This is partly due to diet, but more so from the fact that far more cardio is done in prep today, and a range of drugs are employed to burn more bodyfat than diet and cardio alone would ever allow.


It’s all a matter of opinion, so whatever you happen to think is correct. If you prefer a healthier, athletic, aesthetic look, the old school men get the nod. If you like freaky size and crazy cuts, the modern era is superior to old school bodybuilding.

Final analysis

Old school bodybuilding will always have a sentimental spot in our hearts. It’s when the sport transitioned from a fringe cult activity to a worldwide enterprise that spurred the gym and supplement industries to success. Stars like Steve Reeves, Larry Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Lee Haney inspired millions and paved the way for all of today’s champions. Much has changed, but as you see, much has also remained the same. In the end, bodybuilding at its core will always be about self-improvement and the ability to transform oneself through dedication and discipline. You can’t turn back time to the days of old school bodybuilding, but you can learn from their methods and appreciate how they approached the sport we all love today. 

Christian King
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