Arnold: The education of a bodybuilder

Book Notes

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Picking a gym #

You walk in and sort of know where things will generally be but you still need to do some orienting.

New grocery store?

Good guess but in this case I’m thinking of new gym.

I’m writing this on the treadmill at a gym I joined this morning. It’s somewhere in between the two extremes Arnold presents here.

Depressed vs Relaxed:

Every gym makes me miss Chelsea Piers Fitness, which had the perfect blend of energy (sounds of competition from the basketball and volleyball courts) and relaxation (super clean, wide open spaces).

No sense longing for a gym on the other side of the country or a metabolism from a decade ago. I’ll be able to get my work done here.

As for the highlight about traveling and home gyms, I like both opposing ideas:

  • Travel creates commitment
  • Convenience creates commitment

Having the home gym is great and probably better if you can only pick one. In James Clear’s Atomic Habits framework, a useful question is “How can I make this easy?”

Some other questions that help you find answers:

  • How can I make this convenient?
  • What if I threw money at this problem?

Something I was running into with the apartment gym was just total weight available.

Yes, I wish I could say it’s because the dumbbells only go to 120 lbs so my chest presses were maxed out.

But it’s more like 50 lb and I just need to squat more.

Yes, you can and should get creative and work with what you have.

But another option was available: join a gym nearby.

I can save the creative thinking for creative work.

We’ll see if it changes anything.

Notepod #22: “Arnold” #

I finished reading the biography portion of  “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder” and wanted to share some thoughts about the book.

Some quotes I mentioned in the podcast. First this one about visualizing the lift and how if you don’t think you can do it, you definitely won’t be able to do it.

There’s no two ways about it, because they’ve done all the training, their bodies are ready; now it’s only the mind. The mind must carry through. If a man stands there and thinks for one-tenth of a second, “Maybe I can’t lift it,” it’s gone. He will not make the lift.

Then there’s this quote about being backstage before the competition, hearing 1960s bro science flying around as fast as possible. Overwhelming—and even more so since he wasn’t fluent in English.

Backstage before the contest I heard endless theories. Some guys were talking about taking saunas before competition as a way of wringing the last bit of water out of their systems. Some were claiming that tensing and flexing helped promote great definition and vascularity. I kept hearing new things right and left. I understood only enough English to get it in snatches, which made it even more confusing.

Have a vision for the future

It can be a very specific vision. In fact, it can be a very specific person. For Arnold, it was Reg Park.

From then on in my mid-teens, I kept my batteries charged with the adventure movies of Steve Reeves, Mark Forrest, Brad Harris, Gordon Mitchell, and Reg Park. I admired Reg Park more than the others. He was rugged, everything I thought a man should be. I recall seeing him for the first time on the screen.

The hedonic treadmill of biceps

Arnold mentions a few metrics in the book. The two that stick out: 250 lbs and 20-inch arms. He tried packing mass on and had 250 lbs in mind early on. Then the arm size was important. (He also points out that triceps are half the battle here.)

Bodybuilders were becoming better and better. I’d seen the sport improve by leaps and bounds in the few years since I’d begun training. In 1962 Joe Abender, the Mr. Universe winner of that year, had 181/2-inch arms. The same with Tommy Samsone in 1963. But now the 19-inch arm wasn’t even big enough to get you in the top five. I’d come in second with 20-inch arms.

I mentioned this Khe Hy tweet

The 4-minute mile (for weightlifting)

Throughout the book, Arnold mentions the importance of mindset in many different ways. One way is just in knowing something is possible at all.

Proof of my point is that for years weight lifters could not lift more than 500 pounds. Nobody could. They did 4991/2 but never 500. The reason was this supposedly insurmountable mental barrier that had existed for years. They stood in front of the weight thinking, “No one has ever lifted 500 pounds. Why should I be the one?” Then in 1970 Alexiev of Russia lifted 501 pounds. He broke the barrier. A month after that, three or four guys lifted 500 pounds.

Something incredible about Arnold’s story is that, while he envisioned a lot of these things, there probably weren’t many models for foreigners coming into Hollywood and becoming the biggest movie stars.

The original influencer

To spend time in America, and California specifically, he needed a bit of support. For his first extended stay, he traded a bit of influence for a roof and transportation.

My part of the agreement was to make available to Weider information about how I trained. He agreed to provide an apartment, a car, and to pay me a weekly salary in exchange for my information and being able to use photographs of me in his magazine.

This playbook is available more widely today, in fitness and beyond. Build up an audience, get sponsored to represent and recommend products, sell some information in books or courses.

Look good feel good play good (but for non game days, make sure you can move)

Not much feels better than heading to the gym in a brand new color-coordinated workout outfit.

Or maybe just sweats and a cotton shirt are fine.

If you start worrying about how your clothes look while you’re in training, then you’re already training for the wrong reason.

(Also, he’d drop the sweats and go with shorts to always reveal the weakness in his calves until he eliminates it.)

And a link to that Bill Burr bit about how ridiculous Arnold’s life is

Arnold, ballet, and being a curious novice #

This morning I’m trying a mushroom coffee with powdered MCT oil. I rarely do hot coffee but I’ve also been drinking way too much coffee so maybe going hot for some will slow it down a bit. Let’s see how the writing goes.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I want to go through good material more rather than trying to find more new material. But I also just haven’t really nailed down what I want to focus on learning. Doing a little too much exploring.

There are benefits to generalism and exploration. But there’s always a second part to it.

Explore then exploit. Generalize but with short term specialization.

It could be worth switching a few times before focusing. From David Epstein’s Range:

For professionals who did switch, whether they specialized early or late, switching was a good idea. “You lose a good fraction of your skills, so there’s a hit,” Malamud said, “but you do actually have higher growth rates after switching.” Regardless of when specialization occurred, switchers capitalized on experience to identify better matches.

Arnold Schwarzenegger knew the posing routine was critical to winning bodybuilding competitions. He wanted to look graceful. He had one of the smoothest posing routines among his bodybuilding peers, so he looked elsewhere to learn more about posing technique.

What’d he specialize in? Ballet.

From Arnold:

I went to a dancer at UCLA and started taking ballet lessons to further improve my posing. This dancer showed me how to move my hands gracefully, when a hand should be opened and when it should be closed. We talked about what a fist represents, what an open hand represents, how you should move for the greatest impact, using your hands as a signal. For instance, if you start a circular movement you should open your hand, and if you come down in a sweeping movement you should close it in a fist.

If you’ve seen Pumping Iron, the documentary about the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition (spoiler: Arnold wins), you might remember brutal workouts and Arnold being sort of a jerk (but a charismatic one!) to his competitors.

But the very first shot is of Arnold and Franco Columbu with ballerinas.

From “Pumping Iron”. Another awesome movie they both appear in is Terminator, where Lou makes a cameo as a Terminator in the future and infiltrates a human base and blasts everyone to smithereens.

Arnold became the best bodybuilder in any room of bodybuilders. So he looked for other rooms where he could be a curious novice.

Reading Log: “Arnold: The education of a bodybuilder” #

I picked up “Arnold: The education of a bodybuilder” yesterday after seeing it in David Perell’s newsletter. He said he devoured it in a few days. I started reading it and can see why. Very fun read so far. Some quick ramblings.

  • It was published before the internet was a thing — The book was published in 1993 and he’s writing about the 70s so it just doesn’t resemble today at all. There’s just things like how he’s in London for a bodybuilding competition and he can barely speak English so he just repeats the hotel name over and over. (He gets to that hotel but, of course, there’s another with the same name that he’s supposed to go to.) Cell phones solve a lot of problems. But not back then.


  • Arnold had a vision and a mission: become Mr. Universe — He becomes obsessed with bodybuilding early on and has the goal to become Mr. Universe. He tried team sports and different individual sports but didn’t love them the way he loved lifting weights. And then with lifting weights, he also tried Olympic limping but didnt’ love it the way he loved bodybuilding.
  • A lot of hard work (and of course some luck) — He acknowledges that he was blessed with good genetics: a “perfect metabolism”. But he worked incredibly hard pretty much from the start of his bodybuilding career. 8-mile trek to the gym when he lived with his parents, 6 hours of working out in the army, then his AM/PM split with each workout being 2 hours.


  • Learning mindset: you don’t know what you don’t know — Early on he mentions reading as much as he could from magazines. Learning about American bodybuilders who become movie stars. Then he learns from the older men he started lifting weights with. Then on his trip to bodybuilding competitions he tries to absorb what he can with limited English. The main lesson he learns: he has a whole lot more to learn.
I tried to sketch a pose of Reg Park, one of Arnold’s idols. Then I pasted the photo in to see if I got at least the proportions right. It’s…. okay. Anyway the lesson here is that I can redraw this a few times and make changes so quickly. Arnold looked at photos like this and knew it’d take years of dedication to achieve and that inspired him rather than deterring him. To add some definition I just need to add a few lines here and there. For Arnold, it meant months to add muscle and then some more weeks to cut and chisel it.
  • His body is a sculpture, shaped over years — A part that sticks out to me is that he’s super happy about gaining 5 pounds in 3 months. This is a bodybuilder Mt. Rushmore guy and that’s the type of growth he is happy about. You’d probably be able to find that kind of promise on a magazine cover. It just made me think about the ridiculous expectations I have with results when working out vs. how long it actually takes. (That said, I definitely don’t work out hard enough and use age and injury prevention as a little too much of an excuse. Gotta find the right balance.)

Oh yeah he also had this quote:

“People who would never benefit from what I told them kept taking my time. They paid and came to the gym. But it was a disgusting, superficial effort on their part. They merely went through the motions, doing sissy workouts, pampering themselves. And there was so much I wanted to do with those wasted hours.”

It was great because I read it while walking on a treadmill at 3.0 (but with a 1% incline baby!!!!)