Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 4 Steps to Turn Weaknesses into Strengths
The world’s greatest bodybuilder didn’t always have the incredible symmetry you see in photos today. Here’s his 4-step approach to overcoming a lagging muscle group.
by Bill Geiger
Last updated: Dec 30, 2014
If you’re like a lot of recreational bodybuilders, you’ve got a favorite body part you like to train more frequently, work harder with a few extra sets and exercises, and show off just a little more than the other muscle groups. You’ve probably got your favorite exercises you like to do—and you do them religiously. And you probably have a favorite pair of shorts or a T-shirt that shows off your best body part just right.
Then, of course, there’s the body part that doesn’t grow, or is your weak spot. You hate training it because, well, it seems pointless—it won’t grow! You cover it up with long pants or a sweatshirt so people will only notice your strong points. And in a bit of showmanship, you relish training your best muscle groups in front of others, so everyone can admire what you’ve achieved.
Perhaps it’s human nature to hide weaknesses that may invite ridicule. But not if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As “The Oak” readily admits today, his thighs—and especially his calves—were a glaring weakness during his early years living in the States. If he wanted to win contests and make a name for himself in his new home, he’d have to redouble his efforts to bring up his lower body.
“ARNOLD TODAY SEES THAT TOO MANY BODYBUILDERS TRAIN TO IMPROVE THEIR STRONG POINTS AT THE EXPENSE OF THEIR WEAK AREAS.”
And so what Arnold did is now the stuff of legend. He cut off the bottoms of all his training pants so that everyone—his rivals at the gym, strangers, his training partners, and especially he himself—could see his weakness. There was no more hiding. Arnold’s commitment to bring up his calves was there for the world to see.
“I knew if I exposed only my better body parts—my arms, chest, or deltoids—all I’d get from my peers would be wonderful comments and I’d soon forget about my horrid lower legs,” he wrote in “Muscle & Fitness.” “So I continued to wear the cutaway sweatpants that invited ego-bruising pain … and it worked. I trained them first every workout, and very often I did a few sets at the end of my workout.”
As he did three decades ago, Arnold today sees that too many bodybuilders train to improve their strong points at the expense of their weak areas. If you compete, there’s no faster way to cap your career, according to Arnold. But to overcome these problem spots, you need to adopt a new plan of action. Here are four areas he focused on.
ARNOLD’S WEAK-POINT ATTACK PLAN
First, you need to identify your weak body part, and then commit to bringing it up. Not everyone competes, and some recreational lifters are just fine going through life with a good chest and great arms, skipping leg day. Then again, those guys are rarely seen walking around in shorts on a hot summer day. To focus on a lagging muscle group, Arnold suggested bodybuilders address the following four areas.
PRIORITIZE A LAGGING BODY PART
Besides keeping his scissors sharp, he found that, by prioritizing a particular muscle group, he could devote more time and energy on it. “Work your weak areas first [in your training session], when you are fresh and capable of generating the greatest amount of intensity,” he wrote in “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.” You can also prioritize a muscle group by doing it first after a rest day.
INCREASE WORKOUT VOLUME
Increase the number of exercises and sets you do for a lagging body part. High-volume training is linked to hypertrophy, so long as you don’t overdo it (or do it for too long). If you’ve got a particular area that needs attention, such as your upper pecs, it’s easy to add a second incline movement for it rather than doing just one. In this example, you could start with barbell incline presses for 3 sets of 8-10, and follow up with dumbbell incline presses (with the adjustable bench set to a more shallow incline) for 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
EMPLOY ADVANCED TRAINING PRINCIPLES
“DON’T BE AFRAID TO APPLY SUCH TECHNIQUES AS FORCED REPS, NEGATIVES, DROPSETS, PARTIALS, REST-PAUSE, OR OTHER IDEAS YOU READ ABOUT ACROSS BODYBUILDING.COM.”
In his book, Arnold also discussed the use of advanced training techniques as another weapon to bring up a lagging body part. Arnold used just about every intensity booster in the book, so to speak, but he zeroed in on what worked best for him simply through trial and error. That said, don’t be afraid to apply such techniques as forced reps, negatives, dropsets, partials, rest-pause, or other ideas you read about across Bodybuilding.com. Be sure to evaluate how you feel after using each method, and remember not to take every set past muscle failure. Save that for your 1-2 heaviest sets on each exercise.
EXPLORE MORE VARIATIONS OF MOVEMENTS
Being long-legged, calves weren’t Arnold’s only shortcomings early in his career; his thighs were also comparatively small. That meant throwing out the usual playbook on leg day.
“‘BUILDING UP LEGS WAS HARD FOR ME BECAUSE I HAVE LONG LEGS AND LONG LEG MUSCLES.'”
“Building up legs was hard for me because I have long legs and long leg muscles,” he wrote in “Muscle & Fitness.” “The long-legged bodybuilder has to explore a wider variety of exercises in his lower-body routine. That means incorporating other exercises until you find out which ones make your legs respond best. And you have to keep varying your routine so that your muscles are constantly surprised by the demands you’re putting on them.”
GUARD AGAINST OVERTRAINING
In your zeal to bring up a stubborn muscle group, you might employ the “throw everything at ’em but the kitchen sink” approach, but Arnold warned that this strategy might be counterproductive.
“There will be times when a body part lags behind because you are overtraining it, hitting it so hard, so often, and so intensely that it never has a chance to rest, recuperate, and grow,” he wrote in his “Encyclopedia.” “The answer to this problem is simply to give the muscles involved a chance to rest and recover, and then to adjust your training schedule so that you don’t overtrain it again. Remember, too much can be as bad as too little when it comes to bodybuilding training.”
“‘REMEMBER, TOO MUCH CAN BE AS BAD AS TOO LITTLE WHEN IT COMES TO BODYBUILDING.'”
Cutting back on the volume, intensity, or frequency will address overtraining issues. In general, Arnold argued, you want to train intensely, but for a very short period of time. It’s difficult to sustain high intensity for long durations, so keep your workouts short but intense.
In the end, developing perfect symmetry is impossible because we can always find something to improve upon. And if you think you’ve got a perfect physique, just ask your friends at the gym. According to Arnold, “They’ll be all too happy to tell you what [your weaknesses] are.”