old school bodybuilders

How Did Old School Bodybuilders Build Muscle?

Old school bodybuilders didn’t have the machines nor the knowledge we have today available. Despite that fact, they still found their way to build amazing physiques.

Now the question is; How did old school bodybuilders build muscle?

Old School Bodybuilding Workout

When it comes to the workout session, old school bodybuilders didn’t have as many choices as today’s bodybuilder has.

The cardio and isolation machines were a thing of the future. Few machines were available at that time, and their workout was based mainly on free weights and compound exercises.


The main exercises old bodybuilders did were with free weights (dumbbells, barbells…). There were very few machines available, and almost none of them were worth a try.

Old bodybuilders based their workouts on free weights. This would help them build muscle mass.

old school bodybuilder lifting

However, it is true the cable machines were also there for those who wanted to use them. It was in the 1950s when Jack LaLanne invented the first cable machine under the brand Universal Gym Equipment

Nonetheless, old bodybuilders are known for building muscle through free weights and compound exercises. These include squat, deadlift, bench press, dumbbell press, lateral raises, militar press,…


The training volume is one of the most important training variables to build muscle (read more). Nowadays, volume recommendations lay on the volume landmarks created by Mike Israetel, of RP strength.


However, old bodybuilders didn’t have this knowledge available. Instead, they guided themselves with the well known “pump”. The bigger the pump, the more they had trained.

old school bodybuilder pump

There was no science available at the moment to tell you what the best training volume was. In fact, the volume varied a lot between bodybuilders.

While some did up to 5 sets of 5 exercises per muscle group, others prioritized the recovery more and only did up to 3 exercises per muscle group (source).


While the training volume is of more controversy, one thing about old bodybuilders is clear transparent: they trained with intensity.

The intensity of a workout is what makes you build muscle or not. If the intensity is not high enough, your body won’t have enough reasons to put some muscle on.

old school bodybuilder running

Science now tells us for a workout to be effective, the exercise must be taken close to muscle failure (study). Looking at the bodies old school bodybuilders achieved, we can guess what their intensity was…

Old school bodybuilders took most -if not all- exercises to muscle failure. This way they could ensure they were building muscle, although the recovery process may had been worse than usual.

Old School Bodybuilding Diet

You sure have seen many pictures of Arnold or any other old school bodybuilders eating massive amounts of food, eggs for an entire family, and meat to make a farm from scratch.

How did old school bodybuilders eat to build muscle?


Western diet has changed tremendously in only a few decades. Development of new foods, the industrial revolution, laws, regulations,… which has made the old school bodybuilding diet almost impossible to follow.

old school bodybuilder eating

Meat and eggs were the main protein source of old school bodybuilders. These foods were of easy access and very clean proteins sources.

Regarding carbohydrates, old school bodybuilders were well aware of the importance of this macronutrient for their performance and recovery. However, most of their carbohydrates were unprocessed and whole.

Old school bodybuilders used to eat fat in abundance (source). Because of the calorie density of these foods, it made it easier to achieve the target calorie needs to build muscle.


The supplement industry has changed enormously these past decades. The supplements available during the golden era are not even close to the supplements available today

Common supplements during the old school bodybuilding era:

  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Desiccated liver
  • Milk
  • Chitosan
  • Vanadyl sulfate
  • Sodium bicarbonate
  • Glandular
  • Multivitamins

Because supplements were not available to everyone, often bodybuilders did not even consumed any products. Steroids were in use, but the amounts were small by today’s megadose standards.

What Can You Learn from Old School Bodybuilding?

Old school bodybuilding has the same goal as today’s, but with a totally different approach.

Due to the lack of scientific knowledge, popular believes, and those day’s attitude, being a bodybuilder in the golden era is probably a total different world from today’s bodybuilding.

However, one thing is sure; they built muscle. Regardless the difference in techniques, exercise, diet, lifestyle,… the results were the same; massive guys with a very aesthetic and muscly appearance.

Old school bodybuilding was different from what we know today as “bodybuilding”, but it certainly is an option to consider. If there’s one sentence defining what old school bodybuilding is all about…



Old school bodybuilders didn’t have the machines nor the knowledge we have today available. Despite that fact, they still found their way to build amazing physiques.

When it comes to workout, old school bodybuilders trained intense, with a variety of training volumes, and basing their workouts mainly on free weights and compound exercises.

Regarding the diet, eggs and meat were their main protein sources. Their diets were abundant in fat, and they also included large amounts of carbohydrates.

Supplements were also part of an old school bodybuilder’s diet. Brewer’s yeast, glandular, or chitosan were some of the most popular supplements at the moment.

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