As one of the famous bodybuilders of all time, there are always lots of questions about how Arnold Schwarzenegger trained in his prime. Did he do cardio? How many hours a day did he train? What muscle groups did he train with what other muscle groups?
However, any discussion about what Arnold did or didn’t do comes with a few important caveats.
First, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an outlier. He had superb muscle-building genetics, a superhuman work ethic, and a “do whatever it takes” attitude to achieving the goals he’d set for himself.
And while it’s always interesting to look at individual success stories to see what clues they left for those wanting to follow the same path, this is an example of something known as survivorship bias.
What does that mean exactly?
Survivorship bias refers to the tendency to focus on individuals who have been successful in a particular field.
However, this ignores the fact that many other people have employed the exact same methods, but without achieving the same level of success.
That is, there may very well be thousands of people who followed a similar approach to training and diet as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but who didn’t get the same results.
But you only get to hear about the one person that made it, rather than the thousands who didn’t.
“There might be thousands of athletes who train in a very similar way to LeBron James, but never made it to the NBA,” explains entrepreneur James Clear. “The problem is nobody hears about the thousands of athletes who never made it to the top.
“We only hear from the people who survive. We mistakenly overvalue the strategies, tactics, and advice of one survivor while ignoring the fact that the same strategies, tactics, and advice didn’t work for most people.”
In other words, you’re much more likely to hear about the successes than the failures, which gives you a distorted picture about the effectiveness of a particular approach.
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What’s more, if you Google around for information about how Arnold trained back in the day, you’ll often find contradictory information. One article says Arnold did one thing, while another claims that he did something else entirely.
The sources I’ve used are a couple of books written by Schwarzenegger back in the 1980s and 90s — Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder — both of which I consider more reliable than most of the material I found online.
Arnold didn’t write the books himself, but had help from a ghostwriter.
However, I’m going to assume that he gave the thumbs up to everything that was in there, and that the contents are an accurate reflection of his views at the time the books were written.
So with all that in mind, let me answer the question:
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger Do Cardio?
Arnold Schwarzenegger did cardio, as well as recommending it to others. He liked running, swimming and cycling. To this day, he still rides his bike every day to and from the gym.
Here’s what he had to say on the subject in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding:
“Every serious bodybuilder should do a substantial amount of aerobic training. I have always liked to run several miles a day. Some bodybuilders, however, find that running does not suit them and leads to problems with the legs and ankles, so they seek other ways of developing cardiovascular conditioning.
“Tom Platz, for example, after working his legs to exhaustion in the gym, gets on a bicycle and rides for twenty miles. Bill Pearl used to do the same thing. A lot of bodybuilders are developing their aerobic systems using ‘Lifecycles’ and other types of stationary bicycles.
“The fact is, the better conditioned your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, the more intense training you will be able to do in the gym and the more progress you will make as a bodybuilder.”
He also says this about the benefits of cardio while preparing for a bodybuilding competition:
“Running is one of the best ways to help you get cut up — both long distance and wind sprints. Bicycle riding is a good calorie-consumer and won’t put the strain on the joints that running can.
“But whatever supplementary exercise you do, remember to keep things in perspective. Running a mile or two a few times a week will help you get cut up and in shape; running ten miles will simply deplete your energy and tear down your muscle tissue.
“Ken Waller and I used to train and then immediately go out and run a fast mile or mile and a half. We’d come back exhausted, but knowing we had at least six or eight hours to rest and recuperate before we had to be back in the gym again.”
Back in the 1970s, Arnold’s workout routine involved hitting the gym six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Here’s the type of workout split he followed:
- Monday: Chest/Back
- Tuesday: Shoulders/Arms
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Chest/Back
- Friday: Shoulders/Arms
- Saturday: Legs
- Sunday: Off
Schwarzenegger’s original plan also has you training the abs and calves six days a week.
These days, Arnold doesn’t have the time to spend hours in the gym, and likes to combine cardio and weight training in the same session. This way, he can burn off some extra calories and work his heart at the same time.
Here’s how he describes his current routine:
“I begin on an exercise bike or elliptical (I don’t want to terminate my knees on a treadmill). After five minutes at an easy pace, I go at the hardest pace I can maintain for 30 seconds, then I back of to an easy pace for 30 seconds. I repeat these intervals for 10 minutes, then begin my weight workout. This gets me warmed up and gets cardio out of the way early. Otherwise, I might be tempted to skip it after lifting. Apart from this, I’ll hike for up to an hour when time allows, and sometimes I ride my bike.”
Should You Do Cardio If You Want to Gain Muscle?
There’s no rule that says you have to do any cardio at all if you want to gain muscle.
However, there is some research to suggest that cardiovascular exercise has the potential to help rather than hurt your gains if it’s used in the right way.
For one, some types of cardio may help recovery by promoting blood flow to the muscles without causing further damage.
Cycling at a low-to-moderate intensity for 20-30 minutes the day after a heavy leg day in the gym, for example, will often reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, and may accelerate the rate at which muscle damage is repaired [1, 2].
There’s also some interesting research to show that differences in capillary density go some way towards explaining why some people make gains faster than others
Capillaries are tiny blood vessels, which deliver oxygen, nutrients and hormones to muscle cells, clear the metabolites that build up during a workout, as well as helping with the repair and recovery process from one workout to the next.
In one review, researchers report that men with a higher capillary density saw faster gains in muscle mass than individuals with a lower capillary density after six months of resistance training .
Six weeks of endurance exercise has also been shown to augment muscle hypertrophy during a subsequent 10-week resistance training program .
The researchers found a link between the degree of capillarization and muscle growth. That is, muscle fibers with the greatest capillary density were the ones that grew the fastest.
In short, an increase in capillary density may have a small but positive effect on your ability to build muscle, possibly via an increase in the quality of your workouts (improved recovery between sets and increased ability to fight fatigue), a faster rate of recovery from one training session to the next, an increase in the supply of nutrients to the muscle, or some combination of the three.
And one of the best ways to go about boosting capillary density is to do some cardio.
Image Credit: Harry Chase, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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