Most people would (rightly) place Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Mount Rushmore of bodybuilding. The seven-time Mr. Olympia winner is commonly considered to have possessed one of the best physiques in history. But you might not know that Schwarzenegger, long before he made his pilgrimage to the gold coasts of California to pursue bodybuilding, got his start as a strength athlete.
Schwarzenegger first dabbled with strength training when he competed in a handful of Olympic lifting competitions in the 1960s. Fast forward more than fifty years to Nov. 21, 2023, when Schwarzenegger revealed his all-time one-rep max lifts during an appearance on The Pat McAfee Show.
How strong was Schwarzenegger in his prime? Well, from the Austrian Oak’s own mouth, his best-ever back squat, bench press, and deadlift were:
“I was very happy with my lifts. [Lifting heavy] made me grow really fast,” Schwarzenegger said on air of his strength prowess. “But I have to say, my lifts are not at all great compared to what bodybuilders are doing today.”
Mr. Schwarzenegger is correct on both counts. The latest scientific research on muscle hypertrophy strongly supports the benefits of lifting heavy, or lifting near muscular failure, for bulking up. The data illustrate that heavy lifting produces more mechanical tension on a muscle, thus encouraging more growth. (1)(2)
Further, Schwarzenegger correctly notes that bodybuilders have embraced strength gain in their training more so than during his era. Some of the strongest bodybuilders ever — think Stan Efferding, Nick Walker, Bev Francis, or eight-time Mr. O Ronnie Coleman — lift tremendously heavy weights during their workouts or have backgrounds in strength sports. Coleman, in particular, is famous for his heavy-duty compound lifting throughout his career, including a famous two-rep max squat of 800 pounds.
Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Modern Powerlifting Records
The barbell back squat, bench press, and deadlift are the three competitive disciplines of powerlifting. An athlete’s one-rep maxes across the squat, bench press, and deadlift are summed to create a Total, determining their ultimate ranking. Schwarzenegger’s self-reported best lifts would earn him a Total of 1,845 pounds. But how does that stack up to modern powerlifters, and would prime Schwarzenegger stand a chance at a world-level powerlifting meet?
- Figures are mixed, but it is generally reported that Schwarzenegger weighed about 260 pounds during his off-season when he wasn’t losing fat for a bodybuilding competition.
- This would place him in the middle of the 120-kilogram category in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
- At the 2023 IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships, the winning Total in the 120s, according to the official scoresheet, was 2,099.9 pounds.
- Schwarzenegger’s best lifts, had he performed them in that same IPF competition, would earn him a 12th-place finish overall.
It’s essential to note that Schwarzenegger almost certainly maxed out his lifts in the weight room, not during the rigors of a sanctioned competition. Powerlifting competitions are rigorous, and athletes must adhere to many rules and regulations. This often results in athletes performing slightly below their maximum potential; it’s common for strength athletes to have a better “gym Total” than what they produce in competition.
“Time moves on, you know, people get better all the time. It’s a different era,” Schwarzenegger continued on air. And he’s right — he was undeniably strong during his bodybuilding career, but some modern physique athletes have pushed the boundaries even further since Schwarzenegger’s heyday.
The Oak emphasized to Mr. McAfee that, while his ultra-heavy max-out days are behind him, he still gets after it in the gym daily: “Every day I ride my bike down to Gold’s Gym, I work out for 45 minutes, then I ride back. That’s what I do every day.”
More Bodybuilding Content
- The Risks and Rewards of Extreme Leanness on the Road to the Bikini Olympia
- Men’s Physique Mr. Olympia Ryan Terry Recaps His Bodybuilding Journey
- Chris Bumstead and Courtney King Are Expecting Their First Child in 2024
- Robinson, Zac & Pelland, Joshua & Remmert, Jacob & Refalo, Martin & Jukic, Ivan & Steele, James & Zourdos, Michael. (2023). Exploring the Dose-Response Relationship Between Estimated Resistance Training Proximity to Failure, Strength Gain, and Muscle Hypertrophy: A Series of Meta-Regressions. 10.51224/SRXIV.295.
- Schoenfeld B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(10), 2857–2872.
Featured Image: @arnoldschwarzeneggerpics on Instagram