The Incredible Life Story of Bodybuilding Legend Frank Zane

To this day, Frank Zane's physique is longed for by thousands of athletes.

“There are five categories for being in shape. The worst one is FAT. This condition exists when a person is in a layoff from training and not eating properly. Next, SMOOTHNESS. This means you don’t have flab on the body. The body mass is hard and you can see the shape of the muscle, but there is not a great deal of separation … 

The next condition is HARD. This is still not extremely muscular, but with a proper tan, you can look quite good … The next one is CUT. This is when you are really getting into good shape. Very muscular. After Cut there is the final phase called RIPPED. You are so cut up and muscular and the striations are so deep, it looks like you don’t have any skin … this is the way you have to be for the Mr. Olympia.”

Frank Zane, 1977.(1)

What should a bodybuilder look like? It’s a simple question but the answers are numerous. For some, bodybuilding is defined by the larger than life freakish individual who seems to defy the limits of human physiology. Others will argue for symmetry and flow in a physique which, although smaller in size, adheres more towards classical understandings of beauty. Such differences in opinion are not, of course, new.

When BarBend looked at the world’s first bodybuilding show in 1901, we found that organizers had strict ideas about what was, and wasn’t allowed. Fast forward fifty years and individuals were comparing the raw mass of Reg Park versus the unforgettable beauty of Steve Reeves.(2) As a sport, bodybuilding has recognized this issue more of late as evidenced by the growth of ‘classic physique’ divisions in the past decade as opposed to the open divisions now dominated by the larger bodybuilder. 

The focus of today’s article, Frank Zane, represents the ideal classical or aesthetic bodybuilder for many of the sport’s fans. Competing during the ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding in the 1960s and 1970s, Zane’s physique combined muscle with symmetry, flow and leanness. Bodybuilders like Zane boasted defined physiques, Vince Gironda being one example, Zane was the first to present this type of physique at the Mr. Olympia contest. Through his Olympia appearances, and victories, Zane helped usher in a new phase in bodybuilding which understood the importance of symmetry and leanness.

Zane was, for many was the poster boy of bodybuilding beauty.

Today’s post examines his life, successes and, most importantly, his approach to training.

Frank Zane: A Life

Before delving into Zane’s many bodybuilding achievements, some of which I suspect will be unknown to even the most devoted Zane fan, I want to spend some time on his early life. As we’ll see, Zane’s upbringing and subsequent education meant that he brought an approach to bodybuilding that was unique among his contemporaries. Although important, bodybuilding was never Zane’s sole passion but, instead, acted as a vehicle for his own self expression. This explains why, in later years, Zane compared bodybuilding to a form of body art.(3)

Zane was born in Kingston, Pennsylvania on 28 June, 1942. As a teenager, Frank often struggled to find peace and quiet, as evidenced by his own admission that he often got into fights with disastrous results as a teenager.(4) When he was fourteen, Zane chanced upon a magazine which helped to dictate the course of his future. There, in the wastebasket of his high school math class, was an old muscle building magazine. Completely enthralled, he studied the magazine over and over, vowing to build an impressive physique.(5) 

From then on, Frank has consisting been involved in some form of weightlifting. Beginning at his local Wilkes-Barre YMCA gym, Frank eventually bought himself a thirty pound dumbbell set.(6) Dumbbell kit secured, Zane brought it everywhere he went so that he could train wherever he went. This, somewhat strangely, led to fights between Zane and his father, who believed that Frank wasn’t devoting enough time to his chores. Why, his father often asked him, could he not train by cutting the grass?(7)

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Proving everyone has to start somewhere… Here I am at age 17 weighing 140 pounds in Harveys Lake, PA. I realized that there was an art to adding muscle to your body. Bodybuilding was actually body sculpting and I began looking at myself in a full length mirror assuming positions that showed my slight physique at its best advantage. Hope it gives you inspiration to keep pursuing your dreams! 💪💪💪💪💪 . . . www.FrankZane.com #zanebodybuildingmanual #91daywonderbody #91daywonderabs #bodybuildingmotivation #bodybuilding #fitness #fitnessmotivation #gym #bodybuilder #gymlife #motivation #gymmotivation #workout #muscle #fit #bodybuildinglifestyle #fitnessaddict #ifbb #bodytransformation #shredded #powerlifting #bodygoals #workoutmotivation

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Undeterred, he continued to lift weights, gaining thirty pounds between the ages of 14 and 17.(8) Having graduated first in his high school class, Zane won a partial scholarship to Wilkes College, Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in secondary education.

Balancing his academics and sport with a remarkable level of success, Zane excelled in College while simultaneously improving as a bodybuilder.

By the time he graduated in 1964, Zane had won several regional bodybuilding contests. No longer the skinny 130 lbs. teenager, he now weighed a cool 185 lbs.(9) Inspired by his successes, Frank soon moved to California so that he could simultaneously teach and pursue his bodybuilding dreams.

A Star Is Built

In 1965, Zane won his first major bodybuilding title when he competed in the IFBB Medium Height Mr. Universe competition. Far from a flash in the pan, his Mr. Universe title kickstarted a string of latter success.(10) Living with his wife, and fellow bodybuilder, Christine Zane, in California, both Zanes amassed a series of bodybuilding titles during the latter half of the 1960s.

In Frank’s case, his Mr. Universe title was followed by first place finishes in the Mr. America Middle Height division, for 1966 and 1967.(11) In 1968 Zane won both the Mr. Universe and Mr. America titles. While the Mr. Olympia contest is now the Superbowl of the sport, the Mr. Universe and Mr. America competitions were highly regarded and greatly sought after titles during the 1960s. 

His 1968 victories were more significant than many at the time would have guessed. One of Zane’s opponents at the Mr. Universe competition was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This makes Zane one of the few individuals to beat Arnold in a bodybuilding contest.(12)

Arnold had recently come to America to work with Joe Weider, the founder of the Mr. Olympia contest and ‘Trainer of Champions.’ 

There was just one problem. Schwarzenegger’s muscularity was, even then, beyond doubt. Unfortunately he lacked the definition needed to compete with someone like Zane. Despite being fifty pounds heavier, Arnold finished behind the much leaner, and better proportioned, Frank Zane. Arnold was so angry about his second place finish that he called Zane a ‘chicken with 17 inch arms.’(13) When his anger subsided, Arnold understood the importance of being lean and muscular, a combination that Zane had already begun to perfect.

Now firmly established in California, Zane began training with many other ‘golden age’ bodybuilders like Arnold, Franco Columbo and Ed Corney among others. Furthermore, his victories at the Mr. Universe caught the attention of Joe Weider.(14) Impressed with Zane’s physique, Weider began to pay Zane for articles, photoshoots and endorsements. Although never classing himself as a Weider athlete, in contrast to Arnold whose relationship with Joe is well known, Zane began to take on Joe’s advice about posing and training.(15)

By the early 1970s Zane had won the NABBA Mr. Universe, and begun to take top five finishes in the Mr. Olympia competition in the under 200 lbs. category. It was here, however, that Zane and Weider began to differ in their philosophy. Weider was very much a ‘size guy’ in the sense that he preferred, and demanded, freakishness in his top bodybuilders.

Yes they needed to be lean, a lesson Arnold learned the hard way in 1968, but they had to be large and muscular above all else.(16) Zane, whose reputation for symmetry and proportion was already well established by this time, did not share Joe’s thoughts. Zane’s commitment to symmetry and aesthetics eventually paid off, but not before hitting one last road bump. 

The Top of the Mountain: Olympia Success

In 1976, the bodybuilding world was in a state of flux. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first six time winner of the Mr. Olympia contest, had retired.(17) The ‘Iron Oak’ was gone, albeit temporarily, which meant that a new champion could be crowned. It was at this point that many believed Zane would finally get credit for his efforts. Held in Columbus, Ohio, the 1976 Mr. Olympia contest served as a stark reminder that bodybuilding can be an incredibly tough sport for all those involved. Zane came to the stage, lean, muscular and symmetrical. Few doubted that he was now a contender, if not favorite, for the title.

Unfortunately, Zane’s progression was matched by the late Franco Columbu. Arnold’s training partner and a bodybuilding legend in his own right, Columbu emerged from the Austrian’s shadow to claim his first Mr. Olympia title. In Columbu and Zane, bodybuilding’s two directions were highlighted. A noted powerlifter and occasional strongman, Columbu’s body was large, lean and muscular but, for many, lacked the grace and beauty of Zane.(18) It was, in the eyes of many, a contest between raw muscle and power versus classical musculature. Competing directly against one another in the under 200 lbs. category, Columbu bested Zane in the narrowest possible margin.

After the contest, Columbu announced his own retirement from bodybuilding — it didn’t last —  but few doubted that Olympia glory was on the cards for Zane. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that Zane was second best. He was, for many, the heir apparent. Spurred on by his narrow loss to Columbu, Zane was like a man possessed in training. Explaining his process at this time to Dennis Weis, Zane revealed his methodical approach.

“One thing in training is to set a GOAL for yourself by contest or whatever you want to train for, to get in better shape. Realize that you have only so much time to do this. For example, if I have nine months before a contest, I use the intensity factor in my workouts in that they get harder and harder over the months so that the last week before the contest, I am training my hardest ever … (19)”

The result? Zane swept the board at the 1977 Mr. Olympia despite a tough competition containing the likes of Ed Corney, Robby Robinson, and Boyer Coe, among others. One of the reasons Franco beat Zane in ‘76 was the Italian’s superior leg development.(20) Zane’s training schedule for the ‘77 contest spoke of his desire to finally remove any question marks surrounding his physique.   

  • Monday-Wednesday-Friday (Mornings) ­ Thighs and Calf.
  • Tuesday-Thursday (Mornings) ­ Lats.
  • Monday-Thursday (Afternoon) ­ Delts, Biceps, Forearms, Abs.
  • Tuesday-Friday (Afternoon) ­ Chest, Triceps, Abs.(21)

For contemporaries, Zane presented an almost complete package at the ‘77 Mr. Olympia. In a sport dominated for so long by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zane helped to change perceptions. The flow and symmetry of his body was entirely different to Arnold or Franco. It was for this reason that bodybuilding fans and writers began comparing Zane to the statues classical ideals found in Ancient Greece or Rome.(22) What further solidified Zane’s dominance was his now iconic vacuum pose. While others had used this pose in the past, it became synonymous with Zane and for good reason as the below photo attests.

Frank likewise emerged victorious at the ‘78 and ‘79 Olympias, the latter of which was Zane’s own personal favorite contest. Speaking to David Robson, Zane later claimed that 

“Out of the three Mr. Olympia’s it would have to be the last one. I think in 1979 I was in my best shape of all time considering everything. I had some really good years but I think ’79 was my best year as far as combining size and shape. Just having it all together.

I was pretty big in ’79. But I was also very muscular and I was in great shape …(23)”

It was based on his conditioning and size at the 1979 Mr. Olympia that many tipped Zane for another Olympia title the following year. Unfortunately, a series of events, some of which proved incredibly controversial, denied him a fourth title. During his contest prep, Zane suffered a freak injury when he slipped by the edge of a pool and cut his urethra. His injuries resulted in a lengthy hospital stay and a significant loss in muscle mass. John Hansen’s subsequent article on the 1980 Mr. Olympia claim that Zane asked Arnold, then retired, whether or not he should compete. Arnold encouraged Zane to compete, a decision which soon caused a great deal of controversy.(24)

Unbeknownst to Zane at that time, or most of the bodybuilding world, Arnold would be competing in that year’s Mr. Olympia. His return from retirement caused a great deal of controversy, especially as Arnold won the contest outright. John Fair’s article on the contest highlights the anger felt by many within the sport surrounding Arnold’s return and his win.(25) The overriding complaint from many of his competitors was that Arnold’s conditioning was well below standard. Nevertheless Arnold won, thereby denying Zane another Olympia crown. 

The 1980 contest effectively spelt the end of Zane’s bodybuilding career. Zane, as well as Mike Mentzer and Boyer Coe, boycotted the 1981 Mr. Olympia, won by the late Franco Columbu.(26) Returning to the Mr. Olympia in 1982, Zane finished second behind Chris Dickerson. The following year in 1983, Zane finished fourth at the Olympia after another injury hampered his training. Retiring from bodybuilding soon after, Zane devoted, and continues to devote, his time to teaching, personal training and his music. For fans of the sport, his legend had been secured. Zane brought a new level of definition and proportion which helped to reimagine the ideal body. Far from a fluke, Zane’s body was the result of his unique and considerate training philosophy.

How Zane Built His Body

By now, you hopefully appreciate how different, and how special, Zane’s physique was in the sport of bodybuilding. How Zane built his physique is equally unique. While others were beginning to trail new visualization techniques and mind/muscle connections in the gym, Zane was one of the first individuals to arguably perfect this side to weight training.(27) Of course, other bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, appreciated the importance of goal setting and visualization, but few approached the subject with Zane’s seriousness. 

From Zane’s later bodybuilding books and interviews, we know that he greatly valued the importance of the mind in training.

Driven by his own Zen Buddhist practices, Zane used meditation, positive speech, visualization, and machine meditation techniques.(28) Today, we might say that Zane was bodybuilding’s first outspoken ‘mind-hacker.’ For those of his era, Zane was an individual who left no stone unturned.

So what did Zane do that modern trainees can emulate? His Mind in Bodybuilding book runs through the full gambit of Zane mind techniques.(29) For us today, the most accessible practice is his emphasis on some form of deep relaxation. This can be done in the form of breathing meditation, yoga, float tanks etc. 

To really kick this practice into overdrive, Zane recommended getting into a state of complete relaxation before visualizing your next training goal. For Zane, his goals obviously related to the Mr. Olympia contest and the physique he wanted to bring to the competition. For others it may be a new PR on the squat or a new running time. Zane’s advice, and this has been repeated by numerous BarBend contributors, is to envision yourself achieving that goal on a regular basis and slowly work towards it. 

Coupled with Zane’s meditative approach was his advice that full attention be brought to the exercise at hand. Zane later expressed this approach in simple terms,

“When you’re performing a weight set, there is nothing else …. Don’t focus on anything but the sensation, not even the breathing. When you’ve advanced to a state where you are one with the set, your breathing will be in sync with the movement … (30)

This total concentration is often what bodybuilders refer to when discussing the mind/muscle connection. Zane was so adamant about the importance of concentrating fully that he often used poundages well below his maximum in movements like the deadlift, squat or bench press. Instead he used a relatively lighter weight which, when done with full attention, gave him much better results.(31)”

For trainees today, the advice again, is straightforward.

Give your full attention to the movement you’re doing.

This isn’t a call for perfect form and slow tempos but rather for trainees to check in and ensure that they’re targeting the correct muscles. An obvious example of this is barbell rows, which can often be dominated by the lower back, arms, and shoulders rather than the lats. Using Zane’s approach, a trainee may use a slightly lighter weight in order to bring the lats fully into play.

Meditation, visualization, and concentration are undoubtedly a winning combination, but there was something else which made Zane unique — his firm adherence to his goals. At several points in his career, Zane was encouraged by others, including Joe Weider, to bulk up in order to physically match the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger in terms of size.(32) This advice went completely against Zane’s bodybuilding principles, which privileged symmetry over pure mass.

Although Zane was by no means physically unimpressive, he ignored calls to become a ‘mass monster’, preferring instead to gradually improve and refine his physique. It was, as we’ve highlighted, a winning approach, although one which took time to bear fruit. Zane’s objection to gaining a large amount of mass came from the effect it would have on his physique’s symmetry.(33)

The lesson for us in 2020, is to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of our physique, be it aesthetically or structurally. 

Frank Zane Today  

The sport of bodybuilding has undergone some pretty radical changes in the past decade. Fans and competitors alike have fought for the establishment of physique and fitness divisions. As professional bodybuilders have grown in size, a sizable number of athletes have chosen instead  to focus on symmetry and flow over mass.

Likewise individuals annoyed with the prevalence of ‘bubble guts’ in the heavyweight division have called for the inclusion of the iconic Zane vacuum pose at the Mr. Olympia. Zane’s name filters in and out of these debates but his influence always at play. Zane’s Olympia appearances solidified the idea in the minds of many that bodybuilding was defined by leanness, muscularity and symmetry.

Now in his 70s, Zane continues to train and, every now and then, will post a picture of his current physique online, thereby proving that symmetry never goes out of fashion and also that the rest of us need to get our diets in check! 

Frank Zane FAQs

How many Mr. Olympias has Frank Zane won?

Over the course of his career, Frank Zane won three Mr. Olympia competitions,

  • 1977
  • 1978
  • 1979

Of these three, Zane has stated that his favorite win came in 1979 due to his size and conditioning.

Who is Frank Zane?

Frank Zane is a legendary bodybuilder from the “golden era” of bodybuilding which took place between the 1960s and 1970s. Zane, to this day, has a physique that thousands idolize and strive for.

What made Frank Zane's training so great?

Besides his strategy and consistency, Frank Zane’s training entailed a lot of meditation, visualization, and positive self-talk. Arguably, this played a major role in Zane’s ability to progress and be present in the moment when training.

References

  1. Dennis B. Weis, ‘An Interview with Frank Zane,’ Iron Man, January, 1979. 
  2. Jan Todd and Michael O’Brian, ‘Breaking the Physique Barrier: Steve Reeves and the Promotion of Hercules,’ Iron Game History, 12:4 & 13:1 (2014), 8-29.
  3. ‘Symposium and Demonstration,’ Whitney Review (New York: 1975), 7-20.
  4. ‘Biography’, FrankZane.com. 
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Frank Zane, Symmetry (San Diego: 2017), 1-22. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Randy Roach, Muscle Smoke and Mirrors Vol. II (Bloomington: 2011), 23-26. 
  11. Ibid.
  12. Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz, Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Biography (Westport, 2006), 46.
  13. ‘Frank Zane May Have Had The Best-Looking Body Ever. BB.com Tracked Him Down To Learn His Secrets’, Bodybuilding.com. 
  14. David Robson, ‘An Interview With Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane,’ Bodybuilding.com.
  15. Joe Weider, Ben Weider, and Mike Steere, Brothers of Iron (Indianapolis, 2006), 272-300.
  16. Robson, ‘An Interview With Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane.’
  17. Abe Peck, ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Hero of Perfected Mass,’ Rolling Stone Magazine, 3 June, 1976, 
  18. Roach, Muscle Smoke and Mirrors Vol. II, 242-270.
  19.  Weis, ‘An Interview with Frank Zane.’
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Joe Weider, The Weider System of Bodybuilding (Chicago, 1983), 46-50.
  23. Robson, ‘An Interview With Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane.’
  24. John Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold: The Controversial Mr. Olympia Contest of 1980,’ Iron Game History 11:1 (2009), 4-22. 
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Tom Smith, Frank Zane Mind, Body, Spirit: The Personal Training Diaries (Boston, 1997), 1-12.
  28. ‘Frank Zane Explains his Secrets to Bodybuilding Success,’ Escape Fitness.
  29. Smith, Frank Zane Mind, Body, Spirit.
  30. Frank Zane, ‘Frank Zane’s Most POWERFUL Secrets to Body Building Success,’ Frank Zane
  31. Weis, ‘An Interview with Frank Zane.’
  32. Robson, ‘An Interview With Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane.’
  33. Strength Old School, ‘Disgust with Modern Bodybuilding’,  Strength Oldschool
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the gym or in the library he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results. He divides his time between his research and his website, which is dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise — read all about it at Physical Culture Study.

2 thoughts on “The Incredible Life Story of Bodybuilding Legend Frank Zane”

  1. If you want to win the Mr. Olympia there are many qualified candidates in the history of the contest. If you want to look good afterward at the beach, then there is only one “perfect” candidate: Frank Zane.

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