For many fans, Arnold Schwarzenegger is bodybuilding. The seven-time Mr. Olympia winner helped bring the sport into the mainstream back in the 1970s, and he’s still the standard that nearly every champion has to live up to today.
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But before Schwarzenegger took his iconic physique to the global stage, he competed in both powerlifting and Olympic-style weightlifting meets in his late teens and early 20s. While bodybuilding ultimately won out, the young Schwarzenegger possessed a great deal of potential when it came to raw strength. Here’s how the future “Austrian Oak” fared in those early competitions.
Schwarzenegger as a Weightlifter
Note: The sport of weightlifting, colloquially known as Olympic weightlifting, consists of totaling the most weight possible between the clean & jerk and snatch. This shouldn’t be confused with the act of weight lifting — which is what all gym-goers and athletes engage in to stimulate their muscles.
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Details of Schwarzenegger’s performances aren’t well documented, but we know that his first competition took place inside a Graz, Austria beer hall in 1963 at 15 years old. (1) In his 2012 autobiography, Total Recall, he detailed how he initially hit a 150-pound “two-arm press,” which he described as his typical weight for the move at the time.
He followed that up with 185 pounds on his next attempt, aided, he wrote, by the energy of the crowd. (At the time, Olympic weightlifting revolved around three lifts: the overhead press, the clean & jerk, and the snatch.)
His next reported contest was the Styrian Junior Weightlifting Championships, where Schwarzenegger was credited with a 280-kilogram (616-pound) total, although what he lifted in each exercise wasn’t specified. This information comes courtesy of David C. New for GMV Productions, a company that has been documenting bodybuilding since 1965. (2)
New wrote that Schwarzenegger won the Austrian Olympic Lifting Championships with an unspecified total in 1965. He then detailed a report from a 1967 issue of Health and Strength magazine that listed Schwarzenegger’s best-documented Olympic lifts as:
- Overhead Press: 120 kilograms (264 pounds)
- Clean & Jerk: 135 kilograms (298 pounds)
- Snatch: 110 kilograms (243 pounds)
After that, Schwarzenegger shifted his focus to his two passions: powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Schwarzenegger in Powerlifting
While official strength contests had existed for several decades, the sport of powerlifting — and its organization around the squat, bench press, and deadlift — had only recently been established in the 1960s. (3) This aligned perfectly with Schwarzenegger’s burgeoning strength.
In Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger wrote that he was inspired by the training style of bodybuilder Reg Park, who was no stranger to powerlifting. Schwarzenegger wrote of being blown away by Park’s 500-pound bench press and 700-plus-pound deadlift, and he wanted to emulate the powerful look Park’s physique had as a result. (4)
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Powerlifting and bodybuilding went hand in hand for Schwarzenegger at the time. He was driven to keep upping his lifts as an internal motivator, and the more he lifted, the more powerful his body looked on stage.
It was only a matter of time before he took his talent to a local competition, and Schwarzenegger’s powerlifting debut in 1966 didn’t disappoint. According to New — who got the results from a 1967 article in Kraftsport Revue — these were Schwarzenegger’s lifts in the 80kg+ class: (2)
- Bench Press: 165 kilograms (363 pounds)
- Deadlift: 250 kilograms (551 pounds)
- Squat: 170 kilograms (375 pounds)
- Total: 585 kilograms (1,290 pounds)
That total earned him a first-place finish, but all that strength came at a cost. By that point, Schwarzenegger weighed over 250 pounds — and while he achieved the powerful look he craved, not all of it was muscle. (His later bodybuilding stage weight would hover around 225 to 235 pounds.)
Still, breaking powerlifting records was a goal for Schwarzenegger at the time, so he returned to the platform in 1967 and, for the last time, in 1968. According to New, another 1967 issue of Kraftsport Revue reported that Schwarzenegger finished second to a man named Georg Schipper at the German Powerlifting Championship in 1967. Here are his numbers: (2)
- Bench Press: 170 kilograms (375 pounds)
- Deadlift: 280 kilograms (617 pounds)
- Squat: 200 kilograms (441 pounds)
- Total: 650 kilograms (1,433 pounds)
His last hurrah was a first-place finish in the same competition in 1968, highlighted by a 310-kilogram (683-pound) deadlift. (2)(5) He was 20 years old at the time and showcased some considerable progress from his previous competition — but it was all bodybuilding from then on. He had already won the Mr. Universe at this point, and his first Mr. Olympia title in 1970 was right around the corner.
Later publications claimed that Schwarzenegger topped out at a 485-pound bench press, a 550-pound squat, and a 710-pound deadlift during in his career. (6) And in 2021, Schwarzenegger himself wrote in his newsletter that the most weight he ever lifted on the bench press was 525 pounds. (7)
While these lifts may have occurred at some point when he switched to bodybuilding full-time, his last official lifts in competition came in 1968.
The Oak and the Stone
As a final point, it is worth noting that Schwarzenegger also participated in an annual stone-lifting contest in Munich, Germany, in 1967. The stone itself weighed 508 German pounds (or pfunds), which roughly breaks down to 560 pounds or 254 kilograms. And it was part of a competition to crown the strongest man in the region.
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The goal here was to see who could lift the stone up as high as possible. The more centimeters it came off the ground, the better the result. To make matters harder, competitors were not allowed to warm up beforehand. “You had to do it cold,” Schwarzenegger later explained. (4)
According to Schwarzenegger, he broke an existing record at the time but didn’t provide any measurements to go along with it.
How Strong Was Arnold Schwarzenegger?
The answer is “pretty darn strong.” The sport of powerlifting has obviously advanced since the 1960s, with totals well north of 800 kilograms (1,763 pounds) being the norm in Schwarzenegger’s old weight class now. Still, his numbers were impressive, especially for someone so new to the sport.
The lifts discussed here were the first and last times that Schwarzenegger officially entered competitions with standardized weights. It is likely that he went on to exceed the numbers here, but, as is so often the case in bodybuilding, people are prone to exaggeration.
While he was proficient and even competitive in other sports, few would disagree that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultimate decision to focus on bodybuilding was the right one.
- Schwarzenegger, Arnold. Total Recall. United Kingdom, Simon & Schuster UK, 2012.
- New, David C., ‘Notes on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s competitive bodybuilding history 1963-1966,’ GMV, https://www.gmv.com.au/default.asp?pageid=HOME&template=CONTENT&sid=283
- QA international Collectif, QA international Collectif. Sports: The Complete Visual Reference. United Kingdom, QA International, 2012.
- Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Hall, Douglas Kent. Arnold. United States, Simon & Schuster, 1977.
- Merritt, Greg. “How Strong Was Arnold?” The Barbell.com. December 29, 2022.
- Sexton, Colleen A. Arnold Schwarzenegger. ediciones Lerner, 2004.
- Schwarzenegger, Arnold. “July 31, 2021, Newsletter.” Schwarzenegger.com
Featured Image: @schwarzenegger on Instagram