by Shawn Perine
There was a time, before most of you reading this were even born, when bodybuilding wasn’t the culturally entrenched ubiquitous activity we enjoy today. You didn’t have a choice of gyms to join in your town, and after traveling miles to the nearest store that happened to sell Joe Weider’s MUSCLE BUILDER magazine, you often found yourself the subject of sideways glances at the cash register.
Even names like Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl and Reg Park — as popular and influential as they were within the bodybuilding community — weren’t enough to spark the revolution that turned their sport from sideshow to main event. What bodybuilding needed was a kind of “perfect storm” of people, place and timing that equaled more than just the sum of its parts — to transcend other niche activities such as sword swallowing and move it into the realm of mainstream cultural phenomena. Fortunately for us, such a confluence would occur, in the late 1960s in Southern California, under the Machiavellian influence of Joe Weider, without whom it’s doubtful the amazing events taking place would ever have made their way beyond the sunny shores of the Pacific at Venice Beach.
The men at the epicenter of this groundswell would all go on to establish themselves as certified legends in bodybuilding. Between Dave Draper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu and Frank Zane, there are enough magazine covers to fill to the rafters the tiny concrete box on Pacific Avenue in Venice in which they worked out.
That place, of course, was Gold’s Gym, and the story of how these men and a handful of others helped turn it into the epicenter of bodybuilding reads like one of the screenplays piled atop a movie exec’s desk just a few miles inland.
The Back Story
Every revolution in history is a byproduct of the times in which it occurs. From the French, American and Russian revolutions to the felling of the Berlin Wall, each event was essentially a bold manifestation of an overarching cultural movement. Such was the case of the bodybuilding revolution.
The mid-late 1960s was a time of unrest in America. Between the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK and America’s participation in the Vietnam conflict, there was more than enough turmoil to create the kind of social unrest that spawns revolution. Rather than a military revolution, however, ours was the cultural kind (although, as with most revolutions, some blood was shed).
The peace movement was America’s way of saying “Enough!” to the bloodshed, to the authoritarianism, to the postwar brand of social conservatism that was aching to be overturned. A seminal year in this nationwide cultural revolution was 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Eight invaded the Democratic National Convention, President Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam conflict, the Beatles made a trip to India . . . and Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in California.
Truly, change was in the air. If the world were ever to be ready to begin embracing bodybuilding to any degree, the late ’60s was the time, and if ever there was to be a place where it would first take hold, Southern California had to be it. For generations before Schwarzenegger reached its golden shores, Los Angeles had been a magnet for bon vivants and dreamers alike, drawn like metal filings to the magnetic pull of its sunny climes, rolling surf and starmaking potential.
Driving all of this was bodybuilding mogul Joe Weider who, although his offices were based in Union City, New Jersey, had the belief that to successfully promote bodybuilding to the masses he couldn’t just sell muscles: he had to sell a lifestyle. And that lifestyle, to his way of thinking, had to include sun, sand, beautiful girl. . . and bodybuilders. Another Jersey resident who relocated to the left coast at Weider’s urging was Dave Draper in spring 1963. Draper had been the face of Weider’s bodybuilding publications to that point as well as an employee at his Union City warehouse. Big, blond and boyish, Draper looked as if he’d been borne straight out of the Venice surf, and Weider sailed that ship as far as he could, creating an image that fueled the imagination of young men from Nottingham, England, to Peoria, Illinois.
Still, for all of Draper’s physical appeal, Weider believed that a piece of the puzzle — the one that would truly popularize bodybuilding — was still missing. Unquestionably, he had the looks and brains, but Draper was a fairly shy, self-deprecating sort. What was needed was a bold, largerthanlife personality who would help shout bodybuilding’s virtues from the rooftops.
Frank Zane’s ar***** on the scene in 1967 meant another handsome, heroically built athlete who could be added to the Weider stable, thus solidifying Zane’s grip on bodybuilding’s image. Zane had been a highschool teacher in Florida before moving west, and he took to California’s Zen aesthetic like a bodybuilder to a barbell. He was intellectual, wellspoken and precise, yet even he wasn’t quite the emissary Weider was seeking for bodybuilding, not to mention for Weider publications, Weider Barbell Co. and Weider Nutrition.
It was at the 1968 Mr. Universe contest in Miami, Florida, a show won by Frank Zane, and deservedly so, that Joe came face-to-face with the perfect candidate. Yet for all of Zane’s prodigious gifts, Weider turned his focus to the 21-year-old runnerup who he met in the flesh for the first time. Standing nearly 6’2″ and weighing in at a ponderous 250 pounds, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a sight to behold. With a good deal of baby fat and pasty white skin, the young Austrian was far from the bronzed and polished figure that Zane cut. Moreover, Schwarzenegger couldn’t speak more than a word or two of English. Still, Joe Weider has always had, if nothing else, an eye for potential, and he saw it in spades in this kid.
Despite the language, cultural and age barriers, there was an immediate kinship. From Schwarzenegger’s broad smile and carefree demeanor to the way he gazed longingly at the winner’s trophy backstage before the start of the competition, he displayed all the drive and passion for bodybuilding of Weider himself. Plus, although the Schwarzenegger physique was just a large, raw work in progress, the trainer of champions saw his latent potential.
Already the holder of the largest muscular arms and chest in the world, Schwarzenegger could, Weider knew, win the most coveted title in the sport of bodybuilding — the Mr. Olympia — within a couple of years, and become a champion for the ages. Immediately following the Universe contest, Weider summoned Schwarzenegger to come live in the United States and work for him, as a “spokesathlete.” Being that just such an opportunity was the stuff his dreams were made of, Schwarzenegger accepted the offer. After a few months in California, Arnold asked Joe if he could also bring his former training partner from Munich over. He assured Weider that Francesco Columbu wasn’t too shabby a bodybuilder, either. And so it was, that by the turn of the ’70s, Southern California — more specifically Gold’s Gym Venice — had become home of the world’s most famous and successful bodybuilders, all training, eating a growing together.
Within the next five years, guys like Ken Waller, Ed Corney, Mike Katz, Robby Robinson, Danny Padilla, Roger Callard, Denny Gable, Kent Kuehn and Lou Ferrigno, all future legends, would join the fray. With all the collective firepower assembled in that sub-5,000 square feet, it was only a matter of time before sparks flew; sparks that would set bodybuilding afire, both inside and out. As the public began to take notice of the cultural phenomenon growing out of Venice, so did bodybuilding itself experience a growth spurt, in the way its athletes plied their trade.
As Joe Weider worked to help drive bodybuilding into the public’s consciousness, the sport’s top competitors continued reinventing the way they built their physiques. It was a time of exploration in bodybuilding and between the late ’60s and early ’70s the Gold’s crew, lead as always by Schwarzenegger, tinkered with the age-old formula the rest of the bodybuilding community had accepted as the de facto system.
Until then, the typical bodybuilder would usually adhere to a training protocol that involved four to six workouts per week, one per day, with three to five straight sets of 10 repetitions, three to five exercises per bodypart. Straightforward and an easy metric to remember. Schwarzenegger, however, liked anything but easy, because easy meant status quo — if you do what you always do, then you’ll get what you got. And he always wanted more. So, he began tinkering with things — supersetting chest with back here, working out twice a day there — until he (and, by default, his Gold’s Gym peers) were following a routine that resembled the one practiced by the previous generation only insofar as it required the repetitive lifting of black metal.
The most noticeable diversion from the old-school style of training came in the form of the double split routine, something especially championed by Schwarzenegger. This involved not only dividing the body into groups to be trained on alternating days, but also split between morning and evening routines. In other words, six days of training per week divvied up into 12 workouts.
Other Weider Training Principles were also brought to the forefront during the Golden Age of the early-mid 1970s in Venice, such as performing supersets (of bodyparts as well as exercises within a bodypart routine) and drop sets, and getting a peak contraction. Such concepts weren’t foreign to bodybuilding pre-1970, but they weren’t nearly as commonly practiced then as they have been since. Thanks in large part to Schwarzenegger’s übercompetitive nature and the rapidly escalating quality of pro bodybuilders during the late ’60s and early ’70s, bodybuilders of the 2000s have a broad palette of techniques from which to paint their physiques. The routines of then are just as valid, and effective, today.
Here we’ve compiled some of the signature routines of the best bodybuilders to come out of this perfect storm. If you have the strength to weather them as the legends once did, then you too may one day build a physique for all times.