Arnold’s Leg Workout: How The Austrian Oak Grew His Roots

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Before Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America, his legs were his weak point. In fact, he didn’t train them at all for the first year of his training. When he finally realized that he needed some wheels to go with his upper body development, he went overboard. Every single day for a year, he did ten sets of squats followed by ten sets of leg curls!

When Arnold’s US sponsor, Joe Weider, got to see his young protege face to face, this is what he told him, as reported in Muscle & Fitness magazine, “Your legs suffer by comparison to your upper body, and it is of the most urgent necessity that you completely alter your leg training program. I rather imagine too that others may have noticed this odd effect and are puzzled by it.

Arnold took Weider’s advice to heart. Over the next decade, he began using the Weider training principles to build a set of wheels that balanced his outstanding upper-body muscle growth. In this article, we’ll detail the leg workout routine that Arnold Schwarzenegger used throughout his Mr. Olympia reign.

arnold leg exercises

Arnold’s Leg Workout

Arnold often trained his legs in two sessions. The first three moves would be done in the morning. Then he’d come back in the evening and do the other two. This allowed him to push every exercise to the absolute limit. Here’s the workout that he followed:

Arnold’s Calf Training

arnold training legs

Even though they’re officially part of the legs, Arnold trained his calf muscles separately. When he arrived in America, his calves were underdeveloped. When this was brought to his attention, he became obsessed with correcting the problem.

Rather than hiding his weakness, Arnold famously cut his training pants off at the knees to expose them. This created the negative reinforcement loop he needed to stimulate muscle growth. Within two years, Arnold’s calves had totally transformed.

In fact, they were so good that a reporter once jokingly asked him how much his calves cost (insinuating that he had implants). Arnold’s answer was, “Five thousand hours!

Here’s Arnold’s Mr. Olympia calf training workout:

  • Donkey Calf Raises: 5 sets of 15-30 reps
  • Standing Calf Raises: 5 sets of 15-30 reps
  • Leg Press Calf Raises: 5 sets of 20-30 reps
  • Standing One-Legged Dumbbell Calf Raises: 3 sets of 15-30 reps

Arnold’s Leg Training Tips

When he realized that his legs were holding back his progress, Arnold threw himself into making the needed improvements. Along the way, he learned a lot through trial and error. Here are Arnie’s top five leg training tips:

muscle recovery leg extensions

1. Volume is King

Arnold knows that the legs are a stubborn muscle group. Because we are walking around on them all day, they are created for endurance. Therefore, in order to shock them into growth, you need a lot of volume.

At the beginning of his training career, Arnold wasn’t using enough volume on his legs. It was only when he increased his volume to a minimum of 20 sets, with each one taken to failure, that he started to see some serious quad development.

arnold schwarzenegger leg workout

2. Develop the Mind Muscle Connection

Arnold accepted early on that his leg workouts were going to be the most brutal aspect of his training week. So, rather than fearing those workouts, he developed the attitude of a warrior going into combat.

He went into the gym with the mindset that he was about to wage war with the heavy weights there – and there was no way they were going to defeat him!

It’s that sort of intensity that allowed Arnold to push every rep of every set to the limit.

multiple muscle groups squats

3. Have a Training Partner

Arnold’s workout partnership with future Mr. Olympia, Franco Columbu is legendary. These two multi-Olympia winners created an intensity and atmosphere that was nothing short of electric. Though smaller, Franco was stronger than Arnold on most lifts. This was a cause of motivation for Arnie, who constantly pushed himself to keep up with Franco’s squat and leg press poundages.

Apart from the motivation factor, a training partner is essential from a safety aspect. Having a trusted spotter standing behind you will give you more confidence to try for that last squat rep when you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to complete it by yourself.

arnold schwarzenegger leg day

4. Experiment with a Calf Block

Arnold found that placing a low block under his heels improved his squatting form and felt more natural. It gave him an increased range of motion so that he could go deeper into the bottom squat. The block also helped keep Arnold’s torso in an upright position throughout the movement.

Not everyone will benefit from a calf block. Taller people (Arnold was 6’2″) will probably get more benefit from it. However, make sure that your block isn’t too high, or it will force you too far forward.

arnolds leg day

5. Use Shock Tactics

Leading up to the Mr Olympia contest, Arnold would use shock tactics to force his legs into new growth. Here are two of Arnold’s favorite leg workout shock techniques:

Drop Sets

Drop sets involve going to failure and then stripping off some weight so you can pump out a few more reps. You continue stripping off weight until you’ve done four to five ‘mini sets.’ Here’s an example:

It’s your last set of squats. You managed to push out eight quality reps but have hit your limit. You re-rack the bar, and two guys pull a plate off each side. You immediately unrack the bar and pump out another 6-8 reps. Then you re-rack again. Another plate comes off each side, and you keep going. This continues for a total of 4-5 weight reductions, by which time you will be totally exhausted.

major muscle groups leg extensions

Pre-Exhaustion Sets

While the quads are effectively worked in the squat exercise, it is just one of a number of muscle groups of muscles that are worked in the movement. Other leg muscles involved are the glutes and hamstrings. The pre-exhaustion technique allows you to temporarily make the quads the weak link so that they get all the emphasis.

Arnold would put this into action by doing a set of leg extensions and then immediately going to squats. It required that he use a slightly lower squat weight but allowed him to place all the load on the quadriceps.

feet shoulder width squats

Wrap Up

Leg training was the most hardcore, demanding part of Arnold’s workout schedule. His high volume, maximum poundage philosophy allowed him to take his lower body’s glaring weakness and bring it up to the point where it was almost as impressive as his upper body.

If you’re game enough to try out Arnold’s leg workout, get yourself prepped for some serious pain – and don’t plan on climbing any stairs for a few days afterward!

If you really want to push yourself, try out Arnold’s Chest Workout, Back Workout, Shoulder Workout, Arms Workout, and Abs Workout.

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