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October 12, 2021 9 min read

Bodybuilding has evolved a lot over the last six decades.

What is popular now -- big arms, big thighs, big chests -- wasn’t the norm 50 years ago, when bodybuilders like Bill Pearl, Leroy Colbert, and Clarence Ross made well-proportioned muscles, perfect v-tapers, and classic lines the bodybuilding standard. 

These days, more and more of us are looking at some of the original bodybuilding heroes and aspiring to their body types. One of those bodybuilding heroes is Bill Pearl.

In this article, we take a closer look at Pearl’s bodybuilding philosophy, the diet he still sticks to at 91 years old, and his favorite workout routine for gaining bulk and power. 

Who is Bill Pearl? 

Bill Pearl is one of the best-known names in 20th century bodybuilding. Known for his strength, athleticism, and classical proportions, Pearl defines the mid-century bodybuilding physique.

muscular man holding weight plate in gym

Pearl won five Mr Universe titles between 1953 and 1971, including once as an amateur. As a competitor at the highest level, Pearl was known for outrageous antics like blowing up water bottles, bench pressing a whopping 500 pounds, and tearing horseshoes and license plates in half.

Born in 1930, Pearl is 91 years old and still one of the best-known bodybuilders. Though retired, Pearl reportedly still works out up to six days a week, and credits discipline as his drive for remaining strong and fit.

Over the years, Pearl has authored a number of books about bodybuilding and working out. His best known titles include Getting Stronger: Weight Training for Men and Women (1986) and Keys to the INNER Universe (1979). 

Bill Pearl’s Workout for Bulking Up and Gaining Power

One of the [many] reasons for Bill Pearl’s fame and massive appeal was the fact that his physique was attainable for other men. This appeal is still relevant today, and one of the many motives aspiring bodybuilders have for seeking out Pearl’s workouts.

Unlike modern bodybuilding, where  bigger is better, Pearl is famous for his clean lines and v-taper.

To gain power and bulk up to a classic bodybuilder’s physique, Pearl recommends a three-course exercise plan. This is the same exercise plan that Pearl himself followed in the 1950s, as guided by his trainer Leo Stern.

The plan is ideal for beginner- through intermediate-level lifters. It should be done in order, regardless of your experience level or how simple you find the first exercises. Pearl suggests spending six weeks on each course, completing workouts three days each week.

Course #1

Anyone looking to bulk up the Bill Pearl way should start with course number one, regardless of experience level. Though the volume will feel low for some, Pearl stresses that it’s important to introduce your body to the exercises, to prepare your tendons and ligaments for more challenging work, and to let your body learn to rebuild from doing these exercises.

Pearl recommends beginning with weights that are about two-thirds of your maximum effort. This way you can focus on completing each rotation comfortably.

Dumbbell Swing -- 1 set -- 10 reps

For this exercise (which can also be accomplished with a kettlebell), hold a dumbbell with both hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. As you squat, lower the dumbbell between your legs. As you stand upright again, swing the dumbbell until it’s about chest height.

Leg Raises on the floor or on a bench -- 1 set -- 30 reps 

For this strength-training exercise, lay on your back and raise your straight legs up until your hips are at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lower your legs back to your starting position.

Breathing Squats -- 2 sets -- 15 reps

This intense exercise involves performing 15-20 squats while holding a weight you might typically use for fewer squats. You should inhale before lowering your body, and exhale as you return to your starting, standing position.

Bent Arm Laterals (superset with squats) -- 2 sets -- 12 reps 

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, and a 5- to 10-pound dumbbell in each hand. Bend your elbows up so they dumbbells are in line with your shoulders, then extend your arms outward. Finally, bend your elbows again so that the dumbbells are at the height of your ear. 

Calf Raises -- 3 sets -- 20 reps 

Begin by standing up straight. Then push through the balls of your feet and raise your heels until you are standing on just the front part of each foot. Hold your position for 10-20 seconds, or as long as you can.

Shoulder Shrugs -- 2 sets -- 18 reps 

Stand up straight and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Looking ahead and keeping a straight neck, inhale and slowly raise your shoulders towards your ears as high as you can. Exhale as you lower your shoulders back down.  

Bench Press -- 2 sets -- 8 reps 

For this classic gym exercise, lie on your back on a flat bench. Keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground, lift the weighted bar from the rack, then lower it down to your chest before raising it again.

Rowing Motion -- 2 sets -- 8 reps

You will need to use a rowing machine for this exercise which simulates the act of the sport of crew.

Press Behind Neck -- 2 sets -- 8 reps 

This challenging exercise will require a spotter. Sit on a bench with your feet on the floor and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. There are multiple variations of this exercise, though all involve raising a weighted bar and lowering it behind your head before raising it again.

Barbell Curl -- 2 sets -- 8 reps 

Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a weighted barbell with an underhand grip, then bend your elbows to raise the barbell to your upper chest. 

Bent Leg Deadlifts -- 3 sets -- 5 reps 

Gripping a weighted barbell, bend your knees until the weight is lowered and your body is angled downward. Raise the weight to hip height as you straighten your legs to stand upright.

Course #2

Dumbbell Swing -- 1 set -- 10-15 reps

See above.

Sit Ups -- 1 set -- 15-50 reps 

Lie down on your back and bend your legs so that your feet are planted firmly on the ground. Cross your arms over your chest, then curl your upper body so that your shoulders meet your knees.

Side Bend Dumbbell -- 1 set -- 15-50 reps 

Begin by standing up tall with your feet planted shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell between your right palm and your right hip, and place your left hand behind your head. Bend to your right as far as you can, then pause for as long as you are able. Slowly return to your starting position, then switch sides. 

Leg Raises -- 1 set -- 10-30 reps

Lie down on the floor on your back, with your arms at your side. Keeping your legs stretched out and together, raise your legs until the bottoms of your feet are pointed towards the ceiling. Once you have raised your legs as far as they will go, lower them back down to your starting position.

Deep Knee Bend -- 3-5 sets -- 6-8 reps 

Lower your body until you are balancing only the balls of your feet, as if you’ve crouched down to pick something up off of the floor or to look inside a lower cabinet. Keep your back straight to maintain your balance.

Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover -- 3-5 sets -- 8-10 reps

Lie down with your shoulders on a bench and your feet planted on the floor. Grip a dumbbell with both hands placed under the far side, and position the dumbbell so it is perpendicular to your chest. Slowly move your arms and the dumbbell backwards over your head, and feel your chest muscles open. Return to your starting position.

Calf Raises -- 3 sets -- 15-20 reps 

See above.

Rowing Motion -- 2 sets -- 8 reps 

See above.

Military Press -- 2 sets -- 5-6 reps 

Sit on a bench and grip a weighted barbell, placing your hands just beyond shoulder-width apart. Slowly raise and lower the bar, Exhale as you move the bar up, and inhale as you move the bar up.

One Arm Dumbbell Row -- 3 sets -- 8 reps

For this exercise you will need a dumbbell and a bench. Place your right knee and right hand on the bench, keeping your back straight between them. In your left hand, grip your dumbbell and extend your arm fully towards the floor. Pull your dumbbell up, bending your elbow until your upper arm is parallel to the line of your back.

Bent Leg Deadlift -- 2 sets -- 8 reps 

See above.

Incline Dumbbell Press -- 2 sets -- 6-8 reps 

Sit on an angled bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Position your hands at your shoulders, with your elbows bent and angeled below your ribs. Exhale as you press both dumbbells straight up over your chest. Inhale as you slowly lower the dumbbells back to your starting position.

Bent Arm Laterals -- 2 sets -- 6-8 reps

See above.

One Arm Dumbbell French Press -- 3 sets -- 6-8 reps

Standing up straight, grip a dumbbell in one hand. Raise the dumbbell up over your head, then bend only your elbow downward towards your back. 

Course #3

Sit Ups -- 1 set -- 25 reps

See above. 

Leg Raises -- 1 set -- 25 reps 

See above.

Bench Press -- 5 sets -- 5 reps

See above.

Press Behind Neck -- 5 sets -- 5 reps 

See above.

Barbell Bent-Over Row -- 5 sets -- 6 reps 

The barbell bent-over row is a big-muscle move that targets your back. Load your barbell and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees just slightly, and lean forward at your waist. Grab the barbell, and let it hang with your arms and back straight.

Bent Arm Pullover -- 3 sets -- 8 reps 

See above.

Barbell Curls -- 4 sets -- 6 reps

See above.

French Press -- 4 sets -- 6 reps 

Grip a barbell, placing your hands close enough together for the tips of your extended thumbs to touch. Then raise the barbell up over your head with your arms fully extended. Lower the barbell behind your head, feeling your triceps stretch. Raise back over your head. 

Progressive Overload 

Collectively, the three courses described above follow what Pearl refers to as Progressive Overload. To make the most of the Progressive Overload concept, Pearl recommends:

  • Begin Course #1 using weights that are just two-thirds of your maximum effort weight

  • As you complete the required sets and reps, add about five pounds of weight to your bar for your next workout

  • Slowly increasing the amount of weight you are lifting will gradually increase the stress placed on your muscles, stimulate muscle hypertrophy, and begin building up your strength and work capacity

Rest and Recovery

Most modern bodybuilders recommend ending one exercise and immediately beginning the next. However, Pearl actually suggests  resting for  three to five minutes between sets.

According to Pearl, your focus during a workout should be on lifting properly and using a full range of motion. 

Rushing through to the next exercise is likely to take away your focus, and increase your chances of injury.

Pro Tip: To keep from cooling down during these longer rest periods, work out wearing a tracksuit that will keep your body warm and help you to conserve energy.

Pearl also stresses the importance of sleep and relaxation when it comes to building muscles and improving strength.

Get at least eight hours of sleep each night, but don’t sleep longer than 10 consecutive hours.

Since  good rest depends on good habits, make it a habit of getting to sleep at the same time each night. This will allow your body to regulate itself, which will lead to better sleep patterns. 

The Importance of Attitude

Finally, Pearl’s bodybuilding recommendations wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the emphasis the legend places on proper mental attitude. Says Pearl, “You should think positively about all your daily activities, physical, mental, and moral. It will aid you in your training in the gym, as well as your personal life. A healthy, positive attitude will improve your body and make you a better person.”    

Bill Pearl’s Diet

Bill Pearl’s recommended diet -- and the diet he continues to follow himself -- does not include a list of “good” foods and “bad” foods. Rather, Pearl follows a simple set of dieting rules.

healthy diet high protein

Pearl recommends eating fresh, wholesome meals at the same time every day. Just as falling asleep at the same time each night trains your body to  rest well, eating at the same time every day trains your metabolism and your body’s digestive system.

Your day of wholesome meals should include a hearty breakfast of about 50 to 75 grams of  protein, plus some carbs and fats. If you are new to a dieting plan meant to complement your exercise routine, then begin by consuming 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day. To really drive growth, slowly increase your intake to about 5,000 calories per day. 

According to Pearl, the best and most effective thing you can do when it comes to dieting is to stay consistent with your eating habits. Pro Tip: To maximize your muscle gain, drink one quart (or two pints) of milk over the course of your workout. 


Even at 91 years old, Bill Pearl is inspiring bodybuilders. A winner of five Mr Universe titles between 1953 and 1971, Pearl was the epitome of the classic bodybuilding physique: classic lines, well-proportioned muscles, and perfect v-tapers.

As he has written in numerous bestselling training guides, Pearl recommends a unique three-course exercise plan for anyone who aspires to a classic bodybuilder’s physique. Each course is six weeks long, and they are designed to complete in order. The courses include exercises such as sit ups, presses, curls, and more.

In addition to the three-course workout plan, Pearl insists on a good attitude, a diet of wholesome meals, and plenty of quality rest. According to Pearl, forming good habits that instill discipline and allow your body to prepare is far more important than sticking to particular foods or limiting calories.