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October 11, 2021 10 min read
In today’s world of fads that come and go from year to year, it’s sometimes difficult to sift through all the BS to find what really works. Things continue to get more and more complicated, yet our bodies’ needs have always remained the same.
In consideration of this, looking at an old-fashioned routine is a breath of fresh air. Things may not have been as scientifically sound, but they cut straight to the point while producing size and aesthetics.
And when it comes to the old-school, classic physique, Steve Reeves is the quintessential man for the job. We’ll look at how he crafted the perfect body, and the routine he used to sculpt his muscles into the most aesthetic form possible.
When it comes to a sculpted body, there was none more sculpted than Reeves’. He was, and still remains to this day, the ideal of perfection for men. Winning the 1950 Mr. Universe at 6’1” and 220 pounds, Reeves was lauded as a perfect specimen of a man.
With a face as chiseled as his physique, Hollywood would soon notice him. This got him his breakout role of Hercules which turned into a smash hit. In the modern age of “bigger is better,” the Reeves physique stands as a testament to perfect proportions and aesthetics over everything else.
When it came to his training, Reeves placed the highest importance on creating the perfect silhouette. The biggest factors being a slim waistline with wide shoulders, having everything be as proportionate as possible.
There were some aspects of his training that were objectively misguided. For example, he did pullovers and “breathing squats” in supersets in order to expand his rib cage. While exercising to transform your skeletal structure is going to be a waste of time, there were certain other movements he did (such as the ab vacuum) that hold water.
There were a few muscle groups he ignored because he believed that they wouldn’t add to his overall physique. For example, Reeves wouldn’t do any oblique exercises since he didn’t want his waist to widen. At the same time, he would also avoid shrugs since he didn’t want large traps taking away from the width of his shoulders.
He also added certain exercises to train body parts that he felt were important. This was mostly exemplified with his neck exercises, which are obviously not very popular these days.
Reeves always worked out three days a week, and he believed that for the classic physique, this was the optimal set-up. And since he was exercising with such large rep ranges, this also gave his body ample time to recover for the next workout.
Although Reeves’ workout routine transformed over time, at one point it looked something like this:
Exercising is only half the battle when it comes to growing muscles. It’s actually when you’re resting that the muscle fibers heal and then grow larger and stronger, so skimping on rest means skimping on gains.
Getting enough rest is also good for the mental game. As hard as you try, you’re not always going to be enthusiastic about training or going to the gym. Giving your body enough time to recover and relax is a recipe for training far into the future—rather than simply just gassing yourself out physically and mentally over the course of a few weeks or months.
However, rest wasn’t just prescribed for the days between workouts. He also paid a lot of attention to the amount of rest time he took between sets of exercises.
Since he was mainly training for hypertrophy and aesthetics, his rep ranges were large and his rest times were relatively short at about 45 to 60 seconds. When he was changing exercises, he would take 2 minutes to recover his muscles.
For one, the short rest periods made it easier for him to maintain a lean body fat percentage while also gaining muscle. And secondly, the larger rest times in between exercises gave him an opportunity to relieve some fatigue and ensure that he was maintaining proper form.
Considering the massive amount of reps and sets he would do of exercises, you can probably guess that he spent quite some time at the gym. It was normal for him to spend 2 to 4 hours at the gym three days a week, due to the sheer amount of volume that he was putting onto his muscles. But boy did the hard work ever pay off.
Speaking of time, it was said that he devoted so much concentration to his workouts that he would often lose track of time completely.
Steve Reeves had a single-mindedness when it came to working out, and it showed during his workouts and through his physique. Being completely devoted to lifting weights, there was little time for him to think of other things. When people would talk or chill between exercises, Reeves would be constantly moving onto the next set without speaking or noticing the people around him.
With this kind of concentration, it’s probably no surprise that he was a stickler for form. Perfect form was one of the key aspects that he stressed when he talked about his training. Each rep had to be perfect—from the very first, to the very last. If a rep could not be done perfectly within the rep range that was set, the weight was lowered.
To achieve perfect form, he set a tempo for his lifts where each lift took two seconds to take to the top, and three seconds on the way back down.
Lengthening the time that he was in the concentric motion also engaged his muscles significantly more, leading to more development and growth over the long term. In many ways, his routine was amazingly designed for optimizing muscle growth.
To say that goal setting is important would be stating the obvious, but Reeves made a special note of this. Each workout he would aim to improve slightly, and always continue progressing. While progressive overload (challenging yourself incrementally more to get stronger) predated even Reeves, he made significant and essential use of this idea in his workouts.
He would also try to keep workouts fresh, challenging himself in new ways to see what worked and what didn’t. This kept him out of the mental rut of constantly doing the same things, while also challenging his muscles to continue growing.
Saying this, he did stick to some key pillars when selecting his exercises. For one, he mainly used free weights. This is in part because gyms back then had less specialized equipment, and also because he would end up utilizing more stabilizing muscles with free weights. He would also do most exercises standing if there was the option, for similar reasons.
Here are some examples of exercises he would often perform:
One of the more interesting parts of Reeves’ workouts was that he completed his larger lifts (especially lower body exercises) later on in his workouts. In many ways, this goes against conventional thinking since we want our largest lifts and muscles to be the freshest.
This was the order he chose:
He did this for a few reasons. Firstly, doing smaller movements first allowed him to get warmed up for the larger ones. This also allowed him to go lighter (also considering the 8-rep minimum), which reduced his risk of being injured. Lastly, he could give it his all for the later lifts without having to worry about leaving something in the tank for later.
Following the training precepts outlined above, Reeves created the workout seen below. A few important points first, however.
There were always 1 to 2 exercises per muscle group, with usually 3 sets for every exercise. Considering the 8 to 12 rep ranges, you’re looking at a massive 60 sets, which includes the warm-up. As you can probably tell, this workout isn’t necessarily for beginners, but it can be easily adapted to be more beginner-friendly.
When it comes to choosing a good weight to use, you’ll want to find one that’s heavy enough for you to achieve complete muscle failure in between the rep range of 8 to 12.
Sets of the same workout will have a rest of under a minute (somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds), and sets between different muscle group exercises will have a rest time of 2 minutes.
Powerwalking is relatively popular these days, and that’s largely owed to Reeves. A pioneer of the activity, the story goes that he discovered the idea by walking along with his horses on his California ranch. He would go on to publish a book on powerwalking in 1982.
Building off the concepts he used to work out such as progressive resistance, he introduced several different factors to the fundamental exercise of walking including:
A low-impact exercise, Reeves touted its benefits for maintaining his fitness level. On his off days, four days a week, he would go out to powerwalk with weights attached to his ankles and waist. This practice would also help him avoid the worst of the muscle soreness from his workouts.
In order to lose weight, he argued that someone should powerwalk 45 minutes a day.
And if someone wanted to be in really good shape, they should aim to carry 20% of their body weight while powerwalking. This way, powerwalking was shown as a great way to both provide aerobic exercise and strength conditioning. Whether or not you include powerwalking into your own workouts, the benefits of regular aerobic exercise are evident.
The Reeves workout routine already showed its age by implementing concepts that are seen as old-fashioned these days, but the diet is another place where contemporary thinking differs significantly. Reeves would eat three square meals a day, filled with unprocessed, whole foods that provided all the nutrients he needed.
He would also try to avoid white sugar and white flour. A big difference between Reeves and a lot of diets is that he didn’t track calories, but instead listened to his body and ate what he knew he should. When it came to leaning down for a competition, he would eat the same foods but just less of them.
These days, most lifters eat several meals a day, spread out so that their muscles always have some energy to feed into. Lifters also place a much greater emphasis on protein.
This makes sense since protein is the building block of muscles, but Reeves came from a different time when this thinking was just taking hold, and it worked for him nonetheless. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what foods made up his diet, starting with the infamous “Power Drink.”
Every day, Reeves would start the day with his power drink, consisting of:
The gelatin might sound like a strange choice, but using it, the drink provided a complete BCAA profile. In the end, this gave Reeves the perfect mixture to repair his damaged muscles and gave him a powerful elixir to use just before his morning workouts from 9 to 11 am.
During the workouts themselves, he would mix a half cup of lemon juice with 3 tablespoons of honey into a half-gallon of water. This electrolyte formula would be used in between sets, being taken in sips. This allowed him to tire out his muscles because they were actually gassed out, and not due to a chemical imbalance.
His lunch and dinner were filled with salads, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats (especially cottage cheese and swordfish). Overall, his diet consisted of about 60% carbs, with the rest being equally divided between fats and proteins—a start contract to today’s diets that stress lower carbohydrate intakes.
As a natural bodybuilder, Reeves was very salt-of-the-earth, and he frowned on most supplements, but he did use his own homemade protein powder for his power drink.
This powder consisted of:
This gave the energy he needed and an extra boost of protein in the mornings. If you’re not keen on making your own from scratch, a high-quality whey protein can seriously turbocharge your gains—especially if you’re having difficulty putting on muscle mass.
Another great option is creatine.
Creatine is one of the most studied supplements in the world. It’s naturally occurring in your muscles, and supplementing with it will increase your energy output while working out, and the boost will translate to greater gains.
When the term “classic physique” is brought up, Steve Reeves is the absolute pinnacle. Everything to him was about the proportions that would look the best. There was no working out for the sake of working out, but to achieve aesthetics that would set him far above the rest—and absolutely achieved these ideals.
This more traditional approach to bodybuilding and weightlifting might give you weird looks at the gym, but it’s not necessary to follow everything to a T. The Reeves routine shows us many important factors that go into not only building the perfect body but also the perfect workout plan.
The importance of pushing your body to its limits, and then giving it enough recovery time to do it all over again, is fundamental to seeing consistent gains over the long term.
For proper growth, the work and the rest have to work in sync with one another.
But one of the most important takeaways with Reeves’ routine was his singlemindedness in training. Many people would go on to say that he completely lost track of time when he was working out, going from one exercise to the next with absolute concentration. In a world full of distractions, this is not only commendable but worthy of emulation.
Reeves made his physical body his own world, and he was undoubtedly a master of it. But this wasn’t necessarily because he worked significantly harder or smarter, but because he gave his full attention to every contraction and flexion.