Steve Reeves. Dave Draper. Arnold Schwarzenegger. These names and more are synonymous with an era in bodybuilding, “the Golden Age,” which is revered even today by bodybuilding fans. Hallmarks of this period, which roughly spanned the ’50s through the ’80s, included broad shoulders, trim waists, sweeping thighs, and an overall body shape that could be described as “heroic.” Yet of all the champions who competed during the era, one man’s name is invoked more frequently than others when talk turns to the ideal physique: Frank Zane. Known as “Mr. Symmetry,” Zane captured three Mr. Olympia titles, a Mr. America, Mr. World, and three Mr. Universes. Competing at only 190 pounds, Zane was one of the lightest bodybuilders to ever win the overall title at the Olympia, and he’s also one of only three people to beat Arnold in a bodybuilding contest (the 1968 Mr. Universe). Zane was much more than a bodybuilder, though. He taught chemistry and math for 13 years; in fact, he was teaching full-time when he won his first Olympia.
As much as we know about Zane, the same question keeps coming up more than 30 years after his last Olympia win: How did he build such a symmetrically perfect physique? I traveled to California to meet Zane and see if I could uncover secrets that have been lost in time.
FLEX: What inspired you to start bodybuilding?
FRANK ZANE: I bought my first set of dumbbells at 14. I largely started bodybuilding to build myself up because I lived in a very tough neighborhood. There was a lot of fighting going on, and I wanted to get away from that. Once I started training, I never stopped. One thing led to another, and I competed in my first physique contest at 18.
FLEX: How did you do in your first show?
FRANK ZANE: My first contest was the open novice in Allentown, PA. There were 45 competitors, and we all had to do four poses. I placed fifth, which was very encouraging for me. Bob Hoffman was watching me pump up backstage and walked over to me and said, “Young man, if I had a physique like yours, I would walk around with my shirt off all of the time.” It’s amazing how a comment like that, at the right time, really impacted my career. That influenced me more than anything in bodybuilding. I knew at that time that I could compete for top titles.
FLEX: What was your favorite training split?
FRANK ZANE: The one that I did the most was a three-way split. I believe this is the best split once you reach a certain point. For me it was back, biceps, and forearms on one day; legs the next; and then chest, shoulders, and triceps on the last day. The other one I used was the Arnold split, which we all did in the ’70s. That was six days a week: chest and back, legs, and then deltoids/arms on the third day, repeated. It was a lot of overtraining. I couldn’t keep doing it.
FLEX: Today, peri-workout (pre-, intra- and post-workout) nutrition is a popular topic. What did you focus on before, during, and after a workout in terms of nutrition?
FRANK ZANE: I relied a great deal on pre-workout nutrition. I would always have protein and carbohydrates before my workout. In terms of getting good workouts, you really need to have the fuel in your body ahead of time to get a pump. I always worked to get a maximum pump in my workouts.
This whole nutrient timing thing, rushing to eat within a 45- to 60-minute window after a workout—I never did that. I would never eat during my workout either. Post-workout I would just do something to relax and sometimes wait a couple of hours to eat. It would depend on how hard I trained. When I’d get hungry, I’d eat. It would usually be a protein drink—some kind of protein and carbohydrate mixture.
FLEX: If you had a weak body part how would you bring it up?
FRANK ZANE: I would train it moderately heavy and then give it enough time to recover. Body parts don’t grow by training them all of the time.
So I would train the lagging body part once every fourth day and go close to failure on it. My calves were originally a weak point for me. I found using a lot of dropsets really helped my calves grow.
FLEX: As you got closer to a show, how would your nutrition and training change?
FRANK ZANE: Ideally, I’d like to not have to change it too much. I was never a big carbohydrate freak. There were always fewer carbohydrates in my diet than protein. I kept protein at one gram per pound of body weight, usually between 190–200 grams per day. My carbohydrates stayed between 70–150 grams, and fat made up around 25% of my total calories. I never went above 3,000 calories. I’d just get fat doing that.
The way I did it was a seasonal approach. I would train hard in the summer and peak in the fall. I would go into maintenance in the winter and start building back up in the spring. I wasn’t peaked all of the time, but I always stayed on top of my nutrition and supplementation.
FLEX: In terms of cardio, did you prefer steady state or intervals (HIIT)?
FRANK ZANE: I didn’t do much cardio because I always stayed on the lean side. When I did do it, it was to reach an ultra-lean state. It would help me get very conditioned. In 1976 I got into great shape and was running about two miles four times a week. Then in 1979, when I reached my peak shape, I would go to a track at night and do six laps. My legs got very muscular from that. Nowadays I walk very often. I think walking is great for bodybuilders to limit the stress placed on their feet and tibialis.
FLEX: What do you think about popular fitness trends like CrossFit and high-volume training?
FRANK ZANE: CrossFit is going to prove to be the greatest boom ever for physical therapists. They should be grateful that CrossFit exists because they will have unlimited business. It’s one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever seen. People are not meant to be doing high-repetition two-hand snatches. Everybody is going to get hurt sooner or later, and it will die just like all other fads. It’s being touted for everybody, and that’s the mistake. Any extreme is not the way. It’s not about resorting to extremes, it’s about finding middle ground.
What are you after? Volume training is good for conditioning, but it won’t get you much size. The answer is, don’t be in a hurry! Don’t expect to get in shape in a month or two months.
FLEX: How did you develop your abs and keep your waist so small?
FRANK ZANE: I always did a lot of ab work. When I was nearing a show, I would work up to 1,000 total reps of abs. It would take me 30 minutes. I would superset crunches with leg raises, performing 50 reps of each. Then I would do hanging knee-ups and seated twists. The hanging knee-ups developed my upper quads as well.
FLEX: Who was your favorite training partner of all time?
FRANK ZANE: My wife was a great training partner and really supported me. The other one would be Arnold because he was so driven. You never met anybody like that. That’s part of the reason I moved to California, to train with other great bodybuilders. Having a good training partner is the best motivation.
FLEX: Who was your favorite bodybuilder of all time?
FRANK ZANE: Steve Reeves. Steve had the best natural physique. It’s amazing what he was able to accomplish. His role in Hercules is part of what inspired me in high school to bodybuild. Why Reeves? It all comes down to a matter of opinion. It’s what resonates with you. Bodybuilding suffers from the lack of being objective. You can’t always justify the winner. But everyone loves Reeves. - FLEX
For phone consultations or in-person training with Frank Zane, visit his website, frankzane.com.
Let's Grow is the culmination of more than 50 years of experience in body sculpting from the legendary Frank Zane. Learn the training and nutritional secrets that helped him capture three Mr. Olympia titles and build one of the most famous physiques ever. frankzane.com