Learning From Legends – Arnold Schwarzenegger

By on November 29, 2018

When I mentioned to people that I would be making a new series focused on real life legends, almost everyone responded by saying ‘you’re going to make one on Arnie right?’. That’s partly because everyone knows how much I love Arnie, but it’s also because Arnie is the absolute epitome of the expression ‘living legend’.

Lessons from Arnold Schwarzenegger

You might know him as the highly successful bodybuilder-turned movie-star, turned-governor. But there’s more to his story than that, and much more that we can learn from the man. So let’s take a closer look at what makes Arnie, such a legend and what we can learn from him in terms of business, self-promotion, strength training, and goal setting.

Early Life

Arnie was born Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger to his parents Gustav and Aurelia Schwarzenegger in 1947. He grew up in his hometown of Thai in Styria, Austria. Arnold was close to his mother and Gustav reportedly demonstrated a clear preference for Arnold’s older brother Meinhard – which stemmed from a belief that Arnold may not have been his biological son. Gustav was reportedly a strict disciplinarian, often resorting to physical punishment.

At school Arnold was described as ‘academically average’, getting buy on his cheerful and good-humoured manner and ‘exuberant’ character.

This is one of the first lessons we can learn from Arnie. For all he is a shrewd businessman and highly driven, another of his key traits that often gets overlooked is his charisma. Arnie is a fun and funny guy, he always seems to be loving what he is doing, and that kind of energy is magnetic. It undoubtedly helped his career along the way by drawing people to him and making him that much more memorable. The lesson: whatever your goal, have fun along the way and try to ensure everyone around you is enjoying themselves too.

Starting Bodybuilding

Arnold was inspired at age 14 to begin weightlifting by screen icons Reg Park and Steve Reeves. It was then that his master plan to travel to the US on the back of a bodybuilding career began to form. He was incredibly driven and dedicated, even breaking into his local gym so he could train when it was closed at weekends.

Speaking of Reeves, Arnie said:

“As a teenager, I grew up with Steve Reeves. His remarkable accomplishments allowed me a sense of what was possible when others around me didn’t always understand my dreams. Steve Reeves has been part of everything I’ve ever been fortunate enough to achieve.”

Similarly, when serving his conscripted time in the Austrian army, Arnie went AWOL during training in order to attend the Mr. Europe competition – which he won. Arnie said of the experience:

“Participating in the competition meant so much to me that I didn’t carefully think through the consequences.”

And this of course is the other crucial lesson we can learn from Arnie at this early point: diehard determination. Arnie had a singular vision from a young age and he worked relentlessly toward it. No doubt this in turn was possible because he picked a vision that he found easy to get passionate about. That aforementioned energy and exuberance is a by-product of his excitement for the goal he was working toward. Nothing was stopping Arnie from training, or from getting to that competition!

Arnold of course went on to place in several more big bodybuilding competitions, being named the ‘Best Built Man in Europe’. Off the back of this success, he travelled to London to attend the NABBA Mr. Universe competition, where he placed second to Chester Yorton. This though gave him the opportunity to stay in the city with his new mentor-and-coach Charles ‘Wag’ Bennett, and during this time he also got to train with his childhood hero Reg Park. Training with the icon, Schwarzenegger eventually won Mr. Universe in 1967 at the age of 20. He would win the title three more times.

Between 1966 and 1968, Arnie attended business school in Munich while working at Rolf Putziger’s gym. He also got English coaching during this time, telling his coach at the time frequently that he was going to become ‘the greatest actor’.

The extent of Arnie’s vision should not be understated at this point. Despite focussing primarily on his bodybuilding career, he nevertheless had the foresight to attend business school and receive coaching for English – training that would serve him incredibly well through his career. I spoke about this in my post on Digital Polymaths – keep learning, collecting skills and qualifications, and building your CV up to become as much of a superstar as you possibly can.

Traveling to the US and Business Career

In 1968 at the age of 21, Arnie realized his dream of moving to the United States. He would there train under Joe Weider at Gold’s Gym receiving a $65/week stipend and frequently appearing on the cover of the media mogul’s muscle mags. Arnie was a sure draw for selling magazines, owing as much to his persona and charisma as his incredible physique. He also wrote regular columns for the magazines. He won his first Mr. Olympia title – the most prestigious of bodybuilding awards – in 1970, and went on to win it seven more times. To this day, he is still the youngest ever winner.

During this time Arnie also gained a bachelor’s degree in international business marketing of fitness and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He also penned his first book in 1977: Education of a Bodybuilder.

What many people don’t realize is that Arnie was already a millionaire at this point. Arnie and his best-friend Columbu (who he had met in Germany) labelled themselves as ‘Specialty European Bricklayers’, turning their accents and immigrant status into an asset. Of course their gigantic muscle also likely helped to set them apart from the competition.

Arnie also set up a mail-order business, selling booklets and leaflets to fans who wrote in with bodybuilding questions. Arnie said of the enterprise:

“Many bodybuilders failed at mail order because they’d accept the money but not get it together to mail the product. You had to fill your orders within a certain time by law. If the post office received complaints, it would take away your post office box, and your business would be gone. […] But I was super-efficient. There were bins for incoming mail, checks, envelopes, and outgoing orders. […] I always showed Joe [Joe Weider, his mentor] any ad I wrote before putting it in the magazine because he was a merchandising genius. “Why didn’t you write ‘Fill within days’?” he’d ask. ‘Put that in the ad! People want to know you’re dependable! And you should say ‘This booklet is a limited edition’! People love limited editions’.”

All of Arnie’s money would be reinvested into real-estate starting with the purchase of a 6 plex apartment building. He lived in apartment number 6 and rented out the other five. He would go on to make many more savvy investments too, even being the first private individual to invest in a passenger plane which eventually sold for $11 million in 1998.

We’ll see that time and again, Arnie’s entrepreneurial spirit helped to give him the edge and particularly, his skills in marketing. Arnie was able to seize an opportunity and make sure that whatever he was offering was significantly different and more memorable than the competition. Whether in business, relationships, or anything else: being able to market yourself is an incredibly valuable skill and one worth taking time to explore. And the secret? It’s far more about emotion than it is about logic.

And the other lesson to take from this is efficiency and keeping to your word. If you are branded as ‘flaky’, then you will not succeed in business or life. I have seen this myself in my writing business – I’ve had steady reliable work for 10 years simply because I always deliver. Even when that means working until 3am.

So, during this time, Arnie was completing a degree, running multiple businesses, and thriving as a bodybuilding world-champion. To keep himself together, he recently reported that he would use transcendental meditation to avoid letting all of his challenges become ‘one big problem’.

Arnie’s Weightlifting Advice

Something else many people don’t realize about Arnie is that he also competed in powerlifting and weightlifting competitions and enjoyed several victories in those fields too. In 1967 for instance, he won the Munich stone-lifting contest by lifting a 254kg stone. He was not just massive, he was genuinely strong – with his personal bests on Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift being 247kg, 240kg, and 320kg respectively. He could bench press 90kg more than me. I’m going to go and shoot myself now.

Arnie retired from bodybuilding in 1975, but returned once more to compete and become Mr. Olympia again in a slightly controversial decision in 1980. He was famous for using ‘psychological warfare’ prior to competition in order to unsettle his opponents.

In the gym, Arnie brought his same steely focus and determination – often espousing the importance of focussing on the target muscle in order to improve the ‘mind-muscle connection’. This was the golden-age of bodybuilding and so of course his training very much echoes the classic bodybuilding blueprint of higher rep ranges (8-10 reps) combined with Joe Weider’s intensity techniques such as negatives, forced reps, cheats, burns, drop sets, and the like. The aim is to pool blood and metabolites in the muscle. In his book ‘The New Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding’, he describes these techniques in detail. Arnie used a lot of isolation movements, but as we’ve seen he did also combine this with heavy compound lifts and actually a fair amount of cardio too. He used a variety of splits that would focus on disparate muscle groups such as ‘legs, chest, and abdomen’, and would sometimes train up to four hours a day split into two separate sessions. Arnie ate BIG in terms of protein.

It’s worth reading Education of a Bodybuilder if you want to understand more about Arnie’s training at this time. While some advice is dated, other sections are still highly useful and provide some lesser-known tips. Arnie for instance says that he prefers training outdoors where possible to help fuel the body with oxygen!

He also talks about the importance of a relaxed and carefree attitude – something we’ve already mentioned about him. He writes:

“Do not underestimate the part your attitude plays in bodybuilding. Mental strain and worry can drain the body and adversely affect both your workouts and muscular growth. A good positive mental attitude ought to go beyond the gym. It should extend to your eating habits, your sleeping habits, and the way you conduct your life in general. Use the time on the way to the gym to outline some immediate goals for yourself, to decide what you want to accomplish in this particular workout session. Don’t just go to the gym and say, “Oh, no, another workout.” Your attitude should be : “Okay, this is another training session, and today instead of a 100-pound bench press I’ll do 105 pounds. I feel stronger today; I can do it. I can do more chin-ups. I can do more sit-ups.”

Arnold also talks about the importance of an enthusiastic training partner – and of course that would be Franco in his case: the two would regularly train at Gold’s Gym and Muscle Beach together, despite technically competing for the same title.

Arnie is still best friends with Franco Columbu to this day, and continues to train and to support the bodybuilding industry, as well as his home town in Austria. Despite accomplishing so much, he demonstrates remarkable loyalty in these areas of his life. He has also formed a close friendship with one-time rival Sylvester Stallone. I personally believe that these close relationships helped to give him the positivity and sense of fun that has been so prevalent throughout his career. Of course not all of Arnold’s relationships have been so ideal, but nobody is perfect I guess.

Some accuse Arnie and other bodybuilders of his time of relying too much on steroids. In fact though, Arnie’s steroid use would have been relatively subtle compared with today’s bodybuilding behemoths. Not only that, but while steroids will have aided with Arnie’s recovery, no amount of drugs can replace a good training routine and hard work. My point is this: this blueprint works for natural lifters too. And for all the modern innovations and discoveries regarding fitness and health – the old strategies still work. Don’t make excuses!

Acting Career

Of course the rest of Arnold’s story is much better known and from this success in bodybuilding, he went on to launch a highly successful acting career – eventually becoming the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

Arnold’s Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Under the pseudonym ‘Arnold Strong’, he played the role of Hercules in 1969’s Hercules in New York. He had several other bit parts following that, but perhaps his first big breakthrough was in the documentary film Pumping Iron opposite Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno. Arnie made sure to capitalize on the exposure here by playing an exaggerated version of his own character, chewing scenery and making multiple bold and controversial statements, becoming an instant standout.

He went on to star in Conan the Barbarian in 1982, which would be his first box office hit. Following that was Terminator from little-known director James Cameron, which was equally as successful.

During this time, Arnie showed exceptional skill when it came to choosing which roles he would take on. Not only did he know how to pick a great script, but he was also adept at finding roles that fitted his persona, body-type, and accent. This way, he was able to turn potential weaknesses into strengths, and build on each success with higher profile roles.

Arnie Terminator

Later, Arnie would go on to demonstrate exceptional adaptability, transitioning from violent action films to family-friendly comedic roles that utilized his comic timing and charisma. This helped him to become a true house-hold name, and no doubt laid the foundation for his subsequent political career.

Arnold also once again demonstrated his business nous too, when he and Danny DeVito agreed to work without an upfront salary and instead took a share of the profits. That would prove to be his most profitable film when it made $216 million at the box office.


Arnie became involved in politics long before rising to prominence as governor of California, with his first appointment being chariman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports between 1990 and 1993. Of course Arnie also married into a political family when he married Maria Shriver in 1986.

Arnie announced his candidacy for the 2003 California Recall Election on August 6th, and won despite a large smear campaign against him. CBS News reported that voters focussed more on candidate’s leadership and personal qualities, once again showing the role of emotion in decision making. Of course, Arnie also put all of his skills in self-promotion and marketing to use here once again, along with his skill for one-liners and slogans.

Due to his significant personal wealth, he did not accept the usual Governor’s salary. He as re-elected in 2006 with a margin of over 1 million votes.

Wendy Leigh, author of Arnold’s unofficial biography, suggests that Arnold plotted his political rise from an early age – which seems very possible considering the scope of his vision. Like many other highly successful individuals, Arnold advocates dreaming big in order to draw more people to you and to create that incredible drive and determination.

Arnie also demonstrates how to capitalize on initial success. Just as he invested all his earnings into property and bigger projects, he used each personal success to catapult himself to further heights. I discussed this strategy in my video on ‘Springboarding’. You don’t have to take the most ‘obvious’ route to the top – focus on your strengths and then use each success as a platform to reach your next target. Arnie somehow managed to leverage his physical prowess in order to become an incredibly powerful politician. How can you transfer the skills that you have to other fields?

Whether Arnold’s tenure as governor was successful or not is a point of contention. As with any politician, opinions vary drastically on Arnie’s policies and performance.

He left with low approval ratings of 23%, but many say that he did a reasonable job under the circumstances – inheriting the impact of the recession in 2008, and going up against an established state Democratic Party.

Environmentalism is a cause that is close to Arnold’s heart and one that he repeatedly championed throughout his time as Govenor, signing bills with the aim of reducing emissions by 25% by 2020.

Arnie describes himself as a moderate republican, being ‘fiscally republican and socially liberal’. He takes a pragmatic approach putting policy before party, and making long-term decisions that wouldn’t necessarily serve his best interests. He was known to work with politicians from both parties, and has been outspoken against many members of his own party – most notably Donald Trump in recent years who he has criticized heavily in numerous videos, particularly on issues relating to environmentalism. One thing that is certain is that he was a rare politician.

Since stepping down as Govenor, Arnie has returned to acting, and continues to be vocally political speaking out against Gerrymandering and various other issues. He engages in a lot of charitable and philanthropic work, perhaps the most entertaining being his ‘Will It Crush’ series of YouTube videos for After-School All-Stars. He has generally adapted very well to the social media age too, building a large following across multiple platforms and using them to promote his various projects and causes.

Arnie is set to star in a new Terminator film directed once again by James Cameron and to produce and star in series Outrider for Amazon Studios. I’m immensely curious to see where his career takes him next.

Again, no one is perfect and that includes Arnold. But he is undoubtedly inspiring in all that he has achieved, and the way that he achieved it. He is the epitome of the expression ‘self-made man’, and this post hasn’t even come close to discussing everything he accomplished.

Perhaps the most important take-homes are the importance of having a vision and a goal that excites you, and then getting to work on that goal with single-minded determination.

So many people share their ambitious plans to get in shape, or to launch a business, but then never make any significant step toward those goals – they just make excuses. Arnie didn’t spend time talking about his goals, he just got to work learning, training, promoting, and seizing opportunities. He worked so hard because he loved it and that enthusiasm and fun was infectious for all around him. He didn’t complain, and he still made time for friends and other pursuits.

Arnie says he learned everything he needed to know from Bodybuilding, and this makes sense. In bodybuilding, excuses don’t cut it. The only way to get stronger? Train. Without fail. Perhaps that’s why so many action stars are also highly successful in other areas? From Jackie Chan, to Sylvester Stallone, to Dwayne Johnson.

And if you don’t have time? Arnie says: sleep faster.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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