Bodybuilding Articles

A Look At Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Eating Habits

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A review of Arnold‘s diet shows that the fundamentals of eating really haven’t changed much in the last 30 years, at least for those at the top. 

“I don’t want to get too comfortable. I’d rather stay hungry.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger 

Times have changed since Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled the bodybuilding world throughout the ’70s. Once upon a time, before we’d been privy to countless “revolutionary” diets and “Hasta la vista” was still associated with trips to Acapulco, Arnold was just a big—no, huge—guy in a fringe sport who occasionally showed up as a guest on late-night television. But an analysis of his diet, considered ‘crazy’ back in the day, shows that perhaps he and his Speedo-wearing buddies were a few decades ahead of their time.

As an athlete growing up, I was starved for good information on sports nutrition. Back then, we all had nutrition as a subject at school. And while it wasn’t exactly accurate by today’s standards (do we really need 3 servings from the red meat food group?), at least we learned that food has calories made of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and that how much of each you eat affects your performance. But misunderstandings were rife. Perhaps fueled by inaccurate science or industry lobbyists, it was hard to find the straight dope on what an athlete was supposed to eat. High carb, low carb, TV dinners, tuna casserole, or Space Food Sticks—even my coaches didn’t know what we should eat. One thing seemed certain, however: Arnold and his cronies had it all wrong. They were nothing but muscle-bound charlatans, and soon enough their muscle would all “turn to fat” and they’d be dead of heart attacks well before middle age. 

A quick cut to 2004, and Arnold—well into middle age—didn’t look worse for the wear while speaking to the Republican National Convention. Slimmed down substantially since his Terminator days, he looked fit, trim, and vivacious. And he’s not an anomaly. I recently saw Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno at the gym. He hasn’t gotten fat, nor has he trimmed down. Somewhere past 50, Louie still looks a lot like, well, the Incredible Hulk. Certainly, someone was wrong about their diet. So just what did those guys eat? Let’s take a quick glance back in time.

Protein. When I was a kid, my cousin, Chris, a bodybuilder, taught me about eating a lot of protein. “Arnold says you need a gram per each pound of body weight,” he said on our way to an all-you-can-eat fish buffet. In fact, Arnold recommended .5 g/lb. per day for “average” people and 1 g/lb. for athletes. Pretty consistent to what you’ll hear today.

Whole foods. I lived in LA, so occasionally I’d get firsthand reports on Arnold. My friend Ray once got to have dinner with him. Hearing that he ate “a huge amount of beef” was no surprise, having been filled in by my cousin, but I did learn something new when Ray told me that he said that “bread was poison.” Arnold wasn’t anti-carb, except when cutting up for a competition. But he was pro whole foods, acknowledging that nature knew how to make foods more digestible than scientists did. What they knew was how to make foods change color. This simple, or rather archaic, rule to live by was an anathema to a society in the grips of the prepared food revolution. Arnold was having none of it.

Many meals a day. “You see something, you eat it,” said another of my bodybuilding friends to someone who’d asked how he got that big. “You eat all the time.” Arnold knew three squares a day wasn’t going to cut it, no matter what the FDA was championing. And it wasn’t just the fact that he needed 5,000 calories per day to maintain his size. They knew about the importance of insulin spikes, digestion times, and other variables that could be helped by eating more frequently. Smaller meals allowed you to train harder. The harder you could train, the better the results, provided you had enough fuel in the tank.

Protein shakes. Even my athletic friends thought I was weird for the concoctions I’d throw into a blender in high school. But the boys down at Gold’s Gym said the best way to get enough nutrients was to buy bulk protein and make shakes, so I immediately jumped on the bandwagon. These were often clumpy and none too tasty, a far cry from oh, say, Beachbody’s Whey Protein Powder shakes. We, however, did what Arnold did and would have happily quaffed down motor oil if someone had told us it would make us strong.

Fats. Arnold didn’t shy away from fat, recommending good fats, like nuts, but also bad fats that you get from dairy and red meat, things he ate in abundance. But certainly these recommendations had to factor in his size and the amount of exercise he did. If you do this, his level of fat intake no longer seemed outrageous. More and more we are realizing the importance of fatty acids. And not just omega-3s. Even saturated fats, which can be deadly if consumed in excess, are essential for maximal testosterone production and not something you want to cut out entirely. 

The bottom line is that this little group of fringe athletes probably understood the relationship between proper eating and human performance better than anyone in the world, and that the answers could be relatively simple. 

“Exercising without eating the proper foods is like plowing a field and not putting any seed into the ground,” said Arnold. “Nothing would grow out of it.”

This little bit of validation from those oiled-up freaks posing on the beach is more a lesson in the obvious. Arnold and the boys lived in a cutting-edge world of trial and error. Their eating habits reflected this approach. They made in retrospect what look like sound scientific decisions, even though they conflicted with the conventions of the day. Their approach is an example of the fact that the most effective way to accomplish something is not to wait around for others. Sometimes the answer is to just get out there and do it.

Steve Shaw
Steve Shaw is the primary content writer for Muscle and Brawn.
  • MIssit Dec 4,2014 at 4:29 pm

    Saturated fats are deadly if eatin in excess? For real? … broscience detected

  • John May 20,2014 at 6:50 am

    People seriously underestimate the anabolic effect of food. Mostly small guys, who will always have an excuse. Dudes like this will never get big. You wanna get big, you gotta eat your way there.

    I did find it amusing that the article states that Arnold says, “bread is poison,” while there is clearly a loaf of bread on his table in the picture at the top of the article.

  • Mick Madden May 2,2014 at 8:28 pm

    I ate 5000 calories in college and gained muscle. Discuss.

  • No Fan of Arnie May 2,2014 at 5:53 pm

    It’s really ridiculous to publish this kind of stuff while ignoring that Arnold was on steroids. PEDs are like a piranha. They consume protein and calories at a rapid rate and they become catabolic if you don’t constantly eat. A natural guy who consumes 5,000 calories a day will get fat- period. I’m personally sick of all the glorification that Arnold gets on websites like this and drug- free trainees reading this stuff and thinking that it somehow has any relevance to what they are doing.

    • Mick Madden May 2,2014 at 8:20 pm

      Yes the exchange of information is dangerous. People can’t think for themselves so we should protect them from the truth!

      • No Fan of Arnie May 2,2014 at 9:57 pm

        “Arnold knew three squares a day wasn’t going to cut it, no matter what the FDA was championing.” Steve Reeves and many other body builders in the pre-steroid era at three meals a day. I just finished Reeves’ book and words like “Caloric Surplus” never appear. Not even once. This business of constantly eating every 2-3 hours came on the scene when steroids got big.

        • joesantus Apr 1,2015 at 1:06 am

          I’m 59, been a lifelong-drug-free bodybuilder since I began training at age 16 in 1972.
          Actually, the idea of many-meals predates 1958 when steroids entered weight training. Bodybuilders and weight trainers before the steroid scene may not have termed it “caloric surplus”, but they knew that substantial muscle gain required excess calories (large quantities of milk, specifically raw milk, which was readily available, often as Certified raw milk tested healthy by local inspectors, was typically recommended).

          But, just as today, however, pre-steroid era bodybuilders and weight trainers used a variety of eating schedules and ideas. The three-meal schedule, by the way, has no special reason other than that, as society had moved into the Industrial age where most men were commonly employed at factories, three mealtimes happened to best fit around their 9-to-10 hour-workday factory schedules. But, three meals is necessarily neither better nor worse than five meals or six meals; some bodybuilder and weight trainers before 1950 even advocated two meals instead of three. Heck, in the 1980s, Mr Universe winner Pete Grymkowski used to eat ONE huge meal per day.

          It’s true that steroids perform best with higher calories, but that doesn’t mean that higher calories aren’t productive for muscle gains for some non-drug trainees. Certain trainees will even require huge amounts of calories to kick their metabolism into productive anabolism: I know, because I was one. In my teens, even after properly training with basic compound movements for over two years, I had failed to gain any substantial muscle mass. After studying the issue of calories and protein, when I was 18, I increased my calories to 5,000 per day FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR, consuming five blender drinks made of canned milk, ice cream, fruit, honey, protein powder, chocolate, and various other foods. I’d weighed a scrawny 155 lbs at 5’8″ when that year began; I was able to gain to 175 lbs with a visible washboard by the end of that twelve-month consistent 5,000-calories per every day calorie-surplus.

          I’m under-averaged as far as mucle-building potential genetics, I realize, so my situation is not typical. I also realize that such a massive calorie surplus is productive only for certain times and temporarily — after I hit almost180 lbs, I discovered further bodyweight gains from that 5,000 calorie a day program were only bodyfat, so I reduced calories after twelve months. However, my experience and observations evidences that, for certain underweight below-average-gened hard gainers, it requires a massive quantity of calories, consumed consistently over many months, to get their bodies willing to grow.

          • joesantus Apr 1,2015 at 1:14 am

            Neglected to mention…during that twelve month period of consuming 5,000 calories per day, my training program consisted of free-weight compounds, 5 to 6 worksets per bodypart, 5 to 8 reps per set, working each muscle group twice in each 7 day period.

    • Blayne Thorton May 2,2014 at 8:28 pm

      Your metaphor is the best I’ve ever seen. I might disagree with you but I’m too busy getting things done in the gym.

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