Bill Pearl could’ve been Mr. Olympia. He was arguably the world’s best bodybuilder when the first Olympia was staged in 1965. But Pearl never competed in the IFBB, even as he dominated in other organizations. He won the Mr. America and Mr. Universe in 1953, the year he turned 23, and then returned to London to win the Pro Mr. Universe three times: 1961, 1967, and 1971. In the latter contest, his last, at 41, Pearl beat 3-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva and future 3-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane. “I didn’t compete in the Olympia because I considered it a Mickey Mouse affair,” he later said, and that was true of the first few Mr. Olympias.
Bill Pearl (1930-2022) was a Navy veteran, a long-time vegetarian, a gym owner, trainer, strongman, mentor to bodybuilding greats like Chris Dickerson, and a prolific writer on training and nutrition. His grandly titled book Keys to the Inner Universe is an exhaustive compendium of weight-training exercises (over 1200 of them!) and bodybuilding knowledge. Seven decades after he won the Mr. Universe, the legendary Bill Pearl has much to teach us today about working out to gain muscle.
Taken from his many interviews and magazine columns, these are Bill Pearl’s top 10 training tips.
1. WORK HARDER, NOT NECESSARILY HEAVIER.
“The main idea is to work the muscle the best you possibly can. When a muscle gets tired, 135 pounds can feel as heavy as 185 pounds. Weight isn’t the important factor. The weight is just a tool to tax your muscles. If you make the conditions difficult, by things like resting less between sets or supersetting or focusing on strong contractions and slower reps, the muscle will work harder with less weight. Work harder and work smarter, which is different from work heavier.”
2. AIM FOR EIGHT REPS.
“When I was training in the ’60s and making my best gains, most of my sets were eight reps. Eight reps is the sweep spot. It’s low enough that you can use heavy weights but high enough that you can really work the muscle and not just move the weight. I’d do higher reps for calves [15 reps per set] and very high reps for abs [100 reps per set], but otherwise muscles grew best at between 5-10 reps and, for me, eight was best.”
3. SUPERSET EXERCISES.
“I’ve done a lot of supersets over the years. I’ll superset biceps with triceps, chest with back, and I’ll superset exercises for the same muscles, like dumbbell flyes before barbell bench presses. The key is keeping the focus on the targeted muscles, and that’s what supersets do. The pump you get from training biceps with triceps, supersetting exercises, is tremendous. Another thing I did was superset pullups with shoulder exercises for a width routine, pumping up my lats and delts together [see #7 below].”
4. DON’T TRAIN YOURSELF TO FAIL.
“People ask me why I don’t believe in training to failure at a time when the popular notion in bodybuilding is that the only way to make maximum progress is to always go for that last impossible rep. I tell them the answer is quite simple: If you do a workout of, say, nine exercises, three sets per exercise, and in each set you go to failure, which means you couldn’t complete the last rep, what you have done in these 27 sets is trained yourself to fail 27 times! That doesn’t sound like success in my book. My approach to training has always been to push yourself in your workouts, but do not train to failure! The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible or unachievable….In this way, your training will be a positive rather than negative experience; and you’ll be much more likely to keep your enthusiasm high and avoid injury, overtraining, and mental burnout.”
5. CURL ON AN INCLINE.
“It’s hard to say I have a favorite biceps curl, but if I had to pick one it’d be the incline dumbbell curl [with two dumbbells, seated on an incline bench]. I feel like you get a full stretch and contraction of the biceps with this curl. I do them face-up and sometimes face-down, which is actually a decline dumbbell curl. I might do both arms at the same time or alternate left with right. Sometimes I do incline dumbbell curls one workout and decline dumbbell curls the next time.”
6. THINK POSITIVE.
“Guys will come up to me and say, ‘Bill, my arms won’t grow. Everything I do my arms won’t grow. What will I do?’ They aren’t going to grow, because you are programming your arms not to grow. Your muscle doesn’t have a brain. Your head controls the muscle. The muscle doesn’t control the brain. So, you’ve got to say, ‘O.K., I’m going to work my arms and my arms are going to grow.’ I say, change your mental attitude about your training, because if you don’t you can’t take anything negative that you are doing in the sport of bodybuilding and turn it into positive results. It won’t work. Everything you do in the gym has to be done on a positive note. You must condition your subconscious mind to think that you are getting bigger and training with more intensity, and your body will have to respond accordingly.”
7. DO PULLUPS AND DIPS.
“In the ’50s, we didn’t have all the fancy machines we have now. So not only did I learn to rely on the barbell and dumbbell standards and improvise some exercises, but I learned to love bodyweight exercises: pullups and dips. Pullups and dips were crucial for my back, chest, and triceps development. I say ‘bodyweight,’ but I became strong enough to do them with weights attached to a belt. I did a lot of pullups, and I did them with different grips: narrow, shoulder-width, wide. Some workouts I’d do all three [4 sets of 8 reps for each] and superset them with lateral raises, rear laterals, and military presses for shoulders, back and forth, one set of pullups, one set of side laterals, with no rest, and on and on for all the supersets. That was a tremendous width workout. As for dips, I’d do dips leaning forward for my chest, and straight-up for my triceps. I did bench dips, too, for triceps.”
8. KEEP A LOGBOOK.
“If you want to know if you’re making progress from workout to workout and month to month, you can’t guess. You need to know what’s working and what’s not. The way to know is to keep a log of every workout. Note every exercise and your sets, reps, and weights. Also note your bodyweight along the way. Then you can use this to motivate yourself but also see what exercises in what order work best and which ones you’ll want to change. A logbook is a blueprint for your bodybuilding success.”
9. STICK TO BASIC PRESSES.
“I’m a big believer in the military press and the press behind the neck, both done with a barbell. I do both in the same workout, sometimes seated, sometimes standing. There are other ways to train the shoulders, and I do side laterals and other exercises, but I don’t think you should stray too far from those basic overhead lifts. When I first started training that was ‘weightlifting,’ and to me it still it is. Press a barbell overhead. Those are the basics, and the basics still work best.”
10. CHANGE IT UP.
“If you get on a training program where the same exercises, sets, and reps are done day-in and day-out, month after month, your body becomes so accustomed to what you’re doing that muscle growth will stop altogether. I will change my entire training program every six to eight weeks. Different sets, different reps, and a different goal for yourself can generally shock you into a new growth range.”