Frank Zane is the avatar of physique aesthetics. Born in 1942, Frank Zane grew up in Pennsylvania and began competitive bodybuilder as a teenager. In the 1960s, he rose through the bodybuilding ranks, winning the 1968 Mr. America, Mr. International, and (over Arnold Schwarzenegger in his American debut) Mr. Universe. Out-muscled, he initially struggled to make an impact in the Mr. Olympia, but in the late 1970s, Zane found his form: aesthetic development, classical proportions, masterful posing, and crisp definition. At 5’9″ and around 190 lbs., he shockingly out-classed much bigger contenders and won the Mr. Olympia three straight years: 1977-79. Zane was then third in the controversial 1980 Mr. Olympia, second in 1982, and fourth in 1983, his final contest. For the 40 years since, Zane has trained trained clients in his private California gym and espoused his bodybuilding beliefs. Frank Zane is an inspiration for modern classic physique champs like Chris Bumstead, and the Zane dynasty of Olympia victories has only grown in estimation in recent years: a unique period in bodybuilding when aesthetics took center stage.

Frank Zane
A classic shot of Zane’s classic physique.


“When I’m in the gym, I’m not thinking about anything other than getting a damn good workout. I never wanted to talk to anyone during a workout, especially if I was training for something, because that’s a distraction. I went as far as to always try to go to the gym when there was hardly anybody there. Or, if there were people around, they were other serious gym-goers. At Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, if you went to the gym at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, the people there were serious about their workouts. There was no talking, no noise, and no distractions. By 9 A.M., all the loudmouths wandered in. Fortunately, I was on my way out by then.”


“I think most people undertrain the deltoids. I’ve always thought of each of the three delt heads as a separate, albeit small, muscle. So I made sure to do two exercises for the front, two for the side, and two for the rear, four sets of each exercise. So, that’s eight sets for each delt head. It may should like a lot of volume if you add up all the sets, but when you think of just eight per deltoid head, that’s not a lot.”

Frank Zane training
2019: Frank Zane instructs Sadik Hadzovic in Zane’s San Diego area home gym. / YouTube


“Optimal blood flow is a key to growth, as it floods the muscle with more nutrients for better recovery. To help this process, I performed a stretch for the body part I was working between each set. After a set of cable rows, for example, I’d perform a two-arm lat stretch. [Grab on to a sturdy object with arms fully extended and lean into it.] This also enhances your flexibility, which will help keep you injury-free.”


“A favorite biceps routine of mine was to start with one arm dumbbell concentration curls, three sets of 8-10 reps for each arm using more weight each set. I would very deliberately hold the dumbbell for one second at the top of the curl and squeeze the biceps for peak contraction, and then start lowering the dumbbell very slowly. Alternate dumbbell curls came next, three sets of 8-10 reps, increasing the weight each set. Each dumbbell would travel up and down completely before I curled the other dumbbell. Each negative would begin very slowly, and I would pronate the dumbbell [turn it inward] on the way down. Finally, I did 45-degree incline dumbbell curls with lighter dumbbells, 12, 10, and 8 reps. I did a great deal of dumbbell work for biceps in those days, because it was the best. You can curl and supinate at the top of the movement with dumbbells.”

Frank Zane workout
Frank Zane incline dumbbell curling in Gold’s Venice. / Artie Zeller


“People think because I had an aesthetic physique I somehow finessed the muscle on with only isolation or machine exercises. The opposite is true. I did the compound, free-weight basics, but I always did them strategically. Everything I did I did strategically. What will this do to improve my physique? One example of this is rack deadlifts. I did heavy deadlifts in a rack with the support bars set just below my knees for sets of 6-10 reps. I always used straps to secure my grip. These are what gave me that back density from top to bottom that you’d see in my back poses. I couldn’t have got that look of thickness in my spinal erectors and lower trapezius with just lifts like pulldowns and cable rows. It came because of heavy, free-weight, basic work. But I did it strategically. I did the deadlifts off the rack instead of the floor, because I wanted it to be a back exercise only.”


“People often ask me how I got such a great vacuum pose. Like anything else worth having, I had to work for it. One exercise I usually did to end my chest routine was the dumbbell pullover. I felt this in my chest and lats and the long head of my triceps, but especially in my serratus, the finger-like muscles along the side which were so visible in my vacuum pose. The pullover really ties together your whole torso. So pullovers are the most important exercise for the muscles most visible in a vacuum pose, but as for the actual act of vacuuming in your waist, I would practice that. I would pull in my waist as far as I could and hold that position for a minute. I would do that anytime of the day, just always practicing the vacuum, especially as a contest get closer and I got leaner.”

Frank Zane workout
Frank Zane hits one of history’s best vacuum poses.


“Follow the pump. I remind myself to do this whenever I train my triceps. It’s also my reasoning for working tri’s right after chest—to take full advantage of the ample blood flow already in that area [from chest presses]. The triceps make up two-thirds of your arm mass, which is why they deserve more time and focus than their counterparts, the biceps. Three of my favorite exercises for tri’s include close-grip bench presses, pushdowns, and overhead dumbbell extensions. I suggest performing these three moves twice per week. Go with reps in the 12-to-15 range so that you can really focus on getting ample blood flow to the muscle.”


“Early on, the flat bench press is good for building pec, delt, and triceps mass, but its usefulness doesn’t last. Currently, I train my pecs only once a week, and I start each workout with the incline bench press—and using dumbbells with a neutral grip allows for a better stretch. Then I move on to the pec deck. If you don’t have access to a good pec deck, then dumbbell flyes on a slight decline are your best option. For the pec deck, I keep the reps in the six-to-12 range, working up in weight and down in reps. Dips on a dip machine are also great. I do higher reps for this exercise, about 15, 12, 10 reps as I increase weight.”

Zane workout
Zane doing incline presses with dumbbells. / Artie Zeller


“This whole concept of changing your training regimen all the time never appealed to me. The reason being that you never get good at anything. If you want to improve at something, you have to do it a lot. After all, the basis of learning is repetition. And that’s what you do in the gym. We’re educating the muscles by doing a lot of sets and a lot of reps. As long as it’s working, stick to the program.”


“Ab work was always at the end of my workout, and my plan was to gradually increase the total amount of reps right up until contest time until I was doing 1,000 total reps at the end of each workout. Often, I came back to the gym later in the afternoon to do this, and it usually took me a half-hour of nonstop ab exercises to complete it. The minimum program was leg raise for four sets of 25 superset with ab crunches, four sets of 25, followed by 100 seated twists. As I progressed in my ab work, I’d add to this four sets of 25 reps of hanging knee-ups superset with four sets of 25 of cable crunches.”

Frank Zane ab workout
Frank Zane reps out hanging knee-ups. / Bob Gardner

Frank Zane ranked #8 on Best Bodybuilders of All Time, According to A.I.