Long before he was an icon, long before everyone knew his name, when he was a fast-growing nobody back in Austria and then in Germany, he was a competitive weightlifter and then powerlifter. Then, during his Olympia-winning years in California, his fame grew with his muscles, but did his strength grow, too? How strong was Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Young Arnold competed in three weightlifting contests, the first (in an Austrian beer hall) when he only 14. In 1965, around the time he turned 18, he won the heavyweight class of the Austrian Olympic Lifting Championships. His bests were: overhead press 264 lbs. (120 kg.), snatch 243 lbs. (110 kg.), and clean and jerk 298 lbs. (135 kg.). The total of 364 kg. would’ve been a warmup at the 1964 Olympics, where the heavy gold medalist topped it by over 200 kg. No worries. Arnold was just a kid, and he was already collecting bodybuilding titles and about to try powerlifting.
Arnold competed in at least three powerlifting meets over 18 months in 1966-68, progressing rapidly from a 1290-pound (585 kg.) total to just shy of 1600 (725 kg.). The latter high mark was set at the 1968 German Powerlifting Championships, where, at 20 and already Mr. Universe, he won the heavyweight class. His best official lifts were: squat 474 lbs. (215 kg.), bench press 441 lbs. (200 kg.), and deadlift 683 lbs. (310 kg.). That deadlift was world-class, near 700 when the 800-pound barrier had yet to fall (it did the following year).
Legends grow. Fishermen expand their best catch. Runners shrink their fastest time. And bodybuilders inflate their biggest lifts. Sometimes the exaggeration is conscious, and sometimes memories fade and morph until a lie seems true. When assessing claims, we’ll try to rely on evidence—video, photos, an objective eyewitness. Arnold says his best powerlifts were: squat 545 lbs. (247 kg.), bench press 500 lbs. (227 kg.), and deadlift 710 (322 kg.). These seem realistic in relation to what we know he did.
Muscle Builder covered some workouts of Arnold with Dave Draper in the original Gold’s Gym, circa 1970. Both Mr. Universes pyramided up to bench press 425 lbs. for singles. Better yet, Arnold used 100-pound dumbbells for eight reps of flat bench flyes. In the old-school, flat-back style (and standing precariously on a bench), he barbell rowed 315 for 10.
Then there were the squats, lots of them, an exercise rarely associated with the seven-time Mr. Olympia and a glaring weakness from his brief powerlifting career. Topping off an onslaught of eight pyramided sets, they both did 465 for 6-8 reps. The photo above is the 445 set before that 465 apex. A half-century ago, Arnold was in a cinder-block box cranking out six to eight as deep as he could dive with a narrow stance and with virtually the same weight he’d used, once, for his powerlifting best two years before. Rising and rising, rep after rep, he was turning a weakness into a strength. That’s how legends are made.
(Opening photo by Gene Mozee)