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 at least three Olympic-style 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. Back when there were three lifts, his bests were: overhead press 264 lbs. (120 kg.), snatch 243 lbs. (110 kg.), and clean and jerk 298 lbs. (135 kg.). Two years later, a journalist observed that Arnold at that time “occupied an undisputed first place in the list of Austrian weightlifters.” Still, the total of 805 lbs. (365 kg.) would’ve been a warmup for the top lifters at the 1964 Olympics; the heavyweight 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-lb. total to just shy of 1600-lbs. The latter high mark was set at the 1968 German Powerlifting Championships, where, at 20 and already Mr. Universe, he won the heavyweight class while dressed in ordinary gym clothes. His best lifts then were: squat 474 lbs. (215 kg.), bench press 441 lbs. (200 kg.), and deadlift 683 lbs. (310 kg.) for a total of 1598 lbs. (725 kg.). His squat was clearly lagging, but that deadlift was phenomenal, near 700 when the 800-pound barrier had yet to fall. And, again, he was only 20, and his strength was rapidly increasing. If he had bulked-up and focused on deadlifting for the next few years, he could’ve chased the world record. But this was his final powerlifting meet. Training exclusively for bodybuilding, he did not do much deadlifting after the ’60s.
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 rely on the evidence—video, photos, an objective eyewitness.
Update: In his July 30, 2021 email newsletter, Arnold claimed his best bench press was 525, but because he said 500 previously on multiple occasions we’ll go with that.
Arnold says his best gym powerlifts were: squat 545 lbs. (247 kg.), bench press 500 lbs. (227 kg.), and deadlift 710 (322 kg.). With the possible exception of the bench press (was it rounded up to the big 5-0-0?), these seem realistic in relation to what we know he did. Legends can be true, too. He also claimed to have done a 275-pound cheat curl, but that’s dependent on how much he cheated, bending his back and swaying the weight. There are photos of him cheat curling over 200 pounds in the ’60s with his back bent far backwards.
Muscle Builder magazine covered some workouts of Arnold with Dave Draper in the original Gold’s Gym, Venice, California, circa 1970. Both Mr. Universes pyramided up to bench press 425 lbs. for singles (which leads us to believe they could’ve done more without all the preceding sets). More impressive: Arnold used 100-pound dumbbells for eight reps of flat bench flyes. Deadlifts were no longer in his routine, but his back remained especially strong. In the old-school, flat-back style (and standing precariously on a bench), he barbell rowed 315 for 10 with strict form.
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 exhausting onslaught of eight pyramided sets, both men did 465 for 6-8 reps. A one-rep calculator puts Arnold’s max squat at 540 to 577, depending on if he got 6 or 8 reps, which is in line with his claimed best of 545. It’s possible he grew stronger over the next few years (he competed at his heaviest in 1974, but he also had knee surgery in 1973), but we lack eyewitness or photographic evidence of bigger lifts.
In his prime, if he wasn’t piling on more metal than ever before, he was straining to eke out more 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)