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Aug 11, 2010
All of a sudden you see him; the shock of dark black hair, the ruggedly handsome face, the tall, rangy figure emerges as if from another realm--the figure overwhelms the senses at first appearance, then you start to see, as your eyes flash from place to place on that legendary physical terrain--the triceps, fully formed and popping out three-dee, wriggling as if trying to escape their skin; the long, sculpted biceps which swell and fall across your view, massive yet portioned out just so, then, that carved chest which sits under unendingly wide shoulders, gives way to a vision of thick delts that rise and cap not a mountain, but a statue of a man; the non-existent waist supported by powerful legs and outrageous, flared calves, glide this heroic figure across the screen. You have just witnessed something incomparable, and though your mind knows it’s Hercules--cinema make-believe, your bodybuilding awareness tells you the physique is real enough: Steve Reeves’ physique. Steve Reeves, the man. Before Arnold, cinematically and in bodybuilding annals, there was Steve Reeves. With the breathtaking lines and classic style, the man took his genetic blueprint and raced away with it, creating arguably the most impressive physique in the history of the planet. No, not the biggest (though he had great size), and no, not the most ripped (though he had considerable definition), but certainly as greatly and carefully proportioned, shaped and attended a physique as we’ve ever seen.

Let’s get something out of the way right now: the idea that the Reeves physique has been surpassed, that it’s outdated, that today’s champs are much bigger, better, and on and on. (Can you say, anabolic steroids?) Reeves maintained his was a different style of physique, drug-free (natural) and classic. That is to say he trained for an entirely different objective than today’s champs, who train for ultimate size and ultimate definition, while consuming ultimate amounts of drugs. If you are part of the “bury me big” crowd, where absolute size (eternal bulking up) without regard to the overall shape, appearance or function of a physique is your thing, then of course Reeves’ 6'1", 215 pound Michelangelo-hewn body will mean nothing to you. But for those of you who are interested, who want not to merely admire the Reeves achievement but to get some of that for yourself, that’s where we’re going.

Too many drug-free bodybuilders train wrong, and with the wrong objective. They simply borrow the standards of the pros, who take their genetic gifts in a direction that no amount of whey protein, creatine, or high-intensity workouts without drugs will ever yield: the 300 pound, fat-free physique. And while this is not the time or place for a bodybuilding debate about the value or lack of such an objective, what drug-free bodybuilders are doing is akin to travelers trying to get to Australia by aiming instead at the moon. To say it another way, many naturals will argue that they have a bigger, better physique than Reeves, but what they may have actually achieved at best is usually a scaled down version of the drug pros. An achievement of sorts, and if that’s your thing you are welcome to pursue it, but for other naturals, you might get a vastly better physique by incorporating something of the Reeves approach to training. Not that you’ll be Reeves--you don’t get Larry Scott’s arms by doing his arm workout, but in the case of Reeves-style training, your chances are very good that you’ll be on the road to achieving your own best physique, with your own individual style. Sound good? Let’s go.

What Reeves Did That You Can Do

Steve Reeves, as he details in his landmark bodybuilding book “Building the Classic Physique the Natural Way,” written with John Little, and in a couple of seminal MuscleMag articles, through an interview also with John Little, gives the lowdown on what kind of workouts he did and exercises he used to create his memorable physique. He worked his whole body three times a week, with usually 3 exercises per bodypart for 8 to 12 reps, 3 sets each. Doesn’t sound too earth-shattering, does it? Look deeper; Reeves “trained the angles” of the physique; though he did bench presses, he did inclines and unique “offset flyes” to enhance that square-line, just right pec development. Are you doing endless bench presses, not paying sufficient attention to upper chest development and the total appearance of your chest, in your quest to catch up to that pro-size physique you have in your mind’s eye? Thought so. Do you judge the success of your workouts by the amount of weight you lift? It’s the most common mistake in bodybuilding.

What about squats? Yes, Reeves squatted, but he also added front squats--almost nobody does these now, as they’re too hard; he also did an equal number of hacks. His quad development was total, his thighs showed splits when his competition had undifferentiated clumps. If you shift the emphasis to one-third or one-quarter of your leg work consisting of back squats instead of half or more, you’ll have better leg development. But most bodybuilders can’t impress people in the gym with their hack poundages, so that gets put in as an afterthought, not a core part of quad training. And speaking of poundages, if you load up the squat bar and whip through heavy reps (after all, squats are tough and they hurt), rather than feeling the movement, you won’t get the development you otherwise would if you lowered your poundages (and your ego) and attempted the movement in perfect form, with a measured cadence. Yes, others will say you are a “weak” bodybuilder; they said it about Reeves. He wasn’t Paul Anderson, but he used respectable poundages and then some; he used what he thought was appropriate to stimulate muscle growth in the right areas, something that would contribute to his overall physique. Try this yourself; you may alter your ideas about what level of development you can achieve.

The way Reeves worked out, and more importantly, the rationale behind why he worked out the way he did, gives you a window into the thinking of how to create a more impressive, fully developed physique. The elements of shape training, which the late Vince Gironda and a few others had tried to keep alive, show the profound influence of Reeves. Some bodybuilders, even pros, Chris Dickerson, Frank Zane, Serge Nubret, and Bob Paris, to mention a prominent few, also show this influence. Another point: had the aforementioned (and yes, none of those bodybuilders in that group claimed to train drug-free) trained for size alone, you would have never heard of them. Even with drugs, the Arnold, Yates, Coleman and Kovacs-size physiques are not attainable to most. Desirable? Again, your choice.

Deep Inside Reeves’ Training

When Reeves talks about training with the standard eight to twelve reps per set, it’s not in a vacuum. We might say that everything Reeves did was a part of a holistic approach, just as his physique was a unified product of his genetics, training, nutrition, rest, and mental attitude. The Reeves rep was a controlled, two second up, three second down event, with maximum concentration, but also with a weight that challenged him within the context of good form and feeling the movement, to go to failure. So for those who claim Reeves’ training will have you doing light, pumping, easy reps and sets, it’s a gross misunderstanding of what his type of training involves. In fact, for you intensity lovers, when Mike Mentzer first burst on the scene more than twenty-five years ago, he cited Reeves as working until failure in a given set. The difference, of course, is that the Reeves workout also included volume (lots of it--too much for most naturals, by the way, if you don’t have super-genetics), and a multiplicity of exercises, but the idea that Reeves-style training will have you working less hard than you otherwise would is nonsense. On a further note of intensity, Reeves said he used alternate workouts for variation: down-the-rack, full pyramids, supersets, and at various times altered the reps schemes and the exercises, to keep his muscular development progressing. So you need not do the astounding sixty set workouts to failure lasting two hours that he did to get your best results--reduce it to what you can build up to and handle.

Staying within the context of the hard effort in good form with plenty of different exercises, and the other Reeves’ principles we’ve touched on, Reeves also attempted to get and keep a good pump within this framework. Too many drug-free trainers are attempting to lift massive poundages only, semi-power routines; and though strength work has value, it alone will not give full development, and often it won’t even achieve a pump. The story goes, nowadays, that the pump is worthless and only became popularized by the tissue-bloating steroid use, which could gave the champs their mind-boggling pumps after doing, say, warm-ups with twenty pound lateral raises. But what has been lost, and needs to be regained, is the kind of full-spectrum training that Reeves advocated: you need to use challenging amounts of resistance, train at a good pace (30 seconds or a minute rest), do sufficient reps (low reps are largely strength and tendon builders, eight to twelve tend to target the muscle more directly), get and keep a pump, use good form, do only exercises that contribute to improving your development, work hard but don’t overwork--in short, this is a complicated process that requires thought and constant reassessment on your part.

It can’t be overemphasized that within this framework, Reeves constantly analyzed and re-evaluated his workout needs and re-designed his routine accordingly. He wasn’t, for example, against low reps per se, but concluded that for him the eight to twelve range was best most of the time. If you are doing two or three rep sets and your physique is getting bulky but not improving in shape, consider upping the reps. Likewise, Reeves needed scant calfwork. He hardly had to work his. Most of us are not even close to that state, but reps and a full stretch, Reeves felt, not weight, were the keys to calves. If you are doing six or seven sets of one exercise per bodypart in a Reeves type pyramid scheme, observe the effects the training is having. Maybe you do better on the multiple exercise per bodypart, multiple angle approach. So switch to that. If behind the neck presses are massing up your traps too much as opposed to developing your delts, don’t hesitate to change to a different shoulder exercise, or series of exercises; you probably need to include width-building lateral raises. A question always to keep in mind: are you getting development in the target area? A pump? If not, switch to what you think may be a more productive exercise, perhaps a different rep scheme.

So now maybe you can better see the direction of and the reasoning for the Reeves style of training. If you apply these principles, this style of training, what you can get might be better shape, even more size; you’ll develop your muscles more fully. You will likely build muscle in new, neglected areas of your physique. You will improve your proportions, and burn bodyfat at the same time as gaining size--something many other systems of training promise but fail to deliver. You’ll improve your weak points, and you will learn how to train more efficiently--harder and with focus--greater concentration. You may start gaining again, whereas you may not be gaining on your current routine. You will be getting an introduction into a new, and perhaps, better, way of bodybuilding. Your efforts may reward you with a new style physique, a complete physique. You may be on your way to your own classic physique.

Training the Steve Reeves Way
Written by Greg Sushinsky
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