Study the natural bodybuilding methods of Steve Reeves to gain countless insights.
Steve Reeves was the legendary bodybuilder of the 1940-1950s. Many consider his physique the greatest of all-time.
This is even more admirable considering that all evidence points to him being natural. Though steroids seem to have arrived a bit before his peak, there are no signs that bodybuilders were aware of them during this time.
He served as an inspiration for nearly all modern bodybuilders and others, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. He gained a more widespread popularity by acting in foreign sword-and-sandal movies such as Hercules. He eventually retired for a simple ranch life at age 45, preferring a quiet life where he rarely granted interviews and appearances, making what he did share so precious.
Steve was able to strike admiration in so many because he was a bodybuilder foremost, not a strength athlete.
After an initial training period during his teenage years, with basic exercises such as squats, bench presses, and so forth, he chose to ignore these to focus on exercises for developing an aesthetic body. He avoided anything that would build a blocky appearance like John Grimek and those having a more athletic background.
Striving for a V-taper, with wide shoulders, lats, and a small waist, meant controversial decisions such as minimizing the size of his hip muscles, so no squats and dead-lifts, to exaggerate his desired look.
He used a variety of programs throughout his bodybuilding and acting careers, but full-body workouts performed three times weekly were most common, along with alternating upper and lower body six days per week. Minimalist trainees sometimes use this to defend the small amount of exercise he did. Make no doubt though, these were long workouts with 3-4 sets and up to 3 exercises per muscle group, multiplied over three times weekly, so added up to quite a bit of training volume and over 2 hours per session.
Steve was a prodigy and an introvert who shared little, so it is easy to assume he trained like everyone else, ending up this way through his genes alone. Once you focus on and understand bodybuilding though, then revisit his methods, nothing could be further from the truth.
Though well-suited for natural bodybuilding, he succeeded purposefully and serves as an excellent role model for us all.
Bodybuilding Methods of Steve Reeves
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I can see it, no matter how long the tunnel and how dim the light, if I can see it, I’ll get there.
– Steve Reeves
- He focused on bodybuilding.
He tended toward moderate-to-high rep sets of 10-12, sometimes higher at 15-20 or even more, especially for his calves, for 3-4 sets per exercise. With current research, this seems to balance the factors of tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, along with safety and control, that makes these rep ranges so effective.
He kept his rest periods short, generally no more than 45 seconds between sets and a bit longer between exercises, sometimes performing supersets. Modern analysis today shows 10+ weekly sets being ideal, if tolerated. (Periodization may help to gain these benefits without burning out for average trainees.)
He advocated for uncommon exercises at the time that have since become bodybuilding staples. These include lateral raises for the side deltoids, even experimenting with an incline bench to get a deeper stretch.
He emphasized various pull-overs to balance out all the pressing he did, stretching the pushing muscles while addressing muscles like the lats, the long head of the triceps, and the serratus anterior, which was especially impressive on his physique. He especially liked the decline pull-over for its constant tension, and even occasionally did a pull-over on an incline bench, with a handle attached to a pulley behind him, to address the muscles uniquely.
He had poor results with the standing heel raise for his calves, instead emphasizing the donkey calf raise or heel raises with straight knees on a leg press machine to bring out the diamond shape of the gastrocnemius. He also did reverse leg press heel raises with bent knees to stretch and work the underlying soleus muscle of the legs.
He accentuated his naturally flat, square chest through incline pressing that builds up the upper and outer pecs. An incline bench was a rare piece of equipment for the time.
He also used an incline bench for biceps, mentioning the fuller range of motion and tremendous pump he got from curls performed on them. He also felt this prevented grotesque arms from developing that looked too thick in the middle, perhaps due to excessive brachialis development (my thought, not Steve’s).
He avoided building up and spreading the hip muscles, so no traditional back squats or dead-lifts, though he did perform some squats with a block under his heels or leg pressing to emphasize the quadriceps.
For his quads, he focused on hack squats and leg extensions for the rectus femoris and other heads of the quadriceps, even using a specially-designed contraption for hack squats. He also wanted to avoid turnip thighs, once again avoiding something that would work the inner thighs like squats or lunges.
To widen his lats and teres major, he used protracted rows sometimes on 45° pulleys, single-arm dumbbell rows, and behind-the-neck pull-downs and pull-ups, in addition to the aforementioned pull-overs.
He believed in non-tapered ends, so made sure his neck, forearms, and calves were balanced with the rest of his body. He performed neck flexions and extensions. He applied wrist curls for the bellies of the forearms and reverse curls for the extensors.
There were many muscles he only trained before competition. He rarely performed core work, only working abs with crunches for countless reps prior to a contest. He did not want a thick waist, muscular or otherwise.
He knew the obliques grew like any other muscle, so also relied on high-rep broomstick twists, never weighted side bends, to keep them toned. He performed lower back work such as good mornings, seated and standing. He also worked his upper traps before a contest but not otherwise.
He always strove for balance, symmetry, and a pleasing physique. He did this by striving for proportion such as achieving equal neck, arm, and leg measurements. He did not believe in achieving an ultra-low bodyfat percentage, likely not dipping below 8%.
He performed legs at the end of his full-body workouts, so he wouldn’t be too exhausted. He also changed his exercise order to improve his weaknesses, by exercising them first.
- He concentrated during his workouts.
He performed reps with a full range of motion, from full extension to contraction. He also performed negatives on some exercises as well, like incline curls, and the negative is known today to be the most productive phase of the rep, though a double-edged sword.
He strove for a loaded stretch, almost always using dumbbells instead of barbells since he could achieve a fuller range of motion. For example, on incline pressing, he kept his elbows out wide, pushing the dumbbells up and back, toward his head. He contracted his pecs throughout the movement, pushing the bells together at the top while keeping the palms forward. This both achieved a stretch and kept constant tension to increase metabolic stress, a known factor of muscle growth.
He was known to prevent anyone from chatting with him during workouts, keeping a fast pace between sets and exercises, though his workouts often lasted over 2 hours due to training the whole body.
- He engaged in aerobic exercise but not detrimentally.
Steve pioneered powerwalking, a great way to develop aerobic fitness for general health without stressing the joints.
Powerwalking involves walking in an exaggerated fashion. Standing upright, taking long strides, and having the fullest possible arm swing. He would hold hand weights, along with attaching ankle weights and a weighted vest, adding progressive resistance as long as he could maintain proper form.
This form of cardiovascular exercise is low impact. It uses the upper body vigorously to elevate the heart rate. Steve also enjoyed long hikes in the mountains, especially when abroad training before and during his movie shoots. In his younger days, he also enjoyed biking, which he credits as building up his calves early on.
- He addressed connective tissue growth.
Steve invented the Reeves Dead-Lift, which meant holding the outside lips of weight plates on a barbell, followed by wide-grip shrugs for the side delts, to spread out his clavicles. This is the real reason he performed this exercise, unlike the popular notion that he performed this exercise to strengthen his grip or perform an unusual strength feat.
He also used behind-the-neck movements on pull-ups and pull-downs, while performing lat work after training shoulders. He felt this all spread his clavicles apart to enhance his upper body width, whether this is true or not.
He used to do the classic heavy breathing, high-rep squats supersetted with high-rep pullovers to expand his ribcage. He later abandoned this as he felt it made him look fat in clothes and especially in a suit.
- He trained hard or not at all.
Steve was known for taking long layoffs, sometimes for years at a time between intense bouts of lifting. Yet, when serious, he overloaded his body with more weight, reps, and sets while emphasizing sleep for recovery, rumored to get 10-14 hours when training for competition.
Steve Reeves: Bodybuilding Genius
Steve remains the greatest example of natural bodybuilding success. He disdained modern bodybuilding with drugs that ruined the body’s natural grace and symmetry, even writing an open letter to Arnold hoping to gain his support in removing drugs from today’s bodybuilding.
Despite many innovations, Steve’s routine likely wasn’t perfect. For example, he believed in concentration curls to develop the peak of the biceps along with other exercises to train a muscle along its length, which may not be possible, though some research has shown non-uniform growth and many top bodybuilders believe it. He also pushed for an overall exercise volume that is likely too much for many natural trainees and perhaps unnecessary as well.
Nonetheless, the unique exercises used by Steve Reeves show great insight into natural bodybuilding and the anatomy behind it. He pushed himself to improve through progressive overload, with little to guide him, and succeeded. He is the classic hero of natural bodybuilding, achieving this due to many reasons within his control, and can lend us insights to improve our own progress.