Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was born in a nondescript village in Austria after the end of World War Two. Stuck in rural country-side, born to a poor family and with the Soviet horde looming over the border in Hungary, you would be forgiven for believing this man wouldn’t achieve all that much in life.
How then, did this Austrian with a funny name end up becoming the godfather of bodybuilding, a millionaire many times over, one of the most well-known A-list actors, and governor of California? (By the way, he also married a Kennedy)
“I loved the variety in my life. One day I’d be in a meeting about developing an office building or a shopping center, trying to maximize the space. The next day I’d be talking to the publisher of my latest book about what photos needed to be in it. Next I’d be working with Joe Weider on a cover story. Then I’d be in meetings about a movie. Or I’d be in Austria talking politics with Fredi Gerstl and his friends.
Everything I did could have been my hobby. It was my hobby, in a way. I was passionate about all of it.
This guy never half-assed things. Looking from the outside in, he seems like a machine; an image he’s carefully built up over the years. There’s some truth to it, though.
So, how’d he do it?
The pain of discipline
Being born in rural Austria, life was tough. Gender roles were still strictly enforced and so the children were expected to help out wherever possible. However, Arnold’s father, being a policeman, tended to up the ante a bit.
When talking about his father, he notes:
“His answer to life was discipline. We had a strict routine that nothing could change: we’d get up at six, and it would be my job or Meinhard’s to get milk from the farm next door. When we were a little older and starting to play sports, exercises were added to the chores, and we had to earn our breakfast by doing sit-ups. In the afternoon, we’d finish our homework and chores, and my father would make us practice soccer no matter how bad the weather was. If we messed up on a play, we knew we’d get yelled at.”
Nowadays, Child Protective Services would’ve taken the children away in an instant. It was simply the way things were done back then. Most children might have developed an ingrained disdain for discipline and authoritarianism, Arnold did the opposite. Later, he writes:
“I never felt that I was good enough, strong enough, smart enough. He let me know that there was always room for improvement. A lot of sons would have been crippled by his demands, but instead the discipline rubbed off on me. I turned it into drive.”
Years later, after he’d gotten his foot in the door with bodybuilding, he moved to California. For a while, he lived together with his buddy Franco Columbo. While many bodybuilders had a reputation of being sloths or vain, not so with Arnold and Franco:
“Our place was immaculate. We vacuumed regularly; the dishes were always done, with nothing piling up; and the bed was always made, military style. We were both into the discipline of getting up in the morning and straightening up before you leave the house. The more you do it, the more automatic it becomes, and the less effort it takes.”
And there’s one of the major aspects of his success-formula; practice makes perfect and makes it easier. When done day after day, hard work that previously seemed tiring, now feels almost effortless. As Josh Kaufman discussed in his TED Talk, it takes about 20 hours for something to really kick in and become somewhat competent and comfortable with any pursuit or activity.
Finally, your support network can make or break your career. When talking about his wife, Maria, he notes:
“She understood why I had to get up at six in the morning to train for two hours, and she’d come with me to the gym. At dinner she’d see me about to dig into some ice cream, and she’d literally take it away.”
Imagine Arnold having a wife who demanded he had to come home by 18:00 every day. Do you honestly believe he’d have done even 1/10th?
In the end, it was discipline that drove Arnold to go into the gym day after day, do reps and sets until he couldn’t lift his arms, and obsessively monitor his nutrition to ensure his physique stayed world-class.
Action Beats Everything
Arnold started bodybuilding and exercising at age 15. At a local lake, he’d do pull-ups from tree branches and do push-ups and sit-ups. No equipment. Nothing fancy.
Eventually, he worked his way up to working out in a gym. When he finally got access to the basics - barbells, dumbbells, and some basic machines -, he started making tons of progress. By age 19, he was a bodybuilder of international fame.
However, we shouldn’t pretend he was an exercise genius from the very start.. As Chris Shugart put it in an article on t-nation.com:
“Arnold Schwarzenegger did a lot of things wrong [in his training]. He performed endless sets of leg extensions thinking that he was "cutting up" his thighs. He believed that pullovers would spread the rib cage and pull-ups would widen the shoulder girdle by spreading the scapulae. He used the broomstick twist to "trim" his waist. He even did cheat curls. Early in his career, his post-workout meal consisted of an entire chicken and a pitcher of beer. The Oak would sometimes train two hours in the morning and another two hours at night. And doesn't everybody know how unproductive that kind of overtraining is? Yessiree, Arnold really didn't know what he was doing half the time, did he? With that kind of backward thinking and archaic training philosophies, it's no wonder he never built an impressive bod.
Wait...hold on. What the flying fuck did I just say? Schwarzenegger arguably had the best physique of his day. But what about all of those "mistakes" that he made in his training?”
Long story short, nowadays we’d heavily criticize Arnold’s training principles. Most of them have been disproven by science as being an inefficient method of gaining muscle. However, it being not the most efficient method doesn’t mean it isn’t effective!
Although countless leg extensions might not have helped in “cutting up” his thighs, it definitely resulted in serious growth in his quads. What’s more, two 2-hour workouts a day may not have been the perfect way to go about it, but nobody can question whether or not those hours paid off in the end!
Simply put, Arnold preferred imperfect action over perfect planning. Arnold committed to action. What will help you build a better body; doing hundreds of reps, slowly but surely figuring out what makes the muscle contract most, or reading up on the nuances of squatting for months before ever stepping under the bar? Exactly.
As General Patton (an amazing human in his own right) said:
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Arnold wasn’t too worried about the perfect way to exercise. Rather, he executed and compensated for his inefficiency in some areas by sheer volume, work ethic and determination.
Nowadays, it is easy to get caught-up in over-thinking and planning. Sometimes, what works best is to simply do something. You can only read so many articles titled ‘The 8 Best Ab Exercises Ever! Number 3 Will Surprise You!’. In the end, the guy who does a million crunches, inefficient though they may be, will be miles ahead of the fatty stuck behind his computer reading BuzzFeed articles.
“Be humble, be hungry, and always be the hardest worker in the room”
This catchphrase by the Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson might as well have been created by Arnold.
During his military service with the Austrian Army, Arnold insisted on maintaining his workout schedule. Most people would find military life tough enough as is. Thanks to the base commander, an old friend of Arnold’s father, he was allowed to bring in workout equipment and exercise.
Every day, he and some of his platoon mates would wake up at 05:00, an hour before the rest of the troops. During this time, they’d exhaust themselves as quickly as possible; using huge weight and high reps. Then, at 06:00, the normal day would begin and they’d be forced to do push-ups, running, and other drills.
He even took it one level further by putting his workout equipment in the engine compartment of his M60 Patton Tank. When out on exercises, they’d offload the weights, work out for a bit and get back into action when necessary.
Years later, when he’d made his way to the US, being sponsored by Joe Weider, he wasn’t content with simply working out and chilling on Venice Beach. Instead, he wanted to work. Joe Weider called the other bodybuilders lazy bastards. But not Arnold. Instead, he helped out wherever he could. He launched his contracting business. He launched his mail-order business. He got into real estate. He worked his ass off every day of the week.
“I was not a lazy bastard. The first thing I told him when I got to California was “I don’t want to hang around. I don’t want to take your money for nothing. Give me something to do where I can learn.”
Joe loved hearing this. “You see, Arnold,” he said in his Canadian accent, “you want to work, you want to build yourself, you are German, you are a machine, you are unbelievable. You are not like these lazy bastards!””
In the end, these other bodybuilders were just that; bodybuilders. Meanwhile, Arnold became not only a bodybuilder, but also a businessman, actor, and politician. Hard work inevitably pays off and it’s hard work that Arnold put in.
In the age of productivity gurus and hacks, it’s easy to over-complicate things. Four different note-taking apps, seven browser plug-ins and a dozen other programs; now that’s what will make you successful!
Joking aside, it’s often the simplest method that works best. Arnold, for instance, used a simple to-do list for everything:
“I always wrote down my goals. It wasn’t sufficient just to tell myself “lose twenty pounds and learn better English and read a little bit more.” No. That was only a start. Now I had to make it very specific so that all those fine intentions were not just floating around. I would take out index cards and write that I was going to:
• get twelve more units in college;
• earn enough money to save $5,000;
• work out five hours a day;
• gain seven pounds of solid muscle weight; and
• find an apartment building to buy and move into.”
Even today, this bullet list would qualify as a serious to-do list. It speaks about his ambition and his different interests that this list deals with college, real estate, bodybuilding and his finances.
Over the years, his to-do lists would reflect his ever-changing career goals. On January 1st, 2001, Arnold wrote at the very top of his list “explore running for governor in 2002”, marking the next step in his career.
Here’s a thing you can do at home. Take an index card. Any size will do. Now write down three/four items you want to deal with today. Order them in importance. Then, do the same for this week and this month. Then, pick the highest-priority item for today and immediately start taking some action. No matter how small, get started on it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Plan carefully and then execute relentlessly.
From the beginning, Arnold was juggling multiple jobs and pursuits at the same time.
As soon as Arnold made his way to California, he started dreaming big. He’d already eked out a place in the bodybuilding world and looked to outdo everyone else. Not only that, he also wanted financial independence.
He and Franco Columbo then got into the bricklaying business together. This then led to his interest in real estate. A few years later, he bought his first six-unit apartment complex. He flipped this unit for a large twenty-unit complex. This kept repeating itself a couple of times until he owned most of Main Street in Venice Beach. Normally, we’d consider that a pretty good career in and of itself.
His bodybuilding also gave him other opportunities. He started a mail-order business, selling booklets, training guides and videotapes. He wrote countless articles for Joe Weider, propelling him into ever greater fame. He wrote several books, the most famous of which - the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding - is still sold in great numbers today.
He eventually got invited to contribute to the Special Olympics, where he’d meet his future wife. They then helped him get acquainted with many of the people that would later help propel him to Governorship and becoming the Fitness Czar under President Bush Sr.
Arnold always tried to branch out to nearby fields. Wherever he saw opportunity or had a way in, he’d go for it.
Don't waste time
We are all allotted the same 24 hours a day. Like it or not, you have the exact same number of hours, minutes and seconds that Napoleon, Beyonce, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk have and had. What you do with that time defines who you are and what you do in life.
At different points in his life, Arnold pursued multiple large goals at the same time. He wanted to get a degree, make money, build a business, get his name to be synonymous with bodybuilding and win the Mr. Olympia. At. The. Same. Time.
Normally, any one of those goals would qualify to completely take up someone’s time. Not Arnold. He did all of them. Simultaneously:
“I threw myself into my Los Angeles life. Going to school, training five hours a day at the gym, working in the construction and mail-order businesses, making appearances, and going to exhibitions—all of it was happening at the same time. Franco was just as busy. We both had incredibly full schedules, and some days stretched from six in the morning until midnight.”
Now that’s dedication!
Take a good hard look at how you've spent your time yesterday. Can you honestly, say that you used every minute to the utmost?
I recently made a list, made up of 15-minute increments from 6:00 to 23:00, 68 in all. For one day, I forced myself to write down what I’d done in the past 15 minutes, every 15 minutes. When I’d meditated, I’d note it down. Watch ‘The Daily Show’ for a bit? Note it down. Watch some ‘adult content’? You bet it’s on the list.
In the end, I was surprised by how little productive work I managed to do! The majority of entries were filled with things like ‘Getting coffee’, ‘Taking a shit and checking the news’, and ‘Replying to email’. I guess we all over-estimate how much we can get done in a day.
While he was not without his controversies, there's no doubt Arnold represents one of the best examples of the American Dream. Where else can a muscle-head from Austria with a near-unpronounceable name make it in show-biz, define an entire industry, build a fortune, and make it to one of the highest public offices?
While Arnold was definitely a product of some insane coincidences (incredible genetics, meeting the right people, born at the right time, etc.), there are some takeaways us mere mortals can incorporate into our lives:
Be disciplined in everything;
Do not let analysis and planning prevent you from taking action;
Use a simple to-do list and work on it relentlessly;
Always look for opportunities outside of your direct sphere;
Don’t. Waste. Time.
Oh, and don’t take life so seriously.