Thursday, May 26, 2022

Steve Reeves on His Training -- John Little (1991)


Mention Steve Reeves and even today the name is edged with excitement. Not just amongst the older generation of enthusiasts -- where one would expect it -- but also amongst the young. In some strange way, even youth, with its love of the modern super giants of muscle, feel the need to react to the name, Reeves. 

Reaction is not all positive, however. It would be unrealistic if it were so. Yet, while cries of, he was then, this is now, are heard from certain sections of the young bodybuilding scene, all those who knew something of Reeves -- young or old -- cannot help but acknowledge that this legend of yesterday was in every way, from his personal grooming and clothing style, to his training philosophy and special shaping movements, a leader of the sport. (It was Steve Reeves, remember, who lead the way for today's Arnolds to movie stardom.)

Yet idolized as he was, Steve Reeves was never one to give away interviews freely. He has always been a hard man to pin down. Many of the curious have literally been waiting years for this classic of his time to speak out. Now, here at last, Reeves does speak. In this candid, up front, head to head, we have the definitive Steve Reeves, the man who changed the face of bodybuilding.

            Before and After Photos! 

My appointment with Steve Reeves was to commence at 12:00 in the afternoon. "It will take about three hours for you tp get here from Los Angeles," he had told me during out last telephone conversation two days before, and it was certainly taking me all of that. I had thought that I was making great time en route to Valley Center near San Diego, until I had inadvertently made a wrong turn off Highway 78 and, basking in the splendor of my southern California surroundings, I had not become cognizant of my navigational error until half an hour had elapsed.   

Then, thanks to the aid of a terrestrially-informed gasoline attendant, I was soon heading off in the correct direction once again. Surprisingly, it was just a little past twelve when I spied the landmark fence post to which was attached a little piece of wood, otherwise insignificant but for the name it bore: Reeves. 

I stepped on the gas and as I drove along the entrance road towards his ranch I couldn't help but marvel at the natural beauty that now surrounded me. To my left were horses, beautiful, strong and graceful. To my right, immaculately kept lawns that seemed to go on forever. I pulled my rented car up to the side of the ranch house, disengaged the transmission and began to perform my pre-interview ritual which consists of checking my question sheets, tape recorder and battery levels. This went on for several minutes until a noticed a distinctly feminine form in front of the ranch house. The distinctly feminine form, I was soon to discover, belonged to Mrs. Reeves, and she graciously welcomed me to their ranch and bid me entrance to their home. Upon entering I began to remove my shoes for fear of potentially soiling their very clean floor. "Don't worry about your shoes," she laughed, "this isn't Japan." Having studied Japanese culture several years ago, I saw the levity of her statement and was in the process of re-inserting my foot into my running shoe when I heard the sound of heavy footsteps progressing towards me from the hallway.

I was still, perhaps appropriately, in this prostrated position when Steve Reeves entered the room. I immediately corrected my posture  and, now vertical, shook his hand in greeting. I remember now that the first thing that flashed through my mind upon greeting him was that he must have been kidding when he told me that he had just recently turned sixty years of age, as he looked to me to be at the most, in his early forties. 

There is a feeling that almost overwhelms one when meeting a man of Reeves' stature, face to face, for the first time. This feeling borders the line somewhere between joyous exaltation and outright fear. Exaltation in realizing my boyhood ambition of meeting a true legend and finding him both friendly and sincere, and fear of somehow incurring his disapproval. After out greeting, however, the ratio of joy to fear made a quantum shift to the side of joy, and any immature fears that I possessed quickly began to dissipate in light of his rapidly manifesting character.  

He suggested that the interview could be conducted in his living room, and concurring with his suggestion, I followed him into a room that was straight out of something that you would expect to see in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. He directed me towards a large and tremendously comfortable chair, while he opted for the accommodating expanse of his couch approximately a foot and a half away from me. I pulled forth my tape recorder, placed it on the table before us, and the interview began.

Q: (John Little) - I've divided these questions into two categories; the first being "training" and the other "personal." 

A: (Steve Reeves) - Okay, go ahead. 

Q: In your training routine for the Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests, there have been conflicting reports of just what exercises you did, how many sets, etc. I remember that in one year alone, there were three magazines each purporting to contain the "exact" routine that you used and each one was different! 

A: Well, the routine I would do is as follows. I would start off by doing a few dumbbell swings and things like that. And then after the warmup -- I mean I consider the warmup very important, especially on a cold day, I would do front deltoids. 

You see, I believe in working my body in a certain system. When you start with the deltoids, the second exercise would be the pectorals. While working the pectorals, the triceps are already getting worked, the blood is there, the blood is already in the upper back area. So you work lats next, which in turn warms up the biceps. So you work biceps next and end with triceps and that's it. You see, that way the blood goes: deltoids, pecs, lats, biceps, triceps. You're not pumping blood to the calves, then up to the deltoids, then down again. 

Q: Really? 

A: Yes, that's the way I avoided injury. That, and good training style. 

Q: So from deltoids you would move to chest training? 

A: Yes, so for incline presses I'd use really good style. I would go parallel to my body and parallel to the ground. Back and forth like this (he demonstrated the proper form for the exercise by having his palms facing forward at the bottom of the movement at his chest, and slowly rotating, via supination, his palms toward each other at the peak of the dumbbell ascent). Swing them in and let them (the dumbbells) touch plates, go out like this and down again. Just level out with your chest, and I do three sets of those. Then after that I would do the flying motion.

Q: (Somewhat thrown upon hearing the proper name of this exercise for the first time.) What, just supine flyes? 

Q: Yes. But what they call "flyes" these days, they're not doing flyes. They're doing bent-arm laterals. 

Q: Oh, really? 

A: They call them "flyes," but they're not flyes. Bent-arm laterals are performed with the palms facing each other. Those are bent-armed laterals, which they call flyes -- those are not flyes. 

Q: What then, are "proper flyes?" 

A: Proper flying is performed with the thumbs in. Thumbs in with arms bent, it makes a difference. (He then showed me how the exercise should be performed; when your arms are extended above your chest in the starting position, your palms should be facing your feet so that your thumbs are side by side. Your grip should be off center, so that your thumb and index finger are touching the plates at the top of the dumbbell.) I do flyes offset. In other words, what I'll do is to put the plates, jammed against my thumb, and have the remainder or lower part of the dumbbell hanging down towards the ground, thereby once again providing more resistance throughout a greater range of motion. Bent-armed laterals (like close grip bench presses; start out difficult and then get progressively easier towards the top or finish of the movement. Which means an imbalance in resistance. But when flyes are performed my way, with the thumbs in, the resistance is constant and difficult all the way up, I call them Offset Flyes

Q: Did you find that resistance could in some way be altered by having more or less of a bend in your elbows? 

A: Well, I'd bend my elbows to let's say a 30-degree angle and then keep them there. If I were to tell someone how to do the exercise, I'd tell them to do it as if their arms were in a cast, at about a 30-degree angle, and then keep that degree of angle on the way down and on the way up; or all the way throughout the movement. And offset your plates. In fact, if I really wanted to get a good workout, if I was home or something, I'd put two or three plates on the inside and about five on the outside to keep a real angle of resistance on my pecs via an offset grip. So the people of today are doing the wrong thing. They're doing bent-arm laterals. 

Q: They're guilty of a misnomer.

A: Right. Just like they used to say "prone presses." It's impossible to do "prone presses" because "prone" means that you're lying on your stomach. 

Q: (laughing) That's right. 

A; What they should have said was "supine presses," right? 

Q: Ya.

A: (laughing) They called them "prone" for years, didn't they? 

Q: Some still do.

A: They're still wrong, aren't they? (I acknowledged this observation.) Okay, my pecs would be through then. Then I'd go to lats. I would do chins behind neck, and then I would do the low pulley or low pulley rows. And another thing they do wrong today, even Arnold and Lou and all those guys -- they all do it wrong and I've seen pictures of them doing it. They will start low pulley rows with their arms extended all the way forward, and they they row in, they will move their upper body all the way back with the pulley handles -- that's not the right way to do it. The right way to do it is to keep your body forward at all times and more your arms only.

Don't swing that body back and forth, you're working your lats, not your whole body! I can't believe it when I see these guys doing it. No, the correct way is to go all the way forward and to keep yourself there and more your arms only. 

Q: It would seem to me that their poor form is the result of trying to use too much weight. 

A: Exactly. Trying to use too much weight, and by watching some other guy working out, and he's using poor form and you're, let's say, only eighteen years old or sixteen years old and that guy is 25 and he has big arms. So you would automatically think that must be the right way. However, it may have taken him 10 years to get those arms, while it would have taken him less time if he did it correctly.

Q: That's true.

A; Alright, then I would do one arm rowing, bent over, with my arm completely extended, and then I'd pull the weight up to my hip. Bring it forward once more and then back to the hip again with a real smooth action. And that was my lats done, after three sets of one arm rowing. 

Q: How many reps are necessary to stimulate a muscle? 

A: Oh, I used to believe between 8 and 12. I figured that was a good amount. But sometimes I would mix things up. For instance, I don't believe in keeping the same routine all the time. In fact, I don't even like to call a workout a "routine," I prefer to call it a "schedule." A routine means doing the same thing over and over again. What I like to do is change my schedules. For example, I may use the same exercises, but maybe one day a week I might do between 5 and 7 reps, another day during the week, I'll do between 7 and 11 reps, and another day between 11 and 15. That way you confuse the body. The body's used to really exerting for those 7 reps, when all of a sudden you hit it with 15 reps, and it has to change completely. It really works out well.

Q: It doesn't have time to adapt to any one routine.

A: Right. Or a person can do it this way: work out one month with 5-7 reps, then jump for a month to 11-15, then go somewhere in the middle again. Back and forth each month, instead of changing each week, which is difficult; you have to remember, "how much weight did I use when I did seven reps on an incline bench curl?" You would have to remember three different routines, you see, with all those different weights, which is difficult for some people unless they keep schedules. But I believe in mixing it up to kind confuse the body, so that it doesn't get into a routine and stay there.

Q: I'm not sure how long, physiologically, it takes for the body to adapt to a particular stressor, but it's very quickly, and that's when progress stops. 

A: Right. Okay, then I would go and do triceps. I would do three sets of overhead pulley or triceps pushdowns, with hands about six inches apart, elbows to the side, slightly back from the pulley so that I would get a long, sustained push. From there, I would go to the bench and do triceps bench curls (what is commonly known as lying triceps extensions), with dumbbells with arms parallel and elbows stationary. After that, I would do one arm triceps curls (lying dumbbell cross-extensions; performed by lowering the dumbbell to your opposite shoulder), where you lie down and you let the weight cross over just in front of your ear.

Q: (Again, about to be initiated into the realm of "true" bodybuilding kinesiology and terminology.) What is the advantage of doing that particular exercise? I've never tried it but I've seen others use it. 

In response, Steve leaned toward me and rolled up his sleeve. 

A: The advantage of that is to get this (he then proceeded to contract the lateral head of his triceps which stood out from his upper arm like a 30 foot iceberg in a 12 foot swimming pool); the "horseshoe."


It allows you to hit the triceps from a different angle. You see the reason I do only three different exercises for each muscle group is to work the muscles from a different angle. Except for incline curls, which i find are so outstanding, and which do get the biceps from every angle if you do them correctly.

Q: How do you do them "correctly?" 

A: No swinging and also, with your plates offset. In other words, the plates should be jammed against the inside or or heel of your palm, and the remainder of the bar would be hanging down from the thumb-side so that your biceps are not only under constant tension, but supinate naturally, due to the offset grip, at the top of the curl.

Q: This offset would seem to be just what the biceps need as both of its functions are fulfilled. I'll bet after this article goes to press that there will be a lot of people who are going to be using an offset grip for their incline dumbbell curls.

A: Well, even if they just have two regular "stock" dumbbells, all they have to do is jam their hand against the inside of the plate (the plate by the baby finger) so that the majority of the dumbbell is hanging down the thumb-side and start at the bottom from a straight or pronated position and then, as you curl the weight upwards, slowly twist or supinate your palm, so that the heel of your palm is higher than your thumb at the top of the curl. It really works well. 

Q: You mentioned in one article that when you did incline curls, you used something called a "rear-stop bar." What is that? 

A: Oh yes, well in back of the incline bench where you would place your back you would put little rings there through which would be placed a stop-bar so that your arms are held in one position at all times. This prevents you from swinging, which is cheating, either forward or backward. When your arm is braced against the bar, it's your biceps, and your biceps alone, that do the work. What I would do was to make brackets and bolt them onto the bench and then I would get a 1" bar to go through there, about 18 to 24 inches long, whatever. And then I'd get some collars that I had made out of aluminum. They were about three inches in diameter, so that you wouldn't have the pressure in one place on your triceps but if it's a three-inch bar, or, padded, you can't feel any pressure as it's dispersed and not concentrated, it just holds your arms back. That was really great. I really liked that a lot. 

So when I finished with my triceps, I would go to legs. For which I would do half squats, three sets; hack lifts, three sets; and then I would do some front squats, three sets; leg curls, three sets; calf raises, three sets; and then one set of situps for my abdominals and a set of hyperextensions for my back, and that was it. 

Q: How many repetitions did you do for abdominals? 

A: I would do 20 repetitions.

Q: Did you ever do any direct forearm work? 

A: No, never did. Never had to. 

Q: When you perform half squats, was that primarily for the upper thigh or rectus femoris? 

A: No, half squats are parallel squats. People call them "full squats" today. In other words, parallel squats. To us, full squats were when you put your butt against your knee, that's full squats. So half squats, to us, is what they recommend today; parallel squats, when your foreleg and your thigh are at right angles to each other. So those are called "full squats" today, but we called them "half" squats.

Q: Front squats I guess would work more of the lower thigh, the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis? 

A: Yes, they would.

Q: And you would get more range of motion than, say, parallel squats? 

A: Yes you would. You see the front squats and hack lifts build or develop similar areas of the thigh.  What I find with a lot of bodybuilders today is that they have upper thighs that are too big, or disproportionate to the lower thighs; the area right above the knee. This area should not be neglected as, fully developed. they not only look good, but also provide the legs with a lot of strength. 

Q: That's true, there isn't a lot of lower thigh development today.

A: Well, there's lower thigh development, but not in proportion to the upper thigh. In other words, the lower thigh development is there, but the upper thigh development outshadows it so much that it  doesn't look like it's so developed there. "Proportion" is not there. 

So that was my routine.  

Q: Of the nine total sets that you did per bodypart, was each set "all out" or were a few of them warmup sets? 

A: All out. 

Q: Every one was all out, was it?  

A: Right, and just enough time in between each set for another workout partner to grab the apparatus, or the weight, and hit it. In other words, very, very intensive, or very "high intensity." 

Q: Very little rest between sets . . . 

A: (concurring) Very little rest, just enough to do the exercise and to let the other person do his afterwards but if you have three people, it's too much.

Q: So just enough time to recover momentarily . . . 

A: That's right, just enough for another person to go through it. Or if you don't have a workout partner, figure how long it takes you to do the set, and rest about the same length of time only. However, between bodyparts you can rest five minutes.

Q: Would the weight be increased each set, of left about the same? 

A: No, the weight would be the same. But you to to your limit; as many reps as possible. It's possible, say on the first set, that you might hit 12 reps, on the second set 10 reps, and you might have to go down to 8 on the third set because if you give (each set) your all, you're not going to be able to recuperate that fast -- especially if you go just one after the other with your workout partner. 

Q: Were your repetitions different for your lower body than for your upper body, or were they still in the 8-12 range.

A: No, they were always the same, except for calf raises. And the calf raises were done for about 20-25 reps.

Q: 20 to 25 reps? When you employ such high repetitions, is it possible or necessary to employ very heavy weights? 

A: Well, if I planned to do 20 reps for my calves, I would use a weight that allowed me to do 20 reps. I wouldn't use a resistance that would only allow me to get 10 reps, I wouldn't cheat. I'd go all the way down, and I'd concentrate on having all the pressure and all the weight on my big toe. A lot of people do calf raises with their toes pointing out, their toes straight ahead, and toes in; you don't need to do that. That's a waste of time. All you have to do is point your toes straight ahead, and put 90% of all the weight on the big toe as you go up and down. 

Q: And that covers it all . . .  

A: That's right. (Steve leans forward again.) You see (rolling up his pant leg), here's my calf today . . . (at which point his ascending pant cuff revealed quite possibly the largest and most intricately developed calf muscle that has ever existed! I could hear the thud of my jaw hitting the ground in bewilderment as this man (who claimed an age of sixty, yet!) had better developed calves than anyone I had seen -- including the current crop of champions training at Gold's the previous week! 

Q: (laughing and shaking his head in amazement) That's not a calf, that's a cow! 

A: (laughing) Ya, well, that's my routine. 

Q: (still dumbfounded) And you only did three sets of calf raises to achieve that degree of development? 

A: Right. And I didn't do those at all the first year that I started training. When I started working out, I wasn't proportioned right. In other words, I had pretty good legs but the upper body wasn't developed because I never worked it. But I did a lot of cycling, so my legs were in pretty good shape.

Q: How big were your arms when you started working out? 

A: When I started working out, my arms were 13.5 inches and my calves were 16.5, so they were 3 inches out of proportion initially. So, I didn't work my calves at all until I got my arms to 16.5 inches, and then I built my arms, my neck and my calves up to 17 inches together; and I left them there. That was plenty for me. 

Q: 18 and a quarter inches -- wow! That's very big. I was talking to some of today's bodybuilders and trying to get some "accurate" measurements from them and it's like trying to pull teeth, nearly impossible. And some that they claim are so obviously exaggerated. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 



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