Arnold Schwarzenegger used this classic bodybuilding exercise to sculpt his colossal back

70s archive footage of Arnie provides excellent insight into the 3x Mr Universe's back workout routine

OS ANGELES - JUNE 13: Body builder, actor and future Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a portrait session on June 13, 1985 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique in the 70s is a constant source of inspiration for budding bodybuilders even now, half a century later. The "Austrian Oak" was one of the most impressive looking athletes in his prime: he had huge pecs, massive arms and a colossal back. And he achieved his godly looks by doing the most basic exercises, stuff you and me can do now by visiting a local gym or even at home.

Looking at old footage of Arnie working out, you won't see any fancy machines or music blasting from the speakers. Those guys worked out old school, using barbells laden with weight plates, cast-iron dumbbells and the most basic cable machines you've ever seen. You won't see any Peloton Bike+ or WaterRower in those gyms, only weight benches and mirrors.

No wonder everyone was so macho those days, with all that testosterone coursing through their veins! 

Take, for example, the back exercise Anrie used to build his magnificent V-taper. He didn't do pull-ups or use other fancy callisthenics moves such as muscle-ups. No, Schwarzy used lat pulldowns, heavy lat pulldowns, to build muscle. Have a look at the video below to see the man himself pulling what looks like a semi-truck-worth of weight:

The main reason why I like this video is that it contradicts everything people are being told about how to work out right now. Most PTs will encourage you to use lighter weights and focus on completing each rep using a full range of motion. On the other hand, Arnie goes as heavy as he can and indeed uses other muscles than just his lats to pull the bar towards his chest.

Now, it's worth mentioning that Schwarzenegger was a professional bodybuilder. He made a living out of sculpting his body and spent hours every day in the gym lifting weights, so he knew full well what he was doing. I don't recommend anyone trying to replicate his moves, especially not beginners. You'll need years of lifting experience to be able to perform bench press to such perfection as how Arnie does it in the video.

As one person on Youtube commented under the video, "For anyone [who says] he was half repping: [Arnie's workout technique] is a perfect example of time under tension. Arnold is seen here performing each exercise while constantly keeping his chest under tension. Experts say that it not only works the chest a lot better but also keeps the joints safe. Hell, the pump always feels good, especially when hitting the incline."

How to master lat pulldowns

Before you go and break the rules, you have to learn how to do every exercise properly and practice them over and over to build the proper muscle-mind connection. Pro bodybuilders such as Arnie could activate the muscles just by focusing on the area they wanted to work the most; this connection requires a lot of practice and patience.

First, you need to practice the movement with lighter weights so your muscles and joints get used to it; only then you can start experimenting with performing exercises differently.

[We assume you already warmed the shoulders up by doing shoulder circles and a few lighter reps]

To perform a lat pulldown, set the machine to the desired weight by inserting the pin in the correct hole in the weight stack. Make sure that pin is fully inserted! Attach the right handle to the cable; if it's wide lats you're after, use the wide bar. Then, grab the bar with a wide pronating (overhand) grip and sit down on the bench.

To be able to do this, you'll have to pull the bar down slightly, and you also have to tuck the knees under the knee pad. Once you're 100 per cent sure your grip is secure and your legs are in the correct position, it's time to pull the bar towards your chest. Lean back slightly, pull with the lats – the large muscles at the top of your back – and focus on keeping the movement under control.

Once the bar hits the chest, return to the starting position but make sure the bar avoids the chin on the way up.

Matt Kollat
Fitness Editor

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar (opens in new tab) and Fit&Well (opens in new tab), and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym Reviews (opens in new tab).