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Steve Reeves: The Man, The Legend, Part 5

The Key to Bigger, Better Arms

Without question, Steve Reeves possessed one of the most striking pairs of arms in the history of bodybuilding. I recall his telling me of an incident that took place in Italy, during the filming of ‘Hercules Unchained.’ On a break from a hard day on the set, he ventured into a convenience store to purchase some milk and bananas. As he had more scenes to shoot later that evening, he hadn’t changed out of his Hercules costume. Figuring he would be only a minute or two, he had his driver stop the car, and he popped into the store. The female proprietor shrieked as soon as she saw him. ‘It’s the son of Zeus! You can tell by his arms! Oh, my God, it’s the son of Zeus!’

Reeves quickly paid for his supplies and returned to the car. A huge crowd had formed around the entrance to the store, and many were now blocking the car. ‘They literally wouldn’t let me leave the plaza until I got out of the car and flexed my arms for them,’ he recalled with a laugh. Such is the power that comes with an impressive set of arms. Of course, Reeves’ arms were the best in the business.

The ridges on his triceps and the thickness of his biceps were absolutely phenomenal. Even more impressive is the fact that Reeves never used steroids, so the mass that he built into those arms came from training done properly, and not chemicals. Watching films such as ‘Hercules,’ moviegoers were awestruck that a human being’s arms could be that full and have such incredible shape.

Reeves was not born knowing how to build his arms to such incredible dimensions; he hit upon his program the way the vast majority of bodybuilders find theirs: via trial and error. Like most young bodybuilders (and not a few of us older ones) the young Steve Reeves waited impatiently for the muscle magazines to appear on the newsstands so that he could purchase them and read about what all the great experts and champions had to say on the subject of bodybuilding. A particular inspiration in that department was the late John Grimek, who displayed a rugged, almost herculean muscularity that fanned the flames of young Reeves’ imagination. Reeves would read each article very carefully many times over. As he was forming his own approach to training, he found the magazines inspirational and helpful. ‘I found that I had a great deal to learn, and I could get something from each and every one of them.’

Reeves held that any bodybuilder could build up his body to very impressive proportions, providing that he was willing to put forth the effort necessary. According to Reeves:

It is strictly a matter of ‘stick to it.’ We must not get discouraged if things don’t progress as rapidly as we had hoped. Definitely, the advances will show for themselves in time, and before you know it, you can take a tape measure and prove to yourself what has happened.

Reeves believed that there should be a course in every high school in the United States devoted to weightlifting and bodybuilding. He believed that bodybuilding should be available to everyone, not just those with the money to purchase a gym membership. Reeves himself hailed from a family of very modest means, so he knew how important that was. As he said:

Many a person who would like to take up bodybuilding finds that it is impossible to join a gym because there is not one in his vicinity or the fee is above what he is able to pay. Naturally, it’s better to work out in a gym, but many people start working out by themselves’buying as much equipment as they possibly can’or they form workout groups. I believe that people can get the necessary results whether they work at home or in a gym, but I also think it’s better for two or more to work out together. Somehow or other, that gives a sort of competitive feeling, and naturally, everyone trying to outdo each other makes for an enjoyable hour while at the same time provides the benefits that come from proper exercises.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a great many young bodybuilders, including those who’ve gotten together and trained in the basement of one of their houses. I was really quite surprised at their wonderful development because they had done all of their work without the guidance of any particular person’but had just followed an article that they read in a muscle magazine. This proves my theory that anyone who is really serious about building up his body can do so if he has the determination and willpower to do so.

Nevertheless, it remains a fact that Reeves didn’t build the majority of his mass at home workouts; it was the workouts taken under the watchful eye of Oakland gym impresario Ed Yarick that really resulted in Reeves’ packing on the muscle mass. In fact, in a four-month period, during which he worked his whole body at each workout and trained but three days a week on alternate days, Reeves gained 30 pounds of muscle. As he recollected the experience:

Every pound of muscle that I put on was good muscle all the way up. When I started, I was 16 1/2 years old and weighed 163 pounds. I worked out for a month, and I went on the scale looking a little better’more firmed up, more in shape, but I still weighed 163. Still, that month toned up my body and got my metabolism working well. Then the following month I went on the scale, and I weighed 173 pounds’I had gained 10 pounds of solid muscle! You could actually see it growing! The following month I got on the scale and discovered that I had gained another 10 pounds of solid muscle! And then the following month I had gained yet another 10 pounds of solid muscle! In other words, after working out with weights for four months, I was the best-built guy at the gym. There were guys there who had been working out for three and four years, and they couldn’t believe it! They thought a miracle had happened there.

Reeves would in time formulate the philosophy that bodybuilders should strive for a more-balanced development of the entire body, so that no particular bodypart is out of proportion to all the rest; however, he always retained a fondness for working arms. ‘It is my opinion that those interested in building their bodies should give a lot of thought to the development of their arms,’ he once said. ‘After all, the arms are one of the most noticed parts of the male anatomy. When people say, ‘Did you see the muscles on that guy?’ they’re usually referring to his arm muscles.’ Reeves hadn’t been working out very long, comparatively speaking, when he won the prestigious Mr. America title, and by his own account he’d tried just about every bodybuilding system possible. In his experimentation he discovered that a range of eight to 12 reps produced the best growth stimulation for his arms. ALL Biceps

For biceps training Reeves made it a point to use full extension and full contraction. Otherwise, he observed, you won’t be able to develop that long, full biceps that everyone strives to attain. Reeves advocated basic barbell and dumbbell exercises for arm training, with certain pulley exercises included. Here, in his own words, are the exercises that he used in his quest to build bigger and more proportioned arms:

Zottman curl. The best exercise I know of for developing a long, full biceps is the Zottman curl. I’m sure that most readers have used it and will agree with me. For beginners and those who may not be familiar with it, here’s how to do it:

Use fairly light dumbbells. Stand erect with your palms facing forward. Curl one arm up and outward until the biceps has reached full contraction, and then turn your palm down as you lower the dumbbell gradually until the biceps reaches full extension. Turn your palm to the front and repeat with the other arm. Note that you alternate arms on this exercise; that is, when your left biceps is contracted, the right is extended and vice versa.

For best results do eight to 12 repetitions. I use a weight with which I can get eight repetitions and work up to 12 over a few workouts. When I can perform 12, I add five pounds and start back at eight again, trying to work back up to 12. After doing Zottman curls this way a month or two, you’ll be surprised at how much you have increased the weight on them’and how much bigger your biceps are.

Incline-bench curls. Here’s another good exercise I’ve found helpful in building bigger and better biceps. To perform incline-bench curls, sit down on a bench that’s set at a 45 degree incline. Let your arms hang straight down. Curl the dumbbells up to full contraction, and then lower them until your arms reach full extension. Repeat for eight to 12 repetitions. If you can’t manage eight reps, the dumbbells are too heavy; and if you can do more than 12, increase the weight.

The key to success on this movement is to make sure you don’t swing the weight up’curl it! In order to maximize the supination of the biceps, the inside plate of the dumbbell should be flat against the heel of your palm, with the remainder of the bar 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.


A well-developed triceps takes the shape of a horseshoe on the back of the upper arm. In Reeves’ opinion, it was one of the most important muscle groups to develop fully, as it gives you that all-important pressing and pushing power.

Pressdowns. One of the best triceps exercises I’ve ever done is pressdowns. I keep my hands approximately six inches apart, with my elbows in at my sides, and I step back slightly from the overhead pulley so that I can get a long, sustained press. It really brings out the horseshoes on the backs of your upper arms.

Curls behind the neck, a.k.a. seated French presses. The exercise I have found to be best for all-around triceps development is the behind-the-neck curl, or French press. The most satisfactory method of performing it is to stand erect and grasp a single dumbbell with both hands on the inside plate at one end. Raise and lower the dumbbell slowly behind your head, being careful to keep your upper arms from moving.

One-arm triceps bench curl. One area that doesn’t get enough time and thought, in my opinion, is the outer, or lateral, head of the triceps. It gives the triceps a more distinct horseshoe shape and more roundness.

This exercise is good for building that area. Here’s how to do it: Lie on your back on a bench. Take a moderately light dumbbell in one hand and extend your arm, palm toward your lower body. Bend your arm at the elbow, lowering the ‘bell across your body until it touches the pectoral muscle on the opposite side. Slowly, under full control, raise the dumbbell back up to arm’s length, being careful not to change the position of your elbow. After eight to 12 reps change to the other hand and repeat.

How Many Sets?

For someone who does physical labor, I suggest using two sets of each exercise I’ve mentioned. Those who go to school or whose occupations don’t involve a great deal of physical effort could probably stand three sets of each.

Beginners should start with one set of each and gradually work up to their own particular goal. It’s important not to overdo it, but work gradually until you can do three sets without too much effort.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the new book Dynamic Muscle Building by Steve Reeves. To order your copy, see the ad elsewhere in this issue. John Little is a leading innovator in bodybuilding training. His latest book, Max Contraction Training, is available from Contemporary Books. See the ad elsewhere in this issue or call Home Gym Warehouse at 1-800-447-0008. IM

Steve Reeves’ Prescription for Bigger, Better Arms

Beginning Workout
Zottman curls 1 x 8-12
Incline-bench curls 1 x 8-12
French presses 1 x 8-12
One-arm triceps bench
curls 1x 8-12
Intermediate Workout
Zottman curls 2 x 8-12
Incline-bench curls 2 x 8-12
Pressdowns 2 x 8-12
French presses 2 x 8-12
One-arm triceps bench
curls 2 x 8-12
Advanced Workout
Zottman curls 3 x 8-12
Incline-bench curls 3 x 8-12
Triceps pressdowns 3 x 8-12
French presses 3 x 8-12
One-arm triceps bench
curls 3 x 8-12

Select the program that best corresponds to your present level of development and hit it hard for two to three months. Who knows? If the program does half as much for you as it did for Steve Reeves, you, too, might get mistaken for the son of Zeus. ‘J.L.

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