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Q&A: Train Like Zane, and 21s for Big Guns

7211-train4Q: Were you a fan of Frank Zane’s when you were young?

A: Zane was my favorite bodybuilder when I was at the zenith of my obsession with bodybuilding in the 1970s. Schwarzenegger also made a huge impression on me then, as did a few others of the era, but it was Zane who made the greatest mark.

I admired Zane’s physique, but I also liked his demeanor, intelligence and scholarly attitude. Although he didn’t have the genetics for size that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva and Bertil Fox (three of the biggest bodybuilders of that era) did, Zane was still tremendously impressive—an exceptionally aesthetic package of size, definition, symmetry and presentation.

I trained as Zane reportedly did but without success. Although Zane didn’t have super-duper genetics for muscle size, he still had exceptional genetics for bodybuilding—and all of those men had assistance from bodybuilding drugs. So even Zane was able to prosper while using training volume and frequency that were ineffective for most bodybuilders.

It took me years of frustration and struggle before I learned the big lesson that bodybuilders must train in a way that’s appropriate for them if they are to make good progress. What Frank, Arnold, Sergio and Bertil did worked for them, but don’t conclude that it will work for you.

For genetically normal, drug-free bodybuilders the sort of training that I promote is much more effective because it’s appropriate for most people—both in terms of the genetic makeup of most people and the gym time required. Two or at most three visits to the gym each week—my recommendation—is much more practical for most people than six or more visits, which is what Zane and Schwarzenegger did in their prime.

Q: What is the 21 routine for biceps?

A: It involves doing three groups of seven reps per set—to produce a total of 21 reps per set, but there are variations on the way the sevens are done.

Here’s one classic example: Take a barbell with about half the weight you’d normally use for a set of six to eight curls. Curl up to the halfway point, and then do just the top half of the curl stroke for seven half reps. Then, without any rest—and using the same poundage—lower all the way down and do seven bottom-half reps. Then, without changing the poundage, immediately do seven full-range reps.

It’s the final dose of seven that’s the toughest. Unless you get the first two doses of seven reps with reps to spare, you won’t have a hope of getting the final dose.

Find the weight that enables you to just squeeze out the full 21 reps. You may need several trial-and-error efforts to find that poundage. Rest more than five minutes between the test sets. Once you have the right poundage, that’s the weight for your first work set. Start the routine proper a few days later.

Do the 21s for three full sets—three sets of 21s—as your entire biceps workout, with three minutes of rest between sets. You’ll need to reduce the weight for the second set and again for the third set to keep your reps up at 21, but drop it just enough to enable you to squeeze out your target reps. Do that for five successive weeks of two biceps workouts per week—Monday and Thursday, for example.

Give your all to making a little progress at each workout—a smidgen of extra resistance while keeping up the full 21 reps per set. Keep accurate records of each set so that you know what you have to beat next time—all in correct exercise form, of course. Do just enough work for the rest of your physique to maintain your development there—the minimum.

Most people will probably find it easier to add a smidgen of weight—no more than one pound—to a barbell, than half a smidgen to each of two dumbbells. So barbell curls may be more suited to 21s than dumbbells, but dumbbells will still work, provided you can add a very small amount of weight at a time to the dumbbells. If you do use dumbbells, be sure you fully supinate your wrists  in order to involve your biceps completely .

After you’ve done the 10 workouts of 21s, return to regular sets for a couple of months, and then do another burst of 21s.

Are 21s effective? I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that they are when used for occasional short periods, although they didn’t help me when I tried them. That said, I overdid it when I tried them. Had I done no more than three sets of 21s twice a week and no other biceps work during that period—and had I not overdone training for the rest of my physique, perhaps the 21s might have helped me. Give them a try yourself, and see.

—Stuart McRobert


Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or www

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