I Tried Bodybuilding Legend Frank Zane’s Push Workout And I Learned A Lot

Bodybuilder and fitness expert Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia inside his health club, April 27, 1984 in Palm Springs, California
(Image credit: Bob Riha Jr / Contributor / Getty Images)

When Arnold Schwarzenegger moved to America in 1968, he assumed he’d be a shoo-in for his first bodybuilding title on US soil, but one man got between him and the Mr Universe title: Frank Zane. 

“It was all about being big with [Schwarzenegger],” Zane told camera crews filming the Arnold Netflix documentary. “Landing in this country for the first time, he’d been defeated by, in his words, ‘a chicken with 17-inch arms’. That really bothered him.”

Zane would go on to become one of the all-time bodybuilding greats, securing three consecutive Mr Olympia titles between 1977 and 1979.

In a recent blog post on his site FrankZane.com, he wrote about the pull/legs/push Growth Program he used to train during this time, which he found “very successful for adding muscle mass during those years that I was at my best”. 

So naturally I decided to give it a try, taking the chest, shoulders and triceps workout for a spin at a nearby gym. This and many more workouts have been detailed in The Workouts: Personal Training Diaries by Zane.

How To Do Frank Zane’s Growth Program Push Workout

1 Bench press 

Sets 5 Reps 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2

Zane writes that he used “a shoulder-width grip to put more emphasis on the pecs, front delts and triceps”. He would avoid locking out at the top of each rep, employ slow eccentrics (the lowering phase) to increase time under tension, and perform doorway stretches after each set. Treat all exercises with descending reps in this workout as pyramid sets, aiming to increase the weight you’re lifting with each set. 

2 Incline dumbbell bench press 

Sets 4 Reps 10, 8, 6, 4-6

Zane would adjust a bench to roughly a 70° angle, then lower this angle with each set.

3 Decline dumbbell flye 

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8

Zane set the bench at a -10° angle for this exercise.

4 Dumbbell pull-over

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8

Zane’s reason for including this move was targeting the serratus anterior, a chest muscle found on either side of the ribcage. “It also expanded my ribcage, pumped up my lower pecs, and really developed the posterior head of my triceps,” Zane writes. Between sets he would do a single-arm overhead stretch.

5 Close-grip bench press

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8

After each set Zane would do a stretch which involved reaching both arms behind his back. 

6 Single-arm overhead dumbbell extension

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8 each side

Meticulous in his approach to maximizing his muscle-building potential, Zane suggests a few form tweaks to improve this exercise. “I’d hold onto a support and lean slightly backward, making sure to let the weight down deeply behind my back then, keeping my upper arm close to my head, not quite lock out at the top of the exercise,” he writes.

7 V-grip triceps press-down 

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8

At the bottom of each rep, “hold the contraction for a full second,” Zane writes.

8 Dumbbell reverse flye

Sets 3 Reps 12, 10, 8

Pick up a pair of “not-so-heavy dumbbells” for this exercise. “I had already worked the front delts with the pressing exercises, so all that was left was an exercise for the rear delts and something for the side or lateral heads [of the deltoids—the largest muscles in the shoulder]”, Zane writes. 

9 Single-arm cable lateral raise

Sets 3 Reps 12

Zane would sometimes perform all three sets with alternating arms, not taking any rest between them.

Five Things I Learned Doing Frank Zane’s Push Workout

1. Build Your Workout Around The Big Three

I really enjoyed Zane’s plan. Not only will it help you pack on mass using hypertrophy training principles like pyramid sets and 6-12 rep ranges, but it also begins each training day with a powerlifting staple—a surefire way to build strength. 

“This routine helped me grow because I incorporated one (modified) powerlifting movement into each workout,” Zane writes. 

The pull day starts with a deadlift, the leg workout kicks things off with six sets of a heavy barbell back squat, and the push session I tried opens with some good ol’ bench press. 

This gave me the opportunity to lift heavy (for me, at least), finishing with two reps at 220lb/100kg. And a heavy bench session is usually a good time. 

Zane sticks with multi-muscle compound exercises like the incline dumbbell press and close-grip bench press for much of the rest of the workout too, shifting to more targeted isolation moves like the single-arm overhead dumbbell extensions as the session progresses.

2. Free Weights Can Get The Job Done

Modern bodybuilders tend to use weights machines—Chris Bumstead recently shared one of his pre-Olympia chest workouts, which featured cable machines, a pec deck, multiple chest press machines and more, as well as dips and dumbbells. 

But Zane’s competing physique goes to show that free weights can still be incredibly effective. Using Zane’s selection of push exercises I was able to hit my chest, shoulders and triceps from a variety of angles to help me develop their strength and size, all without the help of specialist equipment.

3. More Volume Isn’t Always Better

I’ve also tried Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two-hour chest and back workout and there are a couple of stark differences between the two in the overall volume and intensity. 

Arnold’s mammoth upper-body pump session has more than 50 working sets. Zane’s has less than 30, taking me about 80 minutes. 

Discussing his standard pull session, Zane writes: “This gave me a total of 15 sets for back, nine for biceps, and four for forearms, adding up to 28 total sets in the workout, which proved to be enough for growth.”

There is no pointless volume. Everything in the workout serves a purpose, such as the dumbbell pull-overs targeting the serratus anterior. 

Arnold’s routine was also dominated by supersets, rather than Zane’s straight sets approach, leading to less overall intensity. 

At 6ft 3in and naturally lanky, my time bodybuilding taught me that my muscles tended to respond better to shorter, more focused sessions. So, while Arnold’s routine left me dead on my feet, I felt tired but still able to function after Zane’s. 

In short, if I was picking one plan to follow, I’d pick Zane’s. 

4. There Are Always Ways To Improve

In an interesting segment at the end of Zane’s blog post, he dives into the changes he would make if he was to run The Growth Program again. 

In his heyday Zane would perform the three workouts on consecutive days, rest for a day, then repeat this sequence.

“It was hard and I got really sore from it. I needed lots of rest and noticed a tendency to become overtrained after about a month on this four-day cycle, so I took a few extra days off every month,” he says.

With what he knows now, Zane explains that he would choose to add more rest days in a “5-5-5-6” format. 

This means you would perform the three workouts over five days for three cycles, then add an extra day to the fourth cycle. 

“The 5-5-5-6 day cycle should produce more growth because there’s more rest so you’ll be stronger each workout and be able to train heavier,” Zane writes.

5. Zane Stretches Between Sets

Zane recommends a variety of stretches between sets, which is something I remember seeing people at my old bodybuilding gym do. 

I know many of the benefits of stretching or mobility work in general, but I was never too clued up on the logic of doing it mid-workout.

In an Instagram post on the topic, Zane revealed his thoughts. 

Trying it for myself during this workout, I found that stretching the muscle that had just been worked provided an enjoyable opposition to the contractions targeted during the set. 

I can’t speak for the long-term impacts of this practice, with Zane and Schwarzenegger’s fellow “golden era of bodybuilding” alumni known for their experimental approach to training. Instead, you’ll just have to try it for yourself.

Would I Do Frank Zane’s Push Workout Again?

Yes I would. Even though my training revolves around CrossFit now, I can’t resist a bit of bodybuilding and it doesn’t get much better than this workout from Zane. 

It delivered an enviable pump and a chance to flex my muscles on the strength front. It also doubled up as a fun social activity as I roped my brother into tackling it with me, giving us the chance to catch up and have a laugh between sets.

Harry Bullmore
Staff writer

Harry covers news, reviews and features for Coach, Fit&Well and Live Science. With over a decade of training experience, he has tried everything from powerlifting to gymnastics, cardio to CrossFit, all in a bid to find fun ways of building a healthy, functional body.