I Tried Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Two-Hour Chest And Back Workout And It Was A Wake Up Call

Man performing bench press
(Image credit: Solskin / Getty Images)

Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the biggest name in bodybuilding history, both literally and figuratively. 

Now, the Austrian Oak has shared the two-hour chest and back workout he used to pack on mass during his Mr Olympia golden era. So I (the British twig) decided to give it a go. 

“I want to give a serious warning,” Schwarzenegger writes in his Pump Club newsletter. “If you haven’t been training for a really long time, this isn’t a good idea.”

I’ve been lifting in some form for 10 years, from powerlifting to calisthenics to (most recently) CrossFit. But it all started in my teenage bedroom with some good old-fashioned bodybuilding, so this note of caution served to fire me up for a return to my hypertrophy training roots.

Then I scrolled down and realized what was in store.

Arnold Schwzarzenegger’s Chest And Back Workout

Warm-up: 10 minutes of abs exercises

  • 1 Deadlift: Sets 3 Reps 10, 8, 6 Rest 2-3min
  • 2A Wide-grip weighted chin-up: Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0min
  • 2B Incline bench press: Sets 4 Reps 15, 12, 8, 6 Rest 2-3min
  • 3A Bench press: Sets 4 Reps 15, 12, 8, 6 Rest 0min
  • 3B Chin-up: Sets 4 Reps 15 Rest 2-3min
  • 4A Dumbbell flye: Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0min
  • 4B Wide-grip bent-over row: Sets 4 Reps 12 Rest 2-3min
  • 5A Machine pull-over: Sets 4 Reps 15 Rest 0min
  • 5B Triceps dip: Sets 4 Reps To failure Rest 0min
  • 5C Cable flye: Sets 4 Reps 12-15 Rest 2-3min
  • 6A Seated cable row: Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0min
  • 6B One-arm cable row: Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Rest 0min
  • 6C Dumbbell pull-over: Sets 4 Reps 15 Rest 2-3min

Four Things I Learned Doing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Chest And Back Workout

1. Effective Bodybuilding Is Hard

I’m used to metcons that reduce me to a sweaty mess on the floor and lifting sessions that leave my muscles quivering, so I thought a lengthy bodybuilding workout with rest periods of two minutes might be an almost relaxing alternative. 

It was not. 

For each set I picked a weight that had me flirting with failure and, combined with doing supersets, this sent the intensity off the charts. Relief, rather than relaxation, is what I felt during the two minutes.

The workout took me about 2½ hours and left me feeling like I’d gone 12 rounds with the Terminator. My fatigued muscles forced me to reduce the last few reps of the final set of dumbbell pull-overs to cluster sets of singles.

The experience made me realize how little intensity I used to put into bodybuilding workouts during college. I’d pat myself on the back for making it into the gym between studying and nights out before hitting three sets of 12 on a couple of my favorite exercises at a fairly comfortable weight. 

For the best results, you need to push yourself. That’s progressive overload 101. 

2. More Volume Means More Pump

The author performs an incline bench press

(Image credit: Harry Bullmore / Future)

In my regular training routine I use the three big lifts (the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift) to build strength and power, focusing on fewer reps, but this workout had chunky sets of up to 15 reps for most exercises. 

This was a new challenge and one which dented my ego. My muscular endurance was found wanting and, to hit the rep goals, I had to strip plates from the bar and lift lighter than I had anticipated. 

But the payback was almost instant when I experienced Schwarzenegger’s fabled “pump”.

3. A Workout Partner Would Have Been Welcome

When I watched the recent three-part Netflix documentary Arnold, my ears pricked up when Schwarzenegger discussed his talent for creating a community. Whether he was pumping iron in rural Austria, in England or on Muscle Beach, he brought together like-minded individuals for support, camaraderie and competition. 

It’s something I can relate to. Training in a CrossFit box, my average session is almost as much a social endeavor as it is a fitness one, including chats with other regulars and moaning about the programming (sorry coach). 

I tackled this two-hour session solo, and by the second half I was in need of a supportive word, or at least the reassurance that someone else was in the same boat as me. If you like lifting alone, all power to you, but my advice would be to rope in a training partner. 

4. It’s Not Completely Doable In Commercial Gyms

The author performs a chin-up

(Image credit: Harry Bullmore / Future)

I tackled this workout in a commercial gym in the UK, and for the most part I was able to follow it to the letter. However, I did encounter a couple of problems. 

During the supersets, I would finish cranking out bench press reps only to find the pull-up bar I had been using was now taken. I then had to substitute dips for straight bar dips in a power rack because the only dip station was occupied, and machine pull-overs became banded lat pull-downs. 

I also had to run between the cable machines and free weights area during the final tri-set. They were located at opposite ends of the warehouse-sized space. 

Will I Be Back?

“You’ve survived,” Schwarzenegger writes after the final exercise in his chest and back marathon. 

“It took me at least two hours, and then I went back to the gym for another two-hour workout at night. I was a bodybuilding champion, and I had also been a powerlifting champion in Europe. If it feels like too much, stop.”

It’s sound advice. This workout is only for people with extensive experience in the weights room and even this is likely to leave you struggling to give good hugs for a few days. However, it’s also incredibly fun. 

At the end, my T-shirt felt a little bit tighter in all the right places courtesy of an almighty pump, and my muscles had that enjoyable numbness only quality time with a barbell can bring.

My ego quite liked it, and I even allowed myself a glance in one of the gym’s many mirrors as I trudged to the locker room. If you, in common with most people, like the idea of looking good naked then this workout is custom-made to help with that. 

I may even be tempted to include a little more bodybuilding in my weekly routine, although I won’t be leaving CrossFit any time soon. 

As someone who loves to learn and hasn’t always had an impeccable relationship with my body image, CrossFit’s focus on performance suits me perfectly. I work each day to improve the way I move during Olympic lifts, add new skills like handstands and muscle-ups to my repertoire, and build strength. It’s fun, and there are far more things to celebrate than how I look in a mirror.

I definitely recommend trying this workout if you’ve been lifting for a while and want to push yourself, but for your overall approach to training, find what makes you feel good and see how far it can take you.

Want to start with a less taxing session? Try this chest and back workout instead.

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.