One of the biggest gripes I have with the health and fitness industry is that everything is overcomplicated.
On your quest to build muscle, it’s very likely you would’ve encountered:
A slew of ads promoting ‘essential’ muscle-building supplements such as mass gainers, creatine, BCAAs, L-Carnitine and more.
Advice regarding counting macros, carb-cycling and intermittent fasting.
And arguably the worst of all,
A drugged-up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle attempting to sell you their six-day-a-week bro split programme that will lead you onto a one-stop train to snap city.
Whilst science and technology have no doubt progressed our understanding of the human body, and this all sounds relatively impressive… building mass is a lot easier than this industry would have you believe.
To cut through the noise, we’ll be taking you back to 1940’s and 50’s where things weren’t as advanced as they are today.
Where in order to get bigger and stronger, you had to put in some ‘real work’ both inside and outside of the gym.
One such man who was able to do this to great feats was the late Steve Reeves.
We’ll be taking a look at a special Steve Reeves workout that will not only develop a beautiful v-taper and perfectly proportioned muscles; but also a physique that is athletic, healthy and easily achieved.
But first – who was Steve Reeves?
Who is Steve Reeves?
Steve Reeves was an American professional bodybuilder who reigned as Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948, and Mr. Universe in 1950.
Shortly after retiring from competing in bodybuilding, he turned to acting who famously featured in numerous sword and sandal films in the mid-1950s playing the likes of Hercules and Goliath.
Reeves exuded the physique all men aspired to.
Inch perfect symmetry, classic lines, a tiny waist and full, well-proportioned muscles.
Steve was the ultimate quintessence of masculinity and of the classic, natural physique.
Reg Park also praised Reeves as having the best natural physique of all time:
“When Steve Reeves competed at Mr. Universe, to my mind, he was superb. The man had everything. Looks, physique, skin, hair, and teeth – all perfect. There was the physique of the century… a wonderful, god-given combination of grace, power, size, definition.”
Reeves was also an outspoken critic of the use of steroids in modern-day bodybuilding who famously exclaimed:
“Today, everything about the top bodybuilding champions is oversized; they have lost the whole purpose of bodybuilding which is to create a harmonious whole, not to exaggerate the development of one part or parts, of the body.
A body has hands, legs, feet, arms and a head.
If a man’s arms appear bigger than his head, his body is thrown out of proportion…
If a man doesn’t have enough male hormones in his system to create, a nice hard, muscular body, he should take up ping pong.”
Like Reg Park, Johnn Grimek, Leroy Colbert et al., Reeves slated the era of split training methods brought about by excessive steroid use and continued to advocate the effectiveness of full-body training in his publications such as Building The Classic Physique The Natural Way (1995).
We will be covering one such routine Reeves performed as outlined in his book that built his aesthetically-pleasing physique which won him several trophies (as mentioned earlier) completely drug-free.
Building The Classic Physique The Natural Way
Reeves believed bodybuilding should be approached as a science and recommended the following order to exercise the muscles for maximum results:
- Pectorals (chest)
- Lats (mid and upper back)
- Lower back
Reeves felt you should start a training session with shoulders and round it off with legs to ensure a consistent flow of blood throughout the body as this would lead to the most optimal results:
“… It is better for your body to warm up and increase circulation gradually by doing exercises that don’t put too much demand on your system too quickly. By working the smaller muscles first, then working the legs near the end of your training, you accomplish this.
Approximately 80 percent of your blood is located in your legs and glutes (which are worked while you exercise the other body areas.)
So, if you work your legs first, you will be bringing even more blood down into the lower extremities, thus drawing it away from the smaller muscles in your upper body.
All of this makes for an unnecessary and undesirable demand on your system (forcing the body to pump large amounts of blood against gravity) once you start making the body bring the blood back to the upper body when you begin working the smaller muscles.
The bottom line is this: If you want the best results from your workouts, start with the smaller muscles of your upper body and work down to your legs.“
Have you ever done a heavy set of barbell squats and followed it up with standing military presses?
You’ll find out all too soon how critical your legs are in numerous other exercises which will undoubtedly affect your focus and performance if they are fatigued right off the bat.
Your legs are the foundation in which your body sits, so if these are totally blasted, the rest of your workout session will be extremely tough.
Thus, the training of legs is reserved towards the end of the workout.
Reeves exclusively used free weights in his workouts (barbells and dumbbells) with little to no use of machines.
This is probably due to the era which he was training in as gyms and fitness facilities were not as sophisticated in the 1940’s and 50’s as they are today.
He felt that the use of free weights would allow one to really focus on form and slow movements which he deemed was key in building muscle effectively.
The Steve Reeves ‘Classic Physique’ Workout
|Upright Row||3||8 – 12|
|Behind The Neck Press||3||8 – 12|
|Bent Over Lateral Raise||3||8 – 12|
|Barbell Bench Press||3||8 – 12|
|Dumbbell Incline Press||3||8 – 12|
|Flying Motion (Dumbbell Flyes)||3||8 – 12|
|Behind The Neck Pull Up/Behind The Neck Lat Pulldown||3||8 – 12|
|Low Pulley Lat Pull (Seated Cable Row)||3||8 – 12|
|One Arm Dumbbell Row||3||8 – 12|
|Standing Barbell Curl||3||8 – 12|
|Incline Dumbbell Curl||3||8 – 12|
|High Pulley Curl||3||8 – 12|
|Dumbbell French Press Behind The Neck||3||8 – 12|
|Tricep Extension Bench Press||3||8 – 12|
|One Arm Crossover/Dumbbell Cross Faces||3||8 – 12|
|Half Squat||3||8 – 12|
|Hack Squat||3||8 – 12|
|Front Squat||3||8 – 12|
|Leg Curls||3||8 – 12|
|Partner Assisted Neck Flexion||1 or 2 per side||15|
This programme will require you to complete 3 exercises per body part for 3 sets (9 sets in total).
Overall, if you manage to get through this plan, you would’ve completed 60 (yes, 60) sets of exercises including the warm up.
Now, you’re probably thinking:
“Fuck me! With that volume, I’ll have to turn my music down just to taste my intra-workout”.
Whilst this workout is definitely not for beginners, it does require you to have a few years lifting experience under your belt.
These mammoth sessions were very common back in the day, and were the choice of many bodybuilders of the pre-steroid era, particularly for Steve Reeves, who performed this exact routine with ferocious intensity leading up to his Mr Universe Title in 1950.
You’ll notice that the above plan includes a neck exercise too.
Reeves felt one should also strengthen the neck in order to develop the complete package, as too little neck development will diminish your physique and too much will draw unwanted attention.
Reeves was all about balance and symmetry and believed the training of the neck should not be neglected.
Reeves would perform 1 set of 20 dumbbell swings to warm up all of the major muscle groups, joints and ligaments before most of his full body workouts.
This would ensure that all of the muscles, joints and ligaments are fully limber whilst elevating the heart rate.
Like most full-body routines, the ‘Classic Physique’ workout should be performed three times per week, allowing ample time for rest and recuperation.
Reeves advised that trainees should take a day and a half off in between each training session in order to maximise recovery.
As a result, your workout schedule should look like the following:
- Sunday – Rest
- Monday – Train (Morning)
- Tuesday – Rest
- Wednesday – Train (Evening)
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Rest
- Saturday – Train (Morning)
When questioned about his approach as to why one should train three times a week in comparison to bodybuilding champions who spend up to six days a week at the gym, Reeves answered:
“Don’t forget most of the ‘champions’ you read about today are full of anabolic steroids and other such growth-enhancing drugs which make their training programs useless to the natural bodybuilder – which is the only type of bodybuilding I care about.
And to this end, when people go to the gym, they should try to maximize their time. If they’re going to put in two hours, then they should get two hours worth of growth stimulation.
Now, growth stimulation and growth production are two entirely separate animals.
When you stimulate growth in the gym, that’s only half of the equation.
The second half involves recovery and growth – and that only happens when you’re at rest. This means that you – obviously – can’t be training every day.
You need rest in between, otherwise your nerves will get shattered and you lose your enthusiasm. So you need to find the maximum workout you can take, with the ideal amount of recuperation time in between workouts.“
Reeves would later evolve this routine over time, so it was unclear how often he would consistently perform this specific programme.
Most old-school bodybuilding routines like this were often performed for months on end.
Thus, this should be performed for at least 3 months for maximum results.
Reeves prescribed 45 – 60 second rest periods between each set and 2 minute breaks in between each exercise.
This was to allow his body to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, whilst allowing for extra recovery between exercises to avoid fatigue and maintain intensity.
For the ‘Classic Physique’ routine, it wasn’t uncommon for Reeves to complete this workout in 2 to 4 hours.
It was famously noted that Reeves had no regard to time but worked until he had completed his routine.
The sheer amount of volume requires you to take at least 2 minutes break in between each exercise which certainly adds up across 20+ exercises.
Ensure you do give yourself enough time to complete this workout as it does require dedication from you.
Reeves’ work ethic in the gym was highly respected by those around him.
Whilst training for the 1950 Mr Universe Contest, John Grimek, a close friend of Reeves and a bodybuilding legend in his own right, reflected in Muscular Development Magazine (1964) that:
“Each workout he (Reeves) took he put everything into it, and continued to do a little more each week, so that after a few weeks he showed amazing improvement.
He seldom sat around talking and killing time. Instead he went from one exercise to another.”
Steve believed you should workout with deep concentration and not socialise between each set.
Ensure you are also applying this same focus to your workout and preserving your mental and physical energy to prepare for your next set, whilst saving the gym banter until after your session.
Reeves was a stickler for training with correct form.
Bouncing, jerking and going through the motions of an exercise is not how Reeves would train as he believed such movements were simply just wasting your energy.
Reeves used a repetition tempo of two seconds on the concentric (positive) part of the lift and three seconds on the eccentric (negative), whilst emphasising the latter as best as possible.
This tempo would prevent any bouncing or jerking and keep the weights moving in a consistent fashion.
For instance, when performing incline dumbbell curls, John Grimek noted in Muscular Development Magazine (1964) that:
“He (Reeves) would repeat each exercise until he couldn’t do another rep, and on several occasions while he was doing his incline curls I saw him kick up the weight with his knees and then strongly resist as he lowered the weight.
He put a lot of concentration into each and every movement and after he was finished training he achieved a terrific congested condition and looked twice as big!”
Ensure you drop your ego and lift with enough poundage that will allow you to perform 8 – 12 reps of each exercise with correct form.
Performing each exercise in a slow, controlled manor will also make the pump unbearable.
Diet and Supplements
Reeves strongly believed that the body should be fuelled with whole, unprocessed foods and avoided white sugar and white flour.
He also did take supplements to enhance his performance and maximise muscle recovery.
One thing that sets his diet apart from the modern bodybuilders of today is that Reeves would only eat at most 3 meals a day and wouldn’t track his calories.
If Reeves needed to get a lot more leaner and defined, he would simply eat the same foods but in smaller portions.
Today, it’s not uncommon for lifters to eat up to 6 meals a day which shows that this volume of food is unnecessary provided you are approaching your nutrition in a simple, yet intelligent way.
Below was Reeves typical daily food intake that allowed him to develop his strong, aesthetic physique:
8:00am – Breakfast:
Reeves would start the day with his famous ‘Power Drink’ which was prepared in a blender. This consisted of:
- 14 ounces (400ml) of freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1 tablespoon of knox gelatin
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 banana
- 2 – 4 raw eggs
- 2 tablespoons of homemade high protein powder
Reeves homemade protein powder was made up of powdered egg whites, powdered skim milk and powdered soy protein.
Upon inspection, this mixture provides a complete BCAA profile (in conjunction with the knox gelatin) allowing your body to usefully repair any damaged muscle tissue as efficiently as possible.
Reeves would then workout between 9am – 11am.
During his workouts, Reeves would also take the below intra-workout which he called the Steve Reeves Electrolyte Workout Formula:
- 1/2 cup of lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons of honey
He would then add this mixture to half a gallon of water which he drank throughout his workout, taking two or three sips after each set.
“By having the lemon juice and honey, I was able to maintain my body’s acid balance, and I had more energy and was able to get much more work out of my muscles without tiring them prematurely.
In other words, my muscles would tire out due to genuine muscle fatigue as opposed to some biochemical imbalance.”
Once Reeves had completed his workout, he would follow up with some lunch and round of his day with dinner in the early evening.
12:00pm – Lunch:
- Cottage cheese (with a handful of nuts and raisins)
- Two pieces of fresh fruit (in season)
Early evening – Dinner:
- One huge salad
- One swordfish steak (or turkey, tuna or lean ground beef)
Overall, Revees kept his nutrition relatively simple and was able to sustain this over a long period of time.
He typically followed a diet that consisted of 60% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 20% fat.
Whilst such a diet would be frowned upon in today’s societal focus of achieving soul destroying ketosis to burn body fat, one could hardly argue with his results.
Steve did not believe in fad diets that were unsustainable and would eat for overall health and vitality which would also lead to muscle growth.
Recovery is a critical aspect of training that is commonly overlooked which Reeves was a big proponent of.
Sadly, all the supplements in the world won’t make up for poor sleep and inadequate rest.
Thus, ensure you’re getting at least 8 hours of undisturbed every single night for optimal recovery.
Reeves was regarded as the pioneer of powerwalking who discovered this concept by taking his horses for walks on his ranch in California and published a best-selling book on it in 1982.
Whilst the practice of walking for aerobic fitness has been around for centuries, Steve took a different approach and designed the ‘progressive resistance’ principle which added a new element and complexity to walking.
His method involved six basic factors: length of stride, rhythmic breathing, speed, distance travelled, degree of incline, and the amount of weights carried (with the weights reserved for the advanced powerwalker).
Steve would attach weights around his ankles and waist and carry light dumbbells in each hand and powerwalk for 20 minutes each day to maintain his fitness level.
He would often do this four times a week (on his rest days) which would have the added benefit of reducing the build up of lactic acid and muscle soreness.
He also suggested that if an individual wanted to lose weight, they should powerwalk for 45 minutes each day, and to be in great shape, one should be able to carry 20% of their bodyweight using weights.
For instance, if you currently weigh 80kg (176lbs), you should powerwalk with 16kg (35lbs) worth of resistance.
Steve felt anyone could benefit from powerwalking with weights, which to this day, is still a very effective form of aerobic and strength conditioning:
“Powerwalking is an ideal supplemental exercise for the bodybuilder.
It works on the progressive resistance principle, is performed at high intensity, creates an aerobic effect, burns fat and provides the detailed muscular cuts every bodybuilder strives for.
Powerwalking is also virtually injury-free.
It doesn’t have the up-and-down, injury-causing jolting motion which you encounter while jogging.
When Powerwalking, you take a smooth progression of steps with one foot remaining on the ground at all times”.
The key to powerwalking, is, to over time, increase the intensity in any six of the areas mentioned.
Consider going on a powerwalk during your rest days to maintain your overall aerobic fitness level and conditioning.
Check out the below video of Steve Reeves talking about powerwalking in more detail:
Steve Reeves’ philosophy for attaining a Classic Physique commands your respect no matter how advanced you are.
With an industry infested with instant gratification, complicated dietary advice and chemically-enhanced halfwits following you around on social media to sell you their latest ‘cutting-edge’ programme, you can be forgiven for not getting the results you desire.
Building muscle has always been simple.
Reeves’ training principles didn’t rest on what was marketable or backed by the latest scientific research.
Instead, it was based solely on years of hard work, trial and error.
As mentioned previously:
Whilst this routine is certainly not for the beginner due to the high volume/intensity involved, performing this programme, however, will slap on vast amounts of muscle onto your frame.
After following this training regime for almost 6 weeks, I can attest that the gains made in that time were bountiful.
The simple fact that you’ll be training each muscle group three times a week goes above and beyond the number of times most trainees will typically train a muscle in a given week (two times at most).
If that wasn’t enough:
Because you’ll be getting ample rest in between each session, your body will have enough time to repair damage done to the muscles, allowing you to get back in the gym with continued enthusiasm.
As well as crucifying you physically, this routine also takes a ridiculous mental toll.
Performing Steve Reeves’ workout was more challenging mentally than it was physically.
I usually like to start my workouts with the biggest compound movements first (e.g. squats and deadlifts) as that’s when I have the most energy.
Performing this routine in the prescribed order was completely foreign to me.
By the time I’d completed all of the upper body work it was very hard to summon the motivation to complete the other exercises.
The sight of another barbell felt like I was sack tapped by Eddie Hall. 361lbs of brute force directed at my nuts.
As the old saying goes: the mind always quits before the body.
But, if you’re able to work past the mental blocks that will arise, the rewards will be well worth it.
In terms of productivity,
The Classic Physique routine blows most traditional workouts out of the water, delivering results which are far superior to the standard bodybuilding splits you’ll find in most fitness magazine.
Because the volume is so brutal, it’s quite easy to burn out, so I’d recommend this programme as an occasional ‘shock to the system’.
You should use it to switch up your workout every now and then – but I’d avoid following this workout for longer than necessary.
As such, it is a good idea to follow up this routine with a classic 5×5 routine to keep your body guessing.
Variety is the spice of life after all.
The Steve Reeves ‘Classic Physique’ workout is a traditional full-body routine that will produce unprecedented results.
It goes without saying:
This is a colossal workout born from an era where men were ‘true’ bodybuilders and earned their physiques through sweat and hard graft, not by going on endless cycles of PEDs and posting semi-naked photos on Instagram for clout.
As well as developing practical strength, muscle and size, this old-school approach to training is also focused on improving your health and vitality with simple nutrition, significant rest and the odd powerwalk too.
This routine is a verifiable blueprint in boosting one’s physical and mental wellbeing from one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time.
Not only will you get sculpted like a Greek mythological figure, but such a routine will also foster in you a Herculean outlook towards health and fitness.