December 1, 2021

Bodybuilder Frank Zane Shared His Best Workout and Diet Advice

Table of Contents What advice do you have for anyone reading this who might be…

Table of Contents

Three-time Mr. Olympia champion Frank Zane turned 79 in June but has no intentions of letting age slow him down. Retired from the competitive bodybuilding circuit since 1983, Zane continues to lift, meditate, take the various supplements he popularized during his career, write books and produce training videos, and train clients willing to travel to California to seek his expert counsel.

Zane, who grew up in the coal-mining region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, began lifting at fourteen and never looked back. At his peak between 1977 and 1979, he won three consecutive Mr. Olympia contests and earned recognition as the greatest bodybuilder in the world during one of the most competitive periods in the sport’s history. Many long-time bodybuilding observers believe that the 5’9”, 200-pound Zane came to the competition stage boasting the most aesthetically appealing physique of all time.

Zane’s fitness journey didn’t end when shoulder injuries forced him to quit competing in 1983. “I’ve been doing this same stuff for 60 years now,” he tells me, his voice so even, so thoroughly zen, that if it weren’t for a residuum of Pennsylvania accent, I might find myself lulled into the sort of meditative state to which Zane attributes a good deal of his success.

“Think about that, six decades…but it was worth it, because during that time I made bodybuilding a more scientific sport by bringing scientific methods and objectivity into contest preparation.” Zane still thinks deeply about such matters. His recently-released omnibus Zane Bodybuilding Manual collects dozens of vintage photographs of Zane alongside his exercise programs, information on nutrition and supplementation, and even fitness advice from his wife Christine, herself a decorated fitness competitor.

I asked Zane to share some of the insights acquired during a journey that spans well over half a century.

What advice do you have for anyone reading this who might be an aspiring bodybuilder?

I’d tell them to consider bodybuilding a hobby, and focus on a career in another line of work. Even if you do make it in bodybuilding to some extent, this isn’t a lifelong occupation. Teaching filled that gap early in my career, and my gym Zane Haven and training business occupied my time after I retired.

What about for people who are just trying to motivate themselves to go to the gym?

Everyone needs a concrete objective. Before you start going to the gym, write down specific goals. Take a notebook, and draw squares on the page that let you accurately track the information you’re going to be recording. Get someone to take progress pictures—before, after, and along the way. When I say pictures, I don’t mean photos in the mirror or “selfies” on the phone. I mean having another person photograph you, so you can see how you look on camera, in real life.

I benefited greatly from the many excellent photographers I worked with, but my wife Christine—a good photographer in her own right—was the most helpful because she could take photos as needed. When you’re looking at yourself in a mirror, that image is reversed. When you’re looking at a selfie, that’s a camera angle you can manipulate to look the way you want. You need objective photographic evidence. Then, as you begin to make documentable progress, you will get more motivated. You’ll see that you’re getting closer to your goals. You’ll have the evidence to back this up.

What advice do you have for older trainees? When did you begin noticing significant changes in your body that entailed changes in your workouts?

I noticed the most significant effects after I turned seventy. When I look back at previous decades, I suppose I can recall other signs that were less noticeable at the time. As I’ve aged, I’ve prioritized walking. Walking on the treadmill was always part of my competition preparation, but it’s essential as you get older. So is understanding when not to work out. That’s a significant part of managing age. A lot of my early success came through barbell and especially dumbbell training, but as I’ve aged, I’ve replaced many of those exercises with exercises on machines that can isolate particular muscles. I have a gym that has pretty much every high-quality machine you would look for in a gym.

What is the most common mistake you see people make in the gym?

People go to gyms for social reasons, to hang out and talk, or get on their cellphones while occupying equipment. This is a waste of valuable time. When you go to the gym, you have to be focused. I never get angry before I go to the gym, but I do center myself and focus. I block people out, ignore people. Especially after I became a serious contender and then an Olympia winner, I focused on the competition. Competition was serious in those days. Earbuds or a training partner can prevent others from coming over to distract you and disrupt your workout.

How competitive was the bodybuilding scene of the late 1960s and 1970s?

People could be looser in the gym, but it was still serious business, particularly as fall and the accompanying competition season approached. When I taught school, I worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., which wasn’t a physically taxing schedule. After I finished for the day, I still had time to go to the gym. I wasn’t too burned out. After I moved to Venice, California, I trained at the original Gold’s Gym. I tried to go at whatever times I could complete my work without much distraction.

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How did you finally break through to win your first Mr. Olympia in 1977?

For a long time, I was Joe Weider’s number two bodybuilder. Other people were taking first place, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I recognized that the key to success was outlasting them. This is critical advice for anyone reading this: If you stick around long enough, and remain persistent enough, the people ahead of you will move on. In 1976, the year after Arnold retired for the first time, I was prepared to take the title, but Arnold’s long-time training partner Franco Columbu won the Olympia instead. I finished second, but that was a blessing in disguise, because so many people told me I should have won.

How was finishing second in 1976 a blessing in disguise?

This is another important point. After 1976, I realized you had to win the Mr. Olympia ahead of time. Sure, Franco won, but I got so much attention I could now pull this off. I could say “it’s my intention to win, and as a matter of fact, I’ve already won.” By this point, I had the photographic evidence needed to back up my claim. I could back up these claims with photos which showed how good I looked, and which I could expect to improve upon by the time of the competition. If you’re going to win a competition like that, you need to convince yourself you’ve won in advance.

How did you prepare for the Olympias?

Although I wasn’t in competition shape year round, I never gained forty pounds “bulking” or getting really out of shape like some bodybuilders did. The key for me was avoiding unnecessary weight gain during the holidays, then using the period from February to June to increase poundages on my lifts and build muscle. During the months of July, August, and September, I’d focus on training faster and perfecting my posing.

I wasn’t particularly thick, but I had wide shoulders, so I tried to pose in ways that accentuated my width up top and narrow waist. I also tried to stand in front of people during the posing, which is a best practice as long as you’re not standing so far in front you end up falling off the stage. I also took advantage of the California sun, maintaining a naturally dark tan because it reflects light better. Spray tanner can help somewhat, but you still need a natural base tan to use it effectively.

What did competition help you learn about yourself?

When I was a teenager back in Pennsylvania, I worked out at the YMCA. I performed the basic powerlifting exercises. The powerlifting contests held at the Y were slightly different than the ones today. My first contest consisted of the deadlift, bench press, and strict curl. I entered weighing 165 pounds, and managed to bench press 285 pounds, strict curl 165 pounds, and deadlift 425 pounds. I had barely even practiced the deadlift prior to this, but when the competition began, I entered the zone and outperformed what I previously would have thought possible. It was a flow state I entered. That competition didn’t even feature my best lift at the time, the back squat. I was back squatting 300 pounds to parallel for sets of ten reps in my teens. My legs were always strong, and responded well to training.

Let’s talk about legs, then. How did you train your calves, which many bodybuilders have found extremely resistant to training?

The way you get your calves to grow is to burn them out on every set, 15 to 25 reps. After that, you need to give them ample rest to heal, then gradually go heavier and harder. You’ve got to do this sort of training more with calves than any body part, because calves are indeed very resistant to exercise, so you need extreme methods. But at least for me, gains made in that area have been long-lasting. I really built up my calves in 1982. I weighed 205 pounds much of the time and trained not only with these repetition sequences but. In 1983, I was fifteen pounds lighter but my calves remained the same size, yet now looked more impressive because they appeared even bigger in proportion to everything else.

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If you’re just beginning your training, what’s the most important piece of equipment you should?

In my case, it was adjustable dumbbells. I bought a simple set of adjustable dumbbells, performed the basic exercises, and saw muscles and veins popping out in areas where they weren’t previously noticeable. Even then, I realized that dumbbell training could give me the look I was after.

Speaking of looks, who do you consider the most aesthetically impressive bodybuilders, the men with the best physiques?

[Laughs] Aside from me, you mean? Well, the historical progression, at least in my opinion, is pretty simple. It goes from Eugen Sandow in the early 1900s to John Grimek in the 1930s and 1940s to Steve Reeves in the 1950s. Steve was the complete package. Not overwhelming in any one area, but perfectly proportioned all over. Now, as far as physiques go, I believe you have to see people up close to really judge them. A photograph won’t cut it as far as making judgments about other competitors.

When I saw Larry Scott win the first Mr. Olympia in New York in 1965, I was competing alongside him. I marveled at Scott’s attention to detail, the fine sinews running over his deltoids and arms. Sergio Oliva, who won three Mr. Olympia titles after Scott retired, was another amazing specimen in that regard.

What are your thoughts on post-Dorian Yates bodybuilding, which has been dominated by “mass monsters” such as 8-time champion Ronnie Coleman and reigning Mr. Olympia Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay?

In my opinion, that’s the way bodybuilding has always been, outside of the period from 1976 to 1983. I expect these big guys to win because it’s about spectacle. That’s just the way it is. If it’s not your thing, watch one of the other competitions that didn’t exist back when I was competing, such as “classic physique.”

I remember when Ronnie Coleman more or less mooned everyone on stage. I saw that Ronnie had nothing but striated muscle back there, all through his rear end, and appreciated the spectacle. That wasn’t my body type. I posed and competed in ways that emphasized my best features and made the most of them. I didn’t worry too much about how other people looked. I was concerned with my own performance.

Why did you choose to retire after the 1983 Mr. Olympia?

Injuries were catching up to me. My shoulders, in particular, needed surgery, and I wouldn’t be able to lift the same sort of weight with them or train the same way with them afterwards. By that point, I had competed from 1960 to 1983 and was 41 years old. I had been telling myself I needed to get “my fourth,” meaning my fourth Mr. Olympia victory, but instead I finished fourth overall in 1983. I told myself that was “my fourth” and decided to call it a career. Bill Pearl, one of the great bodybuilders of all time and someone I looked up to, had also retired at 41.

In 1982, I finished second to Chris Dickerson, of all people. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been myself since 1979. You see, when you finish first in these events, you have to compete against two different groups the next year: how you looked when you won the title, plus everyone else. You have to keep getting at least a little bit better each time. I wasn’t able to do that anymore.

How much sleep did you get when you were competing?

I needed about seven to eight hours a night when I was training hard. Now I get about six hours a night. I’ve practiced meditation since I was fourteen and continue to do so. Based on my experience, an hour of meditation is worth two hours of sleep. As you age, you need to avoid wasting energy. Your training is as much about relaxing, as much about what you don’t do, as what you do.

What diet did you follow throughout your career?

I always kept it simple, sticking to a basic low-carbohydrate diet. I tried to consume one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, which meant eating 200 grams of protein at a bodyweight of 200 pounds. I ate half as many carbs as I ate grams of protein, which meant I consumed 100 grams of carbs a day. Like I said, I didn’t bother with bulking and cutting like other people did. Let them worry about that stuff. They’ll mess themselves up, and they often did.

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What supplements did you take? Are you still taking any supplements?

The main thing is to get enough high-quality protein in the diet. It’s challenging to get 200 grams of protein a day, so free-form amino acids are what I’ve taken for years since that’s what protein eventually becomes. I still take eight or nine amino acid tablets a day, but when I was competing I took 30 a day or more.

I took a lot of desiccated liver before amino acids became widely available. I still take concentrated liver extract, a multivitamin, a mineral supplement, digestive enzymes which can help with the absorption of all this, and vitamins E, B, and D. Back when I was competing, I’d lay off whatever I was taking and study how my body responded.

If I felt worse—you notice these little shifts when you’ve been doing this as long as I have— I’d reintroduce the supplement, because then I’d know it had been doing something. I was one of the first people in the sport to make all of these minor adjustments. I think a background in science and math gave me the right mindset for that, and I believe a similar background can be beneficial to someone who is just starting their training today and wants to approach the process in an objective manner.

Any final insight you want readers to take to heart?

So much of this comes down to mindset. When you’re competing at something, you’ve got to convince yourself you’re the best before you can convince anyone else. You can convince yourself by training and getting feedback on your progress, and then using that objective feedback to guide your future efforts. My goal was to improve every year. As I said, not only did I have to look better than everyone else, I had to look better than I did the previous year. Meditation helped a lot. To clear my mind, I had mantras that I repeated. I drove out negative recurring thoughts by repeating mantras. Buddhism is full of such mantras and prayers, as are other religions.

Whatever works for you in this respect, that’s what you need to do. Visualization also does wonders. Visualize how you would like to look externally, like observing yourself on stage, but also feeling your body develop, your muscles, from deep within yourself, internally. Remember, action follows thought. We act in order to become what we think we are.

So start by thinking the right way. Think the right way, say the right words or mantras, and then do the right actions. You’ll get there. Remember what I said about hanging in there and outlasting people. People get distracted, hurt, lazy, tired. But eventually, the people ahead of you will have departed. The path forward will be clear. Believe me, at 79, I know a lot about outlasting folks.

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