Fitness Hall of Fame: Steve Reeves
written by sean hyson
Back in April, I introduced the Sean Hyson Fitness Hall of Fame. To be inducted into its hallowed annals is about the most prestigious honor a person could receive, and today I bestow that honor on Steve Reeves…
I won’t go much into Mr. Reeves’ greatness. Anyone who lifts weights in the pursuit of a better body should be aware that he was a Mr. Universe and probably the first muscular action movie hero (his Hercules movies from the 50s inspired everyone from Frank Zane to Sylvester Stallone to hit the gym). Instead, I’d like to look at how Reeves trained and ate, and what we can learn—and learn to avoid—from him.
Reeves believed in training three days per week. In each workout, he trained the whole body, and used a pretty conservative volume of work per body part (at least by pro bodybuilding standards). Sets were generally two to three per exercise, and reps were 8–12.
He had to be conservative because Reeves was 100% natural throughout his career, and to his dying day, he abhorred the use of steroids in bodybuilding. He also claims in his book, Building The Classic Physique The Natural Way, that he never even pumped up backstage before a competition. Reeves said that getting a pump causes you to shake during a pose, and that it obscures definition. Talk about natural!
For cardio, Reeves was a big fan of power walking. He recommended 20–30 minutes a day to start, which is a healthy idea for anyone. It’s also great cardio for people who hate cardio and are terrified of losing muscle mass doing interval training, which is the more popular method these days. I’d warn that you have to carry a lot of muscle mass like Reeves did, and therefore have a pretty fast metabolism, before walking can be super effective as a fat burner, but it’s a good idea anyway. It can help you recover from weight workouts faster, reduce soreness, and it’s a smart adjunct to one or two other interval sessions a week.
His diet didn’t over-emphasize protein. Reeves believed only 20% of your calories should come from it. That seems too low to me, but he knew that eating more carbs was the best way to put on size. Apart from that (and his fondness for gelatin), Reeves’ nutrition philosophy was pretty much what you’d expect. He liked to have three square meals a day consisting of whole foods, and if he was dieting, he’d cut out snacks between meals. He was not a proponent of the multiple mini-meals a day idea, which research has proven false anyway.
Reeves liked to train legs last in his workouts. His reasoning was that by then the entire body would be more warmed up, and since the legs are “the foundation” for so many upper-body lifts, it was best not to fatigue them with direct leg work until after everything else got trained. I can see some wisdom in this, mainly in the idea of pre-exhaustion that modern bodybuilders like John Meadows employ. Meadows sometimes throws squats or leg presses last in a workout after he’s done more isolated leg training so that he has to use less weight, and this reduces the chance for injury. It also burns the muscles out to finish off the session. Still, I don’t think this is a great idea for most of us, most of the time. Squats are a demanding exercise, neurally as well as physically, and it pays to hit them first when you’re fresh.
Nevertheless, I can’t really argue that Reeves’ legs were a weak point, or lagged behind any other body part.
Reeves liked doing slow reps and negatives. Most coaches say this won’t let you activate the greatest amount of muscle, and it can really beat up your joints when the weights are heavy.
His workouts were super long. Even with short rest periods and a low number of sets for each exercise, he did three or so lifts for each body part. Every workout went like this: deltoids, chest, back, biceps, quads, hamstrings, calves, abs, and neck. Even if you could stand the workload, you probably wouldn’t have the patience for it. If you have a job and a life outside of lifting, you wouldn’t last long on his plan.
In Reeves’ book, he offers “Rules to Live By” for a healthy life. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, drink eight glasses of water daily—that kind of stuff. The part where he stops sounding like your mom is when you read this.
“Take a cold shower each morning upon arising—let the cold water run on your genitals for a minute or two to stimulate circulation—then dry off by rubbing briskly with a good Turkish towel.”
It really says that. No, I don’t know why either, but I think I’ll start trying it.
All in All…
I think the most impressive thing about Reeves is that he built a perfectly proportioned physique—seriously, his is one of the most truly aesthetic and symmetrical bodies ever—without drugs and in an era where gyms and training knowledge were hard to come by. He taught himself the basics, learned by trial and error, worked hard, and lived clean. Yes, he was blessed with some rare genes, but you can’t deny his inventiveness.
Here’s a little story from his book.
When Reeves was in the Army, he had access to a barbell that he could only load with up to 100 pounds. To most, that wouldn’t be enough to squat with, but Reeves made do. He did as many reps with it as he could every week until he got up to 100—no resting or pausing. Since he weighed 200 pounds at the time, he recommended for years afterward that people work up to squatting half their body weight for 100 reps when they needed to un-stick their legs from a plateau. It also served as a crazy cardio challenge. This reminds me of the “Kroc row”, powerlifter/bodybuilder Matt Kroczaleski’s use of super high-rep dumbbell rows to thicken his back and improve grip strength. Like Reeves, Kroc ran out of weights and just started repping out to create intensity. Dire situations promote great creativity.
It should also be noted that Reeves relied almost entirely on free weights and was very functionally strong. There’s a picture of him from 1948 lifting George Eiferman (another old-time bodybuilding legend), at 200-plus pounds, with his teeth.
Steve, we salute you.