Young Arnold Schwarzenegger: True Stories Of A Musclebound Rebel

Icons | June 24, 2019

Left: Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Pumping Iron' (1977). Right: Working out with Sally Field in 1976. Sources: IMDB; Bettman/Contributor via Getty Images

For Arnold Schwarzenegger, the journey from small-town Austria to mega-celebrity has involved numerous stages -- record-breaking bodybuilder, charmer of Pumping Iron, action movie star, and governor of California. Arnie did it thanks to a brash personality, relentless self-promotion, and a nose for business. The man who would be Conan and the Terminator was a cocky and unrepentant hedonist in his younger years, but was also constantly learning from others. You couldn't make this stuff up -- but it's a true story. Schwarzenegger lived it.

It’s almost as crazy that it all began with bodybuilding. Today, there’s a platform for every competition under the sun, from Crossfit to wood chopping. When Schwarzenegger got started in the early ‘60s, bodybuilding did not hold much cachet, certainly not in Austria. He had always been strong -- thanks to a taskmaster father, young Arnie was pushed to physical feats in the small town of Thal, Austria, where he grew up. Per Austrian law, Arnold left at age 18 to serve a year in the Austrian army. In fact, in his first confidence-building win he broke Austrian military rules by boarding a train to Germany in order to enter Junior Mr. Europe. 

Arnold’s Blueprint

Left: A Folies Bergere girl swoons as Arnie flexes on the scene in Cannes, promoting 'Pumping Iron' in 1977. Right: A still from 'Pumping Iron.' Source: IMDB

Prior to winning Jr. Mr. Europe, everyone around him thought his dreams of bodybuilding glory were delusional. His senior officers, despite wanting to champion Schwarzenegger’s win, made him spend a night in jail for his disobedience. Arnold, however, saw his path clearly thanks to a man named Reg Park. Reg Park won Mr. Universe in 1958 and 1965. Park then parlayed his muscles and modest bodybuilding fame into playing Hercules in five Italian movies. Arnold's first movie role, in 1970, would be in Hercules In New York.

Blood, Sweat, and Iron

Left: Schwarzenegger with Jeff Bridges in 'Stay Hungry' (1976). Right: in 'Hercules In New York' (1970). Source: IMDB

Just because Arnold found a shining example in Reg Park didn’t mean it came easy. In truth, Schwarzenegger’s arduous journey had just begun. To reach his goal of becoming the greatest Mr. Universe ever, Schwarzenegger needed to lift a lot. While on military tank exercises, Arnold would stash his exercise equipment in the toolbox compartments of his tank.

Then, after a long day of military training, he would lift for hours on end while his compatriots slept. He’d even use tree limbs for pull bars. Schwarzenegger also joined a weightlifting club and competed in beer halls against neighboring Austrian towns. Through the weightlifting club and powerlifting, he built a strong foundation for bodybuilding. 

Breaking Records

Schwarzenegger Dominated Bodybuilding Competitions For Years.

Through pure determination and a tremendous amount of hard work, Arnold won Mr. Universe at the record-shattering age of 20. The next year he won Mr. Universe again and the blueprint Schwarzenegger dreamed up as a poor kid in Austria started becoming a reality. In all, Arnold won 13 world bodybuilding championships in his career. He more than doubled the next closest competitor at the time of his retirement. 

Coming to America

Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Conan The Destroyer' (1984). Source: IMDB

Arnold moved to the United States and immediately rubbed shoulders with some of the athletic pioneers of America: Bruce Jenner, Chuck Norris, even Wilt Chamberlain. Arnold trained with and marveled at these forward thinkers as he dominated the bodybuilding world. Jenner and Chamberlain were among the earliest adopters of weight training in their respective sports. At that time, the conventional belief said weight training would slow you down, make an athlete “muscle bound.” Chamberlain especially impressed Arnold with his strength. 

Tall Tales

Giants In Their Industry: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wilt Chamberlain, and Andre the Giant. Source: (pinterest.com)

On a podcast with Bill Simmons, Arnold tells a story of going out with Wilt Chamberlain and Andre the Giant, the seven-foot professional wrestler, while filming Conan The Destroyer (1984):

I remember Andre The Giant, the professional wrestler, who was a very good friend of mine and Wilt Chamberlain, we both went out for dinner several times while in Mexico City. Both of them would just, you know, pick me up. Always they were both joking about who can pick me up and make me look lighter and (more) like a little fly. They were so powerful it was ridiculous.

When it came to Andre the Giant, Arnold was most impressed by his prodigious generosity. On the same podcast Schwarzenegger remembered trying to secretly pay for dinner before Andre could foot the bill per usual:

I said (to the waiter), don’t let Andre or anyone pay because Andre always pays. I want to pay this time. No matter how much he complains, don’t give me the credit card back, use it and don’t use his. So the waiter comes and gives me the bill and I’m signing and Andre says “NO, you make me very angry Arnold!” And then all of a sudden he picked me up and sets me down on the roof of my car which was right outside of the restaurant.

Weight Training Movement

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Pumping Iron' (1977). Source: IMDB

As Arnold transitioned from bodybuilding legend into headlining action star, he continued to promote exercise and fitness. He also made the most iconic weightlifting documentary of the '70s, Pumping Iron. The docudrama chronicled Schwarzenegger’s return to bodybuilding and the Mr. Universe competition in South Africa in 1975. Alongside Lou Ferrigno, Arnold helped popularize bodybuilding and cemented his standing as a movie star. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger On Steroid Use: 'No Regrets'

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Pumping Iron' (1977). Source: IMDB

Did the world's most famous bodybuilder take steroids? Schwarzenegger has admitted that he did. He told George Stephanopoulos in 2005

I have no regrets about it, because at that time, it was something new that came on the market, and we went to the doctor and did it under doctors’ supervision. ... We were experimenting with it. It was a new thing. So you can’t roll the clock back and say, 'Now I would change my mind on this.'

A Men's Health interview pointed out that the doses were tiny in Arnold's day -- 15 mg, compared to the 1,000 mg doses bodybuilders reportedly take today. Schwarzenegger added that the use was less frequent as well:

So we limited it to a couple months before competition, so that we wouldn’t be on it at all times and get hooked.

How Crazy Was Arnie's Sex Life?

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Pumping Iron' (1977). Source: IMDB

As the charismatic rock-star of bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger was a popular interview subject, and in a 1977 chat with the men's magazine Oui (a spinoff of Playboy), Schwarzenegger gave some very candid answers about the wild life he was living. According to the interview, bodybuilders in the mid-'70s were having a lot of sex. The Smoking Gun dug up the interview as Schwarzenegger was running for Governor of California in 2003. Addressing whether bodybuilders abstain from sex before a competition, Arnold said:

I get laid on purpose. I can't sleep before a competition and I'm up all night, anyway, so instead of staring at the ceiling I figure I might as well find somebody and f**k.

And what about the theory that bodybuilders are closeted homosexuals?

Men shouldn't feel like f*gs just because they want to have nice-looking bodies...Gay people are fighting the same kind of stereotyping that bodybuilders are: People have certain misconceptions about them just as they do about us. Well, I have absolutely no hang-ups about the f*g business.

Finally, Schwarzenegger copped to drug use:

Yes, grass and hash--no hard drugs. But the point is that I do what I feel like doing. I'm not on a health kick.

When the interview became a mild scandal during the campaign, Schwarzenegger claimed not to remember giving it. "I never lived my life to be a politician," he added. "I never lived my life to be the governor of California."

Schwarzenegger Got Into Transcendental Meditation

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Conan The Barbarian' (1983). Source: IMDB

Created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a meditation strategy that gained attention in the '60s thanks to celebrity practitioners that included The Beatles. It continued to expand its following in the '70s, reaching an estimated one million practitioners by the '80s.

As Schwarzenegger was becoming richer and more famous, his life was growing stress-ridden and complex. A friend who had become a TM instructor introduced him to meditation techniques, and Arnie spent a year deliberately using them on a daily basis. He was bundling all his problems and concerns together, which made it difficult for him to make progress on any one of them. He explained in 2015:

I did 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, and I would say within 14 days or three weeks, I got to the point where I could really disconnect my mind ... and learn how to focus more and calm down.

After a year, Schwarzenegger dropped the regular TM habit, but continued to use something like it to navigate the challenges he faces in his multifaceted existence as a celebrity, actor, investor, entrepreneur, and politician. "Even today, I still benefit from [the year of TM] because I don't merge and bring things together and see everything as one big problem."

Tags: Arnold Schwarzenegger | Pumping Iron | Conan The Barbarian

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!