The Trick Arnold Schwarzenegger Used To Defeat His Bodybuilding Competitors

Having established himself as a blockbuster Hollywood actor and, later, the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger's glorious career as a bodybuilder between the late 1960s and early 1970s may not be at the forefront of the minds of his many fans. After becoming a notable amateur in his early years in Austria, Arnie relocated to the U.S. to make his name on the biggest bodybuilding circuit in the world.

Between 1970 and 1975, he achieved the astonishing feat of claiming the coveted and prestigious Mr. Olympia title six times running, then topping it all by coming out of retirement to reclaim the Olympia in 1980. His physical prowess is, of course, out of the question. In his prime, he had 22-inch arms, a 57-inch chest, and a 30-inch waist, earning him the nickname "the Austrian Oak" (via Greatest Physiques). But was he really so far ahead of his competitors in terms of physicality? Arguably not, and in fact, Arnie himself has admitted on several occasions that psychology — and what he terms "psychological warfare" — was key throughout his career to help him get the edge over his competitors.

Bodybuilding and confidence

The topic of psychological warfare in Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding career gained a great deal of attention in 2015 when he was a guest on the popular podcast "The Tim Ferriss Show." In the interview, Ferriss asks Arnie about his trademark confidence, and how that helped propel him through his career. The former bodybuilder attributes his confidence to his "vision," and outlines a practice of positive visualization: the fact was that each thing he had to do to be a champion was a little step toward claiming the title. As a result, he felt easy in the knowledge that if he simply fulfilled his obligations he would be able to realize the image of himself succeeding that existed in his mind. 

Therefore, on the day of the championship, he would appear more at ease than the other competitors, adding to his allure as a bodybuilder. Ferriss notes that out of all the young competitors in footage of his first bodybuilding event, Schwarzenegger looked the most relaxed and self-assured, as though he knows he is already the champion, whereas the rest are plagued with self-doubt.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's psychological warfare

Arnold Schwarzenegger drew much of his confidence from positive thinking and visualization, but he admits too in his "The Tim Ferriss Show" interview that he was also willing to get into competitors' heads in any way that could make them feel "inferior" to give himself the edge while bodybuilding.

Though his interview with Ferriss has brought Arnie's willingness to use gamesmanship to the fore, the bodybuilding legend has long discussed the importance of employing "psychological warfare" to overcome rivals, and even dedicates a chapter to the art of playing mind games in his book, "The Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding." In it, Arnie recounts an incident where he told jokes to a competitor on stage to throw him off when he was striking poses and another incident where he told a fellow bodybuilder that he'd overheard judges questioning whether he was big enough for the weight class, which shattered the man's confidence.

One passage in the best-selling book stands out as Arnie's justification for the gamesmanship or psychological warfare that he was so willing to engage in: "​​When you think about it, anyone who wishes to claim the title of champion should be the master of his own mind as well as of his sport. If he isn't, and your psyching him out throws him, then he has no business complaining" (via "The Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding").