10 Best Old School Exercises for a Classic Workout Routine

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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As a personal trainer, I have a professional interest in studying how bodybuilders 50-plus years ago achieved their bulk without half the equipment that we have these days in gyms.

And when you take a look at old-school exercises, you can see how effective they must have been.

And that’s why our team decided to start resurrecting some of those workouts.

We got together with seven other fitness coaches and tried out some forgotten exercise movements to see which ones would be the most effective.

Here is what our trials and testing revealed.

Quick Summary

  • To achieve a classic physique reminiscent of 50s bodybuilders, incorporate old-school exercises like wide-grip chin-ups, sissy squats, and EZ bar preacher curls into your workout routine.
  • The workout includes full-body exercises suitable for any workout day and can be enhanced with high-quality pre-workouts for better results.
  • A study in the Open Access Journal for Life and Environment Research found that EZ bar preacher curls (an old-school exercise) induced the highest EMG activity in the biceps brachii and brachioradialis muscles, with a 7% increase over barbell curls and 11% over dumbbell curls.
  • As a personal trainer, I've found these old-school exercises not only effective in building muscle but also in maintaining a balanced physique, avoiding the 'lollipop effect' of disproportionate upper and lower body development.

Our Best Old-School Exercises

Performing chin ups an old school exercise

Let me show you the old-school bodybuilding workout routine we have been testing for a couple of weeks.

Note that this is a full-body workout, but you could always pick and choose the exercises for your different workout days.

I would also recommend adding one of the high-quality pre-workouts that we extensively tested to your routine.

1. Wide-Grip Chin-Ups

You hardly see anyone do wide-grip chins at the gym anymore.

In fact, I hardly see anyone use the pull-up bars at all.

But this is a fantastic way to engage your upper arms, shoulders, and back muscles.

According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, wide-grip chin-ups have been shown to activate the latissimus dorsi to a greater degree than other variations of pull-ups [1].

Yet, be careful with technique, as this exercise has also been implicated in higher incidences of shoulder pathology.

Set up your hands more than shoulder-width apart, and then do as many pull-ups as you can.

Once you get to more than 20, I would suggest adding a light weight.

It’s also a great idea to follow these sets with push-ups or a bench press routine.

You’ll get the whole push-and-pull workout that can add maximum time under tension for better bulking effects, based on the Journal of Physiology study [2].

2. Sissy Squats

Man doing sissy squats in isolated background

This is very different from doing barbell squats, but I still recommend heading to the squat rack.

Your starting position is to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold on to an Olympic plate on your chest.

On the other hand, hold onto the frame of the rack for support.

Now squat down while leaning back as far as you can and push your hips forward.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, this will transfer most of the strain to the quads both as you lower down and push back up again [3].

3. Decline Push-Ups

Instead of doing a weighted push-up, a lot of old-school bodybuilders took the decline push-ups to the extreme.

Start by getting into a plank position with your arms straight and feet on a workout bench.

Now slowly lower your chest down as far as you can and push back up again.

You can even hold the bottom position for a second to add more strain.

Even the triceps of some of our bigger team members came under some serious strain.

And the higher you raise your feet, the better the effect will be.

4. EZ Bar Preacher Curls

Perfroming EZ bar preacher curls

Here is one of my favorite upper arm workouts, and if you’re one of my clients, then you’ll be used to doing these.

A study published in the Open Access Journal for Life and Environment Research found that the EZ curl variant elicited the highest EMG activity in the biceps brachii and brachioradialis muscles, showing a 7% increase compared to the barbell curl and an 11% increase over the dumbbell curl [4].

Grab an easy bar and load it up with enough weight to limit your reps to less than eight.

Get comfortable on the preacher pad and adjust it to your height before you get started.

Slowly pull the bar up until your forearms are vertical, and then lower it back down again.

Eight reps of preacher curls should bring on serious burning sensations, and you want to struggle to complete the last one.

5. Straight Barbell Rows

It doesn't get much more traditional than this rowing exercise.

You can load up the Olympic bar with heavy plates and then lift it up into a standing position at the top of a deadlift.

From here, pull the bar up to your chest and slowly lower it back down again.

It’s a simple but highly effective movement that will target your delts and traps.

And when you avoid a lighter weight, you can achieve much greater hypertrophy than with a cable rowing machine, as stated in WebMD [5].

“Hypertrophy training focuses mostly on developing your muscles. You’ll focus on increasing the size of your muscle fibers, developing large muscles in areas that you work out the most.“

- Dan Brennan, MD

6. Bench Presses

Doing bench press inside gym

Athletes often get carried away with doing incline and decline bench presses, but sometimes it’s best to go back to basics.

What I generally suggest is that bodybuilders should work on their form and a full range of motion before making changes [6].

If you can lower the bar down to your chest slowly and push it back up slowly as well, with the movement taking 5-7 seconds, then you’ll achieve more than that by piling on more weight and trying to rush the reps.

Additionally, as a study from Plos One showed, unstable loads may increase the muscle activation of the deltoid posterior, biceps brachii, and external oblique [7].

Related Articles:

7. Calf Raises

One thing I’ve always found when looking at old-school bodybuilding videos from the 60s and 70s is that those athletes focused on their legs a lot more than people do these days.

And doing calf raises with variations of toes pointing inward and outward is one of the best ways to avoid the lollipop effect of skinny legs and a bulky upper body.

8. Flat Bench Dumbbell Flyes

Flat bench dumbbell flyes

Rather than head to a chest machine, get yourself set up on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand.

With your arms extended above you, slowly lower the weights down to each side.

The slower you make this move, the more strain you’ll put on your chest muscles.

And that’s how bodybuilders used to get those huge pecs.

9. T-Bar Rows

This is another simple setup using an Olympic bar with weight plates only on one end.

Place the bar between your legs and slightly bend down to grab hold of it with both hands. Pull up the bar as close to your chest as possible and then lower it down again.

It’s a great way to stretch out the lats during the movement and pile on a heavy load for maximum effect.

I also like T-bar rows as they can be safer than bent-over dumbbell rows, and the setup helps you maintain better spine alignment.

10. Cross Bench Pullovers

Cross Bench Pullovers

This is a variation of the traditional one-arm extension, and I prefer doing it with both hands on a heavy dumbbell.

Lay down on a bench or lean up against the side of it with your back.

Bring the dumbbell up and over your head until your chest is fully stretched out.

Now pull the dumbbell back up over your chest while keeping your arms straight. It’s a fantastic way to shape your upper pecs.


How Do You Train For Old-School Physique?

You train for an old-school physique by mainly focusing on free-weight exercises with heavy loads. Bodybuilders in the 60s didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of machines as we have now, but they were still able to achieve amazing results with just weights.

Did Old-School Bodybuilders Do Cardio?

No, most old-school bodybuilders didn’t do cardio. They heavily focused on weight lifting with a mix of isolation and compound exercises that allowed them to carefully reshape their physique.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548150/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22816-quad-muscles
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6047503/
  5. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/difference-between-strength-hypertrophy
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6977096/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7497978/
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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