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10 Best Old School Exercises for a Classic Workout Routine

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Last updated: May 8, 2023

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

  • Old-school bodybuilding focused mainly on using just dumbbells and barbells and coming up with clever ways to target different muscle groups.
  • From simple calf raise to sissy squats, you can use a mix of free weight and bodyweight exercises to achieve a lot of bulking.
  • The more you focus on lifting heavy weights with great form, the better the results will be.

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

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.

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 [1].

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.

With 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.

This will transfer most of the strain on the quads both as you lower down and push back up again [2].

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.

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

Get comfortable at 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 [3].

“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 [4].

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.

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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 and 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 it can be safer than bent-over dumbbell rows, as the setup helps you maintain a 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.

Start Including Some Old-School Bodybuilding Techniques

If you start adding some or all of the above old-school exercises to your weekly workout plan, you’ll find that they can have an even better effect than relying on machines.

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

These can boost your strength and stamina enough to add a few more pounds to each set and get to your goals faster.


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