Old School Arm Training Secrets: John McWilliams's Arm Training Routine

Old-School Arm Training Secrets: John McWilliams’s Arm Routine

     My most popular posts here at Integral Strength typically fall into two categories: old-school bodybuilding programs or serious strength and power routines.
     With that in mind, I thought I would do a series of articles on various old-school lifters and bodybuilders (the two overlapped once-upon-a-time), and on various old-school methods for training different bodyparts or lifts.  Thus, this first entry is on old-school arm training, but others will be on old-school chest, shoulders, back, legs, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, power cleans, etc.  And for this first entry, I decided upon an old-school bodybuilder cum powerlifter that many of you may never have heard of: John McWilliams.
McWilliams's back double-biceps pose.  He was impressive even in his 40s.

     When I first came across an article about McWilliams (written by Gene Mozee) in the early ‘90s, I had certainly never heard of him, despite the fact that I already had immersed myself in the programs of many other old-time bodybuilders.  In the 1950’s, McWilliams built arms that stretched the tape at over 20 inches.  That’s absolutely massive when you consider the decade his muscles were built—before the advent of rampant steroid use, and when most of the biggest arms on the planet were around 17 inches.
     When “the Myth” Sergio Oliva saw John McWilliams’s physique, he remarked that his arms were “too big”, and that’s saying something when you consider the fact that Oliva had some of the biggest and best arms in the history of bodybuilding.
     Here’s what Mozee had to say about McWilliams and his massive pair of “guns”:
     In 1951, when I first began bodybuilding, I used to go to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California, every day during summer vacation and on weekends during the rest of the year. The superstars of that era – Steve Reeves, Armand Tanny, John Farbotnik, Marvin Eder, George Eiferman, Malcomb Brenner, Joe Sanceri, Clark Coffee, Ed Fury, Joe Gold and Zabo Koszewski, among others – were always there, and you could watch them train at the beach or at Vic Tanny’s famous gym, which was just a couple of blocks away.
     Today’s stars are practically unapproachable, but the atmosphere was totally different in those days. The champs and Muscle Beach regulars were accessible and easy to get to know. Once they understood that you were sincere and that you weren’t a flake who was wasting their time, they would freely give helpful training advice. My brother George and I got a lot of workout ideas and routines that way.
     There will never be another era like that in bodybuilding. From 1950 to 1980 I met almost every great bodybuilder in the world. I had the opportunity to interview them and discuss their training and nutrition secrets, and I even had the opportunity to train with several of those great superstars. It helped me to build 20-inch arms at a bodyweight of 220 pounds and bench press 455 in strict form.
     In 1956, I bought the Pasadena Gym from Farbotnik, who held the titles of Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe. That’s when I began to use all of the great training techniques and exercise routines that I learned from Reeves, Eiferman, Jan Dellinger, Clancy Ross, Vince Gironda, Bill Pearl, Farbotnik, Sanceri and many others on my clients. We produced dozens of pro football players, track and field record holders, baseball and basketball stars and weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding champions.
    One of the greatest physique athletes of the pre-steroid era was John McWilliams. It’s believed that McWilliams and Bud Counts were the first bodybuilders to have arms that measured more than 20 inches cold. John was also one of the first men in the world to bench press 500 pounds. I met him at a powerlifting meet in San Diego. At the moment he was working as the training director of George and Beverly Crowie’s gym in the San Diego area. He had most of the top stars of the Chargers football team under his guidance, including All-Pros Jack Kemp, Keith Lincoln and Ron Mix.
     McWilliams was more than 40 years old at the time, and he’d trimmed down to a bodyweight of 186 pounds. Bill Pearl’s mentor, the immortal Leo Stern, measured John’s arm at 19 ¼ inches cold, his chest at 52 ½ inches and his waist at 31 inches. These are phenomenal numbers for someone who weighs 186 pounds, and he got them without steroids or the benefit of today’s nutritional supplements.
     John and I became friends, and he described one of his favorite routines for building more massive upper arms. Not only did I use this workout myself, but I put 37 members of my gym on it. The average gain was 1¼ inches in six weeks.
     So, what were McWilliams’s secrets for building such massive arm muscles in such an era?  Read on.
Train for the Pump
     One of the more popular ways of training that most old-school bodybuilders followed was something often referred to as “chasing the pump.”  The workouts were frequently performed with minimum rest periods between sets and plenty of volume to boot.  This, obviously, results in a large pump in the arm muscles.
     The better the pump—or so it was believed—the better chances that the workout would result in muscle growth.
     In order to keep rest periods between sets to a minimum, McWilliams liked to employ giant sets, where he would perform a minimum of 4 different exercises consecutively—working both his triceps and his biceps—until his entire arms were engorged to the maximum.  Here is McWilliams’s favorite arm routine:
Giant set

Barbell pullovers 2 x 12

Close-grip bench presses 2 x 12

Barbell pullovers 2 x 6

Close-grip bench presses 2 x 6

Giant set

Barbell curls 3 x 12

Triceps presses 3 x 12

Dumbbell curls 3 x 10

Dumbbell triceps presses 3 x 10

Lying barbell triceps extensions 3 x 12

Close-grip bench presses 3x10*

One-arm kickbacks 2 x 20**

*Go right into the next exercise without taking any rest

**Per arm
Train Antagonistic Muscle Groups Together
     Notice something else about McWilliams’ program?  He liked to train his entire arm in a single workout.  But he wasn’t alone.  Most old-school bodybuilders—Arnold Schwarzenegger among them—believed that the most muscle growth occurred when blood (the pump) could be localized among antagonizing muscle groups.  And arms respond particularly well to this technique.
Arnold's arms weren't too shabby, either.

Train the Triceps!
     Ask the average lifter or gym rat what he does for his arm routine, and he’ll probably spit out the usual about barbell curls, dumbbell curls, concentration curls, etc.  The problem is that the bicep muscle only makes up about 1/3 of your total arm mass (or should!)—the rest is all triceps.
     McWilliams’s triceps were massive (I was going to say something clichéd about them even needing their own zip code, but I’ll refrain).  In fact, as big as his biceps were, it was his massive tris that accounted for his 20-inch arms.  (Of course, not all old-timers trained in quite as intelligent of a manner—even Arnold’s triceps were a little small compared to his peaked, almost otherworldly biceps.)
     If you’ve been neglecting your triceps, and would like a pair of “guns” that stretch your shirt-sleeves, then try the below arm routine.  I used one similar to this to much success when I was younger, and it meets all of the criteria that McWilliams—and the rest of the old-school arm trainers—would have adhered to.

  • Barbell Curls: 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4 reps.  Take several minutes between sets so that you can push each set close to your “limit”—only leave about one rep “in the tank”, so to speak.  Add weight with each subsequent set.
  • Close-Grip Bench Presses: 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4 reps.  Use the same technique as the barbell curls.
  • Tri-Set:
    • Dips: 3 x 10
    • Standing Dumbbell Curls: 3 x 10
    • Skullcrushers: 3 x 10
  • Tri-Set:
    • Bench Dips: 3 x 20
    • Concentration Curls: 3 x 15
    • Kickbacks: 3 x 20

Last But Not Least: Feed the Biceps (and Triceps) Beast!
     John McWilliams had three fundamentals that he lived—and trained—by:
1)    consistent hard training
proper nutrition, including supplements
3)    sufficient rest, relaxation and growth promoting sleep.
     I can’t stress the importance of all three of these enough, but if I had to pick one that is most important when trying to add muscle mass, I would pick #2.  You can’t grow big and strong without eating enough quality, muscle-building nutrients.  Consume at least 12x your bodyweight in calories each, and every, day, and make sure you consume—at the minimum—one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
     For every 10 pounds of muscle that you gain, you can expect 1 to 1 and ½ inches to your arm girth!  So get gaining, and get growing those biceps and triceps muscles.


  1. Hi!

    Is it mistake in a routine bellow about Barbell Pullovers? Probably it was meant Barbell curls?

    >>> Here is McWilliams’s favorite arm routine:
    >>> Giant set

    >>> Barbell pullovers 2 x 12

    >>> Close-grip bench presses 2 x 12

    >>> Barbell pullovers 2 x 6

    >>> Close-grip bench presses 2 x 6

  2. Nope, it means barbell pullovers. For many old-timers, pullovers were decidedly NOT a back exercise. They were used to expand the rib cage - whether this can actually occur, of course, has always been up for debate - and, thus, they were regularly a part of chest routines, arm routines, squat routines; you name it.

    In this case, they were meant to work the triceps - which is the reason this is one "giant set" of 4 back-to-back triceps exercises.

    If you haven't used them lately, pullovers are great triceps builders - although, if it was me, I would substitute barbell pullovers and presses - perhaps the ultimate triceps exercise.

  3. Thanks for an answer. That's definitely some interesting information.

    Could you please also clarify how often that routines were used back then? Once a week, twice a week or may be even more often?

    Also was the arms training combined with some other exercises? I heard that one of the old-time methodics was training arms after high rep squats (3x20 for example).

  4. At least 2x per week, although most "old-timers" (at least of McWilliams's era) would have trained each muscle group about 3x weekly. Usually, the body was split two-ways, training one half of the body one day, and then repeating the next day with the remainder of the body, and (typically) only one day off during the week.

    Arms were combined with whatever other bodyparts were trained that day, and, yes, training arms after high-rep squats would have been a frequent tactic.

  5. An exercise I learned many years ago from Mr Bob Klez (in the book Pumping Iron) down at the Lawrence Y) was the pullover and press. Where you rest a moderate weight barbell on you chest do a bent arm pullover return to your chest then press it over your chest bring it back to your chest. That's 1 rep. 10 reps will have your triceps smokin'.

  6. This is really interesting blog on arm training projects, You are a very skilled blogger. I've joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I've shared your web site in my social networks! Thank You!!!


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