The Golden Era of Bodybuilding: Why Did They Look Better?

The golden era of bodybuilding is widely believed to have been from the 1950s to the 1970s. During these years, the greatest physiques to ever grace the sport were sculpted and are still widely coveted today.

During this time, bodybuilders had huge muscles, tiny waists, and perfect symmetry, unlike some bodybuilders today who look 8 months pregnant with twins.

Almost everyone in bodybuilding can agree that physiques from these eras were timeless.

During the golden era, bodybuilders would pop desiccated liver tablets like they were candy while chugging quarts of milk on Muscle Beach.

Pumping and tanning simultaneously in the land of opportunity—what a life!

Why Golden Era Bodybuilders Looked Better

Despite knowledge supposedly evolving in regards to nutrition, supplements, and workouts, many people don’t want to look like modern-day bodybuilders. In comparison, they are significantly bigger than those of the golden era, while still looking more bloated and unhealthy than their predecessors.

The reason for this is thought to be different steroids and different dosages used.

Back then, steroids such as dianabol, deca durabolin and primobolan were popular. These compounds would produce huge muscle gains without excessive androgenic effects. Thus, bodybuilders could remain looking relatively natural (with smooth muscles) while also keeping their hair intact.

steve reeves

Many bodybuilders had full heads of hair during the golden era (Steve Reeves)

Different “Supplements”

arnold biceps

Today, compounds such as trenbolone, anadrol and HGH are more commonly used in combination with the older steroids.

Increased androgenic steroids like tren, accelerate hair loss on the scalp, hence why bodybuilders today are often bald. Modern bodybuilders’ traps and deltoids also blow up more today, creating a more freakish look.

This is due to these muscles having a higher number of androgen receptors (1), thus making them more susceptible to muscle hypertrophy via the use of androgenic steroids.

No HGH, No Gut

zane vacuum

The inclusion of HGH and insulin in cycles during the 1980’s had a negative effect on aesthetics. These two compounds helped produce the first mass monsters, with Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman coming onto the scene.

However, the downside to this extra mass from HGH and insulin was the enlargement of the intestines and increased visceral fat, resulting in distended stomachs (known as HGH guts).

In comparison, a typical IFBB bodybuilder today would be embarrassed to stand against people like Frank Zane, who would often highlight their tiny midsections by performing stomach vacuums when posing.

Lower Dosages

dbol bottle
The dosages bodybuilders would take back then were also thought to be much less, with Arnold saying that some bodybuilders “may take 3 x dianabol (tablets) per day” (2).

With dbol tablets originally being in 5mg doses, this translates to 15mg per day. This is also the maximum dose recommended by doctors at the time, who would prescribe dianabol to bodybuilders.

However, bodybuilders today often take doses as high as 50–100 mg a day. Thus, they are thought to be taking up to 7 times the dose as classic bodybuilders.

Inevitably, taking more of any steroid will lead to more health complications, hence why bodybuilders such as Arnold are still alive now at 72 years of age and in relatively good health. In contrast, it’s common for modern IFBB bodybuilders to die more prematurely (3).

Studies have also shown that when mice were exposed to steroids, their lifespan decreased (4). They also found that higher doses resulted in a lower life expectancy.

Different Training Philosophy

old school squats

Back in the golden era, bodybuilders would train more instinctively. For example, some bodybuilders’ workouts would last for several hours. Today, this would be labeled as ‘overtraining‘ and is largely avoided; however, they proved it worked.

This was a method used by Arnold to help bring up lagging body parts, such as his calves.

Tom Platz was also known to squat for up to 4 hours, consequently developing the greatest legs in bodybuilding.

Back then, there were fewer studies done on the human body, so they would be the guinea pigs themselves, experimenting with what worked and what didn’t. This training mentality is almost extinct today, where people will only try a routine if it’s been validated by a study or has some scientific explanation behind it from a guru.

Old School Workouts

Serge Nubret

Back then, the gyms were a lot smaller, so they had a lot of dumbbells and barbells and fewer machines. This unknowingly worked to their advantage, forcing them to stick to free-weight movements, proven to be more effective for building strength and mass than machine-assisted exercises (5).

Compound exercises such as deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows, squats, and overhead presses were commonly performed.

Isolation exercises were also used for additional growth and sculpting. They utilized similar rep ranges as the pros today; however, their intensity was thought to be higher. Arnold stated that he’d been sick in a gym before on the documentary Pumping Iron, giving some insight as to how hard they trained.

More Golden Era Photos

franco and arnold

Franco Columbu and Arnold were rivals but best friends. Columbu perhaps had better conditioning; however, he lost out to Arnold on the overall Sandow trophy due to the Austrian Oak having more mass.

mike mentzer

Mike Mentzer is one of the few bodybuilders to get a perfect 300 score during the Mr. Olympia (6). He was a keen advocate of the heavy-duty training system, lifting heavy weights intensely for short periods of time, which was later adopted by Dorian Yates.

1974 olympia

This was the biggest version of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1974 Mr. Olympia, where he combined huge mass with sharp conditioning.

sergio oliva

Sergio Oliva, aka the myth, showed off some of the greatest arms that ever belonged to bodybuilding. The only man to ever beat Arnold in Mr. Olympia.

lou ferrigno arnie

Lou Ferrigno is making Arnold look small (above).

francis benfatto

Francis Benfatto is one of the most aesthetic bodybuilders of all time. He appeared a little later in the 80’s; however, he kept the classic physique in an era where steroid guts were starting to appear left, right, and center.

franco columbo

Franco Columbu chalked up prior to deadlifting. Franco, although only 5 ft. 5 and only 185 pounds, was one of the strongest bodybuilders around.

Serge Nubret, nicknamed the black panther, was one of the most ripped and aesthetic-looking bodybuilders in the 1970s.


golden era
Bodybuilders from the golden era subjectively looked better to many spectators due to a prioritization of aesthetics over mass.

Today, higher dosages of the same anabolic steroids are administered, combined with additional (and more potent) AAS. Thus, modern bodybuilders possess a bigger, yet more synthetic look, which today’s judges reward. Bodybuilders today consequently experience increased side effects from non-therapeutic dosages, causing various health complications and earlier deaths.

Who was your favourite golden-era bodybuilder? Get in touch with us and let us know.







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