Updated: Aug 29
How Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding helped me dream big and escape mediocrity.
“The worst thing I could be is ordinary. I’d hate that.”
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
“Just opening up the book and looking at a couple of the photos is going to make you want to march to that squat rack and destroy the gym.”
- Zach Even – Esh - Strength Coach and Host of “Iron Roots” Podcast
At 12, I was bullied. At 13, I was cut. At 14, I made the team because there were no cuts. At 15, I felt like your average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill American teenager -- and I hated it. I wanted more.
I aspired to stand out, to be great at something… at anything. When I discovered weight training (covered in my Drawn to Iron series), I had finally found “my thing.” But I had no real plan for this new thing. What I needed was direction – a way to maximize my potential in this new thing.
At 15, I found that direction. While buying a dogfood sized bag of weight gain powder at a local health food store, I glanced at the small magazine rack and eyed a giant paperback the size of a big city phone book. Stepping closer, I picked it up, felt its weight, and flipped through the pages. At that moment, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding entered my life.
Checking the price on the back ($19.99), I had just enough cash in my wallet to buy the book, plus my weight gainer. Getting home, I opened Arnold's tome and read this: “Bodybuilding changes you. It makes you feel better about yourself, and it changes the way people treat you.”
That’s all I needed...
As the last lights of my Rhode Island house went dark each night, my bedroom lamp stayed on. Lying in bed, flipping through the pages of this mesmerizing book, I’d stare at photographs of Arnold and his Venice Beach barbarians hammering through workouts, holding poses, and chasing dreams. With every inspiring photo and passage, my teenage spirit brightened. I saw a way forward. Following Arnold’s blueprint, I could look, feel, and be different. And maybe, just maybe, I could be great at something.
The right book at the right time can change how you see the world and yourself. It does this by offering you alternatives to the status quo. Through clarity and inspiration, a great book can show you what's possible (in any endeavor). Through these possibilities, a great book can change your life. Here's how Arnold's book changed mine.
Find a Tribe (Fellowship)
With more than 850 photographs in his book, you might be surprised to know that many aren’t of Arnold. They’re of his friends -- the guys whom he ate with, trained with, and competed against. There’s Arnold’s best friend and training partner, Franco “the Sardinian Strongman” Columbu. There’s also Sergio “the Myth” Olivia, Dave “the Blond Bomber” Draper, Robby “the Black Prince” Robinson, Tom “the Quadfather” Platz, and many more. Pumping iron at the original Gold's Gym in 1970s Venice Beach, these guys were a gang of muscular misfits at a time when few people lifted weights at all. This was the Golden Age of bodybuilding, and Arnold’s book pulls you right into it.
In one passage, he writes about a beautiful morning in LA, so beautiful that when he arrived at the gym, “the sun came through the clouds… [and] I lost all my motivation to train.” But then, Arnold explains, “I heard weights being clanged together inside the gym… I saw Jesup Wilkosz working his abs, Ken Waller doing shoulders… Franco Columbu benching more than 400 pounds. Their example,” he continues, “sucked me in.”
When discussing training partners and the guys at the gym, Arnold encourages training partners to "feed off each other's energy, creating the kind of intensity that will push you beyond your limits." In sum, he writes, inside the gym, "you and your training partners should create your own little world in which anything is possible."
At 15, I wanted that "little world" inside the gym Arnold described. Four years later I got it. Inside the spectacular Naval Academy Football Team weight room, I trained with some true savages -- young men who benched 400, squatted 600, and loved doing it. Inside that gym, screaming "one more rep" for each other, I found what I had been looking for: a brotherhood.
For the teenage me, Arnold’s book added clarity to the type of men I wanted in my life; the same type of men he trained with in Venice Beach twenty years before: a barbarian brotherhood who encouraged me, cared for me, and rooted for my success.
I manifested my iron tribe by following Arnold’s blueprint: to work my ass off and have a vision “in which any physical feat is possible, and all challenges can be overcome.” By doing this, I created opportunities for myself (i.e. like playing college football) and the law of attraction did the rest.
Find a Hero (Wonder)
Growing up in Austria, Arnold tells the story of his hero and mentor, Reg Park. Twenty ears older than Arnold, Park was a British bodybuilding champion and actor in “sword and sandal” movies throughout the early 1960s. When Arnold began weight training in his early teens, he recalls seeing a magazine with Park on the cover from his movie, “Hercules.” Right away, Arnold thought, “this is it!”
Arnold soon taped magazine photos of Park onto his bedroom wall. He watched all Park’s movies and emulated his hero’s training regime. Late into the night, Arnold flipped through the muscle magazines and stared at the photos of Park and other bodybuilders on his wall. Through Park's inspiration, the young Arnold clarified a vision for his life. He would become a champion bodybuilder. He would then move to America, become a famous actor, and make his fortune. When he told people in post-war Austria about his plan, they laughed at him. He didn’t care. His vision was too powerful to care about the opinions of others. Inspired by his hero, Reg Park, Arnold began to see bodybuilding as a catalyst for a lifetime of success.
Consider this alternate history: Had Park never pursued bodybuilding and acting, Arnold would have (maybe) found another hero and gone in another direction. Had Arnold listened to his father and other mediocre people, instead of emulating strong men like Park, my life would have been different too. Thankfully, Arnold ignored the naysayers and followed his heart. As a result of the chain of events that followed, I came upon Arnold’s book at a health food store in Middletown, Rhode Island in 1992. In doing so, I gained clarity and took control of my life. Just like my hero, and his hero before him, lifting weights became my catalyst for success.
Had I never followed my hero’s blueprint with piston-pumping intensity, I would have never been all-state in football, never recruited to play college football, never attended the Naval Academy, never become a Marine officer, never met Gavin de Becker, and never created The Barbarian in You blog. I’d be living somewhere else, married to someone else, and doing something else as a profession and as an artist. Because I found this special book, I discovered a hero to emulate, and the follow the example he provided. At just 15-years-old, my life forever swerved. Weight training was my starting point on that swerve, and all that followed was because of it.
Find a Way (Vigor)
In his Encyclopedia, Arnold mentions his stint in the Austrian Army. Serving his mandatory one-year enlistment as a tank driver, 18-year-old Private Schwarzenegger often worked fifteen hours a day, driving the tank, pumping fuel with a hand crank, and performing endless maintenance on his steel monster. During a six-week field operation by the Czech border, Arnold writes that reveille sounded each morning at 6am. But not for Arnold. At 5am, he unzipped his sleeping bag, grabbed a flashlight, and made his way to the tool compartment on the back of his tank. Dispersed within all the wrenches and hammers were Arnold’s dumbbells and barbells. For the next hour, while the other soldiers slept, Arnold jacked steel with the clarity of a man with a plan. Fifteen hours later, just before taps, he’d train again for another hour. Beneath the black Austrian sky, early in the morning and late into the night, Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed and pulled his way towards greatness.
Reading this at 15, I embraced Arnold’s lesson: Find a Way. As a good friend of mine often says, “All your excuses are lies.” If you care enough, you get it done.
When I commanded a mortar platoon in the Marine Corps, I inherited ten Humvees. No longer foot mobile infantry, the first thing I thought was, “Now I can take my weights to the field!” I soon found a hard plastic crate, dumped my dumbbell weights inside of it, and stored that crate in the back of my Humvee. From the hills of Camp Pendleton to the deserts of 29 Palms, UAE, and Iraq, I always found a way to work out.
Years later as a civilian, I continued to heed Arnold’s advice to always find a way. During the first decade of my private security career, I worked like a dog, putting in long hours at the office. Now driving a Toyota instead of a Humvee, I kept kettlebells in my car at all times. At around 7:00pm each night after the other employees had gone home, I’d change out of my suit and into my workout clothes. I’d then walk to my car, unload my weights, and rip through a workout on the parking lot asphalt. I still recall a night when my boss caught me training, heaving kettlebells and grunting like an ogre. He just looked at me, shook his head, and kept walking to his car. Lifting weights in your office parking lot while others eat dinner is not normal behavior. Which, of course, is why I did it. Feeling like a misfit, a freak, and different from most people is how I want to feel. Like Arnold said, "The worst thing I could be is ordinary. I’d hate that.”
Since opening Arnold’s illustrated masterpiece more than three decades ago, I’ve done all I can to escape normal. Whenever I hatch a plan – whether its a late night lift in the parking lot or starting the “Barbarian in You” blog – I can still hear Arnold whispering, “do it.”
The Barbarian Way
Arnold’s message of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship liberated me from an ordinary existence. He taught me to be different, to go against the grain, to do what I’m drawn to do. In a world sick with excuses, I’m grateful that my hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, showed me the barbarian way.
It’s never too late, barbarians. So read books, watch movies, and listen to songs that inspire you to pursue your “drawn to” activity -- whatever it may be. Because those authors, artists, and athletes you admire can help awaken that happy little savage living inside you who wants nothing more than for you to be exceptional.
Need a little motivation? Check out two of my favorite videos from Arnold:
1. “I’m Built Different – Dominate Every Goal.” (10 min.) Arnold discuses the importance of having a Vision for your life.
2. Arnold’s Blueprint -- ESPN 30 for 30 mini-documentary. (10 min.) Describes the time he went AWOL from his Army unit to win the Junior Mr. Europe. Despite restrictions and obstacles, Arnold still found a way to become a champion. This attack philosophy guided him for the rest of his life.
3. Pumping Iron. (1hr, 25min) My favorite documentary of all time. Filmed in 1975, watch Arnold train, meet his barbarian friends, and feel his ambition as he destroys Lou "the Incredible Hulk" Ferrigno at the Mr. Olympia.