Old School Bodybuilding Diets

Are you completely overwhelmed with the amount of information available regarding nutrition for bodybuilders? You’re absolutely not alone!

Modern bodybuilders have access to nutritional sciences, supplements, and food varieties far exceeding that of their old school counterparts. Social media, streaming fitness programs, and global marketing is also powerful for providing nutritional information to anyone who wants it.

Old school bodybuilders relied heavily on word-of-mouth information about how to eat for training. They also experimented a great deal in order to find out what food types and amounts worked for them.

Still, bodybuilders of the past achieved miraculous physiques.

Past vs. Present: Nutrition Philosophy

One mantra has pervaded bodybuilding no matter what era is in focus. That is, nutrition should be fuel for all stages of building muscle.

The foods you choose should be balanced to provide power during workouts, materials for muscles as they repair, and stored energy for maintaining your physique. To a bodybuilder of the past, this usually meant one thing – eat like crazy.

To a modern bodybuilder, nutrition has become a little more complex. Correct percentages of macro and micro nutrients should be eaten according to body type, athletic goal, and muscle growth timeline.

Good diets should also work in synergy with any supplementation. These include pre-workout mixtures, meal replacement shakes, and recovery supplements.

Again, if you are a little confused, it’s okay. Let’s look a little deeper into the important facets of a bodybuilder’s diet.

What is the diet of a bodybuilder?

The goal of bodybuilding has always been to grow the largest muscles, but also to retain athletic symmetry and function. This means fueling the body to support its natural growth cycles.

The problem is that bodybuilders come in all different shapes, genetic types, and weight classes.

Another way to think about this is to compare two bodybuilders of the past. Let’s compare John Grimek and Lou Ferrigno.

Grimek, Mr. USA 1949, was 5’ 8”, and he weighed 195 pounds. His favorite diet foods were red meat, whole milk, raisins, and honey. Still, he had 19” arms, and he squatted more than 400 pounds.

Ferrigno, at his peak, was 6’ 5” and weighed 295 pounds. His favorite diet was filled with eggs, milk, nuts, and fruit. He ate at least six meals each day to fuel his massive build.

Both of these athletes had similar diets. The big differences were food timing and caloric amounts.

Like many old school bodybuilders, Grimek ate for leanness and strength. He was probably fueled with 3000-4000 calories per day.

In contrast, Ferrigno ate exclusively for mass. He easily ate twice as much as Grimek.

What is the best bodybuilding diet?

The best bodybuilding diet is one that suits the goals and genetics of the individual bodybuilder. Though each bodybuilder can have unique variations on diet, there are foods that seem to be universal throughout bodybuilding history. These include,

  • Red meat including beef, mutton, venison, and even horse.
  • Less dense meats like fish and chicken.
  • White and brown rice.
  • Whole grains like wheat and barley.
  • Rough green vegetables and fruits that contain high fiber contents.

Foods that most bodybuilders avoid are,

  • Refined white sugar.
  • Processed meats that contain added corn meal and preservatives.
  • Malted alcoholic beverages.

Of course, there are eccentric diet rule-breaking personalities in the history of bodybuilding. Most athletes remember Arnold’s famous interview answer in the movie Pumping Iron (1977).

“…no milk, no. Milk is for babies. When you grow up, you have to drink beer.”

Bodybuilding nutrition comes down to a simple philosophy. Do you want your body to be a factory, or do you want it to be a warehouse? Do you want it to be capable of producing growth, or do you want it to store fuel?

The answer is both!

A bodybuilding diet that is designed only for leanness will do little to promote huge muscle gains. A diet that is all about size will likely result in unwanted body fat.

The idea is to find an equilibrium. This is where modern bodybuilders have an advantage.

So, what was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s diet like?

Arnold ate a surprisingly small amount of food for his body size. He was known for eating five or six small meals per day, but they were extremely clean.

In large part, he was a whole and raw foods kind of athlete. Arnold took advantage of a virtual Garden of Eden available to him after he moved to California from Europe.

Every week, he centered his diet on a few key food items like,

  • Red meat, cottage cheese, and whole eggs.
  • Whole grain and legume Ezekiel bread (contains no sugar and yeast).
  • Large California-style salads including avocados.
  • Brown rice and sweet potatoes.

Why do bodybuilders eat rice?

Rice is extremely dense in carbohydrates that mimic the effects of sugar in the body. It creates a positive insulin response that is great for keeping the body’s metabolic rate fast, and it converts into a glycogen that is easily processed by the liver.

There is a huge controversy in the bodybuilding community brown rice and white rice. The fact is, white rice is brown rice with its hull removed.

For this reason, it is easy to eat too much white rice per meal. Most bodybuilders prefer brown rice because of its fiber content, and it helps create larger and more satisfying meals.

It is very difficult to find a serious bodybuilder who eats no rice at all during training and contest periods.

What did old school bodybuilders do for carbs. What were the amounts?

Old school bodybuilders loved wheat far more than bodybuilders today. Again, this probably had something to do with the fiber content, and they were religious proponents of the governmental food pyramid.

Potatoes and beans were favorites of old school bodybuilders. This was probably due to their “hardiness” factor.

Old school bodybuilders ate more instinctively than precisely. They tended to eat equal amounts of macro nutrients instead of exact weights and portions.

What did old school bodybuilders do for fats. What were the amounts?

Old school bodybuilders thought of fat as a necessary evil when consuming meat. They rarely thought about the different types of fats like saturated, unsaturated, monounsaturated, and so on.

They also falsely believed that nutritional fat amounts always equated to body fat amounts. For this reason, most old school bodybuilders endured extremely long and rigorous workouts in order to eat more fat.

What did old school bodybuilders do for protein. What were the amounts?

As mentioned earlier, bodybuilders throughout the ages have never had a problem with eating enough protein. Red meat, whole milk, eggs, and beans have always been the sport’s protein staples.

Protein sources, as they do today, varied largely according to region. Old school US bodybuilders loved beef, chicken, and pork. Europeans ate beef, sheep, chicken, and horse.

Unlike today’s bodybuilders, they were much more limited by protein choice and affordability. Still, they ate very well!

An example of a 1970s bodybuilder meal plan

Bodybuilding goals seem to change by the decade. The 1950s were all about being big and strong, but not musclebound.

The 1960s ushered in the hulking beach body. The 1970s were a little schizophrenic about bodybuilding aesthetics.

While drama was created in the 1970s because of builders like Arnold and Lou, a new aesthetic emerged. Frank Zane made a huge splash in bodybuilding with an incredibly lean, tall, and utterly non-Greek physique.

He won the Mr. Olympia with an astoundingly sinewy look. His dieting philosophy centered on carbohydrate cycling.

For three days, he would eat about 75 grams of carbs per day. The next three days he would double that amount.

He built glycogen stores to fuel workouts only. He was famous for often not eating carbohydrates post-workout because he didn’t always believe it was necessary to refuel glycogen reserves right away.

Zane also believed in the benefits of ketosis, and he would often eat no carbohydrates for days at a time. This is how he maintained the same relative leanness throughout the year, yet still managed to grow muscle.

An example of a 1980s bodybuilder meal plan

The 1980s again cycled into a new golden era of “mass monsters.” One of them was Tom Platz.

Platz is still known for having the most well-developed legs in bodybuilding history. He carried a huge amount of mass, was incredibly strong, and his workouts were unbelievably intense.

Platz’s diet was old school in that it featured huge amounts of beef, chicken, and eggs. He was also a proponent of boosting meals with supplements like brewer’s yeast and desiccated liver pills.

Though the 1980s saw the emergence of the meal replacement shake and the pre-workout enhancer, Platz remained a whole foods bodybuilder.

He once said, “Food should be your main source of nutrients. Supplements are supposed to supplement your food intake. That’s it!”

Did old school bodybuilders use any supplements?

Until the late 1970s, bodybuilding supplementation was limited to things like concentrated vitamin and mineral pills. Protein meal replacements and creatine were common, but their tastes were nearly unpalatable.

Certain “anabolic” supplements were always available, but potency was nothing compared to modern times. Nutrition was still key to bodybuilding success.

On the whole, until computer-aided nutritional science became mainstream, pre-workout supplements, recovery formulas, and great tasting protein powders were virtually non-existent. Old school bodybuilders loved achieving their physiques by eating big, lifting heavy, and lifting often.

The top 10 foods for old school bodybuilders.

  1. Red meat including chicken (all meat that is vascular is now considered “red” by nutritionists).
  2. Whole milk
  3. Whole eggs
  4. Whole wheat
  5. Potatoes (white, red, and sweet)
  6. Beans and legumes
  7. Rice
  8. Nuts and Seeds
  9. Green vegetables
  10. Fibrous fruits

One anomalous figure in old school bodybuilding deserves mention because of an unusual diet. Bill Pearl (Mr. Universe 1953, 56’, 61’, 67’, and 71’), was a staunch lacto-ovo vegetarian.

The only proteins he ate were milk and eggs. He could bench press more than 500 pounds, and he started his own bodybuilding nutrition supplementation company. At the age of 88, he is still a nutritional trainer to some of today’s most prominent competitive bodybuilders.

Modern bodybuilders have a tendency to complicate their nutritional programs. This is only because there are limitless studies, opinions, and products available.

When in doubt about your training nutrition, take a hint from the best old school bodybuilders. Keep it clean, keep it simple, and train like it’s the last time you’ll ever get to step foot in a gym.

Always seek solid nutritional advice from knowledgeable sources. Good luck with “dialing it in!”

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