The Steve Reeves Classic Physique Routine

The Steve Reeves ‘Classic Physique’ Routine

If there’s one thing that editing Gymtalk has made apparent over the last few years, it’s that most people are still completely clueless when it comes to bodybuilding and strength training.

Just take Rajan, for instance, who left this comment on our Serious Mass review recently:

rajan comment gymtalk

Now, obviously this charming fellow is a rather extreme example, but the average lifter still believes all their answers lie in unproductive bodypart splits, “time under tension” and supplements.

Fact is, most people just don’t want to put any real effort in – they want to believe in easy alternatives, pills and powders, and a magical “mind muscle connection” that excuses them from having to lift heavy.

This easy-way-out mentality isn’t helped by a shameless fitness industry which profits from peddling the “shortcut to fitness” dream, be that by ineffectual supplements, cookie cutter diet plans or useless celebrity workout DVDs.

To build strength, muscle and power naturally, the answer, as we’ve said time and again, lies simply in full-body routines, hard work and consistency.

Rather than devoting one session to arms, one to shoulders, one to your left rhomboid, full-body routines will have you hitting every body part every session, and lifting until you feel you’re about to collapse.

Instead of leisurely working your way through five varieties of the hammer curl without breaking sweat, you’ll be moving from squats to presses to rows, exhausting your muscles and truly taxing your CNS, rather than just training for a “wicked pump” that will ultimately build the same amount of muscle as joining a conga line at Butlins.

These formidable routines were favoured by every single bodybuilder of the pre-steroid era, particularly the great Steve Reeves, who performed full-body workouts with a ferocious, matchless intensity and achieved incredible results.

Steve Reeves

For many bodybuilding devotees, Steve Reeves is the ultimate exemplar of the classic, natural physique.

steve reeves

A Mr Universe winner and icon of the silver screen in the 1950s, Reeves boasted a legendary figure which combined perfect symmetry, classic lines, a tiny waist and hard, perfectly proportioned muscles.

Reg Park once touted Reeves as having the best natural physique of all time, extolling his “wonderful combination of god-given shape, muscular proportion and physical beauty”.

Later in life, Reeves was an outspoken critic of steroids and the state of modern bodybuilding:

Today, everything about the top bodybuilding champions is oversized; they have lost the whole purpose of bodybuilding which is to create a harmonious whole, not to exaggerate the development of one part or parts of the body.

A body has hands, legs, feet, arms and a head.

If a man’s arms appear bigger than his head, his body is thrown out of proportion.

Like other natural bodybuilders, such as John Grimek, George Eiferman, Reg Park and Leroy Colbert, Reeves denounced the era of split training methods ushered in by steroid use and continued to advocate the effectiveness of full-body training in publications such as Building The Classic Physique The Natural Way (1995).

The ‘Classic Physique’ routine

One of Reeves’ favourite full-body workouts was the ‘Classic Physique’ routine, which was first printed in an article he wrote for the May 1951 issue of Your Physique magazine (published by Joe Weider).

Below you’ll find the exact routine as it appeared back in 1951.

Exercise Sets Reps
Incline dumbbell press 3 8-12 (using descending poundages)
Breathing front squat (superset with following exercise) 3 15
Dumbbell laterals/flyes 3 15
Seated barbell curls 3 12 (getting the negative reps on the way down)
Alternate dumbbell forward raise 2 15
Bent over rows 2 12
One arm rows 2 12
Splits with barbell 1 Until breathless
Alternative raise lying 2 15
Good mornings 1 15
Dumbbell French press 3 12
Calf raises (leg press machine) 1 30-40
Bench press 2 12


Training frequency

Like most full-body routines, this workout should be performed three times per week, allowing plenty of time for rest and recovery.

Each workout is likely to last a few hours – indeed, Reeves, as Grimek recalled in the November 1964 issue of Muscular Development, typically took “anywhere from two to four hours” to complete his usual routine.

But that’s the whole point with a full-body routine – the workouts are long and intense, but so are the rest periods between sessions, allowing your muscles all the time they need to repair and grow.

To maximise recovery, Reeves typically advised a day and a half of rest between sessions.

In this case, you would train Monday morning, Wednesday evening, and Saturday morning.


Steve Reeves’ work ethic in the gym was legendary.

During training for the 1950 Mr Universe contest, his friend John Grimek, a legendary bodybuilder in his own right, reflected that Reeves “seldom sat around talking and killing time”; he “put everything” into every session and “put a lot of concentration into each and every movement”, resting “only after he finished his training and had his shower”.

Ensure you apply this zoned-in mentality when performing the routine and save the socialising and chit-chat for the changing rooms.


Keep your form strict and keep to a tempo of two seconds for the concentric part of the lift and three seconds for the negative, emphasising the latter as much as possible.


All sets must be performed to failure – i.e. until you have nothing left in the tank.


Take 45-60 seconds rest between sets and two minutes between each exercise.

steve reeves

Exercise explanations

Breathing squats

As detailed in our review of the 20 rep squat routine, ‘breathing squats’ require you to pause and take deep breaths between each repetition.

Unlike today, bodybuilders of the Steve Reeves era placed a great deal of emphasis on ribcage development.

By expanding the ribcage with breathing squats and other exercises such as dumbell pullovers, the idea is that your torso will be able to support more muscle.

Seated barbell curls

This was Reeves’ favourite exercise.

While performing the seated curl, focus on getting as much as you can from the negative portion of the rep.

Grimek noticed how Reeves would “kick up the weight with his knees and then strongly resist as he lowered the weight”.

Splits with barbell

Essentially lunges but holding the barbell in a squat position.

Alternate raise lying

Like a standing forward dumbbell raise, but performed lying down on a mat.

steve reeves


The Steve Reeves ‘Classic Physique’ Routine is a traditional full-body programme that demands maximal effort but will yield maximal results.

This is an absolutely mammoth workout from an era when men were men and bodybuilders earned their physiques through sweat and toil, not by injecting themselves with steroids, flogging baseball caps and whoring themselves on Instagram.

As well as allowing you to develop real-world muscle, strength and power, this old-school approach to bodybuilding will do wonders for your health and vitality and instill in you a champion, Herculean mindset.

Work hard, rest hard, eat lots of protein, and, above all, have some fun!

Over to you

Fancy giving the Steve Reeves ‘Classic Physique’ routine a shot?

Any other full-body routines that you’d recommend?

What’s your opinion on this old-school method of training?

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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  1. What diet should accompany this routine?

    1. A high protein diet comprising lots of wholesome “real” foods and lots of healthy fats to boost testosterone.

      As a guide, focus on foods that your grandparents would have eaten – i.e. from the ground, not from packets and tins and no processed supermarket rubbish.

      Steaks, poultry, fish, eggs, olive oil, nuts, fruit and veg, potatoes, wholegrain rice, etc.

  2. Good workout routine and I’m sure it would take hours to complete.

    Gonna give this a go in a week or so.

    Sounds right up my alley.

    1. Good luck – come back and let us know how you get on!

  3. At last! A Steve Reeves routine!

    I really love your site! You always speak from my heart! 🙂

    Full body 4ever! 😉

    1. Thanks István, appreciate the comment!

  4. I have friends who put steroids, but I really do not like the result.

    I prefer to have progressive results in a natural way.

    Steve Reeves is one of my references.

    Note: sorry my English, I`m Portuguese.

    1. The natural way is the best!

      A strong and healthy-looking body with fantastic symmetry and proportion will never go out of date.

  5. I don’t know about Reeves being natural (Sergio Oliva is on record as saying he was one of the bodybuilders using in the early days) but who really knows?

    However you mentioned that John Grimek was a natural bodybuilder and that is simply incorrect.

    Grimek experimented with testosterone propionate in 1954 and with Dianabol in 1960.

    1. Can you point me to the source of that Oliva claim?

      Sounds like bullshit to me, seeing as Reeves trained and competed in the 1940s (his last competition was 1950), well before the mid-50s when steroids were introduced by Ziegler.

      The “Steve Reeves took steroids” claim is typically traced back to ‘Arnold: An Unauthorised Biography’ where the author Wendy Leigh says that Arnold was told about steroids by Kurt Marnul who said he’d learned about them from Steve Reeves, who he claims to have met on vacation in France in 1952.

      This was refuted by Reeves who claims he did no visit France in the 1950s and had never heard of nor met Marnul.

      With Grimek, again, he trained and competed in the 30s and 40s (his last competition was in 1949), so regardless of whether or not he took steroids in his retirement (this is news to me), his achievements in the 30s and 40s were, without question, drug-free.

      1. The source is from an interview which is posted on several sites.

        Here’s one of them:

        “And everybody in the old days used them: Zane, Columbu, myself, Arnold, Larry Scott, Harold Poole, Dave Draper, and even Steve Reeves. There’s no way to deny it.”

        As for Grimek, yes, apparently he did use steroids in his retirement back when he worked for the York Barbell Club.

        According to him though they did nothing for him.

        “Most of the lifters noticed improvements in their performances but once again Grimek was not one of them. ‘Sorry to report, no change, no improvement, no nothing… if anything, I’m worse,” he wrote to Ziegler after adhering to a cycle of no more than 15 milligrams per day for six weeks, miniscule in comparison to today’s standards”.

        True there is no record of him using in his competitive career.

        And I would like to think he didn’t.

        However, steroids WERE around before the mid-fifties… Ziegler wasn’t the first.

        From the link above:

        “By 1937, the injectable anabolic steroid testosterone propionate and the oral steroid methyl testosterone were available in sufficient quantities to be used in human clinical research trials”.

        “In the United States, the first mention of testosterone propionate came in a 1938 issue of “Strength and Health” magazine, at the time the top weightlifting and bodybuilding publication.”

  6. Apparently you never read Steve Reeves Building the Classic Physique.

    Steve started with shoulders then chest/back then arms/legs/calves then finished with forearms/abs.

    Steve performed this 3 times a week, his sets count was high like 9 sets for each muscle group except forearms & 3 sets… it was like 60 sets total.

    He never worked out to failure, NEVER.

    Wish people would do their research first before publishing.

    1. Johnny, it seems to me that you’ve never read the book written by Steve Reeves called “Building the Classic Physique,” in which he recommended to train to failure with six sets per body part.

      He even recommended doing negative only repetitions in the last set after failure.

      You can find that in Chapter 16, p.90.

  7. Just discovered your site.

    It is a pleasure to read and so refreshing to see something else besides the same old bs on other sites.

    To me this is the only thing that makes sense for natural bodybuilders, to look at the pre-steroid era bodybuilders for advice.

    They experimented and showed us how full body training works.

    Yet, 99.99% of sites out there who have anything positive to say about FB training always include ‘for beginners’.


    Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Leroy Colbert were beginners all their lives then?

    Anyway, needed to get that off my chest 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

    1. The full body routine is everything that a split routine can give you and then some.

      Because of the longer workout times, you’ll develop some great endurance (depending on the rest times, but if between 45s-1m, it’s excellent).

      The volume is about the same if not more than your typical split routine, as well as the frequency.

      With most split routines, you hit a body part two to three times a week, and with a full body routine, you have about the same frequency and volume with adequate rest.

      I also honestly believe that full body is the way to go unless your body can withstand so much volume that you seriously need to split it up (Marvin Eder).

  8. Hehe Steve Reeves was not natty, testosterone was already there at the time and dianabol too.

    You will never come close to be big like Steve Reeves when you are 100% natty!

    1. Tedd – Steroids are not required to develop musculature like Steve Reeves possessed.

      Good genetics, consistent and smart training, and appropriate nutrition… yes.

      Look at John DeCola, 1969 IFBB Mr. America – lifetime drug free.

      I’m not saying Reeves never touched steroids because I do not know, but there are examples out there of naturally gifted individuals who are drug free and have physiques that could have competed with people like Reeves back in the day.