10 Old School Bodybuilding Exercises (1900s – 1950s!)

August 23, 2016 by VAHVA Fitness

10 Old school bodybuilding exercises from the 1900s to 1950s. You will be shocked!

The old school bodybuilders had a very different way of building their bodies. When compared to the modern bodybuilders, their methods were almost nothing alike.

Instead of using massive amount of drugs and isolation exercises to build their bodies, the old school bodybuilders found their ways to growth inside the gym through strength and experimentation.


John Grimek, a bodybuilder in 1930-1940s.

Most of their time was spent on getting stronger and lifting heavier weights.

The old school bodybuilders used plenty of isolation exercises, but they also targeted their bodies from many different angles with real strength lifts.

Bodybuilder John Grimek was a competing strongman, champion bodybuilder and also a complete athlete.

Grimek was able to do splits, balance on his hands and he was strong as a bull. Grimek was just one among many talented bodybuilders.

Check out our previous article and vlog to learn more about the old school strength training.

The old school bodybuilders weren't afraid to put their bodies in weird and uncomfortable positions.

These guys were lifting heavy stones with a round back, doing rows with a round back and then later doing overhead pressing with so much arch that it looked like their spine was going to snap.

The bodies of the modern men aren't accustomed to this type of training, which is the sole reason why these old school lifts can be dangerous. 

These exercises are for advanced lifters only, please do not try these exercises unless you are a very experienced lifter!

Old School Bodybuilding Exercises

Zercher Deadlift & Zercher Squat

zercher squats for leg gains

Zercher deadlift and zercher squat were invented by Ed Zercher who was a competing weightlifter in the 1930s.

It's said that Ed Zercher invented the zercher deadlift, because he was training in his house's basement with very rudimentary equipment and didn't have a squat rack.

Without the squat rack, the only way to lift the weight up and do squats, is to do it the way Ed Zercher did it: to place the weight between elbows Zercher style and lift the weight off the floor.

Zercher squat resembles a normal front squat but the weight is located much lower, which changes the center of mass and also rounds the back. Zercher squat is a very effective way to strengthen the legs and the core musculature. 

Zercher deadlift on the other hand is a very different kind of beast. You have to go to a very DEEP squat and have a very round upper and lower back to be able to lift the weight off the floor.

Zercher deadlift resembles the way strongmen have been lifting atlas stones for ages: it's a round back deadlift which will build strength and size in the entire posterior chain incredibly well.

Barbell Back Bend

barbell back bend for thoracic

Back bend is an old school feat of strength that many people should never attempt unless done very carefully.

Back bend will stretch the entire rib cage and build immense strength in the thoracic and lumbar areas of the back. The hamstrings and the lower back are also strengthened and hip flexors and quads stretched.

If the thoracic area (the middle back) isn't strong enough, lots of strain will be felt solely in the lower back which isn't good. You should feel the exercise in the both thoracic and lumbar regions.

Be careful with this exercise and do not attempt this unless you are a very seasoned lifter.


pull overs for thoracic extension

The old school bodybuilders were massive fans of the basic pullover. The purpose was to expand the ribcage and build strength in the thoracic extension.

If you want to open up your chest and improve your thoracic extension, then pullover is the exercise to try.

Your ribcage will be stretched and if you do the pullover the correct way (hips low with an arch in your back), you will build mobility in the shoulders and the thoracic region.

If you have sternum pain when you do dips, pullovers will very likely help with this problem!

Arched Overhead Press

old school over head press for upper body strength

Arched overhead press was the way to overhead press in the old days. The lifters would lean back (sometimes a lot) and press the weight overhead.

john grimek arched OHP

This is how much the old school bodybuilders would sometimes arch their back. THIS MUCH.

When you lean back and arch, you should take support from the middle back area of the back (the thoracic region).

If you feel it mostly in the lower back, then you aren't utilizing the middle back enough and the area can be too weak to support your weight.

Arched overhead press will develop the thoracic area and build strength and size in the shoulders, upper chest and triceps.

Overhead press done the old school way may be be one of the best exercises to build thoracic support.

Unless you have a bench behind your back, you need to provide the support with your thoracic and lumbar areas.

What the modern lifters don't know, but the old school guys did, is the fact that the amount of force you can exert relies a lot on how much support can you provide for it.

Cat Row

cat rows for lats

Cat row is a round back barbell row where the thoracic support is eliminated almost completely (you don't need it because the weight isn't crushing your spine).

The old school strongman Doug Hepburn would row incredibly heavy weights (500 lbs) with this method. The purpose is to bring the weight close to your body almost like you are hugging the weight.

When executed correctly, you should row close to your waist. This way you don't need thoracic support, because the lumbar region manages all of the the force.

Although this may look dangerous, the strain on your middle back is nonexistent and your lumbar area isn't holding more weight than it would with weighted back extensions or heavy deadlifts.

Still, start cautiously and use very light weights.

Pinch Grip Deadlift

pinch grip deadlift steve reeves

Pinch grip deadlift is a special deadlift variation invented by the famous bodybuilder and actor (Hercules!) Steve Reeves.

Pinch grip deadlifts are the widest deadlifts you can do. One of the benefits of the snatch grip deadlift is that the wide grip will develop your traps and grip strength very effectively.

Compared to the snatch grip deadlift, this one will build even more strength in the upper back and demand even more grip strength!

You don't have to use a lot of weight for the lift. You can expect an incredibly sore upper back from the pinch grip deadlifts.

Round Press

round press for shoulders and triceps

Round press is supposed to be done completely different compared to the standard press. Here you bring your shoulders and the entire upper body forward.

The purpose is to build strength in the horizontal press when your scapula is protracted. You should round the upper body so that you will feel support from your traps and abs.

This looks very different and awkward, but it's often gentler for the shoulders than the regular bench press.

You can do the round press in two ways:

1. Use a narrow grip with just one dumbbell. This will emphasize the triceps and the serratus anterior.

2. Normal width with two dumbbells. This will hit more the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles, while still efficiently working the triceps and shoulders.

Cheat Curl

cheat curls for bicep

Cheat curl is a phenomenal full body lift. Although the primary target is the biceps, cheat curls will build strength and size in the whole body.

You will strengthen the upper back, middle back, lower back, abs, hips, anterior shoulders and of course the biceps.

You should pick a weight you normally wouldn't be able to bicep curl with a perfect controlled form.

With the cheat curl you use your entire body and the biceps to curl the weight up. The point is to use momentum and cheat a lot!

That's all for today - train hard, stay safe.

samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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  • Hi, these look very impressive. However, the pinch grip deadlift would be more of a grip challenge if you used metal plates with one outer surface flat and without any flange. If you had two such plates with the hub inwards, so that both thumb and fingers were on flat, smooth, surfaces, (which is the way Plate Pinch Gripping is properly done) you would have a truly impressive lift. However, you might have to begin with a lighter bar. I am also unsure that the lift is as recent as you claim – perhaps as an odd bodybuilding move, but the grip strength test is almost certainly older.

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