There’s a scene in the cult bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron, where a 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger likens the feeling he gets during weight training to an orgasm. “It’s as satisfying to me as… having sex with a woman,” he grins.
Forty years on, it’s a 68-year-old Arnold who sits with me for our interview in Melbourne. His career – which started in bodybuilding, found huge success in Hollywood as an actor, and then transitioned into politics as the 38th Governor of California – has come full circle. He’s here to promote the second year of the Australian leg of the Arnold Classic, which started off as a bodybuilding contest and is now a multi-sports festival. I ask how his approach to training has changed since Pumping Iron.
“Well, the goal is different,” Arnold says. “When I was 20, I wanted to be a world champion in bodybuilding, so then it was five hours a day [in the gym], and lifting as heavy as I could.
“Today, it’s about how can I hold on to the body. Because, as you know, as you get older the muscles deteriorate, so what the weight training does is gives it the opportunity to keep and hold on as long as possible. My goal now is to just stay fit and strong.”
As you’d guess, his idea of maintenance is different to ours. Even though he’s nearly 70, Arnold still exercises for 90 minutes daily, doing a mix of cycling and weights. He’s happy if people commit to doing “something vigorously [for] an hour a day”. After all, the whole point of the Arnold Classic, which now heads to six continents and involves 18,000 athletes, is to leave a health and fitness legacy.
Earlier at the press conference, he explains: “This was my dream when I finished bodybuilding competitions, to not just lift weights for myself, but to lift the entire sport of bodybuilding and to promote health and fitness throughout the world.”
“We don’t really care what sport you do. What we’re saying to the people is we’re encouraging them to do something. Get off the couch. Don’t be a couch potato and just sit there and watch movies or TV.” Arnold laughs as he adds, “Except if they’re my movies.”
The fitness crusade
There’s another side to the Hollywood legend that’s often overlooked in favour of more salacious stories. Since the ’70s, Arnold’s been active in making sure weight training is accessible to all, especially those with special needs. In 1976 he worked on a study with the University of Wisconsin to see what effect weight training would have on people with intellectual disabilities. The results revealed a huge gain in confidence for participants, and in the years following, Arnold became an international coach for weight-lifting events in the Special Olympics. This was a pivotal moment in his fitness crusade.
During the Arnold Classic seminar, a young woman in the crowd tells the story of her mother, who lost an arm and leg during an accident. She says that thanks to her dad’s experience in bodybuilding, and inspiration from Arnold, her mum’s been getting fit again and can now even swim for two hours straight.
“It’s great to hear the story about your mother,” Arnold responds. “It’s great to see first-hand […] the courageous men and women that have had their accidents, they’ve had their problems, but they continue with the same will, the same fire in the belly. I just love seeing that.
“This is why I say, when people have those traumas, accidents, illness, cancer – whatever it is – and then you give them the opportunity to go and train, and you inspire them and show that they can set new goals, they can continue. But we have to give people the opportunity.”
Back at our interview, I mention to Arnold that in the last few years with his work on the Special Olympics, Arnold Classic and After-School All-Stars program to help kids succeed at school, it seems he’s been dedicated to giving back to the community. “It’s something that gets into your blood. I’ve always had that from the time I came to America to now, and it will go on like that. It’s always a give and take. You know you can use a country, and use a system, but you also have to give back because someone worked very hard to get us to that point in the first place to make it a country of opportunity,” Arnold says.
“It’s the same in Australia. In this country a lot of people struggled to make this country as great as it is. Now we have to teach people; now it’s your turn to struggle a little bit and fight to keep this place great. It goes from generation to generation.”
So, does this mean his fitness legacy is what he’d like to be remembered for? Before I finish asking my question, Arnold says: “I don’t worry about what I’ll be remembered by, because everyone will remember me for something else. Some people will remember me for the body building, others for the acting, others for the political stuff.
“For me the important thing is I want to use my power of influence for good things and to improve the world.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger on…
1 AUSTRALIA’S CHILD OBESITY CRISIS
“Parents, take on that responsibility and make sure your kids are healthy and fit because what you learn at that age is what stays with you. I remember my dad always took us out ice-curling and ice-skating and sledding in the winter. In the summer, we played soccer. That stayed with me – that exercise is just a part of life.”
2 INSTAGRAM #FITSPO
“I think there’s a lot of stuff that you can get on the Internet about fitness and bodybuilding, and I just love that… I just think we should get information every day, rather than wait once a month for a magazine to come out, and hopefully find something that you like.”
3 HIS DRIVE
“I’m as hungry today as I was when I was 20 years old. I’m always looking to take on new challenges. I think that’s what life is all about. It’s the difference between living and existing.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of body+soul on April 10, 2016