The oldest bodybuilder in the world shares his journey and the best gym tips

Do you think you have been going to the gym for a long time? Jim Arrington beat you: The man from Venice, California has been lifting weights for 74 years.

“I was 15 years old. He didn’t have weights, but my dad had a pair of steel balls that weighed about three pounds each…and I started training with them,” says the 89-year-old. Over the next seven decades, Arrington would train at the original Gold’s Gym with some of the greatest bodybuilders in history and set his own bodybuilding record: in 2018, Guinness named the retiree the oldest competitive bodybuilder in the world.

What has kept Jim in the gym for so many years? The retiree believes that becoming strong is in his genes. “I did ’23 and Me,’ and found out I’m in the 60th percentile for Neanderthal DNA. And now there are more people in the pool and I’m in the 70th percentile,” he says with a laugh.

It takes a lot more than Cro-Magnon genes to stay in the force game as long as Arrington has. He took a break from his weekly split routine to talk about how he got started in the gym, the advice he’s gotten from some of the greats, and to offer some advice for the younger ones. Unless there’s a challenger who’s late for his records, that’s you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you start training? How old were you?

When I was about 12 years old, I was at the pharmacy and they had a place where all the kids would come in and read comics, at least until the pharmacist kicked them out. I saw this muscle magazine and couldn’t believe, even his forearms were big! It just blew my mind over it.

I mailed a George Jowett book. He sent the entire book for $0.25. “How to build a powerful chest“or how to build your back and legs and so on. And this is when I was 15 years old. I didn’t have weights, but my dad had a couple of steel balls that weighed about 3 pounds each, and I could hold them in my hands .And I started training with them and following the instructions in the brochure.And I dropped from 115lbs at 5’8” height to 128lbs in just a few months.

And how have you kept training for so long?

The answer is that I am goal oriented. And then the other thing is that for some reason, and I can’t figure it out, people seem to be inspired by me. And that keeps me going because it inspires me, that other people can be inspired by me, even though I can’t believe they are!

If guys want to have the same longevity, how should their training evolve over the decades?

Back in 1974, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest bodybuilder in the world. And the guy closest to him was Ken Waller. He ended up being Mr. Universe in 1975.

Then one day after a workout, I caught a glimpse of Ken Waller as he stood in front of Gold’s Gym, the original Gold’s Gym. [where Bill works out]. And I said, Ken, what is the secret of bodybuilding? And he said, the secret to bodybuilding is to do what works for you. And I thought to myself, well, thank you very much.

But that’s essentially what you have to do: experiment to see what works for you. So something worked for you one time doesn’t mean it will work for you the next time. The main thing your body wants to do is not build extra muscle. So you really have to gain a lot and put on a lot of fat at the same time, and then train to your competition’s form.

Courtesy of Jim Arrington

What did you eat during your bulking phases?

When he was in his mid-thirties, Paul Anderson was the strongest man in the world. And they asked him how he trains. Paul said, “I do a set of squats and then I drink a liter of milk. Then I do a set of squats and I drink a liter of milk.”

When I was in my mid-thirties, I did this for about 30 days. I drank two quarts of skim milk, and put the two quarts of dry milk in that, and then enough molasses to be able to drink it. And I had an inside sales job and I had these things in my drawer with a long plastic tube. So I can sit there and drink that concoction all day. I was feeding myself a little throughout the day. I also ate a pound of meat and a pint of cottage cheese.

I started at my normal weight, 150 pounds. I gained 65 pounds in about nine months. And then I lost 35 pounds in 56 days. When I started at 150, I had a 32-inch waist. I climbed to the highest point with a 38-inch waist. And I’m down to 180 pounds with a 32-inch waist. It didn’t shape me enough to enter the Mr. LA contest, which was my goal. But I ended up with 15-inch and 17-inch arms.

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What is working for you now? What is your training regimen like at 89?

I do a split routine. I cut the body into three sections: for example, I would do legs on Monday. And the middle of the body, including the abs, chest, and lower and mid-back on Wednesday. And then I do shoulders and arms on Friday.

On Fridays, I would do reverse pulley flies. Then I’d do a lat pulldown front raise for the front delts. Then I work on a lateral raise machine. And then she would do two different curl exercises, a preacher curl and a cable curl. And then I do the dip on a machine and then the triceps pulley.

I do a warm-up set of 20 reps. Then I would do it with a heavier weight, a series of 10, 8 and 6 using the same weight, with a short rest period, about 30 seconds.

What do you eat to recover? Do you have a milkshake?

I take a little over a scoop of Optimum protein and a little olive oil. Olive oil is my main food for fats. I don’t do any carbs to speak of.

Carb free?

Well, I eat vegetables. I am experimenting with this Dr. Gundry diet. The paradox of longevity. It’s about getting rid of “leaky gut.” Eat mostly foods like sweet potatoes and mushrooms. And about a liter of olive oil per week.

Jim Arrington

Courtesy of Jim Arrington

What is a strategy that has worked for you that guys should try as they continue to lift weights throughout their lives?

Back when I was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was happy with all the weights I used except squats. I could only squat 220 pounds for five reps. So I decided to specialize. And so what I did, I stopped doing any other training and was training five days a week on a squat. I would do a warm-up without any weight and then load the 220 pounds. I’d do a set with that, then add 1.25lbs on each side, 2.5lbs on the bar.

And I would do five repetitions. And then I go back to the other weight [220] for the final set. That was it. Then the next day he would add 2.5 pounds each workout for five workouts. That’s 12.5 pounds a week. And I didn’t do any training over the weekend. I got to 300 pounds. So when I got back to college a couple of weeks after all that, I was telling these guys what I did. I had the weight in my room and they carried the 300lbs. And in my street clothes, I did five reps and it was easy. And then I went ahead and got to 15. At which point I said, “I think I get my point,” and put the bar back on the rack.

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