World’s Oldest Bodybuilder Shares His Journey and Top Gym Advice

Think you’ve been hitting the gym for a long time? Jim Arington‘s got you beat: The Venice, California man has been lifting for 74 years.

“I was 15. I didn’t have any weights, but my dad had a couple of steel balls that were about three pounds each … and I started training with them,” the now-89-year-old says. In the ensuing 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 world’s oldest competitive bodybuilder.

What’s kept Jim in the gym for so many years? The retired thinks getting strong is in his genes. “I did ’23 and Me,’ and I found out I’m in the 60 percentile for Neanderthal DNA. And now there’s more people in the pool, and I’m up to the 70th percentile,” he says with a laugh.

It takes a lot more than Cro-Magnon genes to stay in the strength 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, advice he’s gotten from some of the greats, and to offer some tips for younger guys. Barring a late-coming challenger to his records, that’s you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get started training? How old were you?

When I was about 12, I was in the drug store and they had a place where the kids would all get in there and read the comic books, at least until the druggist kicked them out. I saw this muscle magazine and I couldn’t believe, even their forearms were big! I was just blown out of my mind from that.

I mailed away for a book by George Jowett. He sent the whole book for $0.25. “How to Build a Mighty Chest” or how to build the back and legs and so forth. And so this is when I was 15. I didn’t have any weights, but my dad had a couple of steel balls that were about 3 pounds each, and I could hold them in my hands. And I started training with them and following the instructions from the booklet. And I went from 115 pounds at the height of 5’8″ to 128 pounds in just a few months.

And how have you kept training so long?

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

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

back in about 1974, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the greatest bodybuilder in the world. And the guy who is closest to him was Ken Waller. He ended up being Mr. Universe in 1975.

So one day after a workout, I was able to see Ken Waller while he was out in front of Gold’s Gym—the original Gold’s Gym [where Bill works out]. And I said, Ken, what’s what’s the secret to bodybuilding? And he said, the secret to bodybuilding is do what works for you. And I thought to myself, well, thanks a lot.

But that is essentially what you’ve got to do—experiment to see what works for you. And so something worked for you at 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’ve got to really beat it a whole lot and build a lot of fat at the same time, and then train down to your contest shape.

jim arrington

Courtesy of Jim Arrington

What did you eat during your bulk phases?

When I was in my thirties, Paul Anderson was the strongest man in the world. And he was asked how he trains. Paul said, “I do a set of squats, and then I drink a quart of milk. Then I do a set of squats, and I drink a quart of milk.”

When I was in my thirties, I did this for just about 30 days. I drank two quarts of skim milk, and I put the two quarts’ worth of powdered milk into that, and then enough molasses so that I could drink it. And I had an inside sales job and so I had this stuff in my drawer with a long plastic tube. So I could sit there and sip that connection all day long. I was getting nourished a little bit all day long. I also ate a pound of meat and a pint of cottage cheese.

I started out at my normal weight, 150 pounds. I gained 65 pounds in about nine months. And then I dropped 35 pounds in 56 days. When I started at 150, I had a 32-inch waist. I went up to the high point with a 38-inch waist. And I came down to the 180 pounds at a 32-inch waist. It didn’t give me a good enough shape to enter the Mr. LA contest, which was my goal. But I did end up with 15-inch, 17-inch arms.

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

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

On Fridays, I would do pulley reverse flies. Then I would do pulley front raise for the front delt. Then I work on a lateral raise machine. And then I would do two different things curl exercises, a preacher curl and a pulley curl. And then I the dip a machine and then pulley triceps.

I do a 20-rep warmup set. Then I would do with a heavier weight, a set of 10, 8, and 6 using the same weight, with a short resting period, about 30 seconds.

What do you eat for recovery? Do you have a shake?

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

No carbs?

Well, I do eat vegetables. I’m experimenting with this diet by Dr. Gundry. The Longevity Paradox. It’s all about getting rid of “leaky gut.” Eating primarily foods like sweet potatoes and mushrooms. And about a liter of olive oil per week.

jim arrington

Courtesy of Jim Arrington

What’s a strategy that’s worked for you that guys should try out as they continue a lifetime of lifting?

Back when I was between my first and second year of college, I was happy with all the poundages I was using, except for squats. I could only squat with 220 pounds for five reps. So I decided I would specialize. And so what I did, I quit doing any other training and I would train five days a week on a squat. I would do a warm up with no weight at all, and then I’d load the 220 pounds. I’d do a set with that, then add 1.25 pounds on each side—2.5 pounds on the bar.

And I’d do five reps. And then I come back down to the other weight [220] for the final set. That was it. Then the next day, I’d add 2.5 pounds each workout for five workouts. That’s 12.5 pounds a week. And I didn’t do any training on the weekend. I got to 300 pounds. And so when I went back to college, it was a couple weeks after all that, I was telling these guys what I did. I had the weight in my room and they loaded up the 300 pounds. And in my street clothes, I did five reps and it was easy. And then I kept going and got up to 15. By that time I said, “I think I’ve made my point,” and put the bar back on the rack.

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