Frank Zane: The Chemist
Frank Zane, known as The Chemist, impacted bodybuilding more than most will ever appreciate. Zane’s run of Mr. Olympia titles represented a move away from mass and towards proportions and aesthetics. Whilst Arnold and Oliva shocked the world, Zane presented a physique that the everyday man aspired to achieve. Zane was perfectly proportioned and perhaps the best poser in bodybuilding history. Frank Zane was an artist above all else, and his physique was the canvas.
Frank Zane was born in Pennsylvania, in 1942. Zane was raised in a blue-collar coal mining town and saw his fair share of fights during his formative years. It was until around 14 years old that Zane took to the iron. As with many bodybuilding legends, his passion was ignited by a muscle mag he found outside school. Zane immediately bought a set of 30lb dumbbells and began emulating the workouts in the magazines.
Zane’s father disapproved of his pursuit and thought he should spend more time on productive tasks. Zane recalls his father telling him to “build yourself up by cutting the grass”. Frank’s love of bodybuilding couldn’t be suppressed. Over the next three years, Zane packed on over 30lbs of lean muscle mass, now a 160lb 17-year-old. Zane gradually built up his home equipment and said he would train every day, alternating between upper body and lower body routines. Frank’s parents began to come around to the idea of their son pursuing the life of a bodybuilder.
Zane continued to train throughout his teenage years and after school, pursued a career teaching Maths and Chemistry in Florida. During this time, Frank began to compete in local competitions and quickly dominated the East Coast. Frank began to consider the move to California, the place to be for aspiring bodybuilders. Zane had built a life for himself in Florida and had recently met his future wife, Christine. Zane and Christine both had a passion for bodybuilding and a drive to compete at the highest level. Over the next two years, Zane’s career skyrocketed. Frank took home the Mr. America (1968) title in New York City, followed by the Mr. Universe crown in Florida a week later. Zane beat Arnold Schwarzenegger for the title.
It was clear to both Frank and Christine that a career in bodybuilding was no longer a fantasy. They made the move to California. Zane continued to work as a Maths teacher whilst dominating the bodybuilding world. Frank won, or placed very highly, in every single competition he entered. Zane was a staple in the bodybuilding world and his physique was marveled upon by fellow bodybuilders. After moving to California, Zane and Arnold became good friends and training partners.
Everything changed for Zane in 1977 when he took home the Mr. Olympia title, the most esteemed award in bodybuilding. Zane won three years in a row and fought off some of the biggest names in the sport. Nobody could match his symmetry and proportions.
The Controversial Mr. Olympia Contest (1980)
Just as things couldn’t get any better for Zane, he was involved in a life-threatening injury after slipping alongside a pool. Zane suffered severe blood loss and spent several days in the hospital. This was eight weeks before the 1980 Mr. Olympia competition. Frank was hoping to claim his fourth title but has lost over 15lbs of muscle as a result of the injury.
Unsure about whether or not he should compete, Frank turned to fellow bodybuilder and friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for advice. Arnold watched Zane pose and told him he should fly to Sydney and defend his crown at the Mr. Olympia show. At the time, Arnold was preparing for his role as Conan the Barbarian and told reporters he had no interest in competing. The night before the Mr. Olympia show, Arnold announced he was returning to the stage. Zane placed third behind Chris Dickerson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took home first place.
The 1980 Mr. Olympia show is the most controversial event in bodybuilding history. Frank Zane and others boycotted the Mr. Olympia competition as a result of Arnold’s win. Many claimed that politics played a role in the judges’ decision and Arnold won the trophy despite significant weaknesses.
The full story of the competition can be found here: What actually happened?
Zane’s career came to an end three years later. Frank suffered a serious shoulder injury after a bicycle crash. Refusing to drop out of the Olympia competition, Zane continued to train and delayed surgery. Zane came in fourth place and needed extensive repair work on his shoulder as a result. The 1983 Mr. Olympia show was Zane’s last competition.
After retiring from competition, Zane and his wife set up Zane Haven (now known as Zane Experience). The haven is a place for Zane and his wife to conduct one-to-one training for bodybuilders looking to build an aesthetic physique. Zane is also the founder of Zane Gallery in Laguna Beach. The gallery displays bodybuilding photos and is dedicated to bringing back the Golden Era of bodybuilding. Frank also runs a store where he shares his knowledge through books and other educational content. Check it out here.
Here’s a list of all of Frank Zane’s competitions:
- 1961 Mr. Pennsylvania (17th place)
- 1962 Mr. Keystone (Winner)
- 1963 Mr. Keystone (2nd)
- 1965 Mr. Sunshine State (Winner)
- 1965 IFBB Mr. Universe (1st, Medium Height category)
- 1966 IFBB Mr. America (1st, Medium)
- 1967 IFBB Mr. America (1st, Medium)
- 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe (3rd, Tall)
- 1968 IFBB Mr. America (Winner)
- 1968 IFBB Mr. Universe (Winner)
- 1970 NABBA Mr. Universe (Winner)
- 1971 NABBA Pro Mr. Universe (1st, Short)
- 1972 NABBA Pro Mr. Universe (Winner)
- 1972 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs, 4th)
- 1973 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs, did not place)
- 1974 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs, 2nd)
- 1975 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs, 4th)
- 1976 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs, 2nd)
- 1977 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs & Overall Winner)
- 1978 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs & Overall Winner)
- 1979 IFBB Mr. Olympia (Under 200 lbs & Overall Winner)
- 1980 IFBB Mr. Olympia (3rd)
- 1982 IFBB Mr. Olympia (2nd)
- 1983 IFBB Mr. Olympia (4th)
Pursuit of Aesthetics
Zane’s career is nothing short of extraordinary. Frank’s run as Mr. Olympia showed a shift in the world of bodybuilding. The previous ten years had been dominated by Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom were much bigger than Zane. Arnold stepped on stage at around 235lbs. Zane won all three Mr. Olympia titles weighing under 190lbs. Zane’s physique was so perfectly crafted that his dominance shows a shift towards aesthetics and proportions over mass.
Zane competed for over two decades and is one of only three men to ever beat Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chester Yorton and Sergio Oliva are the other two. Zane is also one of the only men to win the Mr. Olympia title weighing under 200lbs. Frank has the second-thinnest waistline of any Mr. Olympia winner, second to Oliva. Over the course of his career, Zane won the Mr. America, Mr. Universe, Mr. World, and Mr. Olympia titles.
Frank Zane was inducted into the Joe Weider Hall of Fame in 1994. Zane also received the Arnold Schwarzenegger Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, at the Arnold Classic. Frank began filming for the feature-length documentary, Frank Zane Defined, in June 2020.
Training & Workouts
As with most bodybuilders, Frank Zane didn’t follow one particular routine throughout his career. Zane’s workouts varied as he progressed and depending on who he was training with at the time.
Zane started out using light weights. Zane was under the impression that light weights and high reps would help him build lean muscle and retain his aesthetic proportions. Whilst Zane was correct, light weights won’t get you to the Olympia stage. Under the instruction of Joe Weider, Zane made the move to heavy weightlifting and lower volumes, leading to his run of Mr. Olympia titles. After his victory in 1977, Zane said “the only way you can get muscle size is through heavy training”. Zane noticed that with heavy weight training, he would retain his size for longer when he had periods of rest. With light weights, he found his size quickly diminished when he stopped training to the same intensity.
Zane was always weary of heavy weight training to avoid injury. Later on in his career, he was proved right. Zane’s career came to an end due to a number of injuries around his lower back, knees, and shoulders. In his final years of competing, Zane returned to lighter weights and focused on longevity. This was always Zane’s preferred method of training. He believed lighter weights allowed him to concentrate directly on the muscle. After discussions with Larry Scott, Zane became a big believer in the mind-muscle connection.
As mentioned, Zane followed many different routines over the years. We’ve shared two workouts below from Frank Zane’s book, Frank Zane: Mind, Body, Spirit. For more information check out the website and buy the books from the man himself.
Aug. 16, 1977
16, 14, 12
18, 14, 12
Leg-Press Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
40, 30, 30
July 15, 1982
75-Degree Incline Dumbbell Press
12, 11, 10
30-Degree Incline Barbell Press
10, 9, 8, 6
12, 11, 10
Close-Grip Bench Press
10, 10, 8
One-Arm Dumbbell Extension
10, 9, 8
Behind-the-Neck Smith Machine Press
Rear Lateral Raise
Side Lateral Raise
One-Arm Front Raise
One-Arm Lateral Raise
One-Arm Side Cable Lateral Raise
Hanging Knee Up
One-Arm Cable Crunch
25 per side
Nutrition & Diet
When it comes to nutrition, Zane followed similar guidelines to bodybuilders of the Golden Era. Zane always maintained a physique where he could get ready for a show on little notice. This was common in old-school bodybuilding and a far cry from the bulking and cutting cycles of modern bodybuilders. In an interview with Muscle and Strength, Zane was asked about bulking in the off-season:
“I tried bulking a few times and it was always a disaster…I was not focused on my body weight, I was more focused on what I looked like…I took photos. I took a lot of colour slides”.
Zane ate the same year-round, making small changes prior to a competition. Zane followed a carbohydrate-restrictive diet and tried to keep his daily carb intake below his protein intake. Zane ate intuitively. He listened to his body and if his workouts were flat, he would slightly increase carb intake. Generally, his diet worked on a 4-day cycle; eat low carbs for 3-days and increase slightly on the fourth day.
When interviewed, Zane said he was never a big eater like his fellow bodybuilders. Frank ate between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day and followed basic nutrition guidelines. Zane says the best advice he can offer is to try it for yourself, get feedback from your body, and see what works. Nothing drastic or radical.
Zane stayed within 5% of his competition weight all year round. In order to do so, he followed some specific nutrition guidelines:
- 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight
- 0.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight
- Protein and carbs pre-workout
- Post-workout protein shake
Unlike most bodybuilders at the time, Zane was also known for his use of supplementation. Zane took a lot of different supplements including amino acids and multivitamins. Whilst this is common today, at the time this was quite unusual. This is how Zane got the nickname “The Chemist”.