If you’re one of those people who looks at modern bodybuilding today and wish that they looked like the bodybuilders of the 60s and 70s – then you are probably imagining the physique of Frank Zane.
He is a three time Mr Olympia who is credited with reigniting the focus on aesthetics rather than mass.
By today’s standards he would look almost comically small next to Phil Heath, in fact he looked small at the time as well. But aesthetically he had one of the best bodies in the history of Mr Olympia.
At 5 foot 9 and never weighing more than 88.5kg, Frank Zane should be the standard for most lifters – rather than modern bodybuilders who look almost inhuman, such is there size.
Frank Zane’s Early Life
Frank Zane was born on June 28th 1942 in Kingston, Pennsylvania.
The town he lived in was a typical blue collar coal mining town, tough but close-knit.
He says that he first started lifting weights at the age of 14 because he was tired of getting beaten up and losing fights.
This seems to be a reasonable reason to pick up a dumbbell, and after finding an old bodybuilding magazine in a high school math class  Frank fell in love with the sport.
To this day he says that his favourite bodybuilder of all time is Steve Reeves (famous for his movie roles as Hercules and Emiliano in the film Goliath and the Barbarians).
He signed up to the Wilkes-Barre YMCA and also trained at home, something that his dad wasn’t too happy with!
He put on 30lbs of muscle in 3 years and by 17 he weighed 160lbs.
Whilst doing this he also managed to graduate first in his class in High School, showing that dedication to his schoolwork and to bodybuilding were not mutually exclusive.
Zane’s first competition was at the age of 17 in an Open Novice Competition in Allentown, PA. He placed fifth, and was really pleased with that.
At that competition he talks about meeting Bob Hoffman, coach of the US Olympic Weightlifting Team (who also founded two magazines and the York Barbell company) .
Bob gave him a lot of praise for his physique saying that if Bob himself had had a body like that he’d “walk around with [his] shirt off all the time”. This gave Frank a lot of confidence, and probably helped motivate him to stay with bodybuilding.
Frank Zane Bodybuilding Career
By 1964 Frank was 22 and had won over 20 amateur bodybuilding competitions, he moved to Florida and eventually met his wife Christine.
In 1965 he won his first IFBB contest, the Mr Universe. He followed that up by winning the IFBB Mr America in 1966 and 67, before coming third in the 1967 Mr Universe.
In 1968 Frank Zane defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Mr Universe title, held in Miami. He is only the third person to ever achieve this feat .
After his Miami victory Frank and Christine moved to California to progress their training, as this allowed him to train with many other professional bodybuilders.
Frank claims that the two best people he ever trained with were his wife and Arnold, claiming that Arnold’s commitment to bodybuilding was unrivalled by anyone else he had ever met .
In 1969 Zane won the Mr Universe title, and he won it again in 1970. He won the PRO Mr Universe titles in 71 and 72, before coming 4th in his first Mr Olympia competition.
In that competition he finished behind Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva, and Serge Nubret, three of the greatest bodybuilders of their era.
In 1974 Zane came second to Franco Columbu in the Under 200lb category and came 4th overall as Schwarzenegger won his fifth title.
Zane didn’t win the title until 1977 when he won his category and then defeated Robby Robinson (who won the heavyweight title) to become the overall Mr Universe champion.
Robbie claimed that he only lost because the judges favoured white bodybuilders – whether this is true or not is up for debate.
He defeated Robby again in 1978, then defeated Mike Mentzer in 1979. But shortly before defending his title in the 1980 competition, Frank Zane suffered a near-fatal car crash that led to him losing 15lbs of muscle.
He still managed a third place finish, behind Chris Dickerson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger – who had come out of retirement to win the competition. Something that was very controversial with the other competitors who thought that his win was undeserved.
In 1980 Frank and Christine opened Zane Haven, a gym and bodybuilder learning centre that was situated in Palm Springs. They built a bigger venue in 1987, now Frank teaches nutrition and fitness using his website (frankzane.com).
Frank Zane’s Legacy
Whilst he was active, Frank was known as the Chemist. A nickname he received due to his constant experimentation with nutritional supplements. But also thanks to his degree in Science, and his teaching of Chemistry.
Zane’s main legacy would be the raised profile of aesthetics in bodybuilding.
Today, most professional bodybuilders are absolutely huge, whereas the “natural” bodybuilders are much similar in size to Zane.
Many people would prefer it if bodybuilding returned to this type of winner, but this seems less and less likely.
Zane should also be remembered as a bodybuilder who experimented and really thought about the science behind lifting.
The clichéd view of a bodybuilder is that of a meathead who lifts weights without having a brain. But Frank Zane was the antithesis of this, teaching Chemistry, coming first in his class at High School, and being an intelligent and thoughtful interviewee.
Zane’s obvious intelligence does not set him apart from most bodybuilders, the idea that professional bodybuilders aren’t smart is ridiculous when you consider what they have to achieve to get where they do.
The way Zane changed his training from high reps/low weights to heavy weights/low reps demonstrates that he was prepared to trust the advice of others, and it really worked for him – though the predicted injuries definitely did come with that!
Overall you would call Frank Zane a gentleman of bodybuilding, who out-thought a lot of his competition, did things his way, and changed the face of bodybuilding (albeit only for a short, golden time).