Workout Routines

Remembering Bodybuilding Legend "The Myth" Sergio Oliva

This past November one of bodybuilding's true icons passed. M&F looks back at the training and trials of the sport's original mass monster.

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“Hey, baby, take a look at this shot!” The taunt came from Sergio Oliva, and the sensitive ears that absorbed it were Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. It was the 1969 Mr. Olympia contest, and Arnold, already victorious earlier that day in the Mr. Universe, had brazenly decided to enter the o for the first time to take on Oliva—winner of bodybuilding’s top crown two years running and widely regarded as bodybuilding’s all-time greatest champion. “I said to myself, ‘Tonight I’m going to wipe him off,’ ” Arnold recalled in his 1977 autobiography, The Education of a Bodybuilder. Then he saw Sergio. “It was as jarring as if I’d walked into a wall…He was so huge, so fantastic. There was no way I could even think of beating him. I admitted my defeat and felt some of my pump go away.” That’s right—bodybuilding’s master of psychology, the man who ran roughshod over Lou Ferrigno in Pumping Iron, and whose name is virtually synonymous with the sport he dominated for so many years was…psyched out!

What giant of a man must it take to make Arnold Schwarzenegger feel small? The only correct answer is Sergio Oliva—the black cuban refugee who owned the Olympia from 1967 to 1969, and remains one of bodybuilding’s most revered veterans. By all accounts, Oliva was the sport’s first “mass monster”—a beast of mythic proportions (hence the moniker “the Myth”), which included 22-inch arms and 30-inch thighs, separated by a minuscule 28-inch waistline. At 5'10" and a competitive weight between 225 and 245 pounds, Oliva invented a pose only he had the size and shape to pull of. Called the “victory” pose, it requires extending the arms straight overhead with fists goosenecked—a shot that tends to make anyone else who tries it look skinny.

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Oliva’s lat spread was so formidable that Schwarzenegger himself, whose lats remain some of history’s most impressive, said he’d never seen anything like them. in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold remembered how Sergio strategized to walk around backstage wearing a long butcher’s coat to hide the goods. “[He had] his shoulders pulled in, looking very narrow…I remember thinking that his back didn’t look very big. But then he lowered the boom: as he walked out into the light on his way to the stage, he said, ‘Take a look at this!’ and he flared his lats.” The effect was somewhat like a giant vampire bat swooping in for the kill.

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Constructing a Myth

Oliva began his training in Cuba as an Olympic-style weightlifter. His natural, freakish athletic ability and strength earned him a spot on the national team, but in 1962, Oliva defected and wound up in Chicago. There he formed a friendship with fellow lifter and bodybuilder Bob Gajda, who would later win the 1966 Mr. America contest. Gajda worked for the YMCA and ran the gym that Oliva would adopt in his new hometown. “He taught me weightlifting, and I taught him bodybuilding,” Gajda says.

Oliva’s weightlifting background helped him in his bodybuilding debut in an organization that included lifting as a judged element of its bodybuilding competitions. “[Olympic lifting] gave him these columns of muscle on his back,” Gajda says, referring to his spinal erectors. Years of heavy cleans and snatches added depth to Oliva’s back that most other competitors couldn’t dream of matching. As for his strength, Gajda places him among the strongest bodybuilders of all time. “He came into the gym one time with shower thongs on and snatched 260 pounds. His butt got so low it was almost on the floor.”

But Oliva’s gift for Olympic lifting was anything but—he paid the price for his talents. He had hypermobile elbows and knees, and while they allowed him to stimulate more muscle by training through greater ranges of motion than the normal lifter, his joints were regularly overstretched and strained. “After a while, he couldn’t lock out lifts because his elbows would dislocate or his knees would bend backward,” Gajda says. This nudged Oliva away from weightlifting to focus on pure physique competition, and it led to the use of partial reps—now the trademark of his workout style.

In order to avoid excessive stretching on his joints, Oliva tended to cut his reps short, sometimes performing only one quarter of the range of motion. He would lower his curls until his forearms were parallel to the floor, or do bench presses and stop the bar several inches from lockout. Sometimes, Oliva would do three to six quarter-range reps followed by a single full rep for good measure.

His workouts lasted as long as two hours, yet the training was always fast paced. Oliva believed in pumping his muscles until the skin nearly split, and he used as many as six sets of 20- plus reps to get there. His form was loose but not sloppy, keeping tension on the target muscles while sparing the connective tissues. He later remarked, “People say I just pump the weights. well, I don’t know about that, but you take a look at my arms and tell me what I do doesn’t work.”

As he got older (Oliva competed well into the 1980s, when he was in his mid-40s), he became more conscious of his increased need for recuperation, and he cut his training frequency back. whereas in the late ’60s he trained five consecutive days per week, he didn’t feel he had to be so regimented in the twilight of his career. “If my body says I must rest, take a day of, I do exactly that,” Oliva said in 1985. “I don’t buy the idea that you’ve got to train five times a week. You do what your body says, and you’ll be doing the right thing.”

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For all his potential, it often seemed as if there were so many factors striving to prevent Oliva from fulfilling it, apart from his unstable joints. “He had nature’s most beautiful body,” Gajda says, “and yet all these handicaps at the same time.” while bodybuilding purses are impressive today, Oliva couldn’t make ends meet in the ’60s without tackling a succession of odd jobs. as an immigrant struggling with English, not to mention prejudice in the midst of the civil rights movement, Oliva had to work many grueling labor jobs that detracted from his training. “He ended up working in a junkyard with a sledgehammer,” Gajda says. “It’s hard to go work out after doing that all day,” so one can only imagine if Oliva might have been even more amazing had he had optimal time for recovery. It’s an answer we’ll never have.

In addition, the politics of sports surely played a factor in many of Oliva’s close losses, possibly denying him titles and fame that would have extended his reputation. (Gajda snickers that no one was going to give a Cuban immigrant the title “Mr. America.”) and then, of course, there was still Arnold to deal with—Oliva’s greatest rival. More famous than the story of Sergio psyching out Arnold are the times when “the oak” got the better of “The Myth.” leading up to one contest, Gajda remembers Arnold boasting to Sergio that he was going to compete at 255 pounds. “He put that number in Sergio’s mind,” Gajda says. As a result, Oliva, who already looked fantastic at 235, scrambled to gain weight so as not to be outgunned, and ended up looking soft and bloated onstage. The oak, meanwhile, showed up for the contest lean and mean, and easily won the day.

A Myth Retold

Sergio Oliva died this past November at age 71 after a long battle with kidney disease. He is survived by his son, Sergio Jr., an NPC amateur bodybuilder. Besides raising the standard for muscle mass and conditioning, blazing a path for latter-day monsters like Ronnie Coleman and Phil Heath, Oliva’s legacy includes being the first black Mr. O, and possibly more notably, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest rival. Which raises the question, would Arnold have become Arnold if he hadn’t had the likes of Sergio to push him?

Sergio Oliva Arnold and Sergio were rivals, but they respected each other, exchanged ideas, and even trained together on occasion. Here, the Oak came to check out the Myth during one of his workouts in preparation for his comeback at the 1984 Mr. Olympia in new York City. Sergio Oliva is arguably the best bodybuilder ever. And yet as good as he was, he could have been even better, if only he’d given a damn about competitive bodybuilding.

Although he’s known mostly as a three-time Mr. Olympia (1967–69), Oliva started out as an Olympic weightlifter. He was the top-ranked light-heavyweight on the vaunted Cuban weightlifting team when he defected during the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games held in Kingston, Jamaica. He immigrated to the United States shortly after, heading north to Chicago in 1963. It was while just remembered his poses the second before hitting them. He’d race through each shot with little in the way of transitions, never quite conveying the full impact of the Oliva physique, the one that well-timed photos do. Oliva could also have helped his cause, both onstage and in marketing himself, by playing nice with Joe and Ben Weider, who ran competitive bodybuilding almost singlehandedly during his heyday.

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