Franco Columbu, the most celebrated of Arnold’s training partners over the years, was also a great champion in his own right. Here, he reflects on some of his sessions in the weight room with The Oak

Interview by Jimmy Pena, MS, CSCS | Photos courtesy Weider Health and Fitness

For our online photo gallery of Franco, click here.

I don’t know about you, but when I see these black and white photos of Arnold and the others, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to be in that room. Seriously. And not just among them, but training with them. An incredible pump, a sweat-filled T-shirt, and posing at will. What a thought, huh? Well, for almost an hour, I felt like I was, because I recently spent some time with the constant partner. Of all the people that came in and out of Arnold’s private and public life, there was one perpetual devotee; the Oak’s right hand and the anchor of the greatest group of bodybuilders to ever grace a weight room, known the world over as Franco.

JP: So, for the five people who’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years, tell me a little about Franco.

Franco: My name is Franco Columbo, and I won several times Mr. Universe, and then a couple of times Mr. Olympia and four or five times my class Mr. Olympia. See, we used to have two classes. And then they brought it down to one class in 1976, which I was happy about, because I believe there should only be one Mr. Olympia, you see.

JP: Take us back to how you got started…

Franco: Well, I come from the mountains of Sardinia; a very small town, like a thousand people. I worked a few jobs. I did bricklaying, and I was a shepherd and all the small stuff, nothing really big, you know. And the first time I ever saw TV I was 16 years old. And actually, I was in a bar, because that was the only place in my town that had a TV. (laughs) So, there I was, in this bar watching a black and white television, and they were showing boxing from Madison Square Garden. And when I saw that, I got so excited, and I said ‘That’s what I’m gonna do! I’m gonna be boxing in Madison Square Garden someday!’ (laughs)

JP: Strongest boxer in history huh?

Franco: Well, it’s funny, because years later when I come for competition there — same same place you know in Madison Square Garden — I had so much energy when I was there, I could not believe that I was here in the same place where I used to watch boxing from my hometown. It was great! One time I did a deadlift there, and I filled up the bar and the bar was so filled up they couldn’t put the collars on the ends. So as I lifted, the weights kept coming off and rolling down toward the camera. And you could see the camera men running away with their cameras like Godzilla was coming toward them or something! (laughs) It was great!

JP: Tell me about the first time you met Arnold.

Franco: Well, I ended up going to Germany, obviously, and when Albert Busek opened his gym, I found his gym in Munich and it was empty. He was still bringing weights inside and still fixing the place up, and I told him that I would help him fix the walls and things, because I wanted to train here. And he told me they were not ready yet for people to use the gym, but I said it’s okay. I told him that I can train with whatever is here now. Honestly, I was probably the first member in his gymnasium.

So one day I asked Albert, I said ‘Listen, I want to compete in powerlifting’ and he says ‘You’re not strong enough’ and I said, ‘No?’ And I asked how much I needed to press and he said, ‘Oh if you don’t do 140 kilos in bench press forget it.’ And at the time, I could do, like, 120 kilos. So from then on I just went to the gym all the time — like I wouldn’t go home. I just trained and trained until finally I was able to lift 150 kilos. So one day, I called Albert over to show him that I could lift 150 kilos, and once he saw that I was strong enough, he said, ‘Good, now let’s go compete!’

Well, at the same competition they had the Mr. Europe, that same night. Well, I knew just about every bodybuilder by then. But there was this thing that came from Austria! Well, there were three bodybuilders who came from Austria, and one of them was Arnold, but I had never seen him or heard of him before. All three did so well that they beat almost all of the German guys. Well, so there was Arnold competing, and he wins! Can you believe, this was his first time out of the country of Austria, and he wins and everybody, including me, says, ‘Who is this guy?’ And I remember my first conversation with him. They were giving the trophies out.
First they gave me the trophy for winning the powerlifting show, then they give him the trophy for winning Junior Mr. Europe. Then I turned around and said, ‘who are you? Where you from?’ And he said, ‘My name is Arnold, and I am not from Germany, I am from Austria’. I said, ‘Austria? Really?’ Then I told him that I trained in Munich, and Arnold immediately said, ‘I’m gonna come and train with you in Munich.’ I said, ‘Really?’ But, of course, I had heard this before by other bodybuilders, you know, from Italy and from other places but they never came to train with me.

JP: Did you think he was serious?

Franco: He looked serious, but you know it’s hard to believe cause everybody said that to me at that time. So finally one day back in Munich, I go to train and Arnold comes to the door! (laughs) He comes to meet me at the door of the gym and he says, ‘Hi there, can I help you?’ And I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ (laughs). Smiling he said, ‘I am the new trainer here.’ And I said, ‘You are the new trainer?’ I was laughing, and I said, ‘How come I don’t know about it? I am here everyday?’ Well, turned out that Albert gave Arnold a place to stay right in the gym; a little room, the bed was too short for him, which was the funniest thing! (laughs) His legs would hang off the end. But yes, that’s how I met Arnold and that’s how we got started. He said he would show up and he did.

JP: What was that first workout like?

Franco: Well, one of our first workouts was on chest, and we used to do inclines, but we didn’t have an incline bench! Arnold asked how we were going to do inclines without an incline bench? And I said to him, ‘With an abdominal board.’ And I showed him that all we have to do is put it against the wall and then we will clean the weight from the floor and fall backwards on the incline board. Arnold said, ‘Good’, so we did inclines that way. And the board would bounce ‘boom, boom!’ (laughs) and then we almost killed ourselves taking it from the chest to floor. And I remember one time cracking the bench when we went really heavy. And I also remember leaning to the left and the tip of the bar hit against the wall and made a big hole. We were laughing, but we had to fix it, and me knowing some construction, I knew how to fix it. So I put plastic cement over the hole until it was soft, and I said to Arnold that I had to go home, but that I needed him to take the tray and tools, and when the cement gets a little hard, to make it nice and even, nice and smooth. Arnold said, ‘Oh yeah, I see, of course’. Well, I come back the next day and the cement was hard but he never touched it! (laughing) And Arnold says to me ‘Look Franco, it looks rough and crooked,’ and I said, ‘Of course it looks crooked, you were supposed to fix it!’ He said, ‘No, I don’t do construction, I’m only a trainer remember?’

JP: What was the craziest moment in the gym?

Franco: Well one of the craziest moments involved Albert. Back then Albert sold vitamins and minerals. And he kept telling us that brewer’s yeast will help you build muscles. And when we started taking this brewers yeast, I thought my skin was shining! I mean, it really felt better, and wow, we never took brewers yeast before and we really liked it! Then I said to Arnold, ‘You know they have brewers yeast in beer!’ So we thought, ‘Hey, it might be a good idea to drink beer when we trained!'(laughs). So downstairs was a bar and a little restaurant, and because the owner knew us, he said we could pay once a week, and then we could come down and get beer every day. So we would look out across the street and at the hotels. And people in the hotels used to watch us because the windows were open. We would do a set, then after a couple of sets, we would go drink a little beer in the window, then do more sets.
So one day when we went downstairs, the guy said, ‘No more beer for you guys.’ When we asked why he said that that had no more mugs for their customers! He said we took beer but didn’t bring back the mugs. So I went upstairs and told Arnold the guy won’t give us any more beer because we have all the mugs! They were all in the windows. We had ten mugs in each window! So the rest of the day probably we spent going up and down stairs taking all the mugs back so that we could have more beer, cause we needed it to train! Crazy times in the gym!

JP: About the gym, not having all the equipment, did you brainstorm on what and how to train given the limited pieces of equipment?

Franco: Yes, it was just incredible, we had so much fun from the beginning because we would do all these crazy things in the gym, because the equipment was so old. But we didn’t always make it up. No, at that time, Joe Weider had booklets out. We had his booklets, you know, brochures. We said, look they train this way, that way. And Arnold knew a little from Austria, and I learned from Munich. So with our limited experience, together with the Weider Principles and the booklets, we would try different things.

Like for example, we would put a chin bar on the wall, and I had it in my head that the wider my grip then the better it would be for my lats. I didn’t know why, I just felt it would be better. I just really felt that if I went really wide, my lats would come out more. And I remember Arnold saying, ‘You’re gripping it too wide, your arms are too short, you can’t even reach it!’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I feel it stretching.’ So, we used to argue about that, of course. And so we learned from each other all the time. Constantly challenging and competing with each other. And with the craziest things we could think of.

Oh, yeah, I remember, Arnold had no calves, his upper body was good, but no calves. So he goes now into his competitions, and even though he was winning, his calves were still no good. And, his idol Reg Park, invites him to go to South Africa. I remember Arnold being so excited to go see Reg Park, it was Arnold’s idol, you know, Reg Park. So after he came back from South Africa, Arnold said, ‘Ok, we have to do this now for calves! We have to first do donkey raises and then standing raises.’ I said, ‘Two exercises for calves?! Are you crazy!’ We just did not do that back then! And so we started doing more and more for calves, and the calves started growing.

JP: What did you learn most from Arnold in the gym?

Franco: We started doing a lot of deadlifts. And the reason why, we would go to Oktoberfest. And there was this stein, they call it the stein. It was stone, a pyramid type of thing. And anyone who could lift it the highest, then they would put the name there the whole year. I remember this farmer was the champion, and I could not lift it any higher cause I was too short, but I told Arnold, that I can’t believe it, I can do more deadlift than you and you beat me and I didn’t like it. And we used to compete in powerlifting all the time. They had two classes, above two hundred, below two hundred. And a few years later, when he started competing, I would win all of them. And we transferred powerlifting to bodybuilding, and that was the best education for us. The muscles looked stronger and better, and that was the best education that we ever learned. Also, we always drank beer, we never went on a diet.

For our online photo gallery of Franco, click here.