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Louis Jude Ferrigno started lifting weights when he was 12½ years old to protect himself against bullies who made fun of his hearing loss, the same punks who made it a game to pull Ferrigno’s hearing aids out of his ears at school and in the neighborhood (as a baby, an untreated ear infection cost Ferrigno 85% of his hearing). This little boy from Brooklyn, driven by fear, insecurity, and his survival instinct, grew into one of the most massive men—6'5" and 325 pounds at the 1992 Mr. Olympia—ever to grace a bodybuilding stage and the planet.
The original mass monster, Ferrigno’s competitive heyday was the mid-1970s. During this, the sport’s golden era, bodybuilding’s “Big Louie” battled it out against the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Serge Nubret, and Sergio Oliva. He left competitive bodybuilding when his acting career took off, but made a comeback to the Olympia stage in the early 1990s. The names in the game had changed to Dorian Yates, Kevin Levrone, and Flex Wheeler, and Ferrigno found himself in arguably the most competitive era of the sport. At the 1992 Mr. Olympia, where a 41-year-old Ferrigno placed a respectable 12th out of 22 competitors, the men he beat included 1983 Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout and future eight-time champ Ronnie Coleman. In 1994, he placed second at the inaugural Masters Olympia.
Today, at age 62, this 1973 IFBB Mr. America and two-time IFBB Universe winner (1973–1974), is a quiet, thoughtful, introspective man. Thanks to his enormous physique and run as CBS’ The Hulk from 1977–1981, Lou Ferrigno is one of two bodybuilders who are truly household names (Arnold Schwarzenegger being the obvious other). He still works out and his acting career continues with work on The Celebrity Apprentice and The King of Queens, as well as voice-over work in Adventure Time and 2012’s blockbuster movie The Avengers. A family man, Lou and his wife of 34 years, Carla, have three grown children and live in California, where they held this November’s NPC and IFBB Ferrigno Legacy Contest.
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FLEX: When you started working out, whose physiques did you admire?
LOU FERRIGNO: Larry Scott’s and Dave Draper’s. I’d been reading comic books as a kid and also admired the physiques I found in the pages of Superman and Spider-Man. I was a big fan of the Steve Reeves’ Hercules films made in Italy [1957’s Hercules and 1959’s Hercules’ Unchained; Lou would go on to star in later Hercules films himself]. I started training at 12½ [years of age], trying to put on some size.
You attended the Mr. Olympia in 1966 and saw Larry Scott defend his title.
LF: I was 14 years old and they were holding it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music across the street from my high school. Larry had won the year before at the first Mr. Olympia contest; the only man, incidentally, to win the contest in his first attempt.
Who did you go there with? Your dad?
LF: I went there all by myself. I remember they were having the competition and I was so excited it was across the street from Brooklyn Tech High School. I walked across the street and bought a ticket. I had the first row in the balcony. [Laughs] I was holding onto that ticket like my life depended on it.
Let’s talk about the way you trained in the 1970s versus the way you trained for your competitive comeback in the ’90s. Were there any major differences?
LF: I basically trained the same. I trained each body part twice a week. Twelve sets total of usually three exercises for eight to 10 reps. In the 1990s it was the same thing, but I did more cardio and I was able to eat more.
Did you train for a pump or did you train to go to failure?
How did your nutrition change from the ’70s to the ’90s?
LF: Well, in the 1970s, I was mostly starving myself. It was a very basic meat-fish-water diet. Very clean meats, low in carbohydrates. That’s why it was so difficult for me to finish workouts, because I had so few carbs in me. In the ’90s, because of the change in emphasizing cardio, I was able to consume more carbohydrates and had the energy to train twice a day.
In the 1970s, at your biggest, what did you weigh?
LF: In Pumping Iron [centered around the 1975 Mr. Olympia] I was 268 pounds. The year before, at the Universe, I was 250. I was 275 when I won the Mr. America in 1973.
What supplements were available to you in the 1970s?
LF: The only thing they had was meat protein powder. I used to buy that at GNC. I would mix it with water, hold my nose, and swallow it down. I didn’t want to use skim milk powder because I was trying to get as ripped as I could get. We didn’t have the variety of supplements bodybuilders have today.
And what supplements did you use in the 1990s?
LF: In the ’90s I didn’t use a lot of supplements, I just ate more. I would drink a protein shake to make sure I got all my meals and calories in.
When you say you ate more, how many meals a day were you eating in the 1970s versus the 1990s?
LF: I ate three meals a day in the ’70s compared to 5–6 meals a day in the ’90s.
When you trained for contests in the 1970s, which body part was the toughest to get to respond?
LF: My back. I had to train my back to be equal to my front. I wanted to increase the size and definition in my back, bring out the striations.
Which body part was the easiest for you to build?
LF: Chest and arms.
In the ’90s, your back was great.
LF: I learned to train it the right way. I learned to focus on feeling my back when I did pulling movements instead of having my biceps override the back.
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In your opinion, what separated a mass monster like you from a more aesthetic bodybuilder like Frank Zane?
LF: It was genetics, but it was also the way we trained. I trained very heavy. I wanted to get as thick and big as I could be. My joints and bone structure were able to hold more mass. Frank had small bones and was able to perfect his symmetry. I think if he had been able to put on much more size, he would have lost his symmetry because he was so aesthetic.
You were Michael Jackson’s personal trainer shortly before his death in 2009. When you trained him, how were you training him?
LF: I used bands, very light dumbbells, and machines. I had him do high intensity. We were focusing on stamina and flexibility. He was a very nice man.
As a competitor, which was a tougher generation: the bodybuilders you faced in the 1970s or the guys you faced in the 1990s?
LF: The 1990s. The guys were more completely developed. They had striations, they had glutes. Everyone had to have legs. Bodybuilding had changed so much. In the ’70s you went to a contest and competed in the evening; they didn’t have the prejudging in the morning or the day before like today where everything is so critical.
When you competed in the mid-’70s there were often only two or three men in the heavyweight class. But when you came back in the 1990s, you were going up against 22 guys at the ’92 and ’93 Mr. Olympias and 12 guys at the ’94 Masters Olympia.
LF: I was the youngest one when I competed in the ’70s. When I came back I was the oldest guy on the Olympia stage. I had to develop the hunger to compete after 17 years of not training for contests.
What made you come back? What was the hunger?
LF: When I starred in Pumping Iron, I walked away feeling unfinished because I wasn’t at my best. I’d only trained for eight weeks because I was focusing on the Superstars competition [The Superstars, a network series where athletes from different sports competed in events; Ferrigno won one of the preliminary shows in 1976] so I didn’t have much time to train the way I needed to. I wanted to compete one more time to see how far I could take my body. To push the limits and see how big, thick, and cut I could get. I didn’t want to leave the sport unfinished. I didn’t want to look back one day and say, if only I could have competed one more time…I knew that when I came back it was going to be tough to do well because the game had changed so much with the level of development of the physiques. But I did it for myself, to see what I could do with my body.
Do you ever regret not competing in the 1976 Mr. Olympia?
LF: I did back then, but you know, doing The Hulk series made me a major superstar. I had to give up one.
Ken Waller won the Olympia heavyweight class in 1976. Mike Katz placed second. You’d beaten both men before.
LF: Yeah. I knew that if I had continued competing I would have won the Olympia at least eight or 10 times.
Do you miss competing?
LF: No. Sometimes I have the urge to go onstage, but it’s not about competing against the other guys. It’s about competing against myself and posing. I loved being onstage and competing when I was up there. Today, I just want to look good at my age and feel and be healthy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring bodybuilder who hopes to follow in your footsteps and be a mass monster?
LF: I’d tell him or her, take it one day at a time. Don’t overtrain. Listen to your body, because your body will tell you how much you need to train and how hard to push. And train smart. You don’t want to incur any injuries. FLEX