Written by Ron Harris
01 April 2017


A Star Profile: Lee Labrada - Brain Meets Brawn



Those of you that followed the sport of bodybuilding during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s need no introduction to Lee Labrada. Born in Cuba and raised in Florida, Lee was known as ‘Mass with Class,’ a thinking man’s bodybuilder whose physique was living testimony that bigger isn’t better – better is better. Though his competitive weight was just 180-195 pounds at the heaviest, Labrada’s perfect proportions and symmetry, his shredded condition, and his polished and graceful posing and presentation allowed him to beat the biggest muscle men of his era: Rich Gaspari, Mike Christian, Berry DeMey, Mike Quinn, Gary Strydom, and more. Only one man stood between Lee and the Mr. Olympia title, and that was none other than 8-time champion Lee Haney. After many fierce battles, Lee stepped away from the stage still in his prime as the physiques rapidly grew larger and shape and aesthetics became passé. Lee turned his focus to starting up Labrada Nutrition, which has become one of the leading supplement companies in the industry. Married for 20 years and a father of three sons, Lee is still in great shape at 47 years young and very much still a part of the sport. I was thrilled when REPS asked me to interview Lee for their Legends series. Labrada was one of my early idols when I first got into the sport and I have always had the utmost respect for the man as well as admiration for what I feel was one of the greatest physiques a man has ever built. It was truly my pleasure to speak with one of the sport’s handful of living legends, Lee Labrada.

Interview conducted in 2007.


RH: Lee, you inspired me and countless others to sculpt our physiques into something extraordinary. Who were your influences as a teen?

LL: The first magazine I ever bought was an issue of Muscle Builder and Power, which later became Muscle and Fitness. Danny Padilla and Frank Zane were on the cover, and inside I remember being amazed also by photos of Mike Mentzer and Franco Columbu. If I had to pick one man whose writing really inspired me in terms of training, it would be Mentzer.


RH: What legacy do you feel the great bodybuilders of the Eighties, like yourself, left in the sport? How did it compare to the Seventies before it, and the Nineties that followed?

LL: The Eighties was the last era before the coming of the mass monsters, as I call them. I tip my hat to all of them as I know it takes a lot of hard work to build that much size, but the physiques of the Eighties still preserved the unique lines of each individual. You also saw an overall quality of definition and separation to the muscles that is rare today due to the abuse of GH, insulin, and other drugs. I think a perfect example is Frank Zane. He wasn’t a huge man, but he won the Mr. Olympia three years in a row. If you saw his back shots, each individual muscle group was clearly carved out from the others, and there were all kinds of intricate striations and details. The men these days are much bigger, but you almost never see that type of detail and muscle quality anymore. The athletes are to blame, but so are the organizational bodies that rewarded mass as the most sought-after quality.


RH: Do you feel that there was more camaraderie among the guys when you were competing than there is today? Why?

LL: Guys that competed in the Sixties would tell you that they had more camaraderie than the bodybuilders of the Seventies, and Seventies bodybuilders had more than the pros in the Eighties, and so on. Human nature doesn’t change from decade to decade. A lot of the guys usually get along very well and become friends. Competition is a good thing, as long as you keep it in perspective and don’t make it out to be a life or death thing.


RH: When do you feel that the sport began to turn away from aesthetics and shape and became a pure mass contest? When did ‘freaky’ become a good thing?

LL: Lee Haney ushered in the age of the super monsters by being the first champion to weigh over 250 pounds on stage, but he still had great shape and a small waist and hips. I would say that the 1992 Mr. Olympia in Helsinki, Finland, was a crucial turning point. Dorian Yates, Kevin Levrone, and myself were all in the best conditions of our careers to that point, and any one of us could have logically been chosen that night as Mr. Olympia. The judges made their statement by making Dorian the champion. Freakiness has always been a big attraction in the sport of bodybuilding. Just as people go to the zoo to see lions, tigers, and elephants rather than dogs, cats, and squirrels, bodybuilding fans go to pro shows to see men that have far more extreme development than they can find in their local gym. You could argue that Arnold and Sergio Oliva had the freakiest physiques of their era. Size is a good thing. My only beef is when mass is pursued above all other qualities. That’s when it becomes merely mass-building, not bodybuilding.


RH: At what point did you decide it was time for you to leave the stage, and what were your motivations?

LL: When I began competing as a pro in 1986, I told my wife Robin that I would compete for no more than ten years, and if I wasn’t Mr. Olympia by age 35, I would retire and move on to other things. My final contest was the 1995 Arnold Classic. After that show, I knew that the sport had outgrown me physically, and I had outgrown the sport mentally and in terms of maturity.


RH: What are you most proud of about your competitive career, and do you have any regrets or things you would have done differently?

LL: I am very proud that I never placed lower than fourth in seven consecutive years at the Mr. Olympia. I wasn’t the Babe Ruth of bodybuilding; I was more like the Joe DiMaggio. The only regret is that I didn’t compete more as a pro. There were a few years when the only contest I did was the Olympia. I should have done more Arnold Classics and Grand Prix shows.


RH: What do you think of the GH guts and lumpy Synthol shoulders and arms that started becoming more prominent in the late 90’s and still plague the sport today?

LL: Synthol has no place in the sport at all. It’s not real muscle, more like an implant. Synthol and the GH bellies are two ugly trends that do nothing but detract from physiques. They have largely been overlooked by the judges, simply because they are so common. You can’t penalize everybody.


RH: Who would you rate as some of the top physiques of all time, in no particular order?

LL: Lee Haney, Flex Wheeler, and Frank Zane come to mind immediately, though I am sure there are a few more.


RH: Your training was of the brief, high-intensity mold that men like Mentzer and Yates practiced in the Eighties and Nineties, and is currently enjoying a revival with systems like DC Training. How did you arrive at the conclusion that higher volume and frequency wasn’t the best way to go for your physique?

LL: When I started training in the late Seventies, the standard was to train six times a week with about twenty sets per bodypart. I did that, and didn’t see great results. Then I was exposed to the writings of Mike Mentzer, and with my engineering background, the logic of Heavy Duty appealed to me. I never did the extremely low volume, more like 6-8 sets for smaller bodyparts, 10-12 for larger muscle groups, and a lot of pre-exhaust. I responded very well and continued to train that way throughout my career.


RH: We hear a lot about major muscle tears and other terrible injuries among today’s pros. How did you avoid injuries when you were competing?

LL: I was never stupid or reckless with the weights I used, and I always listened to my body. If you respect your body and back off when you feel an injury type of pain starting, or your joints are sore, you won’t have many problems. I am still training at age 47, and I don’t have any aches or pains at all.


RH: How and when did Labrada Nutrition come about?

LL: I launched Labrada Nutrition in 1997, after I had worked with two of the biggest supplement companies in the industry, Weider Nutrition and Met-Rx. At that time, my only product was the Lean Body meal replacement powder, in one flavor. Eventually we added bars, RTD’s, and other products geared toward gaining muscle and losing fat. Within six years, we became an Inc. 500 company.


RH: The supplement business is notoriously competitive. How have you managed to stay successful all these years?

LL: I give all the credit to the customers. They kept coming back because these were products that tasted good, and that they could trust. My motto was and still is, ‘if it’s on the label, it’s in the product.’ We are the only company in the industry that has every batch of our product tested for purity and potency at an independent lab. I would say that the driving factor in our growth and success has been honesty. The products are effective, and they meet label claim.


RH: You also went on a mission to get the citizens of Houston in shape. How did that start, and what have the results been like so far?

LL: There was an article in Men’s Fitness that named Houston the fattest city in America. A lot of my friends in the industry called up to tease me about that. I took it as a challenge and decided to do something about it. I met with Mayor Lee Brown and the City Council, and he appointed me the first Fitness Czar of Houston. We set up a web site in English and Spanish with a free 12-week Lean Body program for fat loss. Two years later, the Mayor and I went on The Today Show with Matt Lauer to proudly announce that Houston was no longer the fattest city in the nation. I also appeared on shows like CNN’s Crossfire, Squawkbox on MSNBC, Fox and Friends, and numerous other national and local news programs to discuss the obesity problem in the USA and how exercise and good nutrition can reverse this disturbing trend.


RH: If I recall correctly, you also authored a book, The Lean Body Promise.

LL: That was published in 2005, and was one of the top five sellers at www.BarnesandNoble.com. I also set up a web site, www.LeanBodyPromise.com. It has a newsletter we email to 60,000 people every week, as well as free online coaching. I have been very blessed thanks to the fitness lifestyle, and now my mission is to inform, educate, and inspire others to reach their fitness goals.


RH: I think it’s excellent that you are giving back like that, and I very much appreciated speaking with you.

LL: You’re very welcome.


Always the Bridesmaid

“Lee Haney is arguably the greatest Mr. Olympia of all time, a very worthy champion. I pride myself on being the man that came closest to beating him during his reign. I was actually ahead of him going into the finals in 1990. Many fans felt that in 1989 and 1990 I could have won, and at that time it did bother me; but in retrospect I realize that everything happens for a reason. As for those two years, the pictures and videos speak for themselves.”


Lee on Mr. O ‘Dynasties’

“Bodybuilding is like many other sports that are judged subjectively. A champion has momentum, thus the argument that a Mr. Olympia has to be knocked out decisively. It was refreshing to see Jay Cutler beat Ronnie Coleman, because it got the sport out of that track, at least for now. I have seen Mr. Olympias that were carried by momentum, and also men that certainly deserved at least one Sandow but never got one. Flex Wheeler comes to mind, and possibly Shawn Ray. I think it’s boring when the same guy wins every year over and over again. That would be like if the same team won the Superbowl eight years in a row. How exciting would that be?”


Lee on the sport today (2007)

“The quest for raw size and the abuse of pharmaceuticals has led to many of the physiques today looking almost identical. Back in the 1980’s, you could have taken the top ten from the Mr. Olympia, put them behind a screen so you could only see a silhouette, and you still would have been able to identify each one, whether it was myself, Boyer Coe, Mohammed Makkewy, etc. There is such a commonality to the physiques these days that this would be far more difficult.”


Competition Highlights

1985 NPC Nationals                                                Middleweight winner

1985 IFBB World Amateur Championships                Middleweight winner (pro status)

1986 IFBB Night of Champions                                Winner

1987 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Third place

1988 IFBB Grand Prix England                                 Winner

1988 IFBB Grand Prix Greece                                   Winner

1988 IFBB Grand Prix Spain                                     Winner

1988 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Fourth place

1989 IFBB Grand Prix England                                 Winner

1989 IFBB Grand Prix Finland                                  Winner

1989 IFBB Grand Prix Holland                                 Winner

1989 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Second place

1990 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Second place

1991 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Fourth place

1992 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Third place

1993 IFBB Arnold Classic                                         Second place

1993 IFBB Mr. Olympia                                            Fourth place







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