Written by Ron Harris
28 December 2018


Franco Columbu

The Strongest Mr. Olympia Of All Time is Still Going Strong!


I got my first look at Franco Columbu late one night as a kid watching the iconic bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.” In it, they showed him training with his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger for the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest. While they both had incredible physiques, Franco had something else: stupendous strength. In one scene, Arnold made Franco laugh while he was bench-pressing 405. After a long pause with the bar on his chest, Columbu continued pushing out reps. In another scene filmed in his native Sardinia, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy, he was shown lifting the back end of a car and swinging it over to the curb, as well as blowing up a hot water bottle. Franco didn’t just look strong— he was strong! He would go on to win two Mr. Olympia titles, act in several films including “Conan the Barbarian” and “The Terminator,” and become a chiropractor still practicing today at the age of 77. It was my great privilege to finally interview this living legend.


How did you start weight training? Was it for boxing?

It was sort of the other way around. When I was a teenager, around 14, 15 and 16, I did a lot of heavy labor with rocks and stones in Sardinia. I would carry heavy blocks of granite up hills and upstairs and so on. At 16, there was a weightlifting competition there organized for first-timers only. I had no idea what the technique was for the lifts, but somehow, I won anyway. Someone said I would make a good boxer because I was so strong, so I went to a boxing club and did that for three years.


When did weightlifting become more important than boxing?

When I was 19, I moved to Germany for more opportunities, and I was still boxing. I would fight in matches in the Oktoberfest and other places and I was pretty good. By then I was also doing weight training regularly, too. There was a conflict in me to decide which one to pursue because I was good at both and enjoyed both. Then I had some friends who said they wouldn’t be my friend anymore if I continued boxing. They were worried for my health and hated seeing me getting punched in the head and the face so much. They said, why don’t you just do weightlifting? If you can’t lift a weight, you just put it back down on the ground. That’s much safer than having someone punching you hundreds of times in a few minutes. That made sense to me.


How did you meet Arnold?

I can tell you the exact day. It was October 30, 1965, in Stuttgart. There were two competitions being held together, a powerlifting meet and the Junior Mr. Europe bodybuilding show. I was training at the time in Albert Busek’s gym in Munich. I had helped him build it, and it had only opened recently. I won the powerlifting event, and Arnold won the bodybuilding. I knew all the good bodybuilders in Germany because of my gym, and I had never seen Arnold before. On stage as we were getting our trophies, I asked him why I didn’t know him. Arnold said, “I’m not from Germany, I’m from Austria.” We started talking, and we’ve been friends ever since.


How did you end up moving to the USA?

From Germany, Arnold and I went to London. That was the mecca of bodybuilding in Europe at the time. Every year they held the NABBA Mr. Universe contest there. The second year he won that, he was contacted by Joe Weider’s assistant and invited to come to America to compete in the IFBB Mr. Universe. That’s where he was beaten by Frank Zane. Arnold was already in the USA, and he told Joe, “Listen, I need my training partner, Franco Columbu, here with me if I’m going to be the best bodybuilder in the world. No one is as strong as Franco and can motivate me as much in the gym.” I remember Joe had trouble remembering my name for a while. He thought I was General Francisco Franco from Spain, or Christopher Columbus who discovered America. Joe agreed, so I sold my car and bought my plane ticket to Los Angeles.


What was the original Gold’s Gym like? We only got glimpse of it in the movie “Pumping Iron.” It’s hard to imagine now having almost all the best bodybuilders in the world at one gym.

A combination of different things made that gym special. First was the atmosphere. That building had been a house before, so it wasn’t too big. You couldn’t get lost in it. Everyone there was a serious bodybuilder, and most of us competed. One thing no one ever talks about is how far ahead of his time Joe Gold was with the equipment there, which he built himself. For one example, most companies make the dumbbell handles too long and they are difficult to balance. Joe made them shorter. I could barely fit my hand inside those dumbbells, but they were easier to balance and felt so much better to use. Joe also perfected the various cable stations, like the crossover, triceps pushdown, seated row and lat pulldown. Before then, all of those were noisy and had a lot of friction. Joe figured out how to make them smoother, so you could use more weight and get a better feel in the muscle. There was a vertical leg press that worked better than anything I’ve used since. It was perfectly balanced and smooth as a piston. He even made his own bars to feel more natural. With those things, you felt more motivated to train harder. Most of those machines were taken to his World Gym in Venice later when he sold the original Gold’s.


You had placed in the Mr. Olympia a couple of times and won the lightweight class twice in 1974 and 1975, with Arnold winning the heavyweight class and the overall title. What was it like in 1976 to finally win?

It felt great because for many years, no one who wasn’t 6 feet tall and well over 200 pounds had won the Mr. Olympia. I was 5-foot-4 and about 180-185 pounds, and beat Ken Waller for the overall. Then when I came back in 1981, there were no more weight classes, just one group. Back in 1970 at the IFBB Mr. Universe, I was the first short class winner to ever win the overall. To me that proved that you can win if you’re the best. It doesn’t matter how tall you are or how much you weigh.


You might have competed in a few more Mr. Olympia contests and won, but in 1977 you decided to enter the first World’s Strongest Man competition. You were running down a hill with a refrigerator strapped to your back when your leg folded under you. What were you thinking at that moment?

I was full of adrenaline and felt no pain. I looked down at my leg, and my patella, the kneecap, was turned around completely backward. First, I grabbed it and tried to put it back the right way myself. When that didn’t work, I yelled for someone to come help me do it so I could finish the race. I had been way ahead of the other guys when the accident happened. That put me out of competition for five years. After the surgery to repair all the torn ligaments, it took a year of rehab to get back to leg training. Then it took another four years to build all my size and strength back.


You did come back in 1981. Was your comeback motivated by Arnold’s the year before? You both retired and returned to win the Mr. Olympia five years later.

Arnold’s motivation was very different. He had been contracted to play Conan the Barbarian, which was to be directed by John Milius. The movie took much longer to start production than anticipated, with many delays. Arnold had intentionally slimmed down for acting roles, but then he started thinking that the character of Conan should look like a Mr. Universe or a Mr. Olympia. And he figured, why not go back and win the Mr. Olympia again right before filming began? I trained with him for that and got into very good shape. I almost competed in that 1980 Mr. Olympia myself, but I didn’t feel I was fully ready. That extra year gave me the time I needed to come back and win it again in 1981.


That 1981 Mr. Olympia was controversial, just like the 1980 Mr. Olympia in Sydney had been. Did it bother you that not everyone agreed with your win?

I feel that the controversy started with Arnold winning in 1980. People complained that he hadn’t submitted his application to compete in time and should never have been allowed to. That feeling carried over to the next year. What people didn’t know was that for many years, Mr. Olympia had only been won by a half a point or a point with men like Sergio Oliva, Arnold and Frank Zane. Their wins had all been very close. I won by 5.5 points, and published the score sheets in my book Franco Columbu’s Complete Book of Bodybuilding. You can see that three other men got first-place votes, but I got four first-place votes. There was no question I won.


Why didn’t you come back again in 1982 and go for a third title?

I didn’t want to be greedy. I was 100 percent satisfied with two Mr. Olympia wins.


How did you get interested in chiropractic medicine?

When you train heavy, you get aches and pains that never end. I saw a connection between muscles, bones, chiropractic and bodybuilding. Every time I got an ache or a pain, I would see a chiropractor. He helped me more than anyone else like a regular doctor ever did. I said, I need to learn more about this. That’s how I ended up going to chiropractic college. Medical doctors deal mostly with disease, and they prescribe drugs. We chiropractors can only recommend certain vitamins and minerals, and we work with the structure of the body. We fix problems with the muscles and bones. I am still practicing today because I love being able to help people feel better.


I want to give you credit for something. People always talk about Ronnie Coleman as being the strongest Mr. Olympia of all time. He deadlifted 800 pounds. You were also known for your deadlift power. What was the most you ever pulled?

I did 750 pounds at a bodyweight of 178-179 pounds while I was preparing to lift in a powerlifting meet in the 181-pound class.


So Ronnie did get 50 pounds more than you, but he weighed about 110 pounds more than you at the time! You’ve seen a lot of changes in the sport over the years. What are the good changes, and what are the bad ones?

There have been many positive changes. There is a lot more money and opportunities for the athletes today. The physiques have so much more definition. One thing that’s worse now is the posing. We used to work very hard on our posing with many hours of practice. Now you might see a guy doing a side chest and the other side of his body looks soft because he’s not flexing it. The drugs have changed a lot, too. Back in the old days, there were just a few simple drugs that were used in small amounts. That all began to change in the late 1980s and into the ‘90s. I always had bodybuilders as my patients, and they would talk to me about what they were using. I knew things were getting bad when I never heard of the drugs they were taking. I would say, what is that? They make it for horses? Growth hormone, what does that do for you? And so on. And then you have all these different divisions today. To me, when you start adding weight classes and divisions, you dilute the sport and the champions.


I know you believe in holistic approaches and “complementary medicine.” I understand that you’ve recently partnered with Iso-Sport that specializes in all-natural CBD products. How did that come about?

It was one of those crazy coincidences that happen in life. I was looking into the different applications of CBD oil and was impressed at how much money has been spent on the research. It’s been billions of dollars. They’ve been looking into how to use it to alleviate aches and pains and for many other beneficial purposes. Then, I was contacted by Iso-Sport to see if I would be interested in evaluating their product line and possibly work together. I’ve been using them for a while now and I’m very happy with the results.


Is this something that could have been beneficial to you and your peers back in the old days?

Oh, no question. It makes you feel better and manages the types of pain you have as a hard-training athlete.


Well, thank you so much, Franco. It has been an honor to finally interview you, and I am so happy you are now joining Team MD with your own column every month.

You’re very welcome.


Website: http://www.columbu.com

IG: @francocolumbu


For more information on Iso-Sport and their new CBD products, please visit isodiol.com/iso-sport/

IG: @isosportnow


Franco Columbu Contest History

1966 Mr. Europe – Fourth Place

1968 NABBA Mr. Universe – Second, Short, Most Muscular

1969 IFBB Mr. Europe – Medium Winner

1969 IFBB Mr. Universe – Short Winner

1969 NABBA Mr. Universe – Short Winner and Most Muscular

1969 IFBB Mr. World – Second, Short

1970 IFBB Mr. Europe – Short and Overall Champion

1970 IFBB Mr. Universe – Short and Overall Champion

1970 NABBA Mr. Universe – Second, Short

1970 AAU Mr. World – Pro Short Winner

1970 IFBB Mr. World – Short Winner

1971 IFBB Mr. World – Short and Overall Champion

1972 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Fifth Place

1973 IFBB Mr. International – Pro Champion

1973 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Second Place

1974 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Lightweight Winner

1975 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Lightweight Winner

1976 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Lightweight and Overall Champion

1981 IFBB Mr. Olympia – Winner


Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area. Facebook Instagram







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