Standing at 5’5″ and weighing anywhere from 185 to 200 pounds, the late Franco Columbu can lay claim to being one of the — if not the — pound-for-pound strongest Mr. Olympia winners ever.
The “Sardinian Strongman” was renowned during his career for incredible feats of strength that went well beyond what bodybuilders typically display. He was proficient in powerlifting, tried his hand at the inaugural World’s Strongest Man (WSM) competition, and loved to show off with odd feats ranging from lifting cars to blowing up hot water bottles to tout his lung strength.
Along with his best friend and training partner Arnold Schwarzenegger, Columbu dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s bodybuilding scene and helped propel the sport into the mainstream. But we want to look beyond the plaudits and instead focus on the brass tacks: Just how strong was Franco Columbu? Let’s take a look.
Credit: @francocolumbu / Instagram
How Did Franco Columbu Train?
One thing to note about Columbu was his varied life in sports. He began as an amateur boxer in his native Sardinia, Italy, before switching to Olympic weightlifting, then to powerlifting, and finally, bodybuilding. With that came a variety of training systems during his time, many of which he experienced alongside Schwarzenegger.
As a training duo, Columbu and Schwarzenegger pushed each other on a continual basis and weren’t afraid to branch out to find a competitive edge. Fans of the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron will likely remember an opening shot showing the two taking part in a ballet class to improve their posing. It’s a small moment, but it encapsulates Columbu’s well-rounded views on his performance: If there were a way to get better at his craft, he would take advantage.
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In the gym, Columbu’s work ethic was hard to top. Time and again, he claimed that the very best way to train was twice a day, six days a week. After Columbu’s death in 2019, well-known fitness writer Marty Gallagher described Columbu’s training days as marathons, with 90-minute sessions in the morning and three-hour stints at night.
As detailed in Columbu’s book, Winning Bodybuilding, back, abdominal, and leg work was done Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while chest, arms, abdominals, and shoulders were done Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
A Look at Franco Columbu’s Workouts
To understand how sprawling one of Franco’s workouts could be, take a look at his sample chest and back session from his book Franco Columbu’s Complete Book of Bodybuilding:
- Donkey Calf Raise: 5 x 15
- Calf Raise: 4 x 15
- Bent-Leg Raise: 4 x 25
- Lying Side Bend: 4 x 25
- Leg Stretch: 4 x 25
- Bent-Leg Sit-Up: 4 x 25
How Strong was Franco Columbu?
Columbu trained with intensity, and, thanks to his sporting background, was well-versed in a variety of training systems.
In his book Winning Weightlifting and Powerlifting. Columbu claimed these were his best lifts in Olympic weightlifting:
*Note: The military press was a staple of weightlifting meets at the time.
It’s worth noting that fitness writer Greg Merritt disputes these claims, noting rightly that no photographic evidence exists and that, if truthful, this would have placed Columbu as an Olympic gold medalist in the 1960s.
One tantalizing bit of evidence we do have comes again from Gallagher’s obituary on Columbu, which says the Sardinian could power clean 315 pounds “using the shallowest of splits.” If he got to 400 pounds, we don’t know.
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Columbu also competed as a powerlifter at various points during his friendship with Schwarzenegger in the 1960s. Stepping on stage as a middleweight in 1968, Merritt says Columbu’s best verified lifts from the time were:
- Squat: 507 pounds
- Bench Press: 408 pounds
- Deadlift: 595 pounds
The first thing to note here is that a great deal of confusion surrounds Columbu’s max bench press in the years afterward.
One of Columbu’s books shows a picture of him setting a so-called “world record” bench press with 525 pounds. Merritt again disputes this, writing that the scene was simply posed for a photoshoot. At the 1977 World’s Strongest Man competition, Columbu claimed on air that his career-best bench was 475 pounds.
Next comes the deadlift, which was undoubtedly Columbu’s most impressive lift. In an interview with Muscular Development, Columbu claimed a career-best deadlift of 750 pounds, but, as Merritt points out, he also claimed it was 735 pounds at the 1977 WSM show. There is a video on YouTube that shows Columbu allegedly deadlifting 700 pounds for reps in 1972, but there’s no hard evidence of the weight or year other than the video title.
It is also difficult to find firm evidence of Columbu’s max squat, although he once claimed he topped out at 655 pounds. More concretely, Schwarzenegger noted in his memoir that Columbu was the stronger squatter of the two, writing that Columbu could do 500 pounds for 10 reps whereas he could only hit six.
Finally, we move on to the 1977 WSM. Though a freakish leg break during the refrigerator carry cut Columbu’s contest short, he still managed to put his awesome strength on full display. During the show, he finished joint second in a barrel press with a 200-pound lift. He likewise finished second or third in the bar-bending contest, wrist-rolling competition, a car deadlift, and tire toss.
Horrific injury aside, the real story of the contest is that a bodybuilder, who was much lighter than the other contestants, was holding his own against some of the strongest men on the planet. The only other bodybuilder at the show, Lou Ferrigno, bested Columbu in both height and weight by a substantial amount.
Comparing Columbu to Other Legends
As always, it’s important to stress that Columbu’s weight was typically reported to be between 185 to 195 pounds, and all of these feats mentioned, official or unofficial, must be contextualized with reference to his weight.
Take, for example, Columbu’s deadlift prowess. Even if one chooses to ignore his claimed 750-pound max and instead goes with his 735-pound max, it is still an incredible lift, especially when compared to other heavier bodybuilders.
There are few bodybuilder deadlifts more famous than Ronnie Coleman’s incredible two reps with 800 pounds done just five and a half weeks out from a Mr. Olympia. Columbu’s deadlift was not far off despite weighing 100 pounds less than Coleman. Another 2000s powerhouse, Jay Cutler, deadlifted 585 pounds for three reps, which stresses how impressive Columbu was.
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Sticking with Coleman, he squatted 800 pounds for two reps with a squat suit and knee pads on. Obviously, Columbu paled in comparison to this, but he executed some rather impressive marks without the same accessories that “The King” had. Recent Mr. Olympia champion Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay is on record squatting 495 pounds for between 12 to 15 reps at a much higher bodyweight than Franco, so he places well on the Ramy-to-Ronnie spectrum.
Onto the bench, Coleman hit 495 pounds for five reps, again while training for the Mr. Olympia. Cutler’s best bench record was 550 pounds for two reps, while Schwarzenegger claimed a 525-pound bench. All of these men weighed more — substantially, in some cases — than Columbu.
For powerlifting fans, Columbu would have competed in the 90kg (198-pound) class at his heaviest. His claimed career bests (525 pounds on the bench, 750 on the deadlift, and 655 on the squat) total 1,930 pounds, which, taking a bodyweight of 185-189 pounds, scores him incredibly highly, northwards of 580 on both the Dynamic Objective Team Scoring System (DOTS) and Wilks system.
For those unaware, these systems compare strength across powerlifting weight classes and genders. It allows us to compare a 162-pound lifter with their 200-pound counterpart. Some of the best male powerlifters at the moment hit over 600 in DOTS, which stresses Columbu’s advanced strength.
In a sport filled with physical phenoms, Franco Columbu stood in a league of his own. Shorter and smaller than many of his rivals, he boasted a level of strength that remains impressive today.
Bodybuilding has yet to see another individual who possesses the same strength and, more importantly, the same versatility. Columbu was a boxing, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding strongman. It doesn’t get more impressive than that.
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