Franco Columbu - Gone but not forgotten
For many years, I interviewed the world’s best bodybuilders for feature length articles in major muscle magazines. These articles would weave the champion’s current training routine and nutritional approach and would include some biographical information along with the champ’s bodybuilding exploits and career highlights. With some notable exceptions, few top pro bodybuilders had any kind of serious athletic background. This wasn’t always the case. During bodybuilding’s golden era, the top bodybuilders, such as Franco Columbu, had strong athletic credentials.
In the 1960's and 1970's, the hardcore of the hardcore were called triple-threat Iron Men. There was a different definition of an Iron Man in those days: these ancient Iron Men were not guys that swam three miles, ran 26 miles and finished with a bike ride of 100 miles; the Old School Iron Men were masters of three iron disciplines: Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding. They mixed, matched and included all three iron disciplines into the weekly training template.
These triple-threat men of yore built incredibly complete physiques: the low-rep powerlifting done with bar-bending poundage built humongous body parts: legs, chest and back. Olympic weightlifting was without rival for constructing traps, erectors, glutes and hamstrings. Bodybuilding’s isolation exercises filled in the leftover crevices, cracks and gaps: calves, abs, biceps, triceps, forearms, neck et. al.
Modern pro bodybuilders are specialist. There are very few pro bodybuilders with high level backgrounds in other sports. In the past, this was not the case. The first great bodybuilder of the modern era, John Grimek, at one time held the national record in the military press, 285-pounds weighing 181-pounds. He placed 4th at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and shook hands with Adolph Hitler. Grimek would finish his posing routine with a standing backflip ending in the full splits.
Bill Pearl was the Pacific Northwest US Navy wrestling champion and was intent on trying out for 1952 Olympic games had not a knee injury ended his wrestling career. Sergio Oliva was an international-level Olympic weightlifter capable of a 400-pound clean and jerk weighing 198. Arnold was the Bavarian powerlifting champion. He deadlifted 700 weighing 220 and was quite athletic. Ronnie Coleman was a lifelong athlete. He played football at Grambling and was terrific at every sport he tried. And of course, Franco Columbu, Old School Iron Master, High Priest.
Franco Columbu began life as a puny, undersized, half-starved (yet inherently athletic) boy from a tough neighborhood: war-ravaged Post-WWII Sardinia, the often invaded and impoverished island off the southern coast of Italy. Franco was born into a peasant family and his homelife was backward, primitive and lean. He first excelled as a lightning-handed boxer. He fought all over Europe and along the way was introduced to progressive resistance training.
Franco Columbu did quite well all on his own. Training strictly through instinct, he won the Sardinian bodybuilding title and successfully competed at the highest levels of European bodybuilding. He and Arnold would see each other at European bodybuilding shows and over time they developed a friendship based on their mutual admiration of each other’s physique.
Arnold provided Franco the information he needed, insofar as training and nutrition. Franco knew he needed to train smarter if he wanted to take his physique to the next level. Arnold saw in Franco many things: first and foremost, the ideal training partner. Here was a man that was flat-out stronger than Arnold, in any and every lift.
The fastest way to improve is to hang out in stronger circles. If you are the big fish in a small pond, your 400-pound deadlift will seem impressive – until you go to a hardcore gym and everyone is bench pressing your 400-pound deadlift – for reps. Arnold used Franco Columbu to drag him upward. “I thought 275-pounds in the bent-over row was pretty good until I saw Franco row with 400. I also saw Franco’s lats and thought, ‘I got to get a lot stronger.’”
Franco Columbu bench-pressed 520, using super-strict form and taking the barbell out of the racks by himself. His 520 exceeded the world record in his weight class at the time. He could deadlift 650 to 700-pounds anytime anywhere, this using a lift he didn’t do too often.
Yawn! Just another day at the office: repping a 675-pound deadlift and in perfect finish position
His strength was the effortless kind. He also had Jackie Chan agility, a holdover from his years as a high-level boxer. Franco was loaded with fast-twitch AND slow-twitch muscle fibers. Arnold sculpted the workouts; Franco led the way in terms of technique, reps and poundage. Their sessions were marathon and never-ending: they trained six days a week twice a day.
The morning session might be 90-minutes long: the afternoon session might take three hours. It didn’t matter, these men were fulltime pros whose only post-workout responsibility was to stuff their face at the diner and then fall asleep on the beach for two hours working on their tans. (no tanning beds in 1974)
Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger practiced a high volume/high frequency approach. This level of volume must be built up to over time. You need to acclimatize, you don’t just wake up one day and start performing 700-sets per week, as Arnold and Franco did during their peak years. You need a lot of hardcore training under your belt to handle marathon pounding. Sergio, Robbie Robinson, Zane and all the other greats of that era trained this same way.
None could match Columbu’s pure power – and he could grind for hours: rep after rep, set after set, effortlessly handling monster poundage – this from a small man. His muscles were huge, yet he never weighed more than 190-pounds in contest shape.
Arnold noted when assessing Franco’s physique. “Guys like Franco, men with powerlifter-type builds, they look incredible when just standing relaxed. When they pose, not much happens. Guys like me, when we stand relaxed, people are like, “Okay, that’s nice.” But when we pose, our muscles explode, we swell up to twice our size and people are blown away.”
Some of this lack of expansion is attributable to tight fascia, the sausage-sheath that lies below the skin and defines the outer boundaries of a muscle. Tight fascia is akin to wrapping a muscle in tight canvas, making muscle expansion difficult.
Pliable fascia allows for easy and dramatic expansion when a muscle is flexed. To most athletes, tight or loose fascia makes no difference. A thick fascia is a positive benefit in contact sports and strength events. A pliable fascia is a fabulous bodybuilding benefit.
Franco Columbu was the greatest short man bodybuilder of his time. He set the short man standards and for decades to come. Had there been an under 200-pound Mr. Olympia during his competitive years, he would have won as many Olympia titles as Arnold. Franco paved the way for the greatest under 200-pound bodybuilder of all-time Lee Priest.
Lee used Franco’s template: develop world-record level poundage handling ability to drive muscle mass size upward and then off the charts. Franco understood the eternal relationship between muscle strength and muscle size: find a way to make a muscle significantly stronger and that muscle will grow significantly larger – if fed and rested (go to the diner, eat hearty, then go fall asleep on the beach)
Franco died this past weekend (8-30-19 at age 78): he had a heart attack while fighting the current in the Sardinian ocean. Athletic all the way to his grand finale, I cannot imagine living a more memorable existence. He set strength standards that, on a pound-for-pound basis, may never be surpassed. What a man, what a life!
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.