Overused and Misused

I have seen, interviewed and associated with a lot of male bodybuilders over the years, and one term I’ve heard continually overused and misused is the phrase “genetics,” as in good and bad genetics. Genetics for what? Ideal genetics for professional basketball would be different than the genetics optimal for competitive swimming.   In male bodybuilding there are benchmarks, structural and physical ideals.

Just as some humans are born physically challenged, others are born physically gifted. In bodybuilding there exists structural ideals. Torso and leg length need be proportional.  Arm length should be not too long, nor too short. Shoulders need be wide. Hips need be narrow. The waist narrow, trim and tight when viewed from every angle.

Atop a structurally correct exoskeleton, muscle development need be proportionate and equal. Genetic muscle balance and muscle belly fullness is also the luck of the genetic draw. Add to structural correctness and proper proportion, ideal muscle insertion points and differences in bone density.

Three perfectly proportioned men could be the same height yet have dramatically different physiques. Frank Zane, Samir Bannout and Dorian Yates were all 5-9 inches tall. Light-boned Frank won the Olympia with a 6% body fat percentile weighing 175-pounds. Medium-boned Samir won the Olympia with a 6% body fat percentile weighing 210-pounds. Heavy-boned Dorian won the Olympia with a 6% body fat percentile weighing 261-pounds. There are genetic ideals for gazelles and different genetic ideals for rhinos. There is also the genetic gift of a naturally low body fat percentile. Naturally low body fat is tied to a naturally fast metabolism.

Once every decade or so a true, one-in-a-million genetic wonder will appear. In every sport the topmost levels are populated by genetic wonders. In basketball you have Wilt Chamberlain and Shaq.  In football, Jim Brown and Bo Jackson. In track and field Usain Bolt and Randy Barnes. Name a sport, name a position, name an athletic skill and at the top of the heap will be a genetic wonder. Combine a savage work ethic with Nature’s gifts and construct a world beater.

Every time I get around local-level bodybuilders, I hear all kinds of wild talk about how this young dude or that local has “incredible genetics.” Incredible genetics gets you drafted into the NFL.  Allow me to give you a good example of truly outstanding genetics for bodybuilding.

Sergio Oliva was plucked out of Cuban elementary school at age 8 and groomed to become an Olympic weightlifter. After eight years of intense, year-round training in the Soviet boot camp system, he made the Cuban national Olympic weightlifting team as a 198-pound class lifter. At the PanAm Games in 1965 he slipped away from the secret police guarding the Cuban team and defected to the United States.  He was granted political asylum and moved to Chicago where he got a job at a slaughterhouse in the stockyards.

He muscled around sides of beef all day long before heading to the Duncan YMCA to engage in marathon three hour long lifting sessions. Afterwards he’d eat 5,000 calories and collapse. Young 20-year old Sergio caught the eye of Mr. America Bob Gadja, a really smart man with a Ph.D. that also happened to work at the Duncan Y. He saw Oliva’s potential and got him interested in competitive bodybuilding and entered Sergio in the AAU Junior Mr. America.

Back in those ancient days of yore, the grey suited somber old white men that ran the AAU wanted the Mr. America “ideal” to be an all around good citizen. Like the Miss America pageant, at the AAU Mr. America, judges interviewed contestants, who were expected to wear a suit and tie and speak the King’s English. They were also awarded “athletic points for any type of sports activity in which they can demonstrate excellence.

Sergio was entering the Jr. Mr. America and needed athletic points. Without training for it he entered and won the United States Junior National Olympic weightlifting championships in the 198-pound class. Exhibiting perfect technique, Sergio overhead pressed 275-pounds, snatched 275-pounds and clean and jerked 375.

He later pushed his bodyweight up to a gargantuan yet ripped 240-pounds. He was twice Mr. Olympia.  At a bodyweight of 225-pounds (he too stood 5-9) Sergio had a 29-inch waist atop 29-inch thighs. Add to that 20-inch calves, 20-inch arms and 18-inch forearms. He was freaking perfect.

His training routines were the ultimate in Old School bodybuilding volume.  Sergio did bodybuilding like it was a job: he would train six days a week for 2-3 hours per session. He blasted each muscle three times a week in take-no-prisoner workouts. Jeff Everson recounted watching Sergio train in his heyday and related Sergio did fifteen sets of 12-reps with 245-pounds in the bench press super-setted with fifteen sets of 12-reps in the wide-grip pull-up. Pumped passed belief, Sergio then moved on to arms for another hour of slaughter-fest.

Add a savage work effort to truly superior genetics and you get a Sergio Oliva or a Jim Brown or a Michael Jordan. Sergio’s ultimate downfall was age and a lack of nutritional discipline when compared to his competitors. He was seen stuffing his face at a pastry shop two days before losing the German Olympia to Arnold by one point. Blessed with an athlete’s raging metabolism, when he hit age 35 it deserted him. His downfall was he continued to eat his beloved black beans, rice and flan.

Sergio Oliva bodybuilder and police officer

He became a Chicago policeman and won the Olympia title twice while holding a day job. Incredible. He was shot in the chest multiple times by his wife in a domestic dispute and survived. What a life. What a man. Had Sergio devoted 100% of his time, energy and effort towards bodybuilding, had he controlled his binge eating, he would have set standards past our wildest imaginings.

Joe Weider once said of Sergio, “NO ONE could beat you at your peak, when you were in shape.” High praise from a man that had seen all the greats. So, the next time you are in the free weight section of the Y and your training partner tells you that young Tommy Jones has fabulous bodybuilding genetics because his calves are 15-inches, just smile knowingly and reply, “I’m sure he does…”

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.