Franco Columbu should need no introduction to hardcore bodybuilding fans. The massive muscles on his small 5’5″ frame and distinct upper pec development made him an instantly recognisable character. A fine mix of muscle and strength, Columbu is one of the most respected men to win the Mr Olympia title. Read on for more as he’s the focus of this article in our Bodybuilding Legends series!
Raised on the Italian island of Sardinia, Franco had a good introduction to sports. His sporting career began in boxing and he performed well as an amateur boxer. Following this, he pursued the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting and excelled in these demanding strength disciplines. His conditioning from boxing, explosive power from weightlifting and brutal raw strength from powerlifting would prove to be a winning combination for his transition into bodybuilding.
Franco was one of the strongest bodybuilders of his generation and he could lift some seriously heavy iron. Some of his best numbers included a 655lbs (297kg) squat, 525lbs (238kg) bench press and 750lbs (340kg) deadlift, still highly admirable numbers several decades on. He was strong in overhead lifts too and could clean and jerk 400lbs (181kg). He impressed strength and bodybuilding fans with his ability to blow up and burst a hot water bottle using only his lung power and this performance was officially entered into the Guinness Book of Records. He showed the world that his strength wasn’t limited to lifting barbells and dumbbells when he competed in the first-ever World’s Strongest Man competition in 1977 and participated in events like steel-bending and tug-of-war.
Franco’s muscular development was astounding. His body had obviously responded well to the heavy, low rep training that he’d previously done. He maximised his muscle size by adding higher rep sets to his training. He could handle the demands of heaving iron twice a day, even training big muscle groups like legs and back on the same day. Typical of most bodybuilders of this era, Columbu would select four or more exercises for each body part and train with high volume. Classic bodybuilding techniques like supersets and giant sets featured in his routines. As well as using free weight basics, Columbu integrated popular bodybuilding machine exercises, such as leg presses and cable crossovers into his programs.
His approach to training and knowing what worked for his body (he was a chiropractor himself) led him to great success in bodybuilding. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, he won prestigious competitions such as Mr Universe and Mr World. The highest achievements in his competitive career were winning the coveted Mr Olympia title in 1976 and 1981 and winning the Mr Olympia Lightweight category in 1974 and 1975. He also won “Best Arms” and “Most Muscular” awards in some competitions. Exuding confidence on the bodybuilding stage, Franco would show off his thick, dense muscles and rock hard physique. His powerful, wide back, built through thousands of reps of heavy rows and deadlifts, is often considered to be one of the best backs ever in bodybuilding history.
Franco shared his knowledge and wisdom in several books that he authored and magazine articles that were published. His skills and training knowledge were sought after by many people. Actor Sylvester Stallone requested his help for improving his physique for the film Rocky 2. Franco claimed he trained and educated other actors such as Burt Reynolds and John Saxon when time permitted.
It would be almost impossible to write about Franco without mentioning his longtime friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most famous man in bodybuilding. Since meeting Arnold in 1960’s they have built up a solid relationship. Their similar strength levels and ambitious attitudes made them well-suited training partners in their competitive years. Franco had minor acting roles in some of Arnold’s major hit films including “The Terminator” and “Conan the Barbarian”. Their friendship and respect for each other are just as strong as ever as you can see in the video above. (Talking of Arnold, he will be the next character in our ‘Bodybuilding Legends’ series, so stay tuned!)