Quebec has long been known for the many musclemen who've called the region home. Beginning with Louis Cyr in the 19th century, powerful men have been honored and appreciated in la Belle
Province down through the years. It was perhaps natural that one of the greatest physique stars of the 1950s should also hail from "the Cradle of Strongmen," as it was known.
Leo Robert was born in Montreal on January 16, 1921. When he was old enough to support himself, he went to work on the docks along the St. Lawrence River in his hometown. Although it was a tough job, working on the pier laid the foundations of Robert's heavily muscled physique even before he ever started to work out seriously with weights.
Although he was 5'7" tall, weighed about 140 pounds and had an upper arm that measured 14 inches, Leo's physique was not good enough. By his own description his body was "flabby and soft," and he longed to improve it. So at the relatively late age of 23 he began to lift weights. At first he used an expander hoping to sprout the muscles he so desired, but after weeks of rather slow progress he became discouraged.
When a friend took him to Jerry Lemay's gym in Montreal, Robert hardly knew what to make of it all. After being assured that weights were the answer to his problems, Leo reportedly said, "That's ridiculous. I'll never have muscles. My body will never amount to anything good!" Still, he decided to give lifting a try.
Within three months Robert must have surprised even himself with his rapid progress. Under the influence of the iron his flab melted away, and the muscles began to bulge out in all their rippled magnificence. As he quickly put on pound after pound of solid muscle, Leo became convinced once and for all that he was on the right track. He decided to continue his workouts.
Eventually, Robert met another muscle-mad Montrealer who began to coach the youthful athlete in the finer points of training and physique presentation. That man was the young Joe Weider. After a yearlong regimen Leo found that he had gained a great deal of bulk and muscular size. Weider suggested that Robert capitalize on this size by specializing on shoulder, pectoral, arm and abdominal work in order to give his physique a more classical and proportional look.
Leo's once sluggish muscles now seemed to jump into a highly defined state. Soon his arms, shoulders and especially his corrugated abdominals were the envy of bodybuilders everywhere. The darkly handsome Canadian was able to get himself into competition shape in a ridiculously short period of time. "I guess I was very fortunate in possessing responsive muscles and the right type of instruction right away," he later speculated in a typical understatement.
Robert began winning contests right and left, and he soon appeared to be invincible. The titles Mr. Montreal, Mr. Province of Quebec, Mr. Canada and Most Muscular Man in America all fell to him within a few short years. Finally, he was able to garner the greatest prize of all. In 1955, in London, Leo became the first Canadian to win the Mr. Universe competition. It was a crowning glory to an already splendid career, but there were other, different rewards still awaiting him.
Several years before he won the Universe, Leo was asked by an interviewer what his goals were for the future. His reply revealed a profound interest in improving the lot of his fellow man.
"I want to devote my full time to training others," Robert had announced. "I feel that this is the most important job I can ever do: to make others strong and healthy."
In pursuing that goal, Leo opened a small gymnasium of his own in Montreal's rue Plessis. Thanks to his skill and knowledge he experienced moderate success in his business, and he was able to help others achieve health and strength as he had long wished to do. Eventually, he operated four gymnasiums.
Five years ago Leo left Quebec and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Until his recent retirement he continued helping people-in this case helping senior citizens regain and maintain their muscular strength. No matter where he goes, however, there's always a vestige of the former champion beneath the exterior.
The photographs of Leo Robert that appeared in the muscle magazines of the '50s captured him as he was in his prime. There's a charisma there that makes him unique. One analyst of physical culture has called it Robert's "tough sensuality." Whatever it is, that quality is the mark of a true star.