Bodybuilding Legend Sergio Oliva Words of Wisdom: Interview

Sergio Oliva

Hear the Words of the IFBB Hall of Famer Sergio

On his switch from weightlifting to bodybuilding I started as a weightlifter because this is the way that I could escape from my country. When I came to Chicago, I was doing weightlifting and becoming more interested in bodybuilding. I compete for a while as a bodybuilder and weightlifter. At the end of '64 I decided to go just as a bodybuilder because I feel that I like it more and could do more in this sport. While I was performing both, I already achieve tremendous size, although I was not able to do complete bodybuilding, because if your arms develop too big or your chest, they will be in the way when you're doing the snatch or press in weightlifting. So I was holding back, and even so I was growing fantastic. So I figured, if I go all the way, I might become something.

His impressions of John Grimek and Steve Reeves

I was interested in bodybuilding all my life way back in Cuba. And I tell you something perhaps funny. We were very young, but we always admire those two physiques-Steve Reeves and John Grimek. I liked Steve Reeves' physique, and I always admire and respect him even before I became a bodybuilder. But my stronger admiration was to John Grimek because I ways believed bodybuilding was good physique and also powerful and John Grimek was both. He demonstrated his power in lot of difficult exercise that a lot of bodybuilder could not do it, and even lot of power lifter could not do what he was doing. And on top of that he had one of the most perfect and marvelous physiques in those days. So we were looking in the magazines, although I could not read the language-well, I still cannot read that good. But we were looking at the pictures and compare, and I know about those two men way back before I begin in this game.

So they were heroes to me always, and later I got to know them. Only comment I can make is, they are remarkable good men. I had the pleasure and opportunity to travel with Steve Reeves when I was conducting seminars all over in Europe and he was invited as a guest. I found out that not only his physique is wonderful, he is a wonderful man. Lot of experience in this game of bodybuilding, and I respect the man even more now that we had an opportunity to share time together.

John Grimek, I met him many times. Always good. Always fantastic. Always enthusiastic. Good sense of humor. A dancer, and I dance a lot too. I love when people say to me, "You're becoming like Grimek," because every Saturday night I must go to dance. If I don't go dance, I go crazy. And when I go dancing when I'm still competing, it would give me a lot of good movement for my posing and my flexibility. And after every contest we would go-well, even though Grimek was already retired, I would see him dancing with his lovely wife. Around the people. He's a fantastic man.

Steve Reeves' physique is perfect. Fantastic physique. Not that huge body, but it was so perfect, so lean, that it became something incredible. Because every muscle, every tendon was perfect from his calf to his head. Very, good proportions. Tremendous symmetry. And such tremendous-looking man. Well, this man has been good-looking, I think, since the day he come out of his mom. He go on the stage, and the women go crazy. Grimek is of the same quality. John's a little shorter [than Steve], very good symmetry very proportioned and powerful. What happened to Grimek is what happened to me. He was born 20 years too soon. With Steve, the way I see is that most of the tall men, when they get the height, they really don't achieve that kind of proportion or that kind of symmetry that Steve had. A lot of tall men, if they have good arms, they don't have a good chest. And if they have chest and arms, they don't have good legs. And even if they have legs, they have no calves. But what happen with Steve is that every muscle was there perfect. Grimek had this tremendous power, tremendous posing, yet he stays always humble. I see him many times shaking hands among the other bodybuilders. In those days it was different. There was no trick, there was no phony deal. You got the physique, you the best, you win.

On how Sergio built his awesome physique

I don't have a large explanation. It was something that just happened. I don't think I did much different training than any other bodybuilder. What we have figured out that's happened to me is because I change my power from weightlifting into the bodybuilding, I was able to progress more than the regular bodybuilder when they started. Because I already got the power, already know how to lift the weight, so when I changed it to bodybuilding, my progress was so quick, so tremendous, I scared myself for a while.

Each week I got bigger and better. My waist, it was coming smaller and smaller. So in a year and a half or two years I win every single thing when I compete, and people was asking, "How long you been bodybuilding? Fifteen years. 20 years, 10 years?" When I told them couple years, they was saying, "You full of baloney!" They think I've been training for 10 years or more. But because I was so big and so good, it doesn't mean I've been training for that long. I was training as a weightlifter but not as a bodybuilder.

On the demands of combining his job with training

Always during that time I was working in a factory or things like that. But I always continued training even though I didn't have an easy way to do it. This game of bodybuilding, competing and training, is really for people who, you know, can afford it. They have a good job or they don't work or the father support or have money. My case it was complete opposite -everything as against it. When I came to Chicago; I went to work in a foundry I was moldng molds all kinds of shape for tires and different things where you would make tremendous money. But it's a kind of job a lot of people don't want it, because in the summer, when it's 80 degrees outside, it was 500 degrees inside.

I recall many, many times standing there working and you be talking with three or four men while you were working. By the time you blink your eye, someone would be down on the ground, passed out. And they had to bring those pills and put under the nose-smelling salts. And then he'd get up and go back to work. Thank God I never went through that. But I was working 12 to 14 hours a day there and then go to the gym. I got up at six o'clock in the morning, go to work, then have to work a lot of hours because the more I work, the more money I get. So when I got off at six or seven o'clock, then I was going to the YMCA and do my exercise for three to four hours-every day. When I was finished that, I had to go home and cook for myself because I was not able to deal with restaurants and things like that. So by the time I eat, that was it-time to go to bed. My two days free, it was like Saturday and Sunday. Monday through Friday it was like a war.

Then I decide to quit the foundry and, guess what? I went to the meat company. And even if it's warm outside, it's freezing inside. And I worked there for-jeez-a long time. Until I decided to go to school in the nighttime and learn the language. And when I was ready for it- I already want to become a policeman-in 1976 I took the police department test, and I passed. I've been a police officer since then. My thought is, I have to support myself. I don't want to be supported by the government or anyone else. I'm a very independent man. I want to have my own job to come and go free. I want to go with the car whenever I please-as long as I please. And that's what I did.

On how he put together his original bodybuilding training program

When I begin to get interested in bodybuilding, I'm going to tell you what I did and why these two men, John Grimek and Steve Reeves, becoming to me so important. What I did, I took some of the routine from Steve. I take some exercises from John Grimek. And I took some exercises from Leroy Colbert. Remember Leroy? First man got 21-inch arm. So I converted those three routines from those men, and I make from that my own routine. See, I had no teacher. I had nobody to tell me how to pose, how to do things. And later, when I could ask what to do, it was too late, 1 don't need it. So since what I was doing was good and I was growing fantastic, there's no need to change it. So even today I still do the same thing I was doing back in the '60s.

On the specifics of his training

Oh, my routine goes in a lot of different ways, so it's hard to describe. For my arms I might go ahead and do a lot of heavy standing curls, which a lot of bodybuilders don't do. And then I might switch to something else. Or perhaps I don't do heavy standing curls at all; I go to the preacher curl and do it with the EZ-curl bar, with straight bar, with the dumbbell. And then many, many other different exercises that it's hard to explain unless I wrote it out.

Now, what I did also is that I always train my triceps and biceps together. That was one of the things that gave tremendous development for me. Again, I see today a lot of bodybuilders don't do that. A lot of these guys will tell me they are doing chest and triceps. I never done that. Maybe it's tremendous for them, and I believe it worked for them because they achieved a beautiful physique. So there's no way to put 'em down. When I work my triceps, I don't like to work my bench, because if I work my bench, I feel I also work my triceps.

When I work the shoulder press or anything that's overhead, I use my arms, and the arms get something from that. So I am a little skeptical of training chest and triceps together. Always I was doing my shoulders first, then arms. Then I was going from there--biceps and triceps, triceps and triceps, biceps and biceps, and biceps and triceps. And that mean all kind of angles. I always liked to work my arms in all different angles. That's what really helped me get that kind of size that I still have today.

Always looking for something to give me that tremendous pump and power. Same thing I did for the chest. When I worked chest, I always worked chest and back together. I never work the chest and leave the back for the next day. I like to hit the chest with the back-always. The only thing I would work alone is my legs. Because the way I was bombing my legs, when I finished, it was time to go home. All kinds of leg exercises. Beginning with squats, all kinds. Squats, leg press, leg extension, hamstring curls, then the calf and everything. So I would train shoulders, triceps and biceps one day, chest and back next day and legs only the third day. Then I would not take a day off. I used to work out five or six days and take only Sunday off. And these workouts were very hard. I was doing a lot of sets. I used to sometime do just the bench press for 20 to 25 sets. So my training, whether it was weightlifting or bodybuilding, it wasn't easy.

On his body measurements when he was at his peak I'm 510" and in Essen, Germany, when I was my best, I weighed 251 1/2, my waist was 27, and my arms were 22 3/4. I still got those measurements-I have them written down over here. Save it to give my son someday.

On whether he was gifted genetically

When I started weightlifting, I weighed only 165. And when I was competing in those days, when I was doing bodybuilding and weightlifting, I was competing in the 181 class, you know. I was very strong, very powerful, very lean, but no big size. The big size came when I started full bodybuilding. And it was like I told. My physique would change day by day. And this is the way it was.

On whether his physique was the best of all time

Oh, it's hard to say because time change. [Pauses] But it was good. I just put it this way: I was good, too good for them to try to put me on the side, which was impossible to do. There was just too much.

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