By Mike Carlson
Coleman by the Numbers
First amateur contest (first place)
The size of his biceps at his first amateur contest
First Pro contest (Chicago Pro, 11th place)
First Pro Win (Canada Pro Cup)
Mr. Olympia titles
Wins as an IFBB pro (most ever)
The amount of chicken he consumed per day during his competitive career.
Half a decade has gone by since eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman stepped onto a bodybuilding dais. In the fame game, five years might as well be 20. Who can remember the winner of “American Idol” from five years ago? Who was the UFC champ? Who was Secretary of State? The world moves so fast now that Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been reduced to a 30-second sound byte.
Except for Ronnie Coleman. Come to the Expo at the Arnold Sports Festival weekend and you’ll see a line of fans as long as the northern border in his home state of Texas, fans who wait hours to get a cell phone picture and 10 seconds of the champ’s time. On a recent world tour to promote his new line of Ronnie Coleman Signature Series supplements, he had a few Beatles moments in Australia, Hong Kong and London. Ronnie is an anomaly among professional athletes; the longer he’s retired, the more popular he becomes.
Legacy of Iron
It was more than 22 years ago when Ronnie Coleman stepped into Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas: the infamous hardcore haven for bodybuilders and powerlifters that’s known to be as intimidating as the yard at San Quentin State Prison, but with better equipment. The owner of Metroflex, Brian Dobson, was looking for training partners when a member of the gym and veteran of the Arlington Police Department told him about this big kid who’d just joined the force. Dobson said to send him over.
“I remember the first day he came in the gym. He had a red sweatsuit on, the kind they used to wear in the old days, with the old crew-neck sweatshirt and baggy sweatpants. But they weren’t baggy on him. You could see veins in his arms through the sweatshirt,” says Brian. “I told him, ‘You could be Mr. Olympia if you wanted to,’ and you know he didn’t even know what Mr. Olympia was.”
The stage is where Ronnie won his many titles, but his legend was made at Metroflex. In a gym full of tough men, Ronnie quickly became the alpha male. Dobson could outlift Ronnie across the board when they first started training together. In six months, Ronnie was besting Brian on every single lift. Within two years, no one in the gym could match him.
“I started out lifting heavy weights and I never stopped. It just flowed in me my whole life. It was a part of my blood,” says Ronnie. “Once you adopt a certain style of training and it works for you, why change it?”
Ronnie’s style of training centered on heavy, basic movements performed with mind-bogglingly high reps. It was an off-the-grid workout plan that wouldn’t have worked for other athletes because they weren’t blessed with the kind of genetics —incredible natural strength, bulletproof joints, pitbull determination — that Ronnie enjoyed. Pro bodybuilder Melvin Anthony joined Ronnie and Brian for a back workout one day and had to be packed in ice afterward for fear the muscle damage that resulted might do him permanent harm. “Remember that day y’all killed me?” Melvin asked Brian years later. “I’d never lifted weight like that. I didn’t know you could even do bent-over rows with 500 pounds!”
New But Not Improved
The mobs of fans at trade shows, the mountains of email he receives, the enthusiasm for his new supplement line, can all be traced back to those unforgiving workouts in Arlington that began more than 20 years ago. They became the stuff of weight-room legend talked about in hardcore gyms across the country. More important, they built the biggest, best-conditioned physique that pro bodybuilding has ever seen.
“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights” is Ronnie’s well-known catchphrase. It might also be the reason for his phantom popularity. At his peak, his physique dwarfed current competitors, just as his fame continues to eclipse that of more relevant athletes today. In Ronnie’s mind, the loads he lifted and the accolades he continues to enjoy are related.
“Have you seen some of them train?” asks Ronnie when referring to the current crop of pro bodybuilders. “I would’ve destroyed Phil Heath in my day. He can’t compare to what I was. Bodybuilders of today aren’t like the bodybuilders of our day. Physiques were a lot better in our time. This era coming up here, I’m not impressed with nobody.
“You’ve got Phil Heath and Kai Greene and they just all seem kind of average to me. There’s nothing that’s ‘Wow’ about their physiques. Not the shape, not the symmetry. Nothing blows me away about these guys.”
Metroflex’s Dobson agrees. While he feels that Heath lives up to his nickname (The Gift) and might be one of the most genetically gifted athletes to ever put on a pair of posing trunks, Brian feels that the whole package — the size, the intensity — pales in comparison to Coleman’s, whose competition weight was 15 pounds heavier than Heath’s offseason weight.
“When you look at pictures of Ronnie and then look at some of the top guys now, you can’t comprehend how much bigger he was than these guys,” says Brian. “Phil Heath’s whole shoulder structure would fit within the span of Ronnie’s pecs. Everything on Ronnie is just bigger. If they competed at the same time, Phil Heath would’ve looked like a little boy next to him.”
Ronnie’s next competition, the topic of whether he’ll ever compete again, is always the first question broached by his throng of fans. On paper, the idea of a 48-year-old coming out of retirement to compete sounds ridiculous; but, when they see Coleman at just a few pounds over his old competition weight, without an inch of fat to pinch on him and veins the size of a garden hose snaking through his forearms, the question inevitably falls from gaping mouths. In truth, Ronnie’s life is remarkably similar to when he was competing. He still trains several days a week, following the same split he always has; back and bi’s, chest and tri’s, legs on their own day, shoulders by themselves. His diet is largely the same as well. The touched-by-God metabolism that allowed him to live on fried catfish, bologna sandwiches and cheeseburgers early in his career still burns like west Texas asphalt on a summer day.
He’s cagey when asked about a comeback. “Never say never” is his official line, but he admits that getting into contest shape — the kind of shape that would live up to his standards — would be difficult.
“The 1998 Mr. O was my best condition ever. I could never duplicate that again in my life,” he says. “I always think of the body like a car. Once you buy a new car — those first 5–6 months — it’s never going to be that way again. I’ve looked at it over and over, year after year, and I always go back to ’98.”
Still Creating Greatness
He may not hit another pose underneath the hot lights of a Las Vegas arena, but Ronnie isn’t done with bodybuilding by any stretch of the imagination. Earlier this year he launched his Ronnie Coleman Signature Series supplements. After years of representing some of the biggest companies in the industry and enjoying the most lucrative contracts in bodybuilding history, he finally gets to have a say in what he puts in his body. It’s an idea he’s toyed with since he won his sixth Mr. Olympia title, but it took him almost a decade to see it come to life.
The brand has more than Ronnie’s wide body on the label; he’s deeply invested in the efficacy and flavoring of each product. Ronnie claims he’s always wanted input in the development of the new products he once endorsed, but was constantly shunted into a figurehead role. And he’s shown that his instincts — honed in the trenches of bodybuilding — are as valuable as those of any MBA or PhD. After tasting and rejecting several flavor systems for the preworkout supplement Myo-Blitz, the R&D team was at a loss. Ronnie helped inspire the idea of mimicking the cool mint mouthfeel of gum. After a successful call to Trident gum to discuss flavor technology, Myo-Blitz SensaCool was born. Along with the sleep-aid Resurrect-P.M., it’s the most successful product in the Ronnie Coleman Signature Series line.
“I’m not half-stepping here. I’m putting in stuff that I know is going to work,” he says. “I’m not looking to make a lot of money. I want to put out a great product and make it good for me and for all my fans too.”
“Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion” was emblazoned on the walls of Muhammad Ali’s gym in Deer Lake, PA. It’s a fitting motto for Ronnie as well. His legacy isn’t only secure, it continues to increase in value, as if it were a commodity like gold or a classic car.
“I’d rank him as number one of all time. I can’t even believe anyone wouldn’t have him as number one,” says Brian. “Arnold won Mr. Olympia seven times when there were eight bodybuilders in the whole world.”
The fans seem to agree with Brian. On a recent publicity tour to New Zealand to promote his supplements, Ronnie made four appearances a day for several days in a row. At each stop there was a two-hour line to get his autograph. For a guy who was once so shy that he had to be coerced into entering his first bodybuilding contest (1990 Mr. Texas), he’s learned to love the considerable spotlight that shines upon him.
“I enjoy it more than anything in my entire life,” Ronnie tells us. And, he adds tongue-in-cheek, “After all the hard work I put in, all the hours of suffering and blood I spilled for this sport, it couldn’t happen to a greater guy.”
Passing the Torch of Intensity
It’s no secret that eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman credits much of his bodybuilding success to lifting — in his words — “heavy-ass weights.” Ronnie, who was blessed with natural strength and a hard-nosed work ethic, says he was also fortunate to fall under the guidance of Brian Dobson, the owner of the famous Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas. Brian, a lifelong bodybuilder and powerlifter, was mentored himself under pro bodybuilder Tom Platz (whose crazed intensity in the weight room is the stuff of legend). Brian passed that onto Ronnie. “Ronnie is very competitive. Once he established himself in the pecking order down here, none of us could come close to him,” remembers Brian.
Below, Brian recalls some of Ronnie’s best lifts during their blood-and-guts training sessions, feats of strength that made other pro bodybuilders say “no thanks,” when they were invited to train at Metroflex.
• Deadlifted 805 pounds for a double when he was six weeks out from the Mr. Olympia.
• Bench pressed 405 pounds for 15–20 reps; benched 500 for a set of 10.
• Squatted 405 pounds for 20 reps with perfect form.
• Performed 600-pound bent-over rows for reps.
• Cleaned a pair of 200-pound dumbbells from the floor and then incline pressed them for 15 reps.
Mike Carlson is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who’s been covering fitness and nutrition for over 15 years. He subsists on a strict diet of whey protein, coffee and pull-ups.