Arnold Schwarzenegger is unquestionably the most famous bodybuilder in history, but the late Sergio Oliva was his greatest challenger and to this day is considered one of the most genetically-gifted bodybuilders of all time. Sergio set an unprecedented standard for physical superiority, earning him the nickname “The Myth.”
Born in Cuba on July 4, 1941, Sergio started out not as a bodybuilder but as a weightlifter. Within six months of training he clean and jerked 300 pounds, and later represented the Cuban National Weightlifting Team. Sergio’s personal bests in the 198-pound bodyweight division included a standing press of 280 pounds, a snatch of 280 pounds, and a clean and jerk of 360 pounds (although there are reports that he did considerably more in training, including a 400-pound clean and jerk). During the 1961 Pan Am Games in Kingston, Jamaica, Sergio escaped to the American Embassy where he was granted political asylum.
Sergio won the prestigious IFBB Mr. Olympia competition in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The 1969 event included Arnold, who placed second. These two behemoths met again in 1970, but Sergio reportedly came in a bit “smooth” and lost his crown to the Austrian Oak. Sergio had planned to compete in 1971 but was disqualified for competing in an unsanctioned event. They met again in 1972, and this time Sergio was in the best shape of his life. Nevertheless, in one of the most controversial outcomes in the sport, Arnold once again captured bodybuilding’s most coveted title.
Not believing he was judged fairly in the 1972 Olympia, Sergio decided to switch bodybuilding federations. He went on to earn three WBBG Mr. Olympus titles, among others. He didn’t return to the IFBB Olympia stage until 1984. Although in his 40s, Sergio placed a respectable eighth and returned the following year to repeat that placing.
At his peak condition, Sergio packed more muscle on his frame than any bodybuilder before him. When measured by Nautilus founder Arthur Jones, Sergio’s arms stretched the tape at 20 1/8 inches (a “cold” measurement – reportedly they swelled to 22.5 inches pumped). “Sergio’s arms are so big that they literally must be seen to be appreciated – and some people, upon first seeing them, are almost unable to believe their eyes,” said Jones. “In a recent full-length picture of Sergio, the width of the flexed upper arms exceeded the height of Sergio’s head – his arms were literally larger than his head, a size ratio never before approached by anybody else.”
Sergio was best known for his remarkable V-taper. At a height of 5’10” and a competition bodyweight of about 240 pounds, Sergio reportedly had a 52-inch chest that tapered down to a 27-inch waist. His thighs reportedly measured 32 inches and were supported by 20-inch calves; thus, he possessed arms larger than his head and thighs larger than his waist! His signature “Victory” pose, which involved having him stand with his arms outstretched overhead, highlighted his unique proportions; Sergio set the standard with the Victory pose, and few would argue that no one has done it as well as Sergio.
Not much has been written about Sergio’s workouts, and it’s possible that some published workouts may have been the product of ghostwriters trying to capitalize on Sergio’s fame. That said, the following is a workout published in 1973 that Sergio claimed was legitimate. You’ll see he used a variety of set-rep protocols, from 5x5 to high volume, and trained each major muscle group twice a week. Here is the workout:
Monday: Chest, Back
A1. Bench Press, 8 sets x 8 reps (to 380 lbs)
A2. Chin-ups, Wide Grip, 7 x 5-15 (bodyweight)*
*With this superset, Sergio would start with 200x8 on the bench press and work up to 380 x 8. With the chin-ups, he would start with 15 reps and work down to 5 reps.
B1. DB Flyes, 5 x 15 (to 80 lbs.)
B2. Dips, 5 x 15 (bodyweight)
Tuesday: Shoulders, Biceps and Triceps
A. Military Press, 5 x 15 (to 200 lbs)
B. Barbell Curls, 5 x 5 (up to 200 lbs)
C. French Curls, 5 x 5 (up to 200 lbs)
D. Scott Curls, Barbell, 5 x 10 (to 160 lbs)
E. Scott Curls, Dumbbells, 5 x 5 (up to 60 lbs)
F1. Seated Triceps, 5 x 5 (50 lbs)
F2. Triceps Pressdown, 5x15 (no weight given)
Wednesday: Abs, Legs, Calves
A. Sit-ups, 10 x 50
B. Leg Raises, 5 x 20
C. Side Bends with Bar Behind Neck, 5 x 200 reps
D. Squats, 5 x 5 (to 480 lbs)
E. Standing Heel Raises, 10 x 8 (to 300 lbs)
Thursday: Chest, Back, Shoulders
A. Bench Press, 7 x 5 (to 380 lbs)
B1. Press Behind Neck, 5 x 5 (to 250 lbs)
B2. Rowing Machine, 5 x 5 (to 200 lbs)
C1. Seated Press with Dumbbells, 5 x 8 (to 80 lbs)
C2. Dipping Bar, 5 x 8 (bodyweight)
Friday: Arms, Back
A. Military Press, 3 x 10 (to 200 lbs)
B. Barbell Curls, 3 x 5 (to 200 lbs)
C. French Curls, 3 x 5 (to 200 lbs)
D. Scott Bench for Triceps, Barbell, 3 x 5 (to 200 lbs)
E. Scott Bench for Triceps with Dumbbell, 3 x 5 (to 60 lbs)
F1. Tricep Press Downs, 3 x 15 (weights not provided)
F2. Chinning Behind Neck, 5 x 5 (bodyweight)
G1. Torso Machine, 5 x 10 (weights not provided)
G2. Lat Machine Pulldown, 5 x 10 (weights not provided)
Saturday: Abs, Legs, Calves
A. Sit-ups, 5 x 10 (bodyweight)
B. Leg Raises, 5 x 10 (bodyweight)
C. Side Bends, 3 x 50 (bodyweight)
D. Squats, 5 x 3 (to 400 lbs), 3 x 20 (250 lbs)
E. Front Squats, 5 x 10 (to 200 lbs)
F. Calf Raise, Seated, 5 x 5 (to 200 lbs)
Despite needing 17 surgeries including two knee replacements, Sergio trained hard all his life. He passed away on November 13th, 2012 at the age of 71 (from apparent kidney failure), but his son Serigo Oliva Jr. is continuing his father’s legacy. This year he competed in the Mr. Olympia, the first and only time that the son of an Olympia competitor appeared in this event.
As tribute, Arnold had this to say about the Myth, “Sergio was one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time and a true friend. A fierce competitor with a big personality – one of a kind.” RIP Sergio.