Remembering the Sardinian Strongman: Franco Columbu

Remembering the Sardinian Strongman: Franco Columbu

In late 2019, the bodybuilding community lost a legend. Franco Columbu is often regarded as one of the most influential bodybuilders of all time. Not only was he a very strong individual, but his physique was impressive enough to bag him 2 Mr. Olympia titles. In 1976, Columbu became the shortest man ever to win the Olympia, a record that still stands today. 

 

Columbu was born in 1941 in Sardinia, the second largest island off the coast of Italy. He originally desired to be a boxer, but quickly got into weightlifting. You might recognize Franco as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s main training partner. Truth be told, the two were best friends, and they pushed each other to the max. Their combined accomplishments are second to none, so you’re probably wondering what the typical Franco Columbu workout routine looks like.

Background and Accomplishments

Throughout his career, Franco Columbu was a renowned actor, boxer, powerlifter, and bodybuilder. He was not only the first man under 200 pounds to win Mr. Olympia, but he’s also the strongest pound-for-pound bodybuilder ever. During his prime as a bodybuilder, he was also competing in strongman competitions at a high level. 

 

At the peak of his career, Columbu boasted very impressive numbers for bench press, deadlift, and squat. Weighing only 185 pounds, he had the following personal record lifts:

 

Bench Press: 525 pounds

Squat: 655 pounds

Deadlift: 750 pounds 

 

As you can tell, Franco Columbu is well known for his insane deadlift max. Even more impressive is the fact that he was simultaneously at the highest level for both powerlifting and bodybuilding. Franco won numerous competitions in both sports throughout his career: 

 

Bodybuilding:

Mr. Olympia – 1st place – 1976, 1981

IFBB Mr. World – 1st place – 1971 

Mr. Universe – 1st place – 1970 

 

World’s Strongest Man: 

5th place – 1977 


In addition to his many accomplishments as an athlete, Columbu also appeared in 23 major films. He used his physique to his advantage for most of his roles like Pumping Iron, The Terminator, and Conan the Barbarian.

Franco Columbu's Workout Routine

There is no set in stone workout routine from Franco Columbu’s glory days, but we can get an idea from old content. In past interviews, Franco emphasized that he trained every body part, a training style that was uncommon in the golden era. Although it’s a short clip, you can get a glimpse at Columbu training in the video below.

After reading Franco Columbu’s books, Winning Bodybuilding, and The Bodybuilder’s Nutrition Book, it’s clear that he had the sport down to a science. 

 

He trained each body part twice a week “as hard and relentless as possible each time”. On most days, Columbu would workout twice a day, hitting a different muscle group in each session. 

 

His training split was fairly unorthodox; in past interviews, he mentions that the routine spans for two weeks. 

 

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, and Arms

Day 2: Back and Legs

Day 3: Chest and Shoulders

Day 4: Arms 

Day 5: Back and Legs 

Day 6: Chest and Shoulders 

Day 7: Off day 

Day 8: Arms and Legs

Day 9: Back

Day 10: Chest, Shoulders, and Arms

Day 11: Back and Legs

Day 12: Chest and Shoulders

Day 13: Arms 

Day 14: Off day 

 

As you can see, Franco Columbu trained 6 days each week and hit each muscle group at least twice a week. Although they’re not mentioned in the routine, he did abdominal work 3-4 days each week. Note that he also went heavy on deadlifts every other leg day.

How Did He Train The Chest?

Franco Columbu quite literally had a shelf as an upper chest. I’m sure you could balance two bottles of expensive liquor on his pecs without fear of them breaking. In his book, Winning Bodybuilding, he seems to favor the bench press, incline press, dips and chest flys as his go-to chest exercises.

franco columbu chest
The classic upper chest of Franco Columbu

If you watch the above video of Franco training for the 1981 Olympia, you’ll notice that he trains in the hypertrophy rep range. From past interviews, we can infer that he was a fan of progressive overload where the weight increases with each set. Considering his powerbuilding background, Franco Columbu often trained heavy for low repetitions on compound lifts.

"You have five or six good chest exercises, and the bench press with a barbell is far and away the best."
Franco Columbu
2X Mr. Olympia

Franco Columbu’s Chest Workout 

 

Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 12, 10, 4, 4 reps

Barbell Incline Press: 3 sets of 12-15 reps

Flat-bench dumbbell Flys: 3 sets of 15, 10, 8 reps

Dips: 3 sets to failure 

Cable Crossovers: 3 sets of 20 reps 

 

Although the repetitions are just speculation, the exercises above are exactly what Franco would do on chest day. As the number of repetitions decreases, the amount of weight used generally increases. 

Back Workout

Besides his chest, Columbu was also well known for his back. He had that tortoiseshell look that screamed thick, solid, and tight. His years of deadlifting likely contributed a great deal to his musculature, but so did other exercises. 

 

More than anything, Franco Columbu emphasized wide grip pullups with no added weight. If you take a look at the picture below, you’ll notice just how wide his grip was. He also went full range of motion of each rep and often paused at the top of each rep.

franco columbu workout routine, unweighted pullups

Here’s a blueprint for how he trained his back: 

 

Wide-grip Pullups: 4 sets to failure 

Barbell Bent-over Row: 3 sets of 10 reps

Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 12 reps

Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 10 reps 

T-Bar Rows – 3 sets of 12 reps 

 

It’s no secret, you have to row to grow. Despite this, it’s evident that pull-ups were a key aspect of Columbu’s back workout.

Build Massive Arms Like Franco Columbu

Franco was praised for his arms, which were often much bigger than competitors who weighed more than him. His arms were so great, in fact, that he won the “best arms” at the Mr. Universe and Mr. World competitions. 

 

Franco Columbu has written extensively about his arm workouts, and he always mentions intensity and super-setting exercises. The exercises below are what he recommended for maximal growth and balance. 

 

First Super-Set:

 

Incline Dumbbell Curls with Tricep Pushdowns 

 

Curls: 3 sets of 10, 8, 8 reps

Pushdowns: 3 sets of 10, 8, 8 reps

 

You start with incline dumbbell curls immediately followed by tricep pushdowns. The first set is done with a slightly lighter weight to prime your muscles, and the last two are heavier. 

 

Second Super-Set: 

 

Semi-cheat Curls with Lying Tricep Extensions 

 

Semi-cheat Curls: 5 sets of 6 reps 

Lying Tricep Extensions: 5 sets of 10, 6, 6, 6, 6 reps

 

The tricep extensions Columbu refers to can otherwise be known as skull-crushers. You want to go heavy for these two exercises, with an exception for the first set of extensions. The semi-cheat curls imply that you’re “cheating” by swinging the weight up. Allow for a slow eccentric contraction to feel the burn in your biceps. 

 

Third Super-Set: 

 

Barbell Curls with Close-Grip Bench Press

 

 

Neutral Barbell Curls: 5 sets of 10 reps 

Close-Grip Bench Press: 5 sets of 10 reps 

 

These exercises are classics but often disregarded. Bicep curls with a barbell are perhaps the best compound exercise to build your arms. Control each rep on the way down, and squeeze at the top. Remember to keep your elbows close to the body and focus on the mind-muscle connection. For the close-grip bench press, you want your hands about 6 inches apart, and then simply perform a bench press as normal. If you never implement the close-grip bench press, you’ll be surprised at how much tension the movement puts on your triceps.

Leg Workout

With a record 655 pound squat, it’s clear that Franco Columbu trained legs hard. Like I mentioned above, he did deadlifts every other leg day. He did, of course, emphasize squats, but lunges and leg presses were equally important. 

 

His typical leg day included: 

 

Deadlift – 6 sets of 5, 5, 5, 3, 1, 1 reps

Back Squat – 5 sets of 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 reps 

Quad Extensions – 3 sets of 20 reps

Walking Lunges – 3 sets of 12-15 reps 

Leg Press – 3 sets of 20-25 reps 

 

Interestingly enough, Columbu did not implement any glute or hamstring isolation exercises. This is likely due to the fact that these two muscle groups were not as important in the golden era of bodybuilding.

Franco Columbu's Diet

You can learn a lot about Franco’s nutrition by reading his book The Bodybuilder’s Nutrition Book. Simply put, his diet is what you would expect from an elite professional bodybuilder. In his book, Columbu highlights the importance of whole foods as opposed to supplements. 

 

Fresh fruits and vegetables were the most common carbohydrate choices. For protein, Columbu was a firm believer in eggs, lean meats, fish, and yogurt. He often got most of his dietary fats from eggs and meat, but commonly ate cheese and olive oil. 

 

In true Italian fashion, he normally had a glass of wine with one of his meals each day. There really are no surprises regarding Columbu’s nutrition, but I strongly suggest reading his book for the most information.

Closing Remarks

Aside from being one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, Franco Columbu was truly an influential man. He proved that you can do whatever you set your mind to, as long as the work ethic is there. As an author, actor, bodybuilder, doctor, and powerlifter, you might wonder if there’s anything he could not do. 

 

To learn more about Franco Columbu’s training and lifestyle, I recommend reading any of his books. The amount of knowledge he had is truly astonishing, and the books are easy to read. With that being said, I hope you learn something from this article on the Sardinian Strongman. 

 

Rest In Peace Franco Columbu. 1941-2019

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