by Christian Duque
What if Ronnie had been able to win his 8 Sandows and didn’t require all the back surgeries? What if he could’ve taken his physique to the next level without squatting eight hundred pounds? What if he didn’t pull damn near a thousand pounds during the height of his contest prep?
What if he didn’t have to train in the sweltering heat of Metroflex Arlington, subject his body to the stresses of hours of daily training, meanwhile slowly but surely tightening his diet and increasing caloric restrictions in order to get ready for the stage. You see Ronnie lifted like a powerlifter with the frequency of a bodybuilder. He also lifted like a powerlifter while subsisting on the diet of a physique-based athlete.And he wasn’t a spring chicken, either. When he started winning the Super Bowl of Bodybuilding he was already a bit older than most. Let’s not forget his body had already taken a beating in high school and college football. A lot of people gloss over that but that’s noteworthy.
Football is one of the most aggressive sports there is and to go from that to bodybuilding isn’t necessarily the way to go. Remember, that while bodybuilding isn’t a contact sport it can be extremely trying on the joints, tendons, and muscles. In fact, Ronnie spoke to his back injuries on countless interviews where he said that he was in pretty extreme pain during his entire heyday in the sport of bodybuilding. None of us knew this because he suffered in silence. He wasn’t popping pain pills and he wasn’t taking days and weeks off. The Big Nasty became more than an athlete, he had a work ethic that drove many and inspired countless. He took from where Dorian Yates left off and ran the mantra into the endzone.
What if Ronnie adopted some of Mike Mentzer’s philosophies to his training? And before you say that training like Mike wouldn’t have yielded Sandows all I can say is look above. Although Aaron Baker was probably the best known HIT (High Intensity Training) athlete, Yates adopted much of what Mike taught. This was no secret and if The Shadow was able to build the freakiest physique of his era using those principles, there’s nothing to say it couldn’t have worked for Coleman. Yates won six consecutive Sandows and ended up retiring due to injuries. So if injuries ended both of their careers, why even write this article? Why even ask the question of what if Coleman trained like Yates? Because what sidelined Yates was a common bodybuilding injury. Not being able to walk is far more rare. That’s not ordinary wear and tear, that’s downright abuse. Ronnie Coleman abused his body. He exposed it to far too much heavy lifting and his body ended up giving up on him. He wasn’t content with being a strong bodybuilder, he had to be the strongest. If Johnny O. Jackson or Ben White laid claim to the distinction of being the strongest bodybuilder in the world, Ronnie made it a point to show them up AND ON PREP no less! It didn’t matter that he was Mr. Olympia and they weren’t, he just couldn’t allow the distinction of being the world’s strongest bodybuilder to be up for debate.
How much money did the world’s strongest bodybuilder get? Nothing. How many magazine covers? None. Was there a certificate, trophy, or medal to be awarded? No. It was all about respect.
Ronnie thrived on being respected, loved, and feared. He wanted the fans to love him – hence why he’d do booth work till the very last fan got their picture, autograph, or ten seconds to chit chat with him. He wanted the powerlifting world to respect him, as well as everyday lifters. It was important that he wasn’t just a guy who looked strong but he wanted the world to know he was strong, too. And he wanted his contemporaries on stage to fear him. That’s why when Jay left the possibility of him winning over Coleman open, Ronnie had to say Jay was smoking crack. Triple H and the bodybuilding world might have got a chuckle off of that and thought it was hilarious, but Ronnie wasn’t kidding. He literally thought Jay Cutler had to be smoking crack if he thought he could beat him. Ronnie wasn’t conceited and he wasn’t pompous or arrogant, he was just that confident in himself and his abilities.
When you’re that confident you outwork everyone. You have to outwork even yourself. When you’re moving the kind of weight Ronnie was, the lines between the good and bad kinds of pain are more blurred than ever. It gets to a point where pain – of any sort – is weakness. The same way Ronnie ignored lingering back pain from his football and powerlifting days while competing at the elite levels of bodybuilding, so too, do I believe he ignored the many red flags his body was throwing up while he was shocking the world with his crazy feats of strength.
This was pre-social media. I don’t think Ronnie went to chiropractors, had regular massage work done, or really did anything to give his body a fighting chance. He was too busy eating, lifting, and growing.
But what if instead of five days on and two days off, Ronnie trained back once every seven days? Instead of 5, 6, or 7 exercises at 5-6 sets of 8-10 reps each, he was doing 3-4 exercises per workout. Instead of five sets of 8-10 reps, he had a warm-up set and then a working set with a truly challenging weight for 6-8 solid reps. Given the huge intervals of rest coupled with moving a heavy (but not ridiculous) amount of weight would have triggered tremendous growth. The fact is Ronnie had great genetics and discipline unlike anyone we’ve seen in 30 years. He ate his meals on time and he took his supplements exactly as directed.
When you have an athlete who takes his training, nutrition, and supplementation as seriously as Ronnie did, then training to the lengths he was, almost could have been a setback. I know that a lot of people reading this article might think I’m an idiot for even implying this but I truly feel that Ronnie’s overtraining set him back. Yes, set him back. Even though he won eight consecutive Sandows, imagine what could have been if he just toned it down a bit. Even if he’d say lifted a little lighter or done less sets or even less reps after 2003. Anything could have helped but toning down was just not in the cards.
It takes great discipline to adopt Mike Mentzer’s HIT approach. Most guys just can’t do it. They refuse to consciously accept that less training is better. And it’s not really less in the sense of slacking or cutting corners by any means. Guys would puke training with Mike and those working sets took absolutely everything out of the people who trained that way, but there was no possibility of overtraining. And what’s the single surest road to injuries? Spending way too much time in the gym and coming back before the body has had sufficient time to recuperate. Resting takes as much discipline as not. And a lot of the guys who are chasing huge poundages have a tendency to have a hard time even resting one day a week let alone two or three. Some will even use the rest days to do cardio and maybe sneak in some ab training. Well guess what? If you’re doing cardio and abs – you’re not resting!!
Do I think Ronnie would have done as well with HIT than what he did? Absolutely. What say you? Do you think if Ronnie had trained a little more like a bodybuilder or at the very least a little bit more sensibly that his health would have taken a different path?