Franco Columbu, who passed away August 30, 2019, at 78, was a man of many titles. He was Mr. Olympia twice (1976 & ’81), Mr. Universe, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Europe. He was a husband, a father, a chiropractor, an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best friend. But, perhaps most famously, he was celebrated for his strength. At only 5’5” and 180-something, his lifts are legendary. But are they true? Pound-for-pound, was Franco Columbu the strongest bodybuilder of all time?
After boxing in his native Sardinia, Columbu took up Olympic weightlifting in the early ’60s. We were unable to locate any photos or official results, but Columbu claimed these bests: press 325 lbs. (147.4 kg.), snatch 270 lbs. (122.4 kg.), clean and jerk 400 lbs. (181 kg.). If done in one meet, they’d total 995 lbs. (451.3 kg.)—and that’s ludicrous! He would’ve been, at most, a middleweight, and the middleweight gold medalist of the 1964 Olympics set a world record with 981. No way was this unknown Italian even in the 900-club then, but we simply don’t know how strong he was in weightlifting.
During or after this time, he competed in powerlifting—a new sport finding its way in the ’60s with vague rules and odd lifts. His first verified contest was in 1965, when he bench pressed 300 lbs., overhead pressed 180 lbs., and cheat curled 230 lbs. in the 154-lb. class. He competed twice more that year and once in 1966. Then, at 26, at the 1967 German Championships, he set three German records for his weight class: squat 441 lbs., bench press 375 lbs., and deadlift 507 lbs.
Returning the next year, 1968, Columbu demolished those records: squat 507 lbs. (230 kg.), bench press 408 lbs. (185 kg.), and deadlift 595 lbs. (270 kg.) for a total of 1510 lbs. (685 kg). The much heavier Arnold Schwarzenegger won the heavyweight class with a lighter squat and a total of 1598 lbs. (725 kg.). That was the final powerlifting meet for both best friends; and Columbu’s total may have been the world’s best for his weight class. World records are spotty in the ’60s, and the first World Powerlifting Championships were not held until 1971, but in 1971, the winner of the 165-lb. class matched Franco’s 1510; the 181-lb. winner totaled 1635.
Franco is also credited with deadlifting 683 lbs. (310 kg.) as an exhibition at the 1969 Mr. Europe bodybuilding contest, in which he competed (he won his class, Arnold won the overall). That’s phenomenal. It matches the (also phenomenal) deadlift Arnold pulled at the 1969 German Championships, but Franco was at least 60 lbs. lighter than Arnold was!
WORLD’S STRONGEST MAN
Speaking of odd lifts, in the summer of 1977 when Columbu was the reigning Mr. Olympia, he competed in the first World’s Strongest Man, which was then a made-for-TV concoction of 10 circus-like strength feats (bar-bending, caged-girl-squatting…) by eight men from various fields. It was won convincingly by 6’3” 326-lb. weightlifter Bruce Wilhelm, but Columbu, easily the smallest competitor at 5’5” and 182, tied for second in some events. He was in fourth (and just two points from second) going into the penultimate feat. That was the refrigerator race, and, with a fridge on his back, he stumbled and dislocated his knee, a devastating injury that set him back years. Even without earning a point for the final two events, he finished fifth.
Columbu’s greatest claimed lifts were: 525 lb. bench press, 655 lb. squat, 750 lb. deadlift. Interestingly, though, on the 1977 WSM telecast, his claims were: 475, 655, and 735; and he certainly never hit a personal best in the squat or deadlift after blowing out his knee, and it’s unlikely he did his best-ever benching in his bodybuilding comeback when approaching 40. The higher numbers may have come from him rounding up his gym lifts to what he imagined he could’ve done in a powerlifting meet, but let’s investigate the WSM numbers.
• A 475-pound bench press seems accurate. Other than an obviously posed shot of him holding 525 at arm’s length (shirtless and oiled up) for a photo shoot, there are no photos of him benching five plates, but there is a video of him on stage at an exhibition benching 405 for five (and missing on the sixth rep). Using a one-rep calculator, this equates to 475 for a single. And if he got the 475 in the photo seen here, in a tank top on his tiptoes, 525 under better conditions certainly seems possible.
• The 655-pound squat seems exaggerated. We at The Barbell found no photos or accounts of him with more than 405 on his shoulders, and Arnold talked about them both squatting sets of 10 at that weight. Our estimate is that if he did a max single it would’ve been near what Arnold claimed as his best: 545-pound squat. That said, if his squat grew as his bench press and deadlift did after that 1968 powerlifting contest, it certainly would’ve been over 600.
• Finally, the deadlift—the exercise that made Columbu’s reputation for inhuman strength. In the famous photo (by Artie Zeller) that opens this article, he’s pulling 675 in Gold’s Gym Venice, and the photo sequence below is him getting the aforementioned 735-pound deadlift (off of towels) at an exhibition in 1972 without even wearing a belt! At the same exhibition, he pulled 700, beltless, for a triple (with bounces to start reps two and three), as seen in this video. These are amazing feats even today for a 180-ish pound man and world-class then. Powerlifter Vince Anello’s best-ever deadlift in the 181 class was 735, and he rewrote the under-200 deadlifting record book in the ’70s. Franco likely could’ve been the one doing the rewriting, if he had made powerlifting his main focus.
Add together a 735 deadlift, 475 bench press, and 545 squat and that 1755 total would’ve won the 1972 powerlifting world championships in either the 181 or 198 class. And it would’ve won the 181 class as late as 1977. Of course, you can’t assume he’d hit three personal bests in the same meet, but comparing his presumed top lifts to the powerlifting standards of the ’70s, highlights just how strong he was as an under-200 bodybuilder then.
Wilks calculators say the over-a-ton powerlifting totals of former pro bodybuilders Stan Efferding and Johnnie Jackson are more impressive, even at their much-loftier body weights. But Efferding never got close to Olympia-qualifying, and Jackson’s highest O placing was ninth. Columbu won the Mr. Olympia twice (if controversially the second time). Let it be known: A 5’5”, 180ish giant once walked amongst us.
Pound for pound, Franco Columbu was the strongest great bodybuilder of all time.