How strong was Lou Ferrigno? This is difficult to answer. Unlike modern bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates, there’s a sparsity of training footage or real workout photos. And unlike his contemporaries, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, he never competed in powerlifting or weightlifting or did strength exhibitions. What’s more, Lou Ferrigno, the 6’5″ winner of the Mr. America and Mr. Universe at 21, turned 24 on the day of the 1975 Mr. Olympia and then retired to pursue acting but then made a comeback at 41. He’s the great “What If…?” What could TV’s Incredible Hulk have accomplished if he continued to grow over those 17 years when his strength would’ve peaked? We got a partial answer in the 1977 World’s Strongest Man, and then we saw a bigger version of him when he played the title character in Hercules at 31.
What does the available evidence tell us about just how strong Lou Ferrigno was?
LOU FERRIGNO’S CLAIMED LIFTS
Google Lou Ferrigno’s biggest lifts and here’s what you get:
• bench press 560 lbs. (254 kg.)
• deadlift 850 lbs. (385.5 kg.)
• squat 675 lbs. (306 kg.)
That would give him a 2085 (946 kg.) powerlifting total.
These are huge numbers, and especially for the ’70s. No one at the 1975 World Powerlifting Championships bench pressed or deadlifted that much, and only one person totaled more, and he outweighed Ferrigno then by 50+ pounds. Did Ferrigno hit such numbers in the ’80s when training for movie and TV roles or the ’90s when he made his bodybuilding comeback? There’s no evidence for that.
These are all greatly exaggerated estimates. We’re not sure if they came from Ferrigno himself or were just internet conjecture. So, what’s the truth?
LOU FERRIGNO’S ACTUAL LIFTS
In the classic 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, we see 23-year-old Lou Ferrigno (6’5” 275 lbs.) training in a small, dark Brooklyn gym for the 1975 Mr. Olympia. He does incline presses with 205 lbs. He doesn’t lock out most reps, as was his training style, and he gets a few forced reps at the end. But we’ll give him 10 reps.
Standing Overhead Press
More impressive in Pumping Iron are his overhead presses. After a set with 225, Big Louie gets 10 reps with 245 lbs. Again, he’s not locking out reps, and he’s also using some momentum. A one rep calculator tells us this equates to 327 lbs. for a single rep.
Projected Bench Press
You’re about 67% as strong in the standing military press as the bench press. So, if we generously give him 315 lbs. for a stricter overhead press, this would give Ferrigno in 1975 a 445 lb. bench press.
Projected Squat & Deadlift
As for the squat and deadlift, we found no video, photographic, or eyewitness accounts of him performing these lifts heavy, other than the unique car deadlift which we’ll discuss below. However, just for conjecture, because our projected bench press is 81% of his claimed bench press, if the claimed deadlift and squat are the same, they would be:
• deadlift: 689 lbs.
• squat: 547 lbs.
In a video from the early ’90s, Big Lou does alternate dumbbell curls with 70-pound dumbbells for at least six reps. Was he stronger in his early 40s than he was in his early 20s? Perhaps. He’s much bigger. He reportedly competed at either 315 or 325 lbs. in 1992, which makes him still the heaviest competitor in Olympia history. However, most of the footage from that era is pre-contest, and he’s working with relatively light weights for higher reps. I witnessed some of his workouts in the ’90s (in some he trained with Mike O’Hearn), but I don’t recall Ferrigno going particularly heavy. It just wasn’t his style.
WORLD’S STRONGEST MAN
In 1977, Lou Ferrigno competed in the first World’s Strongest Man, which was then a made-for-TV collection of 10 events with eight diverse participants: two world-class weightlifters, a national powerlifting champ, a stuntman and kung-fu master, a champion hammer thrower, an NFL player, and two of the world’s best bodybuilders: Ferrigno and ’76 Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu. Ferrigno finished fourth. Columbu, who dislocated his knee in the next-to-last event, finished fifth. Bruce Wilhelm, a 350-pound weightlifter, won easily that year and the next.
Ferrigno, the youngest competitor at 25, was listed as 6’5” and 278 lbs.
Of the 10 events, Ferrigno won two:
• bar bend (a test of back strength at the beginning, mimicking a pulldown, and chest strength at the end, mimicking a flying motion)
• car deadlift (in which he lifted one side of a car weighing 2684-lbs. and stood up), arguably the purest test of strength in the contest, although he was helped (and Columbu was hurt) by the lifting platform, which advantaged his height
He also tied Columbu for second in another event, wrist roller, a test of forearm strength.
In the other seven events, Ferrigno was out of the top four and thus scored no points (he was disqualified in two, the barrel lift and wheelbarrow race), most notable of these was the squat (with people in cages). Ferrigno was just not a good squatter. The events in which Ferrigno performed the worst either involved more leg strength and/or speed (refrigerator race, wheelbarrow race, tram pull, etc.). On the other hand, he excelled when standing stationary and performing a strength event that involved only upper body muscles (bar bend, wrister roller) or mostly core muscles (car deadlift).
The same was true of Franco Columbu, and, in fact, the two bodybuilding legends were tied for first place after three events.
It’s interesting to consider how Lou Ferrigno would’ve performed in a modern strongman event with more focus on strength and less on athleticism and also if he had come in much heavier than he did in 1977. He looks lean compared to the three bulky guys who placed ahead of him in the ’77 W.S.M. But this was his only strength contest.
Despite outweighing his contemporaries Arnold Schwarzenegger (by a little) and Franco Columbu (by a lot), Lou Ferrigno wasn’t as strong as either of them. But we have to consider how young he was back then. He spent his potential peak strength years in green makeup hulking out on TV, not trying to maximize muscle and strength. His admirable performance in the World’s Strongest Man hints at how strong he could’ve been if he’d trained all-out from, say, age 25-35. Ferrigno is one of the most genetically gifted bodybuilders of all time, and he may have been one of the strongest men of all time if he’d trained for power. What if…?