Photo by Kevin Horton

“Light weight!” Ronnie Coleman would bark before lifting a ridiculously heavy weight again and again. As he collected Mr. Olympia victories each autumn from 1998 to 2005, he became as celebrated for his stupendous strength as his phenomenal physique. Long before Instagram, jaw-dropping feats were chronicled in his training DVDs and FLEX magazine photographs, all shot in his “workplace,” Metroflex Gym, in the sweltering Texas heat. We have the evidence to verify Coleman’s biggest lifts. In fact, I witnessed several of those workouts in 2004-05, covering them for FLEX. “Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut!” Many consider Ronnie Coleman the GOAT of bodybuilding. Was he also the strongest great bodybuilder of all time?

“Everybody want to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights, but me.”

DEADLIFT

Coleman competed in the Texas Deadlift Classic annually from 1991 to 1994, years in which he also flexed in 14 bodybuilding contests (the last three as a pro). Deadlifting raw with a conventional stance, his best pulls varied little over the four years, from 695 to 727.5 lbs. (329 kg.). Because the latter lift was in the 275 class, his best official deadlift was 725 in the 242 class in 1992, when he was 27. By comparison, Arnold Schwarzenegger deadlifted 675 lbs. (306 kg.) at 20 in a 1968 powerlifting meet.

Weeks before the 2000 Mr. Olympia (his third win), Ronnie was filmed training in Metroflex. He deadlifted 755 for four reps and followed this up with 800 lbs. (362.9 kg.) for a double. These pulls are a great reflection of his strength (both sets equal about 823 for a single), but, because he used straps and wore gloves, they are not competition-comparable. However, he also wasn’t wearing a power suit or low-soled shoes, but instead was dressed in a tanktop, tights, and thick-soled boots.

SQUAT

In a training video shot before the 2003 Olympia (which he won supersized at nearly 300 lbs.), Ronnie wanted to duplicate his deadlift of 800 for a double, this time in the squat. He bought a squat suit, which he’d never previously worn. Like usual, he also wore knee wraps and a belt. He came in a little high on the first rep, and he knew it, so he went three inches deeper on the second rep, which clearly breaks parallel. If we give him the two reps with 800, like the deadlift, it calculates to 823 for a single. He later claimed he wished he hadn’t been so fixated on the double, because he felt he could’ve got more reps.

In 2005, covering his workouts for FLEX, I watched Coleman squat 585 for 10 reps, all of them deep, in a T-shirt and tights (belt and knee wraps), squatting until his nose bled. This also calculates to an 820-ish single, but it’s more impressive than the 800 double two years earlier because he wasn’t wearing a suit. Working off free-standing racks, he didn’t even have a spotter.

Ronnie Coleman best squat
Ronnie squatting 585 / Kevin Horton

Also, very impressive is the 585-pound front squat for four reps he did in 2000. And, on July 4, 2006, at age 42, he front squatted 495 for 10, avoiding the top-thirds of reps until the last one. If we give him all 10, this calculates to 660 lbs. for a single.

In the 2000 footage, we also see him do a 780-pound hack squat for eight reps (estimating 60 lbs. for the sled).

BENCH PRESS

In more 2003 footage, Coleman bench pressed, with a wide-grip, 495 for five reps (he may have gotten a little help on #5). Giving him all five, a one-rep calculator pegs his max bench press that day at 557 (252.6 kg.). Afterwards, in the same workout, he incline barbell pressed 405 for eight, plus one forced rep. Finally, he decline pressed 405 for 10.

More impressive, from 2000, are the two sets of 12 full reps he benches with 200-pound dumbbells. This equates to one rep with 280-pound dumbbells! He also incline pressed those dumbbells for five full reps (and two forced reps). On none of the sets does he even get help lifting the gargantuan dumbbells into position. These dumbbell feats lead us to think he may have been a stronger bencher in 2000 than 2003.

POSSIBLE POWERLIFTING TOTAL

If we split the difference between his official 727.5 deadlift and the unofficial calculated one-rep best (with straps and boots) of 823 (8 years later and 60 pounds heavier), we get 775. His calculated one-rep best for the squat is 823. And for the bench press it’s 557. If he hit these three in a raw powerlifting meet, the total would be 2155 lbs. (977.5 kg.). Of course, this is based mostly on his best bodybuilding numbers. If he had trained specifically for powerlifting for years with more power-appropriate form (on the bench press, especially) and clothing, and competed in the 308-pound (140 kg.) class when in his 30s, he likely could have tacked substantial weight onto that. (The current raw world record in the 308-pound class is 2,458 lbs.)

ROWS

Ronnie was an especially strong rower. In the footage shot in 2000, he barbell rowed 495 lbs. for eight reps. In 2004, I witnessed him barbell rowing two sets of 10 reps with 455.

In 2000, he was also filmed doing T-bar rows with as many 45s as can be slid on the sleeve of a barbell: a dozen. That’s 540, and we’ll add 30 for most of the Olympic barbell (lifted at an angle with the opposite end touching the floor). So, T-bar rows, 570 lbs. for nine reps.

In 2004, I witnessed him somehow cramming a little more iron on the barbell’s sleeve: a 100-pound plate plus ten 45s. So, 550, plus the bar’s 30, for a total of 580. He rowed five reps before the V-handle broke. He could’ve got more, to probably total 8-10, but in the battle of man vs. metal, metal lost.

Ronnie Coleman best row
Before the handle breaks: Ronnie T-bar rowing 580 / Kevin Horton

LEG PRESS

In 2003, after the squats, the leg press was loaded with all the iron that could be piled on its sleeves and above the sled. “Everybody want to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights, but me!” Mr. Olympia shouted before pounding out 10 reps with a narrow stance, pressing around a ton each time. Somehow even more weight was crammed on. With a calculator, Metroflex owner Brian Dobson computed it at 2250. Because a typical leg press sled weighs about 75 pounds, we’ll say 2325 pounds (1065.9 kg.). “Got to break the record, baby,” Ronnie told the camera. He got eight reps, narrow and not especially deep, but deep enough.

MORE EXERCISES (all on video)

• seated dumbbell shoulder press: 160 lbs. x 7 reps

• seated military press (leaning back): 315 lbs. x 11 reps (plus one forced rep)

• behind-the-back barbell shrugs: 735 lbs. x 10 short, quick reps

• dumbbell pullovers: 160 lbs. x 10

• dumbbell triceps extensions: 75 lbs. x 15 reps per arm

• standing alternate dumbbell curls: 75 lbs. x 8 reps

SOURCES

1991-94 competitive deadlifting: www.openpowerlifting.org

2000 workouts: Ronnie Coleman: The Unbelievable!!, DVD, directed by Mitsuru Okabe, 2001.

2003 workouts: Ronnie Coleman: The Cost of Redemption, DVD, directed by Mitsuru Okabe, 2004.

2004 back workout: “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Peanut,” FLEX, Nov. 2004, p. 50-71, text by Greg Merritt, photos by Kevin Horton.

2005 chest and triceps workout: “Blood, Sweat, & Dust,” FLEX, April 2006, p. 92-107, text by Greg Merritt, photos by Kevin Horton.

2005 leg workout: “Top-Dog Thighs,” FLEX, Jan. 2006, p. 80-92, text by Greg Merritt, photos by Kevin Horton.

2006 workouts: Ronnie Coleman: Relentless, DVD, directed by Mitsuru Okabe, 2007.