The man, the myth, the legend, Sergio Oliva came from humble and rough beginnings in his home country of Cuba. Born in 1942, Oliva worked alongside his father on sugar cane plantations, a grueling, low paying job he did from the age of 12.
When he turned 16, his father suggested he join Fulgencio Bautista’s counter-communism army. Although Oliva wasn’t old enough, his father told the military he was and they took him at his word, and Oliva found himself in the military.
After the war, Oliva stayed under the radar and hung out at a local beach where he was introduced to bodybuilding. In just short three months, Oliva was doing clean and jerks with over 300 pounds and easily totaling 1000 pounds in power lifting (squat, bench press, and dead lift) at a body weight of 195 pounds. He was a natural.
In Cuba’s 1962 national weightlifting championship, at the age of 20, Oliva came in second place behind Alberto Rey Games Hernandez. However, when Hernandez was injured, Oliva was chosen to represent Cuba at the Central American and Caribbean Games hosted in Kingston, Jamaica, that year.
Oliva had already decided to get out of Cuba, and the games presented the perfect opportunity. During his stay in Kingston, he sneaked out of his quarters and ran to the American consulate, where he demanded and received political asylum.
It was not long after that he found himself living in Miami, Florida, working as a TV repairman. A year later, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he worked at a local steel mill for 10-12 hours a day, and spent an additional 2.5-3 hours training.
Oliva won his first bodybuilding competition at the Mr.Chicagoland contest in 1963 after word about his exploits reached the bodybuilding grapevine. He was already a local bodybuilding legend throughout Chicago.
He went on to win the Mr. Olympia title three years in a row. At a height of 5 feet 8 inches and a weight of 225 pounds, and with his rugged history and work experience, there was no competition for him.
His third consecutive Mr. Olympia title in 1969 saw him triumph over Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Arnold described Oliva as a ‘wall’ in his 1977 autobiography:
“Then for the first time, I saw Sergio Oliva in person. I understood why they called him the Myth. It was jarring, as if I’d walked into a wall. He destroyed me. He was so huge, he was so fantastic. There was no way I could ever thing of beating him. I admitted my defeat and felt some of my pump go away. I tried, but I’d been so taken back by my first sight of Sergio Oliva that I think I settled for 2nd place before we walked out on the stage. I never like to admit defeat, but I thought Sergio was better, there were no two ways around it.”
Oliva was determined to become the greatest bodybuilder in the world, and with his impressive physique and naturally gifted physique, he would leave behind a world-renowned bodybuilding legacy.
Sergio Oliva’s Workout Routine
Oliva’s training routine involved some interesting exercise combinations, including high volume, 5×5 work, supersets, antagonistic training, and a heavy squat workout. Oliva’s philosophy was that each muscle group had to be hit with a workout twice a week.
I’ve included the weight he used for most of the exercises so you could have an understanding of what intensity level he was working at.
On Mondays, Oliva expanded his chest with bench press, dips and flyes and worked his back with chin-ups:
1. Bench Press superset with Chins
- Set 1. Bench Press 200 x 8, 15 reps on chinning bar
- Set 2. Bench Press 220 x 8, 15 reps on chinning bar
- Set 3. Bench Press 260 x 8, 10 reps on chinning bar
- Set 4. Bench Press 300 x 8, 10 reps on chinning bar
- Set 5. Bench Press 320 x 8, 8 reps on chinning bar
- Set 6. Bench Press 350 x 8, 8 reps on chinning bar
- Set 7. Bench Press 380 x 8, 5 reps on chinning bar
2. DB Flyes supersetted with Dips.
5 sets of 15 reps with 80 pound dumbbells, supersetted with 15 dips.
On Tuesdays, Oliva worked his shoulders, triceps, and biceps with rep and set schemes typically following a 5 set scheme:
- Seated Military Press: 5 sets x 15 reps with 200 pounds
- Bar Curls: 5 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- French Press: 5 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- Scott (Curls) w/Bar: 5 sets x 10 reps with 150 pounds
- Scott (Curls) w/Dumbbells: 5 sets x 5 reps with 60 pounds
- Seated Triceps Extension superset with Triceps Cable Pressdown: 5 sets x 5 reps with 60 pound dumbbell/120 pounds
On Wednesday Sergio focused on his abs followed by heavy squat and calve exercises:
- Situps: 10 sets x 50 reps
- Leg Raises: 5 sets x 10 reps
- Side Bends with Bar Behind Neck: 5 sets x 200 reps
- Squats. 5 sets – 300 x 5, 400 x 5, 440 x 5, 470 x 5, 500 x 4
- Standing Calf Raise: 10 sets x 8 reps with 300 pounds
Sergio’s second chest and back workout of the week, as well as some additional shoulder work:
- Bench Press: 5 sets – 200 x 5, 220 x 5, 260 x 5, 300 x 5, 320 x 5, 350 x 5, 380 x 5
- Seated Military Press superset with Seated Rows: 5 sets x 5 reps; 250 pounds for military press and 200 pounds for seated rows
- Seated Military Press with Dumbbells. 5 sets x 10 reps with 80 pounds
- Dips. 5 sets x 8 reps focusing on a slow cadence
Friday workouts heavily focused on arms as well as the back:
- Press: 3 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- Bar Curls: 3 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- French Press: 3 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- Cable Extension Elbows on Bench: 3 sets x 5 reps with 200 pounds
- Chins: 5 sets x 15 reps
- Close Grip Underhand Pull-downs superset with Tricep Pushdowns 5 sets x 5 reps
Saturday featured workouts focusing again on abs and legs. This time, the squat workouts were lighter with added front squat:
- Situps: 5 sets x 10 reps
- Leg Raises: 5 sets x 10 reps
- Side Bends with Bar Behind Neck: 5 sets x 50 reps
- Squats: 3 sets of 300 x 3, 2 sets of 400 x 3, 1 set 400 x 3, 3 sets of 250 x 20
- Front Squats: 5 sets x 10 reps with 200 pounds
- Sitting Heel Raises: 5 sets x 5 reps, 200 pounds
Sergio Oliva is one of the most famous bodybuilders in history, notorious for being a fierce rival of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His tough beginning in Cuba molded him, and his various physically demanding jobs shaped his mind and body to the point where he became a true myth.