An Interview With 8 Time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie "The Greatest" Coleman
From weight training efforts inspired by a free gym membership and a simple love of lifting heavy iron to top of the bodybuilding world in an uncompromisingly tough sport predicated upon an unbreakable work ethic and willingness to sacrifice to succeed, 8 time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman's story is a study in perseverance, humility and passion. That he has become the greatest bodybuilder ever to grace the professional stage, yet considers himself just a regular guy - albeit just a little bit larger than the average Joe - and one who has simply done what he has loved and been justly rewarded for his efforts speaks volumes about the perspective with which he approaches life and the humility he has. As a serving police officer for over two decades, Coleman has demonstrated a strong sense of community for much of his life; as a son, father and husband he has cared for his family and often puts the needs of others before his own; as a bodybuilding champion he is unequalled. Contrary to the belief that to be successful on stage you must focus your efforts solely on yourself, the big Texan has proven that this need not be the case. And no one can argue with his success.
So what has made Ronnie Coleman - an unsurpassed winner of 26 pro bodybuilding events - so successful? His main motivation for beginning training could provide one answer: it began as a love and became a hobby, one that has lasted to the present day. A love for what he does - and would be doing regardless of whether he is Mr. Olympia or a third tier pro - is what has motivated Coleman to improve year after year, long after many of his iron brethren have quit the game. Bodybuilding training was never something Coleman considered a job and with this mindset came an ability to successfully handle the pressures associated with preparing for competition. As he began to make gradual improvements to establish a name for himself, he never departed from who he was and what made him a professional in the first place. Radical changes to his training and nutrition programs, for example, were never considered, even after he won his first Mr. Olympia title in 1998. Coleman also has an ability and willingness to outwork other competitors, of which he considers himself his main competition. So neither does he compare himself to others, obsess over what the 'competition' is doing or second-guess his own methods for success. His training requirements are kept as simple as possible, the number one criterion for improvement being sheer hard work.
"I was always just trying to get back to where I was before," says the champ. "And once I got there I was trying to top it."
Hard work, a lack of pressure, love for the process and humility: a winning recipe that has made Ronnie Coleman one of the sport's greatest legends, one whose physical development has yet to be equalled (see accompanying "Who is the Greatest Mr. Olympia Winner of all Time" article).
I spoke to pro bodybuilding's most accomplished athlete and he provided me with a unique insight into how he became number one, and stayed there for almost a decade.
[ David Robson ] You are widely described as a pro bodybuilding trendsetter with the combination of size, conditioning and shape you presented. Were you the best of all time do you think?
[ Ronnie Coleman ] Well, not really. It's kind of hard to say something like that if you ask me because I'm the one that's doing it. I'm not sitting back and evaluating myself. It's hard to be at your best and to know exactly what is your best at all times because even when you do see yourself you think you could be better and you often feel that there is something you could have done differently. So it's often hard to judge yourself in that type of role. This is something that should be decided by others. My favorite guys of all time have always been Lee (Haney) and Arnold, as far as putting it all together. It is hard for me to say whether I am the greatest ever.
[ DR ] In awarding you eight Olympia titles and most number of pro wins ever the judges appear to have answered this question with a resounding "yes."
[ RC ] They have said that I am one of the top guys within the top class of competitors.
[ DR ] Was it ever close between you and your competition when you were at your very best?
[ RC ] (Laughs) not really. That is just my own personal opinion.
[ DR ] Back when you first began competing as a pro did you ever believe that you would some day win the Mr. Olympia title?
[ RC ] No. Never. That was never even a goal of mine. I just worked out and competed because I was given a free membership to the gym. It was just a way for me to save money on gym memberships. Because all of my life I have considered weightlifting just a hobby. Even when I got into bodybuilding it was still a hobby, but just on a different level, or in a different form. Mostly I was into powerlifting when I was in high school. And I just continued to train the same way I was taught - to powerlift. Once I started doing bodybuilding there were no real differences, just different exercises. A different way of training with more repetitions, but it was still the same lifting of very heavy weights to get stronger.
[ DR ] When did you know you had a good shot at winning the Olympia? Was there ever a turning point in your career where you knew you were Mr. O material?
[ RC ] Yes, that would have been when I was standing onstage with Flex Wheeler as the final two competitors at the 1998 Mr. Olympia and they announced Flex in second place (laughs). That was the moment right there.
[ DR ] So prior to this first Olympia win you had no idea you would be crowned the new champ.
[ RC ] I had no idea. It still wasn't even a dream at that point. It all began from there, all unexpectedly.
[ DR ] Of all the contests you have entered and won, which one holds the most significance for you and why?
[ RC ] The first Mr. Olympia I won in 1998. Because I was so blown away. I never expected this win. At that point I was working full time at the police department (in Arlington, Texas) and bodybuilding was just part-time for me; still just a hobby. And I never even thought it would go beyond that. I was so caught up in working eight hours a day at the police department and going through all the training we had to do, the schooling. So I was very busy and wrapped up in that. Because at the time that's where most of my money came from; and we made a pretty good living. You had to have a four-year degree just to get into the department. We had the highest paying department in the state (of Texas).
[ DR ] Upon winning your first Mr. Olympia title did you evaluate your training and make any changes?
[ RC ] No, to be honest with you I continued to do what I did to win that first one, to win the rest of them. They say if you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always got, so I just kept everything exactly the same.
[ DR ] There is a thought that to make new gains in muscle size a bodybuilder must continue to change their program to offset adaptation, to keep the muscles in a state of permanent growth.
[ RC ] No, no, no. Not for me. Certain things apply only to certain individuals in certain situations, with certain genetic predispositions. I was just a little bit different from most people in that regard (laughs).
[ DR ] You could say that. But you must have done something new to keep those gains coming as you did. Did you improve your nutrition?
[ RC ] Yes I did. I did get a nutritionist and Chad (Nicholls) made some changes along the lines of increasing protein and cutting back on carbohydrates.
[ DR ] Did your mindset change upon winning that first Mr. Olympia title. Did you ever feel that you must now change your thinking because of the pressure associated with maintaining your position as the number one bodybuilder in the world?
[ RC ] No, like I said it has always just been a lot of fun. Training was my hobby so I always looked forward to that. So there was nothing for me to change really. Why put added pressure on yourself when you don't have to?
[ DR ] Perhaps it was your ability to handle pressure that made you the great champion that you became?
[ RC ] Yes, most definitely.
[ DR ] Clearly, though, all athletes competing at the highest levels must encounter some degree of pressure. Were there instances where you felt any pressure at all?
[ RC ] No, not even for one single day. I guess it was because I was enjoying myself and having so much fun. And I always knew that even if I didn't make it in bodybuilding that I would always have something to fall back on. There was never really any pressure. I just made the best of what I had.
[ DR ] You didn't feel the need to prove yourself year after year, to retain your title despite increasingly tough competition?
[ RC ] Basically no. It was something that I loved to do at that point.
[ DR ] Did you ever feel that you had to continue winning the Mr. Olympia title?
[ RC ] No, not really, but I always wanted to though. And I always did what it took to win. It was kind of easy for me in a way even though I had to train and diet so hard and stay focused, because I also had a full time job. So I never took anything for granted and never took it easy. I always worked hard, stayed focused and dedicated and did what it took to win the show.
[ DR ] Because you were always, it appeared, one step ahead of the game, perhaps this explains why pressure was not really an issue for you.
[ RC ] Yes, I always had my priorities where they needed to be. I was always trying to stay one to two steps ahead of the game.
[ DR ] And who was your toughest competition as defending Mr. Olympia?
[ RC ] I never really looked at it like that; I always looked at myself as being my toughest competition. I was always the one who had to get myself into good shape. And when you are in my position and always winning it is different, unlike those who are fighting for the top. I was always just trying to get back to where I was before. And once I got there I was trying to top it. I was always just trying to better what I did the year before.
[ DR ] So when there were close calls, as there were throughout your career, though not many, this was more a case of you being off your game and the competition closing in because of this?
[ RC ] Yes, exactly.
[ DR ] Has your training always been power oriented with a lot of volume, as you have in the past described it?
[ RC ] Yes, always. I never really changed it either. A lot of it has to do with genetics and everyone is different in this respect. You have to train the best way that is suited to you, a way that will allow you to progress.
[ DR ] Would you recommend Ronnie Coleman's training program for the average competitor?
[ RC ] Well it is kind of hard to say. You could try it if you think you could do it, but it is not that easy.
[ DR ] Your recovery abilities were also in a different class it seems, based on the sheer amount of training you did coupled with everything else you had to contend with.
[ RC ] Exactly. It took me only about 15 to 20 minutes to recover after a workout.
[ DR ] Does this mean you could do another workout following this period?
[ RC ] Yes and a lot of times I did do that. I went from cardio training to work (on the police force) for eight hours, to the gym to train with weights then home to do cardio again. I did this for a very long time. You had to have super recovery abilities and that is what I had.
[ DR ] If I were to read a training article on how Ronnie Coleman developed his biceps would I necessarily follow this program and progress from it? How much of this kind of writing is hype?
[ RC ] You are guaranteed to get results.
[ DR ] There is a thought that since pro bodybuilders are in a completely different league physically from the average person that you would not necessarily use their methods to gain similar results.
[ RC ] I would. If you look at the way they have progressed over many years how can you go wrong with it (laughs)? If I want to learn how to play golf I want to do so from the pros and to do what they do. Apparently they do know something because they are professionals. So most definitely you are going to learn from any professional.
[ DR ] Very good point. Did you ever depart from your normal training routine to see if this worked better for you?
[ RC ] No. There is a good saying: if it ain't broke then don't try to fix it. That's the way training was for me. It wasn't broke so I wasn't trying to fix it.
[ DR ] What are some aspects of the pro bodybuilding life that you have enjoyed over the years?
[ RC ] I enjoyed all of it, all aspects. Even to this day it's still the same.
[ DR ] What are some of bodybuilding's health benefits in your view?
[ RC ] For me it's just a way to keep everything functioning well. It is a good lifestyle because it encourages good health and keeps all of your organs working well. I go to the doctor for a full check up about four times a year and every time I go it is always good, contrary to popular belief that bodybuilding can be body destroying. It is always bodybuilding to me. You are always putting good quality foods into your body and taking the right amounts of vitamins and minerals each and every day.
[ DR ] What do supplements provide that diet alone cannot?
[ RC ] Well they help to provide missing antioxidants to keep you healthy and to get you through the day functioning at an optimal level.
[ DR ] How did it feel for you to be Mr. Olympia for so long?
[ RC ] To be honest with you I didn't really see it any differently compared to when I wasn't the champ because I was just having so much fun doing it. Of course, results speak for themselves and it is always a good thing when you work hard and are rewarded for this. That is the way I looked at it: I worked hard and was rewarded in most of the shows I did once I put it all together and got everything the way I wanted it to work.
[ DR ] So being Mr. Olympia didn't change Ronnie Coleman as a person?
[ RC ] No, not at all: I still looked at myself as being a normal person. Outside of doing seminars and guest posing appearances I would just consider myself to be a regular guy.
[ DR ] Do you ever miss being Mr. Olympia?
[ RC ] No, because I was there for so long and had so much fun doing it. And people consider me Mr. Olympia still. All the places I go I still get sell-out crowds and when I guest pose the same thing happens. Of course nothing lasts forever; we are living in a realistic society so you expect it to be that way, at least with me. And you have to realize, too, that I didn't even expect to be here; that is a huge success in itself.
[ DR ] How big of an honor was it to be awarded Mr. Olympia?
[ RC ] It is the biggest honor that could be bestowed upon me because I was originally doing it (bodybuilding) just for something to pass the time with. To win the Mr. Olympia was just overwhelming. That was a super added bonus.
[ DR ] Did you ever have an end point in mind, a time where you would retire?
[ RC ] No, because I was doing what I loved. And even though I'm not winning anymore I still do it because I enjoy it, because that's the way it started.
[ DR ] In what ways did Mr. Olympia change your life?
[ RC ] It made me more aware of who I was and, of course, the travel. I'm still on the road a lot.
[ DR ] So even though you are no longer Mr. Olympia, you are still living the life of a Mr. Olympia.
[ RC ] Yes, exactly.