Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

We love reading stories about true successes like what happened to Sergio Oliva.

To say that he came from a poor background is an understatement, which makes his bodybuilding success even more spectacular.

We’ve done a few months of research looking for old news articles and interviews to show you how truly amazing this man’s life was.

You’ll find some interesting details about his humble beginnings and how quickly he was able to transform his physique.

But let’s start with his early life.

Sergio Oliva: The Early Years

Sergio Oliva Tricep Training

Sergio Oliva was born on July 4, 1941, in Guantanamo, Cuba.

Yes, it’s that Guantanamo that is now infamous for it’s US military prison.

Sergio Oliva worked hard physical labor with his father from a very early age, where he spent most of his time working on sugarcane farms.

In 1957, when he was just 16 years old, he joined the army to fight against communism.

His life became tougher after Castro won that war, and he immediately started dreaming about finding a way to the USA.

His bodybuilding journey started by accident when he met some friends on a beach who were weightlifting. Sergio Oliva joined in, and he was able to lift championship level weights within six months.

It was during this time that the coach for the Cuban weightlifting team spotted him one day and invited him to join the national team.

By 1961 he was dominating the amateur field and was invited to take part in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Jamaica in 1962.

This is where he seized his opportunity for freedom.

He snuck out of his training camp and ran as fast as he could to the US embassy, where he was granted political asylum [1].

And this is where his new life started in Miami, Florida.

youtube

Sergio Oliva’s Diet

Sergio Oliva Diet

I remember listening to a very interesting interview with Sergio a few years ago, where he spoke about his early life in Cuba.

He could only afford one meal a day as a poor farm worker, and he didn't pay much attention to what that meal was. That certainly wouldn’t have been a recipe for bodybuilding success, and luckily things took a drastic change.

Joining the weightlifting team and being quickly identified as a rising star made all the difference.

He went from one meal a day to three large meals, as well as all the vitamins and supplements he needed to build up muscle mass.

And once he arrived in the US, he was able to feed his muscles even more.

What Worked for Sergio?

scrambled eggs

Sergio’s approach to eating and diet was, and still is, very unconventional.

What do I mean?

He took the approach that he would eat as much as possible from any kind of source. Fries, pastries, and many other treats would regularly be on the menu.

One of his coaches once commented that he would easily get through 12 scrambled eggs, followed by a box of fresh cakes.

And his colleagues would mention all this food would be washed down with several cans of soda.

And things got even stranger when he got to the gym. Rather than drink bottles of water, he would continuously sip on hot coffee.

He believed this would keep his body temperature at an optimum level and keep him mentally more focused.

What Didn’t Work?

fish and salad

There was one time when he decided to leave his old eating habits behind.

In 1984, his wife convinced him to try out the Frank Zane diet of eating mainly fish and salads in order to win Mr. Olympia.

Unfortunately, this backfired, and he only came in 8th place at that year's Mr. Olympia.

He admitted this was a huge mistake several years later when he said that he knew from the start that his body wasn’t reacting well to the drastic diet plan change.

Sergio Oliva’s Workout Routine

So, Sergio Oliva diet plan was controversial, but what about his training? Surely he had to stick to a proven workout routine.

Again, he had a unique approach because of the many years where he didn’t have formal training or a professional coach.

That didn’t happen until he joined a gym in Chicago.

A Day In The Gym Life Of Sergio

Sergio Oliva Workout

Sergio Oliva has often said that he just listened to his body and knew what muscle group he had to work on any given day.

But wait until you see how different his workout routine was with a sample of some workouts.

  • Standing calf raises
  • Seated calf raises: 8 sets of 20+ reps
  • Pulldowns: 6 sets of 20 - 25 reps
  • Reverse pulldowns: 6 sets of 20+ reps
  • Seated press/bench press: 8 sets of 20+ reps
  • Alternate dumbbell raise: 8 sets of 20+ reps
  • Parallel bar dips: 6 sets of 20 - 25 reps

Yes, those exercises rep and set numbers are correct. In his workout routine, Sergio would focus on large numbers of reps with a medium weight, rather than going for broke on a heavy workout.

Workout Routine And Tips

Sergio Bicep Training

Now, we listed the number of sets of his workout routine and exercises based on some old videos we watched and some feedback from his training partners.

They all said that he would only count reps, but routinely lost track of the number of sets he did. He would simply know when he was finished lifting.

His technique was also different in that he would use very fast motions for his upper body.

This includes triceps extensions, where he wouldn’t hold or pause at the top of a move.

It was like a seamless movement that was fast, rather than the slow technique used by most bodybuilders [2].

His theory was that by doing the workout routine in high reps with many sets and not allowing the tension in his muscles to drop, he would be able to force his body to become more muscular in a shorter space of time.

He was nicknamed The Myth because of the food and exercise approach that, in theory, shouldn’t have allowed him to achieve what he did, let alone win Mr. Olympia multiple times. [3]

Take a look at David Goggins's workout routine.

“I train to failure every time I go to the gym, and what I mean by that is, at the end of each set, I cannot do one more rep.”

 

- Sergio Oliva, Mr. Olympia.

Other amazing physiques:

FAQs

Who Trained Sergio Oliva?

Arthur Jones trained him from as early as 1972. He credited his coach during this time as being the main reason he was able to gain as much muscle mass as he needed for his continuous success in bodybuilding.

Did Sergio Oliva Beat Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Yes, he beat Schwarzenegger at Mr. Olympia. And he was the only bodybuilder to ever beat him on a world stage event like this.

How Did Sergio Oliva Die?

Sergio Oliva died on November 12, 2012, at age 71 from kidney failure. He had been suffering from kidney issues for several years, but very little is known about the underlying causes of the bodybuilder’s illness

A Unique Training Approach

Out of all the bodybuilders and powerlifters we have researched, Sergio Oliva is by far the most unique in terms of bodybuilding training and diet.

And his life story is only part of his amazing success.

But to achieve that success by always believing in his ability to listen to his body rather than conventional wisdom is truly amazing for a bodybuilder as successful as he is.

I’m not sure I’m brave enough to take up the challenge of regularly eating a box of donuts as part of my routine and diet like Sergio, but I’d love to hear from you if you’ve ever tried unconventional methods of training and dieting.


References:

  1. https://www.express.co.uk/celebrity-news/358156/Arnold-Schwarzenegger-remembers-late-bodybuilder-Sergio-Oliva
  2. https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/why-does-lowering-tempo-affect-muscle-growth-but-lifting-tempo-does-not-32b322c6fdaf
  3. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson331.htm

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