In 1992, Lou Ferrigno made bodybuilding headlines when he returned to the Mr. Olympia after 17 years away from the sport. Posing to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” the Pumping Iron star stepped on stage at an astounding 290 pounds. Even by his own standards, Ferrigno was big that night, perhaps bigger than ever.
Although his big comeback was squelched by a 12th-place finish, Ferrigno’s sheer size and muscle density still managed to impress. It was clear that he maintained a serious training program during his time away from the sport — and that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The heavy weights and timeless exercises that forged his physique during the 1970s never go out of style.
But how exactly did Ferrigno build his physique over the years — and just how strong was he?
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Building the Hulk
In 1966, Lou Ferrigno attended the second-ever Mr. Olympia contest, where he saw then-reigning champion Larry Scott repeat as the top name in the sport. From that moment on, Ferrigno dreamed of being a bodybuilder. The next year, at 16 years old, he met bodybuilding trainer and promoter Dan Lurie and told him that he wanted to be “the best-built man that ever lived.”
Lurie trained and mentored Ferrigno from 1967 to 1973, helping him transform his 6’5” physique from 165 pounds to 285 pounds at one point. While Lurie often preached the need for light weights and high repetitions, Ferrigno preferred heavy weights and low reps to pack on the mass needed to compete with other bodybuilders at an elite level.
It’s hard to stress just how impressive Ferrigno was in the early 1970s. When he won the 1974 IFBB Mr. Universe title, writer George Kay of Muscle Builder magazine labeled him as “Super-massive with marble-carved definition.”
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Ferrigno finished second in the Olympia heavyweight category that year behind Arnold Schwarzenegger. He came in third in the same category the following year before setting off on an adventure in Hollywood, where he notably starred in The Incredible Hulk TV series throughout the late ’70s before returning, briefly, to bodybuilding in the early 1990s.
When asked about his potential successes as a bodybuilder, Ferrigno told FLEX magazine that he would have been Mr. Olympia “at least eight or ten times” had he stayed with it.
Though some may think that estimate is a little over the top, Ferrigno was always a threat to win a Mr. Olympia trophy whenever he stepped on stage. His chances would have only gone up after Schwarzenegger retired from bodybuilding in 1975 (before returning in 1980). Those who won after Schwarzenegger were lightweight bodybuilders like Franco Columbu and Frank Zane, so Ferrigno may have won based on his aesthetics and size.
Lou Ferrigno’s Workout Style
Training primarily at night in a gym in Brooklyn, Ferrigno’s workouts focused on progressively heavier weights, keeping the tension continuous throughout each set. As he explained in a later interview, he rarely locked out during exercises like the bench press or squat because he wanted to avoid any “resting” points during his workouts.
And while he says he wouldn’t go “super heavy” during his training to cut down on any serious injuries, he nevertheless pushed for as heavy a weight as possible under a relatively high rep range of eight to 12. An example chest workout from Ferrigno was:
- Incline Barbell Bench Press: 5 x 8-10*
- Flat Bench Flye: 5 x 8-10
- Flat Bench Dumbbell Press: 5 x 8-10
- Weighted Dip: 5 x 10-12
* Note: These numbers include two warm-up sets for each exercise.
Likewise, in 1996, Ferrigno published his own guide to fitness and bodybuilding, where he noted a simple but effective leg routine that included:
- Front Squat: 5-6 x 10-15
- Hack Squat: 4-5 x 10-15
- Leg Extension: 4-5 x 10-15
- Leg Curl: 5-6 x 10-15
- Lunge: 3-4 x 10-15
As a final point on his training style, Ferrigno typically favored free-weight exercises with barbells or dumbbells over machine training. Due to the era when he first began competing, Ferrigno also used “old-school” exercises, most notably behind-the-neck presses, as part of his training.
This held true for his time during the 1970s and his return in the 1990s when, remarkably, the only thing he appeared to have changed was his diet, which he said allowed him to eat more every day to put on extra mass.
How Strong Was Lou Ferrigno?
Remarkably, given his role as the Hulk, Ferrigno was much more modest about his strength than other bodybuilders. He was happy to discuss his training systems and philosophies in interviews but rarely the raw numbers. Nevertheless, through a combination of books, magazine articles, interviews, and World’s Strongest Man footage, it is possible to piece together some idea of Ferrigno’s top strength in the major lifts.
Although some of Ferrigno’s responses in interviews vary between the years, he has consistently maintained that his top bench press record was somewhere between 560 pounds and 600 pounds. For the squat, Ferrigno claimed a 640-pound max and somewhere in the region of 900 pounds for the deadlift.
Not everyone agrees with these numbers, though. Strength journalist Greg Merritt has noted that if Ferrigno’s claims are taken at face value, he would have outperformed the majority of powerlifters at the 1975 World Powerlifting Championships in the deadlift and bench. Merritt argues that there’s simply no evidence to support those numbers.
Then in Pumping Iron, Ferrigno is shown incline bench pressing 205 pounds for roughly 10 reps and military pressing what looks like 245 pounds for about the same. (Though, in his book, Ferrigno later noted that he could go as high as 365 pounds on the incline bench for a set of eight.)
In 1976, one year before Pumping Iron premiered (but after it was filmed), Ferrigno took part in Superstars, an ABC program that pitted athletes from various disciplines against each other to discover the best all-around competitor. During the lifting component, Ferrigno successfully performed something similar to a split jerk for 290 pounds on a barbell but was unsuccessful with 310 pounds. In Ferrigno’s defense, he did move the weight overhead but failed to complete the lift.
The first win was an old-school bar-bending feat in which a steel bar was bent over the crown of one’s head. He then won the deadlift challenge in which the back end of a car — weighing 2,684 pounds, according to Merritt — was lifted up from a platform. [Note: The weight moved in a car deadlift event is not equal to what one can lift with a barbell or trap bar. It’s unknown what the load equivalent of a 2,684-pound car deadlift would be during a more traditional deadlift variation.]
Perhaps supporting Ferrigno’s claim to deadlift somewhere in the region of 900 pounds, one of the men he beat that day was powerlifting champion Jon Cole, whose best competition deadlift was 885 pounds.
How Does Ferrigno Stack Up?
It’s difficult to know just how strong Ferrigno was. The greatest indication we have of his pure strength, in a verified setting, comes from Pumping Iron, Superstars, and the 1977 World’s Strongest Man competition.
In terms of pure feats, Ferrigno’s car deadlift is a tough one to measure. While the event is still used at World’s Strongest Man, it’s usually for reps with a lighter weight and on a slightly lower starting position than what Ferrigno used in 1977. In 2022, for example, Oleksii Novikov performed deadlifts on the back half of a Jeep (795 pounds in total) for 15 reps.
Ferrigno’s 245-pound pressing prowess has also been outdone by multiple bodybuilders. The below video features Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates, Kai Greene, and Branch Warren shoulder-pressing over 300 pounds for reps. (They are seated, rather than standing during the exercise.)
Moving to Ferrigno’s unverified 900-pound deadlift — this would give him a higher deadlift than Ronnie Coleman, Stan Efferding, or the late Dallas McCarver. His 640-pound squat, while impressive, pales in comparison to Coleman’s 800-pound double or even Franco Columbu’s 665-pound squat at a much lower body weight.
Finally, Ferrigno’s reported bench max, somewhere between 560 and 600 pounds, marks him out as an incredibly strong bodybuilder, especially for his era. If legitimate, it bests Columbu’s 525-pound bench press as well as later bodybuilders such as Johnnie Jackson (540 pounds) or Ronnie Coleman (495 pounds for five reps). However, it still falls short of Stan Efferding’s monstrous 628-pound bench. And again, Ferrigno’s lift itself was never verified.
The Hulk in Context
Lou Ferringo is one of bodybuilding’s most iconic stars. He played the underdog in Pumping Iron (still regarded by many as the sport’s best documentary) and helped to popularize the Incredible Hulk through the television series. When he returned to the Olympia in the early 1990s, he sent shockwaves through the sport.
Furthermore, his willingness to try new endeavors like World’s Strongest Man or Superstars says a great deal about his mental toughness. As a bodybuilder, Ferrigno may not have been the strongest ever, but he is a worthy inclusion in any conversation. As the classic saying goes, just don’t make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…
More Bodybuilding Stories
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- Bodybuilding’s Uncrowned Mr. Olympia: Nasser El Sonbaty
- Kings, Chemists, and Oaks: The 10 Best Bodybuilding Nicknames of All Time
- 10 Facts About the Mr. Olympia Bodybuilding Competition
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