Eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman was one of the most powerful bodybuilders of the ’90s and 2000s. His training videos spread widely on DVD and throughout the then-nascent fitness internet community, leading to countless bodybuilding fans taking “The King‘s” hard-and-heavy workouts as inspiration for their own routines.
Even today, Coleman’s feats continue to be a talking point among gym-goers, with many of his old training videos gathering tens of millions of views on YouTube.
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Coleman was a bodybuilder who legitimately hoisted plates like a powerlifter. He built upon the high-intensity training style employed by Dorian Yates and ratcheted the weights even higher, hitting max lifts on the deadlift and squat that most couldn’t compete with.
But to understand how and why Coleman became synonymous with strength and mass, it is necessary to understand why and how he trained.
Building Ronnie Coleman
If Ronnie Coleman’s training style is reminiscent of a powerlifter’s routine, it’s because he actually dabbled in powerlifting competitions during his early days as a bodybuilder. A young Coleman competed in — and won — a handful of deadlift-only meets in his native Texas in the early ’90s, and his physique responded incredibly well to the training regimen.
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Through his Olympia reign, he combined the high reps favored by bodybuilders with the high-weight approach found in powerlifting circles. And oftentimes, his training goals boiled down to one simple tenet: Lift heavier every day.
“To me, though, every workout is brand new because I have a brand-new goal,” Coleman once said. “I intend to lift one more pound, or get one more rep, or a portion of one more rep, or a fraction-of-an-inch more of a rep with those same exercises than in my previous workout.”
That mindset is reflected when you see some of Coleman’s workouts spelled out. Rep ranges for big, complex movements could be anywhere from 12 to two reps, with the weights getting heavier and heavier over the course of five or six sets. Take note of his squat protocol from one of his typical legs workouts:
- Warm-Up: 2-3 x 15
- Squats: 5-6 x 12-2
- Leg Press: 4 x 8-10
- Hack Squat: 3 x 10
Coleman claimed to have used nearly the same workout routine for a large portion of his career. He trained six days a week, using a body part split, and the only thing that changed was that he consistently sought to increase the weight lifted across all muscle groups.
How Strong Was Ronnie Coleman?
How strong, then, was Ronnie Coleman? Both his official and unofficial feats need to be discussed to get an idea.
As a powerlifter, Coleman competed at the annual Texas Deadlift Classic from 1991 to 1994. According to Open Powerlifting, his heaviest official pull was 330 kilograms (727.5 pounds) at 29 years old. But Coleman’s later lifts from his Olympia-era training videos are likely more familiar to fans today.
In 2000, a DVD called The Unbelievable came out showing Coleman deadlifting 800 pounds with straps and gloves for two reps. And remember, this was just five and a half weeks out from the Mr. Olympia contest.
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Regarding the bench press, existing footage of Coleman from his 2003 training video The Cost of Redemption showcased the bodybuilder pressing 500 pounds for five reps. Bodybuilding journalist Greg Merritt noted that he once witnessed Coleman bench press 200-pound dumbbells for 12 reps. That’s coupled with an unverified story from Coleman, who said he once barbell-benched 225 pounds for 72 reps.
That same video included footage of Coleman’s famous 800-pound squat, which he hit for two reps in a squat suit and knee wraps. (It currently has a whopping 61 million views as of February 2023.) In later years, he said his biggest training regret was not shooting for five reps.
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While the big three lifts are the most impressive, Coleman also showed his strength in a variety of other exercises. According to Merritt, Coleman leg pressed 2,325 pounds for eight reps and T-bar rowed around 570 pounds for nine reps at one point. There are also the 735-pound shrugs and 160-pound dumbbell shoulder presses that add to the mystique.
How Does Ronnie Coleman’s Strength Compare to Champion Powerlifters?
The numbers listed above are just a sample of Coleman’s strength. Still, if we take those deadlift, squat, and bench press totals and run them through BarBend‘s 1-rep max calculator, we get a very general estimate of what his max totals could have been:
- Deadlift: 373.21 kilograms (822.8 pounds)
- Squat: 373.21 kilograms (822.8 pounds)
- Bench: 255.24 kilograms (562.5 pounds)
Though by no means official, this would put his powerlifting total at 1,001.6 kilograms (2,208.1 pounds). While Coleman’s weight fluctuated a good deal during his bodybuilding, his typical 300-pound-plus (136 kilograms) off-season weight would firmly sit in the 120 kg+ class if he pursued competitive powerlifting meets during his prime.
To compare those numbers to an elite powerlifter at the time, Brian Siders won the 2003 IPF Men’s World Powerlifting Championships in the 125 kg+ class with an equipped total of 1082.5 kilograms (2,386.5 pounds). In 2022, Jesus Olivares had a raw total of 1,022.5 kilograms (2,254.2 pounds) in the 120 kg+ class at the IPF World Classic Championships.
Comparisons with powerlifters are fun, but we can’t put too much emphasis on them owing to the use of the 1-rep max calculator and Coleman’s use of gloves and straps for the deadlift, which wouldn’t be allowed in an official competition.
How Does Ronnie Coleman’s Strength Compare to Other Bodybuilders?
BarBend previously published a piece on some of the strongest bodybuilders in history, which featured Coleman alongside past and present stars. The results were interesting.
In terms of deadlifts, Coleman’s 800 pounds for two reps — and potential 822.8-pound max — was later challenged by Stan Efferding, who pulled 380 kilograms (837.7 pounds) raw in an official powerlifting meet. Likewise, the late Dallas McCarver pulled 383 kilograms (845 pounds) in a training session while still in his 20s. And in January 2023, IFBB Pro League competitor Joe Mackey pulled 412.8 kilograms (910 pounds) at C.T. Fletcher’s “Iron Wars VII” event.
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On the back squat, Efferding also had Coleman beat with a 387.5-kilogram (845-pound) competition squat. One of Coleman’s contemporaries, Johnnie Jackson, boasted a 374.6-kilogram (826-pound) squat. On the bench, Efferding also has Coleman beat with 284.9 kilograms (628 pounds).
A Final Word on Ronnie Coleman’s Strength
Though there have been bodybuilders stronger than Coleman, none of them maintained his massive strength while simultaneously racking up a historic Mr. Olympia dynasty.
Coleman pushed the limits of his own strength seemingly in every training session, but he also had to rigidly ensure his physique was symmetrical, trimmed down, and stage-ready when it came time for the show. There is good reason why Coleman is rightly known as “The King.”
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