Sergio Oliva's Herculean triceps were no myth.
The weighty pair of horseshoes on Sergio Oliva's arms are no coincidence, as he has seemingly lived his entire life under the guidance of a lucky charm. Take, as an example, his escape from Cuba, his native country. Sergio was sent to the Pan-American Games in Jamaica in 1960 as his country's best hope for a gold medal in weightlifting. But "The Myth," as he would come to be known, had alternate plans, hitching a ride on the next flight stateside.
The successful refugee was mesmerized by the bodybuilding physiques he encountered in his new home, and he began training for the sport in the 1960s. Lacking any clue as to correct training methods and exercise science, Sergio took every exercise he could get his hands on and rolled them into marathon training sessions lasting up to three hours. "I was crazy," he says, laughing. "For each bodypart, I would do about a dozen exercises, 5-6 sets apiece, 8-12 repetitions per set." Although unconventional, this unique training methodology worked like magic for Sergio, whose body grew like the proverbial weed. "It was scary" he admits, laughing again. "It was like putting air in a tire - I just blew up!"
One of the most notable parts of his body that "blew up" was his triceps, which benefited from the sort of mad-scientist experimentation that his training ignorance produced. "When I started lifting weights, I had no idea that the triceps even had three heads," he explains. "But I looked at what other people were doing and tried all sorts of things. With some luck, I happened to put together the right combination of exercises." Luck or not, he hit the nail on the head - or, rather, all three heads, to be exact.
"The key to great triceps is hitting each of the heads in every workout," he continues. "In my day, most people worked only the outer head, and everyone had these big muscles up really high on their arms. But the bottom halves were small, because the lower area had not been trained." Sergio conjured remarkable results in this overlooked region by reversing his grip on exercises such as the french press and cable pressdown. `Any exercise in which your palms face your head in the starting position will emphasize the lower area of your triceps," he says.
Always the adventurer, Sergio also produced radical results by pyramiding his weight during triceps workouts. "People in those days were doing light training one day and heavy the next," he notes. "But I did heavy and light on the same day. Better to get it over with all at once, hey?" For the first three sets of a given triceps exercise, he would use progressively heavier weight for progressively fewer peps, until he was using a near-max weight on his third set. For the last two sets, he would make the poundage progressively lighter while adding back reps. "I think this heavy-light technique helped me develop as quickly as I did," he states. "Everything I tried worked for me, and I thank God for that!"
Although he's one of the iron sport's most revered icons, Sergio remains humble when it comes to his knowledge about training, and balls at recommending exercises and routines to others. "I can only tell you what worked best for me," he says. "I really don't know anything, and I don't like to seem like God almighty telling people what they are doing wrong!" He concedes, however, that for building mass in his own arms, he relied heavily on cable pressdowns "with any attachment" and overhead triceps extensions. "I also did a lot of weighted dips, which were not real popular in my day," he explains. "I'd do them with four or five 45-pound plates on my belt."
Still amiable after all these years, Sergio laughs at the extraordinary impression he makes, as well as at the myriad nicknames that his imposing exterior has inspired. "I was called the Cuban Rebel because of my training technique, the Cuban Eskimo because I live in Chicago, and The Myth for whatever reason that came about," he says, chuckling. "But they can call me all the names they want. No one could ever keep up with me in the gym."And they probably still can't, for according to Sergio, he continues his tri-or-die three-hour gym stints to this day. May his lucky horseshoes continue to bring good fortune for years to come.
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