September 1, 2011

Ronnie Coleman - An In Depth Look At The Training, Of The Most Dominant Bodybuilder Of All Time, In His Prime

Ronnie Coleman is arguably the greatest bodybuilder to ever live. He won the Mr. Olympia competition a record 8 times (tied with Lee Haney), and displayed one of the most impressive physiques the world has ever seen while doing it.

In 1998, after reigning champ Dorian Yates had announced retirement, the Mr. Olympia crown was up for grabs. The favorite going into the show was a perennial top finisher, Flex Wheeler. But it was Ronnie Coleman that seemingly came out of nowhere to take the title (one he would hold onto for almost a decade).

The following year, in 1999, Ronnie took top honors again scoring straight first place votes from the judges. The year 2000 was no different as he recorded a flawless victory yet again. It wasn’t until 2001 that Ronnie had even come close to being challenged for the title. That year, Jay Cutler (who happened to be Ronnie’s successor to the Olympia crown), pushed Ronnie to the limit but ultimately came up short.

In 2002, Jay Cutler decided not to compete, even though he almost won the year before, in an attempt to put on more size so that he could attempt to go toe-to-toe with Ronnie on the Olympia stage again in the near future. This put Coleman in the driver’s seat to easily take home another Olympia title. However, Ronnie came into the show weighing in the mid 240’s, which is small compared to his usual 260 plus, and was given a run for his money by eventual runner-up finisher Kevin Levrone.

Shortly after the 2002 Mr. Olympia Ronnie was defeated by Gunter Shlierkamp at the GNC Show Of Strength. After this loss Ronnie had said he would never compete in that show again, as he obviously thought he should’ve won. Interestingly enough, Jay Cutler lost the same show the next year to Dexter Jackson and vowed to never compete in that show again either.

After having two close calls in a row at the Olympia, and a loss to Gunter, with word that Jay Cutler would be jumping back into the mix at the 2003 Mr. Olympia, Ronnie was being counted out by major magazine publications and internet junkies on bodybuilding forums. All that changed however, when Ronnie hit the 2003 Olympia stage at a whopping 287 lbs!

Think about that for a second. A man that stands 5’11, walked onto a bodybuilding stage in which his bodyfat percentage was likely between 3 and 4 percent, and weighed 287 lbs! Even Paul Dillet, who was an absolute size freak back in his hey-day said in Flex magazine after the competition that, it is completely unnecessary for a man to be that big! Whether it was necessary or not is another story, but the fact remains that Ronnie Coleman stood onstage at 287 lbs. with no more than 8.61-11.48 lbs. of fat on his body!

For a human being to come close to tipping the scale at nearly three hundred pounds, and less than ten of those pounds being fat, is truly UNBELIEVABLE!

Needless to say Ronnie won the 2003 Mr. Olympia with flying colours and the naysayers were put to rest. Ronnie would go on to win the 2004 Mr. Olympia at 296 lbs. but didn’t look as sharp the year prior at 287. In 2005 he won his record tying 8th Mr. Olympia at 280 lbs.

Over the 8 years that Ronnie reigned as Mr. Olympia, none of the physiques he presented were as dominant and shocking than that of 2003. Even though he was bigger and heavier in 2004, he wasn’t as sharp with his conditioning. The physique he brought to the stage in 2003 may very well be the most dominant combination of size and symmetry that a human being has ever displayed on a bodybuilding stage.

In FLEX magazines April 2004 issue, they printed an article titled “THE RONNIE HORROR SHOW”. The article outlined the incredible workouts leading up to the 2003 Mr. Olympia with comments from Ronnie in regards to his training. Below is a detailed copy of the workouts.

Ronnie’s Training Routine For The 2003 Mr. Olympia Competition



Deadlifts – 805 lbs. – 4 sets – 6-12 reps

Barbell Rows – 585 lbs. – 3 sets – 10-12 reps

T-Bar Rows – 585 lbs. – 3 sets – 10-12 reps

One-Arm Dumbell Rows – 200 lbs. – 3 sets – 10-12 reps


Barbell Curls – 200 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Seated Alternate Dumbell Curls – 90 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Cambered-Bar Preacher Curls – 150 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Standing Cable Curls – 200 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps


Military Press – 315 lbs. – 4 sets – 10-12 reps

Seated Dumbell Press – 170 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

superset with

Front Dumbell Raises – 60 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps



Squat – 800 lbs. – 5-6 sets – 2-12 reps

Leg Presses – 2,500 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Parking-Lot Lunges – 315 lbs. – 2 sets – 100 yards

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – 315 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Seated Leg Curls – 200 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps



Bench Presses – 500 lbs. – 5 sets – 12 reps

Incline Presses – 405 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Flat Bench Dumbell Presses – 200 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Flat Flyes – 130 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps


Seated Cambered-Bar Extensions – 215 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Seated Dumbell Extensions – 170 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Close-Grip Bench Presses – 350 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps



Barbell Rows – 585 lbs. – 5 sets – 10-12 reps

Pulley Rows – 400 lbs. – 4 sets – 10-12 reps

Machine Pulldowns – 350 lbs. – 3 sets – 10-12 reps

Front Pulldowns – 350 lbs. – 3 sets – 10-12 reps


Incline Alternate Dumbell Curls – 90 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Machine Curls – 200 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

superset with

Barbell Curls – 200 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Standing Cable Curls – 200 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps


Seated Dumbell Presses – 170 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Front Dumbell Raises – 60 lbs. – 3 sets – 8-25 reps

Machine Presses – 250 lbs. – 3 sets – 8-25 reps



Leg Extensions – 300 lbs. – 4 sets – 30 reps

Front Squats – 585 lbs. – 4 sets – 12-15 reps

Hack Squats – 900 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Standing Leg Curls – 125 lbs. – 3 sets – 12-15 reps

Lying Leg Curls – 200 lbs. – 4 sets – 12-15 reps



Incline Dumbell Presses – 200 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Decline Barbell Presses – 500 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Incline Dumbell Flyes – 130 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps

Decline Dumbell Flyes – 170 lbs. – 3 sets – 12 reps


Lying Cambered-Bar Extensions – 215 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

triset with

Machine Dips – 360 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

triset with

Seated Cambered-Bar Extensions – 215 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps



Donkey Raises – 450 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps

Seated Raises – 270 lbs. – 4 sets – 12 reps


Crunches – 3 sets – failure



It also states that the poundages listed are “typical” and that he occasionally goes heavier than that!

Sometimes Ronnie would also substitute a movement for one that is not listed above depending on how he was feeling.

Some key points from the article in regards to training that warrant mentioning are:


“Strength is my goal in training and the basis of my muscle gains, but it’s never at the expense of getting a full range of motion with every repetition. Anytime someone asks me what I feel is the most important technique in the performance of an exercise, that’s always my answer. In order to work every fiber in a muscle and allow it to pump itself to its maximum capacity with blood, it must be fully stretched, then fully contracted. Feel that stress all the way, and that muscle has no choice but to grow.”


“Regardless of how heavy I lift, the preeminent principle in all of my training is to work the muscle as best I can. That is efficiently accomplished by applying maximum resistance (weight), so the muscle is exhausted as quickly as possible and the target muscle – not ancillary muscles or leveraged joints – do the work. Every rep is therefore performed in a very strict manner, and the success of this is gauged by the fullness of the pump in that muscle.”


“People seem to be awed at how strong I am, but my lifts mentioned in this article and those you see on my video are not my max. I can always do more, but I would have to strain and cheat, which does not necessarily build strength or mass. Furthermore, I would be risking injury. By keeping my squats, for example, down around 600 pounds for 12-15 reps precontest, and my deadlifts down around 750 for five or six reps, I maintain control at all times and build honest strength and mass.”


“Bodybuilders often disdain any emphasis of strength, claiming that ours is the pursuit of quality, not quantity, but strength has many aspects of bodybuilding.”


“We all need a quantitative base from which we can measure our improvement. Keeping track from one workout to the next of how much more we’re able to lift with the same exercise, or how many more reps we can get with the same weight, enables us to keep track of our progress.”

Strength versus size

“The two are related. An increase in strength indicates an increase in size. Even though the latter may not be obvious, if a muscle becomes stronger, it has to have become bigger.”


“What is more inspiring than hitting a new personal record with one of your lifts? When that happens, I can’t wait to get back in the gym and keep it going.”


“Facing an extremely heavy lift forces me to concentrate even harder on proper execution of the movement, which means I have to put everything into the muscle that’s being worked. The heavier the lift, the cleaner the form.”

I don’t know about you, but some of those numbers are mind-boggling! There is not one lift in that entire list that doesn’t make me say to myself – “HOLY SHIT!” Because I am over analytical by nature, I’ve decided to completely dissect the numbers above to try and determine what his max’s likely would have been, and also determine how structurally balanced Ronnie Coleman was in his prime.

Given that Ronnie performed 12 reps religiously, I’ll assume he’s a mixed fiber type (equal distribution of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers) and therefore a 6 rep max would be roughly equivalent to 85% of his 1 rep max, and a 12 rep max would be roughly 70% of his 1 rep max. The only exception would be the hamstrings, which are primarily fast twitch dominant muscles in most everyone. The percentages for the hamstring curls will be adjusted accordingly to the best of my knowledge.


Deadlifts – 805 lbs. x 6 reps = 85% = 947 lbs. MAX

Barbell Rows + T-Bar Rows – 585 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 836 lbs. MAX

One-Arm Dumbell Rows – 200 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 286 lbs. MAX

Pulley Rows – 400 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 572 lbs. MAX

Machine Pulldowns + Front Pulldowns – 350 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 500 lbs. MAX


Barbell Curls + Standing Cable Curls + Machine Curls – 200 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 286 lbs. MAX

Seated Alternate Dumbell Curls + Incline Alternate Dumbell Curls – 90 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 129 lbs. MAX

Cambered-Bar Preacher Curls – 150 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 214 lbs. MAX


Military Press – 315 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 450 lbs. MAX

Seated Dumbell Press – 170 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 243 lbs. MAX

Front Dumbell Raises – 60 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 86 lbs. MAX

Machine Presses – 250 lbs. x 8 reps = 80% = 313 lbs. MAX


Squat – 800 lbs. x 2 reps = 95% = 848 lbs. MAX

Leg Presses – 2,500 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 3,572 lbs. MAX

Parking-Lot Lunges – 315 lbs. x 100 yards = No Clue How To Go About Calculating This!

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – 315 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 450 lbs. MAX

Seated Leg Curls – 200 lbs. x 12 reps = 65% = 308 lbs. MAX

Leg Extensions – 300 lbs. x 30 reps = 60% = 500 lbs. MAX

Front Squats – 585 lbs. x 10 reps = 75% = 780 lbs. MAX

Hack Squats – 900 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 1,286 lbs. MAX

Standing Leg Curls – 125 lbs. x 15 reps = 60% = 209 lbs. MAX

Lying Leg Curls – 200 lbs. x 15 reps = 60% = 334 lbs. MAX


Bench Presses + Decline Barbell Presses – 500 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 715 lbs. MAX

Incline Presses – 405 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 579 lbs. MAX

Flat Bench Dumbell Presses + Incline Dumbell Presses – 200 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 286 lbs. MAX

Flat Flyes + Incline Dumbell Flyes – 130 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 186 lbs. MAX

Decline Dumbell Flyes – 170 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 243 lbs. MAX


Seated Cambered-Bar Extensions + Lying Cambered-Bar Extensions – 215 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 308 lbs. MAX

Seated Dumbell Extensions – 170 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 243 lbs. MAX

Close-Grip Bench Presses – 350 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 500 lbs. MAX

Machine Dips – 360 lbs. x 12 reps = 70% = 515 lbs. MAX

UNBELIEVABLE! That’s the only word that comes to mind when looking at those numbers. Though there’s no way to determine exactly how much Ronnie could have done, it is safe to assume that those numbers are relatively accurate, aside from the stiff-leg deadlift.

Obviously Ronnie would have been much stronger at the beginning of a workout as opposed to the end. It is likely that after squatting over 800 lbs., his desire to load up a barbell with more than 315 lbs. for stiff-leg deadlifts was probably low, or he felt it wasn’t necessary given the risk that he could get injured.

I would find it hard to believe that Ronnie Coleman of all people wouldn’t be able to stiff-leg deadlift half as much as he could bent-leg deadlift. It’s not like his relatively light stiff-leg deadlifts ever cost him to lose a competition anyway.

Now let’s take a look at how ‘balanced’ Ronnie was. Using the bench press as the primary lift for the upper body, and the squat for the lower body, here are the structural balance relative scores of Ronnie Coleman in his prime.


Bench Press + Decline Press: 715 lbs. = 100%

Barbell Row + T-Bar Row: 836 lbs. = 117%

Incline Press: 579 lbs. = 81%

Flat + Incline Dumbell Press + One-Arm Dumbell Row: 286 lbs. (each hand) = 80%

Pulley Rows: 572 lbs. = 80%

Machine Dips: 515 lbs. = 72%

Machine Pulldowns + Front Pulldowns: 500 lbs. = 70%

Close-Grip Bench Press: 500 lbs. = 70%

Seated Dumbell Press + Decline Dumbell Flyes: 243 lbs. (each hand) = 68%

Military Press: 450 lbs. = 63%

Flat + Incline Dumbell Flyes: 186 lbs. (each hand) = 52%

Machine Presses: 313 lbs. = 44%

Seated Cambered-Bar Extensions + Lying Cambered-Bar Extensions: 308 lbs. = 43%

Barbell Curls + Standing Cable Curls + Machine Curls: 286 lbs. = 40%

Seated Alternate Dumbell Curls + Incline Alternate Dumbell Curls: 129 lbs. (each hand) = 36%

Seated Dumbell Extensions: 243 lbs. = 34%

Cambered-Bar Preacher Curls: 214 lbs. = 30%

Front Dumbell Raises: 86 lbs. (each hand) = 24%


Squat: 848 lbs. = 100%

Deadlift: 947 lbs. = 111%

Front Squat: 780 lbs. = 92%

Leg Press: 3,572 lbs. = 421%

Hack Squat: 1,286 lbs. = 152%

Leg Extension: 500 lbs. = 59%

Stiff-Leg Deadlift: 450 lbs. = 53%

Standing Leg Curl: 209 lbs. (each leg) = 49%

Lying Leg Curl: 334 lbs. = 39%

Seated Leg Curl: 308 lbs. = 36%

Next, because I over analyze like I said, I’ll compare agonist-antagonist exercises using Ronnie’s numbers to give you an idea of where you should be if you use Ronnie Coleman’s numbers as your baseline standards.

Bench Press – Barbell/T-Bar Row = You should be able to Row 15-17% more than you can Bench.

Bench Press – Squat = You should be able to Squat 16-18% more than you can Bench.

Military Press – Pulldown = You should be able to Pulldown 10-11% more than you can Military Press.

Bicep Curl - Tricep Extension = You should be able to Tricep Extend 7-8% more than you can Bicep Curl.

Looking at the training program that Ronnie followed during his prime also helps explain a lot about why he was as big as he was. Aside from the obvious massive weights he would lift, there are other cues that struck a chord with me. If one’s goal is to build as much muscle as possible, it would be wise to listen to the words of arguably the greatest bodybuilder of all time (sorry, Arnold, Ronnie dwarfs you).

He talks about the importance of a full range of motion and it being the first thing he tells people when they ask for his advice. This is something that ought to be written on the wall at all gyms, as there are far too many lifters who sacrifice form, to lift more weight. If your goal was to increase your strength through a certain range of motion, then I’d understand. But if the goal is to build muscle, sacrificing the range of motion of the exercise, only to make you look stronger, will ultimately set you back, and can even lead to injuries.

While he does say that lifting heavy is very important, he emphasizes on the fact that he always has control of the weight to ensure that the targeted muscle is doing the work and not the ancillary muscles or joints. I feel that the majority of people that are trying to build muscle and bodybuild, do the opposite. Almost, as if their goal is to move the weight by any means necessary. Once again, if the goal is to be a power lifter, than I would understand lifting like that in competition.

He says he never maxes out, which really sticks out to me. I believe this is a major reason that enabled him to benefit as much as he did from the way he trained. Ronnie religiously trained 6 days a week, hitting each major muscle group twice. The fact that he never trained with max weights, means his nervous system didn’t take that much of a beating, which would’ve enabled him to get away with such a high frequency of training. When you train with max weights, your nervous system becomes drained and leaves you with a tired, worn out/run down sort of feeling. If Ronnie felt that way, it isn’t likely that he’d be able to get away with such a high frequency of training. Also, avoiding maximal weights is probably why he stayed injury free for as long as he did. Although, it was a few injuries that ultimately ended his run as Mr. Olympia, they didn’t happen until he was in his mid 40’s, as time had apparently run its course on him. Ronnie’s predecessor Dorian Yates was known for training with maximal weights, which ultimately ended his career due to injury, far before most would have imagined.

As far as the training program itself, there are a few variables that may explain his otherworldly development. One factor that sticks out to me is that Ronnie pretty much did 12 reps for everything. There are a few exceptions where he either does more, or less, but for the most part 12 was his standard. What this tells me is, even though he’d appear to be a fast twitch dominant human being (I say that because fast twitch muscle fibers are speed and power oriented fibers, and are larger than small twitch endurance oriented muscle fibers), it is likely that Ronnie’s body is primarily a mixed fiber type, or even leaning towards a slow twitch dominant body. Combine that with the fact that higher reps are responsible for stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth of non-contractile elements), and it is now understandable why he built as much muscle as he did from his training program.

His training split, of training each major muscle group twice a week, with different exercises each time, definitely contributed to his muscular development, by enabling him to hit his muscles from various angles to maximize their development. For chest, he was known to do one barbell workout and one dumbell workout each week. For back, he commonly did what he called an “upper” back (lats - pulldowns) day, and a “lower” back (rows and deadlifts) day. He had similar methods for the rest of his body as well, and I believe it is this high frequency and variation that lead him to build the body that he did. Hitting each muscle group twice a week, with a high volume, and multiple different angles each time, plus never maxing out, is probably the only way to ensure maximal progression. Occasionally going as low as 2 reps would keep the high threshold motor units working, but doing so only once every so often is enough to prevent overtraining from occurring.

Even though Ronnie’s training program may look like a bit much for the average bodybuilder to handle, it may just be the blueprint of what it takes, to take your body to its true potential. I know, when I first read that article back in 2004, I thought to myself it would be impossible to follow that program. But looking back, I realize why I had that thought. My goal at the time was to increase my strength levels. I wanted to be lifting hundreds, and hundreds, of pounds on every lift that I did. Well, here I am a few years later, with injuries left, right, and center, from lifting hundreds and hundreds of pounds and realizing that his type of training would not have worked for someone looking to increase strength. When training for strength, the nervous system takes a beating from the heavy loads, making it very de-motivating when you can’t beat your personal record 3 days after you set it. I realize that if my goal was to build muscle, which it was, secondary to wanting to lift impressive amounts of weight back in the day, I could’ve followed Ronnie’s program (obviously with weights more appropriate for my strength levels) and likely would have had tremendous success.

If there’s anything that can be learned from this article, I believe it is that, if building as much muscle as possible is your goal, then it would be wise to adopt the training principles that 8X Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman has laid out for us. His training basically adheres to every single parameter best suited for building muscle, those being:

Exercises – Ronnie trains each major muscle group twice a week with different exercises each time. This amount of variety is needed to ensure as many muscle fibers are stimulated as possible, which will only lead to the maximal development of a muscle.

Reps – Ronnie’s training was focused around getting 12 reps, pretty much every time he picked up a weight. Higher reps are especially effective at stimulating slow twitch muscle fibers (which he clearly had a lot of), and promoting the growth of the non-contractile elements. High reps would also give him a “pump” which has positive effects on muscle building as well.

Sets – Ronnie always did a minimum of 3 sets, but often did 4 or more depending on the muscle group/exercise. Higher sets (and total volume) have a greater hormonal response than minimal sets, and it is likely that this contributed to his results. Also, the greater number of sets done per exercise would lead to developing the optimal neural pattern for each movement, which would essentially make him better at doing all of the exercises he did. Obviously the better he was at doing an exercise, the better the result would be.

Intensity – Ronnie never ever really came close to maxing out while training, other than occasionally going as low as 2 reps for deadlifts and squats. If you watched his videos, which are easily accessible on youtube, and saw him doing squats and deadlifts with 800 lbs. for 2 reps, it is likely you would think what I did, which is “he probably could have done more”. The point is that Ronnie always had control, and neurologically was able to overload the muscle he was working which would definitely contribute to his development. By lifting “light weight”, Ronnie was able to focus on making sure that his muscles were doing the work, and he wasn’t compensating by relying on other muscles to help out.

Technique/Form – Ronnie’s form was bang on. At first glance, it may look as if his range of motion is limited, but if you look closely to how he lifts in his videos, you’ll notice that he does go through a full range. It may look as if he isn’t, but I’ve come to the conclusion that, that is because he is so damn big that it’s hard to tell how much range his joints are going through anyway. Combine that with the fact that the dumbells he uses are a few feet wide, that they would seemingly hit each other if he fully extended his arms on some of his presses. With curls and shoulder raises (dumbell/barbell, front/side) it appears that he is cheating and swinging, but it’s not with his back (which is dangerous). He simply uses his hips to help him keep constant tension on his muscles, which really isn’t that bad of a technique at all. The hips are probably the most influential part of the body as it relates to power output, and by using a little ‘body English’ with the help of the hips, he could safely direct more stress to the muscles he was working.

One variable that is not outlined in the article is how much rest Ronnie took between sets. If I had to guess, I would say that he took as much time as needed to lift the insane amounts of weights he was known for. Could he have only rested for a minute? Possibly, but I’d be willing to bet it was a few minutes between sets. Regardless, whatever he did, it worked. In my opinion, if you wanted to completely adopt Ronnie’s training philosophy’s, I’d recommend planning to take 2-3 minutes of rest between sets to enable you to lift maximal weights, for maximal reps, without negating the training effect.

So there you have it. An in depth, hyper analysis, of the training regimen, of the greatest bodybuilder of all-time, back in his prime. It was a pleasure writing this, and I hope it was just as entertaining as a reader.

If you have any questions about any of the content presented, feel free to contact me at


  1. Just an example of someone that knew his body and stuck to a routine. Awesome. Nice write up too. With 10years training experience myself this article really puts into perspective of how to do the job properly.

    Rhett Milton 3rd Year Sport Science Bsc(HON)

  2. great article. Ronnie is a beast.

  3. Thanks a lot for the feedback guys. I really appreciate it. Glad ya liked the article!

  4. More than likely this article you quote was a ghost writer. Ronnie coleman talks about only using partial range of movement to "save the joints". In actuality, many top pros such as Phil Heath and previous Mr. O Jay Cutler utilized partials to emphasize constant tension on the muscle being worked. Ronnie never locks out his squats, or any other exercise for that matter. It's all about constant tension to create blood occlusion. Once the set is over the blood rushes into the muscle causing an enormous pump. This article could use a revision.