BACK TO WORK

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Some things remain the same. His workplace never changes. His workouts rarely deviate. He does pretty much the same exercises in much the same order that he’s used for the past decade. He eats the same thing at the same restaurant at the same time every day. Like last year and the years before, he strolls through life with an easygoing demeanor. He’s still, in the estimation of many, the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived.

All of that remains as it was before September 30, the day one very big thing changed: Ronnie Coleman is no longer the reigning Mr. Olympia. He wants — craves — that record-breaking ninth Sandow. This, then, is the story of how he intends to earn it.

39 AND 26 To see where Coleman is going, we first need to know where he’s been. An hour after his second place finish in last year’s Olympia, shortly before he stepped outside to fans chanting “Ron-nie,” he was smiling when he told me, “That’s just how it goes sometimes. I lost before.” Then, with a chuckle, he expounded, “I lost lots of times.”

Indeed. In his rookie year as a pro, 1992, his highest finish was 11th, and 27 different men placed ahead of him over the course of just three shows, including Kevin McGuann, Dan Smith, Geir Borgan Paulsen, 4'10" Flavio Baccianini and 1989 Nationals lightweight winner Allan Ichinose. Failing to place in the 1992 Mr. Olympia, he tied with six others, including Jose Guzman, Juhani Herranen and Miroslaw Daszkiewicz, for dead last.

During his IFBB career, he’s lost 39 times, and Jay Cutler was the 44th different pro to place ahead of him. Contrast that with the professional records of the only other men to win six or more Olympias: Arnold Schwarzenegger was beaten only twice, and those losses were to legendary champions Frank Zane and Sergio Oliva; Lee Haney never finished lower than third, and only four men bested him; and Dorian Yates finished second twice (his pro debut and his Olympia debut), never lower, and one of the two men who beat him was Haney. (Notably, Haney — tied with Coleman for the most Olympia victories — is not one of the 44 men who’ve placed ahead of the man he shares the record with; he retired just before Coleman debuted.)

Fifteen years and eight Sandows later, Coleman says of his rookie campaign: “I felt pretty good. I ain’t gonna lie. I was having fun because I was doing something that I really enjoyed doing. I never expected to be Mr. Olympia. I was doing it for the fun of it. It was a hobby. I never thought ahead to winning shows. Some things remain the same. His workplace never changes. His workouts rarely deviate. He does pretty much the same exercises in much the same order that he’s used for the past decade. He eats the same thing at the same restaurant at the same time every day. Like last year and the years before, he strolls through life with an easygoing demeanor. He’s still, in the estimation of many, the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived. Now, it’s a hobby that’s also my job, so I’m really having the time of my life.”

The fact that he struggled so mightily his rookie year, didn’t win until his fourth pro year, never placed higher than sixth in the Olympia before winning it, and went from ninth in the 1997 O to king of the bodybuilding world the following year all go a long way toward explaining Coleman’s popularity. As genetically gifted as he is, we saw him grow dramatically throughout his 30s, and we know how heavy he trained to pack on those pounds. It never appeared ordained for Coleman, and there was no mystery about the country boy from Louisiana, as there was with Yates, “The Shadow,” with his high intensity principles, alone in some English dungeon; or Haney, for whom it all seemed as easy as his smile; or Schwarzenegger, he of the transcendent aura, blessing bodybuilding with his immense presence.

Coleman was a journeyman loser — now 39 times! — who became the ultimate winner, with a record-tying eight Olympias and a record-setting 26 pro wins. Like Rocky Balboa, we revere him more for overcoming the losses than for racking up the victories.

800 AND 800 One constant for Coleman through the losses and the wins has been MetroFlex Gym in Arlington, Texas, his workplace for the past 17 years, which proudly proclaims itself, in an understatement, as a hardcore workout facility. FLEX returned there two weeks before last year’s Olympia to watch the then-reigning Mr. O work his back and biceps. His back — once the best ever — was the focus of much speculation throughout last year, and on stage at the Olympia, it was notably diminished, providing Cutler his clearest advantage. The left lat was significantly smaller than the right.

When I asked Coleman about the rumors, he laughed them off in a manner that reminded me of a football coach who refuses to tip his hand about who will not be suiting up for the big game. Later, though, when we discussed his twice-a-week deep-tissue massage and the chiropractic treatment he receives weekly, he brought up the disk that has been out of place in his lower back for years. “I’ve squatted 800 for two and deadlifted 800 since throwing it out, but the disk is still out. I had an MRI done on it a couple of years ago. Right now, the chiropractor hooks me up to a disk compression machine, and it’s making the disk go back in. It don’t really bother me or anything, but the fact that it’s out . . .” He flinched and shook his head.

The back workout we watched wasn’t as heavy as prior years, but then this was the first time we observed him training in the final countdown to a contest. “I’m doing higher reps now, 15 per set, instead of 10, and using lighter weights.” After a warm-up with 150 pounds and a working set with 180, he used 195 for three sets of front pulldowns. His grip was very wide and he leaned back as he pulled the long, straight bar down for each string of 15 reps. “In the offseason, I use the whole stack [300 pounds] and put on a 45 or two.”

315 x 12 Those who think Coleman relies on short, jerky reps should observe him getting a full stretch and contraction for seated cable rows. “The stretch is the important part of this exercise,” he stated. “This is where I work the middle back. Pulldowns are for the upper back, this is for middle back and the barbell rows are for lower back, so I get the whole back.”

Then again, he did do some shorter, jerkier reps, as well, during barbell rows. He cinched up his straps — the right one said “Big,” the left one said “Ron” — for his first set of barbell rows with 225, and pumped out a set overhand.

Afterward, he mopped sweat from his brow with a towel and moved a giant, creaky fan to better cool himself. “It’s hot in here. I thought it was getting to be wintertime, but I was wrong.” Then he pointed photographer Kevin “Hardcore” Horton toward me as I scribbled notes. “Greg is chillin’ over there. He ain’t even broke a sweat.”

“You and me, we do all the work,” Horton noted after leaping over a bench to adjust a light.

“But I’ll be writing this months from now.” I garner no sympathy.

Before each of his sets of 12 with 315, the eight-time Mr. O didn’t even bother to call it a “light weight” in his trademark reverse psychology manner, for to him, barbell rowing 315 for a dozen is indeed light. “I did all the heavy stuff. Now I got to take it easy.”

After his final set of rows, the gangsta-rap song thundering through MetroFlex’s dusty speakers began to skip. “It’s been played too much,” he said of the CD. “It’s old and all played out.” Then he added with a chuckle, “Don’t say that about me, Greg.”

I wouldn’t think of it — not yet anyway.

SEVEN + SEVEN + SEVEN Whereas Coleman’s back and left triceps have regressed in recent years, his biceps are as ample and peaked as ever. In fact, they looked even bigger at the 2006 Olympia than in recent years, although he did basically the same routine he’s done throughout his career: three free-weight exercises and three or four sets of each. On this day, he started with one-arm dumbbell preacher curls, going up to 55 pounds for 12 reps and getting a full stretch and contraction. Bold ridges surfaced in his biceps at the bottom of each rep, so that they resembled gourds.

After swabbing sweat from his bald head, he loaded an EZ bar with two 45-pound plates. He curled the bar from the bottom to halfway up for seven reps. Then, without stopping, he curled from the halfway point to the top seven times. Finally, with just a bit of sway in his back, he did seven full reps. That, for those of you unfamiliar with one of the great old-school arm builders, was a set of 21-curls. “It’s my favorite biceps exercise,” he opined between sets. “I did ’em back in the day, and I still do ’em. It’s like doing three exercises in one, and it really pumps up my arms.”

Coleman finished off his biceps with seated alternating hammer curls, going up to 65-pound dumbbells. With each rep, he moved his head to the working side to watch the dumbbell rise and fall. “I like to finish with these to tie my biceps in with my forearms.” Hammers work the brachialis and brachioradialis, as well as the biceps, and by the final rep, Coleman’s arms were so inflated that the cephalic veins — thicker than my pen — on the edge of either biceps seemed on the verge of being shoved out of his tissue thin skin. His arms offered up a relief map of the human vascular system, like a page in Gray’s Anatomy brought to life and doubled in size.

EIGHT Two weeks later, Coleman placed second to Cutler in the Mr. Olympia. Pro loss number 36 was followed in Europe the next weekend by three more. Before then, going back to 1998, he had won 23 of 25 contests (placing second in the other two), including eight straight Olympias. Haney was also on top for eight consecutive years, but he won only three other pro shows in his career; and, it takes nothing away from his accomplishments to note that his competition was not as stiff as the likes of Flex Wheeler, Kevin Levrone and Cutler. Coleman’s 23 wins in eight years was a span of dominance that may never be matched in bodybuilding. Whether his four second-place finishes to Cutler in eight days last autumn marked a reprieve in the Coleman era or the end remains to be seen.

Which brings us to today, with Ronnie Coleman, eight-time Mr. O, again training for record-setting number nine. His offseason back workouts are different than the precontest one we witnessed last September, as he does separate sessions for thickness and width, and he incorporates more volume (four exercises per workout) with heavier weights for 10-12 reps per set.

Still, it’s a good assumption his future workouts will closely resemble his past workouts. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is one of the eight-time Mr. O’s favorite maxims. What will change is an infusion of urgency. Coleman will be 43 at this year’s Olympia, trying to become the oldest man (by approximately two months over Chris Dickerson) to ever take home a Sandow, and he’ll be facing top tier competitors like Cutler, Victor Martinez and, probably, Phil Heath, who are all at least nine years younger. The odds of Coleman winning number nine are still good, but they’ll expand exponentially if he can’t get there this time. That urgency, the epic clash of two Mr. Olympias, and a group of legendary challengers who all now believe they have a chance is what makes this year’s Mr. O the most highly anticipated bodybuilding contest ever.

Sometime this week in a gloriously hardcore hellhole, Coleman will row a barbell loaded with 405 pounds, over and over, trying to get back what was his and trying to get to the plateau where no bodybuilder has ever stood: cloud nine. “Light weight!” he shouts, and the plates rattle as he rows again and again, knowing that the current Mr. O might be in a Las Vegas Gold’s Gym at that very moment also pumping out 405-pound barbell rows, maybe matching him rep for rep. The thought drives him to keep going and going. One more, one more, one more. It’s on! FLEX

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