By Shawn Perine
Everyone who’s ever seen the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron has had the same reaction to the scene, regardless of whether they saw it in a theater in 1977 or viewed it last week on DVD. It’s a seminal moment in the film, which comes about three-fourths of the way through, and although director George Butler didn’t know it at the time, it would come to serve as a lasting tribute to the late Serge Nubret.
The movie to that point had successfully set up the titanic showdown at the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest between reigning champ Arnold Schwarzenegger and imposing contender Lou Ferrigno. They were to be the only ones competing in the contest’s heavyweight class, meaning they were ostensibly the best bodybuilders weighing over 200 pounds in the world. As Butler’s cameras showed the two men toiling away on opposite coasts of the United States in preparation for their historic duel, the only question that existed on the minds of viewers was whether or not Arnold could retain his title in the face of his enormous threat.
Then, as the scene moves half a world away to Pretoria, South Africa, where the rivals prepare themselves to do battle onstage, narrator Charles Gaines announces an “unexpected entry” in the men’s over-200 pound class — Serge Nubret. As Nubret stands relaxed for the judges the camera closes in on his abdominals. So shimmery, solid and crisply delineated they are that they resemble a Belgian block path after a fresh rain more than a part of the human anatomy. With each breath he takes, the divisions of Nubret’s rectus abdominis rise and fall, drifting ever so slightly apart, and then back together again, like pontoons riding the tide.
It’s a startling sight, even in the context of the muscular physiques seen throughout the film to that point. While Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno and Franco Columbu displayed the best bodybuilding had to offer in 1975, their bodies all looked, more or less, like variations on a theme — a muscular theme, but a theme nonetheless. Nubret, in contrast, stood alone in his crystalline perfection. It was he, far more than even the rugged Columbu, who evoked that granite-hard look of a living sculpture that all bodybuilders strive to attain. In short, Serge Nubret’s appearance during that final act of Pumping Iron is arguably the movie’s biggest epiphany — the ultimate “Holy shit” moment of the many the film has to offer.
Although the French-born Nubret would finish second to Schwarzenegger in that contest (while upsetting Big Lou’s applecart in the process) and would never in his long competitive career earn Olympia honors, the impact he had on bodybuilding is based on something more ethereal than trophies or titles.
Without turning to the Internet, can you name Serge Nubret’s contest wins? Probably not, and that isn’t because the NABBA Mr. Universe and WABBA Mr. Olympus titles are insignificant, but because the Nubret physique transcended the bounds of such statistics. Indeed, that Serge Nubret has reached the level of fame and respect among the bodybuilding community as he has without the résumé of a Schwarzenegger, Zane or Columbu is all the more testament to his inherent greatness as a bodybuilder. In fact, it’s safe to say that even if he’d never won a single competition he’d still be just as revered by bodybuilding aficionados. But why?
Bodybuilding is, by its nature, a subjective endeavor, which means that it’s difficult to quantify what makes one bodybuilder better than the next. Variables like bodyweight and arm measurements don’t enter into the equation when we make artistic calculations on degrees of excellence in a physique. Yet for as metaphysical the assessing of a body is, it’s hard to deny that Serge Nubret possessed one of the best of all times. There was something intangible to the Nubret physique — some metric having to do with his bone structure multiplied by his muscle mass divided by his bodyfat minus his skin tone — that made his whole even greater than the sum of his impressive parts.
“He reminded me of a race horse,” says former Schwarzenegger training partner Ric Drasin, who got the chance to see Nubret train in person on several occasions at the original Gold’s Gym/Venice, California. “With the glow of sweat on his dark skin he looked like a highly polished statue. Every ripple in his muscles reflected light and you could see them twitch under his skin with every movement, much like a racehorse. He was quite a sight to see, even for a fellow bodybuilder.”
Of course, even Nubret wasn’t perfect. It could be argued that by competitive bodybuilding standards his back never quite reached the degree of width or thickness needed to match his front, and that his upper body overshadowed his lower. Yet when viewed as art rather than athlete, Nubret’s physique was a thing of beauty.
Take a look at Michelangelo’s David statue for reference. In it you don’t see a figure with hanging lats and ponderous quadriceps teardrops shadowing its kneecaps. Likewise, Greek sculptor Polykleitos of Argos’ famed Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), while possessing a muscularly detailed torso, shows legs that are clearly strong, but designed more for function than form.
And so too was the Nubret physique — muscular and strong-looking, but with a grace and aesthetic beauty that spoke to not just a bodybuilder’s physique, but that of an athlete as well. It was uniquely his own creation and built via his own very unique system.
Training: 40 Sets of Benches
As distinctive as was Serge Nubret’s physique, so too was his training style. While others of his generation, like Schwarzenegger and Columbu, were known to regularly train for 2–3 hours at a clip, often twice a day, Serge outpaced all of his contemporaries by a long shot when it came to volume. While the routine he advocated in later years is daunting enough, Nubret’s actual workouts during his peak years were reportedly even more voluminous. Much more.
“There were times,” recalls former onstage adversary Frank Zane, “when he would work out all day — literally. He’d get to the gym at 8 or 9 a.m. and train until noon or so. Then he’d go for lunch, and then he’d return to the gym to train for another few hours. After that he’d get dinner at 5 p.m. or so and come back for his nighttime workout. It would be a 12-hour day centered on training.”
Other stories tell of his marathon bench-press sessions. Nubret was a fan of the exercise, and while he claimed a personal best single-rep lift of 495 pounds, he was known more for his interminable sessions under the bar, performing as many as 40 sets of 25 reps per set! Generally he liked to keep the weights relatively light, rarely going above 225 pounds, and sometimes even keeping it to fewer than 200. He scoffed at the notion that one needs to lift excessively heavy weights to grow his muscles. While benching he liked to keep his hands very wide on the bar, a technique some say contributed to his broad, perfectly developed pectorals.
His competitive rival/offstage friend Ferrigno notes that Nubret’s affection for excess wasn’t limited only to his standout bodypart. “Before the 1975 Mr. Olympia, Serge invited me to train with him,” Ferrigno remembers. “We were training legs and he wanted to do 25 sets of leg extensions alone! There were many other exercises after that. I told him I couldn’t train that way. By the time we’d have finished that one exercise I’d have been ready to leave the gym!”
Then there was his ab routine. Apparently the term “overtraining” didn’t exist in the Nubret vocabulary, as he’d work his abdominals daily for an hour straight. This was in addition to the hours he devoted to each day’s other bodyparts. Yet while some might balk at the time he spent doing hanging knee raises, no one could deny the results of his efforts. This system worked for him not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too.
“One day I asked him how he had the energy to train for so long,” says Ferrigno. “He said to me, ‘I love bodybuilding.’”
Diet: Not a Carbs Man
When it came to nutrition, Serge Nubret followed what we now call a “keto diet.” He eschewed carbs for the most part, with a heavy reliance on red meat.
“The first time I started to achieve my best condition,” he would write, “was at the Mr. Olympia 1971 in Essen, Germany, where I surprised Arnold and Franco [with my appearance]. I was eating red meat (about 6–8 pounds a day) and a little quantity of carbs, like rice and beans. [I drank] about three liters of water [and ate] about one or two meals a day, but the bigger one during the night.”
That means he consumed over 3 pounds of meat for dinner. Oftentimes it would be horsemeat, which he found to be especially anabolic.
Yet while in a typical day he’d eat few, if any, carbohydrate-rich foods, during the week leading up to a competition Nubret would do a total reversal and go carb-crazy, consuming anywhere from 4,000–5,000 carbohydrate calories, most of them fast-burning carbs.
Clearly, he was a genetic marvel, capable not only of the kind of grueling marathon workouts that would maim lesser men, but eating in a way that would cause total digestive failure in most. But while it would be as foolhardy to expect Nubret-like gains by following his training protocol and his diet, both worked for bodybuilding’s “Black Panther.”
On April 19th, 2011, at age 72 the great Serge Nubret made the transition from living legend to legend. Bodybuilding fans the world over mourned their loss and tributes from his contemporaries poured in to magazines and websites. The tangible effect of his passing has been palpable to thousands the world over, yet the effect of Nubret’s life will continue on far longer than many of us: for as long, in fact, as mankind continues to hold an appreciation for the artistry of the human form.
Black Panther Training
Serge Nubret’s training routine was as voluminous as it was time-consuming, sometimes keeping him in the gym for 3–4 hours at a time. If you’d like to style your own workout similar to Nubret’s, we recommend halving the number of sets, but keeping the reps high, as using light-moderate weight for higher reps was the foundation of his training philosophy.
Serge's Routine (Sets x Reps)
Monday/Thursday: Quads, Chest, Abs
- Squat: 8 x 12
- Leg Press: 6 x 12
- Leg Extension: 6 x 12
- Bench Press: 8 x 12
- Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye: 6 x 12
- Incline Bench Press: 6 x 12
- Incline Dumbbell Flye: 6 x 12
- Dumbbell Pullover: 6 x 12
Tuesday/Friday: Back, Hamstrings, Abs
- Pull-Up: 6 x 12
- Behind-the-Neck Pulldown: 8 x 12
- Wide-Grip Front Pulldown: 6 x 12
- Bent-Over Barbell Row: 6 x 12
- Lying Leg Curl: 8 x 15
- Standing Leg Curl: 8 x 15
Wednesday/Saturday: Shoulders, Arms, Calves
- Behind-the-Neck Military Press: 6 x 12
- Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise: 6 x 12
- Barbell Upright Row: 6 x 12
- Cable Lateral Raise: 6 x 12
- Barbell Curl Superset with Triceps Pressdown: 16 x 12
- Dumbbell Curl Superset with Triceps Dip: 16 x 12
- Standing Calf Raise: 8 x 12
- Seated Calf Raise: 8 x 12
- Serge trained his abs at the end of every workout and on Sundays for an hour straight. His favorite ab exercises were the hanging knee raise and seated knee-ups performed on a flat bench.
Shawn Perine developed a passion for bodybuilding after seeing the film Pumping Iron as a 12-year-old. Today he fulfills that passion by training daily at bodybuilding's "Mecca" Gold's Gym/Venice in California, and writing about bodybuilding and fitness for a worldwide audience.