Best Bodybuilders of All Time – Who Did We Choose?

Best Bodybuilders of All Time

Discussing who the best bodybuilders of all time are is a difficult task, and one that can cause a lot of debate.

How do you measure success? Is it in titles? Possibly, but that’s not always black and white.

In 1980 Arnold Schwarzenegger won his 7th Mr Universe, but many feel that it was an ill-deserved win. If he had not made a surprise entry at the last minute then Frank Zane or Chris Dickerson could have won instead.

That would have completely changed the number of titles held by Arnie, and by Zane or Dickerson.

Frank won 3 titles in his time, but felt that he was screwed out of the 1980 contest and boycotted the 1981 contest. Theoretically Frank Zane could have won 5 titles with Arnie only winning 6. Suddenly title wins seems like less of an effective measurement.

You can also measure success in terms of financial success. But again, there are issues here.

Is Phil Heath a better bodybuilder than Lee Haney? Based on financial success he is, but then again the bodybuilding industry is much bigger these days, and money is easier to attain.

If we went by pure financial success, then Jay Cutler is a better bodybuilder than Sergio Olivia!

Then you have fame, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most famous bodybuilder of all time, so it follows that he is also the best. Or does it? In terms of fame, Lou Ferrigno is probably the second most famous bodybuilder of all time, but his success in terms of titles is pretty poor.

Without the Pumping Iron documentary Lou Ferrigno may have been a pretty much unheard of competitor.

In the end we have decided to use all of these factors, and our own gut feeling to rank nine of the best bodybuilders of all time.

In the process we will probably have picked some bodybuilders that you disagree with, and missed out some bodybuilders that you would have in your top five! That’s inevitable, it’s a completely subjective discussion.

But before we start, we should identify some of our own biases in picking these nine bodybuilders.

We’re definitely in favour of a slightly more aesthetic look rather than overall size (think Frank Zane rather than Markus Ruhl). We also believe that being a well-known name in bodybuilding is important.

Lou Ferrigno may never have won a Mr Olympia, but he has done more for raising the profile of bodybuilding than almost any bodybuilder.

We also rank winning a Mr Olympia title as more important than any other title, winning a Sandow trophy is better than winning 4 Arnold Classics which is why Kai Greene is not on this list even though he is an incredibly successful bodybuilder.

Kai Greene

In fact, considering that Kai is the elephant in the room we should quickly explain why he is not on this list:

  • While he is well known in bodybuilding circles he is not a household name
  • He has never won a Mr Olympia
  • His career outside bodybuilding has yet to kick off
  • We personally don’t think he is one of the 10 best bodybuilders of all time

Saying that, if we were to redo this article in 5 years he may well reach the top nine. He is beginning to embark on an acting career, he may one day return to Mr Olympia, and his mark on the sport may be more evident.

Anyway, here is our list of the top nine best bodybuilders of all time. It is in order from tenth to first, and represents what we believe to be the best that this sport has ever produced.

Bodybuilder #10 – Lou Ferrigno

Nickname: The Hulk
Date Of Birth: 1951
Place of Birth: Brooklyn, New York
Mr Olympia Titles: 0
Other Notable Titles: 2 x Mr Universe winner, 1 x Mr America winner

Lou Ferrigno

Biography:

Born in Brooklyn in 1951 Lou Ferrigno trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1974 while they both fought for the Mr Olympia title.

Lou came second, and then came third in 1975. The 1975 competition was the subject of the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron”.

After some time out from bodybuilding he came back to fight for the Masters Olympia in 1993 finishing 2nd. This was also made into a documentary called “Stand Tall”.

In 1977 Lou was cast as the Incredible Hulk, and became a well known film star off the back of this role.

Notable Achievements:

Starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron, playing The Incredible Hulk, starring in Stand Tall.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

In terms of bodybuilding success, it is hard to argue that Lou is lucky to be on this list. But in terms of being a household name, Lou would be in the top two.

In terms of financial success he would also be in the top two. Coming second and third in 1974 and 75 may not seem like an accomplishment, but 1) He was against Arnold, and 2) His rivalry with Arnold did more for bodybuilding than anyone else has ever managed.

Bodybuilder #9 – Franco Columbu

Nickname: The Sardinian Samson
Date Of Birth: 1941
Place of Birth: Ollolai, Sardinia
Mr Olympia Titles: 2 x Overall titles, 3 x Lightweight
Other Notable Titles: 2 x Overall IFBB Mr Universe, 1 x Short IFBB Mr Universe, 3 x NABBA Mr Universe, Champion of Europe (powerlifting), Amateur Boxing Champion of Italy

Franco Columbu

Biography:

Born in Sardinia in 1941, Franco started out as an amateur boxer before getting into weightlifting, powerlifting, and finally bodybuilding.

He was a close friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger and won the lightweight title in 1975 during the documentary “Pumping Iron”. He won the overall title the year afterwards.

Notable Achievements:

9th Most successful Mr Olympia of all time, 340kg deadlift at 89kg bodyweight,

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

Pound for pound, Columbu is probably the strongest bodybuilder of all time. He is also one of the most successful winning 3 lightweight titles and 2 overall titles.

Bodybuilder #8 – Sergio Olivia

Nickname: The Myth
Date Of Birth: 1941
Place of Birth: Guantanamo, Cuba
Mr Olympia Titles: 3
Other Notable Titles: 2 x Mr Universe winner, 1 x Mr World winner

Sergio Oliva

Biography:

Born in Cuba, Sergio Olivia was enlisted into Bautista’s army to fight Castro. After the war he managed to escape to America.

He started competing in 1963, winning Mr Chicago, followed by Mr Illinois in 1964. In 1966 he came 2nd in the Mr America competition, and won the Mr World.

In 1967 he won Mr Olympia, he followed that up with wins in 1968 and 1969 before finally being defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1970.

Notable Achievements:

Being the only bodybuilder to ever defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Mr Olympia in 1969. Being the joint 7th greatest Mr Olympia competitor of all time.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

During his career Sergio came first on 20 occasions. His meteoric rise from 1963-1966 is incredible, coming out of nowhere to win bodybuilding’s most prestigious competition.

He was a huge bodybuilder, but still managed to be one of the most aesthetic winners of all time.

Bodybuilder #7 – Frank Zane

Nickname: The Chemist
Date Of Birth: 1942
Place of Birth: Kingston, Pennsylvania
Mr Olympia Titles: 3 x Overall titles, 3 x lightweight titles
Other Notable Titles: 2 x NABBA Mr Universe winner, 1 x IFBB Mr Universe winner, 1 x Mr America winner

Frank Zane

Biography:

Born in 1942 Frank Zane entered his first competition in 1961.

Unlike other bodybuilders such as Sergio Olivia, Zane’s success wasn’t instantaneous, not winning his first Mr Olympia title until 1977. But he then won the 1978 and 1979 titles, and could have won the 1980 competition but suffered a serious injury beforehand.

He then boycotted the 1981 competition after being furious that Schwarzenegger had won, before returning in 1982 to claim second place.

Notable Achievements:

Frank Zane was one of the most intelligent bodybuilders of all time, gaining bachelor’s degrees in Science, Psychology, and Experimental Psychology from three universities.

He was one of the most competitive bodybuilders in Mr Olympia history, reaching the top 4 in consecutive competitions (not including 1981 where he was absent).

He managed 3 overall titles, 3 second place titles, one 3rd place, and three 4th places.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

Nicknamed the chemist, Frank Zane is credited with advancing the scientific side of bodybuilding more than anyone else during the 70s.

He is known for being one of the most symmetrical bodybuilders of all time, and through his writing he has been a major contributor to fitness and nutrition.

Bodybuilder #6 – Larry Scott

Nickname: The Legend
Date Of Birth: 1938
Place of Birth: Blackfoot, Idaho
Mr Olympia Titles: 2
Other Notable Titles: Mr America, 2 x Mr Universe winner

Larry Scott

Biography:

Larry Scott won the first ever Mr Olympia title in 1965 and then defended his crown a year later before retiring.

This is a shame because Larry Scott verses Sergio Olivia would have been one amazing contest.

He may not have been as successful as some of the names on this list, but he legitimised bodybuilding, and spread its popularity far and wide. Who knows how successful he could have been had he not retired so early?

Notable Achievements:

He was the first bodybuilder to hold Mr America, Mr Universe, and Mr Olympia titles. He is also the only bodybuilder to have never been defeated as a Mr Olympia competitor.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

Without Larry Scott there may never have been a Mr Olympia competition.

He was an innovator, creating the Scott Press exercise, and making the Vince Gironda training style so popular that the Gironda preacher curl bench became known as the Scott curl bench.

Bodybuilder #5 – Dorian Yates

Nickname: The Shadow
Date Of Birth: 1962
Place of Birth: Walmley, Warwickshire (UK)
Mr Olympia Titles: 6
Other Notable Titles: Night of Champions winner, 8 x Grand Prix wins

Dorian Yates

Biography:

Born in the UK in 1962, Dorian Yates is the second most successful European bodybuilder (after Arnold) of all time.

He entered his first bodybuilding competition at 23 years old (1985 World Games) coming 7th. The next year he won the British Championships, winning it again in 1988.

He came second in his first Mr Olympia in 1991, but then won the following 6 competitions in a row before retiring in 1997 due to injury.

Notable Achievements:

15 contest wins, the 5th most successful Mr Olympia competitor of all time, one of the first truly huge bodybuilders.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

He was the first massive bodybuilder to gain success, which is an achievement in itself. He won 6 out of 7 Mr Olympia titles, and is one of the most successful bodybuilders of all time.

Bodybuilder #4 – Lee Haney

Nickname: Total-Lee Awesome
Date Of Birth: 1959
Place of Birth: Fairburn, Georgia
Mr Olympia Titles: 8
Other Notable Titles: Night of Champions

Lee Haney

Biography:

Haney won his first bodybuilding title in 1979 at the age of 20 (it was a Teen Mr America).

Four years later he entered his first Mr Olympia competition, coming 3rd overall. 1983 also saw him come 3rd at the Pro World Championships. From 1984 until his retirement in 1991 he won 8 Mr Olympia titles in a row.

Notable Achievements:

Alongside Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney is the most successful Mr Olympia of all time.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

We’re not sure how to say this again, but he won EIGHT Mr Olympia titles in a row!

Bodybuilder #3 – Phil Heath

Nickname: The Gift
Date Of Birth: 1979
Place of Birth: Seattle, Washington
Mr Olympia Titles: 7
Other Notable Titles: IFBB Iron Man, 2 x Sheru Classic winner, Arnold Classic Europe

Phil Heath

Biography:

Phil started bodybuilding in 2002 and entered his first bodybuilding competition in 2003. Winning the Northern Colorado State, Novice, Light-Heavyweight title.

His first Mr O competition was in 2008, where he came third behind Dexter Jackson and Jay Cutler.

In 2009 he came 5th, and in 2010 he came second in Mr Olympia and in the Arnold Classic.

2011 was his first win, and he has won the competition six more times at this time of writing.

Notable Achievements:

Winning 7 Mr Olympia titles, and potentially becoming the most successful competitor in history if Phil can win the 2018 and 2019 competitions.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

Phil is the joint 3rd most successful Mr O competitor in history and will overtake Arnold if he wins in 2018.

He is slowly becoming a household name, and is a fantastic representative of the bodybuilding world.

Bodybuilder #2 – Ronnie Coleman

Nickname: The Unbelievable
Date Of Birth: 1964
Place of Birth: Monroe, Louisiana
Mr Olympia Titles: 8
Other Notable Titles: Arnold Classic winner, 10 x Grand Prix wins, 2 x World Pro Championships

Ronnie Coleman

Biography:

Ronnie started competing in 1990, winning the Mr Texas title, his pro debut was one year later.

From 1998-2005 Ronnie Coleman won 8 straight Mr O competitions, before coming second in 2006 and 4th in 2007.

Notable Achievements:

Being the joint highest Mr O winner of all time, he has the record for most IFBB competition wins of all time.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

He is the most successful bodybuilder in the history of the sport, there is only one man preventing him from being number one on our list. You probably know who that man is …

Bodybuilder #1 – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Nickname: The Oak
Date Of Birth: 1947
Place of Birth: Thal, Styria (Austria)
Mr Olympia Titles: 7 overall titles, 2 x Heavyweight
Other Notable Titles: 3 x NABBA Mr Universe winner, Mr World winner

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Biography:

Arnold Schwarzenegger started his bodybuilding career in 1965 when he won the Jr Mr Europe competition, in 1966 he won Mr Europe.

In 1968 he won his first Mr Universe title in London, and entered his first Mr Olympia competition in 1969 where he came second to Sergio Olivia.

From 1970-1975 Arnold won 6 Mr Olympia’s in a row. He then came back in 1980 and won his 7th competition before retiring from the sport.

Arnold also became a famous movie star, featuring in many well known films. He also became Governor of California in 2003 and lasted until 2011.

Notable Achievements:

Being the third most successful Mr Olympia competitor of all time, being a 3 time Mr Universe winner, starring in Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, The Running Man, Total Recall, and many other blockbusters. Creating the Arnold Classic. Becoming Governor of California.

Why he is one of the Best Bodybuilders of all Time:

He is one of the most successful bodybuilders of all time (in terms of competition wins).

He is the most successful bodybuilder in terms of fame, money, and post-bodybuilding.

He truly transcends the sport, and has done more to promote it than any other person alive or dead. There was only ever going to be one winner, and of course it had to be The Oak.

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