It’s a spectacular January day in Santa Monica, California, with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees, as I arrive for my scheduled 4 p.m. interview at the home of Lou Ferrigno. I ring the front doorbell, then hear the side gate opening. “Hey, Lonnie,” Ferrigno says. “Come on in. It’s so nice outside, let’s do this in the backyard.”
Sounds terrific to me. Speaking of terrific, I can’t help thinking that’s exactly how Ferrigno looks today, making it hard to believe the man celebrated birthday number 57 a couple of months earlier. Ferrigno looks a decade younger and is still in great shape at 6’4 1/2” and 275 pounds. Yes, he remains “The Incredible Hulk” more than 30 years after the world got to know him as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s main adversary in the 1977 cult film “Pumping Iron.”
It’s safe to say that Ferrigno, a two-time Mr. Universe, is still the second most recognized bodybuilder in the world, behind you-know-who. Like the Governator, he’s used the drive that came from bodybuilding to fuel success in several other arenas.
A dedicated family man, he’s been married to Carla for 30 years, and they have three children: Shanna, 27, a producer for Warner Bros.; Lou Jr., 24, a University of Southern California grad who recently completed his personal trainer certification; and Brent, 19, who works at Gold’s, Venice, and is currently a student at Santa Monica City College.
Ferrigno’s an actor, has run a successful personal-training business out of his home for many years and became a certified Los Angeles County deputy sheriff three years ago—yes, the kind that are allowed to carry a gun 24/7. Speaking of guns, he proudly rolls up his shirt and shows me the split in his biceps.
Let’s start shooting, er, taping, big guy.
LT: You have a movie coming out in March. Fill us in.
LF: Yes, it’s a romantic comedy produced by DreamWorks. It’s called “I Love You, Man.” The plot is that I’m an entrepreneur from Beverly Hills who wants to sell my house, so I hire this guy—Paul Rudd plays that role—and it expands from there. The movie is kind of a jump from my recurring role on “King of Queens” [the television sitcom that ran for seven years]. It gave me a chance to do comedy, which I’m very happy about.
LT: You gained so much notoriety with “The Incredible Hulk” television series. It may have kept some in the industry from taking you seriously as an actor.
LF: You hit the nail right on the head. That’s why this role means so much to me.
LT: How big were you in the movie? Did they tell you to get smaller for the role?
LF: No, not at all. They took me as I was, same as I am today, around 275.
LT: You were blessed with great genetics.
LF: Not really. I’ve always trained really hard. I want to throw up every time I hear somebody say to me, “I’m on a new cycle.” The new terms in the gym are “gurus” and “cycles”—not enough hard training.
LT: It’s hard to believe you turned 57 on November 9. Do you bathe in Oil of Olay daily?
LF: [Cracks up] I continue to train with intensity and consistency, keep a clean conscience and follow good nutritional habits. Most important, I have the same passion for being a bodybuilder that I had from the beginning. I train like I’m going to compete tomorrow. I just love pumping iron. That’s the secret. It keeps me in the gym consistently.
LT: Where do you train the most, your home gym or Gold’s?
LF: I would say about half the time here, half the time at Gold’s.
LT: You’re working with your sons a lot now. Brent must be thrilled with his job at Gold’s.
LF: I would have given anything to have a job like that when I was a kid. When I first joined a gym [R&J’s Health Club in Brooklyn, New York] at 17 or 18, I was in awe seeing all those bodybuilders in person. Two of the people I used to see were Pete Caputo and [IRON MAN scribe] Jerry Brainum. Jerry would go out to California and train and come back and tell me stories about what it was like in California, the Golden State.
LT: Rumor has it the kids are stronger than their old man now.
LF: Brent is stronger than me in the press, and, of course, the boys are stronger than I am in the legs. Louie is 6’2” and weighs about 230 pounds; Brent is about 6’ and weighs around 220. Brent is really solid; he reminds me of Casey Viator. He’s squatting over 400.
LT: Best of all, he’s going to make his bodybuilding debut at my Junior Cal on June 20 to qualify for the Teen Nationals.
LF: He’s thinking about it.
LT: When did the three of you start working out together?
LF: About a year and a half ago. They were both on the shy side, but I eventually got them to come to Gold’s and get used to the surroundings. In time, they got more confidence in themselves.
LT: People may be surprised to hear about your sons being stronger than you, but the Incredible Hunk gets older too!
LF: I used to be stronger than them in about six or seven different exercises, but now I can only beat them in curling and rowing exercises. I’m not going to kill myself and try to bench 350 and ruin my shoulder! I know my limitations.
There are never enough articles on how somebody needs to change their training regimen as they get older. At this age I don’t recuperate nearly as quickly as I did when I was younger. And, of course, I’m not going to lift anywhere near the weight I did when I was younger. If I tried that, I’d end up living in a doctor’s office with a multitude of injuries. You have to listen to your body a lot more. You don’t train as much either.
LT: When I worked on the documentary “Stand Tall” back in 1994, I knew what most people didn’t about your return to the stage at the Masters Olympia—that you had suffered a severe knee injury prior to the show.
LF: Yes, I tore my meniscus a week before. Of course, there are no excuses. You do the best you can do and hope for the best [Ferrigno finished second to Robby Robinson]. I came back for the first time in 17 years at the Mr. Olympia in Helsinki in 1992. Two years of extremely hard training took its toll, and I eventually hurt my knee.
I started winding down the heavy training after that contest. I still train with the same intensity, but I don’t lift nearly as heavy.
LT: You started lifting weights at 12 years old. With 45 years of experience under your belt, what advice do you have for people of all age groups who train?
LF: From what I see, most people train one bodypart a week. I think you should do more that that, hit it twice a week. They’re also doing 20 sets, which is way too many. I believe you should do only 10 to 12 sets, max, per bodypart. After every 72 hours or so, you should hit that part again. You can rotate exercises.
The best regimen for me is three days on/one day off. I’ll do chest and back on day one, biceps and triceps on day two and shoulder and legs on day three. The beauty is you can change exercises all the time, which always makes it interesting. You don’t need to do that much. It’s how you train. I do one warmup set, then four sets, eight to 10 reps, three exercises per bodypart. It should never take more than an hour to do your weight workout. You can add up to 30 minutes of cardio a few times per week.
I have to admit there’s an exception to this—Surge Nubret. He does 50 sets a bodypart. I know because I trained with him before we filmed “Pumping Iron.” We were doing leg extensions, and after the 12th set I told him, “Serge, I’m done!” The man was just a machine; he’s one of my favorite people. He had really good form; to my knowledge he never had any serious injuries—he was intense but didn’t train real heavy.
LT: How much cardio do you usually do?
LF: If I’m training quickly and watching what I eat carefully, I really don’t need to do cardio. If I want to tighten up a bit, I’ll do 20 minutes on either the elliptical trainer or the stationary bike.
LT: When you first started lifting weights, you must have grown like a weed.
LF: Not really. I was thin and had to train really hard to put on size. When I was 17, 18, I had small legs, didn’t have a great chest. I did have muscular arms. And even if someone has good genetics, you have to have the mind-set that nothing is going to stop you from achieving what you want.
I trained like a maniac with hopes of gaining size. There were times—when I got rejected by a girl, for example—that I’d go back to the gym and train again to get out my frustration. It’s called inferiority complex. I felt I had to get more powerful, stronger, to impress them. Like the Incredible Hulk.
LT: What are your favorite exercises for the muscle groups?
LF: I start out on chest, doing dumbbell presses. Every time I do an exercise, I pyramid up. One set for warmup, then four sets, eight to 10 reps. I go up to 100 or 120 pounds. My second exercise would be flyes. I go 50, 60, 75 and then 90. Then I go to incline barbell presses. I like to put the flyes in the middle because you’re resting the triceps. I use from 185 to 225 on the incline bench.
LT: What about arm-day exercises?
LF: I do incline dumbbell curls, barbell curls, then preacher curls. Then I move on to triceps. I do pushdowns first, then lying French presses and finish with standing French presses.
On day three I start with shoulder presses, then go to laterals. Then upright rows. Sometimes I do rear lateral raises.
After that I take a light leg workout: I’m not squatting like I used to. I do leg extensions, leg curls and Smith-machine squats. Sometimes I add a calf workout in the same format as all of the other exercises. I usually go up to 225 pounds on the Smith; there’s no point in lifting any heavier. On legs I move up my reps, doing from 12 to 15.
I do abs when I feel like it, usually two or three sets of crunches. You have to remember, though, that I only rest a minute between sets, and you hit the abs in all the other exercises. Consistency and intensity are the keys to successful workouts. Even when I’m traveling, like going overseas, I always try to get to the gym for at least a short workout. It’s always better to do something than nothing.
LT: Despite the fact that you’re doing it the right way, there will always be people wondering why Lou Ferrigno isn’t stacking the plates. Ever feel pressure to lift more to show the folks you still have it?
LF: I have nothing to prove. I’m smart enough to know if I did something like that, I would end up hurting myself. I know my limitations. Everybody needs to think like that, especially as we get older. Too many people are concerned with how much they can bench or how much they can squat or deadlift. You need to train like a bodybuilder, hitting all bodyparts equally, and know what your safety limit is. If you’re concerned about how much you can bench for one rep, go to a powerlifting competition.
LT: You’re still training clients in your home gym?
LF: Yes. It’s just me and that one person; I don’t have to worry if I’m at Gold’s if I can get to a particular exercise. Plus, it’s hard to work at the gym, with a lot of people always coming up to me.
LT: What do you think of bodybuilding today compared to the Arnold and Lou era?
LF: You don’t see the symmetry—or the camaraderie—of the old days. The top guys in the Olympia are phenomenal, but it has more to do with size, thickness and striations. Dexter Jackson [2008 Olympia champion] has nice symmetry—it was good to see that. I’d like to see the sport go back into the direction we had years ago—more emphasis on posing too.
Being a champion should represent more than just a great body; it should include the personality too. When I first met Joe Weider, he told me, “You should come to California. You could be a Weider superstar. I only have three—Arnold, Franco and Frank Zane. You could be the fourth.”
Those guys created electricity when they stepped onstage. They had a “wow” factor that I think is missing today. It’s the total aura of the person.
I don’t think the passion is the same. You go into the gym now and see all these guys covering themselves up with ski caps, bulky sweatshirts and long pants, even in the dead of summer. And some of them spend as much time on their cell phones, either talking or texting, as they do concentrating on their workouts.
In the old days Arnold, Waller, Draper, Zane…they all had T-shirts and shorts. It was real. Now you say, “What am I looking at?”
LT: Who of the current crop of bodybuilders stands out most in your mind?
LF: I like Ronnie Coleman [Coleman retired in 2007 but is, according to rumors, contemplating a comeback]. Now, there’s somebody with the “wow” factor.
LT: Who’s your favorite of all time?
LF: I would say Steve Reeves, then Arnold.
LT: If you take all the great champions, past and present, and put them in a lineup, at their best, who wins?
LF: I would say Ronnie. When he first won the Olympia, the guy was incredible. He had size, shape and muscle separation—the whole package. I think Ronnie would have gotten more out of the sport if he’d competed 30, 40 years ago. The fans would have gone totally nuts over him.
LT: How much did you weigh in “Pumping Iron”?
LF: I was 268; Arnold was 228. We both got on the scale; the amazing thing is Arnold was in shorts and a T-shirt, and my father [Matt] said to me, “Look at him, he’s not that big.” But he has small joints; he was like a fine Thoroughbred racehorse. He just had “it.” I was shocked; I expected him to be at least 240.
Even Frank Zane. He looked like a regular guy in clothes, then when he stepped onstage—Bam! He came alive when he posed and totally captured the audience. This was a man about 5’9” and 190 pounds, but he jumped out at you. Same thing for Franco, as short as he was.
LT: Rank the top five bodybuilders of all time.
LF: Arnold, myself, Sergio Oliva, Ronnie Coleman and Steve Reeves. There have been so many great ones. Zane would be right there. Lee Haney and Dorian Yates were terrific. Then there are guys like Dave Draper, Larry Scott and John Grimek. Two more guys I really liked—Casey Viator and Harold Poole. I didn’t mention Reg Park and Bill Pearl. We’d better make this the top 20 instead!
LT: If show business hadn’t cut short your career at 23 with your role as the Hulk, how big would you have been onstage down the road?
LF: I think I could have competed at 350 eventually; Arnold could have competed at 265 or 270 if he’d continued in bodybuilding. Sergio would have been a freaky 260, with shape.
LT: Most Lou Ferrigno fans know about your impressive résumé. How many movie and television shows have you been in?
LF: I’ve done 37 feature films over 27 years. “The Hulk” was 86 episodes over five years. Then there was “Trauma Center.” I did about 20 episodes of “King of Queens.” Plus, I competed in the “World’s Strongest Man” competition and ABC’s “Superstars” competition. As Arnold has done, obviously, I proved you can have muscles and still be an athlete…and still be successful in other areas of life as well.
LT: There’s still more the fans might not be aware of. You’re a certified Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.
LF: I went through the entire program and officially became a deputy sheriff three years ago. My father was a police lieutenant, and I’ve always been fascinated with law enforcement.
I told Sheriff Lee Baca of my lifelong interest in the field, and he said, “Why don’t you join the department?” I took six months and went through the Sheriff’s Academy. It wasn’t an honorary thing but full uniform, like going back to college. You have to learn everything about search and seizure, know the Constitution of the United States. If you can’t drive those cars or shoot a shotgun, you won’t get through the academy. For example, if you get shot in your right hand, you have to be able to shoot with your left.
A lot of people forget that Oliva was a police officer in Chicago, and we know Coleman worked as a law enforcement officer in Texas for many years.
Last Sunday I was in the Angeles forest. A woman had a bad motorcycle accident; I had to direct traffic and helped transport the victim into the emergency room. I love this type of work because not only are you helping people, but it’s very challenging. I do a lot of search and rescue in the mountains. It’s part of me giving back, especially now, with what has been going on in our country. I’m a big believer in community policing—you work with the public.
LT: I’ll be sure to mind my P’s and Q’s around you from here on out.
LF: I doubt it. [Both laugh]
Editor’s note: To contact Lou Ferrigno for appearances, inside tips on how to prepare for the Sheriff Academy’s rigid physical and written exams or how to fire a gun with either hand, go to www.LouFerrigno.com. IM