Iron Man Magazine – JULY 2008
by Rod Labbe
*reprinted with the kind permission of John Balik, Publisher, Iron Man Magazine
When Leo Robert graduated from high school, he left the sporting world behind and got a job. Each morning, as he packed his lunch for another day at a stuffy office, he had no idea that within a few years the world would know his name.
As a youngster, the Montreal-born champion found himself drawn to athletics, with hockey a particular joy. The ice taught him sportsmanship and the benefits of hard work and exercise, lessons that would one day define an outstanding sports career.
But not in hockey. Destiny had other plans: Bodybuilding, an endeavor considered useless by just about everybody – a shadow sport, strange in origin and execution, “not done” by God-fearing people. Anyone who weight-trained and then paraded around half-naked had to have his head examined.
Those were the fallacies facing young Leo Robert – and none of them mattered. Introduced to the iron by bodybuilding pioneer Ben Weider, Leo found a way to stay fit and an escape from the mundane workaday world. Throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, Leo played an alpha role in competitive bodybuilding, a remarkable run few of his contemporaries could match. The public adored him – that rugged, handsome face accentuated by a thick moustache, square jaw and tousled hair.
It was enough to sweep him from obscurity’s clutter-filled office, with its desks, deadlines, 9-to-5s and cutthroat water-cooler politics, right into the lofty realm of legend.
IM: Your bodybuilding career strikes me as surefire movie material. It has drama, pathos, lots of action – even suspense. The sport wasn’t exactly mainstream back then, and you guys faced daunting odds.
LR: Really, we had no idea how popular bodybuilding would become. The iron game was very much a brotherhood, and other things motivated us. Being at the gym meant working toward self-improvement and attaining health through regular exercise.
IM: Before exploring your bodybuilding triumphs, let’s go back to the beginning. Childhood in
LR: I have many fond memories of my youthful years in
IM: Your folks were of the old school, I’d suspect.
LR: If by old school you mean they believed in responsibility and earning your way, then yes, that aptly describes my parents. Mom had been raised on a farm and was a superb cook. A devout Catholic, she made sure everyone attended church. Dad was an auto mechanic and owned his own garage. He and I had an excellent relationship, and I enjoyed watching him work.
IM: Younger sister Rejane hit the iron too, correct?
LR: Yes, although more in the way of fitness. After we’d all left home and gone our separate ways, Rejane began training and later appeared with me in several muscle magazines. She opened an exercise studio for women – a groundbreaking endeavor, given the times. And she also had a regular column in Iron Man.
IM: Did Rejane turn you on to the gym?
LR: Actually, it was the other way around. I lifted weights before Rejane, and as her older brother I had an influence on her. I loved playing sports. Baseball, soccer and swimming were my favorites. I even took up boxing. Hockey, however, topped the list. As a loyal Montrealer, I founded my own hockey club.
IM: Smacking the puck is far away from putting on a pair of skimpy briefs and pounding out poses in front of an audience.
LR: Bodybuilding wasn’t anything I’d ever considered. After graduating, I went to work in an office and had real difficulty making the adjustment.
IM: From active athlete to sedentary in one swoop. Quite a contrast.
Too much of one. When I told Ben Weider [who was already a household name among the bodybuilding fraternity in Montreal] about my situation, he recommended I start training with weights. I exercised at home until I was ready for my first trip to the gym. Before long, the powerful feeling that a healthy body delivers overwhelmed me.
IM: Hmmm. How exactly does somebody go from feeling better to Mr. Universe?
LR: It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually my physique responded to the rigors of lifting. What originated as a simple desire to get up and move evolved into a competitive career in natural bodybuilding that spanned more than 10 years. I trained religiously and lived a healthful, balanced lifestyle. Not only did I have more energy, but the confidence I gained influenced every aspect of my life.
IM: It’s safe to say you embraced bodybuilding.
LR: Wholeheartedly. Ascending to the next level struck me as a logical step, so I decided to explore my potential and strive to one day earn the Mr. Universe title. Instinctively, I knew there’d be no turning back; I’d reach my goal. Little did I realize it would take a decade.
IM: Bodybuilding and sport were rarely used synonymously in the ‘50s. Stereotypes abounded, and guys with muscles were given short shrift
LR: That’s sadly true. Those who didn’t lift couldn’t grasp the commitment competitive bodybuilding demanded. Regane was always a loyal supporter of my dreams. Peers and friends away from the gym rarely spoke negatively, although very few understood what I was after. Not surprisingly, my closest friends were from the gym.
IM: Did you have a favorite routine?
LR: It involved working out with two training partners. For example, we’d start off with dumbbell curls, doing six reps, using a set of 120s, decreasing the dumbbells by 10 pounds and increasing our reps by one, until we reached 15 reps with 50-pounders. For variation we’d start with lighter weights and begin with higher repetitions, decreasing the reps by one as we progressively increased in weight.
IM: You competed when bodybuilding involved hardcore basics and legitimately earned its name, the iron game.
LR: I was constantly seeking new ways to achieve a fuller range of motion and train muscles at different angles. One of my favorites was the moon bench for presses and pullovers, instrumental in developing the rib cage. While operating my gym, I designed pieces of equipment to complement free weights and standard universal machines.
IM: Supplementation, too, stuck to basics.
LR: Bodybuilders of my era focused on a clean diet, incorporating protein powder, carbs, vitamins and minerals. Juice extractors were popular too; I set up a large juice bar in every gym I owned.
IM: As they do today, guys scoured the mags for tips and bodybuilding programs. A few etched-in-stone training principles have withstood time, but new ones are popping up daily. Your view?
LR: Much of my generation applied the principles of iron discipline, a phrase I now use as a testament to those days. What I can’t quite fathom is the concept of training only one bodypart per week.
IM: So it wasn’t unusual for you to do a complete workout, say, six days a week?
LR: No it wasn’t. Today that’s considered overkill, but athletes from other disciplines still apply that formula, and it worked for me. You get out of it what you’re prepared to put into it. There are no shortcuts.
IM: Part of that is a brand-new diet?
LR: I’m very strict with my diet and use a juice extractor for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. My daily supplements include protein shakes, a multiple vitamin-and-mineral supplement and Udo’s Oil Blend. I toss in lots of whole grains, green salads, fruit, egg, yogurt, fish, chicken and occasionally lean meat. Gotta go for the organics now. Sleep is still a huge factor for me – I must notch seven to eight hours of Zs every night, or else my body won’t recuperate.
IM: Which brings me to bodybuilding in the 21st century – good or bad?
LR: There’s no denying the effects of steroids. They’ve taken an enormous toll on our athletic community – and not only in bodybuilding.
IM: Along with steroids has come an era of mass monsters. Pleasing lines, once so important in the competitive arena, have been relegated to the back seat.
LR: Ah, but people are getting weary of grotesque physiques that defy proportion. There’s been a slow but progressive shift, as our society becomes more health conscious. I hope the new attitude will influence bodybuilding in a more positive way.
IM: Your own physique represented an aesthetic ideal. It was an unusual look in the ‘50s. Bodybuilders were “blockier” then, as Steve Reeves so succinctly put it.
LR: Steve was an exceptional athlete. He certainly knew a thing or two about balance. My own symmetry was achieved through a painstaking training schedule involving three-hour workouts, six days a week for 10 years. I never laid off between contests or took a vacation from training. I wanted to be in top shape, ready for the next competition or show.
IM: That kind of do-or-die dedication would leave most folks reaching for the Bengay.
LR: You can’t achieve physical superiority without a little suffering. Unlike men who are naturally gifted with wide shoulders, my frame was considered average in the beginning. I applied the sound principles of bodybuilding to ultimately achieve a classic physique.
IM: Proportion has always been a Robert trademark.
LR: I studied each of my muscles to ensure that they were developing proportionately. A proportioned, balanced physique has always been my goal.
IM: I Don’t think your physique was weak, from any angle.
LR: Thanks, I concentrated on exercises to open my frame, especially my rib cage, lats and other back muscles. Shoulders were another focal point. To gain mass, I trained with heavy weights and increased the poundages on a regular basis. I worked all four angles of my muscles, varying grips and adjusting the bench. If I noticed a weakness in any specific area, I zeroed in and zapped it.
IM: Your abs are still solid. You haven’t lost your edge.
LR: The exercise routine I performed for my midsection isn’t something I’d recommend. It involved placing a 140-pound Olympic barbell behind my neck for situps on an abdominal board. I created a holder for my feet, bolted it into the cement and spent endless hours working my midsection, doing situps, side bends, leg raises with iron boots while hanging from a chinup bar, etc. By using weight resistance during all my abdominal exercises, I forced the muscles to respond. I reached a point where I was doing up to 1,000 situps on an abdominal board within 30 minutes.
IM: The end justifies the means, apparently. A terrific looking midsection is an undeniable sign of fitness.
LR: Believe it or not, one judge at a contest came onstage and pinched my midsection. In those days we were judged on individual bodyparts, and he wanted to see how thin my skin was. Well, he found out, up close and personal.
IM: When you’re a bodybuilder, much of how you’re perceived stems from the way you present yourself.
LR: Personally, I try to remain humble and treat others the way I would like to be treated. During my competitive days I strived to be a worthy ambassador for the sport. That wasn’t difficult, since I’m naturally a friendly, gregarious person.
IM: Did hailing from
LR: As a Canadian I sometimes had to try a little harder when competing alongside my American colleagues. I was, nonetheless, warmly received by stateside audiences whenever and wherever I performed.
IM: Any enticing offers from the
LR: Several and I turned them all down, for one reason or another. That’s a decision I’ve since come to regret. Because I was so involved with my club in
IM: I’ve interviewed Larry Scott and Chris Dickerson, and one of the things they loved best about competitive bodybuilding was the photo session. Same for you?
LR: I did like having my photo taken, but the shoots called for immense concentration and fortitude. You have to flex at just the right moment, and it all has to appear natural. Before going into the studio, I’d prepare myself physically and mentally.
IM: What magazine gave you your first cover?
LR: That was Sante et Force, a French Canadian periodical published by Ben Weider. It was absolutely wonderful to land a cover. The first American cover shots were for Joe Weider’s Your Physique and Muscle Power.
IM: You and Ross Warner did awesome stuff together.
LR: Russ was a pro. His photos captured the essence of what makes a notable physique. Russ had talent for effective lighting and achieving the perfect angle.
IM: And Lanza?
LR: Bar none, Tony Lanza was my favorite photographer and a reliable friend. Again, Joe introduced us, and by way of our photo sessions in
IM: Did a muscle community exist when you were competing?
LR: Most of my close friends were members of my gym. Joe [Weider] traveled from his office in
IM: You and Reg were pretty tight, right?
LR: I became close friends with Reg, bless his soul, and each time I visited
IM: Cover shots, photo spreads, outstanding press – seems like you had all the P.R. bases covered.
LR: Joe promoted me via his magazines, and I did annual photo sessions with Lanza in
Because of Joe and my public appearances, there were cover shots for magazines from
IM: Besides working on your competitive career, how were you supporting yourself? I know you don’t like desk jobs.
LR: Since I was always at the gym, I decided to open a club in the north end of
IM: Even with a club and endorsement deals, it couldn’t have been easy. Your training alone required a significant amount of time.
LR: Since I’d set my sights early on the Mr. Universe title, I expected to make sacrifices. Training shouldn’t be a struggle. I remained confident, single-minded and – most of all – determined.
IM: You viewed it as an avenue to success, despite the challenges?
LR: Exactly. My attention went into preparing for the Universe. I arrived in
IM: Who was in that Universe lineup?
LR: Clancy Ross, who represented the
IM: Winning the Mr. Universe title clinched it for you, but it’s not the only jewel in your bodybuilding crown.
LR: I won Mr. Montreal, where I took the title for best midsection and most muscular man. Subsequently, I was awarded Mr. Province of Quebec; Mr.
IM: How was life after the Universe?
LR: Dramatic. I suddenly found myself a sport celebrity, with requests to appear on television, radio and other engagements. Of course, it bolstered my gym business too. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.
IM: To achieve your dream and stand with the best – what a feeling.
LR: Words can’t describe it. There was so much excitement, including photo shoots and interviews, a huge autographing session outside the London Palladium. I left
IM: Films of your posing show off your flawlessly fluid style.
LR: Whether contestant or guest poser, I understood the need to be in control. That level of confidence is essential to an accomplished performance and the feeling that goes with capturing an audience’s full attention. There was no such thing as going “off-season.” My training and diet remained stable. Gaining extreme amounts of weight and then yoyo-dieting can have quite a negative impact on one’s health. I wouldn’t recommend it.
IM: Your diet isn’t really dieting.
LR: It’s more a way of life. Diet plays an enormous role in helping your body respond to intense training. Over the years I’ve acquired a taste for wholesome foods, and my body has responded in ways beyond the imagination.
IM: You set a high physical standard for yourself. Was it ever reached?
LR: No, I’ve yet to reach perfection. Considering all the muscle groups, their development, size symmetry, proportion and definition, perfection’s a daunting task. Setting high standards did inspire me to overcome obstacles that stood in my way. As the Mr. Universe contest approached, I was as close to my goal as I felt humanly possible.
IM: After the mid-60’s, established bodybuilding stars were being replaced by a newer kind of competitor.
LR: My personal departure coincided with an experience I had while appearing as a guest poser at a
IM: That’s the last time you guest-posed?
LR: Yes. Competitive bodybuilding took a path I didn’t want to travel. A few weeks later the contest promoter sent me a letter in recognition of my performance. I’ve held on to it, not only as a memento of that evening but also as a reminder of my decision.
IM: What path did you take?
LR: I devoted my time and energies to helping others achieve their fitness goals. That included training aspiring bodybuilders who later became Mr.
IM: Were you still running your gyms?
LR: No, I sold them and moved to the West Coast. My wife and I opened a health club connected to a medical clinic and received referrals from practitioners. I continue to work as a fitness consultant, though we sold that club several years ago.
IM: Give us your opinion of the following statement: The general public views bodybuilding as a sport riddled with illegal drug abuse.
LR: It’s tragic and bluntly honest. I remain ever hopeful that bodybuilding will return to a time when athletes rely on their own physical prowess and human spirit to become champions.
IM: Have you completed any interesting projects recently?
LR: I’ll say. For the past 4 ½ years we’ve hosted an international natural weightlifting case study to measure the effects of essential fatty acids on weightlifting performance, health and well-being. The essential fatty acids used are a unique combination of carefully chosen, naturally unrefined oils known as Udo’s Oil Blend, formulated by international fats authority and lecturer, Dr. Udo Erasmus. Its health benefits are a revelation.
IM: I ask this of every legend: If I were a young, dewy-eyed bodybuilder, would you discourage or encourage me from pursuing competition?
LR: Discourage? No. I would recommend you avoid the awful cycle of extreme dieting, dehydration and overtraining when preparing for a contest. Choose to train all year round and make healthy eating a lifestyle. That goes for everyone, not just bodybuilders. It’s a plan for wholesome living.
IM: How’s RobertUniverse.com doing?
LR: I want to express my gratitude to all our fans and patrons. We launched it early in 2001, and traffic continues to grow.
IM: Obviously, you’re never far from the weights. We should all look so good, at any age.
LR: Consistent training has afforded me untold benefits, not the least of which has been a long and rewarding life. Lifting weights was one of the best choices I could ever have made.
Editor’s note: Leo Robert’s Web site is www.RobertUniverse.com.