Samir Bannout, the Lion of Lebanon, is a Golden Era legend who won the Mr. Olympia in 1983 against one of the most storied lineups in history. Recently named an Old School Ambassador, Samir spoke with us about the Golden Era and shared his advice on how to be the best bodybuilder you can be.
Samir Bannout was simply one of the greatest of the last wave of Golden Era superstars. Born in Beirut, Bannout made his way to California in the late 1970’s, and became one of the most influential and exciting competitors in history. Bannout appeared in dozens of high-level contests around the world, mostly for the IFBB, competing on a regular basis until 1996. He made his final appearance as recently as 2011, when he competed in the IFBB Pro World Masters Bodybuilding Championships.
Bannout won the Mr. Olympia in 1983, the highlight of his career, winning against a Hall of Fame lineup that included Mohamed Makkawy, Lee Haney, Frank Zane, Albert Beckles, and Ed Corney. In his prime, Bannout was simply one of the best. His friend and fellow Golden Era star Roger Callard once said, “The greatest body ever I thought was possessed by Samir Bannout.”
Now, 62 years old, Bannout is still in great shape and involved in the sport as an ambassador for Old School Muscle. We spoke to him from his home in Granada Hills, California.
OLD SCHOOL LABS: You were born in Beirut, Lebanon. When did you get interested in bodybuilding?
SAMIR BANNOUT: I was in Lebanon and I was going to see a movie with Clint Eastwood. Right across the street from the theater they had a bookstore. I grabbed a Muscle Builder/Power and saw pictures of Arnold [Schwarzenegger] with two girls, one on each side. I flipped through the magazine and fell in love with the looks of Draper, Arnold, and Frank Zane. That’s how it all started.
OSL: Yes, that was Joe Weider’s magazine. How did you begin training?
SAMIR: My brother-in-law was an Olympic lifter. I was a kid, 16 years old. One thing lead to another and, before you know it, I was able to train hard in Lebanon and within two years I was Mr. Lebanon.
OSL: How did you end up in the States?
SAMIR: I went to represent Lebanon at the Mr. Universe, because there was no teenage Mr. Universe. I was the youngest guy onstage. Right after the show, I met Lou Ferrigno. I was shy. I said, “Can I take a picture with Lou?” Ken Waller was there. Bob Birdsong was there. But my dream was to be where Arnold was in California, so I made my move. I went to Michigan in 1975, and after a few years in Michigan, I moved to California.
OSL: What year did you move to California?
SAMIR: After I had competed in the 1978 Mr. International, I moved to California. This was close contest between me and Roger Callard. Though Roger won, we became friends. At this contest, both Joe Weider and Joe Gold were there and Joe Gold, who owned World Gym at the time, told me: “Listen kid, I actually loved the way you looked and you have a lifetime membership at my gym.”
OSL: What were your first impressions of Gold’s Gym and the scene out here?
SAMIR: The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was crazy. I remember when I came into Gold’s, I walked in and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m telling you the gym was loaded with champions. It was insane. There’s Danny Padilla, Ed Corney, Bill Grant, Pete Grymkowski, Ken Waller, Andreas Cahling, Ron Teufel, Serge Nubret…I was like a kid in a candy store. But when I trained, I trained with vengeance. I wanted to show I belonged there. I trained smart right from the beginning and I saw all these guys killing it so, yes, I killed it too.
OSL: What was the camaraderie like back then?
SAMIR: Unbelievable camaraderie. The first night I spent with Tom Platz. I knew him from Michigan. Then I stayed for one month at Danny Padilla’s house. He was Mike and Ray Mentzer’s neighbor. I was friends with these guys. To me it felt like a dream. I’m like, “What, I’m staying with Danny Padilla?”
OSL: Did you have a training partner?
SAMIR: I trained with Mike [Mentzer] for a time and Casey Viator and Andreas Cahling. Serge Nubret came in and I said, “I’m going to do the World Amateur Championship,” and Serge says, “Okay, we’ll train together.” So I trained with Serge Nubret for at least three months.
OSL: What was your first Mr. Olympia contest?
SAMIR: In ’79, I won the World Amateur Championships and immediately qualified to enter the Mr. Olympia, so the 1980 Mr. Olympia in Australia was my first. That was the comeback of Arnold. I overtrained for that show. Bodybuilding is about trial and error, and I learned a lot from it.
OSL: What did you change in order to come back stronger?
SAMIR: I overtrained for over a year. I think the Serge Nubret prep messed me up a bit. Serge followed the keto diet and obviously the keto diet has to be perfectly done. I was eating very low carb, and I didn’t eat enough fat, so I shrunk down too much. The bottom line is I overtrained, I under-ate. The years 1980, ’81 were a disaster for me. Mike Mentzer convinced me to go on a low sodium diet, which didn’t work for me. I need to have sodium. If don’t keep my sodium intake up, I look like crap.
OSL: How did you change it up to improve?
SAMIR: Some of the best advice I ever got was from Bill Pearl, who said, “Listen to your body.” For a while, I didn’t listen to my body. When my body was tired, I said, “To hell, I don’t care, I’ve gotta go train.” “I’m hungry I don’t wanna eat, I gotta win.” Which is wrong. You’ve got to listen to your body. And this is one of the things I advise people to do right now: Don’t go against your body, go with it.
OSL: What did you change?
SAMIR: I was holding quite a bit of fluid. I was coming in smooth, so I went from one extreme to another. I went from a smooth bodybuilder in late ’79 to super-ripped in ’82. And guys said, “Why is Samir so ripped?” It’s all about nutrition, my friends and listening to your body. I was overeating. When you eat the wrong way, your body starts fighting back and your hormonal function gets totally screwed up. And that’s what happened to me. I also eliminated all stress, didn’t answer my phones, didn’t talk to anyone, including Joe Weider. I was already in decent shape when I went to Germany [for the Mr. Olympia contest in 1983] and I dieted super-hard and trained super-hard and was completely focused. No stress, no pressure, and it happened.
OSL: What did it feel like to finally win the Olympia?
SAMIR: I was great. I honestly felt that I could have won the Olympia before. Even Arnold himself said, “Samir, every time you lose, it’s your goddamn f–king fault. You should always be in the money.” He knew that I was trying too hard. More is less sometimes. I was so eager, I thought if it takes me training six hours a day, I’ll do it. But there is a boundary to how much you can do. That’s why I listened to Arnold and Bill Pearl’s advice. These guys are masters. They’ve been at it 20 years before me.
OSL: Is that why physiques were such high quality back then?
SAMIR: Everyone always asks, “What did you guys do different?” I tell people, “Just train hard, eat plenty of food, and sleep enough. Don’t worry, things will work out. It may not work immediately, but give your body time to adapt and things will work out.”
OSL: What are the mistakes today’s bodybuilders make?
SAMIR: Nobody had a belly back then. Even in the John Grimek days, when guys were smoother, they didn’t have bellies. Not one of them. The problem is insulin, taking it and eating wrong to spike insulin. It’s all about nutrition—nutrition is the key. If you keep your carbs low glycemic, you will never have a belly. If you eat your broccoli, your potato, your white rice, you will never have a belly. But the minute you start spiking insulin and eating high-glycemic carbs, you are going to increase midsection size. We weren’t eating sugar, we were eating mostly baked potatoes, vegetable, salad and meat, none of that can cause problems with visceral fat. And that is why everyone was thin-waisted.
OSL: Do you think today’s bodybuilders eat too much?
SAMIR: Yes. They are looking for mass, but unfortunately this mass is coming without the class. I never had six meals a day, I had five meals. Why six—why stretch the stomach? Why would you let your body adapt to that? More is less at the end of the day. Some guys wake up at night to eat. Why? Let your stomach recover. Frank Zane ate five meals a day, then maybe a small snack, some amino acids and minerals. He kept his waist small. He didn’t need to be more than 185 pounds to be the best in the world.
OSL: What would be your main advice to somebody starting out in today’s bodybuilding world?
SAMIR: Don’t ever let anyone convince you to take insulin. Ever. If you want to have an old school physique, do not touch insulin. Why do you want to get bigger at all costs?
OSL: What has bodybuilding taught you about how to live a successful life?
SAMIR: The main lesson I learned is don’t let anyone discourage you. When I left Lebanon, people laughed at me. They would say, “You’re crazy. You think you’re going to beat Zane, Boyer Coe, beat all of those guys? What’s wrong with you?” But I knew what I could do. If you truly believe in yourself, be relentless in your pursuit. I came here alone, and it wasn’t easy, but you will get there if you truly believe and work hard.
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