Serge Nubret – Bodybuilding Art
At its best, bodybuilding is more than a sport—it’s a creative labor, one that transforms an average body into a living, breathing work of art.
Through intense weight training and superior nutrition, a bodybuilder will create his or her physique by enlarging individual muscle groups while maintaining symmetry and balance, leading to the end result: an aesthetic, muscular masterpiece.
One of the greatest examples of muscular artistry is the physique of Serge Nubret. At his peak, Nubret displayed one of the best structures in bodybuilding history. His massive chest and wide shoulders were emphasized by a dramatic tapering of his well-developed torso that ended in a tight, slim waist with deeply etched abdominals. All this is evident in the photo below, which displays his singular gifts, even in a simple triceps pose. His physique epitomized the beauty and perfection that is possible in developing the human body.
He was among the best of the Golden Era bodybuilders, especially in terms of proportion and balance, though he isn’t mentioned as often as the other greats. That’s a pity, because he’s a tremendous role model for new bodybuilders to emulate.
QUICK SUCCESS—AND A DOSE OF ARNOLD
Born on October 6, 1938, on the beautiful Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, a former French colony, Nubret grew up in an idyllic setting of fresh air, sunshine, and clean food. He moved to France with his family in 1950 to pursue academics.
As a young man, Nubret learned he had a knack for athletics, and in 1958, he decided to pursue the sport of bodybuilding. Beyond his physical abilities, he was said to also have “artistic attributes,” so it makes sense that Nubret would treat bodybuilding with an artist’s mindset. Nubret would later refer to bodybuilding as his “reason for being.” Truly, he saw the sport as more than an avocation, but a medium of meaningful, personal expression.
After only two years of training, Nubret began competing onstage. He entered and won the 1960 IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilders) World’s Most Muscular Man contest in Montreal. He also began competing in the prestigious NABBA (National Amateur Bodybuilders Association) Mr. Universe competitions in the 1960s. He placed second in both the 1963 and 1964 NABBA Mr. Universe in the Professional divisions.
Yes, that’s Nubret below with a young 19-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was at the beginning of the Austrian Oak’s career, and Nubret, then 28 years old, was already a star in the sport, even appearing in a couple of films, which likely didn’t escape Arnold’s notice. Nubret and Schwarzenegger posed together at the 1966 NABBA Mr. Universe in London, where Arnold took second place in his first Mr. Universe competition (there are many iconic photos of this moment). At the time, Nubret’s mature physique overwhelmed Schwarzenegger. They would meet again with very different results.
It was at the 1969 NABBA Mr. Universe when Nubret and the now super-sized Schwarzenegger finally battled against each other onstage. Arnold took his third consecutive NABBA Mr. Universe in the Professional division, while Nubret placed third in his class behind second-place finisher Dennis Tinerino. It was the beginning of a new era, but Nubret was far from finished.
In 1970, the French bodybuilder was elected as the IFBB vice-president for Europe at the IFBB inaugural congress in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and the following year, Nubret promoted the 1971 IFBB Mr. Olympia in Paris. Schwarzenegger won his second Mr. Olympia title that year unopposed as his chief rival, Sergio Oliva, was banned from the contest because he had entered the 1971 NABBA Mr. Universe, a rival organization to the IFBB, only one week earlier.
In 1972, Nubret finally made his Mr. Olympia debut as a contestant in Essen, Germany. Displaying a massive but ripped physique, he ended up in third place behind eventual winner Schwarzenegger and the no-longer-suspended Oliva. Still, Nubret impressed in his Mr. Olympia debut, and received a first place vote from one of the judges. An improved Nubret would again place third the following year at the Mr. Olympia, behind four-time champ Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu. But that’s not the most important development of the contest.
Something bigger was brewing at the 1973 Mr. Olympia: Writer Charles Gaines and photographer George Butler were on hand to record the event for a new book they hoped to publish with the title “Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding.” Nubret was about to earn a much larger audience.
SUPERHUMAN METHODS, SUPERHUMAN RESULTS
In the first chapter of the soon-to-be-classic book, Gaines describes Nubret’s brutal but effective training and diet regimens. “For the last twelve months, for three hours each morning, three each afternoon and two each night, Nubret has pushed and pulled maniacally at iron while sustaining a diet that would explode an ordinary metabolism—doing for that renowned chest, for instance, 40 sets of twenty bench presses (pushing 210 pounds off his chest a total of eight hundred times every other day) and ingesting nine pounds of meat, 400 grams of protein supplements and 32 glasses of water daily.”
Like many Golden Era greats, Nubret advocated a high-volume training philosophy. He would typically do as many as 40 sets per body part, using moderate weight with high repetitions. He was known for spending hours in the gym to complete his workouts. While that type of training is no longer in vogue, you can’t argue with the results.
For his nutrition, Serge believed in a high protein intake (at least 400 grams per day) with very low carbs before a competition. This old school approach to dieting takes a toll on energy, and Nubret was famously known for taking short naps in the gym in between workouts.
“PUMPING IRON” AND POLITICS
Two years later, Nubret was in preparation to enter the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in Pretoria, South Africa. As all bodybuilding fans know, this contest was the setting for the classic documentary “Pumping Iron” (1977). Nubret was featured briefly in the movie during the prejudging and finals, leaving more footage of the French athlete on the cutting-room floor.
According to the book “Arnold: An Unauthorized Biography,” author Wendy Leigh writes that Butler and Gaines shot footage of Nubret in France over three days to use in the film. They offered Nubret $1,000 as part of his participation in the film, but he turned it down, instead asking for the film distribution rights in France. Butler wouldn’t agree to the deal and the footage wasn’t used in the final cut.
Unfortunately for Nubret, more politics behind the scenes nearly kept him off the stage entirely, when he was accused of appearing in several adult films in France. While Nubret had film credits in a handful of reputable European productions, appearing nude or in an X-rated movie was forbidden. While Nubret’s participation in adult films was just a rumor, Ben Weider, vice president of the IFBB, felt that a major competitor being associated with adult movies could damage the reputation of the federation and ruin the chances of bodybuilding being accepted one day into the Olympics as an official sport, a longtime dream of Weider’s that never came to fruition.
According to the book “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors Volume Two” by Randy Roach, Rick Wayne, former editor of Flex, claims that Weider was threatened by the rumor that Nubret was going to run for president of the IFBB. True or not, Nubret was suspended from the IFBB less than two weeks before the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest. A few days before the contest was scheduled to take place, the IFBB changed their stance and allowed Nubret to compete. He finished runner-up to, who else?, Arnold.
Nubret himself tells a much different story. When he arrived in South Africa to compete, everyone was blown away by his physique. Having trained all year specifically for the contest, he had added quality pounds of muscle while still retaining his tiny waist and sharp, detailed muscularity. According to Nubret, when officials viewed his greatly improved physique, Weider asked him to sit out the contest in fear that he might upset Schwarzenegger and ruin the growing narrative of the film. When Nubret refused, Weider told him he was suspended for his alleged adult movie career and would not be allowed to compete.
Devastated by the suspension, Nubret lost valuable muscle in the upcoming days leading to the show. When he was finally allowed to compete, his physique had regressed. Still, he took second place in the Over 200-Pound class, beating out Lou Ferrigno but placing second again to Schwarzenegger.
Whatever version of events you believe, one thing soon became clear: Nubret had no future in the IFBB, and shortly after the 1975 Mr. Olympia, the federation banned him from competing in their events. He returned to NABBA and competed in the 1976 Mr. Universe contest in London, where he once again won the Professional division, presenting an outstanding physique displaying the muscle maturity of one of the top athletes in the world.
A MEMORABLE CAREER—A COMPLICATED LEGACY
Nubret was upset at the 1977 NABBA Mr. Universe contest by top English bodybuilder Tony Emmott, who came into the show in the best shape of his life. It was a stunning upset and the highlight of Emmott’s career. The next year, Nubret suffered another surprise loss to the massive Englishman Bertil Fox in the Pro division of the NABBA Mr. Universe.
Stung by the losses and feeling he deserved to win against both Emmott and Fox, Nubret stepped away from the NABBA. In 1980, he formed his own bodybuilding organization called the World Amateur Bodybuilding Association (WABBA) to take on both NABBA and the IFBB. WABBA offered cash prizes and held competitions in both Europe and the United States, drawing top bodybuilders who risked the ire of the more established bodybuilding federations.
The biggest name to cross over to WABBA was three-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva. Already a legend and still sporting a magnificent, mind-boggling physique, Oliva won all the WABBA contests he entered in 1980 and 1981, beating such outstanding athletes as Bertil Fox, Robby Robinson, Tony Pearson, Kal Szkalak, and Dave Johns. Even Nubret couldn’t top Oliva, finishing second to him at the 1981 WABBA Pro World Cup.
Nubret competed in his last bodybuilding contest in 1983 when he took first place at the WABBA Pro World Championships, defeating top names Edward Kawak and John Brown, among others. In 2003, at the age of 65, Nubret guest posed at the World Championships in France to display his still aesthetic and muscular physique. It would be his last appearance onstage.
In March of 2009, Nubret fell into a coma, eventually passing away two years later on April 19, 2011, of natural causes. He was 72 years old.
In some ways, Nubret was a classic Golden Era legend: a man seemingly born for the sport, who threw himself into it body and soul—a trailblazer on and off the stage. Despite his accomplishments, Nubret’s uncompromising political fights with leaders of the sport, and his living thousands of miles from the beaches of Southern California — and Joe Weider’s cover photographers — made him a less visible member of the old school pantheon.
No matter. While his tumultuous relationship to the IFBB and mercurial artistic temperament may have prevented him from becoming a more visible Golden Era great, Nubret’s legacy is built on what matters most: his physique. Serge Nubret will always be an excellent example of the beauty and aesthetics that is possible in the sport in bodybuilding—the athlete as artist.
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