LEO ROBERT: IRON DISCIPLINE: BY ROD LABBE:
There is brief footage of Leo Robert in Classic Collection # 1
Interview conducted late Autumn 2007
Leo Robert: 1/16/21 – 11/28/16
When Leo Robert graduated high school and packed his lunch for a stuffy office, he had no idea that within a few short years, the world would know his name.
Some are born great, philosophers say, while others have greatness thrust upon them. A cliché, yes, though in Leo’s case, it reads more like startling prophecy. As a youngster, this Montreal-born champion found himself naturally drawn to athletics, with Hockey a particular joy. The ice taught him sportsmanship and benefits of hard work and exercise, lessons that would one day define an outstanding sports career.
But not, as one might expect, 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 decent, God-fearing people. Anyone who weight-trained and then paraded around half-naked had to have his head examined!
Thus were the fallacies and misconceptions facing a young Leo Robert…and none of them mattered. Introduced to the iron by Bodybuilding pioneer Ben Weider, Leo found what he’d been seeking: a way to stay fit and an escape the mundane workaday world.
Throughout the 1950’s 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 thick moustache, square jaw, and tousled hair had them swooning.
It was enough to sweep him from obscurity’s clutter-filled office, with its desks, deadlines, 9 to 5’s and cutthroat water cooler politics, right into the lofty realm of Legend.
- Good things come to those who wait, Mr. Robert! May I roll out the red carpet?
LEO: My, I wasn’t expecting such royal treatment!
- Don’t you mean the Legends treatment?
LEO (laughs): Thanks, Rod. And, of course my appreciation to Iron Man, as well
- Leo Robert’s Bodybuilding career strikes me as sure-fire movie material. It has drama, pathos, lots of action–even suspense. The sport wasn’t exactly mainstream back then, and you guys faced mighty daunting odds.
LEO: 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 towards self-improvement and attaining health through regular exercise.
- Before exploring your Bodybuilding triumphs, let’s go back to the beginning. Childhood in Canada–a happy time?
LEO: Oh, very. I’ve many fond memories of my youthful years in Montreal. I shared my parents with two brothers and two sisters. We wanted little and fully appreciated all of God’s blessings.
5.. Your folks were of the old school, I’d suspect.
LEO: 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.
- Younger sister Rejane hit the iron, too, correct?
LEO: 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!
- Did Rejane turn you on to the gym?
LEO: Actually, Rod, it was the other way around. I lifted weights before Rejane, and as her older brother, it had quite 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, and as a loyal Montrealer, I founded my own Hockey club.
- Smacking the puck is light years away from putting on a pair of skimpy briefs and pounding out poses in front of an audience!
LEO: Bodybuilding wasn’t anything I’d ever considered, let alone tried. After graduating, I went to work in an office and had real difficulty making the adjustment.
- From active athlete to sedentary is one swoop. Quite a contrast!
LEO: Too much of one. Ben Weider was dating Rejane at the time, and when I told him 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.
- Hmm…how exactly does somebody go from ‘feeling better’ to owning the Universe’s finest build?
LEO: 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 over ten years. I trained religiously and lived a healthy, balanced lifestyle. I not only had more energy, the confidence I gained soon influenced every aspect of my life.
- It’s safe to say you embraced Bodybuilding.
LEO: 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!
- ‘Bodybuilding’ and ‘sport’ were rarely, if ever, used synonymously in the 50’s. Stereotypes abounded, and guys with muscles were given the short end.
LEO: That’s sadly true. Those who didn’t lift couldn’t grasp the commitment competitive Bodybuilding demanded. Rejane 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.
- Did you have a favorite routine?
LEO: Oh, yes–it involved working out with two training partners. We’d do six reps of barbell curls, and my partners would load up the weight on either side, gradually increasing by 5 pound increments. We’d start off with dumbbell curls, doing 6 reps, using a set of 120 lbs., decreasing the dumbbells by 10 pounds and increasing our reps by one– until we reached 15 reps of 50 lbs. For variation, we’d start with lighter weights and begin with higher repetitions, decreasing the reps by one as we progressively increased in weight.
- You competed when Bodybuilding involved hardcore basics and legitimately earned its name, the Iron Game.
LEO: 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 a wide rib-cage. While operating my gym, I designed pieces of equipment to compliment free weights and standard universal machines.
- Supplementation, too, stuck to basics.
LEO: Bodybuilders of my era focused on a clean diet, incorporating protein powder, carbs, vitamins and minerals. Juice extractors were popular, too; I featured a large juice bar in every gym I owned.
- Like 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?
LEO: 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 body part per week!
- So, it wasn’t unusual for you to do a complete workout, say, six days a week?
LEO: No, it wasn’t. Today, that’s considered overkill, but athletes from other disciplines still apply this formula, and it worked for me. You get out of it what you’re prepared to put into it. There are no shortcuts.
- And part of that is a brand-new diet?
LEO: 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, multiple vitamin/mineral supplement, Udo’s Oil Blend, etc., and 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 7 to 8 hours of zzzss every night, or else my body won’t recuperate.
- Which brings me to Bodybuilding in the 21st century–good or bad?
LEO: Rod, there’s no denying the effects of steroids; they’ve taken an enormous toll on our athletic community and not only in Bodybuilding.
- Along with anabolic has come an era of ‘Mass Monsters.’ Pleasing lines, once so important in the competitive arena, have been relegated to History’s back seat.
LEO: Ah, but people are getting weary of grotesque physiques that defy proportion. There’s been, thankfully, a slow but progressive shift, as our society becomes more health conscious. Hopefully, this new attitude will influence Bodybuilding in a more positive way.
- Your own physique represented an aesthetic ideal. It was an unusual look in the Fifties–Bodybuilders were “blockier” then, as Steve Reeves so succinctly put it.
LEO: 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 ten 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.
- That kind of do-or-die dedication would leave most folks reaching for the Ben Gay!
LEO: 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.
- Proportion has always been a Robert trademark.
LEO: I studied each of my muscles to ensure that they were developing proportionately. A proportioned, balanced physique has always been my goal.
- I don’t think your physique was weak, from any angle.
LEO: Thanks. I concentrated on exercises to open my frame, especially my ribcage, 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!
- Gee, Leo, those abs are still solid! You haven’t lost your edge, man.
LEO: The exercise routine I performed for my midsection isn’t something I’d recommend–it involved placing a 140-pound Olympic barbell behind the neck for sit-ups on an abdominal board. I created a holder for my feet, bolted it into the cement and spent endless hours working my midsection, doing sit-ups, side-bends, legs raise from a chin-up bar, with iron boots, etc. By using weight resistance during all my abdominal exercises, the muscles responded. I reached a point where I was doing up to 1,000 sit-ups on an abdominal board within thirty minutes!
- Whoa! The end justifies the means, apparently. A terrific-looking midsection is an undeniable sign of fitness.
LEO: Believe it or not, one judge at a contest came on-stage and pinched my midsection! In those days, we were judged on individual body parts, and he wanted to see how thin my skin was. Well, he found out, up close and personal!
- Bet you could have bounced a quarter off ‘em! Or maybe even a basketball!
LEO (grinning): Maybe, but I would have had to draw the line at heavy sports equipment!
- As a Bodybuilder, much of how you’re perceived stems from the way you present yourself.
LEO: 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. This wasn’t difficult, since I’m naturally a friendly, gregarious person.
- People saw you, the individual, first…then, if they looked closely enough, the beef followed?
LEO (smiling broadly): Ideally, yes. Personality counts!
- A thought–did hailing from Canada help or hinder you, career-wise?
LEO: 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.
- Any enticing offers from the US?
LEO: 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 Montreal and busily organizing Bodybuilding contests, I missed several advantageous opportunities.
- Regrets be damned! Why not relocate now?
LEO: It’s not easy for Canadians to immigrate to the States. It’s all about finding the right opportunity.
- Someday, perhaps?
LEO: Someday. I’ll leave it open-ended.
- I’ve interviewed guys like Larry Scott and Chris Dickerson, and one of the things they loved best about competitive Bodybuilding were the photo sessions. Same for you?
LEO: 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.
- What magazine gave Leo Robert his first cover?
LEO: 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. I hung out with Ben and Joe in the early days, back in Montreal, before they’d established their empire. Those were interesting times!
- You and Russ Warner did awesome stuff together.
LEO: 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.
- And Lanza?
LEO: Bar none, Tony Lanza was my favorite photographer and a reliable friend. Again, Joe introduced us, and by way of our photo sessions in Montreal, we established a splendid working relationship that developed into a life-long friendship. Tony immortalized Bodybuilding’s Golden Age, and his photographs stand as works of art. He passed away a few years ago. Sure do miss him!
- Cover shots, photo spreads, outstanding press…seems like you had all the PR bases covered!
LEO: I was fortunate to enter into contractual agreements with Joe. He promoted me via his magazines, and I did annual photo sessions with Lanza in Montreal, Warner in California, and Lon in New York. My pictures also appeared regularly in Ben’s Sante et Force.
- A sweet arrangement.
LEO: Because of Joe and my public appearances, there were cover shots for magazines from China, England, France, and even Egypt. Along with this, I did a few local television commercials and shows and had my photograph in Time, a grand accolade.
- Besides working on your competitive career, how were you supporting yourself? I know you don’t like desk jobs!
LEO: Bodybuilding is one thing, but competitive Bodybuilding requires money and lots of it (laughs)! Since I was always at the gym, I decided to open a club in the north end of Montreal. Plus, my name and image were being used to promote protein powders, equipment, and other nutritional/gym products.
- Even with a club and cool endorsement deals, it couldn’t have been easy. Your training alone required a significant amount of time.
LEO: 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. No slacking off!
- You viewed it as an avenue to success, despite the valleys?
LEO: Exactly. My attention went into preparing for the Universe. I arrived in London one month prior to contest time and guest posed at three separate engagements, in Leeds, Bristol, and London, which helped to prepare me for the final showdown. Following my win, I traveled the globe, appearing as a guest poser at dozens of contests and engagements.
- Who was in that Universe line-up?
LEO: Clancy Ross, who represented the United States, and others from France, Germany, England, Belgium, India, China, Italy, and so on. Many great, classic competitors.
- Mr. Universe clinched it for you, but it’s not the only jewel in your Bodybuilding crown.
LEO: No, 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. Canada; Most Muscular Man at the IFBB Mr. America; Canada’s Most Muscular Man, and America’s Most Muscular Man.
- How was life after the Universe?
LEO: Dramatic! I suddenly found myself a sports 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.
- To achieve your dream and stand with the best–what a feeling!
LEO: Words can’t describe it. There was so much excitement, including photo shoots and interviews, a huge autographing session outside the Palladium Theatre, followed by a formal dinner and dance engagement later that night. I left England the next day and boarded a plane for Montreal, where I was greeted by scores of fans and reporters and escorted into a secluded area for a live television interview. Montreal honored me in a parade that traveled from my home to the Montreal harbor. There, we boarded a ship for a dinner and dance. All were amazing souvenirs, as they say in French!
- I’ve had a chance to watch films of your posing, and you had a flawlessly fluid style.
LEO: 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,’ a term that’s widely accepted in training nowadays. My training and diet remained stable.
- It’s true–we hear so much about the so-called ‘off-season.’
LEO: Gaining extreme amounts of weight and then yo-yo dieting can have quite a negative impact on one’s health. I wouldn’t recommend it.
- The Leo Robert diet isn’t really a diet–
LEO: No, 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. I eat three regular meals daily, a key element in training. This has sustained me.
- You set a high physical standard for yourself. Was it ever reached?
LEO: 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.
- I bought my first Bodybuilding magazine in 1962 and read a feature on you. But after the mid-60’s, older Bodybuilding stars had been replaced by newer, less intriguing personalities.
LEO: My personal departure coincided with an experience I had while appearing as a guest poser at a New York contest held in 1967. There was buzz around the dressing room about an ‘under the counter’ substance that could potentially increase muscle mass. I tried not to allow those comments to affect me, but I realized the Bodybuilding world I’d known so well was fast becoming history.
- That’s the last time you guest-posed?
LEO: 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 as a reminder of my decision.
- What happened to Leo Robert afterward?
LEO: I devoted my time and energies to helping others achieve their fitness goals. This included training aspiring Bodybuilders who later became Mr. Canada, both in the junior and regular divisions, and the Most Muscular in America title. In addition, I worked with the Montreal police academy, military, and fire departments. All of it was incredibly rewarding, both professionally and personally.
- Were you still running your gyms?
LEO: 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 continued to work as a fitness consultant, though we sold that club several years ago.
- You’ve a long and impressive career, Leo…but I’m sure it wasn’t without disappointments here and there.
LEO: Problems presented themselves from time to time, but I saw them as opportunities to seek out new strengths. Discipline is a real part of my life, and I believe the mind plays a tremendous role in sports. To win, you must harness your inner power.
- Give us your opinion of this statement: the general public views Bodybuilding as a sport riddled with illegal drug abuse.
LEO: Your comment is tragic and bluntly honest. I remain ever hopeful that Bodybuilding will return to a time when athletes rely upon their own physical prowess and human spirit to become champions.
- Bravo! Did a muscle community exist when you were competing?
LEO: Most of my close friends were members of my gym. Joe traveled from his office in New Jersey to Montreal once a month and would drop by the club for a workout. Afterwards, we’d wander over to one of Montreal’s celebrated restaurants. I also lifted with Clancy Ross, John Dillinger, and Reg Park.
- Yeah, you and Reg were pretty tight.
LEO: I became close friends with Reg, bless his soul, and each time I visited New York, we trained together. Reg appeared as a guest poser at one of the shows I put on in Montreal. I later repaid the favor by appearing on the cover of his magazine.
- The camaraderie among Bodybuilding vets was lively then. A genuine pleasant feeling abounded.
LEO: My dealings with other competitors were always friendly, and a congenial atmosphere existed backstage. It was indeed a special time.
- And your charming personality undoubtedly helped perpetuate that congeniality.
LEO: I appreciate the compliment! Basically, I’m an average guy with an agreeable sense of humor–but don’t let that fool you! I’m competitive and oftentimes perceived as a bit too serious.
- Do you consider your life a ‘work in progress?’
LEO: Life is indeed a work in progress; we must learn from our mistakes and continue to grow. I’m retired now, but I’ll say this: all of us reach a point when we must finally accept ourselves for who we are. Still, there’s always room for improvement in how we respond to people and events.
- I’ve heard you subscribe to a philosophy of moderation.
LEO: I do–and let me add that I believe in the power of our spirit and how nothing is impossible, if you set your mind to it. The important things for me include my loving wife, a healthy lifestyle, helping others, and close relationships with my friends. And I put my full faith and trust in God.
- Have you completed any interesting projects recently?
LEO: 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 is 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. We’ll be submitting a full report to Iron Man in the future, including photos of the athletes involved.
- That should be an interesting read!
LEO: The health benefits contained therein are a revelation.
- To wax nostalgic, would you say are things have improved since your younger days?
LEO: People have become extensions of their pagers, cell phones and other electronic gadgets; they seemingly can’t find quality time for reflection to relieve the stresses that surround them. The familial structure has been negatively impacted over the years; it must be quite a challenge to juggle career and family obligations.
- I ask this of every Legend–if I were a young, dewy-eyed Bodybuilder, would you discourage or encourage me from pursuing competition?
LEO: Discourage? No! I would recommend you avoid the awful cycle of extreme dieting, dehydration and over-training when preparing for a contest. Choose to train all year round and make healthy eating a lifestyle. This goes for everyone, not just Bodybuilders! It’s a plan for wholesome living.
- How’s robertuniverse.com doing?
LEO: Very nicely, thanks for asking–and I want to express my gratitude to all our fans and patrons. We launched it early in 2001, and traffic continues to grow.
- Obviously, you’re never far from the weights. We should all look so good, at any age!
LEO: 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.
- At the close of every Legends interview, I’m more in awe of the star than before, and this is no exception! You’ve brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
LEO: Rod, I am sincerely humbled by your comments.
LEO ROBERT’S COMPETITIVE RECORD
1948: Most Muscular, 1st
IFBB Mr. Eastern North America, 2nd
IFBB Eastern North America – Most Muscular, 3rd
1949: IFBB Mr. America, 3rd
1950: AAU Mr. Eastern America, 2nd
1951: IFBB Mr. Canada – Winner
1955: NABBA Mr. Universe – Overall Winner
NABBA Mr. Universe – Short, 1st
LEO ROBERT’S COVER APPEARANCES
Your Physique – March 1948
Muscle Power – May 1948
Muscle Power – January 1949
Your Physique – February 1949
Iron Man – March 1949
Muscle Power – March 1950
Muscle Power – February 1951
Your Physique – March 1951
Muscle Power – October 1951
Your Physique – May 1952
Iron Man – August 1952
Muscle Power – September 1952
Reg Park Journal – January 1955
Reg Park Journal – August 1955
Muscle Power – October 1955
Iron Man – November 1955
Reg Park Journal – December 1955
Muscle Builder – January 1956
Muscle Builder – June 1956
Muscle Power – June 1956
Reg Park Journal – October 1956
Reg Park Journal – September 1957
Muscle Builder – April 1959
Muscle Builder – March 1960
Hardgainer – September 1992
Hardgainer – May 2001
LEO ROBERT’S WORKOUT
Since retiring from the competitive side of Bodybuilding, I’ve been lifting for maintenance–particularly in recent years. Still, I occasionally modify my workout and am always tweaking things for optimum results. Here’s my daily workout:
Bench Press – 3 sets of 10
Dumbbell Incline Press – 3 sets of 10
Dumbbell Strength Pullover – 3 sets of 10
Seated Press combined (front and back) – 3 sets of 10
Lateral Raise, 3-way – 3 sets of 10
Lats Pulley – 3 sets of 10
Two-arm barbell curl – 3 sets of 10
Triceps bench curl – 3 sets of 10
Leg Press – 3 sets of 10
Leg Extensions – 3 sets of 10
Leg back-curls – 3 sets of 10
Side-bends and abdominal crunches – I perform these to failure.
I’ve found that this workout keeps me in good shape and helps maintain a chiseled waist and balanced proportions. Keep in mind that diet is very important!
Rodney A. Labbe
9 Belmont Avenue, Waterville, ME 04901: Tel: (207) 859-3031: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org