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There’s an old Welsh saying: Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau, which means, “Starting the work is two-thirds of it.” James “Flex” Lewis, a proud son of Wales, is taking the wisdom of his homeland to heart as he begins his most challenging work yet: moving up from the 212 Olympia division to the Mr. Olympia open class.
Lewis, 35, stunned the bodybuilding world last July when he announced that the 2018 212 Olympia contest was going to be his final performance in that division. Having won that contest six straight times and becoming one of the most popular athletes in the sport, the hardworking Welsh native found the announcement to be difficult.
“This is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” he said at the time. “It’s finally time to say this 212-pound chapter is over.”
Few would argue that Lewis doesn’t already belong at the main event after dominating the lighter class with seven Olympia titles. Standing 5’5″ with mind-boggling thickness, he’s one of the best pound-for-pound bodybuilders in IFBB history. He looks like he’s ready for the labors of Hercules, but he’s more than comfortable on a posing dais. He carries his bulging, Brobdingnagian limbs with an easy grace, his powerful movements sublimated by an intelligent artistry. His expansive mass never comes at the expense of symmetry or balance, and he has a talent for attaining peak condition at every performance. His trophy case is evidence of that.
Despite his spectacular success, Lewis believes he has more to give. The sacrifices required to make the 212 weight restriction have prevented him from displaying his full potential. “In the 212 division, I’ve been maxed out since my first show,” he says. “I know every single year I have to make improvements for the judges, but I also have to make that 212 weight limit. At 220 pounds, I am a completely different animal. It’s a game changer.”
That’s why just showing up to the dance isn’t good enough for Lewis. He’s coming for the Sandow, and anything less just won’t do.
Lewis toils in the gym under the strategic guidance of fellow Welshman and master trainer Neil Hill. Working out of Boca Raton, FL, Hill, 49, has trained some of the biggest names in the industry, including fitness sensation Steve Cook and 2018 Arnold Classic champion William Bonac. So esteemed is Hill’s training acumen that he’s earned the nickname “Yoda” for his insight and wise counsel.
Hill has trained Lewis for 16 years, having first met the future IFBB Pro League superstar at the 2003 Paul Grant Welsh Championships. (Lewis won, unsurprisingly.) Since then, Hill has applied his comprehensive training system, Y3T (Yoda 3 Training), to help Lewis become the most dominant athlete in the 212 division. “He and I started this thing together,” Lewis says of Hill. “He believed in me way before anybody else did.”
To prepare Lewis for his next mission, Hill has created a training routine that applies different hypertrophy and energy systems to add quality mass in the quest to create the next Mr. Olympia prototype. “The Mr. Olympias we’ve seen over the years are all very different,” says Hill in his distinctive Welsh brogue. “They all brought something special, something unique. We plan to do the same.”
While he doesn’t trade in aphorisms or inverted grammar, Hill’s Yoda-like reputation is apparent when he discusses his training approach with Lewis. He speaks about brain activation, neural pathways, and progressive overload in a calculated systemic approach that potentiates cell growth by targeting the various type I and type II muscle fibers.
But don’t expect Jedi mind tricks. Hill’s cerebral approach is steeped in realistic expectations. To make the improvements necessary to stand next to Phil Heath, new Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden, and the rest of the physique elite, Lewis is taking the entire year of 2019 away from the stage to prepare. Big plans demand big changes.
“It’s like starting over again,” Hill explains. “But I do envision that when Flex steps onstage in 2020, he will bring something pretty spectacular that won’t disappoint anyone.”
Hill points to Dexter Jackson as an example of a bodybuilding great who went from a smaller division to the big time. Many forget the Blade’s origin story, which began way back in the mid-1990s.
“Dexter Jackson started out winning his pro card as a light-heavyweight in the NPC, but he grew out of that weight and continued to gain more muscle, bigger muscle bellies, and a more refined, competitive physique,” Hill recalls. “Now he’s one of the most successful bodybuilders in history and a Mr. Olympia champion.”
Lewis isn’t just ready to grow bigger—it may be impossible to stop him.
“Just 12 months after he turned IFBB pro, the 202 weight class came along, so it made sense to go in,” Hill says. “Then that was replaced with the 212-pound class, and by then he had progressed with his maturity and body weight. He’s competed at the very top end of the 212 class for a long time, but the problem is that for the last three or four years, his body has wanted to gain more quality muscle. Now we can bring in a fresh new look without the weight restriction. He’ll be able to reach his full potential for the first time.”
That may not be what his competition wants to hear.
According to Hill, Lewis needs little in the way of motivational speeches to dig in and get the job done. This is a driven athlete, one who gains inspiration from those who have helped him along the way.
“His wife and daughter are a big driving force for him, as well as his parents,” explains Hill. “He comes from a blue-collar working family, and they are a big motivational part of his success. His parents were very forthcoming in supporting him and his brothers [Craig and Luke]. He wants to give back to his parents for everything they’ve done for him.”
Hill believes Lewis’ pursuit of the open division at the Olympia will bring new energy to the contest and help broaden the appeal of the sport.
“It’s also exciting for the industry. Flex is inspired by his ability to step outside of his comfort zone and bring something different onstage and offstage. He wants to try to expand the reach of the sport into the mainstream marketplace so our fitness industry becomes a bigger and more successful version of teaching others to live a healthier lifestyle.”
According to Hill, 2020 is not just a onetime shot. It’s just the beginning. Every year will be a new chapter in the evolution of Flex Lewis.
“As long as he stays hungry and driven enough, he’s got many years left in front of him,” Hill says. “The first time he competes in 2020, that’s not going to be as good as he may look in 2021 and beyond. He will keep getting better.”
Whatever happens, don’t expect Flex Lewis to leave his blue-collar Welsh identity behind.
“I take it out to the fans to keep growing the sport, keep doing it my way, keep being humble, driven, and motivational, and obviously never forget where I’ve come from,” Lewis says. “I still have this accent. I still know my humble roots. I go back home and see all my friends, and they tell me, ‘Flex, you’ve never changed.’ And that is the best thing ever.”