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In this Olympia training seminar, defending 212 Showdown champion Flex Lewis demolishes legs, all without the help of one very revered exercise in the bodybuilding canon.
“I’ve never been a big squatter, to be honest,” says reigning 212-pound class Mr. Olympia, Flex Lewis. Yes, the bodybuilder whose signature calling card is his giant-slaying quads and hamstrings he with thighs so dominant he had to essentially take a year of of training them hard not once in his career, but twice, to allow his upper body to catch up—doesn’t make much use of the so-called king of all exercises.
Blasphemous? In the circles Lewis used to run in, absolutely. Af er all, the Welsh-born 29-year-old forged his initial love of iron in the realm of powerlif ing, where to speak ill of the revered squat is akin to treason. Bodybuilding books and magazine articles are strewn with odes to the squat. Champions past and present swear by its muscle-swelling capabilities. It’s been decreed that it’s improbable, and perhaps impossible, to build any truly awe-inspiring size in your lower body without it.
Yet Lewis isn’t swayed. “I did squat when I was a powerlifter, but I didn’t see or feel any real benefi t from them,” he says, undeterred by his bold smite of the lif ing gods. “I know some people feel it’s the bread-and-butter exercise, but I think it has nothing on the leg press, to be honest. I feel leg presses of er more stability there’s just one way down, one way up, giving you focus and limiting your ability to cheat.”
Some of the more of ended gym rats, put of by such a squat slight, may stop reading right there. That would be a shame, because not only does Lewis have a lot of wisdom to share including the blueprint to two epic fiber-splitting leg routines but also, he accomplishes something even more important: He’s living proof that in bodybuilding, never blindly following the of accepted mantras of the game is the surest way to reaching your ultimate potential.
QUAD EXERCISE NO. 1
LEG EXTENSION STATS: 5–7 sets (2–3 warmup and 3–4 working sets), 15–25 reps, one-quarter to full stack
■ Lewis’ Take: “I change my other exercises all the time, but I always do extensions first. During warmups, I’ll always stretch in-between sets by placing one leg up behind me on a bench and squatting down.”
■ Do It Right: Lewis settles himself on the seat with the pads set to hit at the front of his ankles. Holding the handles at his sides, he chooses a “mediocre weight” to start, then pyramids up from there. “I focus on the squeeze and full rotation from the bottom all the way to the top,” he says. “I hold the top for a half a second, envisioning myself onstage standing in front of the judges and squeezing my legs, showing the separation between each muscle group.” As he lowers to the start, he’s sure to never let the weight stack touch down for rest between reps.
■ Intensity Tip: “I’ll turn my feet in or out sometimes to get that extra contraction. I’ll also sometimes get my training partner to help me do one or two negatives at the end of a set he’ll lend a finger to get the weight up as I’m failing and I’ll take it down slow.”
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The consummate road warrior, Lewis has never been shy about jetting out to meet his fans across the globe. Since last year’s Olympia, he’s been to the Czech Republic, home to the U.K. for a short visit, then on to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Slovakia, Denmark, Austria, and tours of the U.S., including a West Coast, East Coast, and Texas swing.
“The blessing of doing all this traveling it doesn’t allow me to get too big,” he says. “Funny as that sounds, it keeps me in the range as much as it pisses me of . I might get up to about 240, lose six to eight pounds, put fi ve pounds back on it’s a constant yo-yo. But then 15 weeks out from the show I set up shop and stay home to prepare for the show, bringing my weight exactly to where I need to be.”
In early July, Lewis was hunkered down in his new home base of Parkland, FL, just outside of Boca Raton. Just a few weeks removed from hosting the NPC Flex Lewis Classic, a rapidly-growing amateur event in Murfreesboro, TN a show in its third year, now with 156 competitors across 14 divisions, it’ll be eligible to become a national qualifier for competitors next year he was switching gears. Next stop, the Olympia 212.
On September 28, Lewis will take the stage at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and try to accomplish two feats, neither of which he’s done before: defend the Olympia 212-pound title, and defeat Kevin English in the process.
Lewis won the first 212 Showdown crown in 2012, besting 2008’s inaugural winner of the 202 Showdown, David Henry, no question a well-earned victory against a crowded and talented field.
But English, who threepeated from 2009 to 2011, and bested Lewis in a controversial decision that last year – after Lewis had walked away from the prejudging rounds with the lead in hand – bowed out of the 2012 rendition, citing a partial patella tendon tear.
That wish, Lewis explains, is simply due to his fighter’s mentality. “You want to beat the person that beat you, and Kevin took the title from me in 2011,” he explains. “I want to beat him now to have an ease in my mind. It’s an unaccomplished goal at this point in time. It’s unresolved business that needs to be taken care of.
“This is me speaking as an athlete, not as a disgruntled bodybuilder,” he’s quick to add. “We’re all friends, but this is business.”
And how rests the head that wears the crown? Lewis admits the pressure is greater now that he’s the champ. “I go to bed scared and wake up hungry,” he says. “Scared to lose the title, hungry enough to make sure it’s not going to happen.”
QUAD EXERCISES NO. 2 & 3
LEG PRESS STATS: 6–7 sets conventional stance, 30–50 reps; 3 sets wide stance, 15–20 reps
■ Lewis’ Take: “As I’ve said, I prefer the leg press over the squat. I’ve built the legs I have today on the press.”
■ Do It Right: Lewis begins with four or five plates per side, sitting on the pad with his lower back firmly in contact with it. Extending his knees and releasing the supports, he lowers the sled as deeply as possible, bringing his knees toward his chest before explosively pressing it back up. “The days of me trying to put every plate on the leg press are gone now, I’m not trying to set a personal best,” Lewis says. “Coming from a powerlifting background, I have to segregate my mindset of training super heavy. When I’m in the thick of my of season and not on the road, I may train more in that style I feel like I’m a strong bodybuilder for my chosen craft but that isn’t what I want to do most of the time. I enjoy reps, and I enjoy building the pump.” For his widestance sets, he’ll put his feet out near the edge of the platform and come down to the point where his knees pass his rib cage and his lower back curls an inch or two of the pad.
■ Intensity Tip: “As the weights increase from set to set, the rep range remains the same, but I’ll make those reps harder by slowing down on the negative.”
When it comes to leg training, Lewis may not squat, but he certainly doesn’t back away from torturous, stomach-churning intensity. His quadriceps and hamstrings sessions usually separated by a day, with the former taking up to 90 minutes to complete include all manner of overload techniques, including partials, forced reps, rest-pause, and negatives. “I should probably start with a little history of my legs,” Lewis says. “When I was an under-21 junior bodybuilder competing in the U.K. and Europe, my legs overpowered my physique. Speaking to my coach, Neil Hill (who appears in these photos), I took a year of from training them. I just did some leg extensions I ended up doing the same thing the year before last, too.” Now, however, he thinks his upper body has “caught up” meaning the kid gloves are off, and he can train them again with fierce abandon. “What I do now is the same system as what I did when I was a junior, splitting up my quads and my hamstrings to focus maximum intensity on each.” In this exclusive FLEX training seminar, Lewis walks us through each exercise he relies on these days for his Olympia prep, one by one, explaining how he performs each and sharing some of the wicked methods to his madness. You may not find the squat on this list, but no matter you’ll still be gingerly limping out of the gym at the end if you follow Lewis’ lead.
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QUAD EXERCISE NO. 4
SISSY SQUAT STATS: 3–4 sets, 15–20 reps
■ Lewis’ Take: “The sissy squat is a pretty difcult exercise to nail, but once you’ve got the motion going, it burns deep. It’s an exercise that you probably will use every other workout once you learn it.”
■ Do It Right: Lewis has two different options to choose from he prefers the sissy squat station (as shown in the photos), but his coach, Neil Hill, introduced him to a free-standing alternative that does well in a pinch. “Neil has me hold a weight plate or dumbbell with both hands, arms straight and 90 degrees from my body,” he explains. “I lean slightly back and squat down. The weight I’m holding acts as a counterbalance.” For the squatapparatus-aided version, Lewis simply locks his legs into the supports and leans back while squatting as deep as he can go before bringing himself back upright.
■ Intensity Tip: “Just drive hard from the bottom, through your legs, and push for failure. Rest for a breather at the top to get more total reps per set. This exercise is a mental test of will.”
QUAD EXERCISE NO. 5
ONE-LEG SQUAT STATS: 3 sets, 15–20 reps per leg
■ Lewis’ Take: “This exercise really finishes the job—that’s it, mate. Call it a day.”
■ Do It Right: This move is similar to the quad stretches Lewis performs at the beginning of his workouts, but with one key difference: foot placement. Facing away from a flat bench a fair distance away, he places one leg up and back so that the top of his foot rests on the bench. What’s a fair distance? “My mistake when I was first learning this exercise was that my front leg wasn’t far enough away from the bench,” he says. “You have to put the leading leg far out and not keep it underneath your body. It’ll be scary at first because it’s outside of your comfort zone. Usually when you squat, your legs are directly under your torso. But having it out ahead of you means you get a maximum stretch and drive on that working leg.” From a standing position, you’ll bend your front knee as you drop your hips straight down your lead knee should reach at least 90 degrees before reversing to a leg-straight position. Repeat for reps, then switch legs.
■ Intensity Tip: Although Lewis doesn’t recommend doing so until you’ve mastered the form, you can hold a weight plate at your chest, or dumbbells at your side, for added resistance.
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HAMSTRINGS EXERCISE NO. 1
LYING LEG CURL STATS: 6–7 sets (2–3 warmups and 4 working sets), 10–15 reps plus partials and dropsets
■ Lewis’ Take: “I change other exercises, but I’ll do the lying leg curl to start of every single time. It’s equivalent to me doing leg extensions every quad workout.”
■ Do It Right: Lewis lies on the machine after adjusting it so the footpads hit just behind his Achilles. He grasps the handles for stability, then curls both hamstrings powerfully, bringing his ankles to his glutes before returning to the start. Like with the leg extension, he doesn’t allow the weight stack to touch down between reps. He pyramids the weight up on each successive set.
■ Intensity Tip: “With lying leg extensions, you can be as sadistic as you want,” Lewis says ominously. “For me, the first set could be to failure at 15 reps, then slip the pin to a heavier weight and do butterfly kicks, moving just an inch or so for 50 reps, keeping the tension on from the back of my knee to the bottom of my hamstring. The next set, I’ll go for failure at 15 regular reps again, then drop the weight in half and fail again, then drop the weight slightly one more time and go to failure one more time. For the last set, I’ll do maybe 10 conventional reps, using the whole stack or close to it, then drop the weight in half and do another 10, then drop one more time and go for 10. For those final 10, I may need to use rest-pause, basically finishing with four powerful singles. After that, I’ll raise the weight to half to three-quarters of the stack and do 50 butterflies to finish of .”
HAMSTRINGS EXERCISE NO. 2
BODY-WEIGHT HAMSTRING CURL “KAMIKAZES” STATS: 3 sets, all to failure
■ Lewis’ Take: ”This one is very difficult. One of the only bodybuilders I’ve seen doing this was Alex Fedorov. Him being from Russia, me from Wales, it makes sense because we didn’t have access to a lot of equipment over there. We had to make do, and create a lot of exercises out of the few machines we had.“
■ Do It Right: Facing away from the weight stack of a pulldown machine, Lewis clambers on so his shins are on the seat and his ankles are secured under the knee pads. Keeping his body straight from knees to head and folding his arms over his chest, he fully engages his hamstrings to support his body weight as he slowly leans forward. He’ll go down as far as he can before fl exing both hams strongly to reverse the downward motion and bring him back upright. As he fatigues, he’ll put his hands in front of him for safety, and to sometimes give himself a push of the floor.
■ Intensity Tip: “This exercise is intense enough without any tricks,” Lewis says. However, he does suggest striving to better your personal best over the weeks and months. “I remember clocking out once at 58 reps years ago I haven’t beaten that again. Now I can maybe get 30 or so.”
HAMSTRINGS EXERCISE NO. 3
ONE-LEG HAMSTRING CURL STATS: 3 sets, 8–10 plus 3–4 forced reps
■ Lewis’ Take: “At this point, my hamstrings are fried, but I’ll always do three more sets of something, like the one-leg curl.”
■ Do It Right: Settling into the apparatus, Lewis places his working leg so that the pad hits between his ankle and the bottom of his calf. Holding the handles with both hands to stabilize himself, he powerfully flexes his hamstrings to lif the weight, bringing it as high as he can go. “On this exercise, I’ll use a pretty light weight for most sets,” he says. “I’m concentrating on squeezing the hamstring. I envision myself in a back lat spread onstage, seeing the hamstring ‘pop out’ for the judges.”
■ Intensity Tip: Instead of simply doing conventional sets, Lewis will vary the range of motion. “During a rep, I’ll hold it at three-quarters of the way up for a count, then continue to 90 degrees and hold it again. Then I’ll lower it all the way back down. On the last one or two sets, after failure I’ll do three or four forced reps if I have a partner.”