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Great bodybuilding champions are admired for the hardware they’ve earned onstage. And rightfully so—being crowned the best at what you do is a testament to hard work, talent, and perseverance.
Still, that reverence comes with an undeniable disconnect. That is, seeing the finished product doesn’t provide a glimpse into the intensive, difficult work that went into it. As when you watch the scoreboard intently instead of the game itself, it can be hard to forge a deep, visceral connection with the stomach-churning, sweat-soaked, exhaustive efforts that went into building and refining the bodies on display.
That’s why, in bodybuilding, strength matters. While few among us can relate to stripping down to posing trunks and stepping before a panel of judges to flex our way to stardom, any one of us can immediately recognize a feat of strength like a 550-pound bench press, an 850-pound deadlift, or an 815-pound squat.
It’s also why the title of “world’s strongest bodybuilder,” despite being a completely arbitrary, unofficial designation, is still a thing. One that has passed from the likes of Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman to Johnnie Jackson and Branch Warren. And now, stepping into that always-heated conversation, there’s IFBB pro Akim Williams—owner of the three personal bests listed above.
Tipping the scales at around 300 pounds off-season at a height of 5’10”, Williams is one of the bigger combatants in the pro ranks. His legs are behemoth and certainly weren’t forged with the typical bodybuilding approach of medium reps and moderate weight.
“For exercises like squats, I like the old-school bodybuilding-type thing where I try to go as heavy as I can and I don’t mind lowering the reps—like a Ronnie Coleman style of training,” the 33-year-old Grenada native says. “He used to do two- and three-rep sets, stuff like that. Most bodybuilders nowadays don’t want to go anything under eight to 10 reps when they do exercises, but I think you gain denser, thicker muscle from training hard and heavy.”
Not that Williams hasn’t tried it both ways. After winning his pro card at the North American Championships in 2013, he gave his friend and fellow IFBB pro Juan “Diesel” Morel’s regimen a go. “It didn’t work for me at all,” Williams recalls, shaking his head. “My leg size actually decreased when doing that lighter, higher- rep stuff. When I went back to my style of training, my legs improved a lot.”
The proof was in the results. In his pro debut at the New York Pro in May 2014, he took a disappointing 11th place. After reverting to his old ways, he notched a top-five showing at the Chicago Pro in July, followed by seventh in August at the Golden State Pro. Williams was on his way—doing it his way.
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NO PLATES TO SPARE
For Williams, “old-school” doesn’t mean sloppy and haphazard. He is careful and meticulous about warmups in his workouts, including his usual Wednesday quad-focused leg session. “I stretch my quads out first, getting into a deep squat, where I lean back a little when I’m in the down position,” he says. “Then I’ll warm up with single- leg extensions, three sets of 15 to 20 reps. I want to make sure everything is running on all cylinders before I even start thinking about going heavy.”
The first major move is the leg press, which he pumps out powerfully, his kneecaps sinking into his pecs on every rep. “I’m really strong with squats, so I try to pre-exhaust my quads first so I don’t have to go as heavy to stimulate them,” he says. He starts with a few plates per side and proceeds to do four to five sets total, each time loading up two more plates per side until the leg-press apparatus is maxed out.
Foot placement varies, which helps him hit both the inner and outer quads. “If I do a shoulder-width or wider stance on the leg press, I’ll do a closer stance on squats, and vice versa,” Williams says. As for reps, he does go as high as 15 to 20, but don’t get it twisted—it’s only his prodigious strength, built up over years of practice, which requires him to bust through double digits to hit failure.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
Following presses are barbell squats in the power rack. “Because they’re totally different movements with different mechanics, I’ll start off light again to warm up the joints and knees,” Williams says. That means a plate on each side for 135 pounds for 12 to 15 reps.
From there, he adds 90 pounds per set, while the reps naturally decrease over anywhere from four to seven sets. “I’ll top out at five to seven plates [495 to 675 pounds] per side, depending on how I feel that day,” he says. “The most I’ve ever done with six plates is 16 reps, but I’ll try to go as high as I can. If it’s six or seven plates, I’m aiming for six or seven good reps out of that. If I go up to eight plates, I’ll try for at least two to three reps.”
No matter how long he goes, his form remains firm, as he drops his hips downward to reach a thighs-parallel-with-the- floor position while keeping his core flexed, feet flat on the floor, and eyes focused forward.
HACK SQUAT TWOFER
The hack squat apparatus is the next stop. Here, the Pompton Lakes, NJ, resident—who has a computer science degree from Long Island University—often takes a different approach, combining wide-stance and close-stance variations into one superset. “We shot this workout at Bev’s Powerhouse in Syosset, NY, where the hack platform was narrow, so I stepped off to both sides of the machine for the wider stance,” he says. “Wherever I’m training, I try to get a feel for my body and how comfortable I can get, so sometimes that means stepping off, and sometimes I can keep my feet on the plate in the wider stance.”
In any case, he begins with 10 reps of one stance, then racks the sled and immediately switches to the other, trying to push out at least eight to 10 more reps before failure terminates the effort. “I do this when I’m chasing the pump,” he says. “It adds more overall volume to the workout.” Here, it’s three sets total, sticking with three to four plates per side throughout instead of pyramiding upward.
EXTENDING THE PAIN
To finish off his quads, Williams returns to where he began, the leg extension machine, for some two-leg extensions. Sliding the pin in next to a high number near the bottom of the stack, he goes four rounds of 20 reps each, with a brief 20-second rest in between each set.
To gash a few more lines of new detail into his billowing quads, he’ll tack on three sets of dumbbell walking lunges, 20 total steps per set. He errs on the side of caution here, grabbing the 50s, sometimes the 60s at the heaviest. “I don’t understand why some guys try to lunge with bigger dumbbells than that,” he says. “Lunges are a tricky movement—one false step and you can get injured.”
A GAMUT OF CURLS
With quads in the books, Williams turns to hamstrings. On Saturdays, hams are the focal point of his workout, but on Wednesdays, they come second. Still, they get a firm beatdown.
It commences with standing leg curls, Williams’ favorite hamstring movement. “I feel as if I get the most out of them, so I use the energy I have left over after training quads to do them first,” he says. “I like the concentration, being able to contract them fully one at a time.”
He’ll do three sets, 15 to 20 reps apiece, pyramiding up, before moving on to lying curls for four to five sets of 15 or more reps—as many as he can muster before failure. “I’ve been trying to improve the lower part of my hamstrings, and so on lying curls, I’ve found I can activate that lower part better by doing more of a partial than by bringing my heels all the way [to my glutes],” Williams says.
He’ll also do four to five sets of 15 or more reps of seated leg curls. While he pyramids upward, none of his hamstring movements are about the weight moved, as he’s quick to explain. “To me, the contraction is the most important thing when you’re training hamstrings,” Williams says. “It’s not a big muscle, but if you can control the weight and do the exercise correctly, I think you get a lot out of it [as opposed to] just trying to lift the heaviest weight you can. I really try to go slower so I can feel the mind-muscle connection with my hamstrings.”
IT’S A STRETCH
While many might lead off hamstrings with the barbell Romanian deadlift, Williams prefers the opposite approach. “I keep the reps higher, focusing more on the stretch during each rep than anything else,” he says.
Williams begins with a plate on each side for 10 to 15 reps, then proceeds to pyramid over the course of three to four sets until he’s at 315 pounds or so. “As I said, instead of just going heavy, I’m trying to isolate the hamstrings and make sure I’m working that muscle all along its length,” he says. While this movement can be done standing on a box or a platform, Williams has found that it works well standing on the floor, where he stops at the bottom just before the plates touch down to keep the tension on the back of his legs throughout the set.
“After that, I’ll usually do some calf work,” he adds. “Standing or seated raises, or both depending on how I feel and how much energy I have left—three to four sets, going to failure somewhere past 15 reps or so.”
PERSONIFICATION OF DETERMINATION
Williams was back at Olympia Weekend last year after his debut in the show in 2016, where he took 15th. But this time he was there only as a spectator, working the Expo for his sponsor, supplement company Blackstone Labs. “I was disappointed that I couldn’t qualify this year,” he says. “I tried my best to do it in New York [at May’s New York Pro], but unfortunately I came in fifth. That was a downer.
“But my goal is to qualify in an early-season show and get back to the Olympia stage again in 2018,” he says. “And this time I’m going to make the top 10.”
WILLIAM’S LEG WORKOUT
WILLIAMS’ TRAINING SPLIT