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Photos by Per Bernal
His quads are so colossal he’s run out of space to put new muscle. Meat hangs from the sides like spare wheels on his wheels. When that’s coupled with his small knee joints and undersize calves (not to mention his cartoonishly gargantuan upper half), the effect is so astonishing that his first appearance onstage at the 2015 Olympia generated head-shaking murmurs of laughter. Like a visit to Jurassic World, the unreal is suddenly apparently real. When shape, balance, and separation are factored in with size, there are numerous candidates for greatest legs of all time. That debate continues. But for largest quads ever, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Behold Big Ramy.
Big Ramy always begins his wheel workout with leg extensions. At times in his career this has been only a warmup with two sets of 50. On other occasions he’s gone significantly heavier for four working sets of 15. Our sample routine cuts the difference with three sets of 20–25. Think of it as a working warmup. “This is to make sure my knee joints are warm but also to begin the workout with some real work,” Elssbiay explains. By starting with the only isolation exercise of his quad routine, he assures that the three compound exercises that follow better target his quads and focus less on his glutes and hips. He will often hold contractions for three seconds. Such tensing against resistance helps bring out quad separation and striations—a major focus for Elssbiay.
There’s a video on YouTube of Ramy squatting six weeks before the 2015 Olympia. He’s cranking out reps with 495—a big enough number that you can see the bar bending slightly, as if starting to surrender. We see him do eight reps, but he began before the video begins, and he’s still going strong when it ends. The final tally was in the 12–15 range, because that’s a typical set of squats for the 316-pound Beast from the Middle East. His Beats by Dre headphones (playing hip-hop) are clamped over his hoodie’s hood. His knees are wrapped over his sweat pants. His stance is wide, and his toes are angled outward. And he’s firing off reps like a piston, up and down without pause, from nearly parallel at the bottom to nearly standing straight at the top, keeping constant tension on his quadriceps.
By angling his feet outward, he creates a steady base from which to hoist such heavy metal, and he also focuses more on his outer quads. This has been chiefly responsible for expanding Elssbiay’s vastus lateralis to dimensions never before seen. In fact, if you had to name one exercise that’s done more than any other to transform the 5'9" Egyptian from 200 pounds at his first contest in 2011 to 316 at the athletes’ meeting two days before the 2015 Mr. Olympia, this would be it. “From the time I learned how to squat correctly, my legs just started growing,” Ramy says. “You need to maintain good form, stay upright, be safe, and work consistently at getting stronger.”
Before he was Big Ramy, when he was still just Average Elssbiay, an Egyptian fisherman who started weight training as a hobby, his first bodybuilding idol was Dorian Yates. The six-time Mr. Olympia (1992–97) eschewed free-weight squats, feeling they didn’t jell with his body mechanics. Yates built his gargantuan quads with three machine exercises: leg extensions, leg presses, and hack squats. Though Ramy found squats work exceptionally well for him, he otherwise adopted Yates’ three exercises— the mechanical basics.
He does his leg presses on a 45-degree machine. There are two important form factors with this exercise. First, he typically places his feet low on the footplate. This positioning works the quads more and the glutes less. Not coincidentally, it’s harder than when you put your feet high on the footplate. The second form factor is his stance. It’s just wide enough to get his mammoth thighs to the sides of his waist in the low position. This allows him to go deeper than bodybuilders who take a narrower stance. Again, this is the hard way but the most effective way.
Too many bodybuilders waste time on the leg press. They overload it with plates, take a high, narrow stance, and then pump out quarter reps. Elssbiay isn’t out to impress anyone by leg pressing a ton (literally) for short sets of short reps. With less than 1,000 pounds, he makes certain his form maximizes quad activation. He gets deep, fluid reps. And he racks up a lot of them. He may go up to 30. “This one hurts,” he says with a smile. “But you just have to keep going. Fight through the pain.”
Elssbiay ends his quad routine with a mechanical squat. He has a lot of machines to choose from in Kuwait City’s Oxygen Gym, from a traditional hack squat to more modern contraptions. He typically favors a super squat machine. This has become increasingly popular in gyms over the past decade, but in case you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a quick primer. With your back against the pad, its closest cousin is the hack squat. However, unlike a hack squat, the carriage doesn’t move on a wheeled track. Instead, it moves up and tilts back on hinges. What earns this machine its “super” qualifier is its reversibility. When you face the pad and lean forward, the exercise becomes a power squat, mimicking the motion of a football lineman in the trenches.
The latter position is good for variety, but, as we’ve already noted, Ramy strives to isolate his quads and minimize glute and hip stimulation, so he does his super squats with his back against the pad. As with a free-weight squat, he goes down to approximately parallel and comes up to just short of lockout. He sets his feet a little out in front, which limits his range of motion slightly but also makes this one easier on his knees (no need for wraps). He also takes a narrower stance than on free-weight squats, with his feet about 10 inches apart. The machine locks in his range of motion, and the back pad keeps him in an upright position, so he can focus only on his legs.
There’s no secret combination of exercises, sets, and reps. If you read this article expecting to learn the key to unlocking Ramy’s incredible growth, it’s hidden somewhere in the atomic double helix of his DNA. He does the standard leg exercises— leg extensions, barbell squats, 45-degree leg presses, and some type of machine squats—for moderate to slightly higher-than-moderate reps. That information can help you formulate and execute your routine. But the ingredient for maximizing your leg potential is always going to be that special seasoning that makes the recipe—the will to put in hard work. That’s as close as you’re going to get to a non-genetic secret to Ramy’s gargantuan quads.
Elssbiay lived directly above Oxygen Gym for years, just one flight of stairs away from the squat rack. We say of some gym rats they “live in the gym.” Ramy nearly did. Moreover, he applies the same work ethic to his training sessions that family members applied to their long, brutal days of sea fishing. More than any other body part, successful quad training requires regular journeys through pain barriers. The lactic acid is going to build up, especially when grinding out higher reps. Your mind is going to say and then shout and then scream “Stop!” But you need to keep going. Another rep and another and another. Pain becomes your friend, not your enemy, a welcome signal that you’re stimulating new growth. That never-surrender mentality is the key to Big Ramy’s leg workouts, and it’s as close as you’re going to come to the secret to his success.
ELSSBIAY’S QUAD ROUTINE
Leg Extension: 3 sets, 20–25 reps
Squat: 4 sets, 10–15 reps
Leg Press: 4 sets, 15–25 reps
Machine Squat: 4 sets, 10–15 reps