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Photos by Per Bernal

Where I’m from, wearing pink posing trunks and flexing will get you beat down, Nathan de Asha says, laughing. “But my friends talked me into it by telling me about the girls who hung around the sport.” De Asha relates his origin story in a thick Scouse accent, every bit earned while growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Liverpool, England. 

A former high-level soccer player and rower, De Asha found his way to the bodybuilding stage only after some lobbying by friends who had seen his transformation in mere months after picking up a weight. “I had started lifting to put on more mass for rowing,” he says. “I wanted to make the country’s rowing team for the Olympics when they came to London in 2012, but that didn’t pan out—it wasn’t paying the bills. But my friends said I should do a
bodybuilding show.” 

He was not convinced but begrudgingly entered a local contest. “I gave it a go, with no money,” he says. “I was eating canned tuna and drinking Diet Coke. That was all I could afford. I trained for six to seven weeks and won that first show.”

Eventually, after dominating the local scene, he made his way to the British Championships in 2007, winning the junior class. It seemed he was just a step away from the pros, but life took a turn. “I took a few years off from bodybuilding,” he says. “I had some trouble, got into a bit of mischief, but came back in 2012. I hadn’t trained for 18 months at that point, and I weighed about 165 pounds, but there was this show I thought I could win, beat [the favorite].”

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De Asha started training for a comeback, but in 2013, five weeks out from the British Championships he was gunning for, he got an operation on his chest. “I thought it would heal in 10 days and I could train light and stay on track, but basically I ended up with two massive hematomas in my chest. That put me out of the contest.”

He vowed to return in 2014 and put it all on the line: If he won, he’d continue, and if not, he’d walk away. “I thought, ‘If what I got is good enough, it’s good enough. If not, it’s OK. The best man of the day will win.’ I was giving it one look, not going to compete for years and years to try and break through. I haven’t got the money. I have a family now, and I have to pay the bills.” 

Of course, he ended up with the championship and the IFBB pro card that came with the victory. “I was just shocked,” he says of the result. “I was overwhelmed—my hometown, my family there. It was a big thing.” 

 

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Nowadays, De Asha hits back every fifth day in his split, breaking it down into a short morning and longer afternoon session. “I realize my back is one of my weaker body parts that I need to bring up, so I’ll dedicate the day to it,” he says. “At 9, I’ll do hyperextensions and deadlifts, and I’ll come back at 3 for the rest of it.”

For both sessions, whether at home in Liverpool or Oxygen Gym in Kuwait City, where he goes numerous months out of the year, his trek is short. “In Kuwait, I step out of my apartment and I’m right there at Oxygen Gym,” he says. “In Liverpool it’s just 10 minutes, so I’ll go there even if it’s just for a couple of exercises.”

Hypers start with body weight only for 15 reps. De Asha will then grab a 10-kilogram plate (about 22 pounds) for 15 reps, a 15 kilo for another 15, and a final set where he starts with 25 kilos for a dropset, doing 10 reps with 25 kilos, then another 10 with 20 kilos, and a final 10 holding 10 kilos.

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Deadlifts are next—a powerful movement that takes aim at the posterior chain, from his back down through his legs. He’ll start light with a plate or two each side, working his way up to 260 kilos (about 573 pounds) by his fourth or fifth set, always aiming for 8-10 reps. 

“I break it up this way because I need a lot of work on my lower back,” De Asha says. “This part takes me 15–20 minutes. If instead I was doing that at the end of my back workout, I’d be gassed, and I couldn’t give these two exercises my full attention.

 

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Six hours later, De Asha is back at it, starting with four sets of pullups, palms forward. “I’m aiming for 12 at least, but I tend to fail around 13 or 14 reps,” he says.

Next—depending on what he did the previous week, since his workouts are constantly changing—he may do four sets of front pulldowns. Pyramiding each set, he’ll start with 15 reps, then a couple of sets of 12, before going for failure around 10. “Roelly [Winklaar] doesn’t like me to fall below 10 reps, so that’s the goal,” De Asha says.

Although heavy, De Asha doesn’t compromise form by leaning too far back, which turns a pulldown into more of a row. “I sit straight up because I feel more pull in the lats that way,” he says. “I’ll pull the bar down just past the chin toward a point on my chest about two inches above the nipple.” 

Winklaar has become De Asha’s de facto coach. He’s the one who first coaxed the young Brit to Oxygen Gym, the masterful passion project of bodybuilding fan and entrepreneur Bader Boodai. Oxygen, which just might boast the greatest array of bodybuilding equipment in the world, has attracted a number of pros, including Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay and Khalid Almohsinawi.

“I had taken a year off competing after winning the British Championships in 2014,” De Asha recalls. “Roelly told me I should come to Kuwait, but I was managing two jobs, my household, and I had my girlfriend and two children. I didn’t think I could do it. I was bricklaying—up at five in the morning, out of the house at 6, working till 7, and going to the gym for 45 minutes, so I wasn’t getting the full benefits of the gym.”

One day in 2015, he decided to go for it. “I packed the night before, bought a ticket, and I was in Kuwait the next day,” he says. “Going to Kuwait has changed my life. Bader put me up with a place to live, he and Ahmad [Askar, Oxygen’s main trainer] helped me when I needed it. I’m very thankful for that.” 

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After pulldowns, De Asha turns to two single-arm exercises to really hone each side of his back—one-arm Hammer Strength pulldowns for four sets, followed by a single-arm seated cable row or dumbbell row for three sets.

 

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Build a Back of Legendary Proportions

On the Hammer Strength machine, he’ll grab the handles with a palms-facing-in grip and brace himself in the apparatus with his other hand. The key is to generate the muscular contraction in the lats and midback as you pull the handle toward your body, bending the elbow fully and bringing it back as far as possible without contorting your torso. On the last set, he’s aiming for 10, with help from Winklaar if he starts to fail too early, and holding the bottom of each rep for a one- to two-second squeeze. 

The seated cable or dumbbell rows follow the same pattern—a steady cadence though the positive and negative phases, with a one- to two-second pause at the peak of the contraction. “I’ll do some exercises explosively, like pullovers or T-bar rows, but otherwise I do most back exercises with a more controlled lift,” De Asha says. 

A Hammer Strength wide row is next on the agenda. De Asha sits in the machine, reaches up, and grasps the handles with an underhand grip, with his chest firmly on the support pad. He starts with a deep breath in, then exhales as he pulls the handles down toward his midflank. “I feel a great squeeze on this, so I take advantage and go heavy,” he says.

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Finally, he’ll choose among a seated cable row, a machine row, a straight-arm pulldown, or a similar move—“based on what I think I need most,” De Asha says—and finish with four sets of reverse pec-deck flyes to target the rear delts. On those, he suggests going light enough that the rear delts take on the brunt of the work. “The heavier you go, the more likely that other muscles of your back are taking over,” he says. “You want control on this one.” 

 Nathan de Asha’S BACK ROUTINE 

A.M.

  • Hyperextension* | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-15
  • Deadlift | SETS: 4-5 | REPS: 8-10

P.M.

  • Pullup | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
  • Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-15
  • One-Arm Hammer Strength Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-15
  • Single–Arm Seated Cable Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12-15
    • or One-Arm Dumbbell Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12-15
  • Hammer Strength Wide Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12
  • Machine Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12
  • Standing Straight-Arm Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12
  • Reverse Pec-Deck Flye | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12

*Dropset on the last set.

 FLEX