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Photos by Per Bernal
When I first met 20-year-old Flex Lewis in 2004, he was celebrated mostly for his legs, so much so that I tried to nickname him “the Wales Wheels.” He hated it. Never call him that. He’s Flex or the Welsh Dragon. Besides, “TWW” no longer applies. At 32, he won his fifth-straight Olympia 212 title this past September, not because he wows with any one body part but because of his remarkably complete development from top to bottom and side to side. Such proportions haven’t come easy. The lights are bright on the Olympia stage, but the 12-year journey to symmetry has taken the Welsh Dragon through the darkness of thousands of grueling workouts. That quest continues. Chest has always been his most stubborn body part, and in his quest to get his pecs in line with his calves, Flex has turned himself into a chest master.
FLEX: What were you doing wrong in your chest training in the early years, and how did you correct that?
FLEX LEWIS: Early on, some of my body parts blew up, like my legs. Others didn’t, like my chest. Part of that was because I was pressing with my shoulders and triceps. Chest took a backseat, not because I wasn’t training it but because I was training it wrong. I never really had someone say, “Slow yourself down, concentrate on the squeeze.” It wasn’t until I’d won a couple of shows and was traveling back and forth to the States that I said to myself, “Something isn’t right. I need to learn the essence of the mind-muscle link.”
I lightened the weights and started pressing the bar again just to get that mind-muscle connection. It’s something you really have to concentrate on. You need to feel the muscles working. And I’d lose that feeling when I was going too heavy. I’d bench-press 315 for reps, but I’d be getting a pump in my triceps and delts. It was more of a powerlifting movement. I wasn’t feeling it in my chest. But I understood what I was doing wrong, and I was willing and able to correct it, which meant dropping a plate on each side, slowing down the reps, and concentrating on the feel.
Did you change chest exercises, too?
I’m always changing exercises. Some things, like barbell bench presses, I don’t do anymore. But it’s not so much the exercises. It’s more about finding the right way of doing exercises, going at the right pace, feeling the pecs working, and working the angles. Once you get all those things down, it changes your mindset, too. Chest used to be my least favorite body part to train, but now I can’t wait for the next chest workout, so I can bring my everything to that workout and keep improving. That’s the thing about bodybuilding: You never stop getting better. You’re never finished. Even though I’m the 212 Mr. Olympia, there’s still things I want to improve, and chest is always going to be a stubborn area for me, so it’s always going to be a big focus for me.
You wear wrist wraps when you train chest. How does that help you?
I did rugby and gymnastics before bodybuilding, and that caused a lot of strains to my wrists before I even got serious about lifting weights. So the wraps protect my wrists from strains. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the weakest link in a lot of presses and laterals is your wrist. The wraps give my wrists a cushion of protection, and they help lock my wrists in the correct position. I remember doing 405 on the bench press and then going over to the dumbbells, and I struggled with the 60s because my wrists couldn’t stabilize the weight. With wraps, I never have to worry about that.
Also, my hands and forearms tend to pump up too much if I don’t use wrist wraps for chest and shoulders and wrist straps for back. So when I wear wraps they allow me to focus all my attention on the muscles I want to work—in this case, pecs—and not worry about the ones I don’t want to work— hands and forearms. If everything grew as easily as my forearms, which I’ve never trained, bodybuilding would be a breeze. But that’s not how it is, and I embrace the challenge. Learn how to focus less on your strong points and more on your weak points.
Do you count reps or are you simply focused on getting as many reps as you can?
I would say both. I remember meeting Tom Platz very early in my career, and I walked away with more enthusiasm for having done so than I could have ever imagined. He told me he’d go into a set with the same approach every time. He never had a number of reps in his head. He was going for “total annihilation.” Total annihilation was when his hands wouldn’t be able to grasp the bar any longer if he was doing arms, or if he was doing legs, his legs would be so fatigued that he’d collapse. Not saying I agree with that crazy mentality, but it shows what’s possible. It shows that the mind is what limits you, not the muscles. I usually do have a number of reps I want to achieve, and I count in my head until I get there. But then if I can do more, I’ll do more. Sometimes I’ll do a rest-pause and go for a couple of more reps, or I’ll get a couple of forced reps if I’m training with a partner.
You sometimes do both incline dumbbell presses and incline flyes. Why do both?
I don’t think you can have too much upper chest. That’s the area that looks most impressive, so I’m always working to thicken it up. If I do two incline exercises, what ’ll do is change the angle. One, like the presses, will be at a higher angle, like 45 degrees, and the other will be at a lower angle, like 20 degrees. The key to either dumbbell presses or flyes is to feel tension in the chest from the stretch through the contraction. If you go too heavy, you probably won’t be able to feel that tension. So use a weight you can control, and keep the upper pecs tensed.
Do you do many forced reps on presses and flyes?
That depends on whether I’m training alone or with Neil [Hill] or someone else. I’m not a big believer in a lot of forced reps. I’d rather have my training partner come in on only the last couple of reps. Chest is one of those body parts that I do allow myself a bit of a cheat on, but that’s just so I can get through the sticking point and focus more on the squeeze. When I’m struggling, I want my training partner to help me keep it going. I consider that a cheat. But as long as I’m doing the squeeze myself, I’m getting what I want out of it.
I notice that sometimes you focus a lot on the negative.
Yeah, I like to get a strong negative on the last rep of some exercises. I feel like I’ve done all my positive reps, I’ve held that final contraction, and that’s when I’m stimulating the most growth. That place nearest the end where most people just want the set to end because it’s painful, I like to extend that even further by getting a real slow negative. So you’ll see me sometimes on a press or a flye or a cable crossover fighting against the weight one last time as I lower it under strict control and very slowly, and I’m maintaining that tension on the muscles the whole time.
What’s your opinion on dumbbell pullovers as a chest exercise?
Pullovers work several muscles together: the lats, pecs, serratus, and abs. I feel like they help me in a front double biceps, because they work a lot of the muscles that you see then. I think bodybuilders should work pullovers into their routines at least occasionally—whether with a dumbbell or with a machine. The question is whether to do them with back or chest. I find they work well after chest presses to stretch out the whole upper body, but there’s no wrong answer. You can do them with either chest or back.
Talk about your form on cable crossovers.
You want to do cable crossovers slow and keep all the tension on the chest and control the negative. You never want there to be a point when you lose that contraction. Don’t let your arms go too far back at the top. You want to keep all the tension on the pecs. And then at the bottom, bring your hands together and squeeze as if you have a quarter between your pecs and you want to make it burst. I’ll hold that for a second or two. I’ll also sometimes do cable crossovers in a way where I bend so my upper body is parallel to the floor and push the handles down and together so that my hands are almost touching the floor at the contraction. This is just a way to get an even greater contraction on the pecs. I’ll sometimes start with traditional cable crossovers and then do a dropset or two at the end, and with those dropsets I’ll do the cable crossovers in the facedown style.
Do you like to end your chest routine on a compound exercise like a machine press instead of an isolation exercise like the cable crossovers?
I’ll switch it up. Sometimes I’ll finish with dips leaning forward to focus on my chest and not my triceps, and I’ll do two or three sets to failure, and failure comes at 30-50 reps. Other times I’ll finish with a machine press, and I’ll get some forced reps and be sure to get a really slow, strong negative on the last rep of each set. It’s a good way to make sure I’ve got everything I can out of the workout.
FLEX LEWIS' CHEST ROUTINE
Dumbbell Incline Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10–12
Dumbbell Incline Flye | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
Dumbbell Pullover | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12–15
Cable Crossover | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
Machine Press | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12–15