These girls with muscles may inspire more than the muscular men out there.Read article
We all know that giant robots that can transform into cars aren’t arriving from space anytime soon. We also realize a cyborg that looks suspiciously like a former Mr. Olympia can’t time travel, that Leonardo DiCaprio can’t enter our brains to steal our thoughts, and that no one would really contemplate hanging out at James Franco’s house if the end of the world was truly upon us.
Yet, that doesn’t stop us from suspending our disbelief, at least for those two darkened hours in the theater. There, we dutifully follow the plot, empathize with the characters, and ride the roller coaster of emotion as our celluloid heroes battle to save the world.
Why can we relate? Scriptwriters know it as plausibility, the idea that the plot—no matter how fantastical the premise and storyline—has to contain at least a thread or two that anchors the characters and events to the real world. (Think Bruce Willis’ bloodied, glass-caked feet in Die Hard.)
So what then can we make of one of bodybuilding’s most eccentric characters? Because Kai Greene—he himself a star of the screen, one of seven IFBB pros featured in Vlad Yudin’s 2013 documentary Generation Iron— has a training approach that defies plausibility.
Greene will switch an exercise mid-set, recalculating his approach from moment to moment. Before legs, he’s been known to climb the StepMill for an hour, then start the session with calves before doing hamstrings and finally finishing with quads.
He’ll warm up his chest by supersetting it with back exercises, following incline bench with chinups and fat presses with bentover rows. He’ll blast his forearms before his biceps.
But here’s the twist: Despite his radically unorthodox approach that runs directly against many of the established maxims of exercise physiology, Greene has built the second-best bodybuilding physique on the planet, as deemed by the sport’s preeminent judging panel.
And his script isn’t complete yet. This two-time Mr. Olympia runner-up has not only defied plausibility throughout his decade-long pro career, he may just write the ultimate ending to his story in Las Vegas come this Sept. 20.
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Brooklyn, NY, is a sea of white. Parked cars are entombed in nearly solid ice, sidewalks have been narrowed to one-lane slush-soaked pathways, and the sound of metal against asphalt rings through the neighborhood as the plows put up a fractious fight against the elements.
On this February morning, a few inches of fresh powder coat the streets, adding to the nearly two feet that had fallen in the city by mid-month. But despite the difficult conditions, Greene is undeterred. After a long consult over the phone with contest prep guru George Farah, who’s been working with Greene ever since the 2011 New York Pro, he heads out to Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym in Syosset—an hour drive from the city—for an appointment with the iron.
Greene has made his home in New York for decades, although it’s been far from a typical existence. At six, he became a ward of New York and found himself shuttling between various foster homes and institutions. Rudderless and without the nurturing attention of parents to guide him, Greene had to rely on his own instincts early on for survival.
As a teen, he found shelter and an inspiration in ’80s action movies and comic books. In an effort to emulate Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and other muscular heroes of that high testosterone era, he created a crude weight set out of buckets and broken pool cues and began building his own larger-than-life physique. That now he has the incredible array of tools at a bodybuilding palace like Bev’s would’ve seemed like pure movie fiction to him at that point.
From the beginning, traditional methods—largely unknown to Greene—never played a significant role. Unencumbered by the dictums of muscle-building science, he forged his own path, developing an unconventional style. His approach to bodybuilding, admittedly, may not work for anyone else on Earth. But it has transformed him, now evidenced by a decade-long pro career that includes 17 top-five finishes and eight total titles, including wins at the 2009 and 2010 Arnold Classic.
SCENE 1: DUAL DUMBBELL HAMMER CURL
STAGE DIRECTION: 4-5 sets, 15-20 reps
Dialogue ❘ “It’s not always the case, but last time I trained biceps I started with a hammer curl. When I do hammers, I concentrate on contracting the bi’s, but I want the contraction to start in the brachioradialis (a strong elbow flexor within the forearm).”
Action ❘ To begin, Greene stands in front of the mirror, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing his sides. With deep focus, he breathes deeply and—with elbows firmly at each side—bends both arms to bring the dumbbells up in an arc to full elbow flexion. With the briefest of pauses at the top, he then lowers the weights in the same exact arc to the start and immediately repeats the sequence.
Alternate Ending ❘ As you reach failure, you can try squeezing out a few more reps by switching from lifting both weights simultaneously to alternating back and forth.
Deleted Scenes ❘ Greene will often substitute other exercises to lead of, including the reverse-grip barbell curl, which more heavily recruits the forearms.
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Greene’s instinctive methodology has been fashioned from experimentation. “People think that when you start a journey, you have to know everything and how to get there,” he says. “You’ll discover more, though, if you don’t have preconceived notions.”
That open-ended exploration has led him astray a few times, but it has also unearthed unique strategies that—exercise physiologists be damned—work. “I’ve been asked, why do I do pullups and dips to lead of a leg day?” Greene recalls. “At first, I couldn’t answer. But then I was getting onstage for a competition, and I realized why, in my mind, it had been so important. I had gone there automatically because of what a bodybuilder needs during a show. While you’re onstage—for quarter turns, the mandatory poses, any angle—you’re flexing your chest and your lats simultaneously.”
It’s here that, in the movie version of Greene’s life, he may lose the audience. Because almost nothing about his training sessions are normal, and his workouts themselves are so ever-changing, to capture one is like building a sand castle in the intertidal zone…by tomorrow, it’ll be washed away, replaced by a new smooth sheen of sand to draw on.
Today, for instance, Greene plans on training arms, but as mentioned earlier, he’ll start most unusually—by frying his forearms into submission with reverse dumbbell wrist curls of a bench and standing behind-the-back barbell wrist curls.
Why does it work for him? He finds it difficult to explain. What he knows for certain, however, is that it makes perfect sense for him. “I really have had no choice but to go by feel,” he explains between sets. “I constantly have an internal dialogue: ‘How do I feel? How does it change when I do this or that? Does this exercise hit the muscle in the way I need it to?’ ”
But before he starts his next set, he pauses, putting his huge palm up. “Wait, don’t misunderstand this, it’s not just at the beginning and end you ask these questions. It’s not like school, when you go in the morning and they mark you ‘present’ and may not notice if you leave at noon. When you train, you need to be marked ‘present’ on every single rep.
“When they start training, people tend to think about, ‘How much weight can I move, how much can I curl, how much can I bench?’ ” Greene points out. “They’re not really conscious of, ‘Am I making my muscles work? Am I making them responsible for this movement?’
“Often, you don’t have all the answers, but you remember the past, what in your arm training has put you on the road to success, and you want to try and mimic that feeling now, even though the exact exercises, sets, rep range, or approach may be different. You’re still looking for feeling, the feedback your body gives you that says the muscles are being properly stimulated and you’re going in the right direction.”
SCENE 2: REVERSE DUMBBELL WRIST CURL AND BEHIND-THE-BACK BARBELL WRIST CURL
STAGE DIRECTION: 4-5 sets (each exercise), 15-20 reps
Dialogue ❘ “Starting with forearms gets the blood flowing to my arms, it’s a warmup that sets me up for biceps. Not everyone does it this way, but it’s worked for me.”
Action ❘ Sitting at the end of a fat bench with his working forearm flush on the bench between his knees, Greene holds a dumbbell in one hand, palm facing downward. From here, he lowers his wrist downward, then flexes it upward, making sure to take it through the longest possible range of motion. After both wrists are done, he’ll face away from a barbell set in a power rack, and grasp the bar behind his back with palms facing rearward. He lifts the bar and steps forward to clear the supports, then starts repping through a full range of motion, flexing his forearms to lift the bar upward and lowering it to full wrist extension.
Close-Up ❘ At the very bottom of behind-the-back wrist curls, allow the bar to roll a bit down from your palm toward the end of your fingertips. Bring it back to your palm by re-clenching your fist.
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That’s the Tao of Greene—he’s not one to just bullet-point a workout for you. In every interview, he constantly strives to put words to what exactly it is that whirs in his head during the pure action of lifting and lowering a weight. In the span of a few moments, he’ll veer from a comparison of weight training to school attendance to a baseball player in a batting cage, to even seeking feedback on sexually satisfying your significant other. (We’ve spared you the details on that last one.)
But that wild ride does, often enough, arrive at a clear destination. As difficult as it may be to pin down a “typical” Kai Greene workout, the larger lessons he shares are the lifeblood to be drawn. His results may never be duplicated by anyone else who tries to follow in his footsteps, but his tenets can be assimilated into any workout, improving the end result significantly.
Such is the aim of the following arm training treatise, captured on that wintry day in New York, deep in his training of-season, seven months from the next Olympia fray. As Greene would tell you, “Take this, and make it your own.”
SCENE 3: STANDING BARBELL CURL AND CABLE ROPE PUSHDOWN
STAGE DIRECTION: 4 sets (each exercise), 15, 12, 10, 8 reps
Dialogue ❘ “With my forearms pumped, I go right into biceps and triceps. Usually, the frst exercise is indicative of the lead muscle group for that day. If today’s focus in on biceps, I’ll start each superset with a biceps move. Next workout, I’ll lead with triceps.”
Action ❘ For barbell curls, Greene stands holding a barbell with a shoulder-width underhand grip, arms extended. Keeping his abs tight, chest up, and head straight, he contracts his bi’s to curl the bar toward his chest, keeping his elbows tight to his sides, then lowers along the same arc. After completing that exercise, he heads to the nearby cable station. He grasps a rope attached to the upper pulley, with the pinkie side of each hand against the bulb at the end of the rope and palms facing each other. Greene brings his elbows to his sides and positions his forearms just above parallel to the foor, then starts repping, extending his elbows fully and bringing them back to 90 degrees, not letting the weight stack touch down between reps.
Close-Up ❘ As with every exercise, being wholly immersed in the moment mentally is paramount to Greene. “Picture yourself to be a powerful battery, and this battery is loaded with energy,” he recommends. “When you go to the gym, think about how you want to make your arms bigger, fuller, everything you think they can be in your head, and put that into your repetitions.”
Deleted Scenes ❘ Greene will sometimes trade standing barbell curls for the dumbbell version, curling both weights simultaneously.
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Living in New York City, Greene recalls with a laugh how his bodybuilding pursuits awkwardly meshed with his surroundings. “I used to carry around tupperware full of food in garbage bags,” he says. “I would ride on the train or bus with my headphones on, holding a garbage bag of food and a gym bag. I’m sure I looked like I was homeless.”
Greene didn’t care, though—he knew nutrition was critical to reaching his goals. “I’d carry around a cooler wherever I went,” he says. “When it comes to bodybuilding, you can get derailed by excuses. If you don’t have what you need with you, you start thinking it’s OK to miss meals.
“I wouldn’t miss a meal,” he adds. “If I made it and I knew I needed to eat it every two hours, I did. If I had to get up earlier to cook, I did. If I had to eat it cold, I did. However long I was going to be gone from the house, I’d make sure I had enough food with me to keep my body in an anabolic state.”
These days, in addition to the prototypical high-protein food intake, Greene relies on a number of cutting-edge supplements provided by his sponsor, MuscleMeds. His favorites include NO Bull, a pre-workout nitric oxide powder that mixes with water or juice and provides an increase in energy levels and strength; Carnivor Shots, which pack 50 grams of 100% beef protein in a four-ounce shot; and Methyl Arimatest, a serum testosterone optimizer.
SCENE 4: DUMBBELL CONCENTRATION CURL AND DUAL DUMBBELL KICKBACK
STAGE DIRECTION: 4 sets (each exercise), 15-20 reps
Action ❘ To do the concentration curl, Greene sits at the end of a fat bench, bent over, the elbow of his working arm pressed against the same-side inner thigh. He straightens his arm to lower the dumbbell toward the floor (without touching down), then engages his biceps forcefully to bring the weight toward his torso. He continues for up to 20 reps, repeats with the other arm, and then—wasting as little time as possible in the transition—stands up and grabs matching dumbbells in each hand, bending forward 45 degrees or so at the hips and locking his bent elbows in place at his sides. From here, he extends both elbows to lift the weights behind him, flexing his body for support from his lats down through his core and legs.
Close-Up ❘ To get the most out of kickbacks, Greene emphasizes tensing his stabilizing muscles to focus the action only in the elbows. “I lock into the movement right so I’m able to really engage my triceps the way I want to,” he says. “My lats, traps, and rear delts are coming alive while I’m doing the exercise—it almost becomes a static contraction that helps me with my posing.”
Deleted Scenes ❘ Greene will switch out concentration curls for alternating dumbbell curls, and will more likely do dips instead of kickbacks in his off-season training. He’ll also do close-grip pushups for tri’s on occasion.
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One of the most compelling moments of the 2013 Mr. Olympia happened out of the audience’s earshot. During the Saturday evening finals of the Mr. Olympia, Kai Greene and Phil Heath—the latter on his way to his third straight Sandow, relegating the former to runner-up status for the second year in a row—had an exchange of words.
The tension between the two combatants had been mounting all weekend, sparked at the athlete’s press conference a couple of days prior. There, when the competitors were asked to sign the official contest poster, Greene put the black felt marker to the paper and after his signature, wrote “2013 Mr. Olympia.”
Heath silently fumed, interpreting it as a sure sign of disrespect to the reigning champion. “He disrespected me by signing that poster as Mr. Olympia, and he’s been signing his autograph all weekend saying he’s the 2013 Mr. Olympia,” he told a Flex reporter after the show. “If I were to do that, people would say Phil Heath is cocky. When did I ever do that? I never signed Mr. Olympia until I was Mr. Olympia. I never touched a Sandow until I was able to touch my own. So that’s the respect I’ve had for this sport.”
Greene, however, is quick to shrug of any controversy. “Rivalry sells,” Greene says, chuckling.
While he claims not to remember the exact words exchanged on the Orleans arena stage, when it comes to the poster, he effusively denies any intended slight toward Heath. “No, no, not at all,” he says. “Signing the poster ‘Mr. Olympia 2013’ that day was not a knock on him. That was a person asserting where they were expecting to go. The truth is, the Mr. Olympia titles of 2011 and 2012, those belong to him. They’re his, he possesses them. But no one (had won the title) for 2013 yet. When I signed ‘Mr. Olympia 2013,’ no one owned that one yet, and I wanted it.”
The lesson he takes away from the beef with Heath? Don’t let a stressful situation get to you, and perhaps cause you to say something you shouldn’t. “Between the rigors of trying to be at your best, the travel to unfamiliar places, you need to maintain your responsibility to your sponsors and the fans,” he says. “You need to operate in a dignified way under challenging conditions.” FLEX
SCENE 5: INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL AND OVERHEAD ROPE EXTENSION
STAGE DIRECTION: 4 sets (each exercise), 8-20 reps
Action ❘ After adjusting an incline bench to about 45–60 degrees, Greene sits squarely, back against the bench and his feet fat on the floor. His arms start hanging straight down by his sides, holding the dumbbells with a palms-up grip. Keeping his shoulders back and upper arms in a fixed position perpendicular to the floor, he brings one dumbbell toward his shoulder, squeezes hard at the top, then returns to full stretch at the bottom while engaging the opposite arm. After up to 20 reps with each arm, he heads to the cable station. Attaching a long rope, he takes an end in each hand and faces away from the stack, bringing his elbows up alongside his head. Moving only his lower arms, he bends both elbows deeply, then engages his triceps—notably the long head—to straighten both arms overhead, repeating for up to 20 reps. alternate ending ❘ not getting enough out of these exercises? Slow down your reps, taking 4–6 seconds on the ascent and descent, flexing the working muscle hard all the way.
Deleted Scenes ❘ Carrying through his love of dumbbells, Greene will often turn to the two-hand overhead dumbbell extension instead of a rope or machine variation for the second half of this superset.
SCENE 6: MACHINE PREACHER CURL AND CLOSE-GRIP BARBELL BENCH PRESS
STAGE DIRECTION: 3 sets (each exercise), 15, 12, 10 reps
Dialogue ❘ “Finishing the workout with the close-grip bench press, my elbows and connective tissue are as warm as they’re gonna be. So I don’t have to move the whole gym to provide the appropriate stimulation to my triceps.”
Action ❘ For the machine curl, Greene tucks his voluminous upper arms against the pad and grasps the handles. In a smooth, powerful motion, he contracts his biceps forcefully to curl the handles as high as possible without allowing his elbows to disengage. He then straightens his arms under control and, before the weight stack touches down, begins the next rep. After finishing his set, he quickly switches to the bench press station, lying down with feet fat on the floor and the bar, on the supports, aligned with his mid chest. Grasping the barbell with an overhand, just inside-shoulder width grip, he lifts the bar to full elbow extension, then lowers it until it touches his pecs. His elbows bend and remain tucked to his sides, coiling up and then reacting powerfully as he pushes the bar back up toward the ceiling. His tri’s come into sharp relief at the top of each rep, then elongate, always under tension as he finishes up to 15 reps.
Alternate Ending ❘ Greene will sometimes add a fourth set “to saturate the biceps and triceps with blood.”