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The list of things that make Kevin Levrone unique among bodybuilding icons could fill this article. Here are five:
Unlike with Kai Greene and Jay Cutler, who both did runner-up three-peats, none of Levrone’s seconds were consecutive. They were spaced from his rookie year (1992) to his next-to-last pro season (2002), 10 years later. The following six training principles formed the foundation of the Maryland Muscle Machine’s workouts while he remained very near the apex of bodybuilding for more than a decade.
1. LOWER REPS
This winner of 20 pro titles baked up one of the all-time densest physiques with a recipe focused on low reps. He kept most of his working sets in the six-to-eight range. Sometimes he went even lower on load-up-the-bar tests of strength like bench presses. “Those lower reps always worked for me. I know other people aim for 10, but I grow by going heavy,” Levrone says. His emphasis on reaching failure at six to eight mirrored the dogma of Dorian Yates, whom he chased at the Olympia six times (1992–97) and was heir apparent to twice (1992, 1995). The difference was that HIT-man Yates then pushed those sets beyond failure with forced reps, rest-pause, and dropsets, while Levrone usually cranked out straight sets. And, as we’ll see, the Maryland Muscle Machine plowed through many more of those sets.
2. COMPOUND BASE
A lot of contemporary routines feature an isolation exercise to warm up the joints and pre-exhaust the targeted area before the compound exercises that follow. Or the program might mix up the exercise order from workout to workout, so, for example, deadlifts might kick off one workout, finish the next, and land somewhere in the middle of the workout after that. In contrast, Levrone almost always began routines with the compound exercise in which he could hoist the most metal and then progressed to that routine’s lightest isolation exercise. For example, the accompanying triceps workout goes from close-grip bench presses to lying triceps extensions to rope pushdowns to one-arm dumbbell extensions, pyramiding exercises from heaviest to lightest.
3. HIGHER SETS
In 1994, FLEX published a Levrone article that included his “favorite triceps workout.” If you’re drinking a protein shake now, swallow, or you’ll likely spray your whey. OK, here we go. That workout was made up of five exercises—four of which were types of pushdowns—and a total of 28 sets! He must’ve spent an hour at a cable station just to plow through his initial 24 sets of pushdowns. This was a bit of an anomaly. It was a year after he tore his pec benching heavy, and he was experimenting with higher reps (12 to 15 per set) and extreme volume. Still, even a more typical Levrone triceps routine, like the one included here, features 16 sets. And he did a similar quantity of higher-than-average volume for other body parts, including a matching 16 sets for biceps.
4. HEAVY METAL
“I was a heavy lifter from the start,” Levrone remembers. “Strength just came natural to me.” He had been hitting the iron seriously for only a year, but in 1990, at 220, he could bench press 465. While benching 550 in February 1993, he tore his right pec, but even that curtailed him only temporarily. Like pancakes and syrup, he and heavy metal just go together. You can watch a YouTube video of him incline pressing 455 for four strict reps (after doing 495-pound benches) only 12 days before the 1998 Mr. Olympia. Those are Ronnie Coleman-ish numbers, but at his largest the eight-time Mr. O outweighed the four-time almost-Mr. O by about 50 pounds. With his stupendous triceps and capacious deltoids, Levrone was a pressing machine. But he didn’t stop there. Every exercise was a strength challenge—hack squats, pulldowns, shrugs, everything. He passed his tests over and over again. Get stronger and get bigger.
5. STRICT FORM
One common pitfall of chasing progressively larger weights for low reps is a loosening of form. After all, if you can get six with strict form, you can probably do eight with loose form. And thus you go sliding down a slippery slope to a place where every set is more about moving metal than stimulating muscle. Ranges of motion shorten. Pecs are trampolines. Bars swing. The legs and lower back butt in, declare themselves bosses, and start running things. The Maryland Muscle Machine never went there. Yes, he hoisted prodigious weights, but he always did so for full, controlled reps. Form was meticulous. His pace was measured to best stress his targeted areas. “Strict form is mandatory,” he states. “The worst thing a person can do is start relying on sloppy form to move more weight. If you’re not stimulating the muscle, you’re wasting your time and setting yourself up for injuries.”
6. PUSH/PULL SPLIT
When Levrone began serious muscle-making in 1989—the same year his mother died and the same year he entered and won his first contest—the most popular means of organizing workouts was the push/pull system. He became a disciple. Though he tried other splits, it remained his preferred workout organizer throughout his career. Day 1 was chest, shoulders, and triceps (push). Day 2 was back and biceps (pull). Day 3 was legs. Day 4 was off. Then he started the push-pull-legs rotation again.
The logic of push/pull is that you train all the smaller muscles worked in pushing or pulling compound lifts on the same days. In contrast, if you do, say, chest presses (pecs, front delts, triceps) one day, shoulder presses (front delts, triceps) another day, and triceps a third day, you’ve spread front delt stress over two days and triceps work over three. By doing all of the above in the same workout, you increase recuperation time and can therefore cycle through workouts more quickly. Similar to Coleman, who hit each body part twice every seven days, the 1991 NPC Nationals champ who finished second to Coleman in two Olympias hit body parts twice every eight days.
Let’s return to No. 3 on our initial list of things that make Kevin Levrone unique. The 1990s was the deepest decade of pro bodybuilding talent. The generation that came of age in the wake of Pumping Iron, idolizing Arnold and enjoying the fruits of a fitness revolution, created a traffic jam of victory-worthy talent in the IFBB Pro League. One man fought through the legend congestion—which included Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, Flex Wheeler, and Vince Taylor—to come out on top of more open pro contests in the ’90s than any other. Kevin Levrone collected 19 of his 20 pro titles that decade.
But it wasn’t just the wins. It was also the losses. In 62 pro contests, he missed the posedown only once (’97 Arnold Classic). He finished third in his pro debut in ’92 (then won a bigger show a week later) and third, against a loaded lineup, in his final contest in 2003. That’s consistency. He brought that same steadiness to his training: basic exercises, heavy weights, low reps, higher-than- average volume, frequent work, and strict form. Week after week, year after year, it paid dividends. He constructed one of the densest physiques ever seen, and yet he always maintained his pleasing lines. Levrone may—if not for Yates and Coleman—have won four Sandows. Still, we should celebrate those four losses. Collectively, they attest to the consistent excellence of one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time.
LEVRONE’S QUARTET OF MR. OLYMPIA RUNNERUP FINISHES SPANS HIS ROOKIE FORAY TO HIS NEXT-TO-LAST PRO SEASON
1992 l Dorian Yates l Levrone was 27 when he stunned the bodybuilding world with HD conditioning and aesthetic mass in his debut O. At 228, he would never be leaner. Only Yates’ far superior back prevented the neophyte from hitting a home run on his first swing. With the edge in quads, arms, and delts, Levrone seemed destined for the throne.
1995 l Dorian Yates l The champ was breaking down, but many still consider this year’s edition his best combination of mass and cuts. At 240, Levrone gave up a decisive 15 pounds to Yates and was again eclipsed from the rear, even as he held his own from the front. Still, he was No. 2 in a one-for-the-ages lineup crowded with more than a dozen legends.
2000 l Ronnie Coleman l Despite some blurriness, the 264-pound champ’s third-straight Sandow was never in doubt. At 243, Levrone had built a back to match that of most anyone not named Coleman, and he flexed the best side shots in the show. His wheels were not as inflated nor as deeply treaded as they once were, but his silver-medal finish was a bounce back after his fourths in the previous three Olympias.
2002 l Ronnie Coleman l With heir apparent Jay Cutler in the audience and Coleman shockingly downsized and bleary, the crown was ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, Levrone, who matched the champ’s 245 pounds, was also not at his best. His legs, a strong point a decade earlier, were a liability—smaller and smoother. The decision was close. Levrone won both rounds at the finals but failed to make up his deficit from the two prejudging rounds.
LEVRONE’S TRICEPS ROUTINE