Phil Heath's Back Attack

You can’t have everything. That’s one thing bodybuilding teaches you—as if you didn’t already know. Phil Heath was gifted with many genetic advantages. But the one present the Gift didn’t get was broad clavicles. Therefore, by Mr. Olympia standards, he’s never going to have wide-screen lats. And yet in each of his five Olympia victories he’s schooled his toughest competition in the two rear shots, especially the crucial rear double biceps—the pose that shows the most. Heath does it with density, shape, and details—all those ridges and divots that draw your eyes away from the bigger canvases nearby. Three weeks before the Olympia, we journeyed to Armbrust Gym in suburban Denver to watch Heath blast back as he pursued yet another Sandow. The workout—endured with the encouragement of his trainer, Hany Rambod—was a 30-set barrage, striking his back with a panoply of exercises, working all the angles. Set after set, rep after rep, the Gift furthered his quest to be his best and remain atop the bodybuilding universe.

FLEX: You did eight exercises and 30 sets in this back workout. Why have you increased your volume so dramatically?

PHIL HEATH: I wish someone would’ve filmed that damn workout, because it was one of the craziest days ever [Laughs]. This was a pre-contest workout. In the offseason, I’ll probably do only five or six of those exercises and go with lower reps, usually around five to eight, and take longer between sets. But that’s still more than 20 sets. If I do only the traditional 12 to 16 sets, it’s boring. I’ll be done in 45 minutes on something like that. So I just keep going, keep putting in the work.

This prep, I never trained harder. I just stayed in the gym. I didn’t have to do as much cardio this time, probably because I was doing more volume and working faster. And to be honest, Greg, I was probably just training pissed off. You know, obviously, I had a lot of stuff going on this year, both personally and business-wise, so looking back I went through some workouts just taking all that out in the gym, putting all those frustrations to good use and letting them fuel my workouts. And this was one of those workouts. I was just making sure I exhausted every part of every muscle from every angle, just going all out to stay Mr. Olympia.

FLEX: You added a new exercise to the start of your workout. Why do you kick off your routine with machine pullovers?

PHIL HEATH: I saw a lot of pictures of [six-time Mr. Olympia] Dorian [Yates] doing machine pullovers, and he had an amazing back, so I thought I’d try them. I feel like they really activate my lats and also stretch out and work the whole rib-cage area. I tried doing them at the end of the workout, but I like doing them at the beginning. It’s that rare back exercise that takes your arms out of it, so you can really focus on them and pre-exhaust your lats before you move on to pulldowns and rows, where your arms are going to be involved.


Phil heath reverse grip barbell rows

FLEX: Why do you prefer an underhand grip for barbell rows?

PHIL HEATH: Although underhand barbell rows activate the biceps more [than overhand rows], I feel like they also give me more lat thickness. I feel like I can get the elbows a little farther back and pull lower into my waist with my hands closer to my body. That all gives me more inner- and lower-lat activation. I started doing those in late 2007, and I remember a lot of people talking about how much my back improved in 2008 at the Ironman and the Arnold, so I just keep going back to them. They’ve worked well for me.

FLEX: How heavy do you go on those?

PHIL HEATH: I go up to three plates [315 pounds]. I never go any heavier than that. If you go too heavy on rows, you can’t feel the muscles working, and you’re really risking injury.

Phil heath seated rows2

FLEX: What’s your focus when you’re doing the low-cable rows with a V-handle?

PHIL HEATH: I’m trying to get a really good stretch at the beginning of each rep but then pull the handle in real close to my waist on contractions. That good contraction is going to bring out that lower-lat thickness. For this show, I was trying to focus on a lot of rowing movements and just really demolish that lower area. 


FLEX: After that you went right into back extensions.

Phil heath hyper extensions
PHIL HEATH: Because I don’t do deadlifts, I felt like I needed some better stability in my lower back. And over the years I’ve gained a lot of size, and I was having a lot of lower-back issues. 

I knew I obviously needed a stronger lower back, so I started doing these. The other thing is, I really wanted to etch out as much detail in the spinal erectors as possible. I notice that a lot of guys have lower-lat thickness, but it’s almost like their lats hang so much that you don’t see any type of real Christmas tree. That Christmas tree starts with the spinal erectors, not just the inner lower lats, so I wanted to etch out that detail with hypers [aka back extensions]. I would do 15 with a weight, like 45 pounds, and then I’d drop the weight and go to failure on just body-weight reps and get at least 10 more. And it would just burn like hell.

FLEX: Most guys do back extensions last, but you’re doing them right in the middle of your routine.

PHIL HEATH: Why do most guys do them last? Well, because they figure they’re not strong enough to do the different compound exercises if they exhaust their lower back first. So I thought I’d try a different order and see what happens. And it’s worked great. Mentally, it forces me to try harder on the hypers and everything that comes after. I have to, because it’s going to be discouraging if I can’t lift the same weight that I normally would.


Phil heath hany rambod lat pulldowns

FLEX: Next up you did two different types of pulldowns. Why do one after the other?

PHIL HEATH: These really work my lats in different ways. First, I used the Hoist plate-loaded pulldown, which sort of mimics a pullup. The seat rises up at contractions. I really like that machine, because it takes momentum out of it. I can actually hold the contractions, and that’s why I use it. In this workout, I took a wide grip, but it has three handles, so you can get different grips.

Next up I did front pulldowns with a shorter parallel-grip bar. I’m always trying different angles, different handles. I recommend people do that, because every angle, every machine, every handle is going to hit your back in a different way, and your back is a complex area. That exercise in particular I’ve been doing for quite some time. I just feel like I get a good contraction with that, and I can really squeeze and also work the mid-back.

Phil heath seated rows

FLEX: Then you went to another plate-loaded Hoist machine for rows.

PHIL HEATH: It’s great how those Hoist machines work. As you pull back, the seat moves forward, so that action makes certain you get a strong contraction on every rep. That machine is more for the outer lats, but I think it hits the whole back. It has thick handles, so you can hang on better than V-bars and things like that. You don’t have to use straps.

FLEX: You didn’t use wrist straps at all in this workout.

PHIL HEATH: This year was just different. I was trying different things, so there were back workouts I didn’t use straps at all. I use Fat Gripz a lot in the off-season, and that helps with my grip strength.

FLEX: But you did wear a belt on all eight exercises, even the back extensions. Is that for support or to keep your waist in?

PHIL HEATH: Both. I pretty much always wear a belt when I’m training. I’m trying to obviously keep everything as tight as I can. Most important, I’m just trying to keep my lower back stable. The last thing I want to do is ruin my back, because it’s very, very easy to do. I’m trying to be like Dexter [Jackson] and see how long I can do this.

FLEX: Do you want to do it as long as Dexter?

PHIL HEATH: No way. There’s no way I’ll still be doing this [competing] when I’m his age. But, still, I want to go as long as I can, as long as I can be Mr. Olympia.


Phil lat pulldowns

FLEX: Your last exercise was underhand pulldowns.

PHIL HEATH: I started getting a lot of good lat thickness off this exercise. I know I used to watch Jay [Cutler] do them. With that underhand grip, I feel it in my lower lats, and it gives me a longer range of motion, so it’s good to end on. I incorporate a lot of underhand movements in my back routine, because I just feel they work well for me.

FLEX: All your exercises were bilateral. Do you still do one-arm dumbbell rows?

PHIL HEATH: I don’t do a lot of one-arm dumbbells anymore, just because I notice they engage my obliques a lot, and I want to keep my waist in. I’ll do them maybe every third week, and I do them very strict, so I’m not twisting my waist. But they’re not something I do a lot.

FLEX: You know you’re never going to be the widest guy on the Olympia stage. Guys like Big Ramy and Dennis Wolf are  much wider. Is it your focus to always maximize density and details to win back comparisons?

PHIL HEATH: Yeah. That’s really how I’ve been winning. So I’m not going to change that, as long as it keeps working. It’s like [eight-time Mr. Olympia] Lee Haney told me, “They chase you, you’re not chasing them.” So I had to analyze how I’m beating these guys. Well, I’m beating them on symmetry and detail and that overall pop. So that’s what I’m going to train for, because I know that’s something they can’t have. They’re probably not even born with that. So I just have to continue to do what’s working. You got to stay smart and not do anything stupid—which is easier said than done.


Phil Heath's Back Attack


Machine Pullover: 4 sets, 12 reps

Barbell Row: 4 sets, 8–10 reps

Low-cable Row: 3 sets, 8–10 reps

Back Extension: 3 sets, 25+ reps * 

Wide-grip Pulldown: 4 sets, 8–10 reps

Parallel-grip Pulldown: 4 sets, 8–10 reps

Machine Row: 4 sets, 8–10 reps

Underhand Pulldown: 4 sets, 8–10 reps

*15 weighted, followed by 10-plus unweighted


Monday: Shoulders

Tuesday: Legs

Wednesday: Back

Thursday: Chest

Friday: Legs

Saturday: Arms

Sunday: Off