Darren Burns

It’s been said that the line separating good athletes from great is not innate ability, hard work, or even lucky breaks. All those factors can and do contribute, but what truly makes the difference is the willingness to attend to the little, seemingly insignificant things when no one else is paying attention. 

Think Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant still draining 15-footers long after their teammates and coaches have headed home. Wayne Gretzky wolfing down dinner as a kid with his skates still on so he could stick to an exhaustive practice regimen. Mariano Rivera pitching until every minute detail of his delivery became ingrained and infinitely repeatable, allowing him to play at an age long past the typical baseball prime. 

For Phil Heath, earning four Sandow trophies didn’t happen because he was simply anointed the heir to the throne by the bodybuilding media. He didn’t stroll of the basketball court at the University of Denver, where he was a starting shooting guard, and onto an NPC stage to collect his pro card. 

No, to construct his worldbeating physique, Heath works. For him, training isn’t a slapdash af air, but a well-honed process. Every exercise represents a gear perfectly fit with the next. Every set is a tool with which to craft a new seam of muscle mass. No detail is spared, and nary an extra rep is ever left on the gym floor. 

For evidence? Well, he stands on two pillars of proof. Because in bodybuilding, nowhere does supreme dedication to detail show than in the development of the thighs. It’s there that the serious are culled from the masses and elevated to the next level. 

Click "Next Page" for Phil Heath's Leg Routine >>

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Darren Burns


Basketball players are built for endurance and explosive leaping ability. It’s not the typical recipe for tape-measure-stretching size. And indeed, in his early stages of weight training for mass, Heath had to reassess and regroup. And it’s there that the foundations of his current leg workout were born. 

Phil's legs are given priority treatment, coming first in his six-day training split—quads in the late morning, hamstrings and calves on the same day in the early evening around 7 p.m. He needs every moment of rest in between, considering the gauntlet he puts his hams through…for good reason, of course. 

“Playing basketball in college led me to be more quad dominant,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of lifters face the same issue. You can end up having knee problems because of that imbalance in strength between quads and hams. I wouldn’t say it’s a trouble spot, but the back of my legs require a lot of attention.” 

It has also necessitated experimentation, as he strove to settle the age-old question: Which is better for legs—higher reps or heavier weight? The answer? Well, both. “Squats, for instance, I’ll sometimes go with the heaviest weight I can for 20 reps,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is pump them, pushing a ton of blood volume into my quads. I’ve been able to create a lot of roundness in the muscle bellies, as opposed to just prompting more density with heavy, low-rep training.” 

That, he says, is a lesson anyone can benefit from. “You need to make sure you’re working with different rep ranges, angles, and exercises to find out what produces results for you,” he says. “A lot of guys can squat 500, 600 pounds but have relative twigs for legs—they obviously need more volume. And other guys are always doing higher reps, but should be following a periodization program, where they do a 10-8-6-4-rep program to build strength every now and again throughout the year.”

The biggest factor, though, comes down to this: How bad do you want big legs? “It’s form and failure,” he says. “You need to make sure you’re getting a good range of motion, and leaving everything on the gym floor. Any less, and you’re just cheating yourself.” 

FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Leg Extension & Standing Single-Leg Curl!

Darren Burns


5-6 sets (1-2 warmups and 4 working sets), 12-15 reps, up to full stack

PHIL'S TAKE “This is a good warmup, and it’s a pre-exhaustion move to target my quads before squats and the other compound exercises. (In those latter moves) the muscles will then be pushed to their limits faster.”

DO IT RIGHT Phil adjusts the seat for his prodigious frame, then sits, tucking the crook between his feet and lower leg underneath the pads. With his head focused forward, he grasps both handles for stability, then powerfully flexes his quadriceps to straighten his legs. Squeezing hard at the top, he bends his knees to lower the weight, stopping before the stack touches down and initiating the next rep.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS One key with leg extensions is walking the line between an “explosive rep” and doing your sets in a sloppy fashion. “You don’t want to hyperextend your knees at the top,” Heath warns. “Think of repping with controlled explosiveness.”

INTENSITY TIP “I don’t do much out of the ordinary for these, but you can hold the peak contraction for 1–2 seconds at the top of each rep for extra emphasis.” 


5 sets, 10–15 reps, various weights

PHIL’S TAKE “I’ll do this one because it can help even out imbalances. Like your biceps, your hamstrings might not always develop at an even pace, so I can give extra reps to one or the other as needed.”

DO IT RIGHT Taking position on a standing leg curl machine, Phil places the working leg so that the pad sits in the area of the Achilles, then grasps both handles while keeping his non-working leg anchored. Flexing at just his knee joint, he brings the weight up as far as he can, envisioning his hamstring flexing like his aforementioned biceps muscle, then slowly releasing. He is sure not to let the weight stack touch down between reps, which would dissipate the muscle tension.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS If your body is sliding and you’re moving around in an effort to gain leverage as you lift, you’re going too heavy. Knock the weight back, and concentrate on the hamstrings taking on all of the efort.

INTENSITY TIP “You might have a tendency to ‘kick up’ the weight, but instead, keep the contraction deliberate and under control. Tempo is important on this exercise,make sure it’s steady and not a sudden, out-of- control burst to finish the lift.” 

FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Hack Squat!

Darren Burns


7 sets, 15 reps, 360-450 lbs, choosing one weight and sticking with it

PHIL’S TAKE “I like this move for adding sweep to my outer quads.”

DO IT RIGHT Phil settles himself in a hack squat machine, placing his shoulders and back against the pads while placing his feet no more than 12 inches apart in the center of the platform. Tensing his body and holding his core tight, he unlocks the safety bars, lowering himself downward by bending his knees and engaging his hips. After reaching the bottom-out position, he strongly flexes his thighs and glutes to drive the sled upward until he reaches a standing position, with his knees remaining just slightly bent to protect them from hyperextension.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS Simply put, don’t try to outsmart the machine. That means there’s no need for extreme foot positions near the edge of the platform, or one-leg squats, or aggressive intensity techniques like forced reps. “You can get a lot out of hack squats just by mastering the basics,” Heath contends. “Just realize that you’re not smarter than the engineers who originally designed the machine.”

INTENSITY TIP “While I usually take a minute to 90 seconds or so of rest between sets, for hack squats I cut down the time to 40 seconds, and I stick to it. I clock myself, and at 40 seconds I’m back at it for the next set.” 
FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Barbell Squat and Seated Leg Curl!

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4 sets, 20 reps, 225–405 pounds

PHIL’S TAKE “This is an old favorite that I added back in the last couple of years. I’ve seen a lot of new growth from it.”

DO IT RIGHT Setting up shop within a power rack, Phil steps underneath and up into the bar so that it rests across his upper back just above his shoulder blades, then disengages it from the supports. Stepping back into a shoulder-width stance, knees slightly bent, and toes turned out slightly, he stiffens his body and flexes his core. From there, he shifts his hips back and bends his knees to lower his body, stopping to reverse once his thighs reach a point parallel to the floor or just below. He reverses motion by forcefully extending his hips and knees, driving through his heels to reach a standing position.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS The mistake most often seen in gyms nationwide is guys piling on more weight than they can reasonably control, leading to awkward (and dangerous) contortions to get the barbell up, as well as a shortening of the range of motion. The other mistake? Not doing squats at all. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable, challenging—and thus, extremely productive—exercise no one should discard out of hand.

INTENSITY TIP “Adding intensity techniques for squats is really unnecessary. I don’t do anything like dropsets, partials…nothing extra, nothing fancy. I just focus on doing 20 every set, no matter what.” 


5 sets, 10–15 reps, up to full stack

PHIL’S TAKE “This is always cool, I like this move. It’s straightforward and efective. I make sure to hold a 1–2 second contraction at the very bottom.”

DO IT RIGHT Phil sets himself in the machine with the pads again at the inward rounding area of the Achilles. Breathing deeply, he flexes both ham- strings to bring the pads downward in an arc, as far as he can go. “I use the handles on this one, because holding on means you can really squeeze out that contraction,” he says. “I’ll also sit up a little higher in the seat to make sure I have a full range of motion.”

ERRORS & OMISSIONS Because you’re locking your thighs into position, you need to take extra care that it’s not causing you to hyper-extend the knees at the top. Always make sure you maintain a slight bend at the apex of the exercise, and don’t let the stack touch down between reps.

INTENSITY TIP “If you don’t have the single-leg hamstring curl machine at your gym, you can do one leg at a time on either this machine or the lying leg curl. That way, you won’t have a stronger leg compensating for a weaker side.” 

FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Leg Press and Dumbbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift!

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4 sets, 12-15 reps, 270-540 pounds

PHIL’S TAKE “This is a natural follow-up to barbell squats.”

DO IT RIGHT Taking a seat on the leg press machine, Phil places his feet shoulder-width apart in the center of the platform. With his chest elevated and lower back flat, he straightens his knees and unlocks the safeties. He then lowers the weight, bringing his kneecaps toward his chest as deep as he can go, before extending in a powerful motion to a point just before his legs lock out.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS Flexibility can be an issue—when you bring your knees toward your chest, you don’t want your lower back to curl up of the back pad, which can compromise your spine. If this is an issue for you, you’ll want to add lower-body stretching as part of your regimen.

INTENSITY TIP “I’ll vary my foot position on this exercise, sometimes going a few inches wider than shoulder width. You can also try putting your feet a bit higher on the platform for a different feel in your quads.” 


5 sets, 10-15 reps, 70-120 pound dumbbells

PHIL'S TAKE “I end my hamstrings workout with stiff-legs, another five sets. It’s a lot of volume in this workout, but that’s what my hamstrings have responded to.”

DO IT RIGHT Standing with feet shoulder-width apart and holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms at his sides, palms facing in, Heath bends at the hips. As he lowers himself, dumbbells close to his legs throughout, he maintains the arch in his lower back and keeps his spine straight—all of which is key to engage your hams and not shift the burden to your lower-back muscles. Heath stops the descent when the dumbbells reach shin level, with his torso roughly parallel to the floor. From here, he fires his hams and glutes while pushing his hips forward to bring himself back to a standing position.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS “A lot of guys don’t think they really feel this exercise in their hamstrings,” Heath says. “You have to relax, poke your butt out, and let your arms hang down with the dumbbells…get that stretch. You also want to keep the weights close to you, almost dragging them along your body.”

INTENSITY TIP “If you do these without thinking about them, you won’t get much. Instead, on every rep, mindfully flex your hamstrings and glutes. Keep the pressure on them throughout the set.”

FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Walking Lunge!

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2 sets, 50 yards, 135 pounds

PHIL’S TAKE “I take this one outside, it’s my finisher.”

DO IT RIGHT Holding a barbell across his upper back, Phil starts at one end of the gym parking lot, stepping forward with one foot and dropping into a deep lunge. He then pushes of with his back foot to bring it even and then quickly past the lead leg, basically stepping without coming to a standing position between each. He’ll go the length of the lot and back, then rest and repeat once before wrapping his quad session.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS When you step forward, be wary of allowing your front knee to track out past your toes, which puts your knee joint in an awkward position. The easy fix? Take a longer step forward.

INTENSITY TIP “Intensity in this exercise comes from concentrating on your form and continuously moving ahead without stops for rest.”

FLEXOnline breaks down Phil Heath's leg routine, exercise by exercise. Click "Next Page" for: Lying Leg Curl!

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6–7 sets (1–2 warm-ups and 5 working sets), 10–15 reps, pyramiding up to full stack

PHIL’S TAKE “I do these straightforward, nothing fancy at all. You see guys doing all these tricks with the angle of their feet, and you look at their hamstrings and you’re not impressed. What does that tell you?”

DO IT RIGHT Phil lies facedown on a leg curl machine, positioning his Achilles tendons below the footpads, his knees just of the edge of the bench. Lightly grasping the handles for balance, he bends his knees slightly to elevate the weight stack. From this starting position, he engages both hamstrings to bring the pads all the way to his glutes before reversing the motion.

ERRORS & OMISSIONS Bodybuilders do different things to change up this exercise, but Phil thinks that’s a mistake in many cases. “I look at those people and say, Can you just do the exercise? I mean, why do you have to add all this exotic stuff? It’s one of two reasons—maybe you’re nursing an injury, which is fair enough, or you’re just too chicken to try and work your way up to the whole stack.”

INTENSITY TIP “If you want to make it more difficult, don’t use the handles at all—just let your arms hang. If you have a training partner, have him press down on your waist. Then it’s all hamstrings.” – FLEX