Phil Heath's Olympia-Winning Wheels

Photos by Per Bernal

For years after he won the 2005 USA, his most pressing obligation on a typical day was another round of Guitar Hero. But that was before he’d won one Sandow, let alone five, before he was president of Gifted Nutrition, before the continuous travel, the barrage of endorsements and obligations and conference calls. Now he has to wedge the time in, sometimes while driving to the gym, sometimes just after a meal and just before another call on another matter.

After some catching up, our conversation segues to the Denver Broncos, reigning Super Bowl champs and the Gift’s home team. They need to re-sign key free agents, like Von Miller, but players want to cash in once they get a ring. “Everyone wants to get paid as much as they can, but where else are they going to go?” he asks. “They’re Super Bowl champs. Why wouldn’t they want to stay here and try to win again?” There’s an obvious correlation to the five-time and reigning Mr. Olympia. How much does Heath pursue other career opportunities, and how much does he focus on his physique? “For me, the Olympia always comes first. I want to get that record.” The record for Mr. Olympia victories is eight, jointly held by Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman.

The most noticeable difference in Heath’s physique last year was the increased fullness in his thighs. Knowing this was his primary training focus—with two weekly workouts, twice as many as other body parts—I ask him why he’s so legcentric. “In order to stay on top, you always have to assess the competition,” he answers. “I felt like no one could compete with me in the roundness of arms and shoulders and things like that, but I did feel like legs could be an edge for someone else. If you’re fighting, you want to take away someone else’s strength. It doesn’t mean I have to be a perfect 10, but if he’s a 9 and I’m an 8 1/2 or a 9, then I’m OK because he has to deal with my strengths.”



FLEX: Did you train them twice per week all year round?

Heath: When I could. It was tough to always do that in the off-season with all my traveling. But I definitely did that during my [Olympia] prep. I was trying to get as much volume as I could. Moving forward, it’s going to be the same this year.

You’ve always liked front squats more than back squats,  which is the opposite of most bodybuilders. Why do you prefer fronts?

I never wanted to have big glutes. Fronts work my glutes less and my quads more. Also, I noticed that my form was better as far as getting my ass down when doing fronts instead of backs. With back squats, usually my lower back was too tight or my hips were off or whatever. I’ve never seemed to be able to perfect the back squat, but with the front squat I’ve never had an issue.

But you still do back squats. How much do you work up to?

Four plates [405]. Can I do five plates [495] for eight to 10 reps? Yeah. But for me it’s kind of pointless. I did it last year, but it was scary because I was thinking, ‘How much is my lower back going to hurt after this?’ I’m never going to be a guy with a crazy big squat, and I’ve acknowledged that to myself. Right now, it’s critical that I don’t get hurt but at the same time create high intensity. Three or four plates—if I can get 15 out of that, that’s good enough for me.



This brings us to a discussion of Ronnie Coleman, who underwent his seventh surgery since retiring in 2007. The February operation, which lasted 11 hours, was the fourth one for his back (the other three were for his hips and neck). "You still wanna be eight-time Mr. Olympia?” Coleman asked on Instagram next to an X-ray of his screwed-together spine. “As you can see, the price you have to pay is pretty painful. But, of course, a champion like myself wouldn’t have it no other way.” During his reign, Coleman was almost as celebrated for his stupendous strength as his contest domination. Four plates on the squat was a warmup. He went as heavy as 800 for a double, and he hoisted over 600 for sets of 10 in workout after workout, year after year. 

“I don’t know if it is worth it.” “I think I’d say no. I think there comes a time when 800-pound deadlifts and squats and four or five plates on bentover rows, it’s just not worth it. That kind of training was cool for Dorian [Yates] too, until he tore his biceps. Staying injury-free is a big thing for me. I want to be healthy during my career and after my career. That’s not to say that being Mr. Olympia is less important to me than it was to Ronnie. I just don’t think you have to lift all those crazy weights.”

Why do you do two types of leg presses?

Because Hany [Rambod] told me to. [laughs] Seriously, I feel them differently. With the vertical, it’s much more challenging for me, but it feels good. On the angled, I can do one-leg or two-leg. But on the vertical, it’s always two-leg, and it’s a very strict range of motion with everything locked in. Essentially, it just comes down to doing more than one angle. 



Is the same true of your superset of two types of hack squats?

Yeah. They just work my legs slightly differently. One is the standard type with the pads over the shoulders. The other is the kind without pads where you grab handles. That one I feel is more like a sissy squat. I keep my feet close together on both of those to work the outer sweeps.

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of your erupting on the scene with wins at the Jr. Nationals and USA. How has your leg training changed over the last decade?

I trained only once per week back in ’06. I still did both quads and hams together. Basically, I did a lot of the same movements, but with different rep ranges. I tried every rep range there was back then because you have to remember I was basically only in my second year of bodybuilding. I was just trying anything to see what fit. I was definitely doing a lot of lower reps because I was really focused on strength, just ego training, hanging out with the guys. If someone did 405 in the back squat, I’d try to do it in the front squat. Back then it wasn’t that I had no fear, it was that I had no intelligence.

Including calves, you do 15 exercises in each leg workout. Do you think most bodybuilders don’t do enough variety for legs?

I just think that most people get so damn tired that they’re like, ‘Fuck it. I’ve been giving it all I have on these squats, and that’s enough.’ And for me getting ready for the Olympia, I don’t really know what enough is. I have to be respectful of the opposition. I have to think that they’re willing to do twice as much as me. People could be tired, they could be lazy, they could think they’re doing enough, but legs are the biggest body part. They’re half your body. There’s a lot of different muscles there. It takes different exercises to hit all those muscles. Don’t be afraid of overtraining. As long as you get enough rest and food, you’ll be good. Be afraid of undertraining.



Will your leg training change this year?

It’ll be more painful, and I don’t mean that to be funny. Every leg workout is going to be hell. And they have to be. With my work schedule now, with my supplement company and other obligations, I only have one or two hours a day to dedicate to training. I used to have five or six hours, so I could go back to the gym if I had to. But now if I don’t get it done within one or two hours, I failed for the day. So I’m really no different from the typical person who’s reading FLEX. I don’t have much time, so if I’m not getting after it, I just wasted that day’s opportunity to stimulate growth. And I can’t do that.

A few random things about Mr. O’s leg workouts:

  • He performs his first set of walking lunges with only body weight to get the technique down, and he does subsequent sets with a barbell loaded to 135.
  • On leg curls, he keeps his toes pointed so his calves are flexed, which, in turn, keeps his hamstrings tensed.
  • He may do stiff-leg deadlifts with either a barbell or two dumbbells.
  • Seated leg curls are performed FST-7 style: seven sets with only 30 seconds of rest between sets.
  • Last year, he added raises on a tibia machine to bring out separation in the front of his lower legs.
  • In the offseason, he typically does eight to 10 reps per set on quadriceps and hamstring exercises.

Heath, who skipped the Olympia his first two pro years because he didn’t want to compete until he could contend, feels the best strategy for everyone chasing him, especially those now in their 40s, is to try to win the Arnold, to get paid there and on other stages. Don’t target only the Olympia, like him, for the simple reason that he plans to win the ultimate title another four or five times.

“I’m in a really good spot,” he says. “If I improve, no one is going to catch me. The mission is to be my best ever this year and put distance between me and everyone else and carry that over to the record.”


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Lying Leg Curl | SETS: 4 REPS: 15

Standing Leg Curl SETS: 4 REPS: 12–15

Stiff-leg Deadlift SETS: 3-4 REPS: 10–12

Seated Leg Curl SETS: 7* REPS: 10

*Performed with only 30 seconds’ rest between sets.


Leg Extension SETS: 4 | REPS: 15–20

Back or Front Squat SETS: 3 REPS: 15–20

Vertical Leg Press SETS: 3 REPS: 12–15

45-degree Leg Press SETS: 3 REPS: 12–15

Hack Squat Type 1 SETS: REPS: 12-15

superset with

Hack Squat Type 2 SETS: REPS: 12-15

Walking Lunge SETS: 3–4 REPS: 30 steps


Seated Calf Raise SETS: 3 REPS: 20

Standing Calf Raise SETS: 3 REPS: 20

Calf Extension SETS: 3 REPS: 20

Tibia Raise SETS: 2 REPS: 25


Monday | Chest

Tuesday Back

Wednesday Shoulders

Thursday Legs

Friday Off or Arms

Saturday Off or Arms

Sunday Legs

2016 Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend

2016 Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend

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