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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
The quote has been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and used as a slogan for Apple computers. I’ve always thought of it as appropriate to bodybuilding because most people overcomplicate it. But almost any nutritionist or trainer with successful clients will tell you that bodybuilding—whether putting on size in the off-season or dieting down before a contest—is actually pretty simple.
Tweaking and optimizing the basic formula of food plus training plus supplements gets tricky, which is why people hire those gurus, but the essential elements remain the same. Dennis James has adhered to this philosophy since the days he routinely stood on the Olympia stage. James has been successfully applying those same principles as the coach of Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay for the past two years. He walked us through their normal chest workout to show people that no scientific formula or complex routine can replace basic hard work in the gym.
Even at age 48, James still looks like a professional competitive bodybuilder. his protégé, Big Ramy, 335 pounds in these pictures shot 12 weeks before the 2014 IFBB New York Pro, keeps putting on size year after year. clearly James has training secrets he’s not sharing, right?
“No, we keepthe training pretty simple. The machines might vary week to week depending on his travel schedule, but the whole workout takes about 45 minutes to an hour max,” James says. Ramy works out at the world-famous Oxygen Gym in Kuwait, owned by Bader Boodai. The sheer size and variety of equipment makes Venice Beach’s Gold’s Gym look like a curves down the block in comparison.
“Good gyms in the U.S. have two or three varieties of chest-press machines,” James says, “but oxygen has at least a dozen of them, each focusing on different angles and movements. You don’t need that many machines, but it’s nice to have variety.”
Ramy and James train together only a handful of times throughout the year. James flies to Kuwait monthly, except during the final pre-contest phase when Ramy stays with him in Arizona. Ramy often finds himself training alone in Kuwait, so to maximize his workout intensity without the benefit of a spotter, he follows a system that James created: Menace Time under Tension, or MTuT. In MTuT you spend 10–20 seconds lifting the weight using a full range of motion, then coming back down as normal. Picture it as the opposite of what many call a controlled negative. What’s the rationale for this? “It’s a lot safer than negatives. You don’t want to risk an injury by lifting weights you can’t handle and then trying to let them down slowly on the negative,” James says. That makes no sense. Try this and tell me which is harder!”
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The chest workout always starts with the Hammer Strength incline press. James feels pretty strongly that this is the best machine for developing a thick upper chest because it isolates that part of the muscle. It’s also easier on your shoulders than free weights for that very reason—you’re using just the chest and not as many ancillary muscles during the lift. If you don’t have one at your gym, he suggests doing incline barbell presses instead.
After two warmup sets, they begin the MTUT phase. The first rep looks easy as James does a steady count of 20 while Ramy squeezes his shoulder blades together and contracts his abdominals to help keep his back fat on the pad. (You thought his tight waist just came from doing crunches? Think again. Every exercise is an opportunity to chisel in those abs.) Ramy presses the weight until his arms are just short of locking out, then lowers back down in a controlled manner, with no bouncing at the bottom. By Rep 10, Ramy’s arms are shaking a little when James reaches his count of 20. And that’s only the first set! By the final set, James reaches a count of 10 only because Ramy can’t press up any slower without letting go of the handles. I asked James if this is how the rest of the workout will run, because it looks brutal. “No, every workout we implement MTUT by feel. On a good day, it might be every set of every exercise. On other days it’s just one or two of the heaviest sets. You have to adapt to how your body will respond that day.”
The next big movement is the chest press machine, which hits not only the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, but also the forearms and a little bit of the front deltoids for stability. James preemptively answers a question I don’t even need to ask when he says, “Ramy never does barbell bench presses unless he’s traveling and there are no machines available. he’s not a powerlifer. People still want to measure you by the bench press, which I don’t understand.” both handle and seat positioning are very important on this machine. Position the seat too low and you may end up working your front deltoids harder than your chest. Position it too high and it ends up being a triceps exercise. Ensure the arms are parallel to the floor and the handles are at nipple level. Much like the Hammer Strength Incline Press, James advocates using MTuT on this after a quick 20-rep warmup. MTuT is more suited to machines than free weights because it’s safer. if all else fails and no spotter is available, you can release the weight and the machine will catch it.
This isone exercise for which they rarely use MTuT, due to a high possibility of injury. “We don’t do these very often because you don’t want to risk a pec tear,” James says, cautioning that you don’t need to go very heavy. “Technique is important on these. To get the maximum benefit, you still need to slow down the movement and keep your arms as straight as you can to stretch the pecs and activate those deep muscle fibers.” He prefers flyes lying down on a fat bench but you can do incline or decline ones to slightly vary the angle. “But doing them lying down hits the entire pec with just a little bit of work from the triceps and rear deltoid for stability. I find that using the incline bench for flyes incorporates the front deltoids a lot more than needed when we’re aiming to isolate the pecs,” James tells me.
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These are alwaysdone as the final chest exercise. James’ advice on this is simple: “Focus on crossing over each time and don’t drop your chest when you do that. I see so many guys doing these incorrectly and bending at the waist just to use a heavier weight. If you do that, the shoulders take over and you’re missing the point of these.” Ramy places the pulleys at shoulder height since that targets the entire chest. Another tip he gives is to not let the cables pull you backward. in other words, control the movement from start to finish.
I wondered how much Ramy changes his workout tempo, number of reps, or types of exercises as the show approaches, but James insisted, “We don’t change a lot with training. As soon as you start dieting, people assume you need to do high reps with lighter weights. Ramy lifts the same as in the off-season, but we lower his carbs and add cardio.” In James’ view, dropsets, supersets, and high reps on low carbs just flattens out the athlete, something to avoid coming into a show. There’s no denying that under James’ tutelage, Big Ramy keeps growing and improving. Maybe there’s something to be said for keeping it simple! FLEX