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It wasn’t always like this. When I ﬁrst met 20-year-old Flex Lewis in the autumn of 2004, the Welsh Dragon was undefeated in physique contests in his native United Kingdom. But all the focus was on his pro-caliber legs (those calves!) and pleasing structure. His arms were his most glaring weakness. Cut to the autumn of 2012 when he won his ﬁrst Olympia 212 Showdown title. His biceps and triceps had completed their improbable journey from debilitating weakness to pose-winning strength. In fact, they were so large that he rarely trained them any more.
People still talk about his calves. But they’re no longer all people talk about. Because he so often ﬂexes his arms in photos for fans, they now garner much of the attention. If observers remember him when he ﬁrst burst onto the bodybuilding scene in the March 2005 pages of FLEX, they surely wonder how the Welsh Dragon could’ve transformed his weakness into a strength and what he does to maintain arm superiority.
MIND TO MUSCLE
Over and over again when I hear bodybuilders speak of bringing up weak points, the most important factor is the mind-to-muscle connection. It’s as if at some point the proverbial light bulb went of and they forgot about the weight and started truly focusing on the muscle. Typically, they’d spent too much time hoisting ever-heavier metal, and they never truly connected with the body part. Then, when they reduced the resistance and learned how to feel their targeted ﬂesh working from stretch to contraction on every rep, their gains increased substantially. “I’ve just recently learned how to really hit my chest so my front delts don’t take over,” Lewis states. “Arms were the ﬁrst area where I really learned how to focus on them in a way I was missing before.
“Before, my forearms would always take over. And then I started doing certain exercises and really squeezing, and I became less concerned with the weights. And over time I taught myself to squeeze and get connected with the muscles, and the weights obviously came back up with time. That mind-to-muscle connection was the most important thing. Another thing I did was I trained biceps on their own days, and I trained triceps on their own days. So I gave a lot of time to my arms each week, and I hit biceps and triceps alone to really focus on each muscle.”
Today, Lewis trains triceps and biceps together, beginning with the former. But he relies on a technique he adopted years ago to make certain his triceps are warmed up, isolated, and maximally pumped. By utilizing the Weider Giant Set Principle, he attacks his tri’s with ﬁve isolation exercises in rotation. Giant sets can be difficult to perform if you need to rush from one station to the next. However, Lewis can do all ﬁve of his exercises in the same spot with the same overhead cable. He starts with rope pushdowns, spreading the rope ends as wide as possible at contractions.
Then come rope extensions, keeping the ropes together throughout each rep. (Because this pushdown method is easier than the ﬁrst, he can use the same weight for both exercises.) Then he replaces the rope with an EZ-bar handle. He does one set of pushdowns overhand and another set (with a lighter weight) underhand. Finally, he turns around and faces away from the weight stack, grabs either the EZ-bar or the rope, leans forward, and presses the bar out, parallel to the ﬂ oor, cranking out cable triceps extensions.
Lewis tallies 20 reps of each exercise, only halting the toil long enough to shift his position or switch in a different handle. He pauses for two minutes between giants sets. “I always do a warmup giant set,” he states. “And then I do three or four working giant sets. So, all told, including warmups, I’m doing either 400 or 500 reps in short order. Afterward, my triceps are already fully pumped, and I’ve spent a lot of reps targeting strong contractions to really focus on my tri’s.”
COMPOUNDING THE PAIN
After doing ﬁve isolation exercises in 100-rep rotations, Lewis has pre-exhausted his triceps. So next up he thoroughly toasts his tri’s with two compound exercises: close-grip bench presses and dips. Both of these also hit the chest and front deltoids, but after his 400- or 500-rep cable barrage, his arms are going to give out long before he taxes anything else.
“With close-grip benches, I pyramid, using heavier weights and fewer reps. I go to no fewer than eight reps, and I may get forced reps on the last two. I tend to use the Smith machine. I ﬂip an incline bench (set in the ﬂat position) around. And I angle the seat part up, and that’s where I put my head. That way, I can more easily watch what’s happening. My grip is set by touching my thumbs. So I take a grip that is about two thumbs apart. Some people who are taller than me may have two inches between thumb-to-thumb, but anything more than that I think hits the chest more and the triceps less. And if I use the Smith machine, I come down to the lowest part of my pecs. I just feel that gives me the best stretch for my triceps.”
Of his other compound triceps exercise, Lewis avers: “I love dips. I do these with just my body weight. I try to get high reps, and I go to failure on every set. I try to eliminate my chest as much as I can. I use dips on chest day, but then I dramatically lean forward. For triceps, I keep my body as upright as possible. If I don’t do body-weight dips, I’ll do machine dips. Again, I keep my rep-range to 20-plus. But I tend to squeeze a lot more on these, especially on the ﬁnal two or three reps of sets. I’ll hold and squeeze as hard as I can.”
“I love dumbbell curls,” the Welsh Dragon opines. He begins his biceps routine with standing alternate dumbbell curls. “A lot of people just throw the weight up. Myself, I try to get a full range of motion, and I turn my hand as much as I can, and hold for a second and squeeze.” The turning of the wrist from palms facing the body’s center plane to palms facing backward and then tilted slightly outward is known as supination. In addition to elbow ﬂexion, this is the other key function of the biceps.
Doing a dumbbell curl without supination is like eating cake without the icing, because that wrist twist is the greatest advantage of dumbbell curls over two-arm curls. After three or four sets of alternate dumbbell curls, Lewis follows with two sets of curling the dumbbells simultaneously.
The world’s best 212-or-under bodybuilder performs two other free-weight basics for biceps: EZ-bar curls and hammer curls. When doing the EZ-bar curls, he is cognizant of always getting a slight squeeze at contractions. The hammer curls are done seated and alternating his left and right arms. Hammer curling, which works the brachioradialis of the lower arms in addition to the biceps and brachialis of the upper arms, is as close as the Welsh Dragon gets to training his forearms—which are among the best of all time. As with most arm exercises, he keeps the reps relatively high—in the 12–20 range—on both EZ-bar curls and hammer curls.
Between the EZ-bar and hammer curls, Lewis is likely to switch it up, doing a non-free-weight exercise with an unorthodox rep range. He likes two-arm cable curls with an EZ-bar handle. But there are two factors that make these unique. First, he makes them 21 curls: seven reps that go from full stretches to halfway up, followed by seven reps that go from halfway up to full contraction, topped off by seven full reps.
This intense rep scheme is enough for most bodybuilders. But the Olympia 212 Showdown champ doesn’t stop there. He tops it off with several rest-pause reps. These are performed by pausing just long enough after each rep to regain the strength for another rep. “I may get three, may get five, may get more,” he states, “but every one of those reps is exploded up and then squeezed at the top, and I get a semi-negative on the way down. I lower as slow as I can, but after the 21s my arms are spent, so it’s hard to go real slow.”
As evidenced by the preceding routine, when Flex Lewis would hit arms, he put his everything into those workouts. And this was the style of training—higher reps, greater intensity, a focus on contractions and staying connected to the muscles—that brought his arms up so much he rarely needs to work on them any more. “I didn’t really train triceps or biceps much going into the last couple of Olympias,” Lewis states. “They were being hit with chest and back. They got a pretty good pump on those days. But I didn’t want them to get too big. They’ve come up so much that they’re now a strong point. So this was the ﬁrst year that I focused a lot less on arms.
“In the past, there was a time when I was focusing extra on them, because they were considered a weak point. But now I’ve reversed that. I don’t really want to be walking around with ridiculously oversize arms. My thing is all about proportion. I could probably put another inch on my arms in a year if I trained them as much as my chest, but I would rather focus more on my chest and less on my arms and keep things in proportion. But I remember it wasn’t that long ago when I put extra effort into arms. And whenever I train them, I still train that same way. Arms were the body part that I busted my ass to build up—and it worked.”
*First five triceps exercises are performed in 3–4 giant sets with no rest between exercises
**21 curls with 3-5 additional rest-pause, peak contraction reps.