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“COME ON, NO F—KIN’ ABOUT,” is one of Neil Hill’s favorite instructions. It’s a Welshism for “get your head into it,” and he says it frequently to Flex Lewis during their chest workout on the morning of the 2011 Arnold Classic, two weeks before the British Grand Prix. No one could accuse Lewis of being lackadaisical in a gym, but when this Jedi Knight has Yoda driving him on, the intensity is through the stratosphere. As Lewis says, “It’s total carnage.” That’s what we want to hear. No more fuckin’ about. Let the carnage begin.
It was inevitable that Neil Hill and Flex Lewis would meet. There are only three million people in Wales, so the fact that two of them were 5’5″ bodybuilders who earned their way to the IFBB Pro League meant their paths were destined to cross. The meeting came early in Lewis’ competitive journey, and the countrymen have shared the same path ever since. It was at the 2004 Wales Championships, a contest Hill had won two years prior, but a knee injury had forced him into retirement after his first and last pro contest. As he remembers his life without bodybuilding, “I was really kind of lost.” He found his way when he saw the immense promise of the junior division winner, 20-year-old Flex Lewis. The next day, they launched their working relationship, and it’s endured ever since, even as Hill’s roster of clients and Lewis’ collection of trophies have grown.
Over the ensuing years, Hill developed his Y3T system, a series of three-week cycles. The first week focuses on compound basics for sets of 6–10, the second week focuses on compound and isolation exercises for sets of 8–12, and the third week is a high-rep, high-intensity barrage of drop sets, supersets and the like. What we’re witnessing today is a week-three chest workout.
The trainer still resides in Wales with his family, but the trainee lives in Tennessee. Thus, most of Hill’s workout and nutritional coaching is done via e-mails and phone calls, but when their travels take them to the same place, like today, the trainer trades sets with the trainee. “I love to work out with my athletes,” Yoda says. “I’ll go first, to show them that whatever crazy shit I ask them to do I’m willing to do myself.” “It’s a whole different workout with Neil,” Lewis says. “I wish he was living in the states, because my physique would benefit so much from having him here forcing the extra reps out and working the small little angles to really bring out the extra qualities. The weight is irrelevant. It’s the attention to detail that makes all the difference.”
There’s a 45 and then a 25 and then a 45 on each collar of the Smith machine. Hill wants it this way for their first working set of Smith machine incline presses after four warm-up sets. “Come on, no fuckin’ about,” Hill says as Lewis tightens up his wrist wraps. The 202 champ takes a suicide (thumbless) grip on the bar. “Slow down. Squeeze, contract,” Yoda instructs as his Jedi Knight pumps out reps with 255 (estimating the Smith machine double- bar carriage at 25 pounds), lowering it to three inches above his chest each time. After 10 reps, Hill slips the 45s off, and they hit the floor like bombs. And here you see why the trainer wanted the 45s outside the 25s, as this sets up the second segment of the drop set. “Come on, at least eight! At least eight!” Hill shouts. Lewis grinds out nine before reaching failure. “OK, three singles!” Hill commands. After resting a few seconds, Lewis drives the bar up with slight assistance from his trainer. “Again! Let’s go!” Again the bar comes up,again Hill assists.“S-q-u-e-e-z-e!OK,one more, one more, let’s go, Flex!” One more. “Up, up, up, s-q-u-e-e-z-e!”
“The range of motion with me is not a full range of motion, because if you bring the bar all the way down you work the deltoids more,” Hill explains. “I like to stop about three inches above the chest on every rep. Also, we won’t lock out. That way all the stress is kept on the chest throughout the set. The only time we lock out is if we do a rest-pause. Then we lock out and rest up for a few seconds to get another one, two or three reps.”
“I used to lock out at the top on presses, but Neil changed that for me,” Lewis says. “In the past, my front delts were overpowering my chest training, so one way of eliminating that was to only lower to about three inches above my chest.”
The last two drop sets follow a similar pattern to the first, but with a 70-pound drop each time instead of 90, and with Hill’s encouragement specific to Lewis’ short-term goal of winning the British Grand Prix 202 two weeks after this work- out: “Three thousand people watching you, come on, this is your house, you got to dominate at home, come on, big chest, 3,000 people watching!”
“A lot of people are egotistical when they train. They train with a weight that’s too heavy for them,” Hill explains. “Their form may be perfect, meaning there’s no unstableness and the reps are clean, but they’re not squeezing and contracting with that weight, and a lot of that weight load will then go directly onto their deltoids. That’s something we’ve changed; we’ve really got- ten Flex into the mindset of forgetting how much he can bench and instead focusing on squeezing and contracting on every rep.”
“I’m not a big advocate of flat work of any kind,” Hill says. “If an athlete is weak in his chest area, they tend to be weaker in their upper chest than lower chest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an athlete whose upper chest is too strong for their lower chest. So I tend to work my guys by focus- ing directly on their upper chest, and when they wake up the next day and have soreness they’re always sore below. They tend to be sore everywhere. And that tells you that if the movement is performed correctly — making sure they squeeze on each repetition — all that weight transfer is going to be brought through the whole of the chest, upper and lower as well.“
That explains why the second of the workout’s three exercises is, like the first, on an incline. “Squeeze the shit out of your chest,” Hill instructs Lewis after doing his own set of incline dumb- bell flyes and before his 202 protégé begins his bombardment. “Come on, you put on 12 pounds in 18 months. You’re gonna shock the world. No more fuckin’ about.” Lewis uses old-school, plateless York dumbbells, double-nickels (55s), and he copies Hill’s form, keeping his arms bent a little more than most people and stopping reps a few inches before the dumbbells kiss at the top, for at that point the war against gravity has been won and tension on the pecs is diminishing.
As this is a week-three work- out in Y3T, the reps are high. Lewis gets 14 on his own before Hill assists just enough for him to squeeze out two more. “Come on, come on, good, good,” Yoda encourages. After Hill’s second set, Lewis grinds out another 14 on his own and Hill helps him tack on three more. “Conventional flyes were working, but with incline flyes I feel like I get an extra stretch and contraction that I wasn’t get- ting with flat flyes,” Lewis says.
“Can we get a photo with you?” a guy training with his two buddies asks the panting Lewis just after the final set of incline flyes.
“Afterward,” Hill says, wanting to keep up the pace and maintain the mindset, but Lewis relents and poses with the guys.
“I always try to make time for fans,” Lewis tells me as we walk to the cable cross- over station. “If I put it off, that guy might have left without talking to me again, and he would have thought I was an ass.”
As if on cue, another guy, among several training near the cable crossovers, says to Lewis, who is in near contest shape in a tank top, “Now I can’t take my shirt off. Thanks a lot, Flex.” Lewis laughs.
“You look fuckin’ great, Flex,” a third guys says, and others, all of whom stand at least six feet tall, nod and wish Flex the best.
“Thanks guys,” Flex says. “I’ll exchange some muscle for some height.”
Laughter. Such is the effusive nature of the personable Welsh Dragon that fans think of him as an old friend the moment they speak to him. That’s the way he likes it.
Both Hill and Lewis do a quick set of cable crossovers with 50 per side, just to get the feel of the squeaky machine. Then Hill sets the pins in the 70-pound slots, and after his 70/50 drop set leads the way, Lewis follows. “Think about it,” Hill tells him as Lewis begins grinding out reps, keeping his arms nearly straight to travel in a wide arc. “Squeeze, squeeze,” Hill commands when Lewis brings the handles together, and then he says, “OK, now stretch,” when Lewis’ arms are returning to their widest spread.
After 13 reps, Hill and Lewis rapidly move the pins from the 70 slots to the 50s, and Lewis keeps going. “Come on, every- body’s gunning for you. Everybody wants to take you out,” Yoda warns his Jedi Knight. When the reps stall at the eight mark, Lewis pauses long enough to gather strength and squeeze out another. And another. “Fuck,” he mutters. And another. And one more. “Good set,” Hill says.
“My chest training has changed a lot just in the past year,” Lewis explained before the workout. “Because of maturity, I have a lot stronger mind-muscle connection to my chest. I’m getting stronger contractions. I actually feel my chest working.
There were certain exercises I’d do in the past that would give me nothing, but maybe now because of the drop of an elbow or the way I’m holding my body that same exercise is one of the best. Over the past couple years, I’d have hit-and-miss training sessions for my chest, one would be good, and the next I’d get a pump but I wasn’t really taking it to the limit. Other bodyparts have grown whatever I’d do, but for chest we really needed to figure out what exercises worked best, and it’s all been trial and error.”
Another drop set, just like the first, follows — 70 dropped to 50, squeezes and stretches, encouragement and curses, rest-pause, relieved sigh. And after seven working sets the workout is done. “Some- times we do an extra exercise or some- times we take out an exercise. Sometimes six sets might be enough, sometimes it takes seven or eight,” Hill says of the workout. “It just depends on how we feel. You can never really predict on any given day how your body is going to respond.”
I ask Lewis if he still thinks of chest as a weakness. “Yes, I’ll always think that. When I first came to America, people talked about how weak my arms were, but nobody talks about that now. I’m always going to put an extra focus on my chest and back, even though I’ve brought up both a lot over the last year. Everyone has parts they need to focus on more than others. I’m glad to have the extra motivation on chest and back days.” Lewis crunches a most-muscular in the mirror as Hill watches. “Squeeze it, mate,” Hill instructs. Lewis cringes and groans as his pecs erupt with sinews and veins.
Two weeks after this workout and nearly 4,000 miles away, 27-year-old Flex Lewis won the 202 contest of the British Grand Prix, competing before his countrymen, including his parents, for the first time as a pro and the first time since winning the 2007 British Championships. A lot of muscle had been added to his frame over the 18 months since he last posed competitively, just as a lot had changed for him in the three and a half years since he last competed on British soil and in the seven years since the Jr. Wales. But the one constant through it all has been his fellow 5’5″ Welshman, bodybuilding’s Yoda.
“I don’t know where I’dbe without him,” Lewis says of Hill. “I’m blessed to have him in my corner, and even though we live so far away from each other now, when we are together he kicks my ass.” Lewis laughs. “Training with Neil, it’s total carnage.”
Neil “Yoda” Hill’s Y3T training system cycles three different one-week training periods. The three-week cycle repeats itself three times (a total of nine weeks) before a new Y3T cycle begins and exercises are changed.
WHAT IT MEANS: Yoda Three Training
WEEK 1: heavy weight and compound movements
Yoda says: “Average workout volume, you do. Maximum sets of basic movements, your focus is on.”
WEEK 2: moderate weight, compound and isolation movements
Yoda says: “Like week one it is, but higher reps and more isolation your focus is.”
WEEK 3: high-rep, high-intensity; compound and isolation movements Reps: 14–30+
Techniques: drop sets, supersets and giant sets, forced reps, rest-pause Yoda says: “Your friend, pain is. High reps and high-intensity, all sets are. Supersets and giant sets, boost intensity by reducing rest they do. Drop sets, forced reps, rest-pause, delay failure they do. Workout volume reduced because intensity increased, wise advice, it is.”
WEEK 4: 3-week cycle repeats three times and then exercises are changed
Yoda says: “Next time through cycle, strive to use more weight or get more reps in exercises during weeks one and two, you must.”
Total working sets: 7 (5 drop sets, 2 straight sets) Total reps: 139
Rep range: 16–23
Time: 40 minutes Techniques: drop sets, forced reps, rest-pause