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Kai Greene’s leg workout was like a symphony. Not a classical symphony like a work by Beethoven or Mozart, but rather a symphony of organized confusion filled with dissonance and fury. There was a harmony of sets, reps, muscle and contractions that made beautiful music. Greene’s mind is the conductor and his muscles are the orchestra. The weights are the instruments and the music is the physique he displays onstage. Greene has developed a connection with his body that every bodybuilder should dream to achieve. His workout is all about this connection and his ability to harness it on that particular day. He is after a feeling, and once he gets it, he moves on. The onlooker might see only sets and reps; but a closer look reveals the masterpiece Greene is creating. Follow along as Greene builds, refines and perfects some of the best wheels in the game. This is Training Day.
FLEX: Training Day always kicks off by asking the athlete to evaluate the bodypart we’re about to train. So, how do you view your legs? They are considered some of the freakiest wheels in the history of the sport, but what do you see? What do you like and dislike about them?
KAI GREENE: My legs are a strong part of my physique. I had to work hard to get them to where they are today; I didn’t just start like this. But I’ve been training for more than 20 years — I stopped counting at 20 — and there’s been a lot of work done in that time. This year I’ve focused on adding more detail and I’m always working to make them more round. Like I do every year, I’m looking to take what I already have and make it even better.
You just warmed up with 30 minutes on the StairMaster and a 15-minute ab circuit that was pretty intense. Do you ever worry that all this work at the start could leave you weaker?
I’m at a different starting point than I was years ago and many others might be today. In order to polish and fine-tune my physique I’ve had to go away from what is expected or “normal” for others. The warm-up gets me in the right mindset and perfect focus. I get more alert, aware, and my neurological connections are sharper. It also gets the blood flowing and helps prevent injury. After all these years in the gym, I know what works for me and what gets my mind and body in the best possible start for a great workout. Don’t be scared to experiment, because that’s the only way you’ll find what works for you. Additionally, as a larger athlete, I’ve learned the importance of training my abdominals at the start of a workout. This helps me with breathing and abdominal control that I can later take to the stage. I practice these things when I’m freshest.
Now let’s get into the workout. So far we’ve seen cardio, abs, glutes, calves and now you are going into hamstrings. Do you ever worry that all this work at the start of the workout compromises your ability to fully stimulate your quads?
I work in a specific order that addresses bodyparts from weakest to strongest. This creates harmony in my physique. I start with glutes, then calves, then hams because that is the order of needed improvement. My quads are superior to the other parts of my legs, so I prefer to address those other parts when I am most energetic and alert. This is the formula for improvement.
First up is the unilateral standing leg curl, a true isolation exercise for hamstrings. What do you feel on this particular machine and why do you use it first in the workout?
I like this exercise very much because it allows me to connect with each leg individually. I’m also able to use my glutes and spinal erectors to stabilize my body and stay in place. With each contraction I’m imagining myself standing onstage in the semirelaxed pose. This exercise really gets me into gear mentally to start the workout.
Next up is the lying leg curl where you really got things moving. You move like a machine on this exercise and there appears to be a perfect mind-muscle connection. Explain what you are thinking and feeling on this move.
I think about my hamstrings as piano wire throughout the entire range of motion. That feeling is the telltale sign that your hamstrings are responsible for moving the weight. This is just a great move for me to get deep into my hamstrings and feel every fiber working.
Six sets of lying leg curls is quite a few. Is this partly a warm-up or do you push each set?
I’m already warmed up. The reason for the extra sets just had to do with my mental state on this day. Sometimes I need to do some extra sets because I was not focused on the first few. As a result, I don’t feel the feedback. It should be the second or third set, so I push on until I get the three or four great sets my muscles need. Nothing is set in stone. I set out with a plan to do four sets, but that’s just an estimate based on experience. Some days I might be so tuned in that I get the most stimulation possible in three sets; other days it might take six.
During this workout and some of the others we’ve seen at flexonline.com, you haven’t done the seated leg curl. Do you ever use this exercise?
I used to do them a lot, but not much these days. I’m very leery of movements that are comfortable. You just sit down, lean back and do the exercise like you’re at home on the sofa. I want my entire body to be alert and involved. If I do use the seated leg curl, it’s a secondary movement that accompanies a group of other movements [like the second part of a compound set].
Moving on to stiff-leg deadlifts. You started with 25s on the bar and only moved up to the 45s for your last two sets. That seems like light weight for a guy your size.
It feels heavy to me! I turn my toes in and my heels out so I can feel the most pull on my hamstrings. Sometimes it feels so exaggerated, but when I look in the mirror my feet still look pretty straight [laughs]. I try to make the muscles of my hamstrings and my glutes responsible for moving the weight. Years ago, I would use a lot more weight and just throw caution to the wind and jerk my body up and down. Besides being dangerous, this method isn’t very effective for muscle growth. These days, I don’t worry about weight; I just worry about getting into the muscle as effectively as possible — even if you think it’s light
Why did we take it outside for lunges?
A lot of gyms are not equipped with glute kickback machines and lunge machines [although this one is]. The solution is walking lunges, but they are only effective when done over a great distance [at least 40 yards or 20 yards each way]. Most gyms don’t have the space unless you can get onto a basketball court or large aerobic studio. So I just decided to head outside and have all the space I needed. Besides, I saw some awesome footage of Ronnie Coleman doing parking-lot lunges, so I had to do them myself.
For quads, you jumped on the leg extension and once again looked like a fine tuned machine. Why do you keep your reps around 20?
I am able to generate great power at 20 reps, and working to failure in this rep range is effective for my body. I know most people think of working in this rep range as light, but not for me. My legs like this range and it’s where I feel the best combination of power, strength and burn. I’ve always found that this rep range is very natural for me and I feel more connected than when using lower reps.
We’ve been on the gym floor for more than 90 minutes and you’re just now finally stepping under the squat bar. How do you get focused on squatting when your mind and body are starting to fatigue?
If you think it’s going to be hard, it will be. This is when I choose to squat and when it’s most effective for my body. Like a lot of people, I used to do the same workouts you always hear about or read about: start with quads, squat heavy, move into presses, extensions, etc., while hamstrings and calves are an afterthought. This type of training translates to your appearance onstage. This is why so many bodybuilders have powerful quads that are missing all the surrounding details to make great legs. This training strategy is designed to target the muscle groups that were left to lag behind. My goal is to build great legs, not just great quads. The squat works all the muscles in your legs, and the more connected an athlete can become the more he can use the squat to train the entire leg. With more experience you learn to control how much you recruit your quads compared to your glutes or hamstrings. This technique allows me to focus on the weak areas of my leg while still training all the muscles.
Do you find it more challenging to maintain strict form when you’ve likely fatigued all your stabilizing muscles with the previous sets?
Understanding the fundamentals of squatting and having great mechanics on this movement applies to whenever you squat: first, last or in the middle. I’m able to use everything that I already worked on and tie together the entire workout. I find the squat to be more efficient this way.
What kind of weights can you handle on the squat after all the work you’ve already done?
Lately, I’ve only been working up to 315 [occasionally 405] for about 15 reps per set. I make sure to maintain total control for the entire set and entire length of each rep. Every rep has a beginning, middle, end and a lot of inches between. That makes up a very large amount of time during which a person is supposed to be in total control of the muscles that are being trained. I try to intensify the contraction on the muscles that I’m working. Rather than just dropping down and blasting up, I try to feel every inch. With this mindset, I can only use the weight I can handle with this perfect control, but I can tell you that it feels heavier than anything I’ve done in the past! Funny thing about squatting heavy: you can move a ton of weight and work your ass off, only to diet down and see that you have no hamstrings, only some incredible spinal erectors.
The last move of the day was the leg press where you kept the weight pretty light. What are you looking to feel and how does the light weight stimulate your muscles?
A lot of people think that an intense contraction only happens at the top of a leg press. I try to make that contraction present throughout the entire rep. The idea of dropping into the “bucket” and blasting out might be effective at a time, but for me it’s not useful anymore. This is the same concept I discussed with the squat: I need to be aware of contracting for the totality of the movement and not just at the top. When you try it this way and get deeply connected with your muscles, you don’t need to lift the whole gym.
The workout is over and you did quite a few sets and reps. What do you say to the critics who will call this overtraining?
How many times does a baseball player swing a bat before he can hit a home run in the majors? Would you call 1,000 swings overtraining or disciplined practice? This is my practice. The critics need to open their minds to realize that more things are going on in a training session than can be measured by time or weight. Long before a person can see pounds of muscle growth, there are hosts of processes that must occur. These processes happen through repetition, so that’s exactly what I do!