Maximize your strength training routine by cutting out these time wasters.Read article
With nothing more than the simple tools of the trade—dumbbells, barbells, and a small selection of machines—James “Flex” Lewis set about engineering a physique like few had ever seen before. First setting foot in the gym at age 15, he started as a powerlifter, relying on the squat, deadlift, bench press, and ancillary moves to create a foundation of strength.
Spurred on by images of the legendary Tom Platz—he of the world-renowned leg development—Lewis would eventually construct a blueprint for a classic set of wheels. From front to back and side to side, Lewis’ legs have set a new standard for excellence, fueling his rise from 2007 British Championships overall champion to his current run as king of the IFBB’s ultra-competitive 212-pound class.
A key part of his success will rely on that already formidable lower body. Today, Lewis does something no one at McLaren would dream of: He’s going to share the blueprint. What exercises, tools, and techniques are paramount to manufacturing your own complete lower body, from glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings down to the calves? Let the following six steps shift your development into gear.
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Slip into the bodybuilding fast lane with foundational moves
“I started as a powerlifter, doing the squat, deadlift, and bench press,” Lewis says of his early iron days. “I know some people feel squats are the bread and butter, and for some they might be, but I didn’t really feel any benefit from them. I think they have nothing on the leg press, to be honest.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try squatting—“everyone should do them when they’re starting, because they may be great for you,” he says—but you need to take stock of your body’s reactions to all of your exercises each step of the way.
His other advice is born of his own trial and error. “You need to warm up a lot, and you shouldn’t go sloppy heavy,” Lewis states.
Lewis’ warmups aren’t just limited to his first exercise. As he transitions to the leg press, he starts with a “mediocre” couple of plates per side before marching up by 90 to 180 pounds per set. “It’s a working warmup,” he explains. “I’m finding my range. And it can change from week to week. If I just got off a plane from Australia, where I’ve been flying for 24 hours, I can’t just pile on what I did two weeks ago. I’m being cautious, because otherwise you can end up crippled when your competing days are over. Pushing a stupid amount of poundage is only about ego—it’s ridiculous.”
That said, you also need to get the most out of each set, and that means taking advantage of every single pound you’re moving. “I’ll do 15 reps per set, but during the first few sets I’ll make that 15 heavier…I’ll slow down each rep,” Lewis says. “Then as the weights go up, I’ll become more explosive.”
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Power your growth with high-octane techniques
“One of my training partners always likes to throw up on leg days,” Lewis recalls, chuckling at the thought. “He’s crazy…he loves it, though he’ll push himself so hard he’ll pass out after our leg workout.”
While depositing your lunch at the gym isn’t a prerequisite for growth, Lewis—who’s pretty maniacal himself in the gym, truth be told—says there’s the-top effort. “You do need to push yourself a little further than you think you can go, every time out,” he says. That’s where intensity techniques come to the fore.
Lewis relies on a selection of set-extending boosters, including forced reps (having a partner assist on a couple of reps after reaching initial muscle failure), partial reps (half and quarter reps after full reps are no longer possible), and negatives, which he sometimes pairs with his first quad exercise, leg extensions.
“At the end of the last set or two, I’ll sometimes get my training partner to come in as I fail,” Lewis explains. “Once I can’t do a full rep, he’ll put a couple fingers on the pad to help it the rest of the way, then I’ll do a slow negative. That’ll be at least two reps.”
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The race isn’t won in a day…divide and conquer for competition-ready legs
“When I was a junior under-21 bodybuilder back in the U.K. and Europe, my legs were predominant; they overpowered my physique,” Lewis says. “On the advice of my coach, Neil Hill, I took a year of my legs—I just did leg extensions here and there, and let my upper body catch up.”
Of course, it’s assumed you likely don’t have the same “problem” as Lewis faced in his early competitive days—a quick glance up and down an amateur bodybuilding lineup (or into any crowded gym) reveals more flimsy legs than an Ikea furniture showroom—but for those of you who desperately need lower-body bulk, Lewis’ approach when he returned to heavy leg training will benefit you too.
“What I do now is the same system as I did when I was a junior, splitting up my quads and hamstrings into workouts on separate days,” he says. “If I do quads one day, the very next I would do hamstrings. It has worked for me, because you can give full effort to both. Otherwise, you’re doing all your quadriceps pressing exercises first, and you have nothing left in the tank when it’s time for hams.”
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Customize your hamstrings with etched in detailing
Guys who dream of crafting powerful, peeled thighs that threaten the seams of any pant leg they’re crammed into will dutifully rock squats, leg presses, hacks, extensions, and lunges until their tailor quits in protest. But then they’ll turn around, do a few sets of Romanians and halfhearted machine curls, and call it a day.
Big mistake. “My ham workouts are as brutal as my quad workouts,” Lewis brags, and rightfully so.
He begins with lying leg curls, innocently enough as a warmup, before it morphs into a blood-soaked muscular murder scene that would make Dexter Morgan queasy. “I start off with three warmup sets, and then do four working sets,” Lewis says. “The weight increases each set, but I won’t go lower than 10 reps no matter what. I’ll go as heavy as I can while still controlling it—I remember old-school bodybuilders like Tom Prince training extremely heavy on hams and I’ve adopted that, sticking with my rule to not get stupid.”
Doesn’t sound too tough, right? Just wait. “You can get sadistic on leg curls,” Lewis intones. “On the last three working sets, could be I’ll do one set to failure at 15, then increase the weight and do butterfly kicks at the lower end, moving the stack an inch or so. All the tension is focused on the tie-in at the back of the knee to the bottom of the hamstring. I’ll do 50 reps of those until I can’t stand the pain.”
The next set, Lewis will stick with the same weight and go for 15 full reps again. “Those will be more of a struggle. Then I drop the weight in half, get as many reps as I can, and drop the weight a couple bars and go again until the hams are done.” To make sure, he’ll use rest-pause once or twice upon failing to see if he can get another rep or two.
For the last set (yep, there’s more) Lewis will gut out 10 conventional reps with an even heavier weight—full stack or close to it—then drop the pin halfway and do another 10 reps. With nary a rest, he drops the weight a few more bricks, finishes another 10 reps (with a couple seconds rest between reps as needed). From there, Lewis returns the pin to at least mid-stack and does 50 more butterfly kicks to finish the assault.
It may be hard to imagine, but from there Lewis will do two more exercises. One is a bit of badassery he calls kamikazes.“I kneel on the seat of a lat pulldown machine, facing away so my ankles are under the pads,” he explains. “I basically kamikaze dive toward floor, controlling the descent with my hams. It involves constant motion, going down toward the floor and then flexing my hamstrings to pull my body back upright. That’s one of the best exercises I brought with me from Wales.”
Don’t worry if you can’t get many reps. When Lewis resurrected the move a few years back, he could only get three the first time. Now he can get about 30 per set before face-planting in a heap.
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Keep the pit stops short
No less than six-time Olympia DorianYates passed along a valuable lesson to Lewis, who a few years back went to The Shadow’s U.K. digs for the training session of a lifetime. “I used to be naive, I’d do crazy two-hour-plus workouts all the time,” Lewis says. “When I read articles on Dorian, he’d say he’d be done with back in 20 to 25 minutes, and I would think to myself, ‘How? That’s not enough.’
“Later when I went to train with him,” Lewis continues, “we were done in 20 minutes and my back was annihilated. We did a lot of squeezes with heavy weight. I learned you don’t have to spend hours to get a great workout.”
Most body parts for Lewis these days are completed in less than an hour, with legs and back his two longest sessions. “I’ll do an hour, maybe a little longer on legs, because I’m working with a training partner and we’re moving a lot of weight.”
No matter which body part it is, he keeps propelling forward with little chitchat. “When I train on my own, my rest time between sets is minimal, and when I’m with a partner it’s limited to how long he takes to do his set,” Lewis says. “I think that too many people dilly dally around the gym, talking, sitting, on their phones. I’ve seen people sit on the same machine for an hour texting, and when they do a set it’s pathetic.”
If you want to text with Lewis during his workout, well, don’t bother. “I don’t have my phone in the gym,” he admits. “I’m going to war.”
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Calves are where the rubber meets the road
Calves not growing to your liking? “You’re not doing enough reps,” Lewis suggests. “A lot of people stop when they start feeling the lactic acid buildup, but you have to keep going until it feels like your calves are going to explode.”
It’s here that Lewis introduces a concept he calls “hybrid training.” Most others would probably refer to it as “lunacy”—that is, until they saw the type of development that such an intense, repeated pump can generate. (Thanks to workouts like this and his early calf development from his efforts on the rugby pitch, Lewis admits that he rarely needs to train calves these days.)
The “hybrid” nature of the workout simply pairs various calf raises together into one giant set of sweet pain. Take standing calf raises, for instance. You’d start with standard raises, with your toes straight and a full range of motion, from heels at full stretch down to all the way up on your toes, for 30–50 medium-paced reps. After that, you’d turn your toes inward—which focuses on the outer gastrocnemius muscle—and do 30–50 more full ROM reps. Finally, you’d turn your heels inward (hitting the inner gastroc head) for another 30–50 reps.
To finish that workout, you’d head over to the seated press and, with toes straight, you’d do 30–50 reps, holding the top contracted position for 1–2 seconds on each rep. Then you’d either limp home or try to go through the whole sequence again one more time.
Another hybrid calf workout Lewis espouses starts with a calf raise on a leg press machine for 30 reps at a faster pace. Then you’d jump of and immediately step onto a raised block for 30 body-weight toe raises, still using that quickened rep pace. Finally, you’d step onto the floor and, using that same pace, raise up as high as you can on your heels until total failure. Repeat the sequence two more times through and it’ll feel like the sheath of skin surrounding your calf is about to split wide open. – FLEX