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Flex Lewis, the reigning six-time Mr. Olympia 212 champion, possesses what is considered the perfect physique—he has full, large muscles, and every body part appears perfectly symmetrical. Sure, you may not strive to be as big or as shredded as Lewis (the look isn’t for everyone, after all), but his approach to training is still sound, and you can learn from it. “I come in every year at the top end of the 212 class, so my goal is to always refine my body parts,” says Lewis, who, despite winning each of his O titles handily, attacks every workout with extreme ferocity. Take his triceps routine of years past as but one example. To Lewis, this 500-rep behemoth of a routine is simply a warmup, a normal occurrence for the 33-year-old Welshman. To you, though, it’ll be a challenge. In his own words, the 212 champ breaks down the origin of his workout and what you can expect. Just don’t expect it to be easy.
“In days of old, people saw me doing these 100-rep sets for my triceps— five cable exercises that I did back-to-back for 20 reps each,” Lewis says. “I kinda became known for them. I’d do them three to four times and then go into the rest of my regular triceps workout.”
While the exact moves involved aren’t set in stone (in fact, we switched a few around ourselves), he’d often begin with a rope pushdown, setting up a rope on one side of a cable-crossover apparatus. “I make sure my elbows are close to my body,” he says. “The form itself is not sloppy, it’s controlled, so the triceps never have the opportunity to rest. At the top, my hands come up close to my face for a longer stretch, without letting the weight stack touch down—I envision it as if I’m doing a skull crusher but standing up—and I turn out the ends of the rope at the bottom at lockout.”
After 20 reps, he switches to the V-bar pushdown, taking only about 10 seconds to switch between exercises, and gets right back into his reps. “With all five moves, I focus on the stretch just as much as I do the contraction,” Lewis says. “I’m trying to force as much blood as I can into the muscle.”
The third exercise is a pushdown variation. (We opted for a banded pushdown to keep tension on the muscle at all times.) Lewis recommends choosing a weight (or, in this case, resistance band) that will allow you to elicit failure at 20 reps. “On the first exercise, you pick a load that you could probably do for 25 or so reps,” Lewis says. “So you’re almost failing, but then you go to a different angle.”
Rest throughout is kept to a minimum, just long enough to go from one move to the next in between exercises. In between circuits, he’ll rest only as long as it takes his training partner to finish his round.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t pause mid-set if you need to. “If you hit failure,” he says, “you can use rest-pause, holding for just a couple of seconds to let your muscles partially recover before continuing.
“By the last exercise,” he adds with a devilish smirk, “your muscles are screaming when you get to 10 to 15—but you have to do 20 reps, I don’t care how long it takes.”
Using the short, straight bar attachment, Lewis then flips his grip for underhand pushdowns for 20 reps, followed by the final exercise in the sequence, overhead rope extensions.
“On extensions, I’m really focusing on the stretch, and I never lock out on that,” he explains. “My visualization on that last exercise is like a piston in a car, so it’s a consistent motion and speed, not too fast, not too slow, but a lot faster than the other sets because there’s so much blood in that muscle at that moment. Picture it as if you’re stretching the muscle, then punching it out.”
Just once through the gauntlet would be enough for most. Lewis, however, would continue for up to four total rounds, to the point where he could barely bend his elbows. “By the last set of rope extensions,” he says, “there’s already an ungodly amount of blood in the muscle, the fascia is screaming at its limits, the arms are swelled way beyond their normal size—and you still have a lot more triceps work to do.”
Yes, it’s true: That was only his warmup. Lewis then proceeds to do three exercises performed more traditionally: three sets of 10 to 15 reps, pyramiding up the weight from set to set.
“I don’t go into the gym with a set workout or exercises in mind—I’ll mix it up,” he says. “Maybe a seated EZ-bar or dumbbell extension, a close-grip bench, a heavy pushdown, a dip machine. I’m going heavier, but I’m always getting at least 10 reps. To me, I need to have a good working set of 10. If you get to eight, you know you can force out the next two, or you have a spotter there to get that extra two.”
In the months leading up to Olympia Weekend, Lewis hunkers down in what he refers to as his “base camp”—a 10,000-square-foot warehouse where he has his business offices and a private, envy-inducing 5,000-square-foot gym stocked with all the tools he needs to keep his 5’5″, 230-pound off-season physique in prime condition.
“It’s not open to the public, there are no other members but me, so I have no distractions,” he says of the iron oasis. “Here, I can focus on my job, and that is to defend the 212 title, year after year.”
In the past, Lewis has contemplated the idea of moving up to the open class, allowing his body to grow without restriction instead of whittling down so much muscle as he gets under the class weight limit. Yet, at this moment, anything beyond his attempt at an unprecedented seventh title defense in Las Vegas is firmly not on his mind.
“If my coach [Neil Hill] had his way, I’d be doing open class,” he admits. “But my focus is the 212, and 212 only. I only have eyes for that now. I only focus on the next task at hand. That approach doesn’t set you up for failure, and it doesn’t put any pressure on you. I know what I can control in the 212 class, and that is going out this year and, God willing, it goes according to plan and I defend that title.”
Workout Tip: See any rest time between sets? No? That’s the point. If you must take a break, count to 10, then continue.