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Flex Lewis: Old-School Training With New-School Thinking

Flex Lewis combined Golden Age techniques and old-school workouts with his own modern innovations. The result? An unbeatable back, in any era.

Flex Lewis

Sometimes you have to look back before you can move forward. So when IFBB pro Flex Lewis put together his blueprint for a bigger back, he reflected on the workouts of Olympia greats like Lee Haney, Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman. Each of these men had one thing in common: huge backs built with basic, old-school exercises and a relentless, hardcore attitude.

For Lewis, despite his early success onstage, his back was considered a weakness, and he knew it had to be thicker and wider once he faced competitors the caliber of David Henry and Kevin English. Lewis decided not to compete in 2010 with the sole purpose to grow. He put together workouts just like his predecessors had done. Then he went one step further.

Lewis took all the old-school moves and applied his own innovation to make them more effective. The result was put on display at the 2011 British Grand Prix, where the new and improved Flex Lewis dominated the 202 division. When he turned his back to the crowd, as Coleman would say, it was “Lights out!”

Follow along as Lewis takes us through one of his old-school-meets-new-school back-training sessions in preparation for this year’s Olympia 202 Showdown. This is training day.

Lewis’ Back Routine

  • Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown*†
    5 sets of 20-10 reps
  • Close-Grip Front Lat Pulldown*
    4 sets of 20-12 reps
  • Machine Pullover
    4 sets of 15 reps
  • Wide-Grip Pullups
    3 sets to failure
  • T-Bar Rows
    5 sets of 15-10 reps
  • Seated Pulley Rows
    4 sets of 15-12 reps

* See the article for Flex’s unique techniques for these exercises.
† Preceded by three warm-up sets

You’ve made a lot of improvements
to your back. Do you consider it
to be a strong point now?

I never considered my back as a strong point
and I knew that if I was ever going to be a
great bodybuilder, my back would have to improve.
Every great Mr. Olympia champion has had
tremendous back development. The same
goes for reigning Olympia 202 Showdown
champion Kevin English. My goal is to be
the best 202 bodybuilder in the world, and
if I’m going to beat Kevin I need to bring a
wide, thick back to Vegas this year.

I started to think how guys like Dorian
Yates and Ronnie Coleman had built
their backs and I saw that I got away
from a lot of the basics. The simple,
old-school moves with the knowledge
and techniques I’ve learned over the
years. The result was beyond my
expectation and I’m nowhere
near done.

Let’s get right into your back workout. Why do you start out with pulldowns instead of a rowing exercise?

The pulldown serves as both a warm-up and a great first exercise. I can work hard enough to break down muscle, but also stay controlled and stretch out on each rep. I pause at the top of each rep until I feel a deep stretch in my lats. This gets my back, arms, and shoulders loose and ready for the work to come.

I’ve always felt that rows have more potential for injury and require much
more warming up. When it comes to rows, the body positions can be
vulnerable and the weights are usually heavy. Instead
of doing countless sets of rows to get ready for my
working sets, I can do a pulldown and get warm
while stimulating growth.

My form on pulldowns has to be impeccable
and I never worry about how much
weight I’m using. As long as I
can feel a deep squeeze,
I know it’s heavy enough.

Explain that weird leaning pull-down you did. What does that work?

I got this trick from Neil Hill, my coach and one of my best friends. Neil is always looking for new ways to stimulate the muscles and create more detail in my physique. By angling the bar and leaning to one side, I’m isolating the one side of my lats. I get a really intense squeeze on the side I’m leaning toward and I can feel blood pumping into the muscle.

I use this technique along with traditional pull-downs – never one or the other. Sometimes I alternate this with the traditional style and sometimes I just add a couple sets of these after 3-4 sets of traditional pull-downs. This is a great move for partial reps [more on that later].

You’ve got a unique way of doing
the close-grip pull-down – explain
what you were doing.

This is another one of Neil’s creations and I love it.
He keeps finding new ways for me to train muscles
that I’ve never felt before. I don’t know what to
call this one, but here’s how I do it.

I lay down with my feet up on the
support bar. My butt is against the pad
that you typically slide your legs under
and my body is parallel to the ground.
It’s like a low pulley row that is tipped
on its back.

First, I can’t go too heavy or I’d never be able to stay in the correct position. The move requires a lot of concentration to squeeze the weight without swinging my body. I get a lot of versatility with this move: I can pull the bar into my sternum for mid and upper back or lower into my belly button for lower lats. With this exercise I squeeze very hard and focus on etching in new detail
in my back.

I’ve noticed you frequently use partial reps and contractions during your sets. What is the benefit of these and how do you work them in?

This is one of the biggest reasons my back improved so much this year. Partial reps in the contracted position [close to the body] shock the muscle by keeping it under constant tension. I’m able to squeeze harder and harder with each rep.

We always use partial reps and full reps in the same set; it’s never just one or the other. For back, partials work great on pull-downs, low pulley rows and the pull-over machine. Typically, I start with 10 full-range reps and then I do about five partial reps squeezing hard, followed by a stretch at the top for a couple seconds. If I have anything left, I force out a few more full-range reps to failure.

Try this and your back will be more pumped and fatigued than you’ve ever experienced.

The pullover machine is a staple in your back workout. What does this machine do that you can’t get from another move?

I’m very fortunate to have the old-school Nautilus
pullover machine at Olympus Gym in Tennessee
where I train each day. I remember seeing Dorian
use this machine back home.
This movement is unlike anything else you do
for back and it works muscles that you don’t
use in a row or pulldown. The stretch at
the top is insane and it feels like my lats
are getting ripped out.
Then the squeeze at the bottom
of the rep is a unique position
and nothing else gives me this feel.
I have a unique way
of doing pullovers that
involves partial reps at
three separate stages of the
movement. My back is exploding
when the “three-stage” set is over.
I’ve tried other machines and
variation such as the dumbbell pullover,
but nothing gives me the same feel that I get
from the Nautilus pullover. It’s tough to find this
machine in gyms across the country, so if you
see one give it a try. There are some other good
versions of the pullover, such as the one I used
in this workout, but the Nautilus will always be my favorite.

Walk us through a set of your three-stage reps on the pullover machine.

I start with about 12 full-range reps, and after the last full rep, my partner helps me get the bar to sternum height. Here I do 6-8 small pumps moving the about an inch or so [have your partner make sure you don’t go further up]. Each of the small reps is really just a continuous squeeze. Then my partner pushes the bar to the next point, about three inches down and I repeat the pulses. Finally, we get the bar down to the bottom of the rep [belt height] and once again pulse for 6-8 reps. If I have anything left, I get back to the top of the movement and hold in the stretch position for a few seconds.

You’ve moved on to wide-grip pullups, and most guys couldn’t get a single rep this late in the workout. Why have you slotted them three-fourths of the way through?

I don’t do the typical up-and-down reps you see every day in the gym. When I do it like that, it’s too much like the pulldown I start with. Here’s my method.

I pull myself up to chin height and hold that position for 2-3 seconds. While I’m at the top, I try to throw my lats out as hard as I can. It takes some practice to feel it out, but once your mind gets connected with your lats you can actually feel yourself getting wider! I slowly lower myself and hold the stretch position for two seconds until I feel a burn in my lats.

I can only do a few reps this way, but when I get done my back is toast! This is also a good chance to refocus on the mind-muscle connection before I get to the heavy rows that follow. I make sure I’m loose and locked in before I load up the bar and row.

T-bar rows looked pretty basic. Is this where you just focus on pulling some big weights?

Nothing fancy here – straight sets of 10-15 reps
and heavy-ass weights!
As I keep saying, everything I do
is about strict form and safety.
Neil and I have been careful to
avoid injuries and plan to keep
it that way for a long time.
That said, T-bar
rows are a move where
I can safely pile on the
weight and force my back to
grow from the poundage I’m
I keep my upper body just above 90
degrees and let the weight hang down
to just above the floor. Then I drive my elbows
back and bring the handle to my belly button. Each rep gets
squeezed for a moment at the top – this is where I really feel it and know I’m growing.
A trick I learned recently is to use 35-pound plates for T-bar rows. They are smaller in diameter, so I can get a deeper squeeze at the top and better stretch at the bottom.

What about the traditional barbell row? We didn’t see those and they are definitely one of the old-school basics for a big back.

No two back workouts of mine are ever the same. I often alternate between T-bar rows and barbell rows, and some weeks I do both in the same workout. It keeps my body in constant shock and that translates to more muscle.

Barbell rows are one of my old-school staples. My form and rep range are similar to T-bar rows. This is another move where I keep everything basic. Some weeks I use an overhand grip and some weeks underhand – the way Dorian used to do them – which targets more of the lower lats.

We went to the seated pulley row and your eyes got as wide as your back. There must be something special about this exercise. What is it?

This has been one of my favorite
moves since I started bodybuilding as
a teen. I get a great squeeze and I
can feel all the muscles in my back
popping out! So many people do this
exercise with sloppy form and just
swing the weight back and forth. They
never actually use their backs to lift
the weight. When I do it, I pretend I’m
sitting in a chair with a straight back
so I can’t lean past 90 degrees. At the
start of each rep, I lean forward
slightly and stretch my lats out as far
they will go. As I pull the weight and
squeeze my back, I think of my body
meeting the weight and not pulling the
weight back to my body. This mindset
keeps me in the upright position that
allows for maximum contraction.

This is another great exercise for the
partial-rep technique I previously
described. I always do these near the
end of the workout. Trying to squeeze
out the half reps is a bitch but the pump
is worth it!

As we wrap this up, I noticed you didn’t do any deadlifts (one of the big three). Do you ever deadlift?

I don’t do traditional deadlifts anymore; I feel that pulling off the ground is too risky for injury. Instead, I do rack deadlifts and they are a favorite of mine. I’m always going to be a powerlifter at heart and I love the feeling of holding a ton of weight in my hands.

I look forward to the rack deads each week. During the offseason, I do them nearly every week at the end of my workout. Pre-contest, I still do rack deadlifts, but not every week. To perform the rack deadlifts, I set the safety bars in a power rack just below knee height. With my back straight [don’t round], I pull the weight until I’m in a standing position with my hips in line with my shoulders. Then I carefully lower to the stat position, bringing the weight to a dead stop. Don’t throw the weight down and bounce back up; if you’re doing that, you’re taking the tension off your back muscles.

I save these for last in my workout – when every inch of my body is warmed up and pre-fatigued. If I did these at the start of the training session, I’d be too eager to go really heavy and put myself at risk for injury. I keep the reps high [15-20] to further keep me in safe mindset using a weight my body knows it can handle. Don’t get me wrong, safe doesn’t mean light. When I get to the end of a 15-to-20 rep set, I’m gasping for air and the pump is insane.

Author: Sean Andros

Photography by: Pavel Ythjall


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