The right one reads FLEX, the left one LEWIS, and the namesake of the straps wraps them around a long bar attached to an overhead cable. He includes just a bit of sway in the movement as he pulls the bar down to just above his chin, totaling 15 reps with 220 pounds. Immediately afterward, he steps to another overhead cable station, grabs a straight bar with a grip just wider than shoulder width and knocks out 20 reps of straight-arm pulldowns with 110. This is a lever movement, in which the elbows are kept barely bent while the bar is pulled from overhead to the waist, traveling in an arc.
“I always like to start out with lat pulldowns on any back workout,” Lewis explains. “I’ll pause when I have to. So I’ll pause at 12, and then get one, pause, one more, pause, until I get to 15 or 20. There’s no formulation, I pause and stretch when I need it, take a breath and keep going. So instead of finishing with a half-ass rep, I’d rather pause and get three more good reps.”
Of his form, he explains, “If I’m pulling to my chest I tend to throw more traps and rhomboids in it, hitting more of my upper middle back rather than my lats. So when I pull down, I pull down to my chin.” And on the straight-arm pulldowns: “I think about standing onstage and throwing my lats out. So I throw my lats out at contraction and squeeze.”
For the second superset, Lewis sets the pin in the lowest slot (250 pounds) before cranking out another 15 repetitions, rest-pause style, on the lat pulldown and following it again with a chaser of 20 straight-arm pulldowns.
Lewis: “I have to get an enema.”
Me: “An enema?”
Me: “You said you have to get an enema.”
Lewis doubles over laughing. “A number! I said that I have to get a number!”
Here’s the thing about James “Flex” Lewis for those of you who’ve only encountered him in photos, he hails from Wales, and despite having lived the last four years in America and even marrying a Tennessean, he stubbornly maintains a Welsh accent as thick as blood pudding. From my first interview with him back in 2004, we’ve shared a running joke about my troubles translating his “foreign tongue.” (My favorite Lewis language tale is the one about the NPC competitor’s wife who asked him how long he’d been speaking English. Incredulous answer: “All my life!”)
So, number, as in number of reps with a specific weight. He must hit his target. Unfortunately, his math gets changed on the final superset when he can’t use the weight he wants: the 250-pound stack with a plate stuck on. The 45 comes off when it knocks against the station’s supports, so he goes with an extra 25 instead. Again, with pauses when needed, he hits 15, and follows it up with 20 straight arms. He gets his number.
Before each set of low-pulley rows, Lewis leans all the way back so that he is nearly flat on the bench. Again, this is all about getting his number. “Basically, I’m psyching myself up for the lift and I’m focused on how many reps I’ll go for.” He hits 15 with 200 and follows this immediately with a set of 20 high-rope pulls. He slips on his iPod Shuffle, listening to Disturbed and blocking out Hardcore Horton’s camera and my notepad during his last two supersets, using first 260, and then the whole 300-pound stack on the low-cable rows, pausing when necessary to hit 15 and tacking on 20 reps of high pulls to both sets.
On the low-cable rows, Lewis employs a V-handle and stays relatively upright. “A lot of guys cheat and throw a lot of momentum into it,” he states. “What I do is I keep my back at 90 degrees [to the floor], and as the bar comes in, I throw my chest up and elbows back, and I meet the bar.”
With the high-rope pulls, the ropes are together at the start of each rep, and then he separates them as far as he can as he reaches each contraction, lengthening the range of motion and focusing the tension on his rhomboids, rear delts, and middle and lower traps — all the upper-back lumps that splinter into focus onstage when he strikes a rear double bi.
Lewis attributes his adoption of Y3T training for the appearance of new density and separation in his upper back. It may sound like a millennial computer crisis, but Y3T is the brainchild of trainer/nutritionist Neil Hill, a.k.a. Yoda, a fellow 5'5" Welshman and former IFBB Pro League competitor (he competed once in 2002). Y3T essentially divides training into three-week cycles: two weeks focused on progressive strength gains with compound exercises and low to moderate reps, and the third week focused on blood volumization via higher reps and supersets or giants sets. Lewis is in the third week now, thus the supersets. But he hasn’t entirely abandoned his “power trip.”
“I psych myself up so much for dead-lifts that it takes me a while to comedown. The mind is such a powerful tool. I think of all the things people said I couldn’t do. I use my competitors as an influence. I use where I’ve come from and how I want to help my family better their lives. Each rep is accountable for that. Coming from Wales, I feel I have a mindset to push myself. Nothing’s come easy. As soon as I start moaning about cardio, I start thinking about where I came from and how blessed I am to be in this situation. I’m doing it not just for me and my wife, but for my parents and, obviously, my fans, too. I know where I’ve been and where I’m at, and I don’t want to go backward.”
So says Lewis after sets of rack deadlifts with 315 and 405, and before a set with 495. The bar begins each rep from power-rack supports set just above his knees. He uses straps, chalk, a belt with FLEX LEWIS on the back and his iPod. “Deads off the floor is a different exercise, and it works glutes and hams, too. Deads off a rack works lower back. I’ve always done them explosive. I psych myself up so much that I go completely blank. I don’t know what I do with reps. I have my training partners tell me.” I count for him. He knocks out 11, plates clattering, banging each rep off the supports.
“Excuse me. He can’t do that in here. He’s going to break the weight.”
This is where our story began, and there’s no doubt what to do next, for such a ludicrous assertion requires a logical response: more weight. Even better: a lot more weight. If we’re going to get thrown out anyway, let’s load it up. And for the inalienable rights of hardcore trainers everywhere — with the added incentive, supplied on cue by Hardcore Horton and myself, that somewhere at this moment David Henry or Kevin English are doing rack deadlifts with six plates — an additional two plates are slid on each side of the Olympic barbell. Seven plates — 675.
Lewis stalks, hearing only the screaming in his ears, remembering why he’s here, where he came from and where he’s going, Henry and English, his family and his fans. He chalks his hands. Then he rushes to the bar as if to deliver a blow, fastens his straps with an overhand grip, clenches his eyes shut and leans forward, visualizing. His eyes spring open. He exhales. He sees it now. He pulls, standing upright with 675 in his hands, and then he lets the weight crash down to the rack supports — BOOM! — again, pull, pull, pull, and down again as he tries with all his might to break the sagging bar — BOOM! — or the rack — BOOM! — or bring with each thunder clap of metal against metal — BOOM! — the walls crumbling down upon us in a rain of bricks — BOOM! Fuck yeah. Fuck you and your rules. It’s a power rack, it’s deadlifting, and this is my job. BOOM!
Lewis didn’t get one of the most decorated Christmas trees in bodybuilding by writing St. Nick. He works for it — at the dining table and on the treadmill during contest prep, but also in the weight room year-round. He follows partial deadlifts with supersets of machine T-bar rows and back extensions. The rows, in which he goes up to four plates, work the meat of his lats, and the extensions, done with bodyweight only, isolate the lumbar region of his spinal erectors. Together, the inner lower lats (branches) and the erectors (trunk) form a dramatic pinetree shape before and during the unfurling of his lat spread, and these details help Lewis repeatedly win rear shots against wider competitors.
The Welshman sometimes does the extensions the traditional way — with his arms crossed in front of his chest — while other times he’ll reach as far down and forward as possible at the bottom position, and then bring his arms back as he rises, so at the top, his elbows are back and he’s contracting both his erectors and his lats. “The hand motion is like hitting a lat spread and it brings out the lower back, but also the lower lats,” he explains. “I’ve been doing it for a number of years and it does help. It’s isotension on the lower lats, and I picture the Christmas tree popping out.”
The workout — in the third week of a three-week cycle — was devoted to blood volumization with most reps in the 15-20 range and most exercises superset, but Lewis used the stack plus a quarter on pulldowns, he low-rowed another stack and he pulled a bar loaded with so many plates that he nearly got us all booted out of the gym. The secret to his success and the essence of Hill’s Y3T system is intensity. Whether doing 6 reps or 20, and whether using all the weight or none, he brings his everything to every set. And if iron should suddenly snap or walls come tumbling down or the finer sensibilities of tummy-tightening gawkers are insulted by the violent thunderclaps of metal meeting metal, fuck it, for he has another rep to get and another after that. And on his next set, he’s using even more — especially if you tell him he can’t.