The following is an article from the August, 2006 issue of FLEX Magazine
How phenomenal Phil Heath built his awe-inspiring arms
- Bodybuilding has long been a sport of phenoms. It's easy to forget this during Ronnie Coleman's extended reign as Mr. O, but his leisurely hike that placed him at the top at age 34 is an anomaly. Arnold Schwarzenegger's run of Olympia wins began when he was 23; Lee Haney took home his first Sandow at 24. Rich Gaspari, Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone and Jay Cutler, to name four, all scored pro victories at 26 or younger. To this exalted company, let us now add another. In Phil Heath, bodybuilding has a phenom again. Ten hours after the 26-year-old known as the Gift won his first pro contest and six days before he won his second, FLEX watched as he trained bis and tris. Follow along with us to the Mile High City for every rep, quip and tip, as we witness firsthand how Heath built arms (in a mere four years) that are already regarded as two of the all-time best - and he's only getting started.
Let's begin two hours after Heath won the Shawn Ray Colorado Pro, when, $26,000 richer, he pulls into a Burger King drive-through lane and orders a victory Whopper. Also in Heath's Lincoln LS are his nutritionist, Hany Rambod, my fellow FLEX scribe, Shawn Perine, and yours truly. Waiting at his house are approximately 40 friends and family members along with countertops laden with celebratory desserts. By the time I crawl back into my bed in a downtown Denver hotel, it's 3:30 AM. The unmerciful wakeup call comes three hours later. Heath gets even less sleep.
At 7 AM, photographer Kevin Horton, his wife, Elaine, and I drive to Mahany's Club Fit in suburban Aurora. Despite a name that connotes the VH1 show about overweight has-beens, the gym is probably more hardcore than some Gold's, but it's quiet on this Sunday morning, with only a half-dozen Coloradans training to the drone of classic rock. "Mama Told Me Not to Come," Three Dog Night laments. When the Gift strides through the door to the gym where he forged most of his muscle, he's joined by his live-in girlfriend, Jen Laxson, cousin Ty Beauchamp, videographer Isaac Hinds (who is shooting Heath's DVD) and, on this Mother's Day, his mom, Rosella Braxton, and her husband, Jerry. (Heath's mother and stepfather, who live in Seattle, had witnessed Heath compete as a bodybuilder for the first time the night before.)
"Today, obviously, it's the day after a contest, so I'll go by how I feel," Heath explains. "I believe in instinctive training, so if I feel I can go heavy, I'll go heavy. A lot of people say you shouldn't train after a contest, but screw that. I ate some junk last night, so I should be able to train hard today after being depleted all those weeks. Sure, I just did a show, but I'm an athlete, so I should be able to still lift hard."
- After a warm-up, Heath performs barbell curls on the vertical side of apreacher bench. He methodically pumps out 10 reps with 90 pounds for his first set, 10 with 100 for his second and 10 with 110 for his third, straining for the final few reps. "I keep them to a minute precontest," he says of his rest periods. "If I take longer, I go heavier, but I like to be breathing a little hard, so I can get some cardio out of a workout."
I ask why he stops short of a full stretch at the bottom of each rep. "I noticed that when I lock out, I get this pain in my biceps tendons," he answers. "It's the same as locking out the knees in a leg workout; I don't like to do that. I go by what Lee Haney talks about, keeping constant resistance. The same with Ronnie [Coleman] and Jay [Cutler] - they keep constant resistance instead of a full range of motion. I'm not trying to strain the tendons; I'm just trying to stimulate the muscles."
"REAL QUALITY REPS"
Although he holds both dumbbells throughout, he does all the reps for one side of incline dumbbell curls at one time before switching arms. "I used to do them alternating [each rep], but - I can't lie - I like to bite everyone else's stuff. I saw Jay [Cutler] doing them this way in [the DVD] Battle for the Olympia, so I tried them, and I can actually get some real quality reps by just focusing on one side instead of going back and forth.
Alternating is like counting to 20 instead of the way I do it - counting to 10 and then 10 again. A lot of times, I count in fives now, so I do five on one side, five on the other, and then five and five again right after that. If I focus on one side at a time, I feel I can go heavier and I get a better pump."
As Horton snaps photos, I scribble notes, Hinds zooms in for video close-ups and Heath's family watches from just beyond the lights. The phenom uses the 40s, 50s and 60s for subsequent sets, keeping his elbows steady and again stopping short of a full stretch each time.
"HOW DUMB IS THAT?"
Two-arm high cable curls are done at the cable crossover station, replicating a double-biceps pose with each rep. "I want those peaks, bro," Heath says of the strong contraction this exercise provides. "I know it's mostly genetics, but I want to accentuate what I have."
After the initial set with 50 pounds, we all laugh that he left his water bottle on one of the weight stacks and, riding up and down, it somehow stayed upright throughout the 10 reps.
"That's how controlled my movement is," Heath deadpans. It's a joke, not a boast, but, lest anyone misinterpret, he deflates it a moment later. "How dumb is that? Am I full of myself or what?"
Actually, Heath is one of the most humble of all bodybuilding champs. Even when Horton, Hinds and I bait him about the upcoming rematch with Darrem Charles, the rookie is always careful to express his respect for the Trinidadian posedown veteran who is closing in on 50 pro contests and who first flexed on a pro stage in 1992 - when Heath was 12.
In almost every workout, the Gift is reminded that winning is never guaranteed, for, in addition to top Colorado super heavyweight Ryan Fasano, his other training partner is Rick Sosias, the fourth-place light heavyweight in last year's NPC USA Championships and the only man to ever defeat Heath (by one point, for the overall at the 2003 Colorado State Championships). "After he beat me, I figured I'd learn from him," Heath explains. "So we've been training together ever since."
Heath does another set with 60 pounds. After a set with 70, he immediately pumps out an additional 10 reps with only his right arm and 10 with his left, again using 70 pounds. "It just really finishes them off to end with the one-arms."
Heath calls his first triceps exercise "trisets," and, although technically they're not, the term expresses the unique three-step assault on his tris, done via one movement - rope pushdowns. Eachset is a 30-rep ascending set. After 10 reps, he immediately increases the weight 10 pounds for 10 more reps, after which he immediately increases another 10 pounds for a final 10. He also escalates his starting poundage by 10 each time, going 90-100-110 for his first ascending set, 100-110-120 for his second and 110-120-130 for his third.
"My next set always starts 10 pounds heavier than the last, and yet all together it seems like it's 30 pounds heavier because I'm doing 30 reps total, so every rep is heavier the second time than the first, and then every rep gets even heavier the third time. By the end, I'm starting with as much weight as I ended with the first time."
Bringing out the wood-grain striations of his tris, his form is strictand he separates the two rope sides for a maximum extension at the bottom. "With the rope, I'm able to extend. If I keep it close, I still get a pump, but if I extend out, it makes it harder. I know that because the first thing I do when it gets heavy is keep it in here [hands close together]. It makes for a longer range of motion to bring it out here [hands approximately nine inches apart] at the bottom." He adds with a grin, "A little geometry lesson there."
"NEW WINDOWS VERSION"
By the time he completes the pushdowns, the long and lateral heads of each triceps resemble the braided ropes he was gripping, and everyone marvels at how much his arms have ballooned, dramatically bigger than the night before and yet losing none of their fine details. Flexing, he's startled himself by what he sees in the mirror, and he confirms that he has never looked better than at this moment in time - and yet he will look better still. "We're going to trade this one in for the new Windows version," he jokes about his physique. "The old one you saw last night was like Windows 98, and the one you're gonna see will be like that new Vista."
Before his victory at last year's USA, Heath underemphasized arm training in order to keep his physique in balance. Since then, he's trained arms all-out. He even plans to work forearms. "If I have a freaky bodypart and it happens to be arms, that's OK, because I'm messing with some gunslingers now - guys like Lee Priest and Darrem Charles. Ronnie, Jay and all those guys have big arms. Everybody likes big arms. Still, I don't train tris as hard as I used to because those will grow out of control." The last statement explains why he's the Gift.
"SUPPOSED TO BE DROPPED"
Standing one-arm dumbbell extensions are not done textbook style - elbow straight up and the working upper arm kept perpendicular to the floor. Instead, he lets his elbow drop, pointing his upper arm out at approximately a 45-degree angle.
"I'm afraid of an injury to my elbow, and I know if I keep it high and go down, it hurts. I have the stigma that I have good genetics, so I don't train hard, but I push it for 10 reps every set. I just don't want to get an injury. I'm young and I have plenty of time to fill out, so I don't want to get in a hurry and mess myself up. To each his own, and I don't dog anyone's form. Yeah, if you do arms and you're just really swinging it, that's stupid, but if my elbow is back here [farther out], it's still staying here, so I'm keeping the tension on the tris. If it's up here [straight up], to me, it just feels too compact and puts too much pressure on joints. The next guy might do it straight up and get big arms out of that.
"My training partners like to do overhead triceps extensions with two hands. I use one hand. I like one-arm movements, and I work the two arms slightly differently. You'll notice I'll get more reps with my left arm when I train triceps because I want to grow it to the level of my right."
Indeed, after sets of 10 reps with a 40-pound dumbbell and a 50-pound dumbbell, Heath grinds out a final eight with his right arm and then 12, counting partials, with his left, using a 70-pound dumbbell. When he can't move it again, he drops the 70, and it bounds away. "One reason I love this gym is there's no sign saying you can't drop the weights. You can wreck yourself trying to set the weight down gingerly after going all out. Dumbbells are supposed to be dropped."
"FRONT TO BACK"
Each of his three sets of machine dips with 180 pounds is doubled by performing 10 reps facing forward and promptly turning for 10 reps facing backward (toward the seat back). "Going front to back, I notice that I'm really stressing the insertion of the tris near the shoulders. For these, I like to get a fuller range of motion, too, to really stretch them out at the top."
As his workout comes to a close, the curvy fullness of his upper body looks Levrone-esque - a comparison Heath rightly sees as a supreme compliment. "I try to think about Kevin Levrone whenever I train tris or shoulders," he says. "I've been using his workouts from FLEX for the past three years just because he has the best trap-shoulder-tri combination I've ever seen."
"A LITTLE UNREAL"
Afterward, the Gift takes the person who supplied half his genes to a Mother's Day lunch. They have much to be thankful for. Six days later, he conquers New York, besting not just Charles again but a real live Olympia mass monster, Dennis James. "It all seems a little unreal," he says backstage. "Just last year, I was a fan reading about these guys, and now I'm beating them."
This is only the start of the "unreal" story - halfway through the first chapter, with the suspense of his next contest many pages away.
This tale is only going to improve as bodybuilding's latest phenom fulfills his immense promise. FLEX