The Wrath of Khan

The Enduring Comeback of Bodybuilding’s Underground Sensation Zack “King” Khan

If this article’s title conjures up images of a vengeful Zack Khan knocking over buildings and flinging cars as horrified bystanders scatter away from him like mice, you don’t know Zack. Despite his monstrous image in ads and articles, King Khan is the gentlest of giants. His soft-spoken humility is tempered further by a British accent as thick as porridge. But don’t confuse cordiality with contentment. A fire rages just beneath the surface, stoked by a day in June 2010 that altered the trajectory of his bodybuilding career and by images of Joel Stubbs and Jean-Pierre Fux, two colossi who endured the same injury and were rendered “legless” afterward.


As we’ll soon learn, King Khan already unleashed his vengeance on a certain hack squat machine. Eventually, he intends to make all who’ve doubted his ability to return feel the sting of comeuppance. However, it’s his own muscles that suffer his greatest punishments. The wrath of Khan was and is felt most acutely by his legs, first in his quest to merely move about normally again and now as he battles to regrow them to abnormal and decidedly monstrous dimensions.

Let’s go back to June 8, 2010, when you ruptured the tendons in both knees hack squatting with 700 pounds. Did you
learn any lessons from that experience?

I don’t know what lessons
 I should learn. People say
 to me I must have used 
too much weight, but I’d
 done that weight dozens 
of times before. I’d done
it before for 15 reps. And
 there was no sign of it 
[the injury] coming. I
 blasted up the first two 
reps easy, and then on
 the third rep I heard a 
big pop and one leg
 gave out. All of a sudden, the weight came 
down on me, and then 
the other leg popped 
because I had all the 
weight on it. If I had 
some signs, I wouldn’t
have gone as heavy. You
 listen to your body and
 follow the signs.

In the aftermath of the June 10 surgery to reattach the tendons, what did you think about your bodybuilding future?

Lying in the hospital, I thought everything was over. I’d lose my sponsorships, and I’d never compete again—and this after I’d just gotten my pro card [by winning the 2009 IFBB British Championships]. I just kept thinking about Jean-Pierre Fux and what happened to him. [Once a top pro, Fux ruptured both knee tendons squatting 700 at a photo shoot in 2002. He competed only once afterward and failed to place.] His pictures came to mind, and I wondered if I’d even be able to train again.

What were your legs like during those first weeks of recovery?

Just getting up [out of the hospital bed] and going to the bathroom was the hardest thing I’d ever done until then. I couldn’t bend my legs at all. 
I had braces on for eight weeks. The first time I went to the toilet, I was trying to balance myself 
to stand up and do what I had to do, and I fell to the floor and all this blood started gushing out of my wounds again. It just hit me then. Look at me. I’m disabled! And afterward, I used to wait hours and hours, holding it in, before I used the toilet.

When did you
start to get some
 strength back?

A couple of weeks
after the casts were
off, I started to walk
in the braces with my legs straight. There were days when I was depressed because I was stuck in my apartment. I would make myself walk around the apartment, because I was determined to get stronger and get out of there. I stopped eating crappy foods. I started eating clean, but 
I reduced the amount I would normally eat. I wasn’t very active, so I didn’t need that much food. And then every day I had a routine where I would get up and do calisthenic exercises and stretch. I just kept doing that for six weeks, but I was so sick of being home in my flat. Thank God for having bloody technology like the Internet and TV and DVDs. It certainly made me appreciate the little things in life. Even just walking normally can be a blessing when you realize how many people can’t.

What was it like when the braces came off?

It was the weirdest feeling. It felt as though if I bent my legs a little bit I’d 
fall on the floor, even with the crutches. And I’d lost so much mobility and muscle strength. I was like, “Oh, my god, look at the state of my legs!” But I told myself there are two ways I can go. I can go back to the dark and dig myself in so deep I can’t get out, or I can take every day as it comes and build up a routine and slowly but surely bring myself back. Some days were really depressing. I’d stay in bed for 12 hours. I was just overwhelmed when I’d think that everything I aimed for was gone. So it was like I was fighting with myself. I kept telling myself, “I can do this, I can do this.” Then when I finally got some strength back in my legs so I could walk, I joined a fitness gym. It just had machines, but I went there and started training my upper body again.


Did you do anything for legs then?

I did a lot of stretching. And finally after awhile I could squat my own body weight. I’d do high-rep sets of leg extensions with no weight at home. I’d do 5 sets of 50 in the morning and 5 sets of 50 in the evening. And then when I built up the strength that way, I was back in the gym and doing very light leg extensions.

Did you follow what was being said about you online?

Sometimes I’d look at a website and they’d say, “Zack Khan’s finished.” People can be really cruel behind the computer. It did sometimes get to me. But I just thought they don’t know how determined and focused I am. I knew then, I’d do everything I could to prove them wrong.


You had a huge setback in December 2010. Tell us about that.

I started making decent progress, and then in December I got an infection in my left knee, and they had to operate again. So that really set me back. They had to cut the tendon totally off again and reattach it again. I was right back where I was before with a cast on for
 six weeks and then
a brace after that. Mentally and physically, that was really devastating.

So you had to go through the whole process of just re-gaining the strength and mobility to walk again. When did you start training legs again?

Not until June [2011], and I had to start all over again with no weights and then really light weights. It’s really hard coming back from injuries like this. It’s like every day was a battle with myself.

I saw a video of you bench-squatting last December, and you maxed out
with 135.

That was the first time I’d squatted with weights in 16 months, so I had to relearn the whole movement. My body wasn’t used to even carrying a bar and going through the movement. But it was more a fear factor than anything. That’s why I put a bench beneath me to help me not go too far down. At first I just squatted my body weight, and then I just used an empty bar. Then I built back up to 135.

As of January 2012, what were you squatting?

I was squatting 10 reps with 225. That’s using a bench. It was 185 for 10 without a bench.

You used to squat 550 for 8 reps. Do you think you’ll ever get back there again, and do you even want to get back there again?

I think I will. I know I want to. But it’ll just take time. The doctor told me once the tendons heal they’ll be stronger than before, so there’s no reason my legs shouldn’t be stronger and bigger than before. That’s what I’m trying for.

The last time you trained legs, what did you do?

I did leg extensions for five sets, and I went up to 60 pounds. I
did leg curls for five sets, and
I’m basically as strong as ever
on those. I squatted for four
sets with a bench and then four sets without a bench. And then
I ended with leg presses on a Smith machine [lying on his back and pressing up on the bar] for four sets with two plates per side [180 pounds total].

Is there anything you do to help your legs other than your weight training and cardio workouts?

I get deep tissue massage, and
 I use heat therapy. I use these microwave heat bags, and I put them on my knees for like 10–15 minutes at a time to help the recovery of the tendons. I take extra care of my legs now. I make sure when I train I wear Under Armour tights to keep the heat on my legs.

What do your legs look
like now?

I’ve been taking pictures, and I think people are going to be surprised by the progress. Everybody wants to see, so that’s why I’m keeping them covered for now, building the suspense.

How is your upper body?

My upper body is as strong as ever. I’m benching four plates [405] for reps. I’m doing 100-pound dumbbell curls, pushdowns, and pulldowns with the full stacks, shoulder pressing 140-pound dumbbells.

Do you still work with Neil Hill?

At the moment, no, because Neil is a contest prep coach, so at the moment there’s not much Neil can do for me. I have to listen to my own body and make my own way back.

Tell us about your gym in Sheffield, England.

It’s called ZKK Underground Gym. [ZKK are his initials.] I 
had another gym before, but 
the landlord wasn’t making his payments. So I looked around and found this small space. I can fit the main equipment in there, but it’s so small that I’m very selective about customers. I have about 20 members there, and that’s enough.

I know you’re doing leg presses on a Smith machine because you don’t have a leg press, and you don’t have a hack squat either. With all the emphasis you need to place on rebuilding your legs, why don’t you have more leg equipment?

That bloody hack squat machine [that he blew out his knees while using], I never wanted to see that bloody thing again! [laughs] I got rid of it. For more than a year, I didn’t really need any leg equipment, because I wasn’t training legs, and the gym doesn’t have much room. Now, though, I’m shopping for a leg press. I’ll get everything I need.

What’s a typical day like 
for you?

I wake up and do 20 minutes
of cardio at home on a bike
or treadmill. Then I eat
 breakfast and cook my 
meals for when I’m at work.
 I work at the government employment service, helping people get jobs. Luckily, 
I have breaks that allow me
 to get my meals in. Then after work, I go home and eat again and go to the gym and train. Afterward, I eat and check my e-mails and get merchandise orders [from his website] ready to go out the next day before
I go to bed.

Everyone is waiting for you to make your pro debut. When are you going to compete again?

I’ll compete once my legs are up to scratch,
and I show a picture [of his legs] to close friends 
I trust, and they say I’m ready. If I have to give it
a bit more time, I will. I can’t rush muscle growth. I haven’t really had a proper leg workout since the accident in June 2010. At the moment [January 2012], I’m just training to get my strength back. But I haven’t started training the way I need to train to stimulate growth. I need to use heavier weights, and I need to have at least a few months of heavy training. Hopefully, the latter part of the year I can get onstage. So if I do one of the shows in October, I will have to start dieting in July. So we’ll see how I look in June and see if it can happen this year.

I first heard about
you when you were runner-up in the heavyweight class
of the British Championships in 2001. Still, you’re 
only 31. Are you motivated to prove the doubters wrong who say your career peaked and effectively ended in your 20s?

The main reason to get back onstage is to prove to myself that I did what I set out to do in the beginning. There’s no question about it—I will get onstage again. It’s just a question of when. I look forward to making some great progress and sharing that with everyone. Let’s just see what happens this year, but I can say there will be some surprises.