“Judge me by my size, do you?” Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
You can’t have everything. That’s one thing bodybuilding teaches you– as if you didn’t already know. Phil Heath was gifted with many genetic advantages. But the one present the Gift didn’t get was broad clavicles. Therefore, by Mr Olympia standards, he’s never going to have wide-screen lats. And yet in each of his five Olympia victories he’s schooled his toughest competition in the two rear shots, especially the crucial rear double biceps – the pose that shows the most. Heath does it with density, shape, and details– all those ridges and divots that draw your eyes away from the bigger canvases nearby. Three weeks before the 2015 Olympia, we journeyed to Armbrust Gym in suburban Denver, Colorado, US, to watch Heath blast back as he pursued his fifth straight Sandow. The workout – endured with the encouragement of his trainer, Hany Rambod– was a 30-set barrage, striking his back with a panoply of exercises, working all the angles. Set after set, rep after rep, the Gift furthered his quest to be his best and remain atop the bodybuilding universe.
FLEX You did eight exercises and 30 sets in this back workout. Why have you increased your volume so dramatically?
PHIL HEATH I wish someone would’ve filmed that damn workout, because it was one of the craziest days ever [Laughs]. This was a precontest workout. In the off-season, I’ll probably do only five or six of those exercises and go with lower reps, usually around five to eight, and take longer between sets. But that’s still more than 20 sets. If I do only the traditional 12 to 16 sets, it’s boring. I’ll be done in 45 minutes on something like that. So I just keep going, keep putting in the work. This prep [for the 2015 Mr Olympia], I never trained harder. I just stayed in the gym. I didn’t have to do as much cardio this time, probably because I was doing more volume and working faster. And to be honest, I was probably just training pissed off. You know, obviously, I had a lot of stuff going on this year, both personally [he divorced in 2015] and business-wise, so looking back I went through some workouts just taking all that out in the gym, putting all those frustrations to good use and letting them fuel my workouts. And this was one of those workouts. I was just making sure I exhausted every part of every muscle from every angle, just going all out to stay Mr Olympia.
You added a new exercise to the start of your workout. Why do you kick off your routine with machine pullovers?
I saw a lot of pictures of [six-time Mr Olympia] Dorian [Yates] doing machine pullovers, and he had an amazing back, so I thought I’d try them. I feel like they really activate my lats and also stretch out and work the whole rib-cage area. I tried doing them at the end of the workout, but I like doing them at the beginning. It’s that rare back exercise that takes your arms out of it, so you can really focus on them and pre-exhaust your lats before you move on to pulldowns and rows, where your arms are going to be involved.
Why do you prefer an underhand grip for barbell rows?
Although underhand barbell rows activate the biceps more [than overhand rows], I feel like they also give me more lat thickness. I feel like I can get the elbows a little further back and pull lower into my waist with my hands closer to my body. That all gives me more inner- and lower-lat activation. I started doing those in late 2007, and I remember a lot of people talking about how much my back improved in 2008 at the Ironman and the Arnold, so I just keep going back to them. They’ve worked well for me.
How heavy do you go on those?
I go up to three plates [315 pounds/143kg]. I never go any heavier than that. If you go too heavy on rows, you can’t feel the muscles working, and you’re really risking injury.
What’s your focus when you’re doing the low-cable rows with a V-handle?
I’m trying to get a really good stretch at the beginning of each rep but then pull the handle in real close to my waist on contractions. That good contraction is going to bring out that lower-lat thickness. For this show [2015 Mr O], I was trying to focus on a lot of rowing movements and just really demolish that lower area.
After that you went right into back extensions.
Because I don’t do deadlifts, I felt like I needed some better stability in my lower back. And over the years I’ve gained a lot of size, and I was having a lot of lower-back issues.
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