It's the middle of the contest season and Maxx Charles has already competed several times, rebounding from 13th place at the Arnold Classic in March to 7th place at the Toronto Pro and 3rd place at Missouri's Muscle Mayhem contest, both of which took place in June.
Today he's at Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym on Long Island, New York, getting started on leg day. He's just finished his first set when fellow IFBB pro and multiple 202-and-under Olympia champion Kevin English wanders over. English takes one look at Charles' intensity and grueling training style, laughs, and says, "There is no mercy in what you do, Maxx. None!"
Bringing Huge and Merely Big Into Balance
Charles, who turned pro via his overall win at the 2014 NPC USA Championships does train pretty damn hard, but he trains smart, too—very smart. He says his training is instinctual, guided by what he feels and what his body tells him it's safe to do. At the same time, he says he carefully plans every detail of his workout, with not one single rep left to chance. If his approach sounds like a raging contradiction, so what? Look at this man's physique!
Ever since he first took up bodybuilding, Charles has been knocked for having an upper body out of sync with his lower body. It's a criticism he shares with fellow IFBB pros Juan Morel, Johnnie Jackson, and even the mighty eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. Don't be misled: It's not that Charles' legs have ever been weak, it's that his upper body is strong AF.
He is incredibly, outrageously wide and carries a tremendous amount of mass through his shoulder girdle and on his arms. In the last few years, he's worked crazy hard to improve his leg development, but he knows he has more to go. Charles is known for thinking outside the box when it comes to his training: No simple 3-sets-of-10 man is he. The hamstring training you're about to see is just another example of his unconventional—and unrelenting—take on muscle building.
Seated Leg Curl
8 sets of 20 reps; increase weight for 4th set, follow with 4 dropsets
Charles steps up to one of Bev's seated leg curl machines and squeezes his considerable mass into position. His first 3 sets are somewhat conventional. With each new set, he adds another 45-pound plate, pausing at the top of each rep and squeezing the hamstring muscles before extending his legs and getting a stretch in the hams. He does 20 reps like this per set.
So far so good.
It's when he attacks his fourth set that you get a glimpse of what separates Charles from most bodybuilders. He starts with four plates. His girlfriend lightly grips his ankles and follows his legs as he curls the weight downward. At the bottom of the movement, she helps him hold steady for a count of two. Then it's back up to the starting position; another, briefer pause; followed by another repetition. He repeats this 12 more times. When he can't move the weight any longer, he pauses for several seconds—then somehow rips through 6 more reps on the way to his final destination of 20 reps.
As soon as Charles completes his final rep with four plates, his workout partner gets ready to go into dropset mode. He strips a plate from the machine and Charles does 20 more reps. When that's done, he does 20 more with two plates, then 20 with one plate. Throughout this entire 160-rep odyssey, Charles doesn't rush it. He takes time with every rep to squeeze and hold contractions. The last set takes nearly 5 minutes to complete. It's insanely hard.
Lying Leg Curl
3 sets of 30 reps; go to partial reps if necessary to complete all 30 reps per set
The average trainer would have called it quits when—if—he or she made it through that fourth grueling set of seated leg curls. Charles is anything but average. He's a true bodybuilding freak in a sport where that sobriquet is often bestowed but rarely earned.
Instead of resting after his 160 seated curls, he moves on to a Cybex lying leg curl machine, where he will perform 3 sets of 30 reps. He starts out with a full range of motion, squeezing the pad at the top of the movement. As his hams start to burn, he doesn't stop. Instead, he starts cranking out partials—starting out with 3/4 reps and, by the end, flinching his way through 1/2 reps. Even as fatigue grinds him down, Charles keeps the weight moving and his torched hamstrings working.
9 sets of 20-30 reps; increase weight with each set through the 4th set, then decrease weight for the 5th set. Finish with 4 dropsets of 20-30 reps.
Here's a perfect example of how Charles takes a traditional movement and makes it his own. Have you ever put your feet close together higher up on the leg sled when you're doing leg presses? You really feel it in your hamstrings, right? For Charles, this high foot placement isn't an experiment, it's the way he rolls. He puts his feet so high up his toes and the balls of his feet are actually off the sled.
Putting just about every plate in the gym on the machine, he moves slowly to avoid over-stressing his hamstrings, taking the weight through a very limited range of motion. He does 3 sets of 30 reps, adding yet more weight with each set.
By the fourth set, Charles has somehow stacked 34 plates—1,530 pounds—on the leg press machine. There is literally no room to add any more weight. His girlfriend and a buddy hover over the machine throughout the set to make sure no plates fall off. Charles pumps out 20-30 reps with 34 plates, then pauses just long enough for his girlfriend and his buddy to strip three plates from each side of the machine. He churns out a fifth set with 28 plates, a sixth set with 22 plates, a seventh set with 16 plates, and eighth set with 10 plates and, finally, a ninth and final set with four plates.
It is an agonizing 4-5 minutes to watch as Charles gets his reps with legs that must feel like they've had napalm slathered all over them.