James 'Flex' Lewis
An Interview With The Sensational Pro Bodybuilding Rookie!
On August 8, the IFBB professional elite will descend on sunny Florida to contest the Tampa Pro Bodybuilding Weekly Championships. One man aiming to do some damage in the under-202 pound division is the 'Welshman with the wheels', one of the most promising pro bodybuilding rookies of 2008, James 'Flex' Lewis.
Though he qualified to turn pro at the 2007 British Championships, where he took the light-heavyweight and overall titles, Flex has been a big name on the bodybuilding scene for quite some time, having scored a Weider contract and nutritional company sponsorship as an amateur. Back then he was known for his prodigious calf and thigh development. Today he is regarded as having the complete package of size, conditioning and shape.
Having appeared on several magazine covers and after gaining a substantial fan following, due in large part to his massive symmetrical physique, and marketable looks, Flex, 24, is poised to become a professional bodybuilding superstar, though, according to the man himself, his feet remain firmly on the ground as he sizes up the competition in this, his inaugural pro competition year.
As a proud Welshman, Flex is anxious to show the world that Wales is a country that produces not only great rugby players, but also top physique champions as he himself has fast become. I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Flex his competition strategy for 2008, how he has progressed to the pro ranks and what he has in store for the professional bodybuilding world.
[ Q ] With your pro debut one week off, how are you feeling right now?
I have one more day of depletion. My diet has basically been comprised of a minimum of carbohydrates, is high in protein, while fats are moderate. My energy levels are very low. Depletion for me now means depleting all net carbohydrates consumed through greens and peanut butter and so on. So at this point there are no carbohydrates and no fats, so I'm basically living on nothing.
[ Q ] To understate things, training must be more of a struggle for you at this point.
Basically nothing has changed; I'm still going into the gym and doing my cardio, but I have changed my weight training up slightly for depletion purposes: that's more so to have it coincide with what my main objective is and that is basically to deplete the muscles completely.
So I've changed my training just for the depletion days. Other than that, I have been training heavy and hard all throughout the off-season leading up to the show (the Tampa Bay Pro).
[ Q ] Are you aiming to bring a particular look to the stage? - Ultra-ripped and lighter than normal or fuller than usual?
Yes I'm going to bring more of a conditioned look. For me this new 202 (pound) class is all about conditioning. So I'm going to bring a package that is complete in every sense from symmetry to conditioning to proportion.
I really could have stepped onstage six weeks ago in an above-202 pound class if I was happy with the way I looked. But with the weight aspect I fit very well in the (202 pound) class; I'm currently a lot heavier than I was last year during depletion so I'm really happy with the gains I have made in the off-season.
I'm just happy that this 202 class will enable me to bring what I consider bodybuilding to be about: that's symmetry and conditioning with full muscle bellies. So that's what I'm going to be bringing come Saturday.
[ Q ] What final adjustments will you be making this week to ensure you achieve your best possible conditioning?
Well the biggest adjustment will be the carbohydrate loading. I've actually got my right hand man flying over from Wales, who I've used in my corner since day one. I do all my own off-season prep and all my own contest prep up until three weeks out from the show.
Then I have this guy, Neil Hill, who I've used since I was a junior bodybuilder. He used to have full control over my diet but now I know what works for me. So he is my eyes in terms of telling me when to eat and when to carbohydrate-load. He will be my main essential tool in my corner I think.
[ Q ] So Neil Hill will dial you into the Tampa Bay Pro?
Yes, he dials me in. I do all of my own off-season contest prep. Three weeks out I send him photos and we exchange e-mails. This time around I flew back to Wales and he and I had a long chat and he was happy with my progress. We made target weights. We are in connection with each other every single day and I get target weights to meet.
He knows how my body works because he has been with me since day one. So he will be coming over and carbing me up as he sees fit, because I'm scared of carbohydrates.
[ Q ] Are you scared of over-carbing or under-carbing?
My main problem is with carbing-up for photo shoots and shows. I did one show on my own and learned my lesson. Neil is there to force the carbs down my throat in a sense. Because I would have never taken in enough carbs if I'd done my own diet.
[ Q ] That raises another issue, in the sense that, starting now, you must peak twice in two weeks, for two shows. What will be your approach to peaking twice in such a short period of time - to successfully compete in the Tampa Bay and the Europa shows?
I actually have looked back after shows - like, for instance, the British Championships - and from this I have learnt a lot. After the British champs I had a photo shoot with Kevin Horton for FLEX magazine and I felt that was my best condition.
So we have a game plan to achieve the same outcome. If all goes well after the Tampa show, I will be back on my diet the very next day to get ready for the Europa.
There is no time to mess around and as usual I treat everything as a business. Food is just there to fuel my body so I can wait an extra week or two to get that extra cheesecake piece.
[ Q ] I just read on your website that you have a penchant for cheesecake.
Oh, I love it.
[ Q ] You say you will be aiming for symmetry and conditioning this weekend. What are you aiming for with regards to muscle fullness?
To be honest I was really full last year (for the British Championships); I'm not sure if we are going for more carbohydrates or less this time around. I'm just waiting for the plan from the boss to come through. Needless to say, until I get that from him I don't know what the game plan is; I just do whatever he tells me to do.
[ Q ] What do you expect your onstage weight to be?
I have no clue. Weight is not going to be a factor; it's all about how I look. And that's the great thing about this 202-class, just knowing that I'm going to be in the class in my best condition. My glutes are out and my hamstrings are out.
Looking at the guys who I will be up against I don't see too many of them having had striated glutes and hamstrings. But needless to say they will also be at their best come Saturday so this will make things interesting.
[ Q ] Competing in the pros versus competing in the amateur ranks are clearly two separate things as far as the quality of competitors you will be facing is concerned. What are some of the ways you have lifted your game to compete in the pro division?
Well most definitely I had to take a step back and assess what the next steps for me would be in order to compete in the pro ranks. At that time (when Flex turned pro) the 202-class wasn't there so my plan was to possibly take a year off and re-assess my physique after that year.
And of course, as you would have seen, we are getting new guys coming along through the amateur ranks all the time; guys like Brandon Curry. They are popping up left, right and center so the competition is also steadily increasing. Just prior to me winning my pro card the green light was given to the staging of a 202-class.
So that took the edge off training purely to put weight on. If I can make slow and steady gains and stay in the 202-class for as long as my body will allow, while building up my name in the IFBB, things should work out great. And I'm just glad that the 202-class has given me an opportunity to get my feet wet without the added pressure of having to put any extra weight on.
I have realistic goals and know that at this stage my age and staying injury free is the main factor that will allow me to stay in this sport for a long time, and grow my name, which will hopefully lead to a win in the 202-class, then hopefully wins at the open level some day.
[ Q ] Is one of your bodybuilding objectives the carrying over of a balanced, symmetrical physique from the 202-class to the open division without packing on the excessive mass that might ultimately obscure your lines and detract from your proportions?
Exactly, that's most definitely the case. I have no intention of over-developing my belly (stomach) and to become overly large like some of the physiques coming through the open class. This is something that detracts from the art and the beauty of bodybuilding in my eyes. I like the kind of streamlined look.
I think having the two classes will bring back a lot of the pros and guys who have been competing for a long time, who can make the class exciting and very competitive. It's not going to be a one or two horse race as it is in the open class. I think it gives fans a more of an interest in the sport and again with this class being at the (2008) Olympia nobody really knows who's going to turn up and in what shape. It is exciting all-round when I look at it from a fan and a competitor's point of view.
[ Q ] Having said all of this, how do you currently rate your chances against someone like Dennis James, one of the bigger competitors out there? I know it's probably unrealistic to say you will defeat such a competitor. I just want to know how you think you would compare.
I think it is unrealistic to think I could beat Dennis James. Obviously Dennis is a veteran of the sport and his name has been built up. I couldn't foresee a rookie pro coming in and beating someone like Dennis. I have respect for Dennis and really like him as a person, but being a rookie, number one, and not having that muscle maturity.
It would be very disrespectful to say that I could come in and wipe the floor with these guys, when realistically it wouldn't happen. Of course I train to win and have trained to win every show that I've done, and as it so happens I'm still undefeated as a bodybuilder.
But I know that it is going to come to a point when I'm up against the best of the best in the world. But muscle maturity will come in time; right now I'm humble in my approach and my feet are firmly on the ground. Again, I'm really excited about the 202-pound class because I know I have a chance to do really well.
Also I've always trained to win every show I've entered but realistically if I was to train for the Mr. Olympia show with the same mindset, could I really win or am I training just to stand there? This is something I have to think about. So I have to have the same outlook each time but also must be realistic.
[ Q ] So at this point you are training with the mindset of winning, however you are still taking a step back and assessing your performance as you go so as to better enable yourself to make realistic, steady progress along the way?
Yes, I couldn't have worded it better myself.
[ Q ] And based on the steady progress that you aim to make, do you see yourself some day placing among the top five at the world's biggest bodybuilding event, the Mr. Olympia?
Oh yes, most definitely. That has been a dream since I was 15-years-old. And if I could win the Mr. Olympia 202-class that would be a dream come true. To actually step onstage as a pro is another goal and a dream coming true this Saturday. My mindset is such that as soon as I accomplish one goal, I'm already setting another.
I have goals that I want to achieve in the next month, the next year and the next three years; these are personal goals that I keep to myself, but yet I don't mind talking about them once they have been accomplished. Again, once my feet are onstage this Saturday, and my number is on, one of my big goals has been achieved.
One of my ambitions since the very beginning was to be called out as an IFBB pro. So basically one of my long-term goals is to be one of the best in the world and to be a contender.
[ Q ] History shows us that the most successful bodybuilders have paid their dues and given themselves time to develop the necessary muscle maturity and experience to win. Consistency is a big factor here. I'm assuming consistency is something you also subscribe to.
Yes, in fact that is one of the main words I use when talking to younger amateur bodybuilders. Things aren't going to happen overnight, but if you are consistent with nutrition and training you can only get better. As it applies to myself, consistency is the main word I'm going use from here on out.
I'm going to go for it and have put every bit of blood, sweat and tears into this year, so I know I have done all I can do to step onstage this year and, notwithstanding my body's unique limitations, successfully compete. I didn't have an especially long off-season - about four or five months - so I know the best is yet to come.
[ Q ] What did you do differently training-wise in the off-season to prepare for the Tampa Bay show, compared to what you have done for previous contests?
I found that I needed to be in an environment where there are no distractions and that's why I moved to Brentwood, Tennessee. I think it reminds me a lot of home; there is a bodybuilding culture here that is big.
There is a huge fitness culture as everybody wants to stay in shape: there are lot of rock stars and country music stars; it is a very affluent community. Yet, I'm the only professional bodybuilder in all of Tennessee. People give me a lot of respect for that but they let me do my training too. So I'm really happy here and I believe that when you are happy you grow at your best.
[ Q ] And you are able to lift your game to a higher level because you are immersed in the right environment.
Yes, I was glad to leave the drama and the bullsh!t associated with certain areas I was living in (in Wales) and I got out of that environment and went back to basics - very strict and heavy again. I was doing some double days (two training sessions per day), and others would be single days; I was just listening to my body for the first time in a long time.
Some weeks I would train six days straight and other times I was taking three days off; or I would train one day on, one day off. All of this allowed me to pack on more muscle in certain areas, I think. I was doing the kinds of exercises that were standard in some of the hardcore gyms back in Wales, because this is all we could do there; there was no other equipment, just dumbbells and barbells.
So I went back to bent over rows and certain exercises that are quite primitive, but I think this has given me the best results. And my strength, from the off-season all the way up to pre-contest, has been surprising: I have never been so strong in the lead up to a show, mentally and physically.
[ Q ] What are some of the basic movements you have been doing? Squats? Deadlifts?
Not so much squats, but definitely deadlifts and all of the above. I haven't trained my legs at all this year, or maybe for about eight or nine months total, just to let my upper body catch up.
That enabled me to do the double days and train my weaker body parts. So I just listened to my body: some weeks I would do single days and other weeks I might do a couple of double days. Just to hit my weaker body parts twice a week.
[ Q ] Clearly your legs - calves, hams and quads - have always been one of your stronger muscle groupings. Is it now a case of training your upper body to ensure it catches up?
Yes, I have been told so many times that my legs are so strong, so I decided I would no longer train them. Instead of training them as most people do, when my pre-contest training kicked in I began training them with a few leg extensions and some leg presses, and along with cardio this kept them stimulated. I haven't trained in any shape or form to keep the size or develop them in any way this year. So my upper body can catch up.
[ Q ] And you were able to bring up your chest and back?
I wouldn't say to the standard where I want them to be but I would say I have made considerable gains in those areas.
[ Q ] What bodyweight were you when you first competed back in 2003 at the Junior Mr. Wales?
I couldn't tell you exactly, but it was light middleweight.
[ Q ] From what I can tell, your conditioning has never been a problem.
That is true; that's something that I have always been known for. My legs and conditioning were my main assets. After my second show, Neil Hill took me under his wing and he was always known for his conditioning. Everybody he works with always come in with their best conditioning. There is nobody he would let step onstage without striated glutes or hamstrings.
[ Q ] Definitely a good guy to have in your corner.
He has been great and he has taught me a lot about guys who think they have dieted down when they have about four pounds left to come off. So against all the other junior bodybuilders I competed against that certainly gave me the upper hand. Yes, some guys may have outweighed me - in some cases by 20 pounds like at the Universe - but they didn't have the conditioning that I had.
I'm not saying every body, but definitely most. And my legs were one of the driving forces that took me through the junior ranks because most juniors have great upper body development - great chest and arms - but their legs, and especially their calves, just did not match up.
So in viewing it this way it is a blessing that my legs developed faster than my upper body. It could have been a reverse situation: some people can never bring their legs up. Half the work is your legs, and I know that next year I will be training them like mad.
Now that my upper body has finally caught up, there is no excuse not to go crazy. So I'm really looking forward, not just to the remainder of this year, but also to the package that I'm going to be bringing next year.
I've learned so much in one year in going back to basics and in how my body responded to that that I feel with a good off-season and good nutrition and training plans, I will be able to put on some really good quality mass for 2009.
[ Q ] And coincidentally, you are now contracted to a supplement company headed by a man who was known for his leg development and conditioning, Rich Gaspari. Has he helped you in any way since you began working for him?
Rich lets me do my own thing as far as training and nutrition goes. But we are very good friends and he was on the Olympia stage when he was my age and was second in the world. He's a great boss. I use all Gaspari supplements. It's not just a gimmick.
They are something I used before I even became contracted to the line. In fact, that's how we got hooked up: Rich found out that I was using the products and that I had gotten a great response from them, so he wanted to sign me up. At the time I was an amateur. He had enough faith in me then to take me on board as an amateur and the rest is history.
[ Q ] Since turning professional how has your approach to nutrition changed?
It basically hasn't really changed that much other than my supplementation regime. Since I added Gaspari products to my supplement program I've managed to add several pounds of pure muscle. That's why I'm so excited with the prospect of having a real, true off-season, because my diet is super-strict in the off-season anyway.
That is something I've done since day one. It hardly ever changes. I'm doing the same now compared to what I was doing a couple of years ago in terms of consistency. But now I'm eating different varieties of protein sources. But I don't go excessive with carbohydrates.
I really don't eat that many carbohydrates at all. I believe in looking like a professional bodybuilder in the off-season. I rarely cheat. It's just something that I have always done.
Even when I do cheat I feel it is knocking me back, and of course it isn't, but if I were to cheat it would be only once every two weeks. But the majority of the time I keep my diet clean because I'm thinking 'quality calories, quality gains'.
[ Q ] How do you keep track of what you should be eating and how do you structure your diet?
I still weigh all my food in the off-season, but I don't really use a journal as such during this period. But I do (keep a journal) for my pre-contest prep all the way up to a show and after the show.
And I take photos to show how my body changes before the show and during the rebound period afterwards. In terms of getting into the thick of the off-season, using a journal and documenting everything defeats the purpose of the off-season for me. I like to relax during this time and enjoy myself, even though I still measure my food and keep things strict.
[ Q ] You mentioned earlier in this interview that living in the US is a better training environment, as there are fewer distractions. What other ways does living in the US give you an advantage as a bodybuilder?
It is just the opportunities that are presented. I know that bodybuilding will not be around for the rest of my life, so I would also like to create opportunities. Doors open doors. I'm not saying I want to be an actor or anything of that nature, but it (the US) is the land of opportunity, to sound corny.
In Wales you have basically got only one environment and that is rainy weather. It is a bit of a depressing atmosphere when you want to do something so much but the weather in hindering everything. When you wake up in the morning and see sunshine you want to seize the day.
[ Q ] You must be super-motivated to have endured years of miserable weather while working your way to the top of the amateur bodybuilding world.
(Laughs) home is always going to be home and I absolutely love Wales. I have the Welsh flag tattooed on my arm and I'm Welsh through and through. I would never neglect that aspect; it humbles me and keeps me grounded, but yet to be productive as a bodybuilder there is only one place to be: the States.
With the guest posing opportunities and all of the sponsors, it is the only place to be. The thing is, though, you need to be accessible to all of these things and if you are living in Wales or in the UK, it's the wrong environment. So I knew that if I were to make it in the sport I would have to be here, so I came here.
When I arrived I knew only one person and developed a network of friends and friends became associates; then I got introduced to certain people at certain shows. If I had to give advice to anybody it would be to turn up at these shows and the doors will open.
It does take time to become competitive as a bodybuilder, but nobody is going to open any doors for you; you have to open them yourself. When I arrived in the US I was sleeping on a sofa (couch) and, again, knew only one person, and look where I am now.
[ Q ] Will many of your friends and family from Wales be coming to see you when you make your pro debut this weekend?
Definitely. Neil Hill and my best friend Mark Price, who is the British amateur champion, will be there. Unfortunately my mother and father will not be able to make it, but there will be certain people flying the Wales flag. Of course Kris Gethin from bodybuilding.com will be there, flying the flag. He's like my brother from another mother.
[ Q ] What bodybuilders did you admire as you made your way through the bodybuilding ranks?
Jay Cutler from a business perspective. He's a very driven individual. I've had doors slammed in my face too and you have just got to get back up and pursue your goals. So Jay Cutler for his innovativeness and business acumen and the fact he has taken the sport (of bodybuilding) to the mainstream.
In terms of physiques I have admired from my early days, of course there would be Neil Hill, the first IFBB pro that I met and I'm so blessed to have him as a friend. Believe it or not actually Rich Gaspari also was one of my favourites and now I'm working with him.
Shawn Ray was another and obviously Dorian Yates because he was British. Tom Platz was the first bodybuilder I wanted to look like due to his amazing leg development and Lee Priest was another guy I looked up to. Lee Priest was my favourite bodybuilder when I was a kid; when I started he was another one I wanted to look like.
Now to know I might have the opportunity to stand next to him onstage is a bit of a surreal experience. I've met Lee a few times and we have always gotten along well. He has a good sense of humour, like myself, and we connect on the same level.
So for things to have come full circle, from reading about someone in a magazine, and to have gotten to the point where I might be standing next to him onstage, will be some experience.
[ Q ] And it's certainly been by design, not luck, as you have no doubt worked hard to get to the top.
Thank you very much for the kind words.
[ Q ] That concludes our interview Flex. It has been a pleasure speaking with you. Is there anything you would like to add before we finish?
Yes I would like to thank everybody at Weider Publications for making this interview possible and being so generous to let the Bodybuilding.com visitors get to know me. It was Weider who sponsored me as an amateur. I was one of the first ever amateurs they sponsored: there was Jay Cutler, Chris Cook, Phil Heath and myself; so that is a big honour to be the fourth ever amateur they signed.
So I would like to all the guys at Weider Publications, and also Gaspari Nutrition, two of the best companies backing me up. Also Gasp clothing and ATP wrist straps, two of my key sponsors.
As for my family and friends, I couldn't wish for a better support network; they have been there since day one. And my fiancé, Shina: she makes me the man I am today, and she always has my back; she's been there when times have been good and bad. I just love her very much and just want to put everything into this show for us both.
For more with Flex Lewis and for week-long coverage of the Pro Bodybuilding Championships, check out flexonline.com!