When you’re nicknamed “The Gift,” chances are you’re going to ruffle a few feathers. But bodybuilder Phil Heath backed up his boisterous moniker with real results, winning seven consecutive Mr. Olympia titles from 2011 to 2017 and cementing himself as one of the premier physique athletes of the 21st century. (And he’s not even officially retired as of 2023.)
But after racking up title after title, a narrative was born that his success was mostly due to his top-tier genetics rather than the “hardcore” workouts and record-breaking lifts that many associate with the best in the sport.
Unlike previous Olympia great Ronnie Coleman, whose plate-rattling training videos remain the stuff of legend, Heath’s routines focused on machines over free weights and lacked the jaw-dropping feats of previous Sandow winners.
This methodical (if not reserved) training style soon led to a popular question among bodybuilding fans and journalists: Just how strong is Phil Heath anyway? Let’s take a look.
Credit: @Philheath on Instagram
The Early Years
Heath’s first sport of choice was basketball, not bodybuilding. As he told Bodybuilding.com in 2019, he grew up playing basketball in Seattle, securing a full scholarship to the University of Denver while in high school. A defensive-minded guard, he played 66 games in college, averaging 1.3 points and .3 assists per game.
His introduction to bodybuilding came in 2002 when he decided to enter a show after seeing some of his friends compete. After just six months of training, Heath entered the 2003 NPC Northern Colorado show and won the Light Heavyweight division. The following year, he won the Heavyweight and Overall crowns.
Although he admits to being completely overwhelmed at his first competition, Heath rose quickly within the sport. It took just four years for him to compete at an Arnold Classic, and in 2008, he stepped onto the Mr. Olympia stage, where he finished third in his debut.
By 2011, he won the first of seven consecutive Olympia titles — in terms of modern bodybuilding, his rise to the top was nearly unprecedented.
While hard work defines every bodybuilding champion, they are shaped, limited, or advanced by their body’s structure. In the case of Heath, everything seemed to line up.
Writing on Heath in 2016, New York Times journalist John Branch summed up the bodybuilder’s advantages succinctly: “He was genetically bequeathed with good bodybuilding genes: narrow joints and long attachments for proportion and big muscle bellies for bulge…”
Simply put, these factors all add to his trademark “3-D” muscles, which seemed to pop on stage and outshine the competition. Still, it’s only an advantage if you know how to utilize it. In this regard, Heath put in the work by playing to his strengths and not to others’ expectations.
Phil Heath’s Training Style and Workouts
Mr. Olympia champions vary greatly in their training methods. Some focus on aesthetics and high volume, like Frank Zane, while others, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, seem to enjoy mixing it up between high- and low-rep training. And yet, they all succeeded to varying degrees. Likewise, Heath employed a training system that specifically worked for him.
For a great deal of his career, he trained under the supervision of coach Hany Rambod and his FST-7 system. This is effectively a strategy employed at the end of a workout to generate as much fatigue as possible in order to help stretch the fascia, which is the thin “casing” that connects and holds your organs, blood vessels, and muscles in place. According to Rambod’s theory, stretching the fascia allows more room for muscle growth.
Understood crudely, FST-7 means including one or two exercises at the end of a workout wherein seven sets are performed in quick succession (with 30-45 seconds of rest in between sets) with a focus on maximum burnout. Heath didn’t use this on every exercise, but it became a mainstay of his workouts. His basic approach, however, was high-rep, high-volume training, and, much to the dismay of many bodybuilding fans, involved a lot of machines over free weights.
This doesn’t mean that Heath never touched a barbell (he used them regularly, in fact), but they weren’t his primary tool. A good illustration of this comes from one of his leg-day workouts, published in Muscle & Strength in 2014. Note the inclusion of FST-7 protocols throughout.
Leg Extension: 4 x 8-12
Front Squat: 4 x 10-12
Leg Press: 3 x 10-12
Hack Squat: 7 x 5-7
Stiff-Leg Deadlift: 4 x 10-12
Leg Curl: 4 x 10-12
Seated Leg Curl: 7 x 5-7
Standing Calf Raise: 4 x 15-20
Leg Press Calf Raise: 4 x 15-20
Seated Calf Raise: 7 x 12-15
Proving the Doubters Wrong
Heath’s style of training means that it is tricky to discuss his strength using the powerlifting trinity of the squat, bench, and deadlift. There are no images or videos, for example, of him going on an all-out set of squats or deadlifts like Coleman.
That said, Heath has revealed certain details that highlight just how strong he is. In a video interview with NFL legend Shannon Sharpe, Heath says he’s in the 1,500-pound club, meaning he’s hit a combined total of 1,500 pounds on the squat, bench, and deadlift. More specifically, he says he topped out on the bench press at 505 pounds.
What about the squat? Heath has gone on record as not being a heavy squat aficionado, not least because they fatigue his lower back too much. But in the past, he has discussed hitting 495 pounds on the back squat for eight to 10 reps in training. (Whether he can match that or any of the weights discussed here in 2023 is unknown.)
On the deadlift, he often used the stiff-legged variation with dumbbells for high reps instead of the traditional barbell deadlift during Olympia prep. Muscle & Fitness once reported that he would do five sets of 10-15 reps with dumbbells weighing between 70 and 120 pounds.
For arms, Heath cycled through a variety of exercises during his career, highlighted by incline dumbbell curls with 70 pounds and triceps pushdown tri-sets of 10 reps jumping from 110 pounds to 120 pounds to 130 pounds. Even more impressive was his ability to do strict overhead dumbbell triceps extensions with 70 pounds. When doing machine dips, he’d do 180 pounds for 10 reps facing forward, and then immediately do another 10 reps facing backward.
His shoulder strength was another highlight. On one of Heath’s favored movements, a Hammer Strength behind-the-neck press machine, he worked up to sets of 12 with four 45-pound plates on each side, according to an article on Muscular Development from 2016. Later in the same workout, he performed 70-pound lateral raises.
According to bodybuilding journalist Greg Merritt for FLEX magazine, Heath would often perform underhand rows with 315 pounds for reps and could likely have gone heavier, if not for injury concerns. Though he didn’t push to absolute extremes like other Olympia greats, the idea that he didn’t train hard, or wasn’t strong, doesn’t hold up.
How Strong Is Phil Heath?
The glib answer is strong enough to be a Mr. Olympia seven times. Expanding somewhat, Heath was always clear during his career that his goal was bodybuilding and not necessarily strength. Heavy weights were a path to bigger muscles and not an end goal. Had he approached things differently, it is likely his numbers would be even higher.
Still, once you remove Ronnie Coleman from the discussion, Heath matches favorably with other Olympia champions. His 505-pound bench press is in the same ballpark as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Cutler, who have reported one-rep maxes of 525 and 550, respectively.
On the squat, 495 pounds for reps edges out Dorian Yates’ mark of 465 pounds for 10. And if you use BarBend‘s one-rep max calculator, Heath could have potentially had a max squat of 614 pounds. That’s not too far behind Franco Columbu, who claimed a one-rep max of 655 pounds.
Indeed, a cursory look at the strongest-ever Olympia champions shows that Heath holds his own against the majority of them. His “downfall,” as it were, is that he came at a time when Coleman had conditioned fans that champions needed to lift the heaviest weights possible to be competitive.
Some bodybuilding fans may wonder what physique Heath could have built by pushing to his strength limits. Others will recognize that bodybuilding centers on the physique alone. In that category, he was unmatched for seven years.
Featured Image: @philheath on Instagram
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