For Nasser El Sonbaty, who has spent 19 years torching, torturing and otherwise harassing every muscle fiber on his 5’11” frame, there are two absolutes. “The first thing is consistency; the second, intensity.” Given his behemoth lower quarters — complete with voluminous muscle bellies, subterranean separation, Gibraltarian density and shape — we took notes.
Nasser pounds his quads once a week, his hamstrings twice. He is loath to describe an actual routine. “To tell you the truth, my routine is always changing. When it comes to quads, I do squats, legs extensions and hack squats, but the order of the exercises changes, the amount of sets for each exercise changes, and the amount of rest between sets changes.” When he trains quads and hams together, he varies the order from workout to workout. “If I think I need more leg development, then I train quads on Monday morning and hamstrings Monday afternoon. Then on Friday I’ll do hams and quads again.”
A higher rep range, he explains, is what it takes to optimally stimulate the thighs. “Even when training for mass or size, you have to do more reps per set than with any upper-body muscle group except for abs. I try to always do as many as 20 reps per set, and when it comes to calves, up to 25.” As Nasser increases the weight from set to set in a pyramid scheme, he decreases the reps, never going below six, which he feels doesn’t adequately stimulate muscle growth.
The barbell holds a place of reverence in Nasser’s training credo: “Every barbell exercise is a mass-builder and also a mass-maintainer. If you aren’t doing a barbell exercise for each muscle group, you basically shrink and at the same time you lose quality.” For legs, that means barbell squats and stiff-legged deadlifts. “It doesn’t matter if you’re off-season, precontest, a beginner or advanced,” he adds. “Everyone should do barbell movements. The only difference is the amount of weight you use.”
Normally given second billing to quads, hamstrings get their due in Nasser’s training hierarchy. “The hams are the biceps of the lower body. It’s a huge muscle, and usually neglected. Because they’re such a critical part of the physique, they should be trained preferably on a separate day from quads and twice a week. Even an intermediate bodybuilder should definitely do hams twice a week,” Nasser states.
The lying leg curl, which he calls a basic hamstrings developer, begins a typical workout. Nasser’s exacting attention to execution singes every muscle fiber, taking this movement far beyond the usual cozy, warm-up exercise it becomes for many. He performs the curl slowly and painstakingly, utilizing a full range of motion and focusing on the muscle every millimeter of the way. “You have to really concentrate and feel the muscle, not just jerk around.”
Stiff-legged deadlifts, Nasser’s barbell exercise for hams, follows. For the first three sets, he lowers the bar all the way down to his toes, but he has better flexibility than most bodybuilders. Hamstrings fully stretched, Nasser then reverses the movement to bring the bar only to knee level, his upper body roughly parallel to the floor. He repeats the movement for reps, punishing the muscle with unrelieved tension. On the fourth set, handling maximum poundage, Nasser chooses a three-quarter range of motion and lowers the bar only to the top of his ankles before reversing the movement.
Standing unilateral leg curls often conclude Nasser’s ham roast. Keeping his hips square, he curls the roller as high as possible for a maximum contraction through the hamstrings, squeezing hard before lowering the weight. Other days, he’ll substitute the leg press, placing his feet higher on the platform and pushing through his heels to emphasize the hams and glute area.
Nasser begins his quad attack with a no-frills pre-exhaust movement, leg extensions, slowly and arduously grinding out rep after rep for four sets. This effectively wakes up the large muscle group at the front of the thigh and readies his knee joints for the heavier stuff. Training by the rule always slower rather than quicker, Nasser is no less diligent when applying it to the five sets of barbell squats that follow. While he has heaved six plates on each side in the past (that’s 585 pounds!), he no longer finds that necessary. “It’s a myth that the longer you train, the more weight you have to use. I get an easier, quicker pump than someone who has trained fewer years than I have.”
Nasser always recommends a natural stance, including the hack squats that are up next. This is an excellent exercise for targeting the teardrop muscles just above the knee, and Nasser performs hacks later in his workout, when his knees are properly warmed up. With his muscles burning from the intense assault, his quad blitz ends at the leg press, as perspiration pops for another four sets totaling up to 55 slow, controlled reps.
Although Nasser hits glutes when he performs squats, leg presses and stiff-legged deadlifts, precontest he adds the seated abductor machine to hit every muscle fiber. “A lot of people think it’s a women-only exercise, but it’s very important for men as well. As you squeeze outward, your glutes are contracting hard. By going with high reps, you actually target the butt area better than with low reps.”
“Training calves is very painful and you have to put a lot of concentration into it. You want to go all the way up and all the way down, not too fast and not bouncing up and down. A lot of people perform this movement far too quickly because they can’t endure the pain. My calves are very good, some of the world’s best, but I still have to train them about three times a week, not only to maintain shape and size but also to get more quality.”
Because genetics are a factor in determining calf size and shape, Nasser warns that persistence and creativity are paramount when planning calf workouts. “If you have four upper-body days in the gym, train calves each workout, performing two exercises each day for a total of 6-8 sets. Do two different exercises, choosing between standing and seated raises, donkey raises and toe presses. And if your calves are really lagging, put them first in your workout on upper-body training days (but never before heavy leg work). You have more energy and therefore you can concentrate better on them. You can also shock them by training them two days in a row and then again later in the week. Whether you work them three, four or even five days, always change the exercises, the order, and vary the rep range. To really force more calf growth, try coming twice to the gym on a specific day. Train calves in the morning before work, then come back in the evening and train calves again.”
BIRTHDATE: Oct. 15, 1965
BIRTHPLACE: Stuttgart, Germany
CURRENT RESIDENCE: San Diego
WEIGHT: 310-315 pounds off-season; 270-285 pounds contest
BEST SQUAT: 585 pounds for eight reps
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: 1999 Arnold Classic, first place; 1997 Mr. Olympia, second place; 1995 Night of Champions, first place
If quads are a lagging bodypart: “I’d train them 2-3 times a week, keeping the same total number of exercises, but do 1-2 fewer sets per exercise with greater intensity. Another option: Do 10 sets on Monday, 10 Wednesday and 10 on Saturday. If you’re getting chronically tired, you’ll know you’re over-trained; in that case, cut back to twice-weekly quad workouts.”
If hams are a lagging bodypart: “Definitely train them twice a week — even if they aren’t a lagging bodypart — and squeeze the hamstrings to get a real feeling for the contraction. Many people just lie down on the lying curl and go back and forth. Perform the movement slowly and resist the weight on the negative phase, using a full range of motion. The only hamstring exercise where I don’t use a full range of motion is stiff-legged deadlifts.”
If calves are a lagging bodypart: “You can definitely train them three, four, even five times a week before hitting a stagnation phase and becoming overtrained, but always vary your workout in terms of frequency, exercises and exercise order, and rep ranges.”
The most important thing to remember when training quads and hamstrings: “Execute the exercises more slowly. In bodybuilding, you have to be a slow person while you’re training.”
The most important thing to remember when training calves: “Go all the way up and all the way down in a smooth, controlled motion. No jerking or bouncing?”
Legend for Chart: A - Exercise B - Sets C - Reps A B C Nasser's Quad & Glute Workout Leg Extension 4 20, 15, 10, 6-10 Squat 5 15, 12-15, 12, 8-10, 6-8 Hack Squat 4 20, 15, 10, 6-10 Leg Press 4 20, 15, 10, 6-10 Seated Abductor Machine 5 50-20 BEGINNERS: Nasser recommends three sets each of the leg extension (20, 15, 10 reps), squat (15, 12, 0) and hack squat (20, 15, 10). Nasser's Hamstring Workout Lying Leg Curl 5 20, 15, 10, 5-10, 6-8 Stiff-Legged Deadlift 4 20, 15, 12-15, 10 Standing Unilateral Leg Curl[*] 3 20, 15, 6-10 BEGINNERS: Do three sets each (20, 15, 10 reps) of lying and unilateral leg curls. [*] Or leg press, with feet high and pushing through your heels. Nasser's Calf Workout Standing Calf Raise 4-5 20-25, 15, 10, 6-10, 15-20 Seated Calf Raise 4 20, 15, 10-15, 6-10 Donkey Machine Calf Raise[*] 3-4 20, 15, 10 BEGINNERS: Do three sets of each exercise (25, 20, 10 reps). [*] Or toe press on a leg press machine.