By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT; Photos by Gregory James at Tribeca Health & Fitness in NYC
Getting ready for today’s real-time, leg-training photo shoot with MuscleMag — no fake plates here — IFBB 202-pounder Guy Cisternino proudly recalls the influence his father had on his career. But hidden in the tales of his dad’s epic arm-wrestling matches and brief boxing career is the most telling memory, “He could squat 500 pounds.”
Most guys can remember their dads flexing or benching big weight, but squatting prowess is rare on the list of extraordinary paternal accomplishments. So it comes as no surprise that Guy’s legs are so well developed — it’s in his genes.
“Everybody I train with says I have heavyweight legs on a middleweight body,” he says. “I’ve trained with a lot of guys who are heavyweights. I don’t train with anyone my size. Everyone in my four-man crew is bigger than me and comes in on Monday just to hit legs with me. I had a judge tell me to be careful with my legs because they’re starting to outgrow my upper body.”
Few men can boast of such a problem — it’s usually the other way around.
Not long after this shoot, Guy and his quads took to the stage at the Dexter Jackson Pro 202 in Jacksonville, FL, in remarkable shape, good enough for a second-place finish and a qualification for the 2011 Olympia 202 Showdown. “I was just as shredded there as I was when I turned pro, which many people didn’t think I’d be able to do,” he says.
A week later, he proved worthy of his Olympia ticket with a win at the Europa 202 in Dallas. Confident, but not cocky, he felt that if he could make a few minor adjustments, he’d be in the running for a top-five finish in Vegas.
You can attribute it to genetics, but for most men a lack of leg mass is usually due to a deep, dark fear of heavy squatting, a fear you won’t find in Guy’s psyche. His leg routine is brutish and unforgiving, the benefits of which are evident for this rising star in the 202 ranks.
Leg Extension: 4 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Guy began his bodybuilding career in secret, driving to a small contest in West Virginia with a friend and winning his division and the novice overall. But today, as Guy strides toward the leg extension machine at Tribeca Health & Fitness with his pro swagger in tow, people point and whisper at the New Jersey native’s proportions. Secret’s out.
As he seats himself in the apparatus, we ask how many calories he’s socked away for this demanding, all-out assault on his quads and hams. “I’ve had only one meal today,” he says.
With MuscleMag athlete and fellow IFBB pro Andy Haman at his side offering some gentle encouragement, Guy begins his first set. But unlike many bodybuilders who perform a few sets of perfunctory extensions with light weight, Guy has the pin set near the bottom of the stack. Failure is his only option. Consider this the storm before the storm.
“I use these to pre-exhaust, not really just to warm-up,” he says. “I treat these like I treat a squat. I don’t do anything just to do it. Depending on how I feel, I’ll do a drop set to really burn them out at the end.”
Still, he says, the extensions serve to fill his quads and knees with blood for the heavier, multijoint work ahead. He dutifully bangs out four sets of 12, working up a sweat in the process, but his range of motion on the slightly declined seat is somewhat different than you typically see on this exercise.
“Sometimes guys don’t come all the way up,” he says. “I don’t go all the way down. I don’t let my legs come underneath me because I feel that’s too much tension on the patellar tendon.”
Barbell Squat: 4 Sets x 12–15 Reps
Getting ready to squat, most guys try to find a new headspace — one that’ll allow them to handle the rigors of heavy iron on their backs. Ambling over to the power rack, however, Guy’s focus is unfettered. It’s clear that he’d checked in before his first rep at the leg extension.
On the agenda once more are four sets to failure. Now using his knee wraps, Guy breezes through sets of 315 and 405 pounds. With a more controlled descent, he knocks out a strong set at 495. Guy trains instinctively, basing his weight increases on his performance in the previous set. True to that approach, he moves up to 585, unwrapping and rewrapping his knees between sets. His father would be proud.
His rest periods during this exercise are unstructured.
“I’ll keep going until my body says it can’t squat anymore,” he says, rather than ending with some predetermined number. “But I’m not a clock-watcher. I’ll take as much rest as I need. If that’s 2–3 minutes, then that’s what it is. I want to be sure I always get as much as I can out of the next set.”
Guy notes that a lot of bodybuilders lack flexibility, which takes its toll in two areas. For one, they can’t squat as deep, so they receive fewer benefits from the full range of motion move, which targets the hams and glutes to a greater degree the deeper you go. Second, there’s a tendency to come up off your heels, which puts more stress on your knees and doesn’t allow you the full benefit of pushing through your entire foot.
Leg Press: 4 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Like a lot of dedicated leg trainers, Guy quickly moves from the squat rack to the leg press. And though he’ll enjoy the luxury of fixed-path resistance and a seat, he doesn’t take this exercise for granted. Here, with plates of plenty stacked on the machine, he places his feet slightly above the middle of the platform to keep much of the emphasis on his quads.
“I’ll change [foot placement] up week to week, sometimes going really wide or a bit higher on the platform to get more glutes and hamstrings,” he says. “Or I’ll superset wide stance and narrow stance. I just try to hit the entire quad over the course of, say, a month.”
More plates. More reps. Still, Guy avoids the common ego trap of tossing on all the weight he can find. He wants every rep to count. “A lot of guys think the only way to do it is to have your knees hit your chest, but if your glutes are coming off the pad, you’re rounding your back and that’s a lot of stress on the spinal column,” he says. “I want to make sure my discs aren’t being compromised with my heavy leg pressing.”
Though we’re only spectators, it’s easy to get tired watching him. With each crushing rep, Guy seems to be getting stronger, like a runner finding his stride midway through a race. At a time when most guys start to fade, he’s flourishing.
“I always feel good; I never really get that lightheaded feeling,” he says. “Most guys who do are the ones who can’t control their breathing. It’s all about being focused and strong-willed in the gym. It’s a battle mentally and physically.” Four sets in the books. Moving on.
Hack Squat: 4 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Nauseated, we accept the reality that Guy is moving on to yet another compound exercise using grimace-evoking weight loads. He rationalizes: “The hack squat is completely different because the angle is completely different. If you want to have a three-dimensional look onstage, the only way to do that is to hit your legs with every possible angle to make that happen. I think hacks are a great finishing exercise.”
“Finishing” ends up being a bit of a misnomer considering he still has three exercises after this, but the question lingers. “How can you possibly consider doing three and four plates per side this deep into a workout?”
“That’s all subjective,” he says between sets. “Sometimes, I’ll superset these with the leg presses and then, yeah, the second exercise might have to get lightened a bit just to get the number of reps I want. I don’t want to do five reps, I want 10 or 12.”
With eight 45s on the hack, he still gets 10 or better on each of his four sets. These reps are done with a bit of a wider stance, which he does to better hit his inner quads.
Lying Leg Curl: 4 Sets x 12 Reps
After vacating the hack squat area, Guy heads to the lying leg curl. Finally, sanity prevails. Or does it? The transition from quads to hamstrings seems conspicuous in that he goes right into an isolation move, rather than a heavy, multijoint exercise like romanian deadlifts.
“I don’t do my compound movements for hams on this workout,” he says, as if that should be obvious. “I do stiff-legged deadlifts on back day to break it up and give my back a break.”
With good reason. He recently found out he has two herniated discs — L4/L5 and L5/S1 — in his lower back from all of the years playing football and he has no desire to overtrain his way into retirement.
His hamstrings are nothing to sneeze at, either. “My hamstrings are pretty strong. I’ve gone up to 405 on romanian deads before but I don’t like to. There’s nothing I can get out of 405 that I can’t get out of 315 so I rarely go above that.”
He performs his reps slow and controlled with his feet locked into a neutral position — no fancy toe pointing for this leg monster. Keeping his feet in this slightly dorsiflexed position, he says, helps him “feel it” more in his hamstrings.
As with the other exercises, he selects a weight that brings about failure at around 12 reps.
“The only time I ever change my rep range is my last two workouts before a contest, which is when I’d do more than one bodypart in a single workout,” he says. “Then I’ll do really high volume to deplete glycogen.”
Standing Single-Leg Curl: 4 Sets x 10–12 Reps
By this point, the cross-striations and vascularity read like some kind of sinewy static on his legs. Up next? The standing single-leg curl.
“I do this move for more isolation,” he says. “It’s like when you’re doing a concentration curl for your biceps. It allows you to squeeze and focus more on the hamstring.”
Starting to huff and puff a bit, Guy doesn’t give himself any rest on this exercise. If anything, his pace quickens. Perhaps it’s because he senses the end of the torture?
“No, I go right to left without rest because the focus is on one leg,” he says. “Even though I’m tired and out of breath, if I wait, it’s counterproductive.”
Four sets on each leg and a few casual stretches later, Guy reminds us he still has calves left.
Standing Calf Raise: 4 Sets x 8–10 Reps
In lieu of a donkey calf press, Guy likes to attack his calves at the Smith machine. Getting under the bar, he gets an idea of where his feet will be, and then grabs a pair of oversized plates and sets them down in just the right position. Once again taking his place under the bar, he places the front halves of his feet on the plates, allowing his heels to fall off the edge. This places a deep stretch on the calves to start each rep — exactly what Guy wants to do.
“I prefer the donkey press but this is good too because of the stretch it offers,” he says.
Between sets, Guy explains that this is his heavy calf day. “I’ve found that incorporating both heavy and high-volume training is most effective for me. One workout, I’ll go heavy with 8–12 reps, and then I’ll do 15–25 reps the next. You have to remember that your calves get a lot of work in your everyday activities, so they have a high capacity for endurance. Doing a really heavy day and then a really high-volume day helps you hit every possible avenue for growth.”
Why go through the trouble of being so inventive with calves? Big backs win contests, right?
“I have good calves, not great calves,” Guy says. “My calves were so big in T-ball that people said I had cankles! But every Mr. Olympia going back to the beginning had great calves. I think every bodybuilder should have, at the very least, good calves.”
When someone completes a workout like this you expect to see a scattered trail of plates, barbells and sweat left in his wake. But 29-year-old Guy Cisternino is an athlete in his prime. Is he wiped? Sure. But despite the tornadic pace and Thor-like poundages of this jaunt through the gym, he appears remarkably composed. Humbly, he steals away through Tribeca’s front doors, exiting today’s shoot the way he entered the sport so many years ago — without fuss or fanfare.
But somehow, we doubt that this hard-working competitor will be able to fly under the radar much longer.
Guy's Offseason Leg Routine
Leg Extension: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps
Barbell Squat: 4 Sets x 12-15 Reps
Leg Press: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps
Hack Squat: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps
Lying Leg Curl: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps
Standing Single-Leg Curl: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps
Smith-Machine Calf Raise: 4 Sets x 8-10 Reps or 15-25 Reps***
* Guy varies his workouts frequently, but this routine represents a typical selection of exercises. He also occasionally adds Smith-machine squats and Smith-machine front squats to target his quads differently.
** Guy insists on adding weight every set while still achieving failure within the target rep range. "If I feel good on the first set, I'll add weight and maybe I can do only 10-12. That's okay. But I rarely stray from this rep range."
*** Guy alternates between heavy and light workouts for calves.