“Sometimes, dreams are all that separate us from the machines.”
So wrote Dan Simmons in his 1990 classic The Fall of Hyperion. That sentiment—like much in the realm of science fiction—resonates in the nonfictional universe as well.
Take bodybuilding, for instance. Using complex contraptions mechanically engineered to provide resistance, we borrow the ceaseless consistency of machines as rep by rep, set by set, day by day, we methodically accomplish an immensely challenging task. But why?
Dreams, of course.
We toil until the finished product we desire emerges in the mirror before us, muscular and chiseled, born of the same deliberate principles that power our technological innovations.
Yet, as the quote implies, men are not machines. Crafted of flesh and bone, flawed and fallible, we follow a course of faith, all in pursuit of something no machine can experience: the exhilarating feeling of achieving success and turning our dreams into reality.
At least that’s the code programmed into the bodybuilder-slash-machine we find at Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA, on a seasonably warm Friday in May. Shawn “Flexatron” Rhoden, who turned in top-five performances in 12 of his first 15 pro contests, is training arms, all the while consciously aware that the end result he desires—to topple all comers and secure the Mr. Olympia hardware—hinges on his ability to pursue his dream with machinelike precision. *Note: Shawn placed 3rd at the 2014 Olympia. Click HERE for his 2014 Olympia gallery.
“I’m motivated for the Olympia,” Rhoden says with more than a touch of understatement. Indeed, his reflective pauses and visceral reaction when asked tell more than any words could.
The 39-year-old Jamaican import recalls vividly the Arnold Classic decision that didn’t go his way this past March. In Columbus, Dennis Wolf earned the victory, while Rhoden endured his close-but-not-quite second-place finish with a bitter mixture of pride, disappointment, and a resolve to leave no room for doubts next time.
Still, he says, he doesn’t want to linger over it. The memory is only gas for the engine fueling his workouts. Today, after a 10-minute jog on the treadmill to break a sweat, he’s carved out a spot at the cable station, slipping a rope attachment onto the upper pulley’s carabiner, slipping the pin in halfway down the dulled metal stack and taking a position for pressdowns.
With his feet set shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in his knees, he grasps the rope—his pinkies against the rubber stoppers at the ends—and brings his elbows down to his sides so his forearms are parallel with the floor. From here, the action takes place at the elbows, going straight and then back to the parallel position, with an outward twist of the wrist at the very bottom. One, two, he pumps reps out fairly quickly, this being a warmup set, as he seeks out a steady rhythm, finally terminating the effort at 12 reps.
Over the course of four more sets, he ends up doing the full stack for 10 in the penultimate go-round, then places a 45-pound plate over the pin for the final set, getting 10 more reps before faltering. His form remains constant, the only difference being the additional perspiration beading on his brow with each successive set. “I don’t always add the plate,” he says afterward as he racks the 45 on a nearby tree. “But if I’m feeling strong that day, I will.”
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Next on Rhoden’s agenda? Biceps, specifically EZ-bar drag curls. It’s a pattern that will continue throughout the workout, trading back and forth between triceps and biceps exercises. “I’ve had a lot of success training arms this way,” he says. “It brings a lot of blood into the upper arms, and takes advantage of the (agonist/antagonist) relationship of the bi’s and tri’s.”
Rhoden begins with the 80-pound preloaded EZ barat his hips, holding it with a shoulder-width grip, palms angled inward on the camber, elbows shifted back. From here, keeping the bar as close to his body as he can, he curls it all the way to chest level, then returns it along the same path. Beneath his skin, his biceps contort into a tight ball at the apex, writhing under the effort as the reps—and then sets—advance. By the time he’s pumping out set No. 5, he’s handling 120 pounds for 12 reps. That’s not light in the realm of mere mortals, but among bodybuilders, one might be surprised it’s not heavier.
STANDING EZ-BAR CURL
Yes, it’s an arm exercise, but your core is key—keep your abs and lower back tight, so all the motion happens only at the elbows. As you bring the weight up, your elbows should be tucked to your sides and not shifting forward.
“On curls, I’m concentrating more on the exercise itself and not worrying about how much weight I’m lifting,” Rhoden says. “Other guys might think about that, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’m a bodybuilder, not a powerlifter. I won’t get any points onstage for how much I can curl. It’s all about how the exercise impacts the shape and size of the muscle. Any exercise I do, I concentrate on using the muscle and not momentum.”
The next stop on the arm assembly line also involves the EZ bar, efficiently enough. Rhoden claims a flat bench near the EZ-bar rack, adjusting it so it’s at a slight incline, the second pinhole up from flat. Then he grabs the 80-pound bar to start, first sitting with it on his lap, then lying back as he brings the bar to his chest and then overhead, palms on the inner grips, elbows straight and arms angled slightly back.
At this point, a cool breeze tinged with Pacific salt is flowing through the wide-open garage door nearby, surely welcome as Rhoden embarks on the first reps of skull crushers. His elbows bend, lowering the bar all the way down to within an inch of his forehead, where he powerfully engages both triceps to bring it back to the start. The only motion is at the elbow joint, and in his face as he breathes in deep on the descent and forcefully pushes air from his lungs and through his lips on the ascent.
Between sets 4 and 5, just before he prepares to hoist 120 for 12 reps, he stops to answer a question: Why does he use the inner grips versus going wider?
“The outer grip doesn’t work for me because of a prior wrist injury,” he says. “I cut a tendon in my forearm at a young age, so since then I’ve had to focus on exercises that lessen pressure on my wrists. My grip can sometimes look strange, especially when I bench—I grip narrower than most—but it’s all about the feel and avoiding reaggravating that area.”
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