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"The Jackson Five" as it appeared in the Feb. 2007 issue of FLEX magazine

Even in the dog days of precontest training, when Johnnie Jackson says “light weight,” it never is. Ronnie Coleman made the reversepsychology mantra — spoken just before lifting a particularly prodigious poundage — famous, but fellow Lone Stars Jackson and Branch Warren repeat it just as frequently.

Its usage, sometimes muttered, sometimes shouted, is one of the many things you just have to be there to hear when the going gets too tough to fully grasp. Bringing that sort of insight to you, along with other, more technical nuances you can use to tweak your own shoulder program, is FLEX — making another stop as we travel the globe to witness the toughest workouts of the world’s best bodybuilders. Two weeks after Jackson, 35, won his first pro contest, the Montreal Pro Championships, and six days before he placed second at the Atlantic City Pro, we watched him train at Stroud’s Fitness in suburban Dallas and saw firsthand, in five advanced lessons, how the newest pro titleholder built a set of XXXLshirt- stretching shoulders.


With the Atlantic City Pro and Mr. Olympia fast approaching, Jackson consumes just 75 grams of carbohydrates the day we see him work out. That morsel of energy food would seem like a feast compared to the amounts taken in during the next two and a half days, when he consumes no carbs at all. With the exception of a two-day carb-up prior to his victory in Montreal on September 3, Jackson has been severely restricting his carbohydrates for weeks. So, it is no wonder his energy and strength are as depleted as his fat reserves. For a man of his legendary strength, the weights are impressive but not awe-inspiring: eight reps with 130-pound dumbbells for overhead presses, and side laterals with 70-pound dumbbells for 10 reps.

With his full quota of carbs and calories in the offseason, Jackson regularly presses 150-pound dumbbells for 15 reps, uses 100- pound dumbbells for 10 reps of side laterals, and upright rows are 335 for 12 reps. He’s hoisted as much as 405 for eight reps for upright rows. In the weeks leading up to a contest, Jackson increases his reps, decreases his rest periods between sets and does more intensifying techniques, like supersets. “Offseason I’ll go down to five or six reps; precontest I’ll go up to 15-20 reps,” he states, “so it’s a pretty big shock to my body, using a lot more reps and resting a lot less between sets.”


Jackson warms up on an Icarian shoulder press machine before proceeding to the dumbbell rack. He pyramids his sets of dumbbell overhead presses and stretches between sets, continuing to make sure his shoulders are properly warmed up before grabbing the heaviest weights. During each rep, he lowers the dumbbells to ear level. He stops just short of lockout at the top.

“Anytime you use a full range of motion, you’re going to use more of the muscle,” he explains. “Having said that, I do use a shorter range sometimes. It all depends on how I’m feeling that day and how achy my shoulders are.”

Although he claims he’s never been particularly strong in overhead pressing movements, he’s always made them the cornerstone of his deltoid routines. He believes lessadvanced bodybuilders should do the same, by starting their workouts with dumbbell overhead presses or military presses using a barbell or Smith machine.

“The same concept that I have for chest I have for shoulders: focus on a lot of pressing movements,” Jackson prescribes. “Try to go as heavy as you can for eight to 10 reps. Do a warm-up set and three working sets. If you’re looking to gain mass, you’ll have to lift the heaviest weights possible for eight to 10 reps.”


The seemingly little details, such as the width of your grip or the angle of motion you achieve by a slight turn of your wrists, can make a big difference in how an exercise targets muscles. What follows are notes from observing the exercises in Jackson’s routine, and his comments on his techniques.

  • Dumbbell shoulder presses
  • Jackson sits slightly forward on the seat in order to lean back a bit. He keeps his palms facing forward and his elbows out, and doesn’t bring the dumbbells together at the top. “Some people do presses with their elbows more in front, but I feel like it stretches and targets my shoulders more if I keep my elbows at my sides and my hands over my elbows. I don’t usually bring the dumbbells together at the top, but I won’t say it’s wrong to do it that way.”

  • Upright rows
  • He takes a medium-width grip and lifts the bar to his lower chest. “I take a widerthan- normal grip for upright rows because my traps are pretty much overpowering my shoulder area and making me look a little narrower than I should. The wider grip takes the focus off my traps and pinpoints my side delts.”

  • Cable rear laterals
  • These are done from a standing position, with the cable crossover stations set at their highest positions. Jackson, who doesn’t use handles, crosses his arms in front at the start of each rep and pulls down and back, keeping his arms straight at the point of contraction. He supersets these with upright rows. “When I use the cables instead of the machine or dumbbells, I get a slightly fuller range of motion, and I can squeeze a little harder to really isolate the rear delts. It’s the same with not using handles and just gripping the cables; that way, I can focus more directly on my rear delts and really squeeze. I do the supersets precontest, but not in the offseason.”

  • Dumbbell side laterals
  • Jackson starts each rep with the dumbbells at his sides instead of in front. “This has always been a real comfortable exercise for me, so I go heavy on it. I focus on keeping my elbows up. Try to keep your elbows slightly above your hands. I like to bring the dumbbells into the sides of my legs instead of in front, because it makes the movement stricter and it keeps the focus on the middle delts. It pretty much forces you to raise your arms directly out to your sides.”

  • Dumbbell front raises
  • He does these seated, alternating arm to arm, lifting with his thumbs up instead of palms facing down. “Sitting down, [the movement is] stricter, so I can isolate the front delts more, and I like to alternate to focus more on each side individually. With the dumbbells held upright instead of palms down, again, I feel it more in my front delts, which is what I’m trying to isolate with this exercise.”


    Jackson has perhaps the most pronounced trapezius development in all of bodybuilding. Improbably high mass is stacked atop his clavicles like mountains on a horizon. He still works traps indirectly in movements like deadlifts, but, wanting to build better balance, he rarely does any direct “trapping.” He performs upright rows in a manner that focuses less on his traps and more on his side delts. He doesn’t shrug anymore, mainly because he believes he did enough during his teen years to last his entire bodybuilding career.

    “When I was younger, I had no idea what I was doing, but after every workout I’d do shrugs, because I could use so much weight,” Jackson remembers. “When I was 15 or 16, I’d put every 45 I could fit on a bar and shrug it for 15 or 20 reps. So when people saw a kid in the gym doing that, they’d be like, ‘Oh my god, look at this guy!’ So I used to just do it to show off after every workout, and I had no idea I was building traps like this. It’s funny that some of the things you do when you have no idea what you’re doing affect you for many years later.”

    Jackson doesn’t propose training traps every workout; once or twice per week should suffice. “Shrug as heavy as you can over a full range of motion. I like kind of high reps for traps. I recommend the 15- to 20-rep range. Do four sets of shrugs with a barbell one workout, and four sets with dumbbells at your sides the next workout.”


    For nearly two years, Jackson, Warren and Jay Moore trained together. Although they all remain good friends, Warren and Moore returned to their roots at Arlington’s MetroFlex Gym in 2006, while the third member of the Texas trio — never a fan of MetroFlex’s heat and dirt — continued to train at Stroud’s Fitness, alone. Jackson’s intensity hasn’t waned.

    “I don’t mind training with a partner, but I train just as well by myself,” Jackson avers. “I’m selfmotivated, and I have goals that I want to reach. That’s what’s important to me. You can accomplish anything in life as long as you have patience and heart and you’re willing to put in the work. I know it’s all about myself, anyway. Either get the work done or stand by the wayside and watch everyone pass you by.”

    One way he keeps his intensity up is by changing his routine from week to week, and this is even easier when the exercise selection isn’t a shared decision. “I don’t have a set routine where I come in and do the same thing every time,” the army veteran explains. “It’s never regimented.” Variety is great, but he knows the most reliable way to intensify is to do one more rep or use five more pounds than last time. “The stronger you get for reps, the bigger you get. It’s as simple as that,” Jackson opines.

    Odds are that at some time, probably early in the morning on the day you’re reading this, Jackson said “light weight” before repping out with a weight every other mortal would rightly peg as a hell of a heavy load. Nobody was watching. He sometimes lets himself into Stroud’s before sunrise, turns on lights and trains, just him and iron in the otherwise silent gym. He doesn’t need witnesses to his new personal bests. He knows when he “owns” a heavy weight as if it’s light, and he knows he’ll then grow stronger and better, and that’s all that matters. FLEX

    >> Johnnie Jackson PHOTOGALLERY


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