Some things may change, but the basic blueprint that built one of the world’s thickest and densest backs remains virtually unchanged.
Considered the strongest-ever IFBB pro, Jackson heaves poundage more suited for a powerlifter than a bodybuilder—indeed, he has competed in that sport as well, most recently at the Raw Unity Deadlift Competition in early 2012, where he deadlifted 832 pounds for an all-time personal best.
WIDE-GRIP LAT PULLDOWN
Wide lats are critical for an impressive taper onstage or on the street in a T-shirt.
Jackson dutifully knocks out two warmup sets of 15 reps, resting only about 30 seconds between each. “When I do this with Branch [Warren], we’ll only rest as long as it takes the other person to finish his set,” Jackson explains, a revelation that becomes ever more surprising as the brutish, exceedingly heavy sets pile up over the course of the next 45 minutes.
Three of the four working sets are done with the full stack, but all sets are to 15—each pull is explosive, and while the negative is controlled, there’s nothing “slow” or “measured” about each rep. As Jackson is quick to admit, he ain’t looking to pose for a training textbook, he’s aiming to build muscle.
“It’s controlled madness, ’cause you definitely have to explode,” he says, “but we are in control of our bodies to make sure we’re not risking injury. With the weight we handle, you can’t help but to overcompensate a little and use other muscle groups, too, but that’s the whole idea. It’s about not giving your body a choice but to grow. We force-feed it weights.”
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ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
You don’t need to go as heavy as Jackson, but put in the work here to beef up your outer and lower lats.
Moving on to the next exercise means a short hike to the dumbbell rack, today a haphazard mess of ’bells scattered in the general vicinity. Jackson selects a 100 for the first of four sets, again to 15, placing his free hand on the rack as he rows the weight to his flank with the other.
Breaths come deeper once he graduates to the heaviest dumbbell in the building—a cartoonish 200-pounder that most gyms don’t even bother carrying. With the 200 in hand, hissing noises emanating through his nostrils and lips on each ascent, Jackson is like a machine cranking up to its maximum load, straining but far from breaking.
At 12, there’s a short pause at the bottom, then 13 and 14 come with a burst of effort, and finally 15 ratchets up to a point level with his heaving chest. The weight settles to the floor with a satisfying thud as Jackson unwraps his strap to free himself from the load.
SEATED CABLE ROW
Jackson avoids leaning back to keep the stress on his mid- and upper back.
After dumbbell rows, the next stop almost seems like a sanctuary—and to others, it may be. But Jackson isn’t backing down once he reaches the seated cable row station, doing one set of 140 before selecting the entirety of the weight stack for two more sets of 15 arduous reps.
The narrow hammer-grip handle is already in place, so Jackson needs only to settle himself onto the well-worn, unforgiving padding of the bench, lean forward, and grasp, once again wrapping his straps around each handle with a flick of the wrist and curling his fingers around them.
He leans back to lift the stack from the bottom bumper, leaning back so his upper body is just past a point perpendicular to the floor. The muscles visible outside his tank top—from his thick voluminous arms to the three heads of his shoulders to his traps—all stand out in sharp relief as he begins, pulling the handle into his abdomen.
As the reps get harder, his chin tends to drop toward his upper chest, but otherwise his form holds, with no rocking, no excessive shifts in his body position. It’s all back and biceps pulling the load, with the constant tension of the cable giving no quarter from the first rep to the last.
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PLATE-LOADED MACHINE ROW
Even the hardest of the hardcore use machines, so don’t feel like you’re cheating if you do, too.
The constant quest for 15 reps—which he aims for again at the next stop, the plate-loaded machine row—may seem counterintuitive, since so many tend to drop their repetition count as the poundage increases. Yet Jackson has never trusted that common edict, and indeed, he has made the higher number an absolute must-attain goal of his workouts.
When asked, Jackson says, “You set your mind to 15, and you’ll get 15.” Do they use techniques like rest-pause, stopping for a moment when the load becomes too much to bear for a short-term recovery, or forced reps, where they’ll help each other to the finish line? “Nope, just straight sets,” he answers.
Jackson takes a more upright stance than recommended, but he feels it works better. Can’t argue with his results.
That said, he comes to the one exception in today’s back workout, the unsupported T-bar row, where over the course of four sets he works up to five plates, churning out a “mere” 10 reps per set.
On these, he stands nearly upright and extends his arms to a full stretch at the bottom—a major benefit of this particular move, as he feels the muscles of his back open up in the lowermost position, while holding the top flexed position for a solid one count. It’s a beast of an exercise for the mid- and upper back, including the lats, rhomboids, teres major, infraspinatus, and trapezius.
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This version emphasizes the lower lats.
The final move is at the pulldown station, this time switching out the long bar for a close, hammer-grip style. The duo tends to decide on the fly which variation to do on any particular day: The standard style where you sit facing the stack, knees nudged under the support pads, or seated backward, leaning way back so as to still be able to pull the handle toward the upper pecs. “That way totally opens up your lats,” Jackson says simply of the latter option.
Today, it’s face forward, three sets of 15 reps, pulling the entire stack, struggling through the last few reps—as is perfectly understandable after the onslaught he just unleashed on his rear guard.
“You know what they say, the show is won from the back,” he reminds. “So you always want to improve its width and detail.”
JOHNNIE JACKSON'S BACK WORKOUT
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown | SETS: 2 (warmup) | REPS: 15
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 15
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10
- Seated Cable Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 15
- Plate-Loaded Machine Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 15
- T-Bar Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10
- Close-Grip Pulldown* | SETS: 3 | REPS: 15
*Sometimes this is done in the standard way to the front, and sometimes seated with the back to the weight stack, leaning backward and pulling the handle down to the upper chest.