A Game of Thrones

He already did the unprecedented. When he finished third in the Olympia last year, Shawn Rhoden became the first competitor to ever land in bodybuilding’s ruling triumvirate after placing out of the top 10 the year before. By comparison, if he climbs the final two rungs to victory this year it will not even be unusual. Four of the last seven Mr. Olympia’s have bounded from third or lower to first in single giant leaps. That foursome includes Rhoden’s sponsor, Ronnie Coleman, who hopped the highest— ninth to first—and two men, Lee Haney and Dexter Jackson, who preceded Rhoden’s dream voyage by going from the three spot to the top spot over a span of 12 months.

Rhoden is not heir apparent to Phil Heath’s throne. Last year’s runner-up, Kai Greene, currently occupies that position. And there are two vanquished kings, Jay Cutler and Dexter Jackson, looking to regain what was once theirs. But Flexatron may occupy the strongest space from which to mount a challenge—far enough away to avoid most of the slings and arrows but close enough to overwhelm his foes without resorting to a risky surprise attack. The shock came last year. It’ll be an upset—but not a stunning one— if Rhoden defeats Heath and Greene (and Cutler and Jackson) to become bodybuilding’s 14th Mr. Olympia this year. He’s well aware that the pair who bested him in 2012 carried more armor, and he’s determined to match them shot for shot. As he prepares to battle on Sept. 27–28, we break down the strategies Shawn Rhoden is employing to muscle up and secure bodybuilding’s throne.



The War Zone


There is an ideal zone for reps per set that is neither too low nor too high. Science has proven that pushing sets to failure in the 8–12 range is best for growth stimulation. And this is the territory where Rhoden fi ghts virtually all of his gym battles. With the exception of leg exercises and a few blowout sets of dips, pushups, and back extensions, he strives to stay in the 8–12 span. “That’s what works best for me,” he explains. “Go lower and you risk injury and build more power than muscle. Go higher and it’s tough to push your sets as hard; it becomes more of an endurance test. Stay in that midrange, work toward failure, and try to get progressively stronger.” 

Forging With Fire

“Back in the day I squatted heavy,” Rhoden says, and his monstrous quads are certainly evidence of that toil. “But lately I’ve been focusing more on leg shape and details than size. My legs tend to grow easier than my upper body, so I’ve been trying to keep everything in balance.” In part this explains why he exits the ideal growth zone on leg day. His reps climb to 15–25 for quadriceps and 12–25 for hamstrings. But sets of 25 on the front squat or leg press still fuel lower-body growth. If you think squatting 25 reps to failure is easier than squatting fi ve with a heavier weight, you’ve never gone to 25. The pain of pushing sets to the quarter-century mark feels like setting your muscles ablaze.


Rhoden's Workouts By the Numbers

Body Part Exercises Sets Reps
Chest 7 26-31 290-340
Back 6 23-24 242-252
Legs 7 27-30 567-252
Shoulders 7 29-30 286-295
Arms 8 32-40 320-400
Total 35 137-155 1,705-1,909

Isolation Before Annihilation

Rhoden typically begins each workout with an isolation exercise. His shoulder routine starts with seated dumbbell laterals to target his medial deltoids before moving on to presses and upright rows. He launches his arm attack with rope pushdowns—a lif some might consider a “finishing move.” Leg extensions kick of his leg workouts, isolating his quads before moving on to the compounds: front squats, leg presses, and hack squats. “It’s a way of pre-exhausting the targeted area,” Rhoden explains, “and it also can be sort of a working warmup. For example, the leg extensions warm up my knees before moving on to the heavier lifts.”

He starts his chest workout with dumbbell pullovers, which is not an isolation exercise, but it’s also not a traditional chest compound lif . The one body part Flexatron usually begins attacking with a traditional compound basic is back. On back day, he does T-bar rows fi rst. His mentor, Ronnie Coleman—king of bodybuilding for eight years—built dragonlike wings with T-bar rows as a staple. Rhoden hopes a reliance on the T-bar when his strength is greatest will help him rise to the throne, as well.


Uncommon Actions

In his quest to muscle up, Rhoden sticks mostly to the free-weight and machine basics. But there are a few unique lif s and combinations he employs.


He grips both sides of a rope attached to a low cable with his thumbs up, locks his elbows in place, and raises his hands toward his delts. This is basically a hammer curl with a rope, so it hits his biceps, brachialis, and forearms.


He finishes of his chest by alternating dips with pushups, driving both exercises to failure over three supersets. This makes certain he got everything he can out of his chest workout and leaves his pecs taxed and pumped.


Chest workouts are typically started with a lif that


In his quest to muscle up, Rhoden sticks mostly to the free-weight and machine basics. But there are a few unique lif s and combinations he employs. works the chest and back. Many consider pullovers a better fi t on back days, but Rhoden likes the way they stretch out his entire torso, including his serratus and intercostals.


Rhoden lies facedown on an incline bench set at a 45-degree angle and holds a barbell with a shoulder-width grip. Then he raises the weight to eye level. This Charles Glass special keeps great tension on the front delts over the arc of the movement because, with his body leaning forward, he’s starting the lif with the bar already out in front of his body. Additionally, the bar-parallel-tothe- fl oor top position is ef ectively 45 degrees farther along the arc than if he were standing


Surviving the Torture

He does mostly straight sets, but he does employ two techniques to boost intensity. One is supersets. Most bodybuilders superset two very dif erent exercises, such as fl yes and presses for chest. Rhoden prefers to pair up two similar exercises. We’ve already mentioned the two body-weight, compound exercises (dips and pushups) that he combines on chest days. On back days, he’ll superset two styles of pulldowns, such as behind- the-neck at a conventional station and underhand with a Hammer Strength machine. For shoulders, he teams two types of rear laterals: with dumbbells lying facedown on an incline bench and with a machine.

The other technique he uses is dropsets, which he tends to do on one exercise in most workouts. “Dropsets let me go beyond failure,” he explains. “I’ll do them on the last set of an exercise. So on my last set of seated laterals I’ll get 8–12 reps and then grab a pair of lighter dumbbells and get another eight or so, and then I’ll grab even lighter dumbbells and get as many as I can again.”


The key to Rhoden’s packing on extra pounds this year is his nutrition. He’s upping his cardio to increase his food intake, and he’s also adding shakes between meals to boost his daily protein. Just as he sticks mostly to the tried-and-true basics in his workouts, his diet also deviates little from the bodybuilding norm. That means oatmeal and eggs for breakfast, and then mostly chicken breasts, steak, sweet potatoes, and vegetables the rest of the day. The one twist is a teaspoon of all-natural almond butter or peanut butter with his fi rst and last meals in the of -season.

Especially before, during, and af er his workouts and before going to bed, Flexatron relies on Ronnie Coleman Signature Series supplements to deliver the nutrients he needs to foster recovery and growth. Here are the supplements he typically takes during the crucial growth periods:

  • 30 minutes before workout: 60g Iso-Tropic Max 100% whey isolate
  • During workout: one scoop Myo-Blitz; one scoop Testogen- XR; 6 Stacked-N.O. caps
  • Immediately af er workout: two scoops Pro-Antium
  • 30 minutes before bed: 90g Iso-Tropic Max 100% whey isolate; one scoop Resurrect- P.M.

One-Year Journey

Last year, Rhoden competed in eight contests, half of them before the Olympia. He disappointed in the fi rst two in February and March, but af er teaming up with nutritionist Chris Aceto in May, he roared back to win the next two in August and launch himself toward his stunning third at the Olympia and two wins af erward. No one won more pro contests than Shawn Rhoden in 2012. It was a breakthrough year, but af er competing over an eight-month span from February to October, he needed time away from stages and of pre-contest diets to expand and make a push for the throne. Likewise, Heath and Greene aren’t flexing for judges until the Olympia—and, for that matter, neither are Jay Cutler, Branch Warren, or Dennis Wolf. “I’m excited to see what I can do with a whole year of working with Chris [Aceto],” Rhoden says. “This has been my fi rst of -season working with him, and I’m excited to see what we can bring to the Olympia stage in September.” Everyone is. In his Olympia debut in 2011, Rhoden was 227. Last year, he was even sharper but supersized at 243—an amazing transformation. This April, Rhoden was a lean 280. Can he repeat last year’s transformation and come in 16 pounds heavier this year? Even half that much—eight pounds—on his upper body could be enough for a close battle with Heath and Greene.

Storming the Castle

There is usually a great chasm between third best in the world and best—especially when the two men above third are in their primes, as Heath and Greene are. Still, a chasm that great or greater has been crossed by four of the last seven men who ascended to bodybuilding’s throne. Shawn Rhoden proved last year he can make a mystical metamorphosis over the course of a few months. What can he do over the course of a full year? His X-frame can wear a lot more armor and still maintain its classic aesthetics. There are very few men in any age with the right combination of attributes to ascend to the very top of the bodybuilding kingdom. Rhoden is one of those gifted few, and he has a unique opportunity to seize his destiny this September when he takes the battle to the current king and the current heir apparent in a war for the throne.