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Photographs by Per Bernal
Charles Dixon sports the broadest back in the 212 division. Standing only 5'4", he looks as wide as he is tall. Growing up in Greenville, SC, where he still lives, Dixon excelled at football. He was a running back in college. Afterward, he was encouraged to try bodybuilding, and he began his rise through the NPC ranks.
“Were you always wide?” I ask him.
“Yeah, at first I was known more for my shoulders, even though my delts were a weak point,” he answers in his Southern drawl. “I think back has always been my strong point.”
Why would he be known for his shoulders though his delts lagged? In a word: clavicles. Like his idol Franco Columbu, what Dixon lacks in height he makes up for in width. The 5'4" Columbu sported collarbones as wide as 6'2" Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, and, like a kite stretched over a huge frame, his corresponding set of lats could eclipse the backs of Arnold and others who towered over him. Dixon is the same way. He has the shoulder structure of a giant, but that’s not to say he hasn’t toiled hard over the past two decades to build one of the world’s best backs below his clavicles. With his Columbu-like combination of width and thickness, he won the light-heavy class of the 2007 NPC Nationals. Though he qualified for the Olympia 202 Showdown the following two years, he seemed destined for pro mediocrity. He spent three years away from stages, dealing with “personal issues” and contemplating retirement.
When he made his comeback in 2012, the year he turned 40, Dixon was a different bodybuilder. The 202 division had expanded to 212, and the extra 10 pounds looked like 30 on this personal trainer. Tank was much more tank-like, a 5'4" mass monster, and he was able to outmuscle lighter men noted for their aesthetics. “The day I turned 40, my body just completely started changing,” he says. “I started getting bigger, and my conditioning started getting better.”
Again, he climbed through the ranks, this time in the IFBB, winning his first pro show at 41 in 2014 and taking two more at 42 in 2015, his best year. Dexter Jackson is rightly celebrated for winning the Arnold Classic and finishing second in the Mr. Olympia last year at 45, but the Blade’s physique summited a decade ago. Like Albert Beckles and Toney Freeman before him, Dixon is that rare bodybuilder who is peaking past his 40th birthday. And the best may be yet to come.
Tank begins every back workout with eight sets of width exercises—pullups and pulldowns. The former is done with “only” his body weight, which climbs to more than 240 in the off-season. “I like these to warm up my lats,” he says. “Usually I do them with a wide grip for four sets. But sometimes I bring my hands in close. And sometimes I superset and do a set of wide and then a set of close-grip right after that.”
Too many bodybuilders turn pulldowns into virtual (and sloppy) rows by leaning back too much and jerking the weight down, using their lower back and momentum to move more metal. Both to isolate his outer lats and to avoid injuries, Dixon performs his pulldowns strictly, remaining in an upright position from stretch to contraction on every rep. “I try to pull to chin level,” he states. “I try to feel where the tension is the greatest at the bottom and hold that for a second. That chin area is my sweet spot.”
His third exercise is a cable row. Two things make this exercise unique. First, he prefers to use a rope. Second, he does them standing with the rope attached to a low cable. As with his strict pulldown form, standing up limits how much he can sway. When you do seated cable rows, it’s easy to lean forward at stretches and backward at contractions to let momentum and lower-back action do much of the work. Standing with his knees slightly bent, Tank moves only his arms. Additionally, the rope lets him squeeze stronger contraction than other handles, because he can pull the ends to either side of his hips.
BACK TO BASICS
The last half of his routine is loaded up with free-weight rows and deadlifts. As with the cable rows, he wants to focus these on his upper back and eliminate momentum. At 43, he’s especially conscious of dodging even the kind of minor injuries that can subtly diminish workouts for months. That’s why he’s so strict. With dumbbell rows, he goes up to only 110 or 120, though he could use much more with looser form and a shorter range of motion. “I try to stretch it out as much as possible at the bottom by letting it go forward, and then I pull up and back kind of slow to make sure I keep all the tension on my lat,” he explains. The dumbbell travels at about a 45-degree angle instead of just up and down. “When it comes to back, I want to get the position that creates the most tension and then maintain that tension.”
“I cannot work out by myself. I’m lost,” Dixon says with a laugh. His two partners sometimes assist with forced reps or dropsets. His final set of T-bar rows almost always get the triple-drop treatment. He’ll do 10 reps, reduce the weight, do 10, reduce the weight, do 10, reduce the weight, and then row out as many reps as he can till failure. “Those dropsets are the worst,” Tank states, laughing.
In his initial bodybuilding years, heavy deadlifting and squatting built his foundation. He pulled 605 for a single and squatted similar barbending weights. “I wouldn’t even attempt the weights I was using back then. I used to go crazy. I was blessed not to have any injuries. My whole body cringes thinking about it now.” Today, he does his deadlifts near the end of his back routine, just before back extensions. He always gets at least 10 reps, and he gives them a little bit of a rowing motion. “When I come up, I don’t go all the way. I go about halfway up, and I squeeze my lats and pull my elbows back a little bit to keep that tension on my back.”
With those caveats, he uses only 275–315, weights that would’ve been warmups for him 15 years ago. “I don’t want to go so heavy that I can’t get my reps in, so I use a comfortable weight.” When I ask what he recommends to younger bodybuilders seeking bigger backs, he answers, “Make deadlifts your best friend. Focus on deadlifts and barbell rows. Those are the best overall back builders. If you just want to get big, concentrate on those basic exercises.”
BACK IT UP
Pausing only long enough for his two partners to go, his entire back workout of 25–26 sets eats up no more than an hour. “I like to keep moving,” he says. The other key component of his routine is the 10-to 12-rep range. “Early in my career, eight was my number. I was always trying to go as heavy as I could for eight reps, but now I like that 10 to 12 range better to really feel the muscles working and keep constant tension on my back.” It certainly works for the three-time pro titlist. There’s one thing you can count on. When it comes time to “raise the sails” of rear lat spreads, no one weighing less than 240 and few weighing more will take up more space, left to right, than the 5'4", 212-pound, 43-year-old Tank from South Carolina.
DIXON’S OVER-40 TRAINING TIPS
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DIXON’S BACK ROUTINE