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Photographs by Per Bernal
JOHNNIE JACKSON HAS THE GREATEST TRAPEZIUS DEVELOPMENT OF ALL TIME.
Yes, superior to the shoulder mountains of Ronnie Coleman or Markus Ruhl. Better, too, than the twin peaks atop the clavicles of Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Levrone, that other Jackson— Dexter—and anyone else you name.
At his best, when crunching a most muscular, Jackson’s traps rise so high they seem at risk of detaching. And from behind, the granite kite on his back jumps at you in 3-D. Up near the top, the flesh on either side of his neck forms a dramatic ring around an oddly elevated vertebrae, creating a look so freakishly unique that when a rear shot of him appeared in GQ, anyone who also read FLEX knew instantly it could only be Johnnie.
But it isn’t just all that mutant muscle that distinguishes Jackson’s trapezius. It’s also the dedication he’s applied for more than three decades to an area that almost everyone else gives short shrift. He treats his traps like every other body part, tormenting them in their own routine. His four exercises are chosen to work every section of the left and right trapezius muscles. At 45, Jackson is in the twilight of a stellar career. He’s won four pro titles, entered 12 Olympias, and been crowned world’s strongest bodybuilder. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment resides atop his shoulders and in the middle of his upper back.
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FLEX: You used to do heavy shrugs every training day. Why did you do that?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: When I started training as a teenager in New Jersey in the ’80s, I used to do really heavy shrugs at the end of every workout. I’d load up a barbell in a rack with nine plates [855 pounds], and everyone used to stop to watch me shrug it. I was just a kid, and I was mostly just showing off. I liked getting the attention, but also my traps blew up, and it got me accustomed to using really heavy weights.
FLEX: More than two decades later, you deadlifted nearly that much. [He pulled a personal best of 832, raw, in 2012.] How important has your deadlifting prowess been to your trapezius development?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I’d say that deadlifting has been the single most important exercise for my overall thickness. Deadlifts hit so many muscles—lats, spinal erectors, traps, glutes, quads. But I don’t think you can maximize your trap development with just deadlifts. You need to do shrugs, too. Do you still do deadlifts? Yeah, but not as much as I used to and not as heavy. I’m not taking as many risks anymore. If you want to have longevity in bodybuilding, you need to adjust your training as you get older.
“I DON’T THINK YOU CAN MAXIMIZE YOUR TRAP DEVELOPMENT WITH JUST DEADLIFTS.”—JOHNNIE JACKSON
FLEX: You regularly do a traps-only routine that consists of four exercises and 14 sets. Why so much variety and volume for traps?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: It’s the same thing I would do for chest or triceps or biceps or back. I do different exercises because they hit the muscle from different angles. The traps are actually a pretty big muscle. They’re very big when compared with, say, biceps, and most people do three or four exercises for biceps. But when it comes to traps, those same people will just throw in three or four sets of shrugs at the end of a shoulder workout and say they’ve worked traps. And they wonder why their traps don’t grow. If you want to have big traps, you need to give them enough work to force them to compensate by growing. Treat them like any other muscle. Give them their own routine, and hit them hard with different exercises. Then they’ll grow.
FLEX: Why do you start your traps routine with machine shrugs?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I normally start with…a balanced, controlled movement, like a plateloaded Hammer Strength machine. A machine is the smartest way to lead into the routine. I do three sets of 15 reps. Then the fourth set, the last set, is usually a dropset with two drops. So in that dropset I do 10 reps and then pull off a plate from each side and then do 10 more reps and then pull off a plate from each side and do a final 10 reps.
FLEX: Four sets including a dropset is already as much, if not more, than most bodybuilders do for traps, but you’re just getting started. What’s next?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I do either standing barbell shrugs or standing dumbbell shrugs. I like the barbell because you can really pile on the plates, though not as much as I did when I was a teen because I stay strict, get full ranges of motion, and go for at least 15 reps. And I like dumbbells because they give each side a chance to work independently.
FLEX: What is your form when doing these barbell or dumbbell stranding shrugs?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I stay strict, always. I recommend keeping your head down, rather than throwing it back. That allows you to elevate your shoulders a little more. Shrugging already has ashort range of motion, so you don’t want to shorten the movement. Also, don’t roll your shoulders. You see guys all the time rolling their shoulders, thinking that gives them a longer motion, but not only does it do nothing to build traps, it can also wreck your rotator cuffs. Just shrug straight up and down. Sometimes I try to hold the contractions for a second or two, and sometimes I just knock the reps out like a piston, up and down.
FLEX: Why do you do behind-the-back shrugs on a Smith machine?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: The Smith allows me to stand forward so I can get the bar around my butt. I also bend my elbows on these as I raise the bar, so it’s kind of like a shrug with an upright row. And doing that allows me to get a longer movement and activate the lower, inner traps more. My whole upper back gets flexed on this one.
FLEX: Your final exercise is unique: a seated dumbbell shrug/row combo.
JOHNNIE JACKSON: Yeah, it’s like a boat-rowing motion more than just shrugging up and down. Sit on a flat bench, grab two dumbbells, and lean forward. Then focus on pulling up your elbows, not your hands. Your hands are just hooks along for the ride. And your elbows should come up and back while you also shrug. This really hits the middle and lower traps. And it brings in the rhomboids, too. Because I work traps after back, this is great exercise to end my whole workout with.
FLEX: Is there an advantage to training traps after back instead of working them after deltoids?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: No. I’ve done it both ways. If you would’ve asked me a few years ago, I would’ve said I prefer to train traps after delts. Either way makes sense. The traps are part of your shoulders, but they’re also part of your back. I mean, they go halfway down your back. So there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever works for you and your program and how you want to combine body parts in your routine. If you have more time after delts, hit traps then.
FLEX: Why do you aim for at least 15 reps on every set?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I’ve found that traps respond better to higher reps. The range of motion is short, so if you do only six to eight reps you haven’t spent much time under tension. I think traps are like calves and abs, other body parts with short ranges of motion, and they all respond better to higher reps.
FLEX: Do you also do upright rows on shoulder day?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: Yes. And over the years, I’m sure I got a lot of trap stimulation from those. Branch [Warren] and I used to go up to 315 for narrow-grip upright rows. But now I do them with a wider grip, so they work my middle delts more and my traps less. I noticed that my big traps were making my shoulders look narrow, so I’ve focused more on middle delts, and one way I’ve done that is to go wide on my upright rows.
FLEX: What do you think most people get wrong about trapezius training?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: Nine out of 10 people undertrain traps. You’re not going to maximize trap development just doing deadlifts, and you’re not going to maximize trap development by just doing three or four sets of shrugs. Train them like any other body part. Give them their own routine. Do 12 to 16 sets with three or four exercises. Go for at least 15 reps per set. Learn to love training traps. I do. Unlike training calves. I can’t stand training calves— obviously.
FLEX: Do you have the best traps in the history of bodybuilding?
JOHNNIE JACKSON: I don’t know if I have the best. That’s not for me to say. I just train to be my best onstage. And I train them as hard as every other body part. But if you ask my mom, she’ll answer that question. She’ll say yes. – FLEX
JOHNNIE JACKSON’S TRAPEZIUS ROUTINE
Machine Shrug: 4 sets, 15, 30* reps
Barbell or Dumbbell Shrug: 3 sets, 15 reps
Behind-the-back Shrug: 4 sets, 15 reps
Seated Dumbbell Shrug/Row: 3 sets, 15 reps
*Dropset with three subsets of 10 reps.