Results speak for themselves, and throughout their long careers IFBB pros Toney Freeman and Dennis James have produced.


James, the 1998 USA super-heavyweight and overall champ, competed in 38 pro contests before hanging up his posing trunks afer placing third at the 2012 Masters Olympia. Along the way, he racked up three pro wins and earned 10 invitations to the Olympia, placing as high as 4th in 2003.

Since he turned pro by winning both the super-heavyweight and overall title at the 2002 NPC Nationals, Freeman has stepped onstage 52 times, emerging victorious on seven occasions, and made seven Mr. Olympia appearances—eight by the time you’ve read this—with his best ranking a fifth-place finish in 2008. Freeman doesn’t show any signs of slowing down: To date in 2013, he’s racked up two runner-up slots at the Australian Pro and the Arnold Classic Brazil, and two third-place finishes at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic (Ohio) and the Mr. Europe Pro.

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Throughout their careers, these old-school ballers have shown everyone else how the game is played. Nobody talked about X-frames until Freeman came along and unveiled the archetypical one. The X-Man’s shoulders cap one of the best structures in the game. They called James “The Menace” because he was a threat to anyone else when he stepped onstage. His width, due in part to his thick, massive deltoids, shouldered lesser bodybuilders of the stage.

The two men, who are now both 47 years old, sat down to talk about training shoulders. 

Chris Nicoll

FLEX: Do you guys do a lot of warming up before your shoulder workouts?

Breon Ansley - Classic Physique - 2018 Olympia
Chris Nicoll

Dennis James: I’ve never had any shoulder injuries, so I jump right into the workout and warm up with the movements.

Toney Freeman: I warm up going through all the exercises I learned in physical therapy: movements for my elbow joint, the biceps and triceps tendons, the rotator cuf. This’ll take 10 minutes and then I’m ready to train. By the second set of any exercise, I’m using the weight I’m going to be using.


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FLEX: You mention physical therapy, Toney. Have you ever had a shoulder injury?

Toney Freeman: No. Like Dennis I’ve been lucky. I’m not even injured and I do physical therapy. Of course it helps that my physical therapist was also my work-out partner. I learned so much from him just talking to him.

Chris Nicoll

FLEX: Dennis, when you were competing, your delt training resembled something most people who read bodybuilding magazines and train will be familiar with, more so maybe than Toney’s.

Dennis James: I liked to start with a heavier compound movement—a military or seated dumbbell press. Then laterals, front raises, rear delts on the pec deck or bent over with dumbbells. Sometimes I’d even skip rear delts because when I train back every rowing exercise works the rear delts.


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FLEX: Toney, your delt training and your workout split are a little unorthodox. Would you walk us through it?

Chris Nicoll

Toney Freeman: I’ve been doing chest, shoulders, bi’s, and tri’s together. I’ll get to delts after I’ve done 12–16 sets of pecs. For shoulders, all I need are three sets of one compound movement and two or three giant sets of laterals from four different angles. I’ll use dumbbells or kettlebells for a giant set. What I’ll do is 10 reps of front lateral raises with my hands neutral at the top; 10 reps of front raises with my hands a little wider than shoulder width and my palms facing the ground; 10 reps of side laterals; and a final 10 reps of a kind of upright row where I’m moving each dumbbell or kettlebell about six inches, the bottom third of the upright row movement. That’s it for shoulders. 

FLEX: You follow a three-day training cycle. Do you schedule days off?

Toney Freeman: I take a day off when I need to. I used to try to schedule them, but what would happen is on a day I was scheduled to take off I’d feel like working out. Recuperation at this level is an everyday thing. You can’t really gauge how many days it’s going to take you to recover from any particular workout.

George Peterson - Classic Physique - 2018 Olympia
Chris Nicoll

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FLEX: Which compound movement do you prefer?

Toney Freeman: Again, I use a lot of dumbbells or kettlebells. I incorporate unilateral exercises all the time to make sure my right side is as balanced as my left side and vice versa. Lately I’ve been doing seated one-arm presses with a T-bar apparatus. I place an adjustable incline bench in front of the T-bar and sit with my body facing into the bench. I go back and forth, one arm at a time: 15 reps with my right arm, 15 with my left; 10 with my right, 10 with my left; then 8 and 6 each.


FLEX: How did you come up with that movement?

Toney Freeman: I make up stuff every day. But there’s this guy in South Carolina who has a machine that allows a similar movement— though with two hands—and that’s where I got the idea. It works amazing. It takes the stress of your shoulder joint, and it’s all deltoid.

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FLEX: Dennis, has your shoulder training changed now that you’re no longer competing?

Dennis James: Yeah, I don’t really train like I used to. I’m traveling a lot more and these days when I travel I don’t train. When I was competing I always found time and a place to train if I was on the road. Today, if I fly out of Phoenix on a Thursday and come home on a Sunday, that means I’m in the gym Monday through Wednesday. I haven’t been training legs at all since December. Trying to finally fit back into some pants!

FLEX: Dennis trains rear delts with shoulders sometimes. How about you, Toney?

Toney Freeman: I do rear delts with back.


FLEX: Has your shoulder training changed over the course of your careers?

Dennis James: I kept my shoulder training the same throughout my career. Again, I was lucky that I never had to work around a shoulder injury. One thing I’ve always done is rotate the exercises I use from an arsenal of movements I draw upon. So if I was starting my delt workout with military presses one week, the next I might be starting it with seated dumbbell presses or seated Smith machine presses.

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Toney Freeman: I’ve never been a really big presser. I’ve never been able to press more than a couple hundred pounds over my head so I always had to find ways to stimulate growth. You can grow without having to use exorbitant amounts of weight.

FLEX: Are there any exercises for your delts you actively avoid?

Dennis James: Yeah, physically I can’t do behind-the-neck presses. When I was younger and just starting out I used to do them and behind-the-neck lat pulldowns, but right now that’s not even possible. You put a certain amount of size on your shoulders and rear delts and you can’t get behind your head no more. I’d bust a hole in my head with the bar trying to get back there! It’s crazy.

Toney Freeman: I can still do behind-the-neck presses but I’ll only do them maybe once every couple months to mix things up. The thing is, if I’m doing a military press or behind-the-neck press, it takes so many sets for me to stimulate the muscle versus what I do now. Plus, I’m doing four body parts in one workout, so I don’t have time to waste.

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Ashley Jenelle - Bikini - 2018 Olympia

FLEX: Have certain heads of your deltoids grown faster/lagged behind others?

Dennis James: I never had an issue with my shoulders. They would grow even if I didn’t train them. I can train chest and my shoulders will get sore and pump up. When it comes to shoulders, chest, and arms I was really genetically gifted.

Toney Freeman: From the beginning I focused on the side delts. In the last few years I’ve brought my front and rear delts up to match.

FLEX: Let’s talk about shrugs.

Toney Freeman: I do shrugs with my back. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of behind-the-back barbell shrugs. When I use dumbbells like in the pictures I’ll do 10 reps to the front, 10 to the side, and 10 behind my back.

Dennis James: I’d mix it up. Every couple of weeks I’d do shrugs at the end of my delt workout. My shrugs get worked when I train back, so I never felt the need to do them every shoulder workout. Sometimes I’d do upright rows for my traps and other days shrugs. When I did shrugs I mixed that up, too: dumbbells, barbells, machine. It depends on how I felt.

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FLEX: Dennis, what are your thoughts on Toney as a bodybuilder and his deltoids in particular?

Dennis James: Toney came a long way. He’s a taller bodybuilder with a very good structure, a perfect X-frame. He had a pec tear a long time ago that took him out of the game for a few years, but he came back strong and it didn’t slow him down. He has wide clavicles, which are perfect for his taller frame. His shoulders are very good now. He’s still in the mix, still fighting the younger guys at his age and he’s doing it because he was smart enough throughout his career to train right and avoid those career-ending injuries. So good on him— kudos to you, Toney!

FLEX: Toney, what are your thoughts on Dennis and his delts?

Toney Freeman: Dennis brought some of the biggest, roundest, most separated shoulders in the game. The way I look at it, bodybuilding is about making something out of nothing; most of us started as itty-bitty little dudes and we don’t look anything like we did. Dennis was a master of that. He got his shoulders so big it made up for the fact that he didn’t have a tiny little waist.

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FLEX: Was the 2012 Masters Olympia it for you, Dennis?

Dennis James: I’m retired! I’m done!

FLEX: Dennis, do you think Toney will be the next Albert Beckles?

Dennis James: [laughs] I don’t think so. I don’t think Toney wants to go to 60. And Albert didn’t compete as much as Toney does.

FLEX: What about you, Toney?

Toney Freeman: I don’t have an expiration date; I’m always going to bodybuild, but I can’t say how much longer I’ve got left onstage. If they keep the Masters Mr. Olympia up and going I’ll keep competing in that. Getting onstage is incentive and motivation for me to get in the gym and train hard. As long as I’m healthy and it continues to be fun I’ll keep getting up there. I’m making good money and I’m still having fun. [laughs] When the new guys start kicking my ass, I’ll step away. – FLEX