Rhode to the Top

Mr. Olympia runner-up Shawn Rhoden minces no words when talking about his clash with champ, Phil Heath.


Ian Spanier

"Is Phil beatable?"

Shawn Rhoden pauses, then chuckles as he gathers his thoughts on the loaded question just posed to him.

After a long moment of reflection, he smiles—the grin of a man who has so often stared down adversity, setbacks, and near misses with resilience and aplomb. “ can quote me on this. I don’t think Phil won the last three Olympias. As far as Phil being beatable, the answer is 100 percent yes. I’ve seen his best, and that’s behind him. I will get what’s mine sooner than later.”

That from the man who, over the past five Olympia contests, has given the six-time champion the most sustained challenge. Third in 2012, fourth in 2013, third twice more in 2015 and 2016, and runner-up this past September at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. On the most recent scorecards, Heath earned straight firsts across the prejudging and final rounds, but Rhoden didn’t quite see it playing out that way.

“Having been in a position to be so close at the last three Olympias, I’m at the point where I just don’t give a shit anymore about being politically correct,” the 41-year-old Jamaica native asserts. “Back in 2011 and 2012, I could say, ‘Wow,’ when Phil walked out. But the past few Olympias, there’s nothing that impressive— there’s nothing that said this guy’s going to be hard to beat. I feel at this last Olympia that I beat him.”

Still, Rhoden’s not dwelling on the past. The Sandow still resides in Arvada, CO, with no recourse to nudge it from Heath’s firm grasp for now. The only way forward is to come in stronger, bigger, better, and even more complete in 2017. And that’s exactly what Flexatron plans on doing.

Per Bernal

Part of Rhoden’s plan of attack for 2017, was bringing up his pectorals, which in the past, have been slightly overshadowed by his remarkably voluminous deltoids.

“My chest is something I’m trying to put a little more emphasis on because my shoulder caps have gotten a lot bigger over the past two years, kind of taking away from the fullness of my chest at times,” Rhoden explains. “I’m training it first in my split, on Mondays after a rest day.”

Rhoden doesn’t follow a traditional script in the gym, preferring to rely on his instincts and mix up his regimen from workout to workout. Still, there’s a discernible pattern for those interested in following in his size 11 1⁄2 footsteps.

“On a regular basis, I start off with light cable crossovers using the
upper pulleys,” he explains. “It helps loosen up the shoulder joint and (prompts) blood flow into the pecs. I don’t go too heavy or too crazy, about three sets of 25 reps each.”

For these, Rhoden grasps a D-handle in each hand and angles his torso forward, one foot placed in front and the other back for balance, then—with his elbows locked into a slightly bent position—he flexes his pecs to bring his arms forward and in front of his mid-chest, where he holds the contraction for a brief moment when his fingers come together. Returning back along the same path, he’s careful not to let the weight stacks touch down at any point. The reps are smooth and controlled but not necessarily slow, falling into a steady tempo as the set progresses. 

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The first “working” exercise of the day is always an upper-chest press, usually either dumbbells or an incline Hammer Strength press machine. “Upper chest is the most important area for me to develop that balances with the delts, so I lead off with it,” he says. “If it’s the dumbbell incline, I’ll start with 60s, believe it or not, and work my way up over four to five sets to the 150s.” 

Early sets are taken to the 12- to 15-rep range, later dropping into the eight-to-12 region, and like his warmup, the cadence is key. “I’m a firm believer in just going with your own body mechanics. Each person has his own rhythm that works best, and once you find it you can really settle in and push. It’s that point when you’re not rushing it or going too slow. I want to feel the connection with the muscle group I’m targeting.”

Of course, it’s not as easy as he makes it sound. “Yeah, I see a lot of guys in the gym who just go too damn heavy,” Rhoden admits. “It’s like a flight-or-fight response; they’re just trying to get it up. They bounce it, basically try any way to get the dumbbells or barbell up, and they end up not really working the primary muscle they want to. It becomes more of an ego lift, just trying to prove to everyone around you that you can handle a lot of weight.” 

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Inclines are followed by a flat-bench press—just not the one you may think of first. “I’ve seen or heard of so many guys who have gotten pectoral injuries or tears from the flat-bench barbell press,” Rhoden says. “I’d rather not risk it, so I stick with dumbbells or a Hammer Strength machine.”

If it’s dumbbells, he’ll grab a pair—70s or so to start—and lie back faceup, feet placed wide and flat on the floor. The dumbbells start at each side of his torso, elbows bent, palms pronated. With a deep breath in, he then breathes out as he presses the weights up, allowing them to naturally arc closer to one another directly above his chest, but not letting them touch at the top. Here, his pecs swell with a firm clench before he reverses course and lowers them under control back to the starting position. 

As with the incline presses, he’ll do four to five sets, striving for eight to 12 reps each, nearing failure near the end but not necessarily crossing that threshold. “There are days I’ll go to failure, but that’s not all the time,” Rhoden explains. “To get there, I’ll usually do dropsets on the last set, dropping the weight a couple of times and going to failure on each drop. That can happen on any exercise in the workout, and if it’s a high-carb day, I might just do a dropset with every single exercise.”

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Following flat presses, Rhoden will head over to the Hammer Strength decline press—employing a tweak from Charles Glass that engages even more of the lower pec muscles during the lift. “I keep my hips as forward as I can on the seat,” he says. “I’ll inch a bit toward the front and make sure to push through my chest. Typically, the decline press machines will bring in more of the front delt than you’d prefer, but the hip shift helps take them out of the exercise.”

As with the inclines and flat presses, he does four to five sets, eight to 12 reps, starting with a plate on each side and pyramiding up to four or five plates by the final set.

In the past, that may have wrapped his pressing for the day...but not lately. “Because I’m trying to focus more on my upper pecs, I’ll do another incline,” Rhoden states. “If I did dumbbells first, I try to find a machine incline press and I’ll do four sets of 15 reps.”

For these, the weight isn’t as heavy as for the three presses that preceded them, but it’s enough to elicit a burn. “On all the presses, I’m telling myself, ‘Chest up,’” Rhoden explains. “Keep your chest high; don’t let it cave in. A high chest will keep the pecs engaged and not let the delts and triceps take over.” 


Two finishers await—first, either incline dumbbell flyes or a return to where he started, the crossover apparatus. Whichever he chooses, it’s five sets of 15 reps, gradually increasing the weight set to set. “On these, avoid that shallow chest,” he reminds. “I might end up looking a little awkward when I do them because of the arch of my back and how I keep my chest out, but the focus is keeping as much stress as I can on the pecs.” 

It is a lesson born of countless hours in the gym. “When I started lifting, it wasn’t so much about knowing my body mechanics, I was just pushing, just lifting,” Rhoden recalls. “As you progress in the sport, you start to realize that when some body parts are not where they need to be, it’s from not properly training that muscle. A small correction—like keeping the chest high or shifting the hips back or up on a seat—helps to improve the smallest details.

Ian Spanier


  • Cable Crossover | SETS: 3 | REPS: 25 
  • Incline Dumbbell Press | SETS: 4-5 | REPS: 8-15 
  • Seated Hammer Strength Midchest Press | SETS: 4-5 | REPS: 8-12 
  • Decline Hammer Strength Press | SETS: 4-5 | REPS: 8-12 
  • Seated Hammer Strength Incline Press | SETS: 4-5 | REPS: 8-12 
  • Incline Dumbbell Flye | SETS: 5 | REPS: 15 
  • Glass Pushup | SETS: 1 | REPS: To Failure