The World's Strongest Back

November 28, 2011

By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT The gym that eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman made famous isn’t a place for the faint of heart. Metroflex is tailor-made for those who eat, sleep and breathe bodybuilding, a dusty, hot, rundown temple of iron in the lunch pail town of Arlington, Texas.
Ronnie, however, isn’t the only pro to build prodigious muscle at Brian Dobson’s hardcore haven. These days, two other heavyweights regularly do battle there, slapping cobwebs and dust off barbells and dumbbells, pushing each other to maniacal feats of strength as a matter of due course, and leaving rivulets of sweat on the floor in their lumbering wake.

Johnnie Jackson and Branch Warren have had a training partnership that stretches back years. “We share the desire, the challenge of wanting to be the best, and that’s a connection we had way before we even turned pro,” Johnnie says. After a break of a few years, they’re back at it, pushing each other to ever greater heights, as Branch stalks a chance to improve upon his near-miss second- and third-place finishes at the 2009 and 2010 Mr. Olympia, respectively, and Johnnie cements his legend as a dual-threat powerlifter and elite bodybuilding competitor.

Coming Alive with Deadlifts

On this particular Tuesday, Johnnie goes it alone as he prepares for a brutal back attack. “There are bodyparts I’m stronger at, and bodyparts he’s stronger at, but overall we’re pretty even strengthwise,” Johnnie says of his prodigious partner as he pulls on a pair of Schiek lifting gloves. “But you barely see it, because we normally use the same weight. Nobody’s ever been able to do that. I’ve never had anyone keep up with me on weights like he does.”
Most people ease into their workout. But most people aren’t Johnnie Jackson. He leads off with the deadlift, doing two “lighter” sets (working up to 315 pounds), followed by increasingly heavier working sets.


The deadlift warms up the whole body,” Johnnie points out. “It’s where I’m going to move the most weight too, so I put it first while I’m fresh.” With his feet flat and about shoulder-width apart beneath the loaded bar, Johnnie squats down and grasps it just outside his knees. The bar rests flush against his shins to start, and with his chest expanded and back flat, he hoists the bar by extending his hips and knees explosively to a standing position. He knows the closer the bar is to the body, the better; you almost want to scrape it against yourself all the way up.
From the top, Johnnie tenses his whole body, then lowers the bar down along the same path to the floor. “I do deadlifts in the gym exactly how I’d perform them at a meet,” he says. “There’s no better way, and it prepares me for competition.”

A sip of water, and it’s on to the lat pulldown. “I’ll do five sets, starting at 120 pounds and working up to the full stack,” he says as he takes his position on the seat, a wide, overhand grip on the angled ends of the bar.

With his abs tight and back slightly arched, feet planted on the floor for support, Johnnie squeezes his shoulder blades together and leads with his elbows to bring the bar down to his upper chest. He takes a quick pause before his arms extend to return to the start position.
“Just use a slight backward lean,” he instructs between sets. “It’s very important to stay in control when you’re doing this exercise. If you’re going from a near upright position and leaning back near 90 degrees as you pull down, that’s all lower back, not upper lats. You’re putting too much unnecessary pressure on your lower spine, too.”

For good measure, the last set is a drop set. He does 20 reps with the full stack of 380, drops the pin to 300 for 15, and then powers out 12 reps with 250 before moving on to T-bar rows.