Written by Ron Harris
24 January 2017


Building Great Shoulders with Dexter Jackson



Dexter, the King of Delts?

There are certainly a few men in the IFBB who have bigger shoulders than Dexter Jackson. Athletes like Dennis Wolf, Justin Compton, Big Ramy and Branch Warren all have massive cannonball delts that are almost as big as their heads. Dexter’s shoulders are round and full, but it’s the detail that really sets them apart. When The Blade squeezes into a crab-most muscular pose, you can clearly identity each and every splintered muscle fiber standing out in bold relief, an explosion of grooves and striations. The combination of that round fullness and etched-out detail makes for what is probably the most perfectly crafted set of delts in the IFBB today.

There’s a lot of talk now about classic physiques, especially since an entirely new division was created to showcase that particular set of ideals. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we still do have a few men in the open class who carry on that tradition that was established with earlier stars like Steve Reeves and Frank Zane, then continued on with names like Paris, Labrada and Benfatto. Like all those men, Dexter’s shoulders are critical components of a sum total that simultaneously radiates aesthetic beauty and rugged power. They’ve helped carry him to 24 pro wins and counting, so far, so to call those shoulders “moneymakers” wouldn’t be so off base. Excellent shoulder development is a must to be a great bodybuilder, plain and simple.


Different Eras in Deltoid Training for Dex

It’s common for younger guys to assume that the way a top pro trains now is the same way he’s always trained. In rare cases, that’s accurate. When you have a 46-year-old man who has been competing since he was a 135-pound bantamweight in 1991 and is now 240 pounds onstage, it’s safe to say his training has shifted and evolved over the decades— due to experience, wear and tear on joints and simply different needs from his days as a hungry young pup striving to add raw mass.

In Dexter’s early days, a handful of dumbbell movements served him well: lateral raises, bent laterals, front raises and seated presses. The younger Dexter would alternate between pressing with dumbbells or the Hammer Strength behind-the-neck press machine. “My shoulders responded very well,” he recalls. By the time he was a couple of years into his pro career, Jackson was a huge fan of supersetting dumbbell side laterals with seated presses using a Smith machine. “I got really into pre-exhaust supersets for a while there, because I found it allowed me to feel my medial delts working a lot harder on the presses,” he says. “If I did presses on their own as straight sets, it was mostly my front delts that I felt doing the work.”

As time went on, eventually his rotator cuffs began to irritate him, a common result of using the Smith machine or any type of the same pressing machine for the chest or shoulders for too long; a phenomenon strength coaches refer to as “pattern overload.” Barbell military presses were an option he tried a few times, but Dexter ran into the same problem of too much anterior deltoid stimulation. Behind-the-neck presses did a better job of involving the medial deltoids (side heads), but they turned out to be pure murder on his rotator cuffs. Dexter discovered that dumbbell presses were his best option, and relied on those for the next few years as his staple pressing movement for shoulders. “They allow you to press straight up, without the internal rotation of the shoulder joints you get when you press to the front with a barbell or on the Smith, or the external rotation that happens when you press to the rear.”

But you know what they say: all good things must come to an end. They served him well for a long time, but there came a point a couple of years ago when Dexter realized that dumbbell presses were not a safe movement for his aging shoulder joints anymore. “I’ve trained very smart and have no injuries, but my joints have still gone through a lot of wear and tear over the years,” he explains. Let’s take a look at ???? exercises this amazing iron veteran does for his shoulders today.


1) Overhead Press

As I have tried to emphasize, the way Dexter trains now is not the way he has always trained. Bearing that in mind, he stresses that beginners should use mostly free weights as he did for over two decades, rather than machines. “I was never a big fan of military presses because I got a better feel with dumbbells, but one or both of those movements are what beginners and intermediates should be doing as their core shoulder-pressing movement,” he notes.

For a good 15 years or so, heavy dumbbell presses worked perfectly for Dexter as his go-to shoulder-pressing movement. It was only fairly recently that Jackson got away from seated dumbbell presses, as he found that staying “in the groove” with the heavy dumbbells he used was becoming increasingly difficult, and all it takes is one slip out of that groove to tear a rotator cuff. He did try to continue doing dumbbell presses for a while, and found that he could do them for a couple of weeks with no issues. After that, his shoulder joints started to ache badly.

Eventually, Dexter had to say goodbye to dumbbell presses for good (except for doing them in the occasional photo shoot). So now, various shoulder press machines serve the same function in his workouts. “I can still go heavy on those, but I have much better control of the movement itself,” he explains. “With a machine, I can also do things like space my hands closer or farther apart for a slightly different feel, or set my elbows a little forward or backward of my shoulders to switch up the pressing angle.”


2) Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Dexter has been doing lateral raises since before a lot of you MD readers were born, and he’s mastered a few variations of this staple for capping off the medial deltoids. Sometimes he will do the standard two-arm standing version. At other times, The Blade will do his laterals one arm at a time, bracing the non-working arm on an adjustable bench set at a high incline for stability.

“Usually I will do 10-12 reps with one arm to failure, then immediately transfer the dumbbell to the other arm for 10-12 more reps.” He might do these as straight sets, or if he is feeling feisty and wants to crank up the intensity, Jackson will keep switching back and forth until he is only able to get two to three reps per arm.

And then there’s the version of single-arm dumbbell lateral raises lying sideways on an incline bench, made famous by the Austrian Oak back in the ‘70s. You’ve no doubt seen classic black-and-white Art Zeller photos of Arnold doing them at the original Gold’s Gym. The position of the body, sideways on an incline bench set to about 45-50 degrees, forces you to stay strict and makes recruiting other muscles than the side delts almost impossible.

“I used to use 45s all the time for regular laterals,” Dexter says. “I can’t handle more than 25 pounds doing them this way [lying sideways], but I can feel them working the fibers down to the bone. Everybody should at least give these a try.”


3) Rear Laterals (not shown)

Dexter’s two favorite methods of hitting rear delts are to do them seated and leaning over with dumbbells, or sitting backward on a pec flye machine. Four sets of 12-15 reps are all it takes. “You have to learn to really make each rep of every set count,” he says. “If you really concentrate and force the muscle to work hard, you’ll see that you don’t need to do a lot of sets. But I do think it needs to be said that for me and probably most guys, the rear delts need just slightly higher reps than the other two heads. I know that I don’t really start feeling them until I get past 10 reps.”


4) Upright Rows

Every bodybuilder does some form of press for shoulders, but not all take advantage of another excellent compound movement that works all three heads of the deltoids, along with assistance from the traps. Dexter is shown using a barbell here, but he tends to prefer using dumbbells instead. “I am able to control the movement path better with them, and I am also able to get a more complete range of motion,” he adds. In both cases, he pulls to the upper chest for a full contraction.


5) Barbell Front Raises

Dexter always incorporates an exercise for the anterior or front deltoid. He may use dumbbells every once in a while, but more often he prefers using either a short straight bar, or an EZ-curl bar. “I like to use different grips, too,” he points out. “One week, I will have an overhand grip on the bar, and the next workout I will go underhand. Each one of those gives you a slightly different feel.”


Head-and-Shoulders Above the Rest

Dexter’s career record and list of unique accomplishments is so well known that they hardly even need to be mentioned anymore. The man is practically a living legend in the sport of bodybuilding. As for his shoulders, they have to be among the best-developed our sport has ever seen— if not for pure size, then certainly for the incredibly round caps of his side deltoids and the stunning striations and separations visible in all three heads. Dexter built those kick-ass shoulders the old-fashioned way, with years of hard work on just a few basic exercises. His shoulder routine has changed and adapted to his current needs as the years have gone by, as it should. Certainly, Dexter has enjoyed his astounding longevity in this sport in large part due to his training smart and avoiding the types of injuries that sent many of his former peers into retirement. Train hard and train smart like The Blade, and maybe you too can look your absolute best at an age when most men have already begun a steady physical decline. You will have a physique that is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the men your age!


Dexter’s Top 4 Shoulder-Training Tips

1. Train Smart, Not Just Hard

“If you have any desire to stay in this sport a long time, you have to learn to pay attention to your body and not ignore warning signs. Whenever you feel a strange ache or pain that could be the beginning of an injury, don’t try to ‘train through it’ and just hope for the best. Take a week or two off and don’t train at all. Crazy? This is what I have always done, and I have never had a training injury. Not one. I don’t think too many guys training hard for 15 years can really say that.”


2. Use Good Form and Never Worry About the Weight

“I consider myself a bodybuilder, and a bodybuilder shouldn’t worry about the weight he uses. A bodybuilder’s main concern should be the feeling in the muscle and working it as hard as you can. That’s how you stimulate growth, with good form and a strong mind-muscle connection. Too many guys have this powerlifter mentality, where they think that they need to use maximum weights all the time. Their form is terrible and I am sure they are not even feeling the muscle work. I do lift heavy, but not so heavy that I sacrifice the whole reason I am training, which is to create the most perfect physique I am capable of.”


3. Overtraining Can Keep You Small

“The first few years I was training, I was sure that more was better. Work out more days a week, do more exercises, more sets. You know what? My gains were horrible. Only after I started talking to more people and reading up on recovery did I realize that I might have been screwing myself. Once I started cutting back on how much and how often I trained, the muscle mass started to come, finally. If you haven’t been making any gains, don’t always think the solution is more training. Most of the time, the solution is less training and more rest.”


4. Use Machines When Needed

“Most guys will find that after they have been training hard and heavy for many years, certain free-weight movements are too risky to continue doing. A lot of guys get hurt as they get older by insisting on doing all the same heavy, free-weight movements they have been doing since they were starting out. But the joints and connective tissues do experience wear and tear. You can substitute a lot of those movements with machine versions, and still get great workouts and results. But if you are going to be stubborn and do exercises you have no business doing anymore, you’re going to get hurt sooner or later.”


Shoulder Routine – 2016

Dumbbell Lateral Raises, One or Two Arms  4 x 10

Front Raises With EZ-curl Bar                       4 x 10

Machine Press                                               4 x 10

Dumbbell Upright Rows                                  4 x 10

Dumbbell or Machine Rear Laterals               4 x 10


Shoulder Workout – 2008

Seated Dumbbell Press

Warm-ups:                                          65 x 12, 80 x 12

Work Sets:                                         100 x 10, 110 x 10, 130 x 8

“Arnold” Lateral Raises

Work Sets:                                         25 x 12, 25 x 10, 25 x 10, 25 x 8

Rear Laterals on Pec Flye Machine

Warm-ups:                                         100 x 15, 120 x 12

Work Sets:                                         130 x 15, 150 x 15, 180 x 12, 200 x 12


Dexter’s Training Split

Monday:          Quads

Tuesday:         Chest and calves

Wednesday:    Back

Thursday:        Delts and hams

Friday:             Arms


Dexter’s Pro Wins

2002 British Grand Prix

2003 Show of Strength Championships

2004 Iron Man Pro

2004 San Francisco Pro

2004 Australian Pro

2005 Arnold Classic

2006 Arnold Classic

2007 Australian Pro

2008 Arnold Classic

2008 Australian Pro

2008 New Zealand Pro

2008 Romanian Pro

2008 Mr. Olympia

2011 FIBO Power, Germany

2011 Masters Pro World

2012 Masters Mr. Olympia

2013 Arnold Classic

2013 Australian Pro

2013 Tijuana Pro

2014 Dubai Open

2015 Arnold Classic

2015 Arnold Classic Australia

2015 Arnold Classic Europe

2016 NY Pro