In his bliss, Dennis Hopson can be found sequestered in what he calls his “Loud Library.” There he peruses the classics, contemplates their wisdom, recurs the techniques that gave the physiques of Flex Wheeler, Bob Paris, Shawn Ray and Kevin Levrone their ancient Greek aesthetic of perfect symmetry and dramatic proportions. Immemorial volumes of bodybuilding are written there in the chalk-smeared walls of the gym, in the rough cast-iron plates, in the glorious symphony of crashing weights — their inspiration is palpable to Dennis. “It’s weird,” he muses. “As much noise as there is in the gym, I don’t hear anything because I’m so involved in my workout and my own zone.”
Dennis had that ability to tune out external sounds, he says, right from the start. New Jersey has long been home, and still is, for the extended Hopson family; it was there, at age 12, that Dennis first touched weights. “I happened to be at my older cousin’s place,” he recalls. “He had a gym in his garage, and he had friends who were close to Rich Gaspari. I was told I could have a glass of iced tea afterward. I never forgot that experience. Ultimately, I asked my parents for a weight set, which I got for Christmas, and it went from there.”
That was 27 years ago — Dennis is now 39 — and that passion has only banked its own fires since. He continues: “Always, I’ve made sure I placed myself in a workout environment. When I wasn’t training at the gym, I was working out at the high school; when I wasn’t working out there, I was working out in my room.” Follow that DNA trail, and it will pass through his nine-year-old son Kelson, a baseball (Yankees, in particular) fanatic, to his seven-year-old daughter Sydnee, who Dennis proudly reports, “can’t wait to start training; she can already do three pull-ups.”
Like daughter, like daddy. “Working out has always been a fun activity for me,” beams Dennis. “It has never been a chore, never a matter of discipline.”
It’s also the perfect counterpart for his career with the Franklin Township Police Department in Somerset County, where he’s a sergeant in the uniform patrol division. “As a police officer,” he explains, “people respect you pretty much on sight. When you’re a bodybuilder, they’re even less likely to give you a physical problem. It’s helped out so much, along with a college education [Dennis got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Montclair State University in 1993] and understanding people, being able to write and communicate with them. But they see you first, and from that point on, it’s general respect. It makes my job so much easier, being a bodybuilder. I don’t have to chase people all the time, I don’t have to fight them; they rarely resist arrest when I arrive. Have you ever seen Ronnie Coleman in uniform? I don’t look anything like that, but I’m a scaled-down version. If he comes to your house, you see him and the problem is over. The intimidation factor in my job is very important. It’s not about abusing people or violating their rights, but you need to establish some ground rules as soon as you come in contact with someone who’s breaking the law, and looking a certain way establishes those ground rules before you have to say a word to them.”
Even when the day is done, the sweet call of a brutal workout in the gym, he says, “is a relief.” When he enters his “loud library,” he leaves his job where it is. “In the gym, I’m in total bodybuilding mode.” After a break following the 2009 NPC Nationals (Dennis placed 12th in the heavyweight class), Dennis returned to the gym intending to start with only a little cardio, “just to get my circulation going, but I walked in there and went straight to the bar rack. Squats are pretty much the hardest move you can do, and I had no intention of even thinking that way, but I couldn’t control myself.”
His back, big bodypart that it is, sings a similar siren song to Dennis, filling his thoughts with the promise of at least three heavy, basic exercises he always uses that will continue to deliciously burn well into the next day, and filling his mind’s eye with the sweeping width of the shadow-casting wrestler-giants who inspired him as a kid. Dennis says: “The back is partly an optical illusion; to present that illusion, you need a wide upper back and a small, tight lower back. At 5’11” and a contest weight of 217, I’m not going to be the biggest or strongest guy, but I can create the illusion that I am. In that regard, width is more important than thickness, because it’s more visible.
“Over the past year, I didn’t concentrate too much on deadlifts, but I’ve done a lot of pull-ups, wide-grip pulldowns and barbell rows; those were pretty much the bread and butter of my back workout. I did seated rows, and I did my machine rows, but those other three are what I stuck to week after week.”
Dennis pauses then offers a lament: “Those three basic exercises, though, are losing their popularity to the machines that are so comfortable these days, but with extreme bodybuilding or extreme fitness, there’s nothing comfortable about it. You lose a lot with machines. If you sit down in a chair with pads all over it, you’re not working the hardest you can. You have to impose pain and discomfort on yourself if you want to progress as a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding is the most uncomfortable lifestyle — I wouldn’t call it just a sport — there is. It’s a 24/7 commitment for the rest of your life. You have to eat, sleep, train and discipline your life the right way. It’s all day long … it’s something, you know? With bowling, you can live a normal life … football has its long offseason … but with bodybuilding, you get only a couple of weeks off before starting your prep for a contest that’s months away. That’s why it becomes a lifestyle, and you have to try really hard to maintain it.”
There’s no shortage of regimentation in Dennis’ training schedule. He works out six days a week, Monday through Saturday, with back and biceps, in that order, on Thursday. Offseason, he trains once a day; precontest, it’s cardio in the morning, weights at night. His bread-and-butter movements continue to anchor his workout, but his exercise sequence is in constant flux. “I switch it up every time. It’s also a pretty high-volume workout: 4–5 exercises each with five working sets, with working reps anywhere from 12 down to eight.
“At my age, I take longer to warm-up, so I do 2–3 warm-up sets of 15–20 reps each. I need to avoid injury because I have to go to work, so I think a warm-up is imperative.
“Beyond that my philosophy is to go as heavy as I can with absolutely perfect form, to failure. Form, to me, is the most important criterion. Without form you’ll get hurt, and if you’re hurt you won’t be at the gym. When I hit failure, I might occasionally go into the cheat zone for 1–2 reps, but those are assisted by my training partner, so I can maintain perfectly tight form. I never sacrifice form for an extra cheat rep.”