With matters of physique, your problem isn't solely absolute muscle mass. Your reflection reveals more than a necessity to add a certain amount of muscle to your frame. It also reveals a necessity for proportional muscle.
"Well, my upper chest could use some work."
"My calves aren't doing too well."
"I wish my _____ were____."
I'll leave it up to you to fill in the gaps. I know you can, many times over too. And there's a good chance you'd sacrifice gains everywhere else to see improvement in your troubled areas. That's because, for most of us, physique is all about proportion.
The Universal Trouble Spot
Long ago, Frank Zane, Vince Gironda, and Steve Reeves taught us that physique was proportion, which is why most physical culturists trained specifically to develop the "X" physique – a body characterized by broad shoulders, wide lats, strong arms, a big upper back, and a narrow waist.
Since waist to hip ratio can't be modified, the only hope to improve the "X" look is to grow the right muscles. To accomplish this, many lifters overzealously attack the anterior and medial deltoids, hoping cannonball shoulders will cover for lackluster development elsewhere.
While the shoulders are important, widening into a wedge is best accomplished by growing the back – specifically the lats and posterior deltoids. So ditch the RedBull. It's time to grow your own wings.
Tactics for Unconventional Growth
While there's credence in getting strong in foundational compound movements, we can borrow some old school tactics, movements, and principles from people that lived in the age that inspired the X physique to aid in our quest for ultimate proportion.
1 – Pull with a wide grip.
You've probably heard of the Reeves deadlift. It's an askew deadlift variation that calls for grabbing the plates instead of the bar, and was so aptly named after Steve Reeves, a pioneer of the X physique.
Reeves gripped the plates to force the hands wide, a tweak that increases the strain on the upper back muscles. And the upper back is one of those "must grow" areas for a noteworthy X.
To save your hands some carnage, replicate the Reeves deadlift by opting for snatch grip deadlifts. Just promise you won't curse my name as you get out of bed the day after you do them.
2 – The chin isn't enough.
Chin-ups are regarded as one of the best lat developers around. Vince Gironda, however, one-upped the exercise after popularizing the idea that pulling until the chin crossed the bar just wasn't enough. Instead, he instructed his pupils to do sternum chin-ups.
Sternum chin-ups begin like regular chin-ups; with the hands approximately shoulder width apart. But as you pull yourself to the bar, the body is leaned back and the lower back is arched. The goal is to touch the lower chest and lower sternum to the bar.
This changes the back angle, which consequently works the back through a much more holistic range of motion. It's like a chin-up and row combined. Buy one get one free.
3 – Olympic lifts, higher reps.
Bill Starr's 5x5 routine, one of the most classic programs in strength training history, programmed power cleans for sets of five reps. In recent years, however, power cleans done for anything above three reps is considered blasphemy.
But if power output – one of the main reasons for keeping the reps to three or lower – isn't the main goal, higher reps won't kill you, as long as form is maintained. Along with growing the upper back just about as well as any shrug, they also provide a kick in Testosterone.(1)
Keep in mind a lot of old timers trained in this slightly higher repetition range without bumpers. They managed to survive, so don't freak out. And it's not like adding two repetitions to your sets suddenly turns your training into a CrossFit WOD. Climb above six repetitions, however, and then we might need to have a talk.
4 – Cheat a little bit.
After building wings, building big arms helps create a wider look. Take one look at Don Howorth if you don't believe me.
One of more underrated exercises these days, surprisingly enough, is the standing barbell curl. Perhaps even more underrated is the cheat curl.
Cheat curls are barbell curls with a little "oomph" behind them (think of a truncated Romanian deadlift before the curl to get some momentum), and were a favorite of both Arnold and eccentric discus thrower Ricky Bruch.
To save your wrists and elbows the carnage of straight bar work, here are some tips:
- Feel the muscle. The biceps do the work.
- Control the negative.
- Squeeze the glutes at the top of the movement to prevent excess lower back hyperextension.
- Use fat grips and squeeze like hell.
- Use a just outside of shoulder-width grip.
While you do these, you have my permission to stare threateningly at the guy doing curls with his back anchored against the wall.
5 – Get static
Front levers are the most underrated exercise in the history of physical culture. Nothing taxes the fabled "core" quite like them. Eat your heart out, plank.
Along with torching the abs, the front lever is also a great all around back exercise. And because the lever is an isometric hold, it affords time to "think" about muscle activation. Whether it's scapular retraction or "spreading" the lats, use the front lever to leverage motor learning.
Be sure to follow a proper progression when learning the front lever. As with most gymnastics exercises, improvements are slow. Be patient and limit curse words.
The 5 Tips in Practice
While these five training tips can certainly create a proportional physique, they shouldn't replace every exercise in your current program. They do, however, complement most staple exercises nicely, which makes them easy to incorporate into a training session.
- Since deadlifts are difficult to recover from, snatch grip deadlifts can be done in their place every other week, or on a light day.
- Unless you're a freak, you won't be banging out many double-digit sets of sternum chin-ups, so replace them with regular chin-ups if necessary.
- Thick-grip cheat curls, because of their potential for connective tissue overload, can be rotated with a more joint friendly arm exercise such as the hammer curl.
- Front levers can replace any abdominal exercise.
Wanting the "X" physique isn't a bad thing. Chicks dig it, and it has some athletic advantages.(2)(3) Besides, I'll always defer to what Arnold has to say about proportion:
"You don't really see a muscle as a part of you, in a way. You see it as a thing. You look at it as a thing and you say well this thing has to be built a little longer, the biceps has to be longer; or the triceps has to be thicker here in the elbow area. And you look at it and it doesn't even seem to belong to you. Like a sculpture. Then after looking at it a sculptor goes in with his thing and works a little bit, and you do maybe then some extra forced reps to get this lower part out. You form it. Just like a sculpture."
Arnold was correct, bodybuilders are the quintessential sculptors, and your body is your life's work, your masterpiece. Don't let the need for mass cause you to lose sight of your ultimate goal: physical perfection.
- Waterbury, C. (2008). 5 Ways to Boost Testosterone. T-Nation.
- Bramble, DM & Lieberman, DE. (2004). Endurance running and the evolution of homo. Nature, 432.
- Kate, KL, Bassett, JL, & Dabbs, JM. (2003). Fear primes may not affect women's implicit and explicit mate preferences. JASNH, 1;(4), 49-56.