Physique transformation: It's perhaps the most difficult challenge a person can accept. And that, of course, also makes it one of the most rewarding.
To radically change your body, to augment it with muscle and strip away the fat, is both a physical and psychological battle. The hours in the gym every week are a given. Add in nutrition, recovery, willpower, and the tactical use of advanced supplementation, and physique transformation – the civilian version of this thing we call bodybuilding – is truly a 24/7 ordeal.
But to achieve it, to alter your body so much that people you haven't seen in a while don't recognize you right away, is to do something that most people either can't or won't do. It's an achievement that sets you apart from the masses.
And if that makes you a little conceited, a little too confident, and a little more alpha in other areas of your life, then well, that's okay. That's deserved. Dump 30 pounds of fat and add 30 pounds of muscle and you can be as cocky as you want.
Testosterone is about to launch something that will help you achieve this goal. It's something that's never been tried before, and if it works, it could be the most exciting thing to ever hit T-Nation. We call it the Physique Clinic. You can read more about it by clicking on the banner below.
To make the Physique Clinic a success, we carefully chose a coach who we consider to be one of the top physique transformation experts on the planet, a man who has not only helped hundreds of people get into the best shape of their lives, but also a guy who's done it himself: Christian Thibaudeau.
Before we launch the Clinic, we wanted to sit down with this French-Canadian phenom and pick his brain about hardcore body transformation.
Chris Shugart: First, let's talk about genetic "ceilings." While everyone can build muscle, not everyone can build a lot of muscle. Is that true? Are there really genetic governors?
Christian Thibaudeau: There are several things that can be factored into this whole "genetics" thing. It's not as simple as "Can a person build a lot of muscle or not?"
Ultimately, I think we're talking about improving the way we look. For a lot of us, that's what it's all about. Sure, performance is important, but even those who are performance-minded have the desire to look better.
That having been said, a lot of physiological and psychological traits can be bunched into this "genetics" thing. Obviously, one's capacity to add muscle tissue is part of it, but it's not the only part. For example, structure is another significant factor. The way you're put together on the skeletal side of things can have a drastic impact on how you look.
For example, individuals with relatively wide clavicles and a short torso will have it easier building an impressive physique because they have a natural triangle shape to their upper bodies. Individuals with that type of build, Stan McQuay for example, will appear much bigger than the actual muscle mass they carry.
On the other side of things, those with a longer torso and narrower clavicles will need to put on a lot more muscle in the right places to look as impressive.
Structure can also be applied to the length of your muscle bellies. Some individuals are blessed with naturally full and round muscle bellies, making their muscles really pop out.
Once again, guys like this won't need to build as much muscle mass to look super impressive. Take pro-bodybuilder Silvio Samuels as an example. He's barely above 200 pounds at 5'6'' yet he looks to be at least 230 because of his super full muscle bellies.
Finally, the ratio between limb length and joint thickness can also come into play. The smaller your joints are in relation to your limb length, the more impressive any added muscle tissue will look.
So as you can see, someone can have the natural capacity to build a lot of muscle, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he'll have an easy time building a great physique.
Shugart: What about the ability to get really ripped? Seems to come a lot easier for some people, though I don't believe anyone has an excuse for being flat-out fat.
Thibaudeau: Yes, some people have an easier time losing flab than others. It can be due to better insulin sensitivity, a faster metabolism, or whatever. The fact is that those guys will be able to attain a lean physique without much effort. And oftentimes, they won't lose a lot of muscle doing so.
Shugart: Yeah, I hate those people. What about the rest of us?
Thibaudeau: On the other end of the spectrum, you have guys who need to diet super long and hard to get remotely lean. These are the guys who are most likely to fall off the wagon before reaching their ideal physique. They're also the guys who risk losing more muscle mass while dieting as they'll need to take more drastic steps to get extra lean.
We also can't dismiss the psychological aspect. While I don't want to get into a debate about the impact of genetics and learned behavior (I'll leave that to behaviorist and Gestalt psychologists) the fact remains that some individuals have a better psychological profile when it comes to transforming their physique.
Whether this profile is learned or innate is beside the point, but suffice to say that strong-willed individuals who are good at following a plan and refuse to fail have a much greater chance of success than those who give up at the slightest bump in the road. Basically, you can have a very physiologically gifted individual fail in attaining a great physique simply because he lacks the mental fortitude to overachieve his way to success.
So yes, there is such a thing as good physical transformation genetics, but it's not just about being good at building muscle or not. Rarely will you have someone who's a complete genetic blunder. We all have something that'll play in our favor; the thing is to learn to play on our strength and to try and minimize the negative impact of our shortcomings.
But there is a ceiling somewhere. There comes a point where the body has achieved its trainability (reached its developmental potential), but rarely have I seen individuals get there.
Shugart: Okay, that "ceiling" in muscular development does exist, but how do we know where ours is? I mean, some guy may be saying "I have reached my genetic peak," but in reality maybe his training or diet just sucks. How do we know? Any predictors?
Thibaudeau: Obviously, overall body structure can give us a broad clue about ultimate potential. Rarely will someone with the frame of a hummingbird be able to get as big as an ox! But I really don't think that we can assess with great precision what our ultimate potential is.
First of all, I do think that everybody has the capacity to add 25 to 30 pounds of muscle more than his "normal adult weight" is supposed to be. But it's kinda hard to predict what "shape" that 30 pounds will take.
Different muscle groups have different trainability levels (greater or lesser growth potential). So even if we somehow can predict how much muscle someone can add to his frame, it would be impossible to say exactly how that size would look. On some individuals, 15 pounds might really look like 40!
24 pounds of muscle added
We could use strength gains as a basis for establishing development. As a rule of thumb, strength has a trainability potential of around 200%. In other words, in theory you should be able to triple your strength compared to your "adult normal strength."
So, for example, if your untrained bench press max is 165 pounds, you should be able to increase it to 495. That's your theoretical maximum potential.
Now, if you're currently bench pressing 300 we could say that you've reached 60% of your trainability potential in the pressing muscles. So (and this is still in theory) you should have 40% of muscle growth left in those pressing muscles.
As a more concrete example, let's say that your preacher curl max was 55 pounds when you started training, and your close-grip press was 135 pounds. In theory, your maximum potential would be 165 on the preacher curl and 405 on the close-grip press.
Now, let's say that when you started out, your arms measured 13 inches and currently your arms are 17 inches. Your preacher curl is 115 and your close-grip press is 280. Gaining that first 70% of your potential increased your arm size by 4 inches. Considering that you have another 30% to gain, you could expect another 2 inches in arm size.
Obviously this is just a broad estimation and there are several weaknesses to this type of assessment. But taken with your structure evaluation it can give us a decent idea about how much growing you have left in you.
In all honesty, I've yet to meet one guy who has really reached his ceiling. When you get more advanced, gains come at a much slower pace, but as long as you find a way to progress in your training, gains will follow.
Shugart: Very interesting stuff. Now, tons of average guys come to you and want to make total physique transformations. While they all have their individual needs, what commonalities do you see? In other words, I bet most of them are doing a lot of the same things wrong. What are some of those things?
Thibaudeau: Pull up a chair, Chris. We could be here all day!
When it comes to training, too many people focus on the wrapping instead of what's in the box. By that I mean that more guys should strive to put more effort in the gym and strive to progress on a systematic basis rather than attaching themselves to the latest "in" program.
I'm almost tired of saying it, but there is no magical program! The keys to making your physique better and stronger are constant progression and consistency. You can use the latest and greatest program, but if you don't do everything in your power to progress from workout to workout, you'll get very little out of it.
Strive to do a little bit more every time you're in the gym: lift a little more weight, do a few more reps, add a few sets, rest a little less, be more focused, etc. and you cannot not progress over time!
Consistency is another issue. I think that individuals, especially newbies, expect an unrealistic rate of progression. They think they can add 20 pounds of muscle in a month, and when they fail to do so they panic, change their approach, or stop training altogether.
While you should strive to improve yourself at every workout, you must understand that adding muscle is a long-term process. To reach your ultimate goals, you gotta keep at it for a long time!
When it comes to program design, I see too many redundant exercises being used. I really do believe that training and changing your body is an emotional issue, which makes it hard to make rational decisions. We're so afraid of short-siding our gains that we tend to include too many exercises in our program. We're afraid of missing out on "the" exercise that will make all the difference in the world.
Listen, the body has a limited capacity to adapt to physical stress. If you want to grow optimally you shouldn't go past that threshold. Avoid redundant exercises. The exercises you select should complement each other, not work more of the same thing.
Shugart: Can you give us some examples of redundant exercises?
Thibaudeau: Redundant exercises are movements that train a muscle or group of muscles using almost identical movement patterns. Normally, redundant exercises revolve around using the same basic exercise but with different equipment. For example, a Smith machine bench press and a regular barbell bench press are redundant exercises.
Now, there are several degrees of redundancy. The more elements of the following list two movements have in common, the more redundant they are:
A) Angle of pull/press. (Are you pressing from a flat bench, 15 degree incline bench, 30 degree incline bench, 45 degree incline bench, 60 degree incline bench, decline, etc.)
B) Grip width or stance width
C) Grip type (pronated, supinated, neutral)
D) Movement pattern
E) Strength curve (e.g. free-weights, machines, and cables have different strength curves)
So for example, a wide-grip flat bench barbell bench press and a wide-grip Smith machine flat barbell bench press will be more redundant than a flat dumbbell bench press using a hammer/neutral grip and a flat cable bench press with a pronated grip.
In the first example, everything is the same except for the equipment, and the equipment used does have the same basic strength curve. In the second example, the equipment, strength curve, and grip differ.
Since the body has a limited capacity to adapt, we shouldn't waste our adaptive energy on movements that are too similar. It's best to use exercises that are as different as possible when working a muscle group. Obviously, this is easier to do with complex muscle groups like the chest and back than with simpler muscle groups like triceps and biceps.
Shugart: What about common mistakes you see involving diet?
Thibaudeau: When it comes to diet, consistency is a problem, but I wouldn't call it a "mistake" because most people simply don't have the willpower to stick to a diet day-in and day-out.
To me, a mistake is doing something wrong, thinking that it's actually right. I don't think that anybody actually thinks that wolfing down two pieces of cake and six donuts is good for you!
The truth is that a lot of people aren't consistent enough with their diet to get where they want to go. They'll follow a solid plan for three days and think to themselves that they earned that cake or that they're improving fast enough to cheat without guilt. This is a recipe for disaster.
Another problem is not knowing what's bad for you. One of my friends was looking to lose a lot of weight, but he just couldn't do it. It turned out that with each major meal of the day he was gulping down two 32 ounce bottles of full-sugar soft drink. That's 200g of sugar taken three times a day, or around 2400 calories per day only from soda!
The thing is that he believed that sodas weren't fattening because it was a drink! About 2400 calories, seven days a week is 16,800 calories, or the caloric equivalent of five pounds of fat!
Shugart: That hilarious... and sad. I've seen so many people screw up their body this way, and they don't even realize it!
I helped a guy once who was taking fat loss supplements and using a vicious lactic acid training program. Dude couldn't lose a pound. Turns out he's guzzling Gatorade all day... while working at his desk job. Thousands of worthless calories, and he didn't even think of reporting that intake to me!
If this happens at the T-Nation Physique Clinic, we're going to have to fly to that guy's town and kick him in the balls.
Are you running a marathon? Playing football in Florida? No? Then why are you drinking this crap, chubby?
Okay, next physique transformation topic: muscle memory. What is it exactly?
Thibaudeau: Muscle memory is the best friend of strength training marketing! I had a hockey player gain 27 pounds of muscle in 8 weeks (20 of which was regained muscle). I had a bodybuilder gain 18 pounds of muscle in a month (mostly from post-contest surcompensation), and I had an Olympic athlete's squat go from 225 to 500 in less than 6 weeks.
All of these examples were due in part to muscle memory, but you gotta admit that if you don't read the fine print it makes me look like some kind of magician!
There is such a thing as the plasticity of muscle adaptations. I don't like the term "muscle memory" because it's really a misnomer, but the fact is that previously gained muscle and strength is much easier to regain the second time around. Furthermore, the longer you've had that added muscle tissue, the faster you'll regain it once you get back to training.
Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2!