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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2!