The Copperfield Physique

Commercial gyms are a fun place. The various people training there never fail to provide me with a lot of entertainment. From the macho man curling 50 pounds in the power rack to the hot shot speaking on his headset cell phone while squatting, I've seen it all!

A game I often indulge myself in is called "Name the Physique." You have several categories to choose from for each person in the gym. Here are a few:

  • The Light Bulbs: Big upper bodies supported by toothpick legs.
  • The Neanderthals: Head lurching forward, rounded shoulders, VLS (virtual lat syndrome).
  • The Runway Cats: Dressed as if going out and avoiding exercises that may make them sweat and, God forbid, muss their $150 haircuts.
  • The Legends: Guys who act as if they're king of the gym, seeing themselves as big and muscular as Mr. Olympia despite looking more like Pillsbury doughboys.
  • The MTV's: Mostly young guys suffering from the illusion that they're participating in a rap video.

That's only scratching the surface; I may very well write an entire book on the "Name the Physique" game!

A recent addition to my list has become quite a common sight these days. I call it the "Copperfield physique." Why Copperfield? Because from the front the guy looks to have a decent physique, but when he turns sideways his physique magically disappears! As I've already mentioned in my Big Back Stack article, your body is actually being seen from all angles. You might look impressive from one angle but do you have the whole package?Do you have a 3-D physique?

What's required for a 3-D physique? Thickness, that's what! You need a thick upper body. That means a beastly upper back, a "tractor-tires" lower back, and big traps. To be thick you also need to be strong. There's no way around it. Sure, you can train the upper back and lower back with light isolation exercises. This might get you some decent development, but it won't make you thick.

Furthermore, we want to be thick all the time, right? Not just when we're pumped from doing twenty sets of isolation work (another sign of the Copperfield physique: muscles that disappear once the pump goes away). To look thick all the time you need to have good myogenic tone, and that requires heavy lifting.

I've included a few photos of myself to illustrate what I mean by thickness. Remember, I'm actually not a very big guy, around 210 pounds in these pictures, but a lot of people in gyms are much bigger without actually looking as thick from the side.

As you can see, even when standing relaxed my upper back looks just as thick as when it's flexed. Furthermore, notice how when I'm sideways you can still see my upper and lower back.

How can you build that kind of thickness? Years and years of heavy pulling! Not the answer you wanted to hear, huh? I don't blame you! So here's a short term fix to the Copperfield physique.


The Contrast Triple Threat

What if I told you that to build maximum thickness in minimum time you'd only need one exercise? Would you believe me? Well, you'd better because it's true! There's a catch however: it's going to be one helluva tough ride! If you want to take a short cut, expect to pay the price with sweat and blood!

What we're going to do is what I call a contrast triple threat. As you may (or may not) know, contrast training refers to alternating between several types of contractions for the same muscle. You can go from light and explosive to heavy and slow, switching back and forth. I call my method the "triple threat" because we're going to contrast three types of contractions:

  1. Concentric Explosive: Lifting a light load (50-70%) with maximum velocity.
  2. Concentric/Eccentric Near-Maximal: Lifting and lowering a very heavy load (85-100%).
  3. Eccentric Supramax loading: Lowering a supramaximal load (110-130%) under control.

Our basic exercise is going to be the Olympic-stance deadlift, so the variations we'll use are the clean pull, the clean-grip deadlift, and the eccentric deadlift. Let's take a look at each.

Clean Pull

The objective is to pull the bar to a height close to the bottom of your rib cage when standing up. The key is to lift the bar under control from the ground to the knees (pushing the floor away) and to explode at the knees. Your traps and calves should contract maximally at the same time.

Clean-Grip Deadlift

This is not a powerlifting deadlift; it's an Olympic deadlift. On the powerlifting deadlift you start with the hips higher and the shoulders behind the bar. On the clean-grip deadlift your hips are down and the shoulders are above the bar. This is a great exercise to develop the lower back and the quadriceps, along with the hamstrings.

Start position: feet are hip-width, toes are turned slightly outward. The grip is narrow (approximately shoulder width). Legs are flexed at the knees slightly (around 110-120 degrees). Trunk is flexed, back is tightly arched. Shoulders are in front of the bar. Arms are straight, traps are stretched. Head is looking forward and down.

Pull: the bar is lifted via a knee extension from the ground up to the knees. The back angle remains the same, albeit tight and arched. The arms stay long (remain extended) and the bar should be kept close to the body. From the knees up to the standing position, the bar is lifted with a combined back extension and knee extension. The back stays tight and the arms stay long. The lift is completed when you're standing up completely.

Eccentric Deadlift

This exercise consists of lowering a supramaximal load (more than your maximum) under control. Ideally you should lower the bar in...

  • 10 seconds if the load is 110-115% (of your maximum)
  • 8 seconds if the load is 115-120%
  • 6 seconds if the load is 120-125%
  • 4 seconds if the load is 125-130%

Obviously, because of the nature of this exercise, you can only do one rep per set, so make it a good one! To do this drill you'll either need boxes, a stack of weight plates, or the open side of a power rack. Since you're going to lower a load heavier than what you can lift, you must start it higher. Do a half-deadlift to bring the bar in the starting position, take two steps back, and lower the bar under control.

Eccentric Deadlift

Exercise Organization

The following guide gives you a set by set breakdown of your workout. Note: The load is in relation to the deadlift 1RM (maximum).

Set Exercise Reps Load Tempo
1 Clean Pull 5 50% 20X
2 Deadlift 3 90% 301
3 Deadlift 2 90% + 10 lbs. 301
4 Deadlift 1 90% + 20 lbs. 301
5 Eccentric Deadlift 1 110-115% 10-0-0
6 Clean Pull 5 55% 20X
7 Deadlift 3 90% + 10 lbs. 301
8 Deadlift 2 90% + 20 lbs. 301
9 Deadlift 1 90% + 30 lbs. 301
10 Eccentric Deadlift 1 115-120% 800
11 Clean Pull* 5 60% 20X
12 Deadlift* 3 90% + 20 lbs. 301
13 Deadlift* 2 90% + 30 lbs. 301
14 Deadlift* 1 90% + 40 lbs. 301
15 Eccentric Deadlift 1 120-125% 600

* Do only if preceding set was successful. Stop workout when you can't complete a set as prescribed.

See A Closer Look at Tempo if you're unfamiliar with tempo prescriptions.

Program Notes and Additional Details

The workout is to be completed by performing three to five sets of shrugs and/or some form of rowing. As you can see, this is a lot of work. Don't do more than prescribed if you want maximum progress.

This routine can be performed up to twice per week (first and last training days of the week), but most people should start with a frequency of once a week. Don't do any additional upper or lower back work in the week for maximum progress. It's also possible to replace the clean pull by a power clean if you're able to do that lift properly.

This program should be followed for four to six weeks, no more. I prefer to use a certain program for four weeks for maximum results.


If you want to be thick fast, this is the program for you. It's hard work and honestly not everybody can, or should, do it. However, if you have the guts and dedication to stick to it, you'll be rewarded tenfold! Now go get thick!