The ideal physical shape for a bodybuilder is what is called the”X-frame” — that is, wide shoulders, wide lats, small waist and hips, flaring “sweep” on the thighs and diamond-shaped calves, with proportionately developed arms and torso that are hard and muscular. It is this type of physique that best “delights the sense and exalts the mind” of fans at bodybuilding contests. Any bodybuilder who has an X-frame physique just looks “right” to the eye — right and beautiful.
Even someone with an untrained eye and with no prior knowledge of bodybuilding can go to his first physique contest and notice immediately that some bodies look more “right” and “beautiful” than others. Why? Shape and symmetry. You don’t need 20 years’ experience in bodybuilding to realize that anyone with a thick, blocky physique who has narrow shoulders and a wide waist and hips, combined with lousy shape and poor symmetry, does not look “right” or beautiful” to the eye. Such physiques are not beautiful — maybe visually impressive in their own right, but not beautiful. Somehow they offend the eye and the senses.
Examples of bodybuilders who look “right” and “beautiful” (when they are in top condition, mind you) are Lee Haney, Lee Labrada, Bob Pairs, Cory Everson, Lenda Murray, Tonya, Marjo Selin, Francis Benfatto, Berry DeMey, Anja Scheiner, Samir Bannout, Shawn Ray, Gary Strydom and Sonny Schmidt. Three examples of bodybuilders who do not look “right,” even when they are in hard, muscular condition, are Benny Podda, Tim Belknap and Jim Quinn, because they lack V-taper and are too thick, blocky and shapeless. They get by on their incredible mass and muscularity. They have fantastic individual bodyparts, but the overall package is missing. Obviously, I say this with no malice toward or disrespect for Benny, Tim or Jim. I’m merely pointing out the differences in physique types.
Of course, many will argue that shape is due to genetics and, if you do not posses the side shoulders and small waist of a Frank Zane or a Brian Buchanan, there is nothing that can be done about it. There is, though, and I’ll get to that shortly, but first I’d like to make a point that many will not understand and many will not agree with. I know it will be unpopular but here it is. Those athletes with the best genetics for bodybuilding (those possessing ideal X-frames) not only will win more shows than than their less fortunate peers, but they should win. There ought to be no debate about this. If an X-frame bodybuilder goes against a thick, blocky type in a bodybuilding contest, and both are in the same muscular condition, the X-frame bodybuilder should win every time. End of story. No ifs, ands or buts. And if a bodybuilder with a moderate X-frame goes against a bodybuilder with a super exaggerated X-frame, everything else being equal, it’s all over but the crying for the moderate X-frame.
A lot of people will say that’s not fair. One person was born with better natural shape and proportions. That was just luck. Why should luck enter into the equation as to who should win a physique contest? Why? Because nobody ever said life was fair. It’s not fair that I wasn’t born with the talent to run as fast as Carl Lewis or Ben Johnson. It’s not fair that I wasn’t born with he talent to play hockey like Wayne Gretzky or football like Joe Montana or basketball like Michael Jordan or baseball like Hose Canseco or golf like Greg Norman. It’s not fair I don’t get to sign multi-million dollar endorsement deals. It’s not fair that I wasn’t born with the good looks of a Hollywood movie star of the musical talent of a famous rock star. It’s not fair that I wasn’t born with the writing talent of Robert Ludlum or John le Carre or the business sense of a Rockefeller or with the muscle-building genetics of Sergio Oliva or Lee Haney. Hell, it’s not fair that I don’t win ten million dollars in the lottery. Them’s the breaks. Life isn’t fair. As was said in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we’re all equal but some of us are more equal than others.
No, you can’t play center in the NBA if you’re only five feet tall. Tough luck. You can’t play defensive end in the NFL if you’re built like Woody Allen or Pee Wee Herman. Tough cookies. A woman with the face and body of Roseanne Barr will never be able to defeat a Kim Basinger type in a beauty contest or win Miss America. Too bad. That’s just the way it is. Whining, complaining and moaning about it won’t change anything. And in the same way you can’t do well in bodybuilding with bad genetics. I agree, it’s not fair, but that’s life in the big city.
I bring this up because recently in a major publication I was criticized by Bev Francis (without being directly named) for saying she didn’t deserve to place as high as she did at the Ms. Olympia contest. Bev says she should have won, and I, in my contest report in ” Muscle Mag International”, said she was lucky to get third, that sixth or seventh would have been more appropriate, given her condition that day. In this article Bev wrote, “I thought I should have won. It bothered me when I read that writer’s (ahem, that’s me) negative comments because the person has never really liked my physique. My condition and physical assets make no difference — he sees nothing positive in me. I’m used to criticism — you learn to live with that sort of thing — but people who read magazines expect writers to be experts. They don’t necessarily know if the person happens to be an idiot or is totally prejudiced.”
Well, I may be an idiot to Bev (and to her husband, Steve) but I’m afraid that she’s totally missed the point. Beautiful lines, shape and flawless symmetry have always been ‘in,” as has the X-frame physique. Current Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray’s physique exemplifies the ideal X-frame. Bev’s physique does not.
The point is that Bev Francis (or anyone who doesn’t have an ideal X-frame physical attributes – real muscle size, mass and muscularity – should never, ever defeat a Cory Everson or Lenda Murray unless Cory and Lenda are totally fat and out of shape. If all three are in hard shape, it’s no contest. At last year’s Ms. Olympia Bev wasn’t even as hard or as muscular as Lenda, so how in the world would she expect to defeat Lenda when her physique lacks the shape, width, V-taper and general beauty of Lenda’s? And in 1989, while she had good mass and size, she looked soft when not flexing compared to Sandy Riddell, Jackie Paisley or Laura Creaville, and wasn’t even close to Cory in lines, shape or physical beauty (aesthetics). She can’t win in those situations any more than I can defeat Lee Haney on mass. That’s just reality. That’s not even criticism. That’s just stating a fact. I think Bev and Steve are the ones with prejudiced, closed minds for not being able to face reality.
As for seeing no positive qualities in Bev, that’s a crock. I’ve always admired her great strength, her muscle mass and development and her down-to-earth character and friendly personality. No one would deny that she has some incredibly developed muscle groups. Her calves, abs, traps and biceps are fantastic. She’s an excellent bodybuilder. But good enough to be Ms. Olympia? No. And if she wants me to say her shape is just as good as Lenda’s or Cory’s, I can’t. It’s just not the truth. That’s not picking on Bev. When it comes to having less than perfect shape or symmetry, it’s a big club, one hat I happen to be a member of. But I’m not the one entering a contest to determine the best female bodybuilder on the planet. She is. Whether she likes it or not, the truth remains that only the physiques with the best shape and ideal X-frames will win the big shows, and she doesn’t have an ideal X-frame.
In the same way a Tim Belknap or Benny Podda should never defeat a Lee Haney or Bob Paris or Shawn Ray or Berry DeMey, if all are in equal muscular shape. A Jim Quinn, as big and impressive as he is, should never defeat a Gary Strydom or a Lee Lebrada, even if he does outweigh Lebrada by 70 pounds. Size is just one component of a winning physique. Shape, symmetry, proportion and physical beauty will always, and should always, defeat pure mass and muscularity. When you have size and mass with shape, symmetry and proportions, as does Lee Haney or Lenda Murray, then you have an unbeatable physique (as long as Lee and Lenda show up in hard condition, of course). Don’t kid yourself. Shape is where it’s at if you hope to win big bodybuilding contests.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A BODYBUILDER
In many ways it is unfortunate that bodybuilding is called body-building. The word itself has a negative connotation to the general public and mainstream press for one thing, and for another, too many take it to mean literally that they’re supposed to build their body as big as they can and to make each muscle as large as they can. That’s the sure way to destroy shape. Frank Zane, three-time Mr. Olympia and possessor of one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing physiques of all them, wrote. “Just as the sculptor uses hammer and chisel to form this creations out of solid stone, the bodybuilder uses barbell, dumbbells and other weight-training apparatus to shape his own body. The type of exercise he does determines what type of physique he will develop. The sculptor is concerned with creating a work of art and, as a bodybuilder, so are you. But to do so you must pay attention to the rules of aesthetics and symmetry. A symmetrical physique is a work of art, and it is symmetry that all forms of art, including the male physique, depend upon for their excellence.”
Creating a work of art and a beautiful physique means having a critical eye as to where you are building muscle on your body. It means trying to eliminate weak points and constantly monitoring your development to keep everything in proportion so that no one muscle stands out or overpowers your physique. It means training for shape as much as for size. Zane wrote: “Shape means everything to a bodybuilder. Anyone can get size and cuts if he follows a special training program, but muscle shape is much harder to come by. It’s muscle shape that gives a man’s physique a personal identity and distinguished from the development of others. My motto is, ‘train for shape, and size and cuts will follow.'”
TRAINING FOR SHAPE
As long as you always keep in mind that bodybuilding is not about trying to get as big as you can but about trying to build the most perfect body, you’re on the right track. You can’t just slap on muscle mindlessly and haphazardly and expect to end up with a perfect body. You have to put some thought into which exercise you do, why you do them, and where you’re building muscle. This is the only way to control your development and to sculpt your body like an artist. Hare are some basic rules to follow for training to build symmetry and improve body shape
Always emphasize your slowest/growing and / or least-developed muscles in your training more that your fastest-growing and or best-developed muscles. Give your weak points priority in your workouts, training them first when your energy, strength and enthusiasm are highest. Do more total sets and more exercises for your weak points as well. In order to create symmetry and improve proportions, sometimes it might be necessary to hold back gains in some faster growing / overdeveloped muscles in order to allow the slower-growing / less-developed muscles to catch up.
For example, if your lower pecs are so large that they overpower your upper pecs and make it impossible to get your upper pecs in balance with your lower pecs, it might be necessary to reduce the size of your lower pecs and / or stop training them altogether to allow the upper pecs a chance to catch up in development. The same might be true of your upper and lower thighs, or it might be necessary to reduce your thigh size in order to improve the balance between calves and thighs and thighs and torso.
Do not train all muscle groups equally hard or with the same number of sets. This is a corollary of rule number one. Do more work for the weak muscles, less for the strong ones. Remember, not all muscles respond equally to training and not all exercises are equal in terms of promoting muscle growth. For instance, squats are almost too effective for some people in increasing upper thigh size, while bench presses build lower and middle pectorals too well, having the smaller and less developed upper pecs to fend for themselves. As much as we would like them to, incline presses and incline flyes do not build upper pecs as well as bench presses develop the middle and lower pecs. Obviously then it will be necessary to do more sets and harder work to create an equal amount of growth in the upper pecs.
Likewise hack squats, sissy squats and leg extensions do not build lower thighs as well as squats build the upper thighs, so you have to be careful not to overdevelop the upper thighs by squatting too much. Of course, you constantly strive for more and more mass, especially your first five years in bodybuilding, but after you have acquired some basic mass in each muscle group it may be that your only have to do a few heavy sets with basic exercises to maintain that mass and many sets of specific isolation exercises to build up some small muscles or to highlight some aspects of a muscle — e.g. the outer head of the triceps, the side head of the deltoids, the lower thighs, lower triceps, lower biceps and the upper and outer pecs.
Never try to develop all muscles equally or to build all muscles to their maximum size potential. Some muscles grow too fast and easily, especially the lower pecs, front deltoids, upper thighs, hips, glutes, obliques and traps. Their ultimate growth should be kept in check for the sake of symmetry. On the other hand smaller muscle groups like the calves, abdominals, serratus, intercostals, side and rear deltoids, forearms, lower biceps, lateral head of the triceps, leg biceps, spinal erectors, upper pecs, lats, rhomboids, teres minor and major and other small muscles of the upper back can and should be trained for maximum size and development. It’s pretty hard to overdevelop these muscles. For the sake of simplicity let’s call them muscle groups one and two. If you try to develop all your muscles equally, the muscles of muscle group one will overpower the muscles of muscle group two and make good symmetry, balance and proportions an impossibility besides ruining your aesthetics and shape.
Develop a balance between your upper and lowers. I’m talking about the relationship between the upper and lower pecs, upper and lower thighs, and upper and lower biceps and triceps. One should never overpower the other, but more emphasis should be placed on the upper pecs, the lower biceps, triceps and thighs. This improves balance and shape.
Emphasize the origins and insertions of the muscles when you train, not just the central belly of the muscle. Basic exercises tend to develop just the belly of a muscle. This is important for building mass but too much mass in the belly gives a muscle a shortened, bunched up look. For a nicer shape use isolation exercises to develop the origins and insertions.
CREATING AN ILLUSION
By now you should realize that symmetry and muscle shape are not purely a matter of genetics. How you train counts heavily, too. You can train to improve your symmetry and body shape by intelligently emphasizing certain areas of the body while de-emphasizing other areas. By doing this you create an illusion of looking closer to the ideal X-frame physique, especially if you are not naturally wide in the shoulders and narrow at the waist and hips, or do not have long, full muscle bellies and small joints that give the appearance of the large muscles swelling off the joint. Okay, I won’t kid you — structural weaknesses cannot be radically altered or totally hidden but they can be minimized or disguised,. That’s what creating an illusion is all about, camouflaging weaknesses. This is best accomplished by attacking the weak point on two fronts. You build up the weak point while at the same time reducing the nearby strong point which emphasizes the weakness.
The most obvious example of creating an illusion of width is of someone who had naturally narrow shoulders and a wide waist and hips, so there is little or no V-taper, one of the prerequisites of an X-frame. By adding one inch of muscle to your deltoids, especially the important side heads, you create the illusion of reducing the waist and hips at the same time. Increase the delts by two inches and the waist looks two inches smaller. Or conversely you might keep your shoulder width the same but decrease your waist by two inches, which would make your shoulders appear two inches wider. Naturally the biggest change of illusion of width and V-taper takes place when you reduce your waist while adding size to the side heads of the deltoids.
A two-inch reduction of the waistline while adding two inches to the shoulders would make you appear to be four inches wider, and your V-taper would improve dramatically. You can create an illusion by adding size to your calves and reducing your thigh size to create a better calf-to-thigh balance. You can make your arm appear to be wider by overdeveloping the lateral head of the triceps. You can give your chest the appearance of more width by developing the upper and outer sections of the pecs more than the lower and inner sections. This makes your pecs flare out from the front the way the lats do from the back. By combining outer and upper pec specialization with side-deltoid and lateral-head-of the triceps work — while reducing the waist and hips as much as possible — you can maximize your upper body width.
Creating an illusion is what bodybuilding is all about. You can only create an illusion by shape training and paying attention to every detail of your physique and training. You must have an eye as to when something is getting out of proportion or when your physique is not looking “right” or “beautiful.” As I said before, creating an illusion means sometimes reducing a muscle, not building it. Just because you can build a muscle bigger doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Doing so might run your shape and proportions, so stop and think if continuing to build a muscle will enhance or detract from the look of your physique. Frank Zane said he would never do any exercise if it didn’t enhance and improve his physique. Neither should you.
Your skeletal frame can only hold so much muscle before the natural shape of the body is destroyed. Trying to add more and more muscle to your body, anywhere you can, is like trying to stuff five pounds of flour into a three-pound bag. The bag becomes overstuffed and bulges unattractively. The same is true of your body, so never build more muscle then your frame can hold, even if you can. Never get big just for the sake of it. And keep in mind that, whenever one muscle gets too big and out of proportion with another muscle, it makes that muscle appear smaller.
To build shape and beauty into your physique you shouldn’t just copy a routine out of a magazine just because some champion uses it. His needs are probably different form yours. Don’t train mindlessly. Think about what you need to build on your physique to improve it and where. Make an honest assessment of your weak points and then train to improve them. Make your training a dynamic, creative process. Be like the sculptor who adds size here and removes it there to create a work of art. Control your development – don’t just let it happen. Be like Zane and only choose to do exercises that improve your shape and proportions. If they don’t, even if they’re among your favorite exercises — such as the squat, bench press or deadlift. — don’t do them.
Sculpting a beautiful body means paying attention to the development of the small muscles, those identified earlier as muscle group two. It means accentuating certain sections of major muscle groups and always training for balance within muscle groups and between different muscle groups. You must work on flaring everything out from the middle of the body. The lats and teres should flare out from the back. The outer pecs should flare out from he front. The side deltoid and lateral triceps should flare out. The thighs should have flare and sweep. The calves should be diamond-shaped and flare out from both sides. At the same time the waist should be as small as possible. That’s how to build a beautiful and visually impressive physique and to give the illusion of an ideal X-frame.
Now that you know where you should build muscle to improve body shape, let’s quickly go over some of the best exercises for each muscle group to help you accomplish better shape and beauty.
The Upper Pecs: Stick with incline presses with dumbbells, barbells or a Smith machine, and incline dumbbell flyes. wide-grip bench presses to the neck can be good, too. To isolate the upper pecs pull the elbows back in line with the shoulders, drop the shoulders and arch the rib cage, without arching your back off the bench. To work more upper / outer muscle fibers, use a wide grip on the barbell and do the incline flyes in constant-tension style, stopping the bells 12 to 15 inches apart at the top.
The Outer Pecs: The best outer pec exercise is the wide-grip dip or Gironda dip. Elbows must be kept wide, and it is important to dip as low as possible but only come up three-quarters to keep constant tension on the outer fibers. Any wide-grip barbell presses (flat, decline or incline) or dumbbell flyes done in constant-tension style will work the outer fibers too.
Lateral Head of the Triceps: To hit the lateral or outside head of the triceps, try triceps pressdowns with the elbows wide and turning the wrists out in the contracted position, or lying dumbbell extensions, moving the dumbbell across the face.
Lower Triceps: Try lying EZ-curl bar extensions, letting the elbows splay out to the sides and lowering the bar to below the chin. I also recommend close-hand pushups.
Lower Biceps: Preacher Curls with either a barbell or dumbbells are best, followed by EZ-curl-bar reverse curls and hammer curls.
Side Head of the Deltoids: The best side head developer is the side raise or lateral with either dumbbells or cables. You can use one arm or two arms at a time. Remember to keep strict form and not to swing the bells up or to drop them down. Raise and lower the bells under muscular tension, pausing at the top. Keep the undersides of the forearms and the palms of the hands facing down at the top, with the little fingers slightly higher than the thumbs. For side-head development also try W-presses, Scott dumbbell presses, medium-grip upright rows (done in a piston-like motion, with no heaving to the bar), dumbbell upright rows, (bringing the bells up under the armpits and holding in the top position for a count of two), Parrillo delt rowing on a seated cable row machine (use long straps and pull the hands behind the head at ear level, not to the stomach as in lat rowing), and behind-the-neck presses, especially in pre-exhaust style with dumbbell laterals.
The Rear Head of the Deltoid: Best bets here are the rear delt machine and bent laterals, one or two arms at a time, with either dumbbells or cables. Wide-grip bent rows done smoothly, with no heaving, and pulling the bar to the upper chest, not the stomach, are good. Also try behind-the-neck neck upright rows on the universal bench press station or a Smith Machine.
The Lats: For lat width stick to wide-grip chins to the front and back or wide-grip pulldowns to the front or back. For lower lats try close-grip chins or pulldowns, reverse-grip barbell rows and one-arm dumbbell rows rows, pulling the bell to the rear slightly, not just to the chest. To hit all sections of the lats include dumbbell pullovers, medium and parallel-grip chins or pulldowns and various rows (T-bar, bent barbell with different width grips, and cable rows.)
The Spinal Erectors: Hyperextensions, stiff-leg deadlifts and good mornings are your best lower-back exercises, and the safest too. Regular deadlifts place too much strain on the spine, build the obliques too much and thicken the waist.
The Serratus: Dumbbell pullovers are the best serratus exercise I know of . Close-grip chins and pulldowns build some serratus and serratus / low lat tie-ins. Also give one-arm dumbbell pullovers while lying on your side a try.
Abs: Avoid straight-leg situps and leg raises which involve the hip flexors and lower back too much. Stick to crunches, knee-ins lying on a bench or knee-ups hanging from a chinning bar or on a vertical knee-raise bench.
Thigh Rods: These are cords of muscle at the top of the thigh tying into the hips. It’s a tough muscle to bring out if you’re carrying too much body fat. The best exercises for the thigh rods are the lying-down leg extension, locking the legs out, the roman chair squat, and the cable extension or thigh kick outs (done by attaching a strap to the ankle. form a low pulley, facing away form the machine and bringing the leg forward while tensing the thigh rods). Lunges also work, as do sissy squats. Unfortunately, few gyms these days carry roman chair squat devices or leg extension machines that allow one to lie down. Practicing flexing the thigh rods helps to bring them out, too.
Thigh Sweep: Parallel squats with the toes pointing out are excellent, as are leg presses and hack squats, feet wide, toes pointing out and pushing from the heels.
Lower Thighs: The best lower thigh exercises are leg extensions (locking out completely and holding for a count of two), hack squats (feet low on the platform and rising on the toes as you go into the low position), Smith machine squats (placing the feet in front of the machine so you can lean back into the bar (front squats holding the bar on the front delts and upper chest, hands crossed over to help balance the bar) and straight-back squats with the heels elevated on a four-inch block.
The Calves: To work the soleus (lower calf) any exercise with the knees bent is effective, with the seated calf raise being the best. To work the gastrocnemius (upper calf), do standing calf raises, toe presses on the leg press, toe presses on the hack squat machine (facing down), and one-legged calf raises Another excellent exercise for the soleus is the squatting down calf raise, while the donkey calf raise hits both head to some degree, depending on how much the knees are bent.
To hit the outer head of the calves, twist your heels out at the top of the movement, rolling slightly onto the outside of the foot. For the inner head, twist your heels inward and rose on the big toe.
Forearms: Train the tops of the forearms with reverse curls, reverse preacher curls and hammer curls. The undersides of the forearms respond to wrist curls off a bench or standing wrist curls, holding the barbell behind the back.
Building a beautiful and shapely physique is a much more creative process than building mass and size alone. It is also more rewarding. I strongly encourage you to adhere to the principles of shape-training and symmetry building in order to build a beautiful physique, one that is as perfect as you can make it.