It’s not about absolute muscle mass.
It never has been.
Yet you train like it is.
Pick your physique: Steve Reeves, or Ronnie Coleman?
Of course, I know the answer.
That’s because it’s about proportional muscle mass.
It’s about the X Physique.
WHY THE X PHYSIQUE IS APPEALING
Growing up skinny-fat, I had narrow shoulders, small wrists, and a wide waist. While I always wanted big muscles, they were the means to the end, more so than the end itself. What I really wanted was proportion – wide shoulders, a narrow waist, and powerful legs. Together, these form something known as the X Physique.
For a long time—and for whatever reason—I associated this X Physique with athleticism and virility. I’m no oracle, but I was onto something.
- Women value physical characteristics in men such as height, muscularity, and broad shoulders (Buss, 1994; Barber, 1995; Franzoi & Herzog 1987)…
- Narrow hips are another advantage in fast running….
- According to that hypothesis [D. M. Bramble and D. E. Lieberman, "Endurance running and the evolution of Homo." Nature, vol. 432, pp. 345-352, 18 Nov. 2004], such well-known human traits as lack of body hair, high perspiration rate, upright stature, high arches, broad shoulders, and large gluteus maximus were selected through evolution to make it easier for us to run long distances.
- …Using facial photos of male college students that were cropped at the neck, those with faces that women rated as attractive had more pronounced wedge shaped torsos (broad shoulders and narrow hips), a masculine feature many women prefer. In addition, these same males had stronger grip strength scores (see also Fink, Neave, & Seydel, 2007; Sell et al., 2009), and more sex partners…
- Proportions alone are associated with physical attractiveness. In the crudest sense, the more you appear like a certain sex, the more attractive you will be be. We don’t like ambiguity. [My conclusion: Since the X Physique is so culturally recognized in males, it's what's deemed as attractive from first glance. Same can be said for females and the hour glass shape.] We look for immediate cues to tell us whether or not someone can be mated with.
YOU NEED TO EMBRACE SOME VANITY
Is it cultural? Is it evolutionary? Physiological?
Really, who cares?
Part of building a body that matters is being proud of what you look like.
The seed is implanted. And as long as it’s there, we have to address it. So embrace your vanity. When I was in 9th grade and a classmate told me I had “boobs,” I sure didn’t care about culture.
Of course, it’s not good to base the entirety of your existence on your physical-self. But let’s face it: feeling good about your appearance trickles to every aspect of your life.
Bottom line: If you have any semblance of aesthetic regard, and you don’t address it, you will fail. If you have no hook with how you look, don’t worry about it. But if one slice of your brain wants bigger arms, and you ignore it, you’re cooked.
YOU’RE SCREWED, SORT OF…
Shoulder and hip width are genetically determined, and you can’t adjust skeletal structure. So if you’re born with narrow shoulders relative to your waist (like me), you have a lot of work ahead of you to make yourself into an X.
Instead of hating your parents and cursing to the clouds, focus your energy on building muscles in the right places to give yourself a better shot at the X Physique.
It sounds easy, but I kind of already know your problem.
You’re focusing on the wrong places.
The term “broad shoulders” is a bit misleading. If you’re throwing all of your focus to the front deltoids, you’re wasting your time.
THE NEED TO KNOW 1: TRAIN LIKE A BODYBUILDER
Everyone wants programs. But programs pale compared to principles. You won’t often find me writing programs for free on this website. I’m much more concerned about you developing the right philosophy – a mindset that sticks with you for life.
The following will be hard to swallow. But stop thinking about maximal strength. Just stop.
The goal here isn’t to break powerlifting world records. The goal is physique. That’s all.
YOU NEED TO TRAIN LIKE A BODYBUILDER, NOT A POWERLIFTER
I’m not talking about doing machine work or a host of isolation exercises, either.
When it comes to lifting weights, the goal is to continually overload the muscles. The easiest and most trackable way to do this is by slapping more plates on the bar. The problem with this philosophy is that the muscles become secondary to the weight.
But the muscles are what actually lift the weights.
This is different than most athletic performance methods. Plyometrics and the likes are more suited to train the nervous system and the entire musculoskeletal complex. So muscular control isn’t as concerning.
But when dealing with “carving” a physique, Arnold said it best: ”The weights are just a means to an end; how well you contract the muscles is what training is all about.”
This shift away from muscular control — in my opinion — is at fault for a lot of barbell related injuries. You should be lifting weights — unless you’re doing a complex or overspeed movement — with your mind in your muscles.
Control the weight, mentally and physically, through-out the entire range of motion. Make the muscles work in every phase. Think about them squeezing and lengthening.
And before I get the hatred, I’m not downing the importance of strength. Dan John hits it when he said: “You need to do two things to get stronger: add weight and do more reps. The answer has never been: lift light weights for high reps, or lift heavy weights for few reps. The answer remains: Lift heavy weights for high reps.”
But my addition to this is: heavy weight, high reps, with the mind in control of the muscles at work. (And by high reps, I’m talking about 5-10, which is “high” compared to the “few” reps referenced by Dan.)
The goal is to “sculpt.” Remember, it’s about proportional muscle, so what muscles get stressed the most in movement is important. And you can control this with the mind-muscle connection.
THE NEED TO KNOW 2: IT’S LESS ABOUT PRESSING
Broad shoulders are a hallmark of the X Physique. But it’s not about pressing, really. Pressing is secondary. Maybe even tertiary. So if you’re benching to grow the upper body for the X Physique, you’re missing out.
It starts with the back. Hands down. Most famous poses for showing off the X Physique don’t even involve the shoulders.
More specifically, it starts the the lats. The lats are the number one muscle to give someone a wider look. Some people even call lats “wings.” And I’m all about wings and taking flight (metaphorically) here at Life As Sport. Hell, even birds expand their wings to intimidate others. Big lats are a big mental boost.
THE NEED TO KNOW 3: BIG ARMS HELP
After building wings, building big arms helps create an a wider look. Yes, I said it. Big arms. But this only applies is you have the right back development.
Big arms without the wide lats means you just look like another goon. But taking one look at Don Howorth will help you understand what I mean.
THE NEED TO KNOW 4: PRESSING POSITION MATTERS
Of all body parts, the chest is the most finicky. And despite what I said earlier, pressing is still important. It’s just not the end all.
One thing to note about the X Physique and pressing is that puffy chests usually lose. Arnold had a great physique, but he rarely gets put in the same category as others for having the X Physique.
In this regard, the chest and pressing exercises chosen are important and should tailor to your body type. Blindly flat benching because powerlifters do won’t get you very far in the aesthetic column.
THE NEED TO KNOW 5: IT’S NOT ABOUT SIZE FOR THE SAKE OF SIZE
Although I touched on this earlier, if you’re in the running for an X Physique, it’s less about gaining a set amount of weight. Being 200 pounds reveals little about how that muscle is packed on your frame. It might be more beneficial to be 190 with the muscle in the right places.
It’s important you pick exercises and divide your time among what will propel you towards your goal. In other words, everything you do should have a specific goal or meaning attached to it. Don’t do anything for the sake of doing it. Make sure its specific rationale fits in with your entire rationale.
In most cases, a good physique is an illusion between muscle groups built in the right proportion when compared to one another. Anyone with an X Physique will immediately be perceived as more muscular, even if they are smaller or lighter.
This is the beauty of proportion, and is something that has been lost over time.
Again, not to dog basic barbell training — it is certainly is important — but the idea of not tailoring your program to your psychological wants (getting an X Physique, for instance) has cursed the population of people that pick up weights. The vast majority lift to look better — even if they lie and use the “it’s all about strength” excuse.
For someone that never wants to compete in powerlifting, there’s no reason why they can’t forego flat benching for incline benching, if that’s something that will work better for them. It’s not like swapping out benching for bosu ball one arm semi sumi functional presses. It’s one basic barbell lift for another. And I’m all about basic barbell lifts. Just the ones that are best suited for each goal. Consider it basic barbell training with a twist.
MOVING ON FROM HERE
Take the above advice and use it to adjust your program or fix your mindset as needed. I’ve been saying it for a while: if you want big arms, curl. Sure, do your chins and rows. But curl too. Make sure your program address your psychological desires, first and foremost. And then ask yourself if you have a specific type of physique that you’re reaching for, and if you’re actually doing anything to reach it.
Future articles in this series will give more specific advice on how to build an X Physique through exercise selection and whatnot. I don’t want to give you too much at once, of course.
But let me ask: What do you think of “sculpting” a physique? And what do you think of training for looks? Is it short-sighted? What’s the difference between lifting weights in front of a crowd and posing in front of a crowd? Should it be all about performance?
Drop your comments below. And most importantly, send this article to a friend if you think they’re lost or caught up in a philosophy that isn’t best for their long term progress.