In this article we are going to discuss the key body parts and elements that can make one bodybuilder who is identical in height and weight far superior to another. The main reason why many people lift recreationally is to become stronger and to gain muscle. When building muscle, many of us have an ideal or an image in our heads of what we want to look like. And if you take a look around any gym in America, you can see two major stereotypes who are on their quest for gaining muscle and their ideal physique: the “mass monster” whose sole goal is to gain as much muscle as possible regardless of their overall shape or look; and the “pseudo-bodybuilder” who is primarily concerned with shape.
A good way to think of it is the mass monster is walking around the gym in a tall T, wearing straps, throwing around heavy free weights while grunting and dripping sweat everywhere. The pseudo-bodybuilder is dressed up in Under Armor, or a tight t-shirt (down in Miami in my neck of the woods, they even come to the gym dressed up in jeans and a muscle shirt) and they only work chest and arms (sometimes shoulders if they’re really motivated) and then call it a day hoping these body parts will grow and give them better shape.
Of these two types of lifters on there quest for gaining muscle, which one has the right idea when it comes to looking like a perfectly proportioned bodybuilder? Answer: the mass monster. However, there are all kinds of excuses as to why people don’t want to lift this way for gaining muscle, from myths that it widens your waist or stunts your growth, to the fact that lifts like the squat are simply too uncomfortable for many people.
The fact of the matter is that there are two universally accepted principles in bodybuilding: time under tension (duration your muscles are lifting/lowering weight) and intensity (which is increased by shorter rest intervals). However, despite this, it is true that certain body parts and certain proportions can make you appear bigger than you are and make you look more like a bodybuilder. We will discuss these and the exercises behind them.
Before we get into the body parts and proportional ideals that make a bodybuilder; We must first discuss the genetic factors that are our of our control when it comes to our ideal physique. The first major factor is our body type: you have ectomorphs - smaller bone structure, usually lean, have a hard time gaining weight, flat chest. Mesomorphs - athletic, defined muscles, strong, gains fat easier than ectomorphs. And Endomorphs - round, gains fat/weight easy.
The second, is something called the muscle belly; if you ever listen to commentary for a bodybuilding competition, this term will be used a lot when speaking about the “shape” of a bodybuilders muscles. The muscle belly is generally the central point of the muscle (in between its insertion points where the majority of the mass and contractile strength of the muscle is generated). Example: on your bicep, one end inserts into your shoulder (coracoid process of scapula and humerous) the other end inserts into your elbow (radial tuberosity), the “belly” of this muscle would be the “peak” of your bicep which is the part that rises the most when you flex.
Now, to have great muscle bellies means that these central parts of your muscle look rounder and fuller (they peak more). This physical trait can cause someone to appear heavier or bigger than they actually are because their muscles are more pronounced than someone of a similar weight with similar muscle mass. This is why many bodybuilders, whether they are competitive or recreational are commonly told not to chase numbers but to have an ideal of what they want to look like and achieve it.
All to often bodybuilders chase a certain weight and they either achieve it with too much body fat, or realize that they don’t present an appealing physique at their new weight. The last genetic factor effecting our physique is overall structure; from where our muscles insert on our bodies to our bone structure. The closer you muscle inserts at its insertion point, the greater the potential you have for larger muscle bellies. And the shorter your limbs are, the greater the potential you have to portray the appearance of fuller muscles. If you look at a bodybuilder or athlete who has huge arms, you can usually see that there bicep/triceps leads almost all the way into their elbow. While someone who has smaller arms, it appears that their muscle begins to insert and leave a space before it reaches their elbow.
This however, is just a broad generalization just to give you an idea of the genetic factors that effect muscle size. Waist to hip ratio is another structural trait that keeps all weightlifters from being created equal. Some of the most pleasing to the eye bodybuilders have small waists and wide shoulders which creates what is called the “V-taper”, the most coveted overall shape in all of bodybuilding. Now despite our genetic limits there is one thing that is certain, we all can improve! Regardless of what traits we are born with we can all get better and take one step closer to reaching our ideal physique.
Now let’s discuss the key body parts and exercises that will give you that bodybuilder look.
Well developed shoulders are important for increasing your waist to hip ratio and making you appear bigger or more muscular while covered by a t-shirt. The lateral delts are the muscles on the outside of your shoulders that can make your shoulders appearance of broad shoulders. The lateral delts are best developed when they are balanced with the other two (rear delts and front delts). The best exercises for the lateral delts would be:
- Straight elbow lateral raises - elbows straight, do not lift weight higher that your shoulders our use momentum form your hips.
- Cable lateral raises - allow arm to pass in front of your body, pull starting from the opposite side of your body at the bottom until your arm is extended and even with your shoulders.
- Bent elbow lateral raises - slightly posture forward, chin tucked, lift weight until it is almost parallel with the ground, twist your elbows as you begin to reach the top of your lift so that your hands are parallel to the ground.
The next part of the shoulder that is important for portraying size is the trapezius muscle. It is most pronounced around the neck but it actually extends down to the middle of the back. The trapezius muscle can be compared to that of the gastrocnemius in that it is a mixture of type I (slow twitch) and type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers depending on genetics (1). This means the most effective way to elicit growth is to target both muscle fibers with appropriate exercises to see which set of exercises your body responds to best. Generally the majority of the type II muscle fibers in the traps are found on the superior portion that can be seen on either side of the neck. Here are the best ways to approach both fiber types:
- Dumbbell shrugs - Arms on either side, head straight forward, 15-20 reps.
- Straight bar shrugs (may require straps) - Always keep the bar in front of you, concentrate on the lifting and lowering portions of the exercise. 12-20 reps.
- Jump shrugs (may require straps) - The same as straight bar shrugs, however the rep range will be 4-8 reps. Slightly posture forward with a bend in the knees, lower the weight just below your waist and jump into a shrug focusing on pulling from your shoulders and traps. This is more of an advanced lift normally reserved for athletes, but if you want to have the traps of a football player, you have to lift like a football player.
Although the biceps is the most popular part of the arm for pseudo-bodybuilders to workout, it’s the triceps that makes up the largest portion of the arm. Increasing tricep size is the quickest way to increase the overall appearance of size in your arms. However the triceps muscle will only grow when in proper balance with the biceps. Here is a list of key exercises that work to increase the muscle bellies of the triceps.
- Skull crushers/overhead extensions - Skull crushers can be done on a flat bench, use an EZ curl bar, point elbows straight up, keep elbows tucked in, lower weight to your forehead and extend. For overhead extensions, sit up on shoulder press seat, use an EZ curl bar, lower weight slowly behind your head with elbows pointed up, allow your elbows to flair slightly out. Bring the weight to just below your head then extend.
- Single arm overhead extensions - Use a dumbbell, bring the weight over your head from the side, do not allow any movement in your shoulder or allow your arm to go behind your head. Keep your arm even with your head. Allow the weight to put a stretch in your triceps as you bring it over your head, then extend bringing the weight into the air.
- Tricep pushdowns with close grip handle - Here is a new one for many of you. The lateral head of your triceps (the head that is easily seen from the side and can also be seen protruding from muscular arms from the front). Use the close grip bar from the seated cable row machine, and connect it in the same fashion you would the tricep pushdown from the top on the cable machine. With your hands facing inward and your elbows flared out push down on the cable while trying not to lean over it and use your shoulders. This should create a great pump in the lateral heads of your triceps.
Your lats are very important for making your waist look smaller and making you appear wider. Outside of primary back exercises like the deadlift, bent over row or lat pulldown. Here are a few more that help with lat width.
- T-bar row - This is a setup where there is weight loaded on one end of a bar and the other end of the bar is fixed. You bend over the bar using handles (if you have to set up your own bar, you can use either a close grip handle or preferably the tricep handle with extra lateral grips) and lower and raise the weight working your lower lats and inner back. The lower lats are a very important and often over looked portion of the latissimus dorsi that increase the appearance of a smaller waist.
- Standing Lat pushdowns - While standing on a lat pushdown machine, keep elbows straight and stand In close proximity to the bar, pushdown while focusing on using your lats, you should feel the strain on the portion of your lats right underneath your armpit. Gaining size in the upper portion of your lats will cause you to look wider and it’s what keeps bodybuilders from being able to keep their arms down at their sides.
The rep ranges for these exercises (besides the trapezius muscles) should be between 8-12 which is the accepted rep range for hypertrophy (increasing muscle size). And it is important, as stated earlier that you stay closer to the “mass monster” mentality of lifting weights rather than becoming a “pseudo-bodybuilder” and not experiencing results. As you may have realized while reading this article, for some of these key muscles to reach there full potential, there must be balance with its opposing muscle groups.
Also remember, when it comes to your goals in physical appearance; make a mental note of what you want to look like and not weight you want to be. The reason for this is that everyone is built a little bit differently, and gains in muscle growth will always be slow; you will quickly run into issues with gaining too much fat and not looking the way you want if you are chasing a number. However, no matter what your genetic make up, everyone can improve.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- 1. R. Lindman , A. Eriksson , Dr. L.-E. Thornell. Fiber type composition of the human male trapezius muscle: Enzyme-histochemical characteristics. American Journal of Anatomy. Volume 189 Issue 3, Pages 236 – 244.