How to Build a Classic Physique

Train for the Aesthetic Look

Classic Never Left!

Though it may seem as if the inception of the Classic Physique division in 2016 was the dawn of a new era in which the beauty and aesthetics of the physique at last took precedent over the pursuit of mass at all costs, those ideals had never really gone away. They had only been shuttled into the background for a time. It’s true that the mass monsters had mainly ruled the roost in pro bodybuilding since the Dorian Yates era (with notable exceptions as both Dexter Jackson and Shawn Rhoden held the Mr. Olympia title), but devotees to the male musculature as a living, breathing art form never abandoned their standards. For every lifter dreaming of being a 300-pound freak even if it meant having a bubble gut and losing his hair, there were many others determined to craft their bodies into studies of shape, proportion, and symmetry.

Now that we do have the Classic division, legions of young men are training every day with those attributes in mind as they envision their muscles as clay or marble being sculpted into a masterpiece. Yet there are also so many others who don’t necessarily want to compete and aren’t concerned with fitting into the parameters of any particular division. What they do want is to create the most visually appealing physique possible. All these people have one thing in common – they want to keep it Classic rather than simply “get huge.” This one’s for you, as we outline the strategies for you to craft the most aesthetic physique you can.

The X-Frame: Top Half

We talk about the V-taper all the time, but that’s only the top half of the body from the waist up. Still, it’s a critical component for any visually pleasing physique. I often say it begins with the bone structure, which unfortunately none of us have any control over. If you have wide clavicles and a narrow waist/hips, you already have a natural V-taper. Everything you build in terms of muscle mass will only enhance that taper and make it more dramatic, provided of course that your midsection doesn’t grow (we’ll get to that soon).

The two key areas to focus on are the shoulders and back, specifically the medial or side deltoids and the upper back. These are what create width in the torso. You should always be performing overhead presses for overall shoulder mass, but various forms of lateral raises should also be constant staples on shoulder day. Dumbbell lateral raises can be done standing, seated, and with one or both arms at a time. There are various seated and standing lateral raise machines that are just as good if not better in some cases at stimulating the muscle fibers of your side deltoid heads and blowing them out for that round, capped look.

Cables are also excellent tools to hit the side delts. They are particularly effective at providing resistance in the bottom stretch position. Last but not least, wide-grip upright rows with a barbell or a cable attachment are an underutilized method to work this crucial area. As for building a wider upper back, any and all variations of chin-ups, pull-ups and lat pulldowns will target the muscles around and under the shoulder blades, including the teres major and minor, the rhomboid major and minor, trapezius, and of course the latissimus dorsi.

The X-Frame: Bottom Half

With the top half of your body handled, it’s time to talk about the lower half. Since we are aiming for an X shape, you will need to have thighs that aren’t just big enough to match your upper body, they also need to have outer quad sweep and flare. Quads that are straight up and down in shape will not cut it. Admittedly, quads that flare out at an almost insane angle away from the body like Big Ramy’s or Jay Cutler’s are the result of gifted genetics along with tons of hard training. Regular human beings can also develop decent quad sweeps by performing leg presses and hack squats with their feet low and close together on the platform to emphasize the vastus lateralis. You can also do your leg extensions with your feet angled inward, though you do not want to go heavy with that variation as it puts the knees in a precarious position.

Don’t neglect the hamstrings in all of this. Even though you can’t see them from the front, and they don’t contribute to the X-frame, you don’t want to look like you only have “half a leg,” as the great Lee Haney used to say, when you turn to the side.

Finally, hammer those calves! Any physique praised for its beautiful shape and symmetry featured diamond calves. If you were blessed with very low calf attachments, you probably already have a nice pair even if you don’t do a whole lot for them. For the rest of you, I suggest hitting them three times a week with rep ranges that vary from 8-10, 10-15 and 15-25. Use a full range of motion and get a good contraction and stretch on every rep. Calves are not an easy body part for most to develop, but with hard work and persistence even the most stubborn calves will improve.

Keep the Midsection Small

You know all that stuff about building your lat and shoulder width plus quad sweep? Listen carefully to this next part. None of that will matter if you have a wide, thick midsection. You won’t have an X-frame; you’ll just be a block. Some guys got the shit end of the stick with bone structure and have a wide waist, but nobody was born with a gut. Keeping your waist smaller means avoiding certain exercises if your find they are making your core expand. Heavy squats and deadlifts do this for many, and nobody should be doing heavy work for the obliques (side bends!) or abs. Stick to your own bodyweight for abdominal training and focus on crunch movements. Knee and leg raises work the abdominals but also the hip flexors and obliques, so I recommend avoiding them.

Food and drugs are far more often the culprit when guts go wild. Stuffing yourself with food on a regular basis over time will definitely stretch out your stomach and colon, so practice portion control. I can personally attest to the deleterious effect overeating in an attempt to bulk up has on the midsection, as mine is nowhere near as flat and tight as it was in my younger years. Insulin and human growth hormone have also been speculated by many experts to lead to bigger guts over time. Most warn against using insulin at all, and if HGH is taken, keep the doses at a therapeutic level of no more than 1-3 ius a day.

Finally, practice your vacuums! The best time, as you might imagine, is on an empty stomach. Many top Classic Physique competitors do their vacuums before breakfast, holding the vacuum for 20-60 seconds for anywhere from 5-20 “reps.” It’s fine if your starting point is much less than that. Like anything else, start where you can and build on that.

Strive for Balance and Proportion

For many bodybuilders, “bigger is better” is a credo and a mission statement. But if size was truly the most important criteria, there are plenty of men with gifted genetics who have pushed the boundaries with drug use, food intake and even copious SEO injections to create freakishly large bodies, bigger even in terms of sheer mass than two-time Mr. Olympia Big Ramy. They might have large followings on social media, but they would all get destroyed on any bodybuilding stage by anyone with a semblance of pleasing shape and structure. Your bone structure and muscle shapes are what they are, but everything after that is in your full control.

The ideal Classic physique, be it 150 or 230 pounds, is one where no particular body part stands out from the rest because all the muscle groups have been developed in proportion to the rest. Think about the best of these types of physiques from the past: Frank Zane, Bob Paris, Lee Labrada, Mohamed Makkawy and Francis Benfatto come to mind. None of them were known for having great arms, legs, back, etc. because their physiques flowed from top to bottom, front to back and side to side. Often when someone is focused only on gaining mass, they end up with some very strong body parts and some really weak ones. Few things are as unappealing as seeing someone with a huge upper body and skinny legs, or someone who looks like a super heavyweight from the front and a lightweight from the back. Don’t chase mere size. Chase perfection.

Focus on Lagging Areas

This is closely tied into the above point. Perhaps you are familiar with the expression from the poet Emily Dickinson, “If you take care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves.” My twist on this is, focus on improving the weak points in your physique, and the strong points will take care of themselves. Yet many of us choose instead, either consciously or subconsciously, to give more time and attention to our strong points. It’s so tempting, isn’t it? For one thing, we all love compliments, and the freakier you can make any muscle group, the more people will tell you how great it is. The other aspect to this situation is that we all want to see results and be rewarded for our hard work. Why wouldn’t you be more inclined to focus more on an area that responded well as opposed to a body part that stubbornly refused to grow in spite of herculean effort on your part? This is where you need to do the opposite of what feels right, because it’s the only way you will ever have a balanced physique.

Your weak points don’t grow as fast or as well as your stronger muscle groups. That means they need more time and attention, not less! Anyone can improve a lagging muscle group if they truly make the effort, but most of us reach a point where we give up on it and write it off as a loss. The only way to be sure that area stays weak is to believe it will never grow, and train it half-ass since there’s no point wasting too much time and energy on it. Instead, prioritize it. Work that area on its own day, or first in the workout when you’re fresh. Try different exercises, routines, and techniques. Strive to forge a better mind-muscle connection with it. Maybe that muscle group never will be as impressive as your best body parts, but it will still be better than it was. And the closer you can bring that lagging area to match the rest of your physique, the more Classic you will look.

Keep It Classic

There you have it. You can keep it Classic and build the type of physique that inspires admiration and appreciation from all who see it. It just takes the right approach. Follow the guidelines set out here and you will be well on your way to having the most perfectly developed body you are capable of.

Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area. Facebook Instagram

Ron Harris

Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area., Instagram: ronharrismuscle

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