Let’s face it: a big reason why many of us work out every day is to look as awesome as possible. And for most of us, that doesn’t mean looking like a hulking bodybuilder.
Sure, it means being muscular, but it also means having a lean, proportional physique that still looks athletic. The type of body that other men wish they had, and women swoon over, not frown at.
When us fitness folk talk about acquiring an aesthetic physique, this is what we’re talking about. A body that just looks damn good.
You know it when you see it:
And all wrapped in very little fat, giving it all a tight, hard look.
Whereas bodybuilding today is all about packing on freakish amounts of mass, it used to place an emphasis on aesthetics.
For example, look at the following shots of the legendary Steve Reeves, whose physique is actually attainable naturally.
Reeves would be considered a scrawny, fat weakling by today’s professional bodybuilding standards, but damn, he looked good, right?
Well, it turns out that there’s a mathematical symmetry underlying his physique, which we’ll talk more about in a minute.
So how do we actually get a body like that?
And it’s not dependent on genetics, either.
While we don’t have Reeves’ genetics, and we can’t make our bodies carbon copies of our physical role models because muscle shape, length, and insertion points vary from person to person, we can achieve the same types of proportions and improve the overall look of our physiques.
Building an aesthetic physique is formulaic, and anyone can do it.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to take stock of your current physique and determine which parts need work to achieve the type of physique that makes people say “wow.”
Let’s start with the theory of ideal physical size and proportions, which is more of a science than many people realize.
In fact, it has its roots in a fascinating ratio underlying much of the beauty and symmetry we find in nature…
In the first century BC, at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect Marcus Vitruvius published one of the most important sources of modern knowledge of Roman building methods, planning, and design.
It covers almost every aspect of Roman architecture, from town planning, to building materials, to the construction of temples, civil and domestic buildings, pavements, aqueducts, and more.
Vitruvius’ publication also describes what he felt were the ideal human proportions, and that sacred temples should conform to these proportions. In fact, he believed that the human body was imbued with the hidden geometry of the universe itself, and thus was a microcosmic representation of the physical realm.
Over fifteen hundred years later, sometime around 1487, Leonardo da Vinci drew the human figure in accordance with Vitruvis’ observations, and named it the Vitruvian Man. He had the same particular fascination with human anatomy as Vitruvius: he believed that, in his own words, “man is a model of the world.”
The story behind that enigmatic statement brings us to what’s known as the divine proportion or golden ratio. For over two thousand years, esteemed mathematicians and scientists have studied, pondered, and debated this ratio and its ubiquity in nature, mathematics, architecture, and art.
So, what is this ratio? Euclid first defined it in his tour de force Elements, published in 300 BC.
The concept is simple: two quantities are in the Golden Ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one.
Visually, it looks like this:
And numerically, it’s expressed like this: 1:1.618 (1 to 1.618). In the case of the above image, b is 1 unit long, and a is 1.618 units long.
Now, the fascinating thing about the Golden Ratio is its plausibility as a natural law.
Scientists have found its expression in the arrangement of branches along the stems of plants and in the veins of leaves, in the skeletons of animals and the disposition of their veins and nerves, and in the composition of chemical compounds and the geometry of crystals. Researchers have recently reported the ratio present even at the atomic level.
Nowhere is the Golden Ratio more exemplified than in the human body, however, as da Vinci knew so long ago. In fact, he found that the more the body reflected this proportion, the more beautiful it was.
The human face, for instance, abounds with examples of the Golden Ratio. The head forms a golden rectangle with the eyes at its midpoint. The mouth and nose are each placed at golden distances between the eyes and the bottom of the chin. The spatial relationship of the teeth and the construction of the ear each reflect the ratio too.
Further, the Golden Ratio is found in the overall proportions of the human body: the different lengths of the finger bones, the makeup of the feet and toes, and even the structure of DNA.
When various parts of the body are in the Golden Ratio to others, a beautiful symmetry and proportion is created. Artists have known this for centuries. Modern plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists use this knowledge to create beautiful faces and mouths.
When we apply the Golden Ratio to our purposes, we find that by adjusting the size of various body parts in relation to others, we’re able to immediately improve visual attractiveness.
The first person I know of to successfully put this theory into practice was Eugen Sandow, the legendary strongman from the late 1800s and “father of bodybuilding,” who called it the “Grecian Ideal.”
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The ancient Greeks were known for their portrayal of what they felt was the ideal male physique. Statues often featured men with small waists, broad, muscular shoulders, and developed, defined legs.
Eugen Sandow was renowned for his resemblance to the classical Greek and Roman sculptures. It was no accident.
Sandow actually measured the statues in museums and found that certain proportions remained constant (and as you now know, these proportions have their roots in the Golden Ratio).
This led to the development of “Grecian Ideal” as a formula for building the “perfect physique,” and Sandow’s goal was to embody it.
Sandow’s body and principles served as the model for future bodybuilders that became known for their beautifully balanced physiques, like Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, Danny Padilla, Serge Nubret, Bob Paris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
So, then what are these proportions? How can we too look like a Greek sculpture?
Well, it starts with establishing reference points—parts of the body whose sizes will determine how large other parts must be to achieve an overall aesthetic physique. Some of these reference points, such as the wrist and knee, don’t change in size as you age or as your conditioning changes. Others, such as the waist, do.
For example, by measuring your wrist size, you can determine how large your upper arms should be, and from that measurement how large your calves should be. Your knee size determines how large your upper leg should be, and your waist size tells you how broad your chest and shoulders should be.
The “perfect” physique can be reduced to a simple relationships of body part measurements. And here they are.
Your flexed arms should be 150% larger than the circumference of your non-dominant wrist (wrist measurement x 2.5).
Measure the smallest part of your wrist with a measuring tape, and measure the largest part of your arm (the peak of your bicep and middle of your triceps).
It’s worth mentioning that some people will say that such formulas apply to an unflexed arm, I disagree.
My wrists are 7 inches and arms are just over 17 inches flexed, and 14.5 inches unflexed, and they almost look too large. Getting them up to 17 inches unflexed and 20+ inches flexed would look absolutely ridiculous. Even if you lack bicep peak, stick with flexed measurements.
Your flexed calves should match your flexed arms.
The general rule is your calves should match your arms, and if we’re talking flexed arms, then we should be talking flexed calves.
You measure this by flexing your calf (raising your heel off the ground), and wrapping a measuring tape around the largest part.
Your shoulder circumference should measure 1.618 times larger than your waist (waist x 1.618).
You measure waist by circling your waist with a measuring tape (sort of like a belt would) at your natural waistline, which is located above your belly button and below your rib cage. Don’t suck in your stomach.
You measure your shoulder circumference as follows:
Stand upright with your arms comfortably at your sides (no flaring your elbows or spreading your lats), and have a friend wrap a measuring tape around your shoulders and chest at its widest point. This is usually right around the top of your armpits.
Your chest circumference should be 550% larger than the circumference of your non-dominant wrist (wrist measurement x 6.5).
There are other ways to reach the ideal chest measurement, but this is the easiest and most reliable.
To take your chest measurement, stand upright with your arms comfortably at your sides (no flaring your elbows or spreading your lats), and have a friend place a measuring tape at the fullest part of one of your pecs and wrap it around the other, under your armpits, across your shoulder blades, and back to the starting point.
Your upper leg circumference should be 75% larger than your knee circumference (knee measurement x 1.75).
To measure your knee circumference, place the measuring tape at the tip of your kneecap and wrap around.
To get your upper leg measurement, wrap a measuring tape around the biggest part of your thigh and hamstring. This can vary from person to person depending on how the muscles develop.
Alright then. Are you ready to see how you measure up?
Tape measuring each part of your body is the most accurate method, and while any old tape measure will do, I like the Myotape best.
Another important point to consider is your body fat percentage. If you’re carrying excess fat, measurements will be skewed, with some affected more than others (waist, for example, will be greatly affected, whereas calves will not).
So if you want to truly know what needs improving, you need to get lean first.
That’s up to you, really, but I would say no higher than 10% body fat. Personally I like to maintain a leaner look than that (7-8%), and thus that’s the point from which I base all readings.
Let’s now get to the measuring. Take and note down the following measurements (do both sides of your body where applicable so you can assess symmetry):
Once you know these measurements, you can simply compare them against the formula given earlier.
For example, here are my current measurements, at 7% body fat:
51-inch shoulder circumference
43-inch chest circumference
24-inch upper legs
And here are my “ideal” numbers:
52-inch shoulder circumference
45.5-inch chest circumference
25-inch upper legs
According to the above, I need to increase my shoulder, chest, and calf measurements, and I completely agree. My shoulders are a bit small for my arm size, my chest is actually okay but I need more lats (which will expand my chest measurement), and my calves definitely need some size.
And my training reflects these goals. I train shoulders twice per week, calves three times per week, and I do a bit of extra work on my lats on my back day.
So, take your measurements, see where you’re strong and where you’re lacking, and I bet you’ll agree.
And even if you don’t want to match the numbers exactly—maybe you’d prefer your arms or upper legs an inch smaller or larger—it helps point you in the right direction.