Should you train differently for strength and aesthetics?
If you listen to many on the Internet, the answer is yes.
Some say that if you want to build a muscular, lean, proportionate physique, you have to stick to more traditional “bodybuilding” style workouts.
Others say that if you want to get as strong as possible, then you need to ignore accessory and isolation exercises and only focus on the big compound lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.
Do you really have to choose one or the other, though?
Or, can you get strong and build a physique you can be proud of at the same time?
Well, I decided to ask the grandfather of barbell training, Mark Rippetoe, to get to the bottom of this.
I’m a fan of Mark and his work, of course, because nobody has done more to promote, teach, and defend barbell training than Rip, and because he’s extremely disagreeable, which always makes for a fun conversation.
Plus, he’s old, which makes him the perfect guy to talk about making gains in your 40s (or 60s) and beyond.
Here’s his take…
(Rather listen to this interview instead? Click the play button below.)
Mike Matthews: So let’s dive in to the subject at hand, which is the difference between training for strength and training for aesthetics, then you can go over the programing of it, but then also help people understand what direction should they go in based on their goals.
Mark Rippetoe: Well, that’s a good question and we don’t deal with it much on our end of the deal because we’re primarily involved with strength training. Strength training is getting stronger. What numbers are you moving? That’s our primary emphasis.
Mike: That’s your stock-in-trade of course.
Mark: That’s our deal. I am aware of the fact, having been in this industry for 40 years, that the vast majority of the market is interested in strength only in that it is a very, very effective way to enhance aesthetics, so to speak.
If you walk in my gym and you are either too skinny or too fat and you’re not happy with your appearance, I put you on strength program and it doesn’t matter which one of those problems you got because a strength program, as a side effect, improves aesthetics. So that’s the way we’ve always approached it.
I know how to make a guy stronger. I know how to get a guy’s squat to 405. I can get a guy’s deadlift up to 500 pounds.
I know how to do that, and the process of doing that improves aesthetics every single time. No matter what his problem is. People look better when they are stronger.
Since the process of becoming stronger is an easily quantifiable process, we know how to program that. We can make that occur without exception.
Every time that happens, a guy’s going to look better because of the fact that human aesthetics are primarily controlled by the perception of body contours, which are defined by muscle bellies. Your muscles get bigger when you get you get stronger.
Mike: Especially your big muscle groups. I mean, those are the ones that look good. I would say this isn’t just for guys too. It’s for girls as well.
Mark: Well, that’s obviously true for girls.
Mike: A lot of girls think that, especially with strength training, the heavy weightlifting’s just going to make them look bulky.
Mark: Well, I have a friend who’s a plastic surgeon down in Round Rock, Texas, and as a part of his practice, I mean, women come to him specifically to look better. He has a little different take on it than we do. His interest is kind of following along with what we’re talking about right now is primarily aesthetics.
So he will have them squat because it is his contention that the squat makes more difference in a woman’s aesthetic appeal because it specifically works the hips and legs.
Mike: And the butt.
Mark: And the butt. To a lesser extent, the calves, but the effects of the squat are specifically what his research into the subject has indicated to him are the most important things that you can do.
Mike: Everyone kind of knows that anecdotally. I mean, most women are more concerned with their lower body development.
Mark: Well, because that’s the part that the women can affect the appearance of that by themselves without the surgeon.
Mark: Now, in contrast, he does not recommend that women do any type of exercise that’s going to add muscle mass to the arms, lats, or shoulders. He and I have gotten in arguments about this. My position and I’m sure is yours too, I appreciate a muscular upper body on a female.
Mark: Most people that are involved in physical culture would agree with that.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, women start with so little muscle…
Mark: It’s not going to hurt them.
Mike: A muscular upper body for a girl, that’s a relative statement, you know.
Mark: Well, yeah, but keep in mind that he’s approaching this from the standpoint of a plastic surgeon. He deals with the general population.
He doesn’t deal with us. He doesn’t deal with physical culture. He doesn’t deal with weightlifters. He deals with women who want to look better for whatever reason they want to look better.
His assessment is that in terms of the general population’s perception of pleasing aesthetics, the squat and basically only the squat is the thing that makes the most amount of difference in the shortest amount of time. So he recommends that.
In fact, he hands them my book in his office and prescribes, if you will, squats to these ladies that come in for aesthetic manipulation.
You and I can sit here and say yeah, we like the sweep of a nice, muscular forearm on a female, but his research indicates to him that the general population is only looking at the ass.
Mike: And the legs.
Mark: Ass and legs.
Mike: Tight pants of the jeans or yoga pants or whatever.
Mark: Sure. That’s where you …
Mike: That’s where you’re going to get more attention than your arms. Yeah. Right.
Mark: Well, don’t misunderstand. He is saying that muscular arms are a negative, that they are a drawback to the perception of feminine physical beauty to the general population.
I’m not in a position to comment on that because I know what I like, you know what you like. We’re pretty much in agreement on that.
But the general population is people walking down the street at lunch in Brooklyn with their copy of Cosmo in their purse so they can read it while they’re having lunch at a bistro are not the same kind of … They have a different set of standards than we do. I guess that’s fine. I’m not concerned with them. I’m, again, concerned with getting people stronger.
Mike: I’ve worked with and heard from thousands of everyday normal women that just want to be in better shape, and I’ve found that a lot of the attention initially is on the stomach. They want a flat stomach and they want a butt and they want legs.
Now they never would’ve thought that they wanted some muscle definition or muscle in their arms, but now that they’re getting it and they’re getting leaner, then they start getting into it. You know what I mean?
Mike: There aren’t very many that come into weightlifting saying, “I wish I had better forearms.”
Mark: What he’s learning now through his association with us is that aesthetic standards do in fact change over time.
I mean, as you spend time in the gym, as you go through the process of getting muscular arms, and a lat sweep and a little bit of breadth to the deltoid and a little trap definition, I think most women don’t bitterly cling to their previous aesthetic standard.
I think it evolves and matures over time as they begin to appreciate the process of getting stronger.
So this leads back to our original premise, what is the relationship between strength and aesthetics.
I think probably the best answer to that is that strength is the process by which human aesthetics are improved. In order to fully appreciate that, you have to do it.
Mike: Right. Totally. Now I would even argue that strength programs are probably more directly relevant to women with how they want to look because strength programs are generally more lower body centric. Lower body volume is just higher than …
Mark: Designed, that’s true.
Mike: Yeah, but it’s using a lot of squatting and pulling. I found though with guys, depending on see … I don’t know if this has been your experience, but in my experience just working with a lot of guys. Their upper bodies develop slower than their lower bodies. Bigger muscle groups.
Your legs are going to … A guy can get legs and a butt that he’s happier with a lot faster than he can get a chest and arms that he’s happy with.
Mark: The bigger the muscle belly, the faster it grows. I think that traps grow real fast too. That’s another thing that you see with them.
But in two years of a guy starting a program that features heavy deadlifts, he’s going to have traps.
Mike: Chest too seems to just be a stubborn muscle group for a lot of guys. I mean, that’s just speaking anecdotally. It just seems to take a lot of work to go from where a guy’s normally starting, doesn’t have really shit for chest because we don’t use our pecks in daily living all that much.
They just come in very underdeveloped, and it can take a couple years to get to that point where they look where I would say that fitness model type of look.
Enough chest to where it’s clearly … It shows through your shirt. It’s a feature of your physique as opposed to a weak point. You know what I mean?
Mark: This is a very good place to talk about this. If we’re talking about the muscle group chest, this is the kind of thing that if you are interested in developing your “chest,” you better be benching heavy because all of the cable crossovers and dumbbell flyes in the world will not make the damn thing grow like getting your bench press up to 350.
If you want a noticeable chest through your shirt, the most important thing you can do is get your bench press up.
Mark: Because chest diameter, chest girth, is what we see through clothes in the same way that we see your hips in terms of hip girth through clothes and thighs in terms of thigh girth through clothes.
This is why the big exercises are the things that make the greatest amount of difference in the shortest period of time in terms of aesthetics because they are the things that make muscle bellies bigger.
Mark: Now unless you plan on spending most of your day naked, 10% body fat…
Mike: The dream.
Mark: Yeah. There are places in the world you can pay to do that. But for most of us, we remain clothed, and as a result of that, you’re probably better off with sixteen to eighteen percent body fat and a 350 bench than you are with 10% body fat and a 225 bench.
Mark: Just in terms of external physical appearance, people see you in clothes. If we have to strip you naked before we can tell that you train, then you’re not really understanding the process by which other people perceive your aesthetics. Your aesthetics are not visible. We don’t care about your razor abs if you got a shirt on.
Now, I’m 60 years old and I’ve got a pot belly because one, I don’t care and two, I don’t really care. I eat too much and I drink too much and all this other stuff.
But I weigh about 230 at 5’8″. I can still deadlift 500. I can bench close to three.
Knees are kind of creaky these days. I’m not squatting heavy much, but aside from the pot belly, I look like a relatively muscular probably 50 year old guy instead of a 60 year old guy.
Mark: This is because I weigh 230. If I took my belly off, I’d still weigh 215 and I’d still look like I train, but if you guys that are watching this, you can go ahead and laugh at my belly all day. But I’m going to tell you something. If your 5’8″ and 165, nobody knows. You don’t look any different.
Mike: Unless you’re wearing extra small shirts.
Mark: Unless you’re wearing razor, painted on shirts, nobody knows any difference between you and a guy at 165 that doesn’t train. Nobody can tell.
Mike: That’s a psychological thing though. As you get leaner, you just don’t want to ever be fatter.
Mark: That’s another show, Michael. That’s another show entirely.
We need to get a psychologist on with us to talk about that because no, I understand. I understand. All of us that have trained have gone through that phase where we’re just Dionysus muscle.
Most common thing we deal with on the boards and at seminars is, “How do I get big without losing my razor abs?” The real answer to that question is you don’t.
Mark: I’m real sorry about that. But if you want to get big and look big and look strong, you’re going to have to gain some weight.
Some of that weight is going to be body fat.
We know how to get that off later when you get ready to go to the bodybuilding contest. Okay?
But the process by which muscle grows is anabolic. Anabolic processes affect all of your tissues, not just your muscles. So this is extremely important to understand.
Mike: That’s a good point because I run into quite a few guys that they’re just looking at dudes on Instagram and you’ll have dudes at six, seven percent body fat pulling massive amounts of weight. They don’t realize how prevalent drug use is.
Mark: They don’t understand.
If you’re looking a guy on Instagram with seven percent body fat who’s deadlifting 700, he’s taking a bunch of drugs. I’m not here to judge that. I don’t care. A guys wants to take drugs, he needs to take drugs.
But we’re not talking to him. We’re talking to you guys.
You guys out there who are trying to look better in your clothes, who are trying to get big and strong and look like your big and strong. The process of doing that is going to cause your body fat to go up a little bit.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. You can take a guy and sit him on the couch and give him three bags of Doritos and a gallon of Coca Cola and have him gain a 100 pounds of body fat eating Doritos and drinking Coke. All right?
25% or so of that body mass gain is going to be muscle tissue, is going to be lean body mass because the processes are inseparably intertwined.
Now, you can take another guy and have him gain a 100 pounds of body weight over the course of two or three years of heavy training, of eating correctly, eating a nice clean, high protein diet, devoid of sugar, all the healthy stuff we know we’re supposed to do, and drink a bunch of milk and get big and strong. 75%, maybe only 70% of his body mass gain is going to be muscle mass and 25% to 30% is going to be body fat.
In other words, any body weight gain is composed of both lean body mass and body fat. You can skew the results in the direction you want them to go. But you cannot separate the two processes.
Mike: Exactly. That just boils down you need to be in a caloric surplus to really gain muscle effectively.
Mark: And a caloric surplus is going to result in a body fat increase. We’ll worry about that later on.
Mike: Now, I guess we could say … We could give the exception of somebody brand new to weightlifting. They can be in a deficit and gain a fair amount of muscle for their first bit at least.
Mark: Sure, but they’re still going to gain some body fat. They’re going to go from eight percent to 12%.
Mike: A lot of people starting. I mean, like a guy starts at 20%.
Mark: Now, that’s a special case. Let’s talk about the guy that starts at 35% because that happens all the time. Okay?
Once again, let me make this clear, in the absence of a bunch of drugs that you know specifically how to use, you know specifically how to dose, how to administer, any body weight gain is going to be composed of both lean body mass and body fat.
Mark: I think even seasoned, experienced contest bodybuilders that gain a bunch of body mass in their off season are going to see some body fat increase.
Mike: Yeah, they do.
Mark: You can’t be on that many drugs all the time.
Mark: So you have to rest. You’re going to gain some body fat. It’s perfectly normal.
You’re supposed to gain some body fat. You guys that are eight percent body fat that are looking at your abs in the mirror, weighing 135 pounds have got to get past this.
Mike: My people.
Mark: You’ve got to get past that because you’re going to gain some fat and you need to gain some fat because the processes that also enable you to gain muscle mass are going to make you gain some fat, and that’s good.
Eight percent, for somebody not going to a contest, is an awfully low body fat percentage, and nobody, even at a contest, is going to hold on to five percent body fat for more than a couple of days at a time.
Mike: I would say like what I tell guys because they want the abs, and the abs don’t really start coming in nicely until you get a little bit under 10%.
My general thing is you’re going to have to, exactly what you’re saying, you’re going to have to deal with having a higher body fat percentage to gain the size that you need to gain.
Then when you’re at the point where you’re like, “I no longer want to get any bigger. I’m happy with my physique,” then you can maintain a lower body fat percentage.
But don’t expect much to change with your physique for as long as you are staying at eight percent body fat. You’re just not going to gain much more of anything.
Mike: Not strength or size. It comes very, very slowly.
Mark: Strength and size are, again, inexorably intertwined. If you want to get bigger, you have to get stronger and that’s just all there is to it.
But here’s a more common situation. Let’s say you got a guy walks into the gym and he’s kind of a fat guy. He’s got 35% body fat. Okay?
This guy’s already in a situation where anabolic processes is taking place. He’s not emaciated. He’s not skinny. Things are growing, even though they’re not the things we want. Okay?
So this guy is in a much better position to make positive changes in his aesthetics than the little, skinny, shrimpy 135 pound kid on the Internet who is happy weighing 135 at 5’8″ because he’s got abs. That guy’s got psychological problems.
My guy with 35% body fat who walks in the gym, he knows he’s out of shape. He wants to get strong. He wants to lose his belly. This guy is going to eat enough. We’re not going to have problems changing his body composition.
Not nearly the kind of problems that we will have with a little anorexic kid with an eating disorder because that’s what it is. He’s grown himself an eating disorder.
I’d much rather deal with a 35% body fat guy because all I have to do with him is get him to quit drinking Cokes. If I get him to quit drinking five Cokes a day, I can make a gigantic improvement in his body composition and his aesthetics over a two month period without really having to do anything.
Mark: I’d much rather deal with an overweight guy than a little skinny guy who’s intensely focused on staying underweight and skinny. That guys got problems that are outside my bailiwick as a strength coach. It’s real hard to talk those guys into eating enough. It’s easier to talk the 35% guy to drop his sugar.
Mike: I’ve dealt with a fair amount of those people that come in just underweight and don’t want to gain fat and have, I mean, some can’t be persuaded.
But quite a few that I’ve dealt with were able to get over that and then actually, kind of like what we were saying with the girls that have come to appreciate muscle elsewhere, they came to appreciate getting stronger and being bigger.
Like you were saying, we spend the majority of our time with clothes on, so they actually do it. They say, “I’m going to give this three months, and I’m going to do what Mike says. I’m going to eat enough food. I’m going to train heavy and see what happens.” Then people start noticing it though, and people ask, “Hey, you’ve been working out.”
Mark: It become self-reinforcing if you do it for a little while. If they’re just shut up and listen to you.
Mike: Rehabilitative, that’s all.
Mark: Right. Well, I’m proud for kids that can get past that little phase, but a lot of you guys listening to us right now are right squarely in the middle of this. You don’t believe Mike. You really don’t believe me, and you’re not going to do anything about it.
To you, I would just say you need to listen to us. You need to listen to us. There’s a reason why we’re here and you’re there. Okay?
We’ve been doing this a long time and we know what’s going on. You have to give your muscles the anabolic environment in which to grow if you want to be perceived as anything except a little skinny shit. All right?
If you want to be perceived, continued to be perceived as an annoying little skinny shit…
Mike: Life goals.
Mark: You know how aggravating you are at Thanksgiving with the family. You have no idea how much your family hates you.
Mike: Not me. I think last Thanksgiving …
Mark: No, I’m talking about … I’m not talking to you.
Mike: I ate I think seven plates of food last Thanksgiving. I ate until I couldn’t move.
Mark: That’s the way it ought to be, but the guys I’m talking to, you guys that I’m talking to right now …
Mike: Not everyone. Not everyone.
Mark: Now, listen to me. I’m telling you there’s a bunch of guys right now who go to Thanksgiving and have the turkey and that’s all they’ll eat is the turkey.
Mike: Cutting the skin away from it.
Mark: Yeah. With the skin removed and all that. People get tired of that, and these kids don’t understand that everybody hates them.
I think it’s just my duty to tell you guys that really not only are you not doing yourselves any favors but you’re a pain in the ass. Okay?
Now, let’s talk about this. All right?
In our program, let’s say we take a guy in the middle. Let’s say we take a kid that walks in to the gym at 155. He’s 19 years old. He’s 155. He’s just out of school.
He’s still right directly in the middle of the anabolic window. His testosterone levels are high. He’s a perfect specimen to grow. All right?
If this kid will come in and do the program that we’re talking about, and it’s just a strength program. It has no arms aside from chins. It’s based on the five major exercises plus chins.
We’re going to train three days a week. Every workout. Every one of his numbers are going to go up because he’s going to put more on the bar and lift it. He’s going to force himself to get strong.
Mark: Let’s say this kid, he’s 155 pounds. He’s 5’9″. He’s underweight. I’m going to have this kid drink a gallon of milk a day. A gallon of whole milk a day in addition to whatever else he’s eating right now. I’m going to yell at him about his protein intake, try to get his diet cleaned up.
I don’t want the rest of his meals to consist of fast food and bread and bunch of goo. I want him to eat nice and clean.
I want him to add a gallon of milk a day with that. That kid can weigh 185 pounds with a slight increase in body fat and gigantic amounts of perceptible muscle belly mass increase in about two and a half, three months. Every time. He can gain 30 pounds of good body weight.
Mike: That’s a lot of weight. I mean, how much do you say is actual lean mass though? Obviously there’s water, there’s glycogen.
Mark: Water and glycogen and all that stuff is lean body mass.
Mike: Well, sure.
Mark: Lean body bone. It’s bigger tendons, bigger ligaments, heavier bones, heavier muscles, whatever they’re composed of, and the ratio that we see is generally about 70/30. So he’ll gain 70% lean body mass, 30% body fat. What was his body fat? Was it 12%? So now he’s 16%.
Mark: That’s fine with me. That’s fine with me.
The kid’s now strong. His self perception is improved because he sees the process of going from 155 to 185, and it didn’t take very long for him to do this. He’ll be 205 by the end of the year. Same kid will go from 155 to 205 in a year.
That’s not an exceptional performance either. That really is not. We see that all the time.
Anybody that walks in at that demographic, in that age group, underweight, young men can gain 50 pounds of good body weight in a year every single time.
I don’t know what your position on this is, but, Mike, we’ve done it for … I’ve watched this happen for 40 years.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, you have more experience than I do. I would say it really … I don’t try to give people too high expectations. I tell guys in your first year of quality lean mass, if you gain 20, 25 pounds, you’ve done a good job.
Mark: We can get better than that results because I am not concerned about him gaining some fat.
Mark: The trick is the milk.
Mike: Sure. That’s just a lot of calories. It’s an easy way to get a lot of calories.
Mark: It’s a hell of a bunch of calories. But it’s good calories. It’s good fat. It’s good protein. It’s good carbs. It’s the food that is designed to make mammals grow. It works very well.
Now all you little skinny snots in the audience are saying, “heart disease.”
You’re not going to do this the rest of your life. I’m talking for six to nine months. Six to nine months.
That initial growth spurt. We kick it off with a big calorie surplus. We teach your body to grow.
Mike: Now, how would you modify that for let’s say someone who is … They’re just not in their hormonal prime anymore.
Mark: How do I modify it for the guy that’s 35% body fat. We do exactly the same thing without the milk.
Mike: Right. So just less calories.
Mark: All there is it to it. Specifically without the milk. A guy that’s 35% body fat is not having any trouble growing, as I mentioned before. His anabolic state is guaranteed.
Mark: This is a different guy for whatever reason. He doesn’t drink the milk.
Not everybody drinks a gallon of milk. This is what we get criticized for all the time.
Not everybody drinks a gallon of milk a day. Duh.
Mark: Okay. But if you are skinny, if you’re 155 at 5’9″, you’re 19, you’re underweight, you know you’re underweight, you want to be bigger, the best way to do it is eat more meat than you’re eating right now and add a gallon of milk to your diet.
You’re not going to do it the rest of your life but it will solve the immediate problem you’ve got.
These things are the things that make the initial aesthetic impression on other people looking at you. Your abs are the least of your problems. They’re the least of your problems.
Mike: They’re also easy to get. You just lose fat and they’re there.
Mark: Lose fat, but if you weight a 135 pounds, how easy is it to lose fat? There’s nothing to lose.
Mike: But I’m saying there’s nothing to fear from gaining body fat. It’s just so easy to lose, who cares.
Mark: Yeah, exactly. But my bigger point to address the aesthetics of it is that if you are 135, you’re 5’8″, 135 and you lose five pounds, what have you accomplished?
You’re just skinnier than you were before. Oh, but my abs are … Boys, we’re not looking at your abs. Okay? We’re not looking at your abs.
You can’t go out on the street without your clothes on. You’ll get arrested. You’ll be an even bigger pain in the ass doing that than you already are at Thanksgiving. Okay?
You have to understand that bigger is aesthetically pleasing. Bigger is aesthetically pleasing.
Mike: I will say that a lot of girls will say the same thing. Isn’t just two dudes talking about it, but even though I am kind of an abs guys and I stay lean and all that, I’m married so I don’t have to care. I’ll just do it for myself.
Whatever I want to do, but if you ask just take a panel of girls out there and you have a guy at 15% who’s big, strong and then you have, again, I would say of course clothes on. There’s no contest between him and the dude who’s seven percent but a lot smaller.
But a lot of girls would even take with clothes off would take the guy at 15% whose just 20 pounds bigger.
Mark: Well, I’ll tell you I’ve talked to a lot of girls about this and you’ve seen the studies and you’ve seen the interviews.
Guys who are fastidious about their abs, are extremely fastidious about their abs are perceived by most normal women as narcissists.
Mike: Yep. That’s true.
Mark: I mean, I’m sorry boys. That’s the way it is.
Mike: Especially you have the selfies …
Mark: If you’re that self absorbed, it kind of shows through in your behavior.
Mike: But then there’s that double standard though because then you’ll have the latest Thor movie and you’ll have Chris Hemsworth with his shirt off and then girls are …
Mark: Chris Hemsworth. Shit, that’s the biggest casting error in modern film.
Mike: Hey, I think the numbers …
Mark: I’m a great big fan of the Marvel movies, and I think Chris Evans as Captain America was a fabulous casting choice. That guy, he’s great in that part. But Hemsworth weighs 185 pounds. Thor doesn’t weigh 185 pounds.
Mike: So you want to see something like in Game of Thrones, like Hafthor Bjornsson or whatever.
Mark: Well, yeah. I mean, they should’ve found a guy that could carry that role that was a sufficiently decent actor and introduced him. He should’ve been 6’2″, 245. That’s Thor.
Mike: It’s a marketing play. Hemsworth is a …
Mark: I understand what’s going on, but Jesus Christ … As an aficionado of Norse mythology myself …
Mike: You’re personally offended by it.
Mark: I’m deeply offended. Deeply offended. You guys are worshiping a skinny guy. Thor was big. Thor was big. He’s big and strong, and that Hammer does not fly to him because it’s magic. The Hammer flyes to him because he’s Thor because he’s big and strong. It’s just all there is to it. Oh, that was disappointing.
Just like we’re talking about, it further reinforces this stereotype of these kids go to the movie and they see a little skinny guy with abs and he’s held up as a superhero. That’s just unfortunate.
Mike: Evans, by your standards, is a skinny guy with abs.
Mark: Yeah. But Captain America’s a different character, and Evans doesn’t look as skinny as Hemsworth does. Somehow he makes an impression on me that he’s about 15 pounds heavier than …
Mike: It could just be height or just his muscle bellies and how his bodies formed.
All right. Let me pose something to you here.
So I’ve heard from quite a few guys just over the years that have started with strength training programs that, again, going back to something I mentioned earlier in the podcast today, a well-designed strength training program will generally have a higher volume for the lower body.
Mark: Right. Well, we’re squatting and deadlifting.
Mike: Exactly. So guys will do that for a period of time and experience everything you’re talking about. They see positive changes throughout their entire body. They get strong. They love weightlifting. Blah, blah, blah.
But they feel like now they’re lower body is getting too big for their liking and then they find that reducing the volume on the squatting and deadlifting and increasing the volume on the bench pressing, the overhead pressing, even in some cases arms.
I mean, some guys they’re arms are very stubborn. You do your heavy pulling, but then it takes quite a bit of additional just biceps work for them to get to where they feel like their proportions are good.
So they feel like where now their shoulders are big enough, their biceps are big enough in proportion to their shoulders. What are your thoughts on that?
Because I’ve seen it many times and I tell guys to kind of expect that. If you’re going to go into a pure strength program, in six months from now, you might look in the mirror and be like, “Damn, my legs and ass are huge, but my upper body’s kind of underwhelming.”
Mark: Well, it’s been my experience that, and this goes back to one of our earlier comments, aesthetics change with experience. As you do a properly designed strength program, you’re going to be doing a program that is more heavily dependent on hips, legs, back, lats, traps.
Because of the fact that that constitutes most of the muscle mass of the human body, working two big major exercises and hit those muscle groups just reflects that the proportions across the body with which your muscle mass is distributed.
I think it’s probably good to have big hips and legs and if you’re doing a balanced program, you’re going to work those more because that’s where most of the muscle mass is.
Mark: Now, I understand that most people, the majority, the vast majority of people, even people who are primarily interested in strength are going to train arms, and I think you need to do some arms.
I think that chins and some barbell curls, some heavy barbell curls are probably enough. I think that since we’re doing squats every day, since we’re doing either presses or benches every day, and since we’re probably doing chins twice a week that our version of a proper strength program reflects a little bit more emphasis on upper body actually because we’re doing all these chins and presses and benches.
No, I completely agree. I think that most guys want a bigger chest. Most guys want a bigger upper body.
So the question then becomes from a strength versus aesthetic standpoint, what makes your chest grow? What’s the most effective way to get your chest bigger? Flyes, cables, or get your bench up to 350? So the question becomes, how do you most effectively get your bench press up?
Well, if you bench four days a week, that’s not going to work. You’re going to overtrain stuff. You’re going to get tendon insertions inflamed. You’re going to get to the point where you’re injured. You can’t train.
You have to approach this sensibly, in a way to get your bench up. The best way to get your chest big is to get your bench big.
So then the question becomes, well, how do I achieve the side effect of a big chest? By getting that bench press up. Then we do an effective bench press program.
Mark: If you’re training three days a week, you’re going to do upper body every one of those days.
Mark: You’re going to do chins twice a week. I think we’re closing in on the problem here.
See, here’s another thing that people don’t understand, and it goes back to this statement you just made.
Squats make everything grow. If you do nothing but squats for a year … Let’s say some religious revelation has occurred to you and you’re not going to bench and you’re going to do squats and squats on and do heavy squats and nothing else for a year.
What do you thinks going to happen to your chest and arms? They’re going to grow.
Mike: Have you had people do that? I’ve never had anyone do that actually.
Mark: Yes. Yeah. Yes. The effect of the systemic anabolic effects of squats are undeniable.
Mike: Sure. Yeah.
Mark: If you squat and don’t do any benches and don’t do any chins, don’t do any arms at all, and I’ve trained cyclists.
Mark: That do this. Their arms get big and their chest gets big. Accidentally.
Mike: Oh, I mean, mechanistically, yeah. I understand it.
Mark: Growing. The whole thing’s growing.
Growth is a systemic response to strength. It doesn’t just affect the muscle groups that are directly involved in the kinetic chain of that particular exercise.
Mark: It affects the organism.
Mike: Right. I mean, I’ve seen it obviously years ago with my body and then just working with so many people, that, like you were saying, if you do a bunch of isolation, magazine type, bodybuilding type stuff, sure, if you’re new to weightlifting, you’re going to get something out of it. Give it three months and then that’s about it.
Mark: That’s what the skinny kid, the 135 pound kid …
Mike: You go to the gym and that’s what you see.
Mark: That’s what he’s doing.
Mark: No, because that’s too hard.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, the bench press you might see for obvious reasons.
Mark: He’s going to bench enough sets of 12.
Mike: Oh, that’s the heavy … Sets of 30.
Mark: Heavy day.
Mike: Yeah, heavy day. So yeah, I mean, I guess from what I’ve seen is that it’s just it depends on what people, and this is kind of what I tell guys in the company, it depends what they want to do.
Because the higher volume on the lower body is going to bring it up faster where you put your work in as where you see your progress and your results.
So I guess that’s something I’ve always kind of let people know that I think strength programs are a great place to start for everyone, but just know that in time, depending on how your body responds, don’t be surprised if your lower body is you get to a point where you’re like, “Wow. My lower body has outpaced my upper body,” if you don’t make any sort of adjustments for it.
Mark: Well, that hasn’t been my experience is all I can tell you. But, again, I deal with a different demographic than you.
Mike: Right, right.
Mark: All of my guys are big and strong, and most of them are carrying 18% body fat. They’re big and strong. They look big and strong.
But I’m dealing with guys at heavier body weights than you are, and I would ask you to consider that maybe that’s part of the reasoning here.
Mike: Also my guys are guys when they come, they come and they find my stuff. They want to get to a certain look as quickly as possible.
Mark: Sure they do.
Mike: That’s usually an upper body centric …
Mark: I absolutely agree. I know the demographic. Like I said, we’re just dealing with two different groups of people.
Mark: Those guys that are dissatisfied with their upper body might have seen their upper body grow, were they a little bit less tight on their diet on the way up.
Mark: That would be my from afar observation of the situation. I think they might have grown more arm. They might have grown more chest and shoulder and lat sweep had they just gained another 20 pounds.
Mike: Right. Then I think …
Mark: I’d ask you to think about that.
Mike: You’ve probably seen the genetics come into play where some people’s …. We all have our genetic strengths and our genetic weaknesses.
When it comes to weaknesses, some guys … I mean, if biceps are a genetic weakness, it can take a lot more work for that guy to get to his 16, 17 inch arms or whatever than it will take for the person’s whose bis, all they ever did was pull heavy and they have massive arms.
Mark: Yeah. Oh God, yeah. Biceps are almost … They’re probably 90% genetic anyway.
Mark: They just are. Deltoid separation. Those capstone deltoids, genetics. Big calves.
Mike: Or drugs.
Mark: Well, I don’t … I know a lot of guys that taken a lot of drugs that don’t have capstone delts. You’re born with those.
Mark: Big calves with separate lateral, medial gastroc development. That’s genetic. You are not going to grow calves on a guy that doesn’t have any calves. You can do as many calf raises as you want to. You can do as much direct work on those things. They will not grow. They’re genetic.
Mike: I have trouble with that where I mean my calves grow. I’ve been doing a lot of calf stuff and they’ve grown slowly, but genetically I had no calves. My dad has no calves. Even though I grew up playing ice hockey, doings things you think would give me calves.
Mark: Doesn’t matter what you do. Calves are genetic. At the competitive, professional body builder level, that activity is controlled, essentially, 100% by genetics.
In other words, a person without the genetics can do anything. They can train any way they want to train. They can take as many drugs as they can possibly afford. Mortgage the house.
Take as much drugs as you want to, but you will not place in the top 10 at the Olympia without, not just good genetics, but without freak genetics. You will not place. You will not place at a state meet at this point and time with anything less than freak genetics.
Mike: Would you say that applies to strength too?
Mark: No, no. It doesn’t apply to strength. That’s what’s cool about strength.
Anybody can get strong. Anybody can pretty much get real strong. But in terms of the aesthetic appearance of the muscle bellies, this is you’re either born with it or you’re not.
Mark: This is what is so hard for kids to understand. We all grew up looking at the bodybuilding magazines and we were all fed this Weider bullshit about if you do this program on page 17, then you will look like Robbie Robertson.
Mark: No, you won’t. You’re not going to look like Frank Zane. You’re not going to look like Arnold. Only Arnold and Frank look like Arnold and Frank.
Mike: Now, these days it’s a lot of these YouTube guys that yeah, they have great physiques, but they have had great physiques since they were 13.
Mark: Yeah. That’s the point.
But teaching that to these kids that are watching this podcast right now is very, very difficult because they want to believe that they can do it too.
Look, I don’t want to discourage anybody from training. I don’t want to discourage. But what you have to understand is that if aesthetics are your only yardstick, the only way you have of judging your success, you’re not going to be as happy with yourself.
If you shift the motivation over to strength because anybody, any intact male can get their deadlift up to 500 pounds. Anybody can. That’s a good deadlift. You can do it.
You little skinny shit watching this can get your deadlift up to 500 if you’ll just do what it takes.
What you can’t do is be on the Olympia stage, okay?
That’s not a realistic goal. It’s entirely controlled by things that are not within your per view. Okay?
But you can control how strong you are, and my advice to you is to get this thing out of your head and get strength in to your head because strength goes up. Strength can be trained. You can make your deadlift go up for the next 20 years because it’s entirely within your ability to control this. If you do the work, if you eat, if you rest.
Mike: And I would say that anyone can get a body that they’re happy with.
Mark: Anyone can get a better body than they’ve got right now.
Mike: Yeah. By building everything and getting nice proportions and getting to how you want to get, you’re going to look good. Are you going to look as good as Frank Zane?
No. Am I going to ever look good as Frank Zane? No.
No matter how many drugs, if I were willing to do that, it doesn’t matter. I would never approach that.
Mark: It’s genetic. It’s Frank. Frank has Frank’s genes. Frank’s genetics and nobody else did.
Chris Dickerson was another amazing, balanced physique. Didn’t know how to train. Had no idea how to train. But he was just … He was Chris Dickerson. He looked great. Most of those guys at that level, especially 20 years ago, would not have, 20, 30 years ago, did not do what we would call effective strength based training because they didn’t have to back then.
Now, these great big giant guys in the wake of Dorian Yates, all those guys are strong. But that’s a different physique than what was winning back in the ’80s.
Mike: Very different. Yeah.
Mark: A whole different physique. All those great big strong, giant guys that looked big and strong and giant are strong because they’re doing some version of strength training. Okay?
Mike: Although you had. You had Arnold. You had …
Mark: Well, Arnold …
Mike: Franco. I mean, they were strong.
Mark: Yeah, they were pretty strong. Look at Arnold’s forearms next time you see a … In most of the places you see Arnold posed, his forearms aren’t that strong a body part for him. He had amazing calves. He was just a wonderful, balanced physique. But Arnold was not a strength based … Later in his career.
Mike: I mean, he started with powerlifting.
Mark: He started with squats and deadlifts. I guess he did the Olympic lifts too because everybody did them back then. But all these guys that are carrying 300 pounds of muscle mass at six percent body fat, those guys are strong. There’s no doubt about it. They’re strong.
Guys, learn a lesson from that. Okay?
Big and strong is training. Big and strong is training. Six percent body fat is diet. I’m afraid that the vast majority of you guys watching us right now are only doing the diet part.
Okay? So that’s my advice.
Mike: Again, I’ll stick up for … There’s a good portion of the crowd that’s right on board with this.
Mark: Yeah. I bet there are. I bet there are, but since they’re already on board, we’re talking to the little guys that need to listen to what we’re saying.
Mike: Fair enough. What I’ve been preaching from the beginning is there’s a reason why it’s not just coincidental that more often than not the strongest guys in the gym are also the biggest. There’s a reason for that.
So if you want to get bigger, you have to get stronger. Just commenting for girls, what a lot of girls, the idea that they’re going to get bulky comes from the fact of if body fat levels are too high and you just add muscle, yeah, you just look bigger. That’s what happens.
So a lot of girls that come to me care more about that and they’re afraid of that and then they realize once they do it, gaining muscle isn’t the problem. They just need to be in the right body fat percentage range for the look that they want. It really depends on them.
So a lot of the girls that I’ve worked with, they want to have that athletic, defined type of look. They want to have muscle, but they don’t want to look like overly muscular and it seems to be about somewhere around 20% body fat with maybe 15 pounds of muscle gained from the beginning. 15 to 20 pounds at 18% to 20% body fat, and then that is a sweet spot for a lot of the girls.
Mark: Yeah. 18% to 20% body fat is a good athletic body fat percentage for women.
Mark: I think that the vast majority of women in that situation are going to find that gaining gigantic slabs of muscle is not the biggest problem they’re going to have. Women just don’t do that. You already know that. You don’t need me telling you that.
But I also know that once again aesthetics change. As women begin to train, their idea of what is excessive muscle adapts along with their physical ability, as it improves. What they start off thinking is too much muscle may end up being just fine.
Mark: You know. Just fine with them.
Mike: Agreed. Well, I think we’ve covered everything. I think we can leave it at that.
Mark: I think that’s a complete statement.
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