Aesthetics and Training

by Mark Rippetoe | November 17, 2021

three lifters training the pull

Most of us started training to look better. A long time ago, the only sources of information about training were a small group of monthly publications – paper magazines, kiddos – that were almost exclusively promotions for the physique-aspect of training. Weider's Muscle Builder and Power (it carried several titles that seemed to change regularly), Hoffman's Strength and Health and Muscular Development, and Perry Rader's Iron Man were basically the only sources of information for those of us out in the sticks, far away from the big city gyms where all this material was produced.

It was all intended to sell products: equipment and supplements, most of very low quality and offered at very high prices. And we were hungry for it, because we wanted to look like the guys in the magazines, contest bodybuilders in contest shape, with thin skin, visible vascularity, nice arms, and most of all, abs. Abs. Slabs of abs. Washboard abs. Abs were the sine qua non of the male physique. Still are.

What was never explained was the genetic/drug component of the appearance of these guys. Never. The message was clear: train like these guys, eat like they eat, take the supplements they take (well, most of them anyway), and you will look like these guys. That was the promise, every month, and we believed it because we wanted to, and we were ignorant.

We didn't know any better, and they damn sure weren't going to tell us. The magazines were all about sales, and to the extent that the information in the articles translated into sales, they were happy to provide it. But telling millions of young men that they would never look like Arnold or Zane or Franco was not productive for sales, and it wasn't going to happen. And it didn't: they stuck to the playbook like glue, and may still be doing it for all I know. I haven't even seen a Weider publication in years, but something tells me they're still selling products in lieu of telling people the truth.

And the truth is that contest bodybuilders are born, not trained. Long muscle bellies, thin skin (meaning the tendency to not deposit subcutaneous fat), big calves, gracile knees, elbows, and ankles, perfect limb-length proportions, prominent deltoids, and nice skin cannot be trained, and all are necessary for success at even state-level bodybuilding. And even a whole bunch of drugs cannot provide these things.

It took me a long time to realize this, and it was a hard lesson. We can't have everything we want, especially when what we want is silly and vain. You can train like Dorian, eat like Dorian, supplement like Dorian, sleep like Dorian, and never look like Dorian. And really, this is so perfectly obvious that the only reason I have to explain it to you is that you've been meticulously prepared to believe otherwise. The magazines – and now the internet websites – have done their job.

But anyone can improve their appearance – dramatically. And the best way to do this is to get stronger, and therefore bigger. The fact is that a 5'10” guy who weighs 175 with razor abs looks like an average guy in clothes, and a 5'10” guy who weighs 225 with a 550-pound deadlift looks like a huge masculine monster in clothes. Unless you're a douchebag, you don't hang around with your shirt off, and therefore nobody gives a shit about your abs. Women don't give a shit about your abs either – women like men with power, money, and a big cock, not abs. Women will tolerate a pot belly on such a man, but they will not tolerate destitution and disappointment from a man with razor abs. Also, women don't like men who are more vain than they are – it's an extreme disincentive.

As our friend Robert Santana has observed, male appearance is determined by the presence or absence of a few easily identified physical characteristics: neck size and traps, shoulder width, lats, forearms, waist girth, hip depth, and leg size, all of which are quite apparent in clothes – and all of which are developed by squats and deadlifts, the primary builders of strength and therefore muscular size. Unless you are of genetically low bodyfat, the acquisition of a 550-pound deadlift will not happen at 8% bodyfat in the absence of extremely obsessive-compulsive behavior and a lot of chemical assistance.

Strength increases with muscular hypertrophy, and as you get stronger your muscles grow. Muscular growth facilitates a strength increase, and that's the only mechanism by which strength increases over time. The problem with high reps is that they must be trained with lighter weights. Lighter weights are what you're lifting now, so if you want to grow bigger you must lift heavier weights. Sets of 5 are how this is best accomplished.

A man with a 550 deadlift is bigger than that same man with a deadlift of 275 x 8 x 5. He gets to 550 by getting his set of 5 up to 495. High reps are not necessary for hypertrophy, especially for novices. This is bodybuilding mythology, and it persists because you'd rather lift lighter weights, since that's easier – 5 sets of 8 at 275 is much easier than a limit set of 5 at 495. So you believe people who tell you that light weights for higher reps are the Road To Huge. They are not, as you already know, since you're not huge yet even though you've been doing 5 sets of 8 on a “reset.” Even advanced lifters don't need to do 8s or 10s, certainly not 12s or 20s. I did all that shit, and it was a waste of time and youth.

If you train for strength, specifically for heavy sets of 5 on the squat, deadlift, bench press, and press, as your numbers go up your muscular size increases at the same time. Because it has to – if you add 5 pounds to your deadlift every time you deadlift, your strength has to increase, and you have to grow. Chin-ups are the only assistance exercise you need, and as you gain bodyweight your chins get stronger even if your reps stay the same. This is the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle at work. It's basic biology, and you should Follow The Science.

The “stress” part of the cycle is therefore simpler than you think it is. The thing that makes the “recovery/adaptation” part of the cycle work is your diet and sleep. Sleep is obvious, so let's talk about what you eat – or probably what you're not eating. Your misplaced vanity has you on a “cut” which interferes with the cycle – if you can't recover from the stress, you can't grow.

Remember our 5'10” guy at 175 and at 225? If he starts out at 10% bodyfat, gains 50 pounds and a big deadlift and squat, and increases his bodyfat to 16%, his lean body mass goes from 157.5 pounds to 189 pounds – he's gained 31.5 pounds of lean mass. We do this all the time in our gyms, and anybody that says otherwise is ignorant of the facts. His deadlift has gone from 325 x 5 to 495 x 5. This should take him about 9 months, maybe not that long if he's diligent. It will require that he eats 5000+ calories a day, and 250+ grams of protein. And 225 is not his limit muscular weight – that's where he can be at 9 months. A 5'10” man can carry 275 at 18% bodyfat if he trains and eats correctly, and 20% bodyfat looks just fine if his neck and shoulders are big enough. There is no “formula” that can correctly predict the limit of your lean body mass, but there are lots of people willing to tell you what you can't do.

But he got fat!” you screech. Yes, he gained some bodyfat, since an anabolic environment causes both fat and muscle to be accrued. Understand that the process of gaining muscle also entails gaining some bodyfat, just as the process of losing bodyfat entails losing some muscle. An anabolic environment causes all tissues to grow – muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, and bodyfat. Training and diet skew the growth in the direction of lean mass, but it cannot change the law. A little bodyfat is not the concern – the lean mass is the concern, because that is what improves his appearance. We don't care about his razor abs, since we're not obsessive/compulsive lunatics with an eating disorder (the kind of guy that pisses off his family at Thanksgiving). We care about the fact that he looks better because he's a bigger, stronger, healthier man. His neck and traps are bigger, his shoulders are wider, his lats and arms are bigger, especially his forearms, his waist is a little bigger, but his hips are much deeper and his legs are much bigger. Even his calves have grown, and all he did was the big lifts and some chins.

Wrap your head around the fact that an increase in bodyfat percentage is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you're entered in the Olympia. If you're a skinny little dude, your appearance is that of a skinny little dude until you train hard, eat a lot more, and get bigger. This means much bigger muscles and a little more fat. And if this is unacceptable to you, you really have been brainwashed, an all-too-common feature of today's society.

And if you're so brainwashed that you're willing to miss the most productive years of your training to stay ripped, or cut, or whatever word you want to use for “not big enough” – like I did when I was your age – then go ahead. But if I were you, I'd take advantage of my potential for the rapid acquisition of a bunch of muscle mass and quit worrying about silly bullshit nobody else cares about but you. Your concerns are misplaced, and all you're doing is holding yourself back.

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