at the DMV
at the DMV
Weight Training and Body Structure
by Evandra Camara (1982)
The effects of weight training on body structure has been a subject much bandied about in bodybuilding circles for the past three decades. These effects are the direct concern of this article, not the physiology of exercise, per se, or health related aspects. Modern physical culture has, from its earliest phases (starting roughly in the late 1940's with the appearance of Steve Reeves) determined that the ideal male physique should sport wide shoulders, latissimus dorsi sweeping all the way down to a small and muscular waist and narrow hips, full thigh muscles, and large, diamond-shaped calves. Accordingly, bodybuilders have been urged all along to train in such a fashion as to mold their physiques along these lines.
The direction of training instruction found in the the muscle magazines and books has been changing in a continuum, from only tangential references to natural potential, to an increased awareness of this factor in connection with muscular development, to today's strong emphasis on natural ability as a frame of reference by which the trainee must guide his bodybuilding efforts. The bodybuilding magazines of the 1950's, particularly the more commercially-biased ones, pretty much pushed the hereditary factor aside, while emphasizing the technique of specialization as a way of overcoming structural deficiencies.
This line of thinking must have led neophyte bodybuilders to believe that with hard work and the right exercise or combination of exercises practically anyone would be able to develop the classical lines of Reeves or the massiveness of a Ross or an Eiferman. Thus, one can find in the early articles statement like: "Champions are not born, they are made from sweat, determination and knowledge," and "You can change your whole physical structure . . . it's easy and sure if you know how." This position obviously makes bodybuilding success entirely dependent upon the trainee's motivation to discover the exercises and training procedures that will work best for him, and upon his disposition to work very hard and consistently for his set goals.
Specialization techniques, that is, the use of several exercises to work a single bodypart from different angles, were frequently cited during that period as the best way to deal with hereditary limitations and to bring stubborn areas on a par with the rest of one's physique.
In an article by Armand Tanny, bodybuilders were reminded that true championship potential was attained only through steady effort: "The less fortunate, with superlative determination and effort, will gradually surpass the so-called naturals." Perseverance and intensity of effort have, of course, always been considered essential for bodybuilding success, but today these elements do not rank as high in importance as natural ability.
In the 1960's training articles made more frequent and direct references to the limiting effects of heredity on physique building, but continued to indicate that these effects could be overcome if the trainee worked his muscles hard enough and from different angles. Thus, a trainee with short biceps could correct this situation with preacher curls. High, square pectorals could be achieved through regular use of the incline bench. Inches could be gained in shoulder width if all three heads of the deltoids were worked to the maximum. Concerning shoulder development, Larry Scott was, and still is, frequently used as an example of muscular growth compensating for an unfavorable bone structure. Having started out with a relatively narrow shoulder structure, Scott build such tremendous deltoids as to make them one of his outstanding bodyparts.
In the past few years the role of genetic factors in exercise has been given more attention than ever before. This trend was probably first manifested, in systematic fashion, in Arthur Jones' writings in the early 1970's. It is also consistent with the ideas set forth more recently by Mike Mentzer in his Heavy Duty manuals. The basic notion is that natural potential (consisting of skeletal frame, muscle shape and insertions, metabolism , number of muscle cells and fibers) is the prime determinant of bodybuilding superiority, hence, one should develop what he has got to the fullest and be happy with the results.
If we accept this theory as valid, then it is misleading to use Larry Scott as an example that anyone with poor shoulder structure for bodybuilding can, in principle, build massive deltoids and make up for lack of clavicle width. For, surely, Scott must have had good muscle shape and potential for growth in the deltoids to start with, otherwise he would not have been able to achieve the results he did. Dale Adrian and Ron Teufel come to mind as two cases of top bodybuilders who, despite having superbly developed physiques, have not been able to offset lack of shoulder width by developing the deltoids. Lacking a classical V-taper, these men must have worked hard and consistently on their delts over the years to maximize shoulder width and yet, for all their efforts, they have not been able to achieve the level of excellence in this bodypart that Scott was able to. This suggests strongly that working a given muscle group intensely and regularly does not compensate for a structural problem in every case. Growth potential for the muscle group in question must be taken into account as well.
Because muscle shape and skeletal structure are genetically determined and cannot be altered significantly, the trainee should not, according to this orientation, waste time with isolation exercises in his attempt to correct structural deficiencies. He will be much better off using the basic movements which, when done in short training sessions and with great intensity of effort, produce the greatest overall muscle mass. Also, he must keep in mind the basic function of the muscle and use the exercise which duplicates this function, for greatest overall stimulation. The main function of the biceps, for example, is to flex the arm upon the forearm, and this movement is best covered with the standard barbell curl.
In view of these considerations, what is a bodybuilder to do? Concentrate on basic exercises exclusively and forget about structural problems? Or avoid basic exercises, or some of them, for fear they may aggravate these problems, and use isolation movements instead? To put it more concretely, should a narrow-shouldered bodybuilder avoid barbell shrugs, which build great mass on the trapezius but detract from from a wide appearance, and stick to side raises and bentover laterals? Or aim for the greatest possible mass in the general shoulder area through the performance of basic exercises? First of all, one cannot get away from the fact that natural structure cannot be changed drastically after a certain age (generally in the teens), short of surgical intervention, and if this was suggested as being possible in the early bodybuilding literature, much of it was due to commercial interests.
Beginning bodybuilders, therefore, should keep things in perspective, and not try to set their training goals far beyond their natural potential. Isolation movements will not change the shape of a muscle nor will they build great size. Preacher curls will not lengthen a naturally short biceps. Concentration curls will not put a great peak on a naturally full biceps. Boyer Coe, to mention just one example, has yet to achieve a classical "washboard" abdominal formation, despite intense and specialized training on this area for years. He has even used an apparatus in which situps are performed while hanging upside down, providing, it would seem, as vigorous a stimulation of the abdominals as can be possible. His midsection is always trim and muscular but the shape remains unchanged.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN is that awareness of these hereditary limitations must not lead bodybuilders to give up hope of ever improving problem areas. To start with, we know that progressive weight training generates growth in all muscular structures of the body, regardless of muscle shape. The trainee should not be too concerned with working on problem areas at first but, rather, spend some time building a solid foundation and overall muscle mass with standard (basic, big) exercises. Also, it is a fact that some exercises are more effective in stimulating specific sections of a given muscle. Thus, preacher curls are excellent for the lower biceps. Incline bench presses and flyes are a must for thickening the upper pectorals. Calf raises with the emphasis on stretching all the way down will develop the soleus muscle and give the naturally high calf muscle a more elongated look.
What these exercises will not do is change the original shape of the muscle, nor give everyone 'barn door-wide' lats, 'coconut delts, 'diamond' calves etc. etc. as one is commonly led to believe by reading some of the literature. Growth will occur, provided the training is hard and regular, but it will occur within the boundaries and patterns established by heredity. As a general rule, bodybuilders in any stage of development should structure their training programs around basic exercises, incorporating a few isolation-type movemenst when attempting to improve stubborn bodyparts.