I started lifting in a dusty, little-used gym on my high school campus. I never did see any other students in there - just a few old guys who trained so consistently I came to think of them as part of the environment, along with the rows of rusty, once-painted (black, I think) dumbbells that lined three of the walls.
The routine was always the same. I came in. They ignored me. I trained. I left.
The pattern was broken only once, to my recollection.
On a particularly hot day in June 1971, just before school let out for the summer, one of those septuagenarian ironheads stopped in the middle of a set of curls, fixed me with a penetrating stare and said, "Anyone can get big . . . it's symmetry that separates the legends from the merely lumplike."
It sounded like advice, and so I followed it. I've pursued symmetry through a maze of "this exercise affects only that part of the (fill in the bodypart)" recommendations. I even spent a large portion of my college years in the biomechanics lab attaching electrodes to (somewhat) willing gym regulars to try to determine what really makes a difference in the quest for muscular balance.
And that brings me to my next two articles. [Second installment, IronMan, Feb. '93 issue]. It turns out that there are ways in which you can control your physique and others in which you flatly, absolutely, positively CANNOT, despite gym myth to the contrary. Let's spend a few minutes separating the wheat from the chaff.
Symmetry is a function of many things, including your height, bone thickness, bone length, leanness and muscularity. Unless you throw teenage hormone manipulation into the equation, the first three - height, bone thickness and bone length - are basically out of your hands.
Leanness is something you can control. I'm not talking about 8% bodyfat vs. 4%. I'm talking about keeping off whole extra pounds that can do to your physique what lumps of Playdough would do to a Michelangelo sculpture. If you don't stay lean, no amount of training will make you symmetrical.
That's where things get interesting. Muscularity contributes to symmetry on two levels. First, there's the shape of each individual muscle - obviously a flat biceps will have one effect on your look and a peaked biceps will have another. Then there's the size of each muscle relative to the others - a big biceps and no triceps creates one look; a big biceps and a big triceps creates another. In this first installment we'll focus on the first level, the shape of each muscle, and in the next half we'll turn to the second, the size of each muscle.
For years psychologists have insisted that a muscle's shape is its shape - period - and that you can't do a darned thing about it unless you're talking about different heads of a muscle with separate nervous innervation.
I think they're wrong - and right.
Here's the basic rule: The further from maximum development a muscle is, the more control you have over its shape. It's like arranging socks in a drawer. If you put in just a few pairs, the pile can take many shapes depending on how you arrange them - a little round on the right, a flat mess in the middle. But if you stuff the sock drawer full, the socks have to assume one shape - that of the drawer.
Ditto with muscle. Until a muscle approaches its genetically determined max, in essence, you have room in your muscular sock drawer and some limited control over the muscle's apparent shape (though much less than you have over the socks). As the muscle approaches its genetic max, though, it assumes a particular predetermined shape just as the socks in the full drawer do. No amount or type of training can change that.
Think about it . . .
. . . when you look at pictures of competitive bodybuilders over the years, most of whom you would assume have muscles approaching their genetic potentials, you see improvements in apparent hardness, definition, relative balance between bodyparts, and overall size.
What you don't see is someone starting out with a well-developed biceps peak of a particular shape and then returning the following year with a peak of a different shape. Muscle just doesn't work that way.
All of which is not to say that you can't exercise control over your physique, just that in the advanced levels of bodybuilding you can exercise much greater control by adjusting the development of one bodypart relative to that of another than by trying to change the apparent shape of individual muscles.
Since many of us spend a good portion of our training careers at sub-maximally developed levels, however, let's see what you can do during that phase to affect apparent muscle shape.
There are three things:
First, you can vary your emphasis on different heads of a muscle; a technique that will work throughout your training career. The heads of a multi-headed muscle, such as the deltoid, are stimulated independently and perform separate - though often overlapping - functions. Because of this you can target them with different exercises, which gives you major control over how developed each head gets. This, in turn, gives you control over the look of the muscle as a whole and over your symmetry. For example, you can improve the appearance of your delts by devoting extra effort to developing the rear heads.
Most routines, even advanced ones, tend to focus on the front and side heads, addressing the rear heads almost as an afterthought. That's completely backward! The front-delt heads get stimulated by a whole slew of exercises, including supine and incline bench presses, supine and incline flyes, most pressing motions and most unsupported curls, to name just a few. The rear-delt heads get some peripheral stimulation from some lat exercises; but for the most part only exercises that target them specifically stimulate them enough to encourage growth. Chances are you can improve the appearance of your delts - and your overall symmetry - by decreasing emphasis on the front heads and increasing emphasis on the rear.
There are many other examples. You can increase your concentration on your upper pecs to raise the chest; you can increase your emphasis on the short heads of the biceps to improve your peaks and splits by doing more supinated movements; you can increase your emphasis on the inner heads of the triceps to thicken the arms overall; and so on.
Move for Growth
The second thing you can do to change apparent muscle shape during the sub-maximal development phase is to take advantage of the fact that greater development seems to occur closest to the "moving"end of a muscle. Many muscles have the ability to cause movement at more than one joint. The abs, for instance, can flex the lower spine and tilt the pelvis, or they can flex the mid-spine and round the back.
During most exercises muscles that can cause movement at more than one joint don't do it. One joint is usually fixed, providing a base from which movement can occur. For example, when you do pelvic tilts, your upper torso is fixed, allowing the pelvis to move; when you do crunches, your pelvis is fixed, allowing the upper torso to move.
As I said, the greater development seems to occur at the end of the muscle that's closest to the movement. Witness the fact that pelvic tilt exercises seem to affect the lower abs more than the uppers and crunch type exercises seem to affect the uppers more than the lowers. Employing this effect gives you some control over the appearance of a muscle in its less than maximally developed state.
You can, for instance, build your upper hamstrings by doing exercises that mainly involve extending the hips, like Eagle hip extensions or squats. Or you can build your lower hamstrings by doing exercises that mainly involve flexing the knees, like leg curls. Or you can do both for more complete overall development.
One last thing before we leave this point. There's a more subtle (and more controversial) version of this thinking that gives you another tool to play with. It works like this:
When you perform some exercises, muscles that can cause movement at more than one joint cause movement mainly at one joint but allow some movement at a second joint. For example, when you do regular curls, the biceps mainly flexes the elbow, but it also allows some movement at the shoulder as well. That's in contrast to an exercise like concentration curls, during which virtually all of the movement takes place at the elbow.
It appears that you get a different effect from an exercise in which there's no movement at the second joint as opposed to one in which there's some movement at the second joint. Exercises in which there's no movement at the second joint seem to cause greater development in the end of the muscle that's close to where the movement occurs.
You may already have experienced this if you've done both concentration curls and regular curls. Most lifters find that concentration curls seem to increase the development of the part of the biceps that's just above the elbow - producing a biceps that has a steeper falloff from plateau to valley when the arm is extended. That's in contrast to what happens wit regular curls, which seem to enhance development in the body of the muscle, with less severe falloff. A judicious choice between exercises that involve no movement at a second joint and exercises that involve some movement at a second joint may give you a measure of control over a muscle's appearance.
Our third appearance-altering technique involves changing your position during an exercise so that the mechanical stress affects one part of a muscle more than others. This is a powerful technique, but it's usually used incorrectly. For example, consider the advice to rotate your feet out during calf raises to work the outer calves and in to work the inner calves. It's possible to shift the stress from outer to inner calves when you do calf raises, but rotating the feet in and out is not the way to do it.
Rotating the feet increases the torque on the knees, drastically increasing your risk of injury. The better way is to subtly shift your weight from the inside edges of your feet to the outside edges. Don't actually roll your feet so your standing on the inside or outside edge. That all but guarantees an injury. We're talking subtle here! This technique safely redirects the mechanical stress, giving you some control over the appearance of the target bodypart.
Well, I'm out of room once again. Next installment we'll pick up with recommendations for improving your symmetry by changing the size of each muscle group relative to the others.
Enjoy Your Lifting!