How does a man five feet six inches in height appear six feet tall standing alone at a distance? How does he look like he weighs 215 muscular pounds when he barely tips the scale at 176 pounds? Why does his waist look 28 inches, when its actual measurement is 32 inches? How does he step onstage at a bodybuilding competition and blow away competitors who outweigh him by 20, 30 even 50 pounds or more? Why does this man’s body look like a beautiful piece of classical sculpture, while much larger men look misshapen and blocky? The answer — in a word — is symmetry.
The late Vince Gironda, trainer of champion bodybuilders and movie stars, was the true pioneer and master at the art of creating symmetry. He called it “cosmetic bodybuilding” or “creating an illusion.” Vince believed that adding muscle mass did not always improve the physique. “Size without shape is grotesque and the overall appearance is positively revolting.” said Vince. However, when new muscle is added in a manner that enhances your symmetry, the result can take your breath away.
Symmetry refers to the qualities of balance, proportion, shape and classical aesthetics. It was first described by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who explained it in terms of mathematical relationships (which were also used to construct Greek temples). Leonardo DaVinci later expanded on and explained these concepts by way of his “Canon of Proportions” (also known as the “Vitruvian Man”). This illustration depicted a man standing with his arms outstretched within a circle and a square.
The perfectly symmetrical physique is often described as the “X” shape. The top of the X represents broad shoulders, the “V” in the top half of the X represents a wide upper back, narrowing into a small waist with small hips; and the bottom half of the X represents long legs with a flowing outer quad sweep, full calves and upper thigh muscles that seem to connect directly into the waist.
When you think of those who have achieved such classical proportions, they are few in number and include such elite company as Steve Reeves, Vince Gironda, Frank Zane, Bob Paris, Francis Benfatto, and Lee Labrada.
Many people suggest that you must be born with a genetic gift in order to attain such a physique, and there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Three time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane was once asked, “You are particularly famous for your body symmetry. Is there a special way that you train which gives you such great proportions?” Frank replied, “Blame it all on my parents. I guess I was just fortunate to have inherited good bone structure in the first instance.”
If you didn’t “choose” the right parents, what then? Don’t worry. There are specific qualities that create “the illusion” which are obtainable by all. Although not everyone is capable of developing the symmetry of Reeves, Zane or Labrada, every person can improve their muscle shape and symmetry above and beyond where it is today.
Some of the left-brained scientific types throw a tantrum the minute a bodybuilder mentions “muscle shaping.” It may be true that you can’t change your bone structure, muscle insertions or other genetic factors, but you can certainly change your overall body shape and improve your symmetry if you know how. In fact, that IS the very essence of what bodybuilding should be.
Let’s now take a look at some of the specific strategies that can literally sculpt your body into a work of art.
Almost everyone has a favorite body part or a body part that grows very easily. But favoritism in physique development can quickly destroy your shape. Frank Zane said, “The whole point is not to fall in love with one particular body part and throw everything else out.”
Many people believe that symmetry is the perfectly balanced development of every muscle in the body, but that’s only one aspect of symmetry. Having a huge upper body with toothpick legs makes you unsymmetrical, but there’s more to it than that.
Symmetry doesn’t always mean adding muscle evenly everywhere. Sometimes it means developing certain muscle groups to their absolute maximum, while minimizing others.
One characteristic that will destroy anyone’s symmetry is excess body fat. It doesn’t matter how shapely your muscles are if they’re covered with a layer of squishy lard. Body fat adds width and circumference in the hips and waistline, which is one of the quickest ways to destroy your symmetry. Even if you’re not one of the “genetically blessed” with favorable bone structure and muscle insertions, reducing your waist size by losing body fat is a guaranteed way to improve your symmetry.
The smaller your waist, the more of an “illusion” of symmetry you create. This is achieved mostly by fat reduction through nutrition and cardio. However, certain exercises can broaden the waist. Anything that builds the lateral obliques like dumbbell side bends, should be avoided. Certain athletes may use side bends for sports training purposes, but if symmetry is your goal, stay away from them.
Heavy squats can increase your hip and waist size too. This is especially true when performing the squat powerlifting style. If you are naturally thick waisted and wide in the hips with large glutes, avoid the back squat if you want to improve your symmetry.
Broadening your shoulders creates the optical illusion of a smaller waist, even if your waist size doesn’t change. To see just how much of a difference this makes, take a sock or a ball of tissue, and stuff it inside your shirt on each side of your shoulders. Then look in the mirror. Even a small increase in width completely transforms your appearance.
The portion of the shoulders you want to emphasize the most for symmetry is the lateral head of the deltoid. Most people overwork their front deltoids. They emphasize too many shoulder presses, front raises, and bench presses and not enough lateral raises.
I have never seen an exercise performed improperly more often than lateral raises. The most common error is to let the thumbs come up high and the elbows fall too low. The proper way to do lateral raises is to lead with the elbows and keep the palms facing down. To activate the side deltoid even more, you can use the “pour the water” technique, where you internally rotate your arm so your little finger is slightly higher than your thumb. Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, used this technique to help him build some of the greatest shoulders ever, even though he wasn’t genetically gifted in the broad clavicles department.
Another terrific width builder is the medium or wide grip upright row. Most people perform this exercise with a narrow grip, which lets your trapezius hog all the glory. If you’re naturally narrow in the shoulders and you want to maximize your symmetry and V shape, avoid direct trap work in favor of side delt work.
Lat width gives you a “V-Taper,” making your waist look smaller. Lat width is NOT easy to develop for most people and takes intense training and higher volume than other body parts. It also requires the proper selection of exercises.
All chin up and pulldown variations are great for lat width. It’s a myth that a wide grip makes your back wider. It’s not the grip width that affects fiber recruitment; it’s the angle of pull relative to your body position. Medium and close grip chin ups and pulldowns are equally if not more effective for developing the V shape as a wide grip.
Here’s five more tips on lat width: (1) To activate the Teres Major, which lies directly below your rear deltoids and also improves width, emphasize the stretch position on your pulldowns so you are leaning forward with your head dropped between your arms. (2) Perform a lot of seated rowing work with a medium overhand (pronated grip), pulling a short straight bar to your low pec line. (3) To work the Teres, get a full stretch and do not arch your back in the contracted position; to hit the mid back and lat belly, arch and get peak contraction. (4) If you have an adjustable height low pulley machine, set the height to 16” off the floor or seat level for your cable rows. (5)To put a real whooping on your lats, perform a maximum stretch exercise such as pullovers immediately after your pulldowns or chin ups in superset fashion.
Rows also help with width, but since they work the lat fibers that attach to the mid and upper spine, they are considered “thickness” exercises more than width exercises. A fully developed back has width and thickness, but to specialize on symmetry, do the majority of your exercises for width until you achieve the proportions you desire.
The chest is often one of the easiest muscles to bulk up. Compounded with the fixation most bodybuilders have on the bench press, this contributes to over development of the pecs relative to the rest of the body. Part of symmetry is balance, and overdeveloping an easy to grow muscle group throws your physique out of balance.
What’s even worse is when the lower pectoral muscles become overdeveloped and body fat creeps up even slightly. This results in the appearance of “bunched up, droopy” pectorals (guys, it’s pecs you want, not boobs!)
The ideal pectoral development is not a hanging bulbous mass, but a muscle that is slab like in appearance and fully developed from top to bottom. The slab runs all the way up to the clavicle. The lower pecs must developed well; combined with low body fat, a sharp, flaring lower pec line clearly delineates the lower-outer pec border. Exercise physiologists always freak out and say there is no inner and outer pec, but if you look in any anatomy book, you will see that the pectorals are fan-shaped, and the “lower” and “outer” fibers are one in the same.
To hit the “lower and outer” pecs, lay off the flat bench presses for a while and focus on dips on the wide end (32”) of a V-bar. To hit the pecs with dips, you should keep your feet underneath or in front of you, flare your elbows out, round your back and look down with your chin on your chest. Another exercise that will help you achieve a nice pec line is the decline cable flye performed with the handles meeting above the groin (not over the chest).
NOTE: If you’re female, all the tips in this article apply to you as well, except the previous advice about pec development. It’s the upper, clavicular portion of your pecs you’ll want to emphasize because that’s the portion of the muscle that is most visible. Incline bench work will do the trick nicely).
Squats may be the best leg size builder, but performed improperly or excessively, they can throw off your symmetry. Powerlifters squat with the bar low on the upper back, with the butt sticking out and the upper body leaning forward. They do this because more weight can be lifted by recruiting your hips, butt and low back. That’s great for powerlifting and power sports, but terrible for symmetry.
The bodybuilding squat is much more vertical: it’s called a high bar squat, where the bar is high on the traps/shoulders, the torso more vertical and the stance narrower. This hits the butt and hips less and throws more stress “lower down” on the quads. Better still, you could use more front squats and hack squats, which isolate the quads and reduce hip and glute involvement.
Why are high fashion models always tall with very long legs? Simple answer: Visual aesthetics! Some people were born with long legs, while others have short, thick, “stubby legs.” Fortunately, if you were not born with long legs, you can create an “illusion” of the long legged look through training.
First, you want to develop the entire thigh from top to bottom. Many bodybuilders suffer from what Vince Gironda called “turnip” thighs, overdeveloped in the middle and upper portion (with a big butt) and no lower quad. Vince said that a perfectly developed thigh would nearly as wide in circumference at the mid portion as the bottom portion.
Powerlifting squats and heavy partial range leg presses overdevelop the upper thigh, hips and butt. The lower quad (vastus medialis, or teardrop near the knee) can be developed with a narrower stance and emphasis on the bottom range of motion on any squatting movement, avoiding lockout at the top. Three quarter hack squats and front squats are particularly effective, and so are one and a quarters: squat down full, come up one quarter, go back down to full, then come up just short of lockout; that’s one rep. Try a few weeks of those and see what happens to your “teardrop.”
If your knees can take it, the sissy squat is a superb thigh “shaper” because it’s one of the few exercises that hit the rectus femoris all the way up into the hips, creating an illusion of long legs. The rectus is the muscle visible in the upper thigh, which when fully developed, makes your legs appear longer.
If you’re a bodybuilder, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get big; that’s part of what bodybuilding is about. But never go after size at the expense of symmetry. Remember, there’s a difference between being big and looking big. Listen to what Vince said:
“All beginning bodybuilders, I find, are too interested in the scale and the tape as yardsticks of progress. They seem to think if they weigh or measure a certain amount, that this automatically produces a perfect build. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they don’t seem to remember is that they do not weigh or measure you on the physique stage; they determine the best build by shape, size, and symmetry.”
You might be thinking, “Well, I’m not a bodybuilder and you wouldn’t catch me dead onstage in one of those teeny “Speedo” bikinis, so why should I care about being symmetrical?” Here’s why: Bodybuilder or not, a physique with “classical” symmetry is beautiful by anyone’s standards (including the opposite sex).
If you’re male and you only work on the “T-shirt muscles” (big arms and chest), you might look good in the gym in your T-shirt, but hit the beach in a pair of shorts and everyone will see the full, unsymmetrical picture. If you’re female and all you work on is your butt, hips and thighs, then when YOU hit the beach in a swimsuit or put on a sleeveless and or low cut dress, your lack of shoulder width and a svelte V-tapered, small-waisted torso will be right there for all eyes to see (not to mention the “grandmother arms” tricep flab that flaps in the breeze).
Lesson: Work on symmetry and balanced develoment of all body parts, whether you’re male, female, young, old, bodybuilder, non-bodybuilder or anything in between.
One last word of caution: Anabolic drugs are more likely to ruin your symmetry than improve it. Many pro bodybuilders today are massive but look terrible. For those who don’t consciously focus on improving symmetry, the drug use simply blows them further and further out of proportion. No matter how big they get, they don’t look any better. As Lee Labrada likes to say, strive for “mass with class” not just mass.
Apply the tips you’ve learned in this article, and you’ll be surprised and extremely pleased with how radically you change your body shape. And just think of how much fun it will be when people start comparing your body to a Greek sculpture!
Copyright, Tom Venuto & Fitness Renaissance, LLC. No reproduction of this article is permitted. This article originally appeared as an exclusive for Lee Labrada’s Lean Body coaching club newsletter.
PS By the way, want to know what IFBB pro bodybuilding legend Lee Labrada and natural amateur bodybuilder Tom Venuto (me) have in common? No, it’s not our symmetry (yeah, don’t I wish!!!)
To find out, read my latest review of Will Brink’s Muscle Building Nutrition book:
Published on 27 January, 2006