Bodybuilding vs. Aesthetics

Take a look at the following physiques.

Bodybuilding vs. Aesthetics Markus RühlBodybuilding vs. Aesthetics Jay Cutler

 

Do they inspire you? Do you want to become just like them? With all due respect to Markus Rühl and Jay Cutler, most people, even those that go to the gym, are repulsed by them. They may be big and lean, but they’re unattractive, unaesthetic as bodybuilders and artists call it.

Before we go over what separates a grotesque behemoth from aesthetic eye candy, let’s first define the terms we’re dealing with here.

 

 The Definition of Bodybuilding

The manager at my previous gym told me, “We’re OK with guys using big weights and we have some really big guys in here, but we do not tolerate bodybuilding. Most of our members just want to lose fat and build some muscle or get toned.” That’s just a play of words, semantic nonsense. It’s akin to saying, ‘Yeah, I play basketball, but I’m not a basketball player.’  You know what the difference between a professional bodybuilder and a guy looking to get ‘toned’ is? The bodybuilder is more successful. Both go to the gym to build muscle and lose fat and that is the very essence of bodybuilding: maximize muscle; minimize fat. There are other factors of course, like symmetry and proportions, but building muscle is the foundation. Bodybuilding is no more than recompositioning your body.

If you lift weights to improve the way you look, you are a bodybuilder. You may not be a professional or competitive bodybuilder, but you are a bodybuilder. The only reason people don’t call themselves bodybuilders is the social stigma. They don’t want to be associated with guys giving up their social lives to work at their physiques, with whole body shaving and tanning, with steroids, with publicly posing in thongs, with these narcissistic monsters. That’s fine, but it doesn’t change the fact they’re doing what you do, just so much more successfully that other people travel to shows just to watch them.

This social pressure not to be a bodybuilder is so deeply internalized by most people that they follow training programs designed for purposes other than their own. Anything not to show you’re training just to build muscle. They’re not bodybuilding, they’re training to get ‘fit’, ‘toned’ or ‘athletic’. I’ve also seen countless guys adopt more strength oriented programs for this reason. Bodybuilding isn’t cool. There needs to be something else. Athletics, fitness, function, strength, endurance, power… At least the latter 3 are quantifiable. What do fitness, athleticism  and function even mean if you’re not an athlete? I love reading about people advocating the deadlift because it carries over well to everyday life. Pick up a lot of 300 pound grocery bags, do you? I’m definitely not saying these are invalid reasons to train, but you need to be real with yourself. Would you train if training had no effect on the way you looked? Would you trade 10 pounds of muscle to improve your blood pressure? Would you willingly get fat to be better at sports you’re not competing in?

 

Aesthetics

Assuming you are in fact training to improve your physique, there is still the question of what you think is a good physique. As the cliché goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The psychophysical Range Frequency Theory [1] explains how we perceive a physique. Essentially, in our mind we rank the physique against the physiques in our frame of reference. Your frame of reference consists of the people in your gym, the people you see on TV, everyone that easily comes to mind. The person that most easily comes to mind is usually yourself and most people associate themselves with like-minded people. Therefore, the single best predictor of the degree of muscularity you prefer is your current level of muscle mass. As the saying goes, perfection is a moving target.

Many people start out scrawny and think fashion models and endurance athletes have the best bodies imaginable. Anyone with a lean stomach and some chest muscle is considered perfect.

 

Brad Pitt Ideal Male Body Brad Pitt in Fight Club is widely considered to represent physical perfection by untrained men.

If they make it past the beginner stages and start to train more than the mirror muscles (chest, abs, biceps), they gradually begin to like physiques with defined muscles.

 

300 Ideal Male BodyThe 300 shredded Spartans embodied masculinity for intermediate trainees around the world.

When they become that size themselves, albeit usually less lean, they often start liking strength athletes, fitness models and natural bodybuilders. Notable exceptions are certain genetically blessed individuals, who see muscle gain as a normal result of screwing around in the gym and consequently do not see muscular guys as extraordinary. A typical identifier of these people is that they stopped training a muscle group or exercise because it was too successful, like squatting to build the legs.

 

Greg Plitt Aesthetic

Greg Plitt’s body was used to model the perfect Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.

 

In short, getting bigger changes your frame of reference of what is a normal physique and therefore changes your aesthetic preferences. However, there’s more to aesthetics than muscle mass. Two people with the same level of muscularity can look extremely different. So what makes a physique aesthetic?

 

Factors that Influence the Look of a Physique

Let’s start with the difference between classical and modern bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding, then and now.

 

Most people prefer the looks of the bodybuilders from the so called Golden Age of bodybuilding to the professionals of today. Obviously, Markus Rühl in the above picture is at least 50lb heavier than Frank Zane and the main reason people dislike professional bodybuilders’ physiques is simply that they’re too deviant, but two other factors do come into play. First, most professional bodybuilders just aren’t very handsome. That is to say, it seems there is a negative correlation between facial attractiveness and presence in professional bodybuilding. A pretty face makes a very muscular physique much more tolerable for many people and an ugly face can make any body look bad. Secondly, professional bodybuilders often display unnatural growth in more tissues than just muscle due to the (ab)use of androgenic anabolic steroids and particularly growth hormone. Growth of the hands and facial bones, particularly the jaw, can result. Swollen internal organs can make even the leannest bodybuilders look pregnant and their skin and  hair can also be affected. So it’s unsurprising that most people don’t like the ‘growth hormone look’. Synthol, Esiclene, implants and other muscle volumizers further contribute to the unnatural look. Take a look at the pictures below from Flex Wheeler (also showing Lee Priest). Flex used to have, in my opinion, one of the greatest physiques of all time, but the artificial aids took their toll.

For more examples of muscle volumizers, take a look at this site.

Most classical bodybuilders weren’t natural either, but today’s professional bodybuilders have taken it to a whole new level. So to sum up the factors that define current professionals’ physiques, we’re talking about people who have trained hours a week for years, have incredibly rare genetics, are on various steroids for at least half the year and use all sorts of artificial aids. Remember this next time someone asks you if you want to be that big. You never will be, no matter how hard you train or what you inject. People drastically underestimate the size of professional bodybuilders. The picture of Ronnie Coleman below may give you an idea.

What about somewhat less extreme cases, like Frank Zane or Flex Wheeler in the before picture? Most people will never achieve such a physique either, because not only does it take amazing bodybuilding genetics and steroids, every one of these people also had an exceptional anthropometry, that is, bodily proportions. Two of the most influential factors, over which you (normally) have no control, that determine your physique’s appearance are the relative length of your bones and the ratio of your muscle to tendon length.

The relative length of your bones, or your skeletal frame, limits the proportions you can attain. You can make tremendous differences in the ratio of your waist to shoulder circumference, but you will always be limited by the width of your hips and your shoulders. Look at the picture of Steve Reeves below. Most people will never achieve such a V-shape.

The ratio of your muscle to tendon length contributes significantly to the ‘fullness’ of your physique. If you have short tendons and long muscle bellies, your physique will appear and in fact is fuller and vice versa. Such a ratio makes your physique very curved. Curves create the illusion of something being much larger than it actually is, because your brain mainly perceives differences and relative lengths, not absolutes. Examples of people with very full muscle bellies are Flex Wheeler, shown previously and Phil ‘The Gift’ Heath, shown below.

 

Also, look at how low the lats of Franco ‘The Bat’ Columbo originate from the back. Some people have lats that start haflway up the spine. The Bat’s lats/wings start almost right above his hips, creating a ridiculous V-shape (W-shape really).

 

Aside from the length of muscles, their shape also affects their appearance. The muscles where this is most obvious are the abs, the pecs and the biceps.

The biceps is one of the muscles with the highest variability in shape. Even the amount of heads in the muscle, normally 2, has been reported to vary up to 7 heads. Some people have biceps with a large peak and others do not. You can slightly increase your peak by preferentially training the long head of the biceps over the short head, but genetics play a much larger role than training. Look at the biceps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dorian Yates below to see the difference in appearance caused by the shape of the biceps.

Biceps Shape Peak

 

The chest varies much less than the biceps in shape, but it’s such a prominent muscle that small differences make a large impact on the look of a physique. Gynecomastia, or gyno for short, can radically change the shape of the pecs due to swelling of the mammary glands. Its causes are, among other things, supraphysiological levels of estrogen, for example as a result of the use of androgenic steroids, and genetics. A considerable amount of people have some degree of gyno. See the picture below for a comparison of pre- and post-surgery to remove the breast tissue.

 

The abdominals also greatly vary in shape. Some if not most people’s abs are not perfectly symmetrical. Some people can get an 8-pack, but most can’t. There’s nothing you can do to change the shape of your abs by training, despite what many advertisements claim. The image below demonstrates the difference in abdominal shape between Tom Venuto and … some guy.

 

Also compare Tom Venuto’s chest to that of Mike Mentzer. (How that man never won an Olympia is beyond me.)

 

In sum, there are many genetic factors that contribute to your physical appearance besides muscle mass and fat. This may sound depressing, but there are some general lessons to be learned from all this information.

 

Take Home Messages

  • Define your goals concretely and be honest. It’s more effective to train one quality at a time than to try to be good at everything.
  • If you are training for aesthetics, mass or to generally look good, you are a bodybuilder and you should train like one. Muscle mass is muscle mass. It doesn’t matter if you want to look like Brad Pitt or Ronnie Coleman: until you reach that goal, the training focus is the same. Maximize muscle; minimize fat.
  • Be aware that your aesthetic preferences can change over time. A goal of being 220lb at 10% body fat is completely arbitrary, as is trying to match your anthropometry to certain nonsense proportions, such as the Golden Rule. Long term goals may work for some, but in the short term the goal is always just to progress.
  • Muscle mass and body fat percentage are basically the only things you can control about your physique’s appearance. You have less control over proportions and symmetry and if you are maziming whole body hypertrophy using a balanced program, those things tend to take care of themselves. Don’t worry about your biceps peak or the shape of your abs, just train for a bigger biceps and less fat. Genetics are given. You can’t change them, so don’t worry about them.

References

  1. Blanchflower et al. (2010). Imitative Obesity and Relative Utility. Journal of the European Economic Association Volume 7, Issue 2-3, pages 528–538, April-May 2009
  2. Livio, M. (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number. NY, New York: Broadway Books.
  3. Poudel, P. P. & Bhattarai, C. (2009). Study on the supernumerary heads of biceps brachii muscle in Nepalese. Nepal Med Coll J, 11(2): 96–98.

31 Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Great Article Menno. It's funny what a dirty word bodybuilding has become, you can't even mention the word "curl" without being ridiculed while at the same time it's perfectly except-able to say you do close grip chins for your arms. I guess by pretending that hypertrophy is just a side effect of your "strength training" makes it suddenly not "T-shirt muscle".  I would disagree that you have no control over your bodies proportions. The control is very limited but that is why Gironda called it "creating an illusion" and the idea of ideal proportions does at least remind us to work those muscles we may be neglecting. Glad you addressed the whole functional strength thing,"I love reading about people advocating the deadlift because it carries over well to everyday life. Pick up a lot of 300lb grocery bags, do you? " People always ask me why I don't back squat? When I tell them I don't want a big ass, they always proceed to tell me  what a functional exercise it is. After explaining I am not a navy seal, do not fight in the UFC or play in the NFL I also like to mention never once in my life have I been squatting down and suddenly had 900lbs fall onto my shoulders and that if I ever do I assume the rush of adrenaline I will get will help me to lift it off like those people who flip a car to save someone trapped underneath.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Yep, all the cool kids do functional power performance fitness and bodybuilding remains a stigmatized subculture of bignorexic steroid users. : )

    • arif says:

      You just read my mind and explained it perfectly,300lb grocery bags lol..

  2. Jibby says:

    This reminds me of a picture you posted in your article on protein of two versions of the same girl: one with proportionally sized breasts and the other with oversized breasts, caption reading "Often, more is better, but at some point it's just too much".

    If one is indeed training just for aesthetics, then it's important to keep the ultimate goal in mind. The reason most people start bodybuilding is to become more sexually attractive. So while you are probably correct in saying that your aesthetic preferences change as you are exposed to the community, the tastes of the demographic that you are trying to attract (usually hot girls) is relatively stable. And I would argue that most people who are not initiated to the bodybuilding community find a subtly muscled look to be most sexually attractive (like many male models). My theory of why bodybuilders’ aesthetic preferences change is because 1: competitive nature of men (instincts formed by sexual selection), and 2: people develop preferences to what they are familiar with (mere-exposure effect).

    Now, if we agree that bigger is not always better, then the next question is how to train to achieve a good balance. Maybe you are correct and we should just train as professional bodybuilders do, picking exercises for hypertrophy, and at some point we will reach a level that is “ideal”, at which point we just maintain. However, I think the reason that people chose “functional” movements like squats and deadlifts is because they believe that it will result in a musculature that is more natural and balanced, ergo sexually attractive. Whether or not this is true is arguable, of course. You say it is difficult to become so huge that it is unattractive. I disagree. I see plenty of men who obviously load themselves with carbs and overtrain their arms or chest, creating this “puffy” look with hutched posture and arms swinging unnaturally far from their torso. I would argue that a generally more attractive look is slightly depleted glycogen in muscles (less bloat), and a balance of muscles that supports a good posture and natural-looking gait. To that point, I should say that I disagree that aerobic exercise is useless. I think playing sports is a great addition to a training regimen to promote a healthy posture, deplete some glycogen, burn some fat, and other known/unknown benefits. Sure, you may not be the biggest dude in your gym, but if your goal is physical attractiveness, then I reiterate, “at some point it’s just too much”.

    Thoughts?

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      I strongly agree with your 2 hypotheses regarding why bodybuilders keep training. However, the following conclusions are subjective. What you think is “too big” will likely change as you get bigger yourself. That’s the main point. It’s entirely relative.

      As for glycogen and bloat, the two are not necessarily correlated. You can be dry yet full. In fact, that’s what all contest competitors aspire to.

  3. Jibby says:

    By the way, great blog and I’m glad you brought up this topic. Another consideration I want to bring up: health is often a reason that many start to lift weights. Usually, this goal is in addition to the aesthetic goals rather than being mutually exclusive. Bodyfat loss, increasing metabolism, improving mood, energy levels, and many other benefits. I personally love the way a weight lifting workout makes me feel. It is definitely more enjoyable than running on a treadmill. I bring this up because there are often arguments about what weightlifting exercises are healthier, how much muscle one can carry before it starts being a stress on your body, how low can one go in bodyfat before you start experiencing starvation-like symptoms, and so on. For many recreational bodybuilders, health is even more important than aesthetics. Now, I’m not saying that training like a bodybuilder is unhealthy – in fact, I suspect doing more isolation work is less stressful on your nervous system than doing heavy Olympic-style lifts. I’m just bringing up this consideration as something that heavily influences how people design their training regimen.

    I realize this is a blog for more hardcore bodybuilders that have a mindset of the more muscle the better. But that’s not all people think about. Personally, I’m (fairly) happy with my musculature, and I’m more focused on losing some remaining fat and improving explosive power for basketball and gymnastics I do for fun. I also do modeling/acting, so aesthetics is definitely a huge consideration of mine, though too much muscle can be detrimental for that career.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Thanks, Jibby. I think physical transformation is the main point though. How many people do you think would train if training did not change your body composition at all? I know I wouldn’t. I’d play a sport instead. Aside from health and aesthetics, general self improvement is also a very prevalent goal of bodybuilders. To improve yourself, be a better person than you were last time, push yourself to the limits, etc.

  4. Jon says:

    " You know what the difference between a professional bodybuilder and a guy looking to get 'toned' is? The bodybuilder is more successful"

    This is so wrong. Most people like certain amount of muscle and find extremely ugly the way

    "successful" bodybuilders look.

     

     

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      I’m talking of success in achieving the intended physiological adaptations, i.e. fat loss and muscle hypertrophy. How much extra muscle you want is not the issue. Whether you want a little or a lot of body recomposition, the training is the same, only the time until the desired result is different.

  5. arif sevimli says:

    Being bigger and being shredded than others doesn't mean you will be more esthetic.Thats the pointof this article.Having high or lower lats,shape of abs are things you can't change and will makeone look less or more esthetic.
    There is more than muscle.Bone density,how your chest traps and shoulder look due to the shape  and size of the clavicle.The size and lenght of the waist.Similary the lenght of your arms or legs even how big or small your feet and hands are will make a difference.Your skin colour and how thin it is.Your face and looks have a big impact overall.Some things can be improved by right preference of training.Huge traps looks less pleasing to the eye than wide bold shoulders like zane or reeves had.Having overdeveloped arms compared to the delts is another big no no.More upper pecs than lower is better.The body should have the v shape from all sides.

  6. Vielen Dank für Ihre Kommentare. Dies bedeutet, es war alles organischen Traffic für diesen Hub und ich hatte noch nicht einmal, sich über aktuelle Ereignisse wie SOPA schreiben und wie Blogs kommentieren hat eine massive Zunahme wegen der Stop-Online-Piraterie-Gesetz gesehen

  7. Menno Henselmans says:
     

     

  8. What a great post. I always prefer lean physique. Phil heath can be the best example. He was lean at his young age, but now he is beast.

    Thanks for you message. So inspiring… Maximize muscle; minimize fat. :D

     

  9. tgi123 says:

    I would like to look like lee haney or Arnold but not like todays bodybuilders. But I still like watching todays bodybuilders.

  10. Billy Jones says:

    Interesting, until I realized the comparisons aren’t real.. The pictures of Arnold and Yate’s biceps for instance and the comparison of their composition–creating connections that don’t actually exist such as genetic factors. Those two guys aren’t even in the same position, Dorian Yates is flexing his lats as well and Arnold pinpointed his biceps. I stopped reading at this point.

  11. lol says:

    GREAT READ! THANK YOU FOR WRITING IT

  12. Cahokia says:

    My observation from looking at classic bodybuilders versus today is that –

    Contemporary bodybuilders spend too much time trying to build out all of their major muscles.

    But if you look at 70’s bodybuilders, not all muscle groups are equally developed *and* it looks much better as a result!

    Today, bodybuilders over-develop their shoulders, for example. Actually, if you look at a guy with a very strong chest and arms, it looks much better if the shoulders are solid but not as developed as these other muscles. If everything is developed equally, you end up looking boxy and unattractive.

    • It’s because androgen receptor density is extraordinarily high in the shoulder girdle, so steroid users tend to develop excessively large muscles there.

    • Jan says:

      if all muscles are equally developed a bb will look great.There is a prime example of a bb from the 70s with all the bodyparts fully developed and dude looks unreal.SERGIO OLIVA.
      The perfect phisique has no standout bodyparts.And even if some will stand out a little more it only has to be a little.
      Take arnold.Dude is full of inbalance.His legs are clealry overpowered by his indeed godly upper body.Of course it doesnt look bad but not as balanced as Oliva.Dude also lacks what you mentioned -shoulders.He proly did this on purpose.Big shoulders would make his two best areas biceps and chest look less impressive.But that is visible in certain poses.
      Thing is most ppl prefer to look at the upper body alone.Or ignore the back muscles.Well its exactly the back poses which determine the mr O for a few decades now.And the lack of legs will stop anyone from enetring the top 6 at any decent contest.
      Aesthethics on the other hand is all about the show muscles-symmetric abs peaked bis and big chest.Show me a fitness model with great legs or back…you wont find many.Ok Ulises jr has great legs but other than that very few have the big bodyparts .
      Starting with the 90s and the way bb increased in size back then, there was a split.Up until then you had a good mass and aestehthics combo,Not anymore.Now bb is mor eabout mass and less bout aestehthics.You still have to have some aestehthics to win but not nearly as many as back in the day.Now if someone wants to see mass hell go see the mr O.If one finds the pros too big and wants aesthethics he can find zillions of fitness models contests.
      And lets face it, a fitness model will beat a 70s bb in asetehthics HARD.Dont get me wrong arnold or oliva have mass with class but ulisses jr or greg plitt murder them in aestehthics.Its FACT

  13. I think I spotted a confusing typo. When you say: “Also compare Tom Venuto’s chest to that of Mike Mentzer. (How that man never won an Olympia is beyond me.)”

    Did you mean: “Also compare Tom Venuto’s abs to Mike Mentzer’s. (How that man never won an Olympia is beyond me.)”?
    I ask because you were talking about variation in abdominal shape right before that, so it seemed a bit odd and confusing of you to go back to chest muscles when you just finished with that.

  14. I never understood the
    “Oh, you shouldn’t just train for muscle mass! You wanna be musclebound or have a heart attack from all the extra weight? You should train for strength not mass!” mentalities.

    As Alan Aragon has pointed out here:
    http://www.simplyshredded.com/nutrition-expert-alan-aragon-talks-with-simplyshredded-com.html
    Weight training does give you the cardiovascular protective benefits and adaptations so long as you’re not training like a pure powerlifter with long rests between all sets. I doubt it would “give me a heart attack” especially considering I’m drug free–and even then it seems to be the folks who really go nuts with abusing it who have those issues.

    Also, from a health perspective, I’d argue that more muscle IS a good thing in and of itself. I know it’s not good form to cite Wikipedia, but since they were the only ones to ever cite a source on it, I’ll go with them.
    “At rest, skeletal muscle consumes 54.4 kJ/kg (13.0 kcal/kg) per day. This is larger than adipose tissue (fat) at 18.8 kJ/kg (4.5 kcal/kg), and bone at 9.6 kJ/kg (2.3 kcal/kg).[12]” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle#Energy_consumption ) That figures to be about 6 kcal/lb per day for muscle, 2 kcal/lb per day for fat and about 1 kcal/lb per day for bone.
    So it keeps your metabolism up if you have some extra muscle. And as having a few pounds more of muscle (all else equal) means a lower % of body fat, even if the absolute of body fat is still the same, which is good, which is most likely superior to having a higher %bf, especially when obesity is defined in terms of %bf. Math doesn’t lie.

    As for not being strong…um, how COULD I reach my drug free genetic limit of muscle mass and NOT be stronger than I am now is what I want to know. Okay, so if I’m focusing on hypertrophy I probably won’t be winning any powerlifter competitions, but to act like strength and size are mutually exclusive is just dumb.

  15. Graennskogur says:

    I’m one of those few people who find really big muscles attractive, as long as they still have some nice proportions.

    Also, I prefer vascularity on big muscled bodies than on lean bodies. I don’t know exactly why this is, but vascularity on lean bodies makes them look very unattractive and makes me nervous just watching them whereas I tolerate vascularity on big bodies like that of Markus Ruhl and if ideal proportions are retained, vascularity adds to perceived attractiveness.

    • The attractiveness of vascularity can definitely vary with size due to the associations with it. High vascularity on a small person looks pathological, just like a bald head on a healthy man can look completely normal, but if the man is pale and sleep deprived, he may look like a chemo patient.

  16. dj says:

    Menno, what is your opinion on ‘Culking’? Is it possible or should one strive more for bulking and cutting cycles? I just feel like if you cut then you inevitably will rebound when ‘Lean bulking’. How would one go about getting the ideal physiue the optimal way?

    • This is really a semantic question. Body recomposition on a constant level of calories is very ineffective. Bulking and cutting definitely have merit, but caloric intake has to be optimized and extensive calorie cycling is required for effective body recomposition.

  17. Alain says:

    Mike Mentzer(RIP) did win an Olympia- 1979 man.

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