A major difference between old-school vs. modern bodybuilding was the extra focus on structural development beyond the muscles.
This meant not just training the muscles but widening the clavicles, enlarging the ribcage, and otherwise improving the base of the physique however possible.
Other non-muscular ways to improve your appearance include diet or other factors like tanning, but we will focus here on ways that involve training.
Consider these 6+ ways to improve your physique through non-muscular training methods.
Non-Muscular Training for Bodybuilding
The Reeves Deadlift played a role in stretching my shoulders. I started doing this when I was a teen. Many people claimed this is mythology. Strange thing. As long as I and my training partners used it, our shoulders got wider.
– Steve Reeves
- Expand the ribcage through deep breathing via high-rep squats then pull-overs.
A common routine was to start by performing high-rep squats, usually numbering 20, while taking several deep breaths in-between reps as the barbell remained on your back.
This exercise, using the large muscles of the lower body for high reps, encouraged deep breathing that would loosen the ribcage.
Afterward, the trainee would perform cross-bench dumbbell pull-overs with an emphasis on stretching the ribcage. The key to the stretch is to really dip the hips while descending with the arms. This allows you to feel it in the ribcage in addition to the long head of the triceps and the teres major.
This probably works through several ways, stretching the pliable hyaline cartilage on the sternal ends of the ribs, improving thoracic spine mobility, expanding the diaphragm, shifting the structure through the effect of the intercostals and other core muscles, and likely having a minor effect on the bones themselves.
This pairing seemed so effective that it generated backlash. Steve Reeves, Vince Gironda, and Steve Davis all ended up suggesting against the deep breathing practice on squats. They did continue to support pull-overs however.
They argued that the combination overdeveloped the ribcage so that the chest could no longer compensate to balance the physique. It also reduced apparent shoulder width. Steve Reeves further mentions that he felt it made someone look fat in a suit.
It seems the compromise may be pull-overs that stretch the ribcage yet without the deep breathing on squats beforehand.
- Use very wide, behind-the-neck grips and exercises to spread the clavicles.
These applies especially to vertical pushing and pulling movements such as overhead presses and pull-ups, though going widely for bench pressing and flyes helps too.
When most notice wide-grip, behind-the-neck exercises in the classic routines, they dismiss them outright as a relic of the past, only harmful to the shoulders, without trying to understand the goals of the old-timers.
They further argue that these were performed to emphasize the chest, back, and shoulders over the so-called weaker arm muscles, which is not true.
Instead, wide-grip exercises done behind-the-neck were performed to spread the clavicles by mostly stretching out the ligaments and cartilage.
Steve Reeves also added to this by performing the Reeves Dead-Lift: a variation in which he grabbed the lips on the weight plates, performing a dead-lift and shrugging motion that he felt widened his shoulders.
Frank Zane recommended wide-grip dead-lifts using straps to achieve the same goal.
Regardless, emphasizing a wide grip allows a deeper stretch when pushing or flying toward fuller chest development.
Going behind-the-neck, when vertically pulling, allows shoulder adduction to work various muscles along with stretching the upper lats.
So, these practices would still be valuable even without any great effect on the clavicles.
- Lift heavy weights for increased bone and connective tissue growth.
Very heavy weights, or below 5 reps per set close to failure, are not optimal consistently for muscle building.
6-12 reps for various reasons including full motor unit recruitment and possibly sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is ideal most of the time.
Nonetheless, lower reps occasionally can increase bone growth to a greater degree, which may peak at about 85% 1 RM%.
Larger and denser bones, thicker tendons, and more connective tissue means bigger bodyparts.
Overstretching muscles also increases the extracellular matrix (ECM) growth via collagen. Heavy weights pull you into deep range of motion while having additional muscle fibers laterally contract to pull upon one another. This generates more passive tension to stimulate this form of growth.
Stretching in-between sets may reduce outward performance but could only improve this effect.
- Spot reduce bodyfat.
Many classic bodybuilders would perform high-rep crunches, leg raises, Roman chair sit-ups, broomstick twists, and vacuums before their workout or when posing.
Perhaps the sheer volume of these exercises made a difference in the long run beyond the scope of the research.
Aerobics, that includes both intervals and steady-state cardio, may be especially potent alongside working the core muscles to mobilize visceral bodyfat.
The theory is that training the core muscles increases body heat within these stubborn regions to unlock their potential toward energy use.
At the very least, maybe spot improvement is possible. When a trainee loses bodyfat, high rep core work may improve how these areas look. The high reps then limit excessive muscle growth.
- Practice good posture.
Keep the shoulders back, expand the ribcage, lift the chest, and flare the lats slightly.
Doing this all without exaggerating anything will improve your V-taper.
Developing the endurance to improve your posture by maintaining this position often daily will allow you to look more impressive at all times.
- Pull a vacuum.
Though not strictly a non-muscular training method, pulling in the stomach works the transverse abdominis, and is made even more difficult and productive by exhaling.
This technique has been used for dramatic bodybuilding poses.
Yet, it is also possible to practice this throughout daily life, perhaps not as dramatically if held for long, to further emphasize the V-taper that complements good posture.
- Consider all options.
Anti-gravity boots used for inversion training has some research supporting it due to improving back issues. It does appear risky for some though due to increasing blood pressure. It could slightly increasing height by elongating the discs of the spine, with a longer torso being more aesthetically pleasing for bodybuilding as well.
Vascularity means showcasing prominent veins. This is best demonstrated through the cephalic vein that runs down the biceps. This vein could appear more dramatic not only by losing bodyfat but perhaps through cell swelling exercises at shorter muscle lengths, like a concentration curl, that creates a cramping sensation to maximize the pump.
The burn through higher reps could help with vascularity as well, at least temporarily, which affects glycogen/water storage and other energetic growth within the muscles too.
Even tightly-applied lifting belts and similar apparatuses may pull in the whole tissue for a smaller waist, though perhaps unbalancing the physique.
Non-Muscular Training for Improve Your Physique
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
– Isaac Asimov
If you truly want to develop a great body naturally, you should keep an open mind toward all possibilities for achieving your goal.
Fortunately, many of these practices, though uncertain, would at least have other significant benefits. Variety is important for the best results. It also makes your training exciting with always something new to learn and try, yet having real value besides the mental stimulation.
Beyond non-muscular training, there are countless ways to improve your bodybuilding results compared to just training the muscles.
Improving your focus through meditation, getting a carotenoid tan by eating more carrots or sweet potatoes, tanning lightly, wearing properly-fitting clothes, and many more ideas all improve how you look.
Finally, non-muscular training does work better on younger bodybuilders. Bone and connective tissue has a lesser capacity for adaptation as one ages. Nonetheless, everyone can benefit from these methods.
Non-muscular training can expand the ribcage via pull-overs, widen the clavicles through wide grips and exercises done behind-the-neck, improve bone and connective tissue growth via heavier weights, mobilize fat within the core, improve the V-taper with good posture, achieve a smaller waist by pulling a vacuum, and more.
Should these methods end up closer to mythology than reality, variety and other benefits make them worthwhile nonetheless.