Though great physiques differed among the old-time champions, perhaps the most awe-inspiring quality was the V-taper. This meant a large differential between the shoulders and lats compared to the waist, creating a magnificent effect.
For bodybuilders prioritizing the V-taper, anything that supported this illusion would be considered. This could be controversial, like avoiding upper trap work which had the shoulders look rounded and narrow. This perspective was especially shunned among the strength-oriented elite.
Even today, despite drugs making classic proportions less imposing, this V-taper is dramatic yet achievable by natural bodybuilders, providing us a worthy destination. While certainly influenced by genetics, natural trainees have greater ability to manipulate their growth.
The concept of bodybuilding distally, or away from the body’s center, reinforces this goal. This may seem as simple as training the lats and shoulders while limiting trapezius and oblique growth. The idea can extend further though…
- Develop muscles that draw your eye to the periphery like the coracobrachialis, the serratus anterior, and the upper chest alongside the costal portion of the lower chest. Some of these regions are referred to as tie-in areas.
- Avoid overdeveloping proximal areas like high outer and inner thighs that resemble turnips, bulky outer hips that have the waist appear thicker, a bulbous and droopy lower chest, or a bullish neck.
- Expand the non-muscular structure of the upper body by stretching the connective tissue of the ribcage and the clavicles, plus mastering a stomach vacuum.
- Include exercises allowing for a deep stretch to exhibit fuller muscles.
- Etch detail and maintain balance, so outline the pecs, tone the abs, cut up the thighs, and display forearms and a neck that are neither too large nor too small, among other impressive bodyparts.
Using sound principles from the past, often forgotten or ignored today, we can strive toward this classic bodybuilder’s look. These concepts are now supported by research showing differing muscle regions and longitudinal growth. Consider these tips on the quest toward your own V-taper.
How to Bodybuild Distally
The first part of the aesthetic physique is the V-shape. Broad shoulders and wide lats coming down to a trim waist.
– Steve Reeves
- Develop peripheral muscles.
A wide grip pull-up, though apparently similar to a close-grip variation, better stretches the upper lats and teres major, which form the widest portion of the upper back. This is evidenced by differing internal moment arms for the upper, middle, and lower regions of the latissimus dorsi.
Shoulder adduction, which occurs with a wide enough grip, is a different function than shoulder extension, which occurs when closer.
Adding bent-over or cable rows for the middle region and one-arm rows to twist and stretch the lower region develops full lats alongside pull-ups.
Beyond various lateral raises and upright rows targeting the middle deltoid, overhead pressing behind-the-neck and bent-over lateral raises, done slightly more upright, address different fibers of the multipennate side deltoid for the front and rear divisions respectively.
The outer lower chest gets hit fairly well through pull-ups and pull-overs but likely is targeted best with wide-grip dips, as Vince Gironda suggested. This allows a deep stretch by having these nearly-vertical chest fibers oppose resistance more directly.
The upper chest is emphasized with incline bench pressing but also via dumbbell flyes that overload the muscle while stretched. Having this elongated position feel toughest, with the arms furthest away from your sides, focuses on the outer region of the whole chest, as described more later.
The smaller tie-in muscles include the coracobrachialis, a muscle situated next to the short inner head of the biceps near the anterior deltoid, as seen when striking a front pose, if developed.
The coracobrachialis is hit well through shoulder adduction on wide pull-ups, yet another reason to grip widely. Flyes and cross-overs for horizontal adduction, with nearly-straight arms, also hit the coracobrachialis well.
Shoulder flexion, as occurs during overhead pressing and front raises, addresses it too, though working best with only slightly-bent elbows again.
The serratus anterior carves definition along the ribcage area in between the lats, chest, and core.
The serratus is more active through the upper range of shoulder flexion versus shoulder abduction, especially the lower visible digitations, since this movement allows both upward rotation and protraction. Therefore, overhead pressing from the front or incline front raises while prone (facedown) seem best.
Nonetheless, behind-the-neck pressing better stretches connective tissue across the clavicle. It also hits the front portion of the side deltoid. Therefore, overhead presses from both front and back have advantages, and you can always rotate them in and out for variety.
The appearance of fuller bodyparts for the arms and calves, ultimately drawing the eye outward, can be developed in part by emphasizing deep muscles like the brachialis and soleus. Neutral grip (hammer) curls and bent knee heel raises work great respectively.
For superficial muscles, the medial head of the triceps, contrary to popular lore, works more so through stretched position exercises like close-grip dips and bench presses, not on lockouts or kickbacks which emphasize the lateral outer head. This is supported by research showing full medial head activation beyond 90°.
The incline curl while supinating works well to hit the whole biceps, allowing contraction through a greater range of motion, while hitting both the medial (forearm supination) and lateral (elbow flexion) fibers.
- Avoid overdeveloping proximal muscles.
Squats that overload a limited range of motion at the top, as evidenced by this study measuring regional hypertrophy for jumping versus traditional back squats, may favor proximal or upper quadriceps growth.
It seems that shorter muscle lengths worked positively leads to more proximal muscle growth. Longer muscle lengths worked negatively is best for distal muscle growth. The middle range likely emphasizes the muscle belly, with growth on each end too, since more active tension develops for most of the sarcomeres here.
To avoid overdeveloping the upper thighs, along with the outer hips, you want to perform squats more upright. This limits hip muscle growth while also supporting distal quad development.
Hack, sissy, front, or even back squats, though high-bar style and by elevating the heels on a block or leaning back on a Smith machine, are excellent options.
Consider avoiding core work whatsoever, which indirectly works the obliques and will thicken the waist by adding muscle regardless.
If needed though based on self-evaluation… sit-ups, crunches, and leg raises seem best, with perhaps a twisting movement to tone the obliques. Carefully think on applying a direct exercise like side bends for the obliques.
- Include exercises with a deep passive stretch.
Regional hypertrophy that differs along a fiber’s length is no myth, though we are still trying to understand how this occurs. It seems dependent on factors like contraction types (concentric vs. eccentric) and the motions of multi-joint muscles.
Exercises that both allow for enough range of motion, while overloading it during the more stretched portions of the strength curve will develop muscle distally.
This occurs on exercises like dumbbell flyes, pulling vertically or horizontally with a flexed or twisted spine, supine/incline curls, close-grip bench presses, bent-arm pullovers, lying/incline lateral raises, hack squats, sissy squats, stiff-legged dead-lifts, and donkey heel raises.
- Achieve detail and balance.
Detail comes about through a low enough bodyfat percentage, though single digits can look grotesque. It also means not completely ignoring the proximal muscles and regions. This can be achieved by not overloading shortened positions excessively, only rotating these movements in occasionally.
Bodybuilders have known, for example, that cable cross-overs and concentration curls build the inner chest and upper biceps peak respectively.
Perhaps overlap of longer sarcomeres, located distally and centrally, bunch up to create a growth-inducing occlusion effect for the proximal sarcomeres when the whole muscle is shortened. To be straightforward though, the research isn’t clear here yet, though short muscle lengths do promote hypertrophy despite low tension, possibly due to cell swelling.
This isn’t too farfetched considering that blood flow restriction exercise can have attenuated growth directly under the cuff.
Midrange exercises that overload the middle portion of the range of motion may allow a compromise. These include the basics, so presses, curls, arm extensions, and conventional squats.
These midrange exercises, known as mass builders since they likely create the most overall growth, will still affect the proximal regions.
Many barbell and dumbbell exercises naturally overload the midrange and stretched positions though. Shortened options relying on cable pulleys, machines, or unusual free weight techniques can be included infrequently. This may encourage a classic appearance.
For balance, Frank Zane mentions how Larry Scott told him to build mass and shape for the peripheral muscles like the calves and forearms. In my opinion though, this can be overdone for the forearms.
Tony Pearson suggests limiting growth of the forearms, the upper traps, and the core to achieve a graceful physique.
You still may need to train your forearms through reverse curls, wrist curls, and reverse wrist curls. You may also want to train your neck. Only you can determine this based on your personal vision, keeping balance in mind.
Bodybuild Distally for a Classic Physique
Many focus on the basic exercises alone because whatever development they achieve is determined solely by genetics.
Both experience and science, once you begin to really study bodybuilding, make clear this isn’t the case.
The nervous system determines which muscles, or even which portion of these muscles, will create the most tension while still allowing for an efficient movement. This is based on factors like internal moment arms, muscle lengths, and reciprocal inhibition. This explains why the basics-only approach is insufficient for bodybuilding… these exercises undertrain countless muscles.
Exercise science helps us but is always evolving. It is potentially misleading in that we may understand pieces of the bodybuilding-related research yet miscomprehend the whole. The greatest bodybuilders focus on their results, which encapsulates the complexity in and of itself. While studies may provide a basis for thought experiments and justify what we do, is it really illuminating alone?
Ensure you stay within your circle of competence by deciding what you want and focusing there. Do you want to look like a bodybuilder? If so, ignore advice outside this realm, perhaps related to other goals like strength, along with anything contradicting real experience.
Some may choose to focus on the basics for health reasons. There is no doubt that exercises overloading the stretched positions, for instance, can be very harsh on the joints. This is a personal decision, as is your choice to pursue natural bodybuilding to the utmost.
Consider this advice toward achieving your own impressive V-taper, through bodybuilding distally.