How to Pursue a Natural, Classic Physique


Avoid core work, mostly the obliques, and learn to pull in your stomach with a vacuum.

Widen the shoulders, lats, & teres major relentlessly.

Avoid inner thigh development occurring through adductor and single-leg exercises. 

Avoid squats and dead-lifts that overgrow the hip muscles, applying sissy and hack squats instead.

Obtain a flatter chest though more incline pressing and flying.

Train the neck and forearms as needed to maintain overall proportion and symmetry.

Pursue these methods and others described here to attain a classic physique with an impressive V-taper.

steve reeves arms overhead bodybuilding pose

The pinnacle of natural bodybuilding emerged in the 1950s, at the beginning of the Golden Age of Bodybuilding, before drugs changed the sport forever. It was special in that these physiques were often envied and admired by the average person and fellow bodybuilder alike, not viewed as freakish but impressive and attractive. Like a Greek statue, each body part was closely balanced with the rest, creating a look that was appealing and perhaps even attainable.

This structure was embodied by legends such as John Grimek, Armand Tanny, Clarence Ross, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Vince Gironda, and Jack LaLanne along with many others less famous. While there is no doubt that the greatest bodybuilders of any age have exceptional genetics, it would make sense that studying their methods could help us today.

Despite full-body workouts, their routines included plenty of isolation work to bring out and even reduce certain muscles. They used basic equipment creatively and usually did 3-5 sets for moderate reps. Most of these trainees practiced their full-body routines a few times a week, so the weekly volume per muscle group certainly added up.

Though differences existed, they were all defined by wide shoulders and small waists. Some went even further to accentuate the V-taper. This could mean pursuing a relative lack of upper trapezius development or small glutes so as to not take away from the illusion of upper body width. The lack of performance-enhancing drugs also prevented a general muscle growth that harms the aesthetics of the body.

The ideas here are influenced especially by those of Vince Gironda and Steve Reeves. Their ideas are really meant to accentuate the V-taper. We also differ in what we want. You may wish to project a more raw and powerful look, so choose to include squats, dead-lifts, and core work in your training. This is also oriented toward men, yet much of the advice could apply for women too.

If you want the qualities of a classic physique though, learn how to strive toward it.

Qualities of a Classic Bodybuilding Physique

People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.

– Earl Nightingale

  • Dramatic V-taper

A V-taper is defined by a large difference between the waist and the width-producing upper body muscles like the shoulders and lats. Without drugs like growth hormone, this was naturally brought about, yet specific exercise or a thoughtful lack of it could further emphasize it.

A small waist means little fat AND little muscle, usually with a suggestion of no core work whatsoever, save perhaps for some ab and lower back work. You would never hit the obliques with something like side bends, and often nothing whatsoever to minimize any possible work for these muscles that add width at the core.

It also meant practicing a vacuum, in which you expand the ribcage and pull in at the waist, to further emphasize the V-taper.

This also controversially meant minimizing the upper traps by avoiding exercises like shrugs and dead-lifts. Overhead presses, which involve upward rotation and not elevation of the scapula, surprisingly doesn’t involve the upper traps much. They also bring out the serratus anterior, sawtooth-like muscles that add fine detail between the lats, chest, and waist.

The upper body muscles of the shoulders were built through upright rows or lateral raises, sometimes done on an incline bench for the raises, to further the stretch and stimulate more growth. Close-grip rowing while rounding the back along with pull-ups, pull-downs, or pull-overs hit the lats and teres major well.

  • Non-turnip thighs

Turnip thighs occur when the upper thigh is much larger than the lower portion containing the vastus medialis. It comes mostly from adductor or inner thigh development. This creates a grotesque appearance that is more common in bodybuilding today due to the overall growth from drugs along with more work applied to this area.

Avoiding turnip thighs definitely means using no adductor machines, but also avoiding single-leg exercises such as lunges that may develop this region.

Vastus medialis development also helps, though it appears this head of the quads cannot be isolated. Bodybuilders have tried by internally and externally rotating the thighs, so toes pointed in or out along with different ranges of motion. A deep sissy or hack squat should be sufficient.

  • Small hips

Little hip muscle development was pursued to narrow the outer hips, while also recognizing that a big rear could overwhelm a physique.

This meant no traditional back squats or dead-lifts, though sissy and hack squats were encouraged. Furthermore, it is also suggested to avoid single-leg exercises like lunges that could work these muscles to stabilize the body.

Since hip extension movements also build the hamstrings, leg curls were suggested instead. Beyond working all heads of the hamstrings, leg curls surprisingly have the effect of building up the sartorius, the longest muscle of the body that travels alongside the upper and lower quads in the front. Working it adds to the illusion of longer legs.

  • Large yet flat chest

A flat chest was pursued to prevent overdevelopment of the lower pecs. This meant applying incline pressing and flyes instead of flat or decline work alone. Some tried to develop an outline of the lower chest only, with decline and not flat work, yet this doesn’t seem possible according to the anatomy.

It also meant expanding the ribcage, possibly through pull-overs that stretch the ribcage, along with an exercise causing you to breathe heavily such as high-rep squats.

  • Non-tapered ends

This muscles of the neck, legs, and forearms were trained enough to be brought into proportion with the rest of the body.

For the neck, they used exercises like neck flexion, neck extension, and neck lateral flexion, often with only manual resistance, to bring these muscles into proportion yet not so much as the detract from upper body width.

Heel raises, especially with both the ankle and hip flexed to stretch the target muscles like the gastrocnemius, were used.

The forearms usually receive enough work through pulling exercises with a neutral grip for the brachioradialis, along with the forearm flexors and extensors getting work through gripping on all exercises. Nonetheless, wrist curls and reverse wrist curls were applied when needed.

  • Overall proportion & symmetry

This meant using isolation exercises to emphasize and deemphasize any area that stuck out among the rest. It sometimes meant single-limb work to improve a weak bilateral body part. Extra work would be given to weak body parts.

For example, Steve Reeves strived for an 18-inch circumference measurement across his neck, arms, and legs.

  • Low body fat but not too low

An ultra-ripped physique appears less healthy and has the body appear less aesthetic. Bodybuilders were still lean and showed their abs, but usually not the deeper muscles such as the intercostals. They were usually between 8-12% body fat but definitely not less than 5% or more than 15%.

  • Well-groomed, confident, & healthy

This meant having a good posture with the stomach pulled in and the chest out, shoulders back and perhaps flaring the lats slightly.

They may choose clothes that were tight around the shoulders, further adding to the illusion.

It meant pursuing some cardio for overall health. Steve Reeves pioneered powerwalking to stay in shape yet reduce stress on the joints when not lifting.

It meant having a tan, though this needs to be moderated knowing the risks today.

Otherwise, a well-groomed appearance was often displayed.

Qualities & Pursuit of the Classic Bodybuilding Physique

What do you want?

Do not fall into the trap of training generally while desiring specific results. Do not allow yourself to confuse what ought to be true with what really is.

Performing a few compound exercises each workout will not achieve a classic physique. Train like a bodybuilder, through specific exercises, to become one.

A classic physique is a great goal for natural trainees in the modern world. This is more attainable due to lack of general growth caused by drugs. You need direct work to really grow, which also allows more control over how you develop.

Consider the qualities and suggestions here if striving toward a classic physique.

Never miss a useful bodybuilding insight.