A woman is not beautiful when her ankle or arm wins compliments, but when her total appearance diverts admiration from the individual parts of her body.
To begin, we can state what’s obvious but often ignored: a great physique is subjective.
Furthermore and as defined here, this is relative to normal people in everyday life and not about competing onstage.
We all hope to be fit and look better in the process. We find that getting results, alongside knowledge to keep progressing, is enjoyable to pursue. We draw inspiration from the best in natural bodybuilding.
I assume most of us remain in awe of, and would aspire to be like, Steve Reeves more than any modern bodybuilder.
Therefore, I think it’s fun to play the natural bodybuilding game to reach these ends. (I now find this far more interesting than minimalist, safety-first functional fitness.) Why not make a positive habit exciting?
This emphasizes what can still be quite impressive in naturals: the “V-shape.” We pursue the classic physique through wide shoulders & lats, a small waist, and a balanced, strong-looking yet defined body.
If you accept these parameters, enjoying great health benefits along the way, then you also realize that overdeveloping some muscles would disrupt the illusion.
In the 1940s, most bodybuilders were successful weightlifters, epitomized by John Grimek. Steve Reeves noticed they had a blocky look though, with thick anterior & posterior muscles but seemingly less wide at the lats & shoulders.
Vince Gironda’s entire philosophy further pursued this original bodybuilding ideal, though with plenty of idiosyncrasies.
How did classic bodybuilders generally accentuate the V-shape?
Muscles to Underdevelop
By underdevelop, we mean that growth for these muscles happens incidentally. No exercises in the program are meant to directly work these regions…
Avoid the “sloped” appearance, where the shoulders don’t jut or angle outward beyond the curve of the upper traps. This detracts from shoulder width. Exercises like shrugs were patently avoided.
These muscles widen the core, even if muscularly.
Exceptional development here, sometimes referred to as the Adonis belt, can look unusual.
High-rep twists were sometimes done, though even this can build muscle, and spot reduction wasn’t yet considered a myth.
Some went further by mostly ignoring ab work. This meant no crunches, sit-ups & leg raises that could broaden the waist indirectly.
Inner Thigh (Adductors) & Outer Hip (Abductors)
This prevents turnip-shaped thighs. This occurs when the upper part of the front thigh overwhelms the lower, perhaps bringing attention to the waist.
This means no leg adduction/abduction machines or creative maneuvers to address these muscles.
Vince went further by limiting glute work, disallowing back squats & leg presses, arguing these could widen the hips too. Most bodybuilders, even his devotees, ignored his advice here.
Muscles to Balance
The following muscles were sometimes worked directly, indirectly though if sufficient, but only to match the rest of the body…
The neck shouldn’t exceed the widest part of the head.
However, I personally feel this development, still aligning with the above statement, contributed toward Steve Reeves looking so magnificent, who trained it manually.
Some bodybuilders, especially those on steroids, look caricaturistic due to a comparatively small & weak neck.
Neck muscles get little work indirectly, so you may need to add something exclusively for them. However, working the upper traps will also enlarge it, since this inserts into the neck.
They shouldn’t draw your eye, as warned against by Tony Pearson. In my opinion, this occurred for Larry Scott and even Frank Zane from certain angles.
However, once again, small forearms look off as well, especially alongside big arms.
Steve Davis, in his book Achieving Total Muscularity, suggests the width of the upper forearm should equal 40% of the lower upper arm portion.
Unlike the neck though, these may get enough work through heavy pulling exercises like dead-lifts, pull-ups and curling.
Depending on your genes, some muscles may grow disproportionately. Most of us are fairly balanced though.
For example, if all your pulling & curling develops a huge brachialis in each arm, this may look grotesque.
Perhaps you respond by supinating on curls. You also limit pulling through the arms, focusing on dead-lifts and shoulder adduction/extension without elbow flexion.
Other Bodybuilding Considerations
Consider efficiency. Are you wasting time, energy & recovery toward exercises that don’t add to your physique yet still demand working sets that exhaust you?
For example, does the tibialis anterior lend itself to more impressive legs? This muscle has little growth potential, may look a bit strange when flexed, and could be hit enough indirectly anyway. Performing toe raises may seem like a neglected way to have bigger calves, but the muscle was overlooked for good reason. (I actually prefer to do them though.)
Fine tie-in muscles like the serratus anterior & coracobrachialis shouldn’t require specific work. They begin to showcase with low bodyfat.
Much development occurs indirectly, perhaps intensely enough to be considered direct, through exercises working lots of muscle together.
The stiff-legged dead-lift reigns supreme here. Holding onto a heavy barbell, especially with a double overhand grip through straps, provides your wrist flexors & whole back complex with plenty of work beyond the hip extensors.
Finally, and most controversially, exercises like hack squats & incline curls were used to develop longer muscles.
Overloading stretched positions throughout a range of motion, while focusing on the negative phase of the rep, does have some evidence toward lengthening muscles due to additional sarcomeres in-series.
My experience though is this isn’t noticeable and can be rough on the joints. We likely remain prisoners to our genetic potential for muscle shape anyway.
My Bodybuilding Perspective
I enjoy training according to most of the principles above. For example, I avoid directly working the obliques, inner thighs & outer hip muscles.
In my view, exercise selection is the most important aspect of a bodybuilding program, if we must choose among more than several vital qualities.
A lot of research & application went toward creating the ultimately simple exercise list below for my home routine:
- Flat bench presses
- Barbell underhand curls
- Barbell arm extensions/skull crushers
- Low-bar squats
- Lying dumbbell leg curls
- Closed-chain leg extensions
- Overhead presses
- T-bar rows
- Standing one-leg heel raises
I’ll hold a vacuum, while expanding my ribcage, occasionally upon thought.
I try to jog for 20-30 minutes 2-3 times weekly, benefiting mentally from the blood flow. I also like to push a prowler for anaerobic fitness when possible.
None of these exercises are sacred, but I find they develop key muscles throughout my body.
Long ago, I did what I call the “touch test” to decide which muscles to develop throughout each region.
I’d simply touch an area, covering the whole body eventually, then choose if I wanted it developed. I applied my understanding of anatomy & physiology to determine an exercise addressing that part, directly or indirectly, according to most of the rules here.
Should Bodybuilders Underdevelop Muscles?
If you make a public disclosure of your conclusion, you’re pounding it into your own head.
– Charlie Munger
There’s another perspective that seems reasonable too: work all muscles for a better physique.
This approach would argue that working everything improves your muscle-to-fat ratio, boosting metabolism.
The body also may have natural limits anyway, in that muscles like the obliques can’t really grow too large, hence no fear to overdevelop them.
However, we’ve all seen athletes with overdevelopment, like the bull neck or a thick powerlifter waist. Of course, a lot of this also has to do with individual propensity & drug use.
Some choose to train everything but do certain exercises less often. For example, they may perform shrugs monthly but not weekly. Perhaps you wish for that “look of power” derived in part from large traps as valued by Ken Leistner.
Once again, this is all depends on your own preference. Fortunately, as naturals, we can experiment without major consequences.
The only way to reasonably deal with this complexity is to make decisions unique to your capabilities, desires and yes even preferences… go for the results you want yet be open-minded!
So, what muscles should bodybuilders underdevelop? Whichever you choose. Yet awareness of how old-school bodybuilders approached this issue will make you better informed to decide for yourself.