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BIG or Pretty, Is your training any different?

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

As an inexperienced and impressionable young man I remember walking into my first ‘proper’ gym with a puppy like enthusiasm. I had my vest, my protein shakes and a large back catalog of Arnold Schwarzenegger videos. I was definitely born into the golden era of hench action movie stars, and these guys were huge in my eyes! I knew that if was ever going be as cool as these guys or be able to get the beautiful women like they did, I absolutely must get massive too.

At no point, when I was in the gym smashing the iron did I think that what I was doing may influence my ‘shape’. I just figured I’d lift as much as I can and eat everything that wasn’t nailed down with the full intention of getting as big as humanly possible.

So here is the question…. To make the best gains should you lift for mass or aesthetics? and is there a difference?

Every trainer worth their salt will teach newbies the basics of deadlifts and squats purporting the benefits of the big exercises for gaining mass to ‘build a foundation’. Then, the more advanced you get the more you seem to isolate movements. What if you never moved away from the ‘mass builders’ for your entire lifting career? Does a body just grow into the shape it would have always grown into or can you actually control what shape you become?

For me I can look at my early years competition shape from 2006 and compare them to 2018 when I turned pro. In a mass sense it is barely any different. I tend to get on stage at around 85 kg and that didn’t really change for 12 years. The difference I noticed was, firstly I was leaner and way more conditioned, but secondly my shape was more ‘bodybuildery’ in that, shoulders were wider, waist was smaller, quads swept wider and so did arms and calves.

Looking back over my training, was it really any different from the early years of mass building? Not really. My frequency of training body parts moved away from a standard bro split to each part twice a week style.  As my training and food knowledge grew I started to understand training principles to a greater depth and my knowledge of food grew enormously, I learnt how to manipulate the calories and the macros to help me train harder and recover faster.  All this being said I still did my big basic lifts and I still eat more food than I needed in order to grow.

What really elicits growth?

The point that I’m getting to is that; if a body part is stimulated to grow will it always just grow to the size that your body is genetically predetermined to or can you ‘force’ it to be the shape you’d like? Of course you have the option to not train that part to stop it from growing too much, and you can train a part more frequently and it would develop faster. I would like bigger arms but whether I train them once a week or three times a week, they don’t seem to get any bigger, they just maintain the size that I have achieved. Therefore, if I never did direct arm training again would they change at all if I just did pull ups and bench presses? Probably not.

Like many questions posed in the fitness industry it is extremely difficult to prove or refute many of the claims made as scientific studies are just too difficult to replicate real life. You end up having to rely on anecdotal and historical evidence to back up your claims. It takes a lifetime to build a quality natural physique as change is slow. I know many top level international bodybuilders and all of our training is different. I do know some guys that only do powerlifting and strongman style training with very little isolation and they look awesome when they cut up. I also know guys that do loads of isolation volume and do barely any of the big lifts anymore, or if they do it isn’t all that heavy.

If I were to make recommendations on how we should train to build the best body possible I would use elements of both. If you rule out fat loss as a way of improving the aesthetics and think only about the body, I would tell a 65 kg newbie to not waste time doing bicep curls and lat raises in order to build mass as there are far better exercises that offer more bang for their buck and will definitely increase your total mass faster. Conversely, a seasoned bodybuilder probably doesn’t need to do as much with regards to big mass building exercises and can work more on isolation movements. This being said I believe that what grew the muscle keeps it, therefore I would always include these movements into my training. I also think I’d could get away with never doing isolation work and doubt I’d change much either.

The big movements and training for mass are always a staple in my training, maybe because I just like them and I use them as markers for my strength progress. These days I am definitely influenced by the thoughts of my aesthetics and I do tailor my training by tying to improve my flaws and maybe lower volume on my more dominant body parts.

The take home message

I fully believe that a person new to training who is looking to get bigger, absolutely must engage in a solid mass gain training protocol to make the best use of your time and to elicit the biggest growth response in the shortest time. This means focus on big compound movements frequently and progressively. As you’ve made some significant strength and size improvements you can include some isolation work to improve mind muscle connection and intensity. Then, when your mass is at a stage that you’re getting closer to your genetic upper limits you can focus more on aesthetics but you should still include the basic mass movements regularly. Once you have done all of this I think the real aesthetics really come down to a reduction of body fat not necessarily whether you’ve trained for mass or aesthetics.

4 Day Bodybuilding Split routine

Here is an example 4 day split that could suit most people’s schedules and definitely covers your basics with some isolation work.

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