If there’s one thing we know about Millennials and Gen Z, it’s that we don’t know when to let a trend just die. We gave life to invincible phrases like YOLO, squad goals, lit, bet, and ripped.
But with Buzzfeed leading the pack, we also single-handedly ruined the term “aesthetic.”
(It’s hard to say you want to build an “aesthetic physique” without others envisioning an edgy TikToker or ~Vibes~.)
An aesthetic physique will leave you looking like 2021’s version of a Greek god reboot: sub-10% body fat, a sharp V-taper, broad shoulders, a defined core, and generally masculine muscles.
But how long does sculpting an aesthetic build take?
Read on to find out!
How to Build an Aesthetic Physique
Little Hercules made just about every adult in America jealous back in 2004, with the young phenomenon benching double his body weight at the age of eight (and looking ripped, at that).
But if you missed hitting the genetic jackpot, how do you build an aesthetic physique?
It’s a four-step plan:
It’s no coincidence that the fellas who squat, deadlift, and bench heavier weights also happen to have more pronounced muscles. But what makes a truly aesthetic bodybuilding routine?
The sections below are a great place to start!
Training Principles to Follow
It’s almost impossible to know which online bodybuilding programs actually build mass when they’re all built on such different foundations.
Athlean-X’s Old School Iron is a three-day-a-week full-body routine with abs and corrective exercises twice a week. Zyzz’s workout was a four-day split with a weekly full-body workout.
Choose a routine with an increasingly high weekly volume (progressive overload), compound or multi-joint exercises (“The Big Five”), and weights that push your muscles to the brink.
Building lean mass is more likely with routines featuring:
- 3–4 sets per exercise
- 8–12 reps per set
- A twice-per-week frequency, though a meta-analysis from 2019 suggests that a higher or lower frequency could be just as effective if the volume remains the same
- Between 30 and 60 seconds of rest between sets, which a 2009 review concluded can boost acute levels of growth hormone
- 48–72 hours of rest before targeting the same muscle group again
- A mix of compound and isolation exercises
Most aspiring bodybuilders are in the gym more often than not; about 4–6 resistance training sessions per week are ideal if you’re on the hunt for an aesthetic physique.
Should You Use a Full-Body, PPL, Bro-Split, or Specialization Routine?
As the previous section implies, your program choice will depend on personal preference, how your muscles respond best, and whether you notice any stubborn or lagging muscle groups.
Or if you’re an ectomorph with dreams of looking more aesthetic.
The stigma that full-body workouts are only for complete newbies isn’t true either.
Research from 2015 revealed that trained men using a total-body workout developed thicker forearm muscles than those on a three-day split, and both groups improved strength similarly.
If your back is outpacing your chest, an aesthetic chest specialization routine could help balance out your gains. Otherwise, a PPL routine or classic bro split is among the better options.
We can all agree that “cardio” is the second-worst “c-word” on the planet that feels like an icepick to the eardrums (trailing closely behind your “car’s extended warranty,” of course).
It’s a gut punch, but here’s what you need to know about cardio and aesthetic physiques.
How Much Cardio Do You Need?
Every amateur bodybuilder has some anti-cardio mantra to explain why the treadmill is their mortal enemy. It burns lean mass, it’s a waste of time, blah, blah, blah.
But six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates doesn’t only disagree with that mindset. In reality, he’s a fan of cardio himself, power-walking four times per week for a half-hour at a time!
Unless you’re training to best your 5K PR or run your first-ever marathon, the treadmill or upright bike doesn’t have to consume 75% — or even 50% — of your training sessions.
All it takes is enough aerobic activity to dip into a caloric deficit.
Say you’re aiming for one pound of weight loss per week (or a 500-calorie loss per day). If you cut your intake by 300 calories a day, you can burn the remaining 200 with cardio.
So it depends on how quickly you want to reach your goal and how willing you are to eat less.
HIIT vs. LISS
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and LISS (low-intensity steady state) cardio can both be effective for shedding body fat without sacrificing muscle gains in the process.
Some scientists and athletes dub HIIT the “magic bullet” for weight loss, with a 2019 meta-analysis proving that this training style can burn up to 28.5% more absolute fat mass.
But research from 2015 dives even deeper into the numbers. A 20-second-on, 40-second-off HIIT cycle burned about 3.14 more calories per minute than running at a steady 70% effort.
A sample HIIT session on the bike, track, elliptical, rower, jump rope, or battle ropes might look something like this:
- 5-minute warm-up
- 20 seconds at high-intensity (80%+ maximum heart rate)
- 40 seconds at moderate-intensity (40–50% maximum heart rate)
- Repeat steps 2 & 3 about ten times
- 5-minute cool-down
LISS can be just as effective, but you don’t have to go “all out.” In fact, research from 2001 revealed that a 12:00 mile at a brisk walk burns just as many calories as jogging at that pace.
If you burn about 100 calories per mile (about average), you can actually power-walk your way to a more aesthetic physique.
The Best Cardio Methods for an Aesthetic Physique
The biggest misconception in the fitness community is that cardio has to mean running. It doesn’t, and, in fact, a Strava survey of 25,000 runners revealed that only 8% actually “love it.”
Whether you prefer HIIT or LISS, there are multiple cardio options available:
- Running, jogging, or walking
- Swimming (a 2020 trial found that a recovery swim ten hours after a HIIT running session could improve athletic performance the next day due to less inflammation)
- Circuit training
- Jumping rope
- Cycling (a 2012 meta-analysis dispels the long-held myth that cardio ruins strength and mass; running might cause both in the lower body, but cycling does not!)
The biggest takeaway here is to find a machine or cardio style that you enjoy. And if you’re squeezing cardio and resistance training into the same day, separate them by 6+ hours!
No amount of weightlifting will matter if your body doesn’t have the carbs, fats, proteins, and calories it needs to survive an hour-long training session and recover stronger than before.
Let’s discuss the best way to build an aesthetic physique through your diet.
How Many Calories Do You Need?
Bodybuilders are notorious for their “extremes”: pure starvation to prepare for competitions, training sessions that drag on for hours, and questionable choices in … “supplements.”
But according to research published in 2018, the relationship between bodybuilders and food is dangerously strained. About 67.5% of the 120 studied showed signs of an eating disorder.
We’ll spit it out already; skip the dirty bulk or crash diet and turn to your TDEE instead.
TDEE — total daily energy expenditure — estimates how many calories your body needs per day to survive and handle your daily activity levels without losing or gaining weight.
Simply plug your details into a TDEE calculator. Then add or subtract 300–700 calories (depending on whether you’re hoping to gain or lose weight).
What’s the Ideal Macronutrient Breakdown?
Who better to ask than professional bodybuilders? A 2004 review did just that, identifying the “ideal” macro split for these superhuman athletes to hover around 55–60/25–30/15–20.
(Or 55–60% of calories from carbs, 25–30% from protein, and another 15–20% from fats.)
If you want a more scientific macro split built just for you, grab your TI-84 and calculate the following equations:
- 0.82 x your body weight = daily grams of protein
- [total daily calories x 0.30] / 9 = daily grams of fats
- [daily calories – protein calories – fat calories] / 4 = daily grams of carbohydrates
But protein good, carb fat bad, ooga booga?
No, this mentality will hurt your gains in the long run.
The Best Foods for an Aesthetic Physique
Clean bulking may extend your “aesthetic physique timeline” slightly. But it also prevents yo-yo dieting, sluggishness, and high blood pressure that could escalate from a dirty bulk.
The best foods for an aesthetic physique are both lean and nutrient-dense, including:
- Leaner cuts of meat (i.e., chicken, turkey, pork) and eggs
- Vegetables, especially the ones of the green leafy variety
- Fruit (as many colors as possible!)
- Greek yogurt and low-fat dairy products
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes
- High-quality protein powders
Avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats, sugar, salt, fillers, and artificial ingredients. Our Aesthetic Bodybuilding Diet Plan is also a solid source of inspiration!
A scoop of creatine won’t sprout Arnold-level 19 ¾” biceps. Pre-workout won’t miraculously add 50 pounds to your deadlift. Posting gym pics on Instagram doesn’t mean you actually went.
If you want to elevate your aesthetic physique to the next level, these supplements may help.
Is it a placebo, with your mind tricking your body into thinking you’re stronger or more energized than you actually are? Or do these tingle-inducing powders push your workouts to the limits?
The performance benefits may not be as substantial as once believed. But thanks to their high caffeine contents, these powders can add a touch of intensity to your training.
If you tend to fizzle out halfway through your workout, pre-workout is a must!
C4 Original Pre-Workout | Caffeine + Beta-Alanine + Creatine
Formulated with strength-boosting Creatine, CarnoSyn Beta-Alanine, and caffeine to improve your muscular endurance and keep fatigue at bay as you crush it in the gym.
Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in the muscles, responsible for everything from cellular energy to proper muscle contractions.
But it’s also a fan-favorite supplement!
This easy-to-mix white powder can drive both strength and mass gains, and there’s plenty of research to back up those claims.
For example, after using creatine for just nine weeks, college football players added 8.7% to their squat, 3.8% to their power clean, and 5.2% to their bench press (2001).
Creatine combined with resistance training can also boost strength by 8% more and athletic performance by 14% more than placebo groups (2003).
Swolverine Kre-Alkalyn: Creatine Phospate
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Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein is one of the best ways to encourage muscle protein synthesis and repair after a resistance training (or even a cardio) workout.
Try to choose a powder with at least 20 grams of protein per scoop, 80% protein content or higher, and as few filler and artificial ingredients as possible.
Dump a scoop into your shaker bottle, add cold water or milk, and don’t forget to schedule your post-workout protein so that it falls within the so-called “anabolic window” — 4–6 hours!
Swolverine Whey Protein Isolate
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How Much Lean Mass Can You Add Per Month?
The “I swear I’m natty” crew reminds us of the Parks & Rec scene where Andy returns 50 pounds lighter (while Pratt was training for GotG) and chalks it up to “I stopped drinking beer.”
Except Parks & Rec was a literal sitcom (R.I.P Lil’ Sebastian), and the character dropping that zinger also thought Buckingham Palace was Hogwarts minutes before that.
Realistically, it could take 8–12 weeks until you see somewhat thicker, more well-defined muscles when you snap your latest progress pics.
If you follow a bulking (or Bear Mode) routine, Lyle McDonald offers the following guesstimates:
|Years of Proper Training Experience||Realistic Monthly Lean Mass Gains||In One Year, You Can Gain ___ of Muscle|
|1 year||2 pounds||24 pounds|
|2 years||1 pound||12 pounds|
|3 years||½ pound||6 pounds|
|4+ years||¼ pound||4 pounds|
Sprouting 2+ pounds of lean mass per month during year one is only possible because of those seemingly mythical — mildly intentional self-promotion here — noob gains.
Maximizing lean mass requires two things: a caloric surplus and heavy resistance training.
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How Much Fat Mass Can You Lose Per Month?
Viewers across America watched in awe as Biggest Loser contestants shed 15, 20, even 41 pounds in a single week. But how much weight can you realistically and safely lose in that time?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1–2 pounds.
(Then again, six years after their season aired, the average Biggest Loser participant already gained about 70% of the weight back. Crash diets and weight loss are rarely sustainable.)
Experts also agree that losing 1–2% body fat per month is generally safe. To learn how long it’ll be until you drop into the “aesthetic” <10% body fat range, look at the table below:
|Current Body Fat||It’ll Take ___ to Reach <10% Body Fat|
|15%||2 ½ months|
|25%||7 ½ months|
|35%||12 ½ months|
|45%||17 ½ months|
If you’re rebounding from a 2–4-month cut, your cardio and diet will focus more on maintenance than dropping body fat any further. Otherwise, chiseling excess fat requires a caloric deficit.
A single pound of fat consists of about 3,500 calories.
So, dropping 1–2 pounds a week while chasing that <10% goal will require a 500–1,000-calorie deficit per day either through diet, exercise (mainly cardio), or a combination of the two.
How Long Does It Really Take to Get an Aesthetic Physique?
Ninety-day programs seem to be the agreed-upon default for aesthetic programs like Sagi Kalev’s Body Beast, Tony Horton’s P90X, and V Shred’s Ripped in 90 Days.
But building a truly aesthetic physique will likely take a bit longer than that unless you’re just one bulk or cut cycle away from looking like Bruce Lee.
A hulking physique with 10% body fat — picture Ryan Reynolds or Zac Efron — could take six to twelve months to build.
If you want to dip below 6% body fat, hammer away at a six-pack, and add more definition in the muscles, the timeline is closer to two to three years.
A truly fat-free, pure muscle, “I’m two weeks out from the competition” physique will land you closer to a four to five-year schedule.
But It Really Depends On …
Six months to five years is a ridiculously wide estimate. But to narrow it down even further, consider these questions:
- Are you bulking? Cutting? Or attempting both at the same time with body recomposition?
- How lean do you consider an “aesthetic” physique? Ripped? Shredded? Hulk-like?
- Are you already somewhat lean? Scrawny? Chubby?
- How many angles are you tackling this goal from? Cardio? Lifting? Every one possible?
Unfortunately, if you’re already somewhat fit, gaining a pound of lean mass (or dropping two pounds) might go unnoticed in the mirror.
Take progress photos and measurements (with a cloth measuring tape) to track your goals.
“Patience you must have, my young Padawan.” – The small green dude from Star Wars.
Build a Superhero Body Without Training Like One
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