The star of the original Hercules (1958), all-natty 1950 Mr. Universe winner, and inspiration for the “Classic Physique” — Steve Reeves — is still the prototype for the “perfect” aesthetic.
In his prime, Reeves was ultra-lean and the definition of a bodybuilding legend before steroids invaded the scene, sporting 18.5” biceps, a 54” chest, a slim 30” waist, and 18.5” calves.
The “secrets” to his perfect, ahead-of-its-time build were symmetry and proportions. His right and left halves were almost identical, and his upper and lower body were equally developed.
Now that those noob gains are filling out, here’s how to build a proportional body for aesthetics:
Emphasize Compound Lifts to Build Strength
When we talk about building an “aesthetic” physique, we’re really honing in on two key ego-boosters: making other dudes envious and encouraging the ladies to slide into your DMs.
Research published in Evolutionary Psychology set out to answer a question that’s left men mystified for centuries: what do women (and men) find most attractive in the male physique?
Of the 1,445 participants surveyed, here’s what they ranked as the most “aesthetic” muscles:
|Man’s Perspective||Women’s Perspective|
Now, the “obvious” solution here would be to build a routine with a heavy focus on all six of these muscle groups. But in your early days of aesthetic training, that’s the wrong answer!
Here’s why …
Almost all of these muscles fall into the “small” category. And, if you ignore the major muscle groups like the back, chest, quads, and hamstrings, you’ll turn into MuscleBob BuffPants 2.0.
(It worked on Sandy, but it’ll probably be a total bust outside of Bikini Bottoms.)
One of the hallmarks of an aesthetic physique is the combination of a wide upper back, a narrow waist, a V-taper that offers a smooth transition between the two, and thick legs.
Compound, multi-joint lifts — like rows — can shorten workouts for newbies, as they target several muscles at once and are just as efficient for building muscle mass (2015 study).
The best routine for a proportional physique will include at least one of the following:
- A load carry exercise (i.e., farmer’s walk)
- A squat-type exercise (i.e., back squat)
- A hinge exercise (i.e., deadlift)
- A pull exercise (i.e., barbell row)
- A push exercise (i.e., bench press)
We’ll get to those ego muscles you’re dying to build in a moment!
Add Isolation Exercises to Enhance Hypertrophy
After you master perfect form and smoke through your old Big Five lift PRs, you’re ready to turn that newly muscular physique into a more well-defined, proportional one.
The next step is adding isolation exercises to your program.
Here’s an example …
The triceps acted as synergist muscles during the traditional bench press. With exercises like the French press, the tris step into that “target muscle” spot for some individualized attention.
Isolation exercises limit how much other nearby muscles — like the anterior deltoids or pecs in this case — can take over when the triceps become weak, allowing for a more direct focus.
Like almost everything, it’s about striking a delicate balance, this time between compound and isolation exercises. After all, you don’t want your smaller muscles to outpace the larger ones.
Trainer Noam Tamir suggests the ideal split for mass is 70–80% compound, 20–30% isolation. Doing so may add another 10–20 minutes onto your workouts, so plan accordingly!
You can alternate exercise order and put isolation exercises first for more equal gains. And, in addition to bench presses, rows, deadlift, squats, and shoulder presses, weave in exercises like:
- Close-grip bench presses & standing triceps extensions (for the triceps)
- Dumbbell bicep curls & preacher curls (for the biceps)
- Barbell wrist curls & reverse wrist curls (for the forearms)
- Seated & standing calf raises (for the calves)
- Hanging leg raises & crunches (for the abs)
These isolation exercises introduce the ego-lifting aspect of training to your program while also adding mass to the minor muscle groups that complement a truly aesthetic physique.
A swole chest is awesome, but it’s even more impressive when paired with massive triceps!
Perform Unilateral Lifts to Enhance Right/Left Symmetry
No matter how much you try, the dominant half of your body — which is the right side for about 90% of us — will always be stronger and more coordinated than the non-dominant half.
In fact, research published in 1989 compared the average grip strength between the dominant and non-dominant hands of participants, putting the difference at about 10.74%.
What you might not realize is that your current hypertrophy routine could be widening the size and strength differences even more! Remember: proportional also includes visible symmetry!
Let’s use the back squat as an example.
Even if you center the barbell perfectly on your traps or use a Smith machine, your dominant side will still instinctively overcompensate when your non-dominant side becomes fatigued.
Long-term, this can spiral into several issues. For one, there’s a more noticeable imbalance between your left and right quads, and it poses a greater risk for form-related injuries.
The best way to avoid runaway right/left-side muscle imbalance is with unilateral training. That means swapping out some of your traditional lifts for single-leg or single-arm varieties, like:
- Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
- Dumbbell bicep curls
- Single-arm cable lateral raises
- Dumbbell single-arm rows
- One-arm triceps extensions
To get the most out of unilateral training, start sets with your non-dominant side (and match the reps between each) and allow about 60 seconds of rest in-between to catch your breath.
Adjust Your Routine to Target Lagging Muscles
We’re all guilty of blaming genetics, metabolism, and even gym equipment for any muscles lagging behind the rest. After all, the calves and forearms are notoriously stubborn.
But reluctant muscles aren’t anything new or unique to you (no offense). In fact, seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger turned his deflated calves into 20” wonders.
Adding proportional lean mass to your slow-growers requires a new, focused approach.
For Arnold, that meant six high-intensity calf workouts a week, sometimes cranking out quarter-ton (500-pound) calf raises. For you, it could be as simple as a slight routine adjustment.
There are quite a few schools of thought on this one; you can:
- Increase the frequency. For example, the late fitness icon, Zyzz often included a sixth training day in his routine, allowing you to focus on the muscles holding your aesthetic physique back.
- Jumpstart growth with more variety. Athlean X’s TNT allows you to choose one muscle group to target for an extra, muscle-shocking workout each week. Or, you can experiment with new types of sets (i.e., supersets of drop sets), rep ranges (i.e., 3–6, 6–10, and 10–15), and exercises to see how your muscles respond best.
- Follow a specialization routine. If your V-taper isn’t “smooth,” a fitness program with exercises targeting the V-taper could increase frequency without neglecting any other muscles. Or, try a core workout that targets all areas that may be falling behind.
We know that progressive overload — or putting your muscles under increased volume and tension with each workout via either more reps or heavier weights — nurtures growth.
A 2018 meta-analysis also shows that training frequency doesn’t matter as much as volume. So train stubborn muscles hard, whether it’s a five-day “bro split” or specialized PPL routine.
Don’t Neglect the Smaller Muscle Groups
We’ve already mentioned the importance of training smaller muscle groups through isolation exercises, including the biceps, triceps, forearms, abs, and those god-damn calves.
But sculpting a proportional build is like completing a 650-piece puzzle. If one piece is missing or jammed in the wrong, the entire aesthetic goes to hell (& likely scattered across the living room).
As Shaun T would say, dig deeper.
Just about every major muscle group in your body consists of smaller muscles or multiple heads (or attachment points). Each one of those plays a small but necessary role in your overall look.
For example, seated calf raises train the soleus, which sits underneath the diamond-shaped gastrocnemius. While less about the definition, inflating your soleus can add depth to your calves.
Then, there are the shoulders, which we train with presses by default. Yet, adding lateral raises and rear deltoid flies can also round out the tops and rears of your cannonball shoulders.
When we say “don’t neglect the smaller muscle groups,” we really mean muscles like these:
|Muscles||What They Are/Do||Exercises|
|Serratus Anterior||The boxing muscles that form a ribbed effect along your chest and widen your upper body||Dip shrug & ab-roll-out|
|Deltoids (Posterior)||The rear shoulder muscles adding more rounded definition to the deltoids||Rear deltoid row & rear deltoid fly|
|Wrist Extensors & Flexors||The forearm muscles that complement the biceps and triceps at the proper ratio||Wrist curl, reverse wrist curl, & wrist rollout|
|Triceps (Long Head)||The larger tricep head runs along a large portion of the upper arm, adding size||Close-grip bench press, dumbbell kickback, & overhead triceps extension|
|Obliques||The visible ribbed muscles lining your core||Russian twist & cable wood chops|
The list above details the often-forgotten and frequently under-developed muscles in newbies training purely for aesthetics.
But there’s really no one-size-fits-all strategy here. Your forearms may be wicked thick while your obliques hide under a layer of fat!
Start by snapping a full-body photo of yourself from both the front and behind while flexing. Then, compare your pictures to your definition of “aesthetic,” like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
Ignore the fact that his biceps are double the size of yours and instead look for areas where your proportions and definition really miss the mark (like your forearm to upper arm ratio).
Add an exercise or two to your routine that specifically grabs at those money shots!
Know & Train for Your Specific Body Type
The unfortunate truth is that, for some guys, building a natural aesthetic physique requires very minimal effort. For others, it’ll take an insane caloric surplus or near-daily cardio to stay trim.
In 1940s, Dr. W.H. Sheldon defined the body composition of humans in three terms:
- Ectomorph: A naturally thin, lanky physique with extra height and longer limbs
- Mesomorph: Widely regarded as the “perfect” build given the aesthetic balance between muscle, bone, and fat
- Endomorph: A physique more sensitive to higher body fat while also less likely to build dense muscle
While linking each of these body types to certain personality traits was … a choice, your somatotype will remain relatively constant through your adult years.
(Some experts divide the population into five somatotypes instead. A 2000 study discovered that about 51.6% of participants fall into the endomorphic mesomorph category).
Not surprisingly, whether you’re an ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph will play a defining role in how you build your version of a symmetrical aesthetic physique.
For an ectomorph to build a proportional body, they may need to eat 3,000 calories a day, lift six times a week, and avoid calorie-shredding cardio.
Meanwhile, an endomorph with a decent amount of muscle deep underneath may require caloric maintenance, resistance training twice a week, and more frequent cardio.
If you’re a mesomorph, well, good for you. Your biggest “problem” is becoming too bulky.
Create a Balance Between Resistance Training & Cardio
One long-held fitness myth that’ll stand in your way of a symmetrical physique is a false belief that, if you want to shrink the beer gut, all it takes is a little extra core work!
Unfortunately, while you can choose where your body packs on muscle, spot reduction doesn’t exist. That leaves you with three choices to uncover proportional definitions from head to toe:
- Burn calories with regular cardio sessions
- Eat fewer calories than your body naturally burns
- All of the above
Part of a proportional physique is limiting body fat to accentuate muscle size and definition.
So if you want to create the illusion that your waist is half the size of your chest, cardio or dieting (or both) can trim down some of the excess fat you carry around your core.
It can also help you chip away at the layer of fat padding your pecs.
But the best thing you can do is find a balance between cardio and lifting using skinfold calipers to record your body fat. A 10% body fat is generally regarded as sustainable and aesthetic.
If it climbs to 15%, add more cardio to your routine and cut your calories slightly. If it dips too low, add more calories and lift heavier to avoid becoming too ripped or vascular.