Bodybuilding: Expectations vs Realities

This may come as a shock to some, but from the the moment a guy first picks up a weight, usually sometime in high school, he expects to get bodybuilder huge no matter how thin or heavy he might be. He might say that he is only working out for sports or to get “toned,” whatever that means, but my personal experience is otherwise. I’ve actually heard men say that they workout but that they don’t want to get too big – as if that was a possibility. I mean, most men will get bigger and stronger from lifting weights but getting “big” takes 1) genetics, which determine muscle shape, height, frame size, and a myriad of other physical characteristics – good and bad, 2) dedication and commitment to a routine, 3) proper nutrition (possibly the most important factor), 4) time, and if you really want to get “too big” most likely you’ll need 5) drugs (the illegal kind, not to be confused with supplements. By the way, I do not advocate the former and caution you to be careful with the latter). I could add another factor which is age. However, I believe that you can improve regardless of age. It might be harder to get going, you won’t recover quite as quickly and you may have to be more careful with your joints, but you can and will improve no matter how old or young you are.

Some of this expectation is natural, part of the male hubris if you will, but some of it is created from the sheer number of examples out there on social and traditional media. For example, I can remember a time when men could be in movies and television without having a six pack. And you don’t have to look far on social media to find all sorts of examples of guys (and gals) who are exceptionally well built. At least under the proper bathroom or locker room lighting.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t workout because you will never look the way you want too? Of course not. But most of us might want to consider setting goals that are more in line with our body types.

Take me for example. If you’ve read my previous blogs it should be no surprise that one of my goals from working out was always to build big, peaked biceps. However, the reality is that this will never happen for me. Regardless of how big (17.5 inches at one point) or small (about 11 inches) my arms are, my biceps always have a more rounded football like shape. In fact, until someone sees my triceps – my most commented on muscle – my arms don’t look that muscular.

Conversely, someone like my brother-in-law gets comments on the size of his arms – even when they are relatively small (for him at least) – because the shape of his bicep is more peaked and pronounced. Combine this with a genetic propensity to build his arms quickly – compared to most men – and you have someone who goes through sleeves with regularity. However, what he has in biceps he lacks in triceps. Sure they’re big, but not as pronounced as mine.

My unobtainable biceps goal as demonstrated by Peter K. Vaughn (find him on Instagram @peter.kv or @pkv.personaltraining).

Genetics determines muscle shape and the ability to build muscle. This doesn’t mean that someone with ordinary genetics can’t build a good looking body. But it’s going to take effort and commitment and frankly you may never look the way you want to look. Despite whatever artificial assistance Arnold had he was in reality a genetic freak (I don’t mean that in a mean way). Even at a young age he was better built than most adult men. His potential was enormous from the start.

My reality. Same size at Peter’s arm above, but due to a different shape and higher amount of body fat not nearly as impressive.

Regardless of genetics if you don’t put in the work and the nutrition, you won’t make outstanding progress as evidenced by this photo of my arm from 2017. A big arm, but soft. Below is a more recent picture of my arm after losing some weight. Shape is the same, but definition is better so the arm at a smaller size actually looks larger.

Me just before my recent surgery. My arm is smaller but better defined. Still no peak though due to the positioning of my muscle insertions and overall shape of the muscle belly.

So given that genetics will partly determine your ultimate results what can you expect if you put the work in? Frankly, quite a bit.

First off, regardless of how you end up looking you will feel better, move better and, barring an underlying medical condition of some kind, be healthier in general.

Even with an underlying health condition chances are you’ll do better with regular exercise than without (always check with your doctor before starting any program). For example, my friend Peter K. Vaughn like me suffers from Crohn’s. But despite multiple setbacks due to the disease he has the drive and stamina to keep making the best of what God gave him. Somewhat thin and lanky by nature he has overcome this to build a solid physique. The proof is in the picture below.

As you can see, he makes tremendous progress between setbacks. His biceps respond the fastest to training, but thanks to his consistency, commitment to proper nutrition, and the wonder of muscle memory, he bounces back quickly.

Even if you have great overall genetics to start with, it still takes time and effort to reach your full potential. Though progress can be noted in a few weeks, real change takes months and often years. For example Alexander Miles below.

Photo courtesy of Alexander Miles on Instagram @milesfitness. His website is
https://myfit-strategy.com/ .

Even as a teen you can see the potential in his physique based on his well defined delts and arms. However, he starts out pretty thin without much chest development or the classic V shape. Today however, you would not know that he was once a skinny teen. By working out regularly, and hard, staying focused on nutrition he’s been able to maximize his physique over a period of years.

Even guys with more average builds to start with can vastly improve their physiques and strength. For example, I used to work with a young man, Aymeric Van De Hove, pictured below, who went from a typical thin teen to a very well built man in less than five years. You can see some of his basic muscle shape in the 2010 photo, but no real hint of the physique that he would ultimately build over the next five years. With hard work and dedication he took what most experts might call an average physique and built something impressive and distinctly above average. Aymeric is also blessed with a very symmetrical physique. Note how his abs line up perfectly with each other. This is more rare than you might think and a product of genetics which cannot be changed regardless of how many crunches you do.

One last observation, “bro science” will tell you that tall men have a harder time putting on muscle than shorter men (think Basketball players versus gymnasts) but in my experience this isn’t necessarily true. I know some tall men who have an impressive amount of muscle on their frames and some skinny short guys. Some of the difference is just a matter of perspective. A 6 foot man with 16 inch arms will look smaller than a 5 foot 5 inch man with the same size arms. But, they actually have the same amount of muscle. And the taller man often has a larger frame and ultimately can put on more muscle than the shorter guy. In any case, both tall and shorter men can build a significant amount of muscle. In my opinion, you are more likely to be limited by the size and width of your frame.

Your height is no barrier to building muscle. Here’s Caleb Carr (@calebcarrfitness on Instagram) who is 5’5″ inches tall. Five years ago he was a lean runner with fairly wide shoulders, note the muscle definition in the before picgture. Already he was showing the potential for growth. Today he’s the same height and 75 pounds heavier (about 205). He’s clearly made the most of his great potential through heavy lifting and proper nutrition.
Likewise, tall men can build muscle too. Here’s me with Davy Barnes at the Arnold a few years ago. Davy, a recent contestant on the Titan Games (@davymichael on Instagram), stands 6’3″ and started working out when he was about 150 pounds. In this picture he weighed about 250 which is not his biggest. Currently, he carries 270 pounds on a relatively wide frame.

So to sum up, there are many factors that go into determining how far you can take your physique. I’ve only discussed a few here and most can be overcome for the most part. But the main takeaway is that regardless of the body nature gives you, you can build a better looking and healthier body. You need to put in the work, stay true to good nutrition, stay consistent in your workouts, and change your lifestyle to make meaningful change. The change will take time as there is no magic pill – but you can do it! Just don’t expect biceps like Arnold. Build the best body you can build, don’t be like me and keep comparing yourself to others or judging your progress by their progress.

We all have different metabolism’s and progress at our own rate. Keep striving to be the best you can be and you’ll be a happy camper indeed.

Onward!

Note: this blog is written from a male perspective because I’m a guy. Motivations and expectations are likely different for women. Just saying. Also, as always, no matter how motivated you feel after reading this blog – and I hope you feel at least a little motivated – always check with your favorite health care provider before starting a new exercise routine.

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