Updated: Apr 6
"The Value of Vision in Sculpting Your Ultimate Physique"
You train like a gladiator whose life depends on each workout and you sweat like a racehorse in the process. You begin your day thinking about that evening’s leg workout and from breakfast to bedtime you meticulously plan your supplementation and each meal. You have learned to love Tupperware. You slug down the best pre-, intra- and post-workout drinks credit cards or cash can buy. You do all this to get the absolute most out of every rep and every set in every workout. But have you really ever given much thought to exactly which type of physique you are striving so mightily for? Because the choices are diverse and if you don’t pick the correct target the likelihood of hitting the bull’s-eye is pretty slim.
A Little History
The standards of male physical perfection have changed dramatically over the centuries. An ancient Hebrew’s idea of the ideal man in 4,000 B.C.E. was far different from an ancient Greek’s 2,000 years after that. Yet for millennia the Greek ideal was to have a lasting impact, influencing even the 21st Century physiques we see in today’s fitness magazines, in gyms and on posing platforms.
So which muscular images contributed to the evolution of the builds we currently consider to be the ideal human physiques? For that we have to go back a few millenniums. While well-muscled male and female physiques could be found in sculpture and art going back to the early days of the Greek city-states (8th to 6th centuries B.C.E.), the dominant image of singular impact on Western culture’s concept of the heroic physique was the world-famous, “Farnese Hercules” sculpture (early third century C.E.).
This mightily-muscled depiction of the mythic hero, Hercules, could have stepped right out of the pages of a 1950’s muscle mag. While not rocking the unusually tiny waist and narrow hips popularized by the first legendary “Hercules” of the movies (the great Steve Reeves in 1958) and in 2014 by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the Farnese Hercules was big and ripped, with clear-cut abs, defined obliques, separation in the quads and hamstrings, perfect, upside-down-heart-shaped calves of about the same size as his intimidating upper arms, a perfect upper-to-lower-body balance along with back muscles and spinal erectors a modern-day I.F.B.B. pro bodybuilder would be proud to display on the posing dais. All this on a statue whose earliest versions where crafted over 2,500 years ago!
So How Did We Get Here From There?
The earliest efforts at displaying an actual living body that met the standards of the ancient ideals were seen in the physique of an early strongman turned “physical display artist,” the famous Eugen[e] Sandow (1867 – 1925), whose image is immortalized in the trophy presently awarded to the winner of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest (generally considered the best bodybuilder in the world). Sandow became a worldwide phenomenon as a result of his physique, not his feats of strength as a traditional “strongman”. A pure mesomorph, Sandow had a completely developed musculature from calves to traps, a deeply carved “six-pack,” large peaked biceps and a bodyfat percentage likely to have been around 3-4% (very lean even by today’s standards). And, Lord, was he strong!
Sandow was the world’s first internationally famous physique star, influencing millions.
More Recent Influences—The Bodybuilding Era Arrives
From the time of Sandow until the mid-twentieth century the art of physique display was dominated mostly by the type of physique that was built as a result of powerlifting or Olympic lifting regimens. But the 1940s and 1950s began to see a change . . . the relatively wide, powerful waist that signified strength in the Farnese Hercules and later, in men like Sandow, gave way to a more exaggerated “V” taper as seen in bodybuilders like Steve Reeves, Reg Park and Vince Gironda (to name just a few). Wide shoulders and a broad chest tapering to a small waist and narrow hips became the ideal.
The trend toward an ever greater chest-to-waist differential continued through the latter half of the twentieth century, possibly reaching a new height of fan and athlete acceptance with the earth-shifting arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 1970s. All along, however, there were “holdouts” such as the legendary Frank Zane (Mr. Olympia 1977-1979) whose physique stressed symmetry and leanness over size. And for a while the symmetry bodybuilders held their own, even dominating for a brief time in the late 1970s and early 1980s with bodybuilders like Bob Paris and Lee Labrada having a large influence on the sport.
Yet, inevitably (it seems) the particularly American passion for “bigger and better” everything(from cars to homes to porn stars) won out . . . signaled resoundingly by the emergence and dominance of the “plus-sized” Lee Haney (Mr. Olympia 1984-1991). Next, Dorian Yates (Mr. Olympia 1992-1997), brought even more size to the platform and the other-worldly Ronnie Coleman (Mr. Olympia 1998-2005) shocked the world with an absolutely shredded 290 pounds of beef.
And the Race was On
From the “He-Man” action-figure dimensions of Jay Cutler (Mr. Olympia 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010) to the present day, the mind-boggling size and proportions of top bodybuilders (while representing an extreme sort of ideal) have continued to become more and more distant from what only the most genetically gifted (and drug-enhanced) mortals can visualize themselves attaining. National-level bodybuilding has taken itself from the realm of possibility to the realm of fantasy for most of us.
Other Images Held Sway in the Public Consciousness Over the Years
From the first widely-celebrated six-pack, sported 50 feet tall in Times Square (and a bit smaller in national magazines) by rapper-turned-underwear-model Marky Mark (today’s Mark Wahlberg) in 1992 to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” physique (over a whole bunch of years), the advertising industry, print publications and Hollywood have exerted powerful sway upon our ideas of the ideal physique.
So . . . What does all this have to do with YOU—and your Physique?
Plenty! Because somewhere along the way, from the time you crawled out of your Pampers to the time you clutched you first set of car keys, you saw an image that got a hold on you—one you never forgot. One you wanted to look like.
For example: For this author it was seeing the famous
Steve Reeves in the original “Hercules” movie of 1958. Reeves, a California bodybuilder, went on to become the world’s top box office draw, starring in numerous Hollywood productions. Reeves classic physique—very wide shoulders combined with a minuscule waist (and a movie-star-handsome face) was the first to “crossover” from the bodybuilding world, where he was already a star, to the worldwide stage. Reeves was the guy all women wanted and all guys wanted to be—including me. Though I was only 8 years old when my dad took me to see the movie, I never forgot the visual impact of Reeve’s physique.
For me this was a fortunate choice of image models. Reeve’s was famous for his incredible symmetry and proportions so when I began (at about age 14) to train with weights I always strived to develop my own physique evenly from head to toe. I never just let myself concentrate, as many of my friends did, on getting “big” arms, or lats or any other single body part. But I was lucky in more than one way to have been influenced by the vision in my head of Reeve’s physique . . . .
This is Where the Importance of “Vision” Comes into Play
I think you must know that all body-shaping and bodybuilding efforts are highly creative processes (yes, it is more than just sweating and grunting in the gym). And, as in all creative endeavors, from sculpting to writing to oil painting to sports car design, it begins with a strong, guiding vision.
Legendary Italian sports car builder Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988), the genius behind the iconic red sports and racing cars that bear his name, had this to say about the power of vision in the process of building such a car, “In the first act of his labor, the maker conceives what his creature is to be: He dreams of it and sees it in detail, and he lays down the plan of work . . . .” In building your physique the same processes should occur.
Behavioral scientists have shown that the power of a positive image is predictive of success in even modest body transformations—people who envision themselves attaining a positive goal, such as, “I will have six-pack abs,” are more likely to succeed than someone who has the vague, negative goal, “I will lose weight.”
Pick the Correct Vision to Pursue: A Case in Point
As I stated earlier in this article, I was lucky to have been first impacted by Steve Reeves, one of the most symmetrical bodybuilders of all time (yet not a particularly “huge” athlete). As I began to train with weights (in those days in a friend’s garage) the vision of Reeves classic physique remained in my mind. I was also strongly influenced by the physique of Frank Zane, another champion who was known for symmetry and conditioning rather than stage-quaking size. This was fortunate because I was a light-framed guy who did not have (as a drug-free athlete) the capacity to become really big, either as a bodybuilder or just a well-built physique buff. So I always pursued a balanced physique, concentrating on symmetry, detail and conditioning.
Decades later, in my sixties, I competed for the first time.
I knew I would never be the biggest guy on stage but I counted on my symmetry and conditioning to carry me. I did not try to beat the bigger guys at their own game but I worked hard on my own natural advantages and the balance I had worked so hard on for so many years. I made a pointed effort to concentrate on muscular detail, especially in the back and shoulder areas (contests are usually won or lost from the rear view). My motto became, “I may not have a lot of anything, but I have some of everything.” The resulting physique has garnered many trophies, along with international titles and magazine and web appearances, eventually culminating in winning the right to an IFBB Pro card. This was only possible because I started with a vision that was attainable, not the image of someone I was genetically unsuited to look like.
Does Your Vision Conform to an Attainable Reality?
I am not one to discourage any man or woman from pursuing a vision that is burning in their hearts . . . sometimes skill and will can produce results far beyond what might be logically expected from the onset. On the other hand, if you are pursuing (for example) the vision of looking like one of bodybuilding’s elite “mass monsters” you had better be aware that those are genetically rare human beings. Even with the immense advantage of drugs, one must be in the miniscule percentage of the population that is preternaturally inclined to build and carry freakish mass—way beyond what most of us are gifted for.
The Successful Pursuit of Your Vision . . .
A number of factors should be considered in order for you to have the greatest chance of making your vision for your physique a reality:
The age you are starting out: This is one of two over-arching factors to consider when seeking a vision of your own to pursue. When you are in your teens or twenties, the world is your oyster—you have the years in front of you to pursue a vision that may take decades to fill out (today’s top pro bodybuilders are often in their late thirties, forties and even fifties). If you are starting out (or coming back) a little later in life a slightly “down-sized” physique might be a better goal, such as competitors in the new “Classic Physique” division display—it’s a class where massive amounts of muscle are not an advantage.
Your own, unique, genetics: This is the other over-arching factor. Example: If you are a tall, slender individual who does not easily put on lots of muscle, it is probably not a good idea to select a stocky, thickly muscled guy like MMA-fighter-turned-actor, Randy Couture, as your image model. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have inherited wide shoulders and a very narrow waist and hips, a more symmetrical physique would be perfect for you.
The time you have to devote: How much time in any given year, month, week or day do have to devote to your dream? A retired athlete may be able to devote a whole lot more time to the pursuit of his vision than a busy, twenty-something just starting out in business and raising a family. Adjust your vision accordingly. Maybe you won’t be able to get to the gym as much as you want during certain periods of your life—if so, just continue to train as best you can, concentrating on hitting every muscle group (don’t just work your favorite body parts!). That way, when you can devote more time to striving for the image you have in your head you will not have a well-proportioned build to work with. That is what I did. When I decided to “go for” the physique I desired I was actually in my sixties but I had built a physique with no glaring weak points to ruin my quest. Note: DO NOT allow yourself to get fat; that keeps whatever muscle you have built from looking good and puts you at a disadvantage moving forward.
Your Vision and Training style must match: If you are young enough, have enough time to devote to training, and bear the genetics to support your vision of a large physique with a lot of muscle then training heavy, using a good amount of basic, compound moves (deadlifts, squats, etc.) is the way to go. If, however, your genetics favor a “physique” class type of build, then full-range-of-motion movements with lots of angles and a ton of core work should dominate your training.
Are you willing to take anabolic steroids to reach your goal? Unless you are willing, beware of trying to emulate the look of many top amateur and pro bodybuilders. I have never done illegal steroids and was able to do well in both competition and photographic display, but I was a lightweight with small joints who did not need to carry a ton of muscle to look good. Trust me when I say that many of the fitness models and bodybuilders you see in your favorite magazines are heavily reliant on chemical enhancement.
Great Physiques (of all ages) Show up Everywhere!
At each stage of your fitness “life” it is a good idea to look for an age-appropriate vision to pursue. Your teenage obsession with looking like Ronnie Coleman might well be out of date when you are in your forties (and up). Your vision does not have to come from the world of bodybuilding, either. Actor Brad Pitt’s forty-something physique in the movie Troy, was amazing and an over-sixty Stallone presented a physique in Bullet to the Head that any mature male would be proud of. (Note that bodybuilding training is what, primarily, produced those builds.)
Additionally the sports world offers some great physiques to emulate. While you will never box like Manny Pacquiao (trust me), the "Pac Man's" lean, well-muscled physique looks great anywhere. From the muscled-up physique of NFL star tight end Vernon Davis to the GQ-model build of retired soccer superstar, David Beckham, examples of great sports bodies are nearly endless.
By all Means, Passionately Pursue your Vision!
With the right vision to follow, allied with hard work, dedication and intelligent training, you can, indeed, sculpt your own timeless masterpiece from the raw materials bequeathed to you at birth.
Farnese Hercules: cc Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)
David: By Jörg Bittner Unna
Sandow: Benjamin J. Falk
Steve Reeves: Public Domain
Tony DiCosta: By www.corsophoto.com
About the Author:
Tony DiCosta is a freelance writer and successful Master’s bodybuilding competitor. Tony has appeared both as a writer and model in numerous magazines including Iron Man, Planet Muscle and Muscular Development. He can be reached at www.tonydicostafitness.com.