Quick, what’s the first bodypart that pops into your head when you think about getting big in the gym? If you’re like most people, you think chest and biceps. Also known as beach muscles, they’re what the majority of gymbos spend (wasted) time on in the pursuit of getting huge. However, relative to other muscles, chest and biceps don’t build a lot of visual size. Sure, you can gain mass there, and it’s fun to flex your arm and watch lumps pop out, but those alone are not going to contribute to a powerful, visually striking physique.
I realize that everyone has differing gym goals, and not everyone wants to be a bodybuilder (people who worry about “getting too big” don’t realize how difficult that really is). But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is all about illusion, about proud presentation of your best features and camouflage of less desirable features. We can also learn from the other strength disciplines: powerlifting and Olympic lifting. These two groups are sometimes stereotyped as either little men with Napoleon complexes, or as big fat tubs of goo with belly flab barely restrained by the leather lifting belt. Having had the pleasure of being in the warmup room with power lifters in varying states of semi-nakedness, I can attest to the fact that these folks, for the most part, have solid yet aesthetically pleasing physiques.
In a nutshell, what’s the secret to visual mass? It’s not chest and biceps. It’s back, legs, neck, and shoulders. In future articles I’ll go through this part by part, but let me present an overview here and argue my case. Take a look at the picture below of the bodybuilder on stage. I know, I know, he’s freaky, but bear with me here. I need someone who looks like a walking anatomy chart for easy visual identification! This guy knows from size.
First, have a look at his overall appearance. His shoulders form a wide horizontal line which tapers to the narrower point of his waist (red triangle). This is known as a “V-taper”. This upper width is counterbalanced by the outward sweep of his thighs (blue triangle). The V-taper of the upper body is what gives what we tend to think of as a conventionally “masculine” shape to the body. It is important visually that we can see this V-taper both front and back. Here is one of the ways in which many beginners go wrong: they focus on what they can see frontally in the mirror, forgetting that observers see them from all angles. But the back and shoulders are what give this V-taper.
Now, turn to the second picture and note first the lats (indicated with red lines and an “a”). Observe how these widen the body significantly (cover them up with your finger to observe the difference). Then examine the shoulders (“b” in blue) and how they contribute to the upper, widest part of the V-taper. Finally, observe how the traps (“c”) add mass to the top of the shoulders, and how the neck (“d”) completes the impression of substantial size. Compare the chest now to these other things, and observe its contribution to the V-taper: it’s present, but not as important. In fact the chest almost seems like an afterthought, as if it just happens to be stuck in between the lats, hanging from the shoulders.
Conclude by looking at the thighs. Imagine how idiotic this massive upper body would look if it was teetering on bird legs. And yet, so many trainees unwittingly or deliberately ignore serious leg training. They figure that they’re covered up in pants so it doesn’t matter. They don’t realize that it’s very easy to tell untrained legs, even through clothes. A squatter’s bootay and thighs have a distinctive shape that you can’t fake, even in the baggiest pants.
For trans folk trying to build a physique which is perceived as masculine, it is important to remember where, structurally, these visual cues come from. Many FTMs are at a structural disadvantage; narrow shoulders and wider hips are two skeletal features that can’t really be altered. However, bearing in mind what I have stressed above, that physique is about illusion, and the secret to size is not always where you think, FTMs need not despair. Think of the body’s appearance as relational. In other words, the size of one body part can, when observed in relation to another body part, make that second body part look bigger or smaller (get your minds out of the gutter, you piglets). One way to create the impression of a leaner waist is to build bigger shoulders, for example.
So, as FTM gym newbies, your objectives will be something like this:
- Make narrow shoulders appear broader.
- Make wider hips appear narrower, or at least proportionate.
- Create the lines of a conventionally masculine physique.
While structural features may be seen as disadvantages, there are also some advantages to much of the raw material that FTMs get to work with.
- You’re likely supplementing testosterone, which means some serious mass gains if you eat and train properly.
- Shorter FTMs will look bigger. Taller bodybuilders have to work very hard to look massive because all that mass gets stretched out, visually.
- Pre-existing body fat on legs, if there is some, can add size to legs while muscle is being built.
In the next issue, I’ll tackle the subject of adding size to the first body part, your back.