Luckily when I started getting into the sick world that is muscle building, aesthetics, looking better and ‘bulking up’, I had already ‘red-pilled’ myself with tons of knowledge on genetic limitations, the prevalence of steroids and even more intricate details such as muscle belly lengths/insertions.
(Big shoutout to nattyornot.com – who I actually interviewed almost 6 years ago now! His work among a few others was massively influential in starting me off on the right foot in terms of realistic expectations and how many ‘fake natties’ exist online)
The beauty of this was being able to deal with the truth there and then, as opposed to being deluded, chasing a fairytale and ultimately ending up heartbroken.
I guess it’s a fancy way of saying: I had my expectations lowered before I even built any up.
The tragedy is many of us, guys AND girls, don’t have such a harsh awakening until it’s too late. They idolise Instagram influencers, YouTubers and celebrities, and the irony of it all is the idolisation is based purely on looks and precious little else.
These ‘influencers’ are out to put food on the table and hopefully get rich quick and easy, like we’d all love to? Part of this involves sales – selling you an ideal – an ideal body, one that’s going to make you happy. One that’s going to get you girls/guys and one that’s going to make you look better than most others aka STAND OUT.
Many of these gurus are a cocktail of genetically blessed, steroid using clever marketers and they mislead you massively. They tell you you can look as good as them just by training hard and isolating specific muscle fibers and angles………
Yet you do all this and get strong, maybe even stronger than your heroes yet you don’t look as good?! WTF?
Over my years in this industry if there’s one thing that unites us all it’s wanting to look better, be it naked, clothed or both. And there’s a swarm of hard working people out there who are still grossly unhappy with how they look and are seriously unsatisfied with their results.
Most of this is down to sheer over-expectation, or to put it more bluntly, being mis-led.
One of the harshest home truths of the fitness world and industry is this: How you look is NOT directly proportionate to how hard you work or how strong you are.
Read that again. Cry and punch things and get the frustration of the over-whelming injustice out of your system………
Then we can forge ahead and make the best of this situation!
Let’s get into some key factors as to why people look the way they do (i.e. why some people are more muscular than others yet weaker and vice versa)………
Some frames are just made to handle more weight/mass. Take a look at your wrist and ankle size: are they big and thick or small and puny? A big thick wrist goes hand in hand with big thick arms/forearms (at least when they’re somewhat trained), whereas a puny small wrist is synonymous with smaller arms/forearms.
The same theme emerges in the lower body. All the people you know who have big calves/thick legs will have reasonably sized ankles alongside and vice versa. Thin ankles are always accompanied by long Achilles tendons and high calf insertion points ?(more on this later).
This shouldn’t be the soul crusher it seems to be though, because I have seen people build impressive physiques while only boasting relatively small ankle/wrist circumferences. I’m one of them! I have a 6.8 inch wrist yet have a 16 inch bicep, 44 inch chest and 32 inch waist. Yet based on pure stats alone I should be smaller…..
Which is powerful empirical evidence to show there’s more going on outside of mere frame size alone, but frame size is still a factor and one that governs your potential to some extent.
One of my favourite scenes from back in my early days working gym floors was the middle aged, overweight woman with no training background, who told me she didn’t want to touch the weights because she ‘builds muscle really easily’.
To which I’d always ask what she eats and does to maintain such good testosterone. That way I could help the skinny young guys between 18 and 21, by sharing her secrets of success.
If only it were that easy, huh?
But this brings us onto the most prominent factor in why you look how you look; hormones. Namely testosterone. Testosterone is the powerhouse behind not only muscle growth but also the mobilisation and storage of fat tissue.
Some people naturally have higher hormonal profiles than others (this variation is more notable in men but also applies to women as well). Some guys are naturally more virile – more body hair, thicker and bigger jawline, higher sex drive, more competitive, more energetic and naturally stronger and athletic.
This is down to natural testosterone levels and offers us an explanation as to why I have small(ish) wrists yet have built a better physique than the calculators might suggest. I’ve always been hormonally blessed even from a young age. I remember growing facial hair as young as 11/12 and always have responded well to strength training, I’ve also always had a strong sex drive and high taste for women!
The darker side to all this is the prevalence of steroids in the fitness world today. When we think of steroid use we think massive bodybuilders, roid rage and impotence/early death in old age……..
In other words: the meathead stereotype.
But the truth is you don’t have to be huge at all to be using anabolic steroids or performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Top cyclists are notorious for using cocktails of drugs to boost performance, as are loads of other physically demanding sports. And why wouldn’t they? You have to fight fire with fire and usually the more physically demanding the sport, the more drugs will be used/abused.
The takeaway for everyone is: different steroids do different things. There are drugs for being huge, drugs for being strong as hell, drugs for being shredded to the bone, drugs for superhuman endurance and so on and so on…….
Don’t berate yourself for ‘failing’ because you used your favourite YouTuber’s Swole program and not looking like them at the end. You don’t know what they’re taking/have taken, so it’s pointless to compare yourself to them and to anyone for that matter. #Facts.
Muscle Insertions/Belly lengths
Now this is one that really can’t be changed (without surgery anyway). And it plays into the world of illusion and looking bigger without necessarily being bigger and/or having the potential to have more muscle tissue in a given area, subject to your muscle insertions/muscle belly lengths.
To give you a couple of practical examples, take the calves again, if someone has short shins and long calves, their lower leg will be pretty much all calf muscle! This will look much bigger than the person with super long shins and short calves.
Another example is the lats. If you’ve got high/short lats you’ll never have the iconic V-taper so many men want and so many women drool over – or at least it won’t look as pronounced as the guy with low inserting/long lats.
The biceps aka GUNZZZ are the last muscle we’ll dissect here. Biceps that insert close to the elbow are always going to be bigger/have more potential for size than biceps that have a noticeable gap between the start of the muscle and the elbow itself.
HOWEVER, the caveat here is shorter bicep bellies have more ‘peak’ to them, which can give the illusion of being bigger even though they’re not.
It’s for these reasons bodybuilding is such a genetic sport, despite the drugs. You either have the insertions for the right muscles or you don’t, and there’s precious little you can do to change it, bar maybe extreme forms of surgery?
This is eerily similar to the last factor only this one pertains to why some people can be very strong at a lift or movement, yet not have ‘much muscle to show for it’.
The skinny long-armed deadlifter who pulls 200kg+ at a bodyweight of 70kg. Why hasn’t he got a huge back and thick traps? Because his long arms mean he doesn’t have to hinge far at the hips to reach the bar, and subsequently, he can move more weight without as much muscle activation needed.
How about the short legged, long torso squatter who doesn’t need to move the bar very far at all to hit ‘parallel’. Squatting big weights will be much easier for this person than the short torso, long-legged counterpart.
This can go someway to uncovering why you can get big deadlifters without a big back and big squatters without big legs.
I remember someone once saying ‘building muscle is all about making the body inefficient. Efficient movement is the enemy of muscle growth.’ And all those years ago it didn’t make the sense it makes today.
Efficient movement is all about making things easy and taking the path of least resistance, whereas to force muscle growth and adaptation, you need to boycott ease and make things hard – this is making muscles work that your body/central nervous system doesn’t want to make work.
The practical applications of this category are: you need to ensure you’re selecting moves that make you inefficient if you’re wanting to look more developed in certain areas.
This may mean modifying the strength curve of an exercise, or changing the angle, grip or leverage. It could also mean activating/isolating smaller muscles you’re not used to using in particular movements.
It may even mean going slower, pausing or pre-exhausting certain muscles. The underlying takeaway is: you need to hone in on your execution as opposed to merely hoisting weight around!
Lastly, your training style & history will always have a strong impact on how you look. Marathon runners aren’t known for their bulk and sprinters aren’t known for their wiry physiques.
A common headscratch topic is why some people can be so strong & powerful yet not look it? Well, when we’re talking athletics and sports, the goal is to be strong but not unnecessarily heavy/bulky. So it makes sense to train in a way that maximises strength, power & performance, without adding needless weight which will hinder movement overall.
Low volume, high intensity are the ingredients for gaining strength without drastic changes in your physique. Obviously you will still see changes in your physique if you’re untrained but the changes will never be like they were if you actually trained for them – i.e. higher rep, higher volume training (bodybuilding).
If all you’ve ever done is low volume strength training on a low frequency, you can’t wonder why you haven’t built lots of visible muscle from training. A simple switch would be to increase the volume/frequency for a while (note: this doesn’t mean the same intensity; you’ll have to lift a bit lighter) and then seeing how your body responds aesthetically to this switch up.
Also note this is only really realistic if you’re eating enough total calories. If you’re eating at or below maintenance, you can get stronger but bigger muscles will be virtually impossible as a calorie surplus is required for muscle growth.
Reframing your own mind
Once you’re aware of all these often forgotten and overlooked factors at play in determining how you/I/we look, you can free yourself from any misery pertaining to not looking like X,Y or Z. This isn’t easy but in most cases it’s essential and when you realise you can’t change certain things, you become free; what else can you do, live the rest of your life wanting to but not being able to?
This would be first grade torture.
Sometimes having the cold hard truth exposed can make your motivation wane as it shows just how superficial your motivation was to begin with. Instead of doing all this training to prove yourself, impress girls or get likes on social media………maybe, just maybe, you might have to find a deeper enjoyment in it?
If nothing else, I hope this post further solidifies how fruitless it is to compare yourself to others, whether in fitness, career prospects or anything else.
You hold a few aces, sure, but you don’t have the whole deck in your hand and that’s OK.
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.