The Art and Science of Dialing In Your Physique

Are you a narcissist? If you are not, you should be. Maybe not to the extreme, but if you don’t strive for perfection and keep a watchful eye over your progress, you’ll never achieve the pinnacle of success as measured by your inner self. Whoa, sound deep? Perhaps. I’m not much good with the psychoanalytical thing, but it sounded like the right thing to say. Besides, no matter how you cut it, it’s our egotistical need for dominance that fuels our weight room plight. It’s fine to be huge and freaky but unacceptable to be small and geeky. Whether it’s strength or size driven, the desire to be big, lean, and perfectly balanced across all body parts is part of our character. The complete package is something we continually chase.

The most important thing you can do is realize that you care how you look and you will never be happy no matter how perfect you are. The term alpha male is merely scratching the surface of your need to impress everyone, even though most people really don’t care—it’s simply your belief that they do. Thus, the hierarchy of needs suggested by Maslow some 60 years ago, may actually help us understand why we are so driven to succeed.

But what does an early-1950s theory have to do with training? For starters, Maslow defined five levels of social need, starting with the base physiological need level, and progressing up with safety, belonging, esteem, and finishing at the top with self-actualization. Each level of the pyramid relies on the base built before it and takes a basic requirement, adds to it to include greater boundaries and obstacles, and then refines it before it reaches the pinnacle. Perhaps training for the perfect physique follows a similar path on your way to dialing up the complete package. There are some basic requirements. There are some basic needs. You have to build layer upon layer to reach the size and shape you want. And then you have to refine all of your hard work to reach the peak.

Shawn rhoden leg press


While I ain’t Maslow, and I certainly didn’t invent the idea of training for size and shape, I do know that there is a process that everyone must follow in order to reach the perfect package. Depending on where you are on your quest, you may need to start at the bottom or somewhere in between. Regardless, if you are higher up the pyramid, it’s likely you started at the bottom some time ago. However, even those who are well-established with their look need to pay attention, unless you are as big and ripped as you ever want to be. Chances are you want to get bigger, and chances are that you want to get leaner. If you start in the middle on your quest for size, you will fail. If you try to lean out, and don’t have solid muscle underneath, you will fail. And, thus, the pyramid of perfection has merit.



Consider this the equivalent to Maslow’s basic physiological need. Without it, your body has nothing from which to build. Build some solid muscle first. I’m sure that statement is not a shocker. But it amazes me how many guys simply try to build size, without building the foundation. Muscle continues to rebuild and layer itself with training. Just as with building a house you start from the bottom up, you need to hit the weights with big lifts like bench press, squat, and some heavy-duty rows, and incorporate some big mass-building moves like shoulder presses, bentover rows, and leg presses. Then work your way out toward the smaller muscles.

Check your strength along the way to ensure you are continually getting stronger, as strength is the foundation of building size—the stronger you are, the more weight you lift. And the more total weight you can move in a single workout, the faster you get to your goals. A good strength program will last four to eight weeks, hitting each muscle group and major movement at least once per week and twice if you have the willpower to push your limits. One of the very best things you can do to ensure you’ll always have the complete package is to go back to these basics every once in a while.

At least twice, if not four or more times per year, you should go back to some heavy-duty basic training. Forget the pump and work on strength. It’s especially important if you have hit a period when your body just doesn’t seem to want to grow. The big strength moves will help recruit new muscle fibers and force your body to try harder, as it has to recover both mentally and physically. And both are needed to build that base. Don’t worry if your muscles don’t seem to grow. When you go back to your hypertrophy program, you’ll be much further ahead than you were, and your muscles will respond favorably to your newly acquired strength.


Lee haney bench press


Taking the next step in the pyramid gets you to the point where you are ready to really see your body develop itstrue colors. In social theory, it’s called “safety”—you establish your comfortable limit and look that allows you to feel confident in what you do. In our pyramid of perfection, this stage is by far the most rewarding training for guys. Nothing beats a huge pump and muscles that, when underneath a shirt, give you the Incredible Hulk look, especially when you throw on that medium-size shirt. This is the look that has people saying, “That guy is huge.” You can see the outlines of your muscles and total-body thickness, although it may have a layer of insulation, which works fine in the winter when no one is worried about the beach.

This type of training is dominated by a combination of big multi-joint moves along with constant refining via isolated exercises to enhance the growth potential. Training is spattered with variation: dropsets, exhaust moves, odd angles, and a constant barrage of sets and reps on the same body part until it’s annihilated. High volume is the name of the game, and workouts can take quite a while to complete, but when you’re done, you don’t need to inflate your chest and spread your wings—your body will do it for you. The downside to this type of training is that it becomes infectious. You tend to live for the pump, which drives you back to the gym just to keep swole. For the most part this is a good thing, but after a while, your body begins to normalize, and no matter what size technique you employ, your body will eventually beg you for something different. If you can continue to see true gains, not just big pumps, 16 weeks later with this program, you are a very unique individual. Generally, eight to 12 weeks is your reliable target, and then it’s time to redesign your program and reevaluate your body.


At the outset, it may be hard to correlate the third social hierarchy stage to your diet, since it is defined as “Belonging.” Truth is, the connection is more real than not. If you want to “belong” in a group that is defined by the shape of your body, then you have to hit a good diet. And to belong in this group you need to make a sacrifice—it’s time to bite the bullet. This is the point in your life or your training cycle where the rubber meets the road. You built a mighty beast, and now it’s time to tame it and get prepared to show it off. Perhaps one of the most difficult things in the human race is becoming disciplined enough to try to really hold back on arguably the greatest social activity—eating. We are programmed to devour everything in front of us. Moreover, we insist on doing it with friends and in a state of inactivity, such as watching sporting events, movies, or sitting around with a bunch of cocktails. The power of peer pressure combines with thoughts like “it’s just one” or “I’ll get it with cardio” to undermine resistance, or else you just blow it of completely and loosen your belt.

Either way, you lose the battle. While this may not be that big a problem for some, it’s magnified by the fact that guys want to know what exercise will make their chest pop, their bi’s peak, and their back look like a minefield of boulders. The answer doesn’t lie in the exercise selection but in the menu selection. Chicken wings and beer will give you chicken legs and a keg pack. While the occasional cheat is recommended, it needs to be done with thought. Plan ahead. Build out a macronutrient profile that meets your lifestyle but keeps you dropping the fat. Don’t cut out carbs or drop fat too much—instead drop your portion size and teach your body how to burn those carbs when they get in. In fact, the disciplined lifter believes carbs are friends, and when cycled correctly, give you monster pumps, road map vascularity, and unlimited energy. Of course, up your protein and aminos. Don’t just fuel growth, help it.


Arnold squat


Social need theory suggests that reaching the fourth level, “Esteem,” essentially gives you the power to hang in the top percentage of your clique with confidence. If you reach this level and never reach the top of the pyramid, you have gotten further than most people on our planet. As defined in our pyramid of perfection, this level takes you a step beyond what truly separates the men from the boys. Those who are willing to realize that their deltoids are swallowing their neck, while their chest continues to resemble that of a champion chess-playing high schooler, will eventually build the complete package. Those who don’t, will always complain that they were unfairly judged and can’t understand why certain body parts just won’t grow. Oh, and then blame poor genetics simply to avert the truth.

First things first. You have to work it if you want it to grow. For many guys, working legs would be a perfect example, but alas, I won’t go on a rant about having a pair of popsicle sticks to support your overgrown lump from your waist up. Do you ever wonder why some parts grow so well and become your favorites? It’s probably because you work them until they are beaten to a pulp and then work them some more. As a former powerlifter with a monster chest (relatively speaking, of course), it was no wonder my lat spread was put to shame by anything larger than a hummingbird. This may be the most crucial stage in your development of that award-winning physique and your quest for the perfect package. The point where you decide to work your weak links and bring them up to the rest of your body. For almost any non-true bodybuilder this means, guys, it’s time to work your legs…even once! For those who do train legs, if your calves are weak, you should get in a heavy dose of calf-first training. That’s right, before you squat, leg press, or beef your quads up any more, train your calves two or even three times per week and do it first in your program. That same rule applies to any weak link whether it’s your back, chest, arms, or something else that is preventing you from reaching the perfect package.

Dorian yates stage


For a competitive bodybuilder, this is measured by your stage presence along with a super-ripped and ultra-refined body shape. However, this should not be confused with how you place. Even those who place first are often not content and fail to reach Self Actualization as defined by social need theory. But for everyone else, whether stage-bound or not, this represents the point at which you are truly proud of what you have done. When you have made the ultimate sacrifice and manned up to the task. It’s not whether you win or lose, and no, it’s not how you played the game, but it’s that you fought the battle and came out on top mentally. As social theory would suggest, you have a lack of prejudice (against yourself or others) and you have accepted all the facts—this is your best, or the best you want to get to and you have nothing more to prove to yourself.

Dialing it in is where the true definition of the art and science of looking good is perfected. While science explains much of the physiological adaptation, there’s an art to making everything click. Since no two humans are exactly the same (even in the case of identical twins) there will always be an unexplained X factor that will be required to make perfection a reality. A trick that works for one may completely backfire and do the opposite for another. Interestingly enough, most scientists would argue that the “art” of training is unimportant. But scientists who have been to the other side will beg to differ, or should I say, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that science can’t explain it and begging is not needed, as the proof is in the pudding. Take it from a guy who has been a practitioner for as long as he has been a scientist—it is almost impossible to separate the two, but also almost impossible to correlate the two. And hence, the practitioner is often more of a reliable source based on actual proof than relying on a scientist who touts a controlled experiment that can say it is truly based only on probability. Besides, when self-actualization requires you to believe in yourself, and you are left to survive in a constantly changing environment, I would put my money on practice every day of the week over a theory that still suggests that more research is needed.


While the concept is really just a way to bring everything together, if you dive into things, you will likely agree, there is merit to the idea that hierarchy exists in training and that you need to build one layer at a time. The amount of time you devote at each level is a function of how much of that level you need to move to the next step. And even when you get to the top, you’ll likely start again, as training for perfection continues to evolve and elude. That means that you’ll probably set a new goal, a new look, or a new level to achieve, and so unlike social hierarchy where, at least in theory, you can reach a truly satisfying and fulfilled point in your life, the pinnacle of the pyramid of perfection in training continues to get further away rather than closer—at least for those of us who are truly passionate about striving for perfection. But then what would be the fun in being perfect anyway?