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Classic rock, classic cars, classic books – and classic bodybuilding. A lot of things get labeled as classic, but what does it really mean?

Classic is timeless; it's revered; and it's always imitated. A classic physique is all about symmetry, balance, and proportion. Every muscle flows into the next with seamless harmony. No part is too big or too small. Words like "freak" and "mass" are replaced with "perfection" and "aesthetics".

To look like a classic bodybuilder, you've got to train like one. So FLEX enlisted to help of IFBB pro Chris Cormier, who competed throughout the '90s and early 2000s with one of the league's premier classic physiques. Now Cormier is sharing his secrets. It's all here: the split, the workouts, and his insider tips. Are you ready to build a classic physique that is reminiscent of legends like Frank Zane, Sergio Oliva, and Flex Wheeler? Then read on.

 

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 KEYS TO A CLASSIC PHYSIQUE 

  • All muscle groups are in perfect proportion with no one bodypart detracting from the whole
  • Fine details highlight smaller muscle groups to add to overall flow and impact of physique
  • Major muscles and tie-ins between muscle groups show deep separation
  • Wide delts, small waist and flaring quads for the ideal silhouette from front and back

CLASSIC TIP #1: BE BALANCED

Size is important, but a classic physique isn’t just big, it’s balanced. Just slapping on muscle haphazardly with no attention to proportion and symmetry will only end up in a sloppy physique. If you have arms that are too big for your shoulders or a chest that is too big for your back and legs, those overpowering bodyparts will only make the surrounding ones look even weaker. Each muscle needs to be developed so that combined with everything else, it will enhance the whole physique.

Every week, devote one workout to bringing up a weakness. The key is to make it specific and focus on a small muscle or part of a larger muscle (or muscle group). Some examples are upper chest, rear delts, quad sweep, triceps and leg adductors. In addition, since a lot of guys have an imbalance between quads and hamstrings because they train hams after doing heavy squats and leg presses, train hams in a separate workout so you can put more energy into them. Hams aren’t a big muscle group and they won’t grow from heavy weight and sloppy form. They’re an endurance muscle and higher reps are the way to create hams that hang from the side and show deep cuts from behind.

 

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CLASSIC TIP #2: CARVE IN DETAIL

One thing I notice often in today’s physiques is the lack of detail. They’re bigger, but that crisp, finely developed look to each muscle is missing. Take quads for example; deeply etched cuts are the result of pain in the gym. This is the pain that comes from high reps and heavy weight. People usually think that doing high reps means that you’re training light, but that’s not actually true. On leg presses, I would regularly do sets of 20–30 reps, and sometimes I even pushed as high as 50 reps. That doesn’t mean I used light weights; it means I forced my body to do more than I ever believed possible. That’s how you etch in detail!

You also want to squeeze on every rep. Instead of just doing your reps up and down, take the time to pause at the top of the movement. If you’re doing cable crossovers, squeeze each rep like you’re hitting the final pose in the Mr. Olympia posedown. It’s gonna burn like hell, but over time you will see the results — trust me.

 

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CLASSIC TIP #3: KEEP A SMALL, CHISELED WAIST

If there is a single bodypart that is the hallmark of a classic physique, it is the midsection. The midsection is the centerpiece of the entire physique. Every pose from every angle starts with it. Can you imagine Sergio Oliva’s hands-over-head victory pose or Lee Haney’s lat spread with big waists? A small waist makes shoulders and backs look wider, chests fuller and gives legs that outer flare.

Distended midsections and wide waists were never seen in the classic days because abs were trained with the same dedication as any other bodypart. And I’m not talking a couple of sets of crunches thrown on at the end of the workout. Abs need to be trained with the same intensity you would use for legs, back or anything else.

Use a wide variety of exercises, but avoid any side bends or movements of that nature. You want a tight waist, not a wide one. And don’t just race through the movement so you can get all your reps in and finish the set. Take your time and focus on the muscles being worked. Blow all the air out of your abdominal cavity and squeeze at the top of each rep, holding it for a couple of seconds to etch in every last fiber of detail.

 

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CLASSIC TIP #4: ADD VARIETY

With all the machines available in gyms today, there should be no trouble in adding variety to your workouts. I’m a big believer in basics like squats, benches, deadlifts, barbell rows and military presses to build the foundation, but you also need to use exercises that hit specific parts of the muscle or make them work in different ways than they’re used to. Exercise variety will make sure that you hit all the parts of a muscle for complete development to give you that 3-D look.

Use a combination of free weights, machines and cables to give the muscles a different point of attack. Cables, especially, will help carve in greater detail due to the constant tension. Also, do single-arm movements to isolate the muscle and keep balance from side to side.

 

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CLASSIC TIP #5: PUT IN THE TIME

It’s human nature to want things now and we’re all guilty of it at one time or another, but bodybuilders may be the worst when it comes to patience — I know I was when I first started out. I wanted to look like Robby Robinson by tomorrow! But luckily, I learned that this is a sport of inches, not yards. A great physique is built in the gym through endless sets and reps. There are no quick fixes or miracle gimmicks.

The only way to build dense, detailed muscle that pops to life in every pose is through reps in the gym. All those reps in the gym, every day and year after year, add up to give the muscle that finished look. You have to do the work to build the thick, striated muscle you want on stage and it starts and ends in the gym, so don’t miss workouts and more importantly, make every rep of every set count by developing a powerful mind-to-muscle connection.

 

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 CLASSIC TRAINING GUIDELINES 

  1. Split your workouts in two: morning and afternoon/evening. This ensures you have enough energy to properly train every bodypart and do every exercise. It was good enough for the greats of the ’70s, ’80s and even guys like myself in the ’90s.
  2. Train abs every other day. A tight midsection is required for a classic physique and you have to hit them regularly to get it.
  3. Rest for one or two days at the end of every four-day cycle. Learn to listen to your body and adjust accordingly. Start a new cycle only when your mind and body are refreshed and ready. 

 CLASSIC TRAINING SPLIT 

DAY 1: Quads (AM); hamstrings (PM)

DAY 2: Chest (AM); abs and calves (PM)

DAY 3: Back (AM); weak bodypart focus (PM)

DAY 4: Shoulders (AM); arms, abs and calves (PM)

DAY 5: Rest

 WORKOUTS 

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Build a Classic Physique

 CLASSIC HITS 

Cormier ranks the top classic physiques of all-time.

5. BOB PARIS

The modern-day version of Steve Reeves. Real pretty shape and flow to his physique, with good size and definition. He stayed true to his vision of what a great physique was. I think he was born in the wrong era.

4. SHAWN RAY

This little dude battled guys that outweighed him by 50–60 pounds and still came out on top! You don’t do that without perfect proportions, symmetry and the kind of detail that makes your muscles pop.

3. KEVIN LEVRONE

He owned the hands-in-front most-muscular pose. His physique combined thickness, great lines and that striated muscle-on-top-of-muscle look. Maybe the best trap/delt tie-ins of all time, and those outer triceps were crazy.triceps were crazy.

2. FLEX WHEELER

Flex was about 218 pounds at the 1993 Arnold, but he looked like he was 250! With his extra-tiny joints and full muscle bellies, he was the master of creating the illusion of greater size. And when he nailed his condition, his muscles just jumped to life with every little move he made.

1. LEE HANEY

The very definition of a classic physique. I’m glad I never had to go up against this legend because not only did he outsize everyone with his height and mass, he outshaped them, too! Muscle insertions, roundness, peaks — everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. He won shows just by standing there.