How do you measure your success in bodybuilding and working out? True satisfaction with yourself and your efforts may be a matter of healthy perspective beyond numbers or comparing yourself to others bodybuilders.
A History Of Perspectives
People’s perspective on various things is a matter highly subject to change. This is an observable fact – e.g., in the last 500 years, we went from considering ourselves a unique, god-given race inhabiting a plate in the very center of the universe, to being reduced to nothing more than ants going around one of billions and billions of stars, with our civilization being so fragile that a minuscule blow of a cosmic catastrophe would wipe all of us in just a few moments.
We don’t, however, need to go on such a grandiose scale to illustrate that statement – look at the rise of computer industry. Just 50 years ago, people were amazed at the power of computers which filled out entire rooms, and which were tens of millions times weaker in both memory and processing power than those we put into older cell phones.
It’s important to notice two things with perspective:
- It doesn’t happen on its own – it may be slow, but there are internal factors contributing to it.
- It’s not necessarily good nor a consequence of progress or discovering some truths, or simply doesn’t occur at the same time as discoveries themselves and are subsequently used when it seems fit.
I could name a number of examples which satisfy both these criterions (pollution coming from internal combustion engines which went from being completely obscure an issue to a major problem in less than 30 years), but I’ll focus just on one of them, which is of greatest interest to the resident audience: the bodybuilders’ perspective of themselves mutated by the rising bodybuilding industry.
Taking a look at how the rapid expansion and rise of profits in the industry, alongside the introduction of anabolic steroids, shaped our view of our own starting points, reasonable expectations and goals which we should strive to is quite a vast subject which I’ll, hopefully, write more about in the near future. For now, I’d like to focus on the most important and practical part of that story, and that’s the issue of estimating one’s rate of gains and maximum muscle measurements by verified and accurate methods.
Enough of words, let’s get onto numbers.
From Beginning To The End In A Single Stroke
Quite a few questions coming from beginners are related to the following: where do I stand right now, how big/lean can I get, and how fast can I get there? I’ll start by summarizing the more detailed approaches what will be described in subsequent paragraphs.
It basically comes down to observing two things:
- People are not equal, and genetics does matter, and
- All 3 stats mentioned above generally come in hand with each other – people who have more favorable genetics usually show this by being more muscular prior to training, their gains come faster and come to a halt later than those of less fortunate individuals.
Some people say that genetics is of no importance, but that’s true only to an extent and when viewed in a very specific context: indeed, all the people can, eventually, become both big and strong enough to set themselves apart from a vast majority of population, but saying that all people will respond equally to training and that everyone can get as big as Ronnie or Arnold simply isn’t true. These statements usually come from people who are genetically gifted themselves, or are at fairly low level of bodybuilding where the differences aren’t as observable.
There are quite a few ways to asses one’s genetic makeup in respect to muscle building, but I’ll keep things short by mentioning just two of them – a simple and popular but inaccurate and quite often plainly wrong method of somatotyping, and the most advanced and correct method I’m aware of, to which all the other modern methods relate to and comply with in a greater or lesser degree.
Somatotyping And Beyond
Somatotyping is a method developed in the 1950s by an American psychologist named William Herbert Sheldon, who classified human bodies into three somatotypes – ectomorphic, mesomorphic, and enomorphic. It’s the most popular and prevailing theory which occurs on bodybuilding websites and forums, even though its shortcomings are becoming more and more recognized. Now, before stating the obvious argument that this kind of classification is too rigid and discrete, we have to note that Sheldon did assign a scale from 1 to 7 to each somatotype, so that every body can be described by a mixture of the three in varying amounts.
This, however, only contributes to pseudoscientific “look” of the theory, as the assignment of the three digit number code to a particular person is completely provisional, qualitative and unstandardized. It does, however, constitute a step in the right direction: for one, it recognizes the differences between people in bodily constitutions and the effect of these differences on rate of muscle growth, and it’s actually on the right track when describing these differences as mainly occurring in bone structure (we’ll leave Sheldon’s outdated applications of somatotyping to the rest of constitutional psychology theory aside as they hold no value in bodybuilding).
So, somatotyping is fine for describing constitutional differences between people on the most basic level, but fails to provide an accurate, verified model which would allow us to associate one’s initial fitness level with his rate of gains and attainable measurements.
Luckily, such a model was developed by Casey Butt of Weightrainer.net. The very formulas and detailed accounts on how they were obtained and tests of their accuracy for measuring both maximum lean body mass and specific measurements for top pre-steroid era bodybuilders can be found here and here. I’ll just briefly summarize the essential part, and that is the fact that your genetic makeup, which defines your bone structure (assuming that you are healthy, grown individual who hasn’t had major interferences with growth and development in form of severe malnutrition or similar conditions), is the major factor which determines how far can you go as a bodybuilder.
Sure, it’s not the only one, as the model tends to slightly deviate when people with extremely frail or extremely robust bone structures are examined, but this method is still by far the most accurate one I’ve seen and can personally testify of its worth. Other, simplified models have occurred before, the most famous of which is the Steve Reeves method which associated maximum bodyweight with height and particular measurements as being proportionate to girths of knees, ankles, wrists and pelvis (again, note that foundation of these estimations is in observing one’s bone structure, and not current amount of muscle mass or bodyfat). It is unknown how Reeves got those numbers, and his model is fairly accurate on more gifted individuals like he was himself. On the other hand, Butt’s model is based on statistical study of muscular girths and yields sufficient accuracy on a wider scale of trainees.
Assessing Rate Of Gains
Assessing rate of gains is a trickier and less accurate business, which doesn’t come to be as reliable as estimating one’s maximum bodyweight and particular muscular girths. Besides Butt’s model, several other models exist, simpler than his, which are summarized by Lyle McDonald. Basically, they all acknowledge the fact gains come at fastest pace early in one’s training career, and slow down later on so much that they become observable only on a scale of 6 months to a year (if not even less). However, I see this as of minor importance, since all the people who stuck on with bodybuilding already know that they won’t build 50 lbs of muscle in 3 months, and those who have been doing it long enough to enter the domain of super-slow gains most likely are neither interested nor in the need of larger gains mass-wise.
A simple but good model is the one Martin Berkhan describes here. This particular model is more of an observation that has been known for decades, but he couples it with several examples of his own clients so I’ve decided to use his site to illustrate it. It basically says that, if you reach a bodyweight in kilograms that is equal to your height in centimeters minus 100 at a sufficiently low bodyfat (< 10%), you’ll be fairly close to your genetic potential.
You most likely have 10, maybe even 20 pounds of muscle which you can theoretically gain in the next couple of years, but this physique will surely be better than 99% of others seen around gyms and you’ll most likely be very pleased with this. I would, however, like to remark that this method, at least in my experience, doesn’t work very well with people who are of short, stout build, and tend to weigh 80 kg at 170-175 cm height and have low bodyfat, yet still haven’t milked the majority of their gains, but these are genetic freaks which are rare and don’t really have nothing to concern about when it comes to building muscle and strength.
What Is Big?
By now, most of you have measured the circumferences of your joints and calculated estimated maximum measurements – and most of you are probably disappointed by the numbers you’ve gotten. Let’s use my own measurements as an example of data you can get and why does it bother us.
My wrist circumference is 17.5 cm (6.89″), and my ankle circumference is 23 cm (9.05″), which is pretty small and frail, especially at my height of 188 cm (6’2″). Now, if I input these measurements into Casey Butt’s formula, I get the following maximum muscular measurements:
Chest – 126.87 cm (49.95″)
Upper arm – 45.87 cm (18.06″)
Forearm – 36.19 cm (14.25″)
Thigh – 69.95 cm (27.54″)
Calf – 46.07 cm (18.14″)
Maximum estimated weight @ 10% BF – 88.46 kg (194.61 lbs)
Yay, I’ll fit very nicely into the Height – 100 cm formula, by weighing approximately 88 kilos, but, wait… what’s that with my measurements? Don’t tell me that a lifetime’s worth of training will get me puny 18″ arms, and a chest slightly under 50″? Arnold was close to my height, and they say that he had 22″ arms, and Jay Cutler’s like 5’9″ and his chest is 55″, and my grandmother’s godfather’s stepmother’s son-in-law has 20″ guns and 34″ thighs… and so the ball starts rolling, making these measurements seem as pathetic as they get.
We’ve already identified the main problem behind it – it’s comparing yourself to other people’s (supposed) measurements instead of seeing them from the perspective of an ordinary person who doesn’t train (and almost all the people you meet in life are like that, unless, of course, you have a career in the fitness industry). A good way to make this happen is to reply to a statement like: “My arms need to be at least 19″ to be considered big.” with: “Do you need to stand at 7 feet to be considered tall?” Surely, nobody calls a 7′ man a midget nor average, but he’s not only tall, he’s freakishly tall, so tall that sticks out in every mass (pun intended) and people would most likely label him as “too tall” – so tall that he’s lost the positive attributes which the society associates with tall people (awful lot of “tallness” in a single sentence :P).
Bodybuilder Vs. Non-Bodybuilder View
This is exactly how people who aren’t into bodybuilding perceive people who walk around carrying such large muscular girths – you’re no longer big, you’re “way too big”. The actual issue doesn’t stem from the fact that you’re surrounded by big bodybuilders, because you most likely aren’t – the only huge people who (allegedly) sport these measurements are those you see on pictures on the Internet or in a bodybuilding magazine. It is my opinion and experience that most people, upon seeing someone with 19″ arms and 50+” chest in person, would label him as too big and not the kind of physique they’re after. Surely, there are people who wish to be so freakishly big, but I consider them to be a minority. Again, honest measurements seen in person are what matters – a picture of someone on the Internet claiming to have x inches here and y there is deceiving, to say the least.
While the 7′ man is still with us – notice how rare his height is. In fact, unless a result of a hormonal issue, his height is so rare that the only place where you’ll have a chance to see such tall people is at a professional basketball game. 20″ arms are the same – unless the person bearing them is a genetic freak unique in a sample of millions of people, he’s most likely on steroids. And that is, basically, the truth behind measurements in todays abominated bodybuilding scene – almost all are exaggerated, and a good deal of those is augmented by drug abusage as well.
Here’s an example of what I mean, a table of measurements of first 15 Mr. America winners, from the pre-steroid era (which ended with year 1959, when Dianabol was first introduced to the weightlifting community). Mind you, all of these people are the cream of the crop – extremely genetically gifted to be big and strong. These might not be their maximal measurements (e.g., in the 1950s, Steve Reeves was reported to have had 18+” upper arm), but they aren’t very far from it. And how many 22″ arms and 55″ chest do you see? Yap, absolutely none. And training wasn’t the issue to these people – yes, both training and nutrition have advanced, but no natural mean would get those measurements closer to ones claimed by today’s top bodybuilders.
These people weren’t pathetic weakling as you’d think by looking at that table – they were big, strong, lean, healthy and aesthetically pleasing, and beyond the reach of the lot of genetically less favored recreational lifters who populate the Internet.
I believe that I have provided enough evidence based on numbers, statistical data and girths from the time when all the lifters were natural and the industry wasn’t there to pump in unreasonable expectations in an attempt to make you feel small and weak and invest more and more money to try to surpass the barriers beyond which you neither can go nor should be going, all of which are more trustworthy than claims coming from people making lots of money off scamming and deceiving and those who shoot random, unverified stuff while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.
I don’t wish this info to put you down, but rather tell you how things really stand and that you shouldn’t look up to other people for comparison and give yourself false hopes and high expectations which eventually lead only to disappointment and unhappiness. As I’ve said earlier, everyone can get big and strong enough to stand out in general population, and the road to that goal, no matter how long (but equally enjoyable) it might be, doesn’t have to take away from your life or health. Put things back into perspective you once had, and you’ll see the entirety of your bodybuilding efforts in a completely different light, one I think you’ll find more enriching than that given by profit-driven fitness industry. Take care, train well!
Picture of a man courtesy of “Hairy.Jacques“.