Aesthetics vs. Power: Build the Physique You Want

If you train with weights, most likely you want to gain muscle and lose fat.  Beyond that, have you thought about what type of physique you’d like to build?  Broadly speaking, there are two types of physiques that guys end up trying to attain: the aesthetic look or the look of power.  While your genetics play a big role in how your body will ultimately be shaped, your training routine and diet play a huge role as well, so it’s a good idea to know what type of body you’re after and how to get it.

The Aesthetic Look

Aesthetic means something that’s pleasing to look at, which can be subjective.  However, most people find the following characteristics to be aesthetic on a male: wide shoulders and lats, larger than average upper arms and chest, a small waist and hips, and lean muscularity throughout the entire body including the abs.  The aesthetic look is not about being huge, it’s about having a great V-taper, low body fat, good proportions, and having impressive muscularity without overdoing it to the point of being freaky.  There are some body measurement ratios that are considered ideal, such as equal circumference of the arms, calves, and neck, and a chest measurement that’s at least 1.6 times the waist measurement, but ultimately the look is more important than the numbers.  Two famous bodybuilders known for their aesthetic look are Steve Reeves (1947 Mr. America) and Frank Zane (1976-1979 Mr. Olympia).  Reeves was 6’1” 215 lbs. and Zane was 5’9” 190 lbs in competition shape.

The Look of Power

The look of power is more about looking strong and functional than being pretty.  A big neck and traps, a thick back, large forearms, a thick muscular midsection, and big glutes and thighs will provide that look.  It’s not necessary to be extremely lean/ripped to have the look of power, but your bodyfat should be under 20% otherwise the fat will hide your muscles and you’ll just look fat.  Below are a few examples of the look of power, from less extreme to more extreme.

The first pic shows a few top crossfitters who are in great shape but have overdeveloped traps, thighs, and midsection from an aesthetics perspective.  They lack a great V-taper, but they look powerful and capable (because they are).  Next, two top professional strongmen who are built like much larger thicker versions of the crossfitters.  Last, a massive bodybuilder whose freaky cartoonish size takes away from his aesthetics.

How to Train for Aesthetics

The key to developing an aesthetic physique is to focus on building the side deltoids, the lats, the upper arms, and the calves, while keeping the waist small and body fat low.  That approach will give you the much desired V-taper.  Work your other body parts too, but don’t overdevelop them.  Avoid heavy squats, deadlifts, and cleans because they’ll thicken your waist, neck, and traps which ruin the illusion of wide shoulders, especially if you are naturally blocky.  Avoid developing big thighs and glutes that overpower your torso, or big forearms that overpower your upper arms.  Avoid heavy abdominal work, especially heavy oblique exercises like side bends.  Your lower body training should center around exercises like high rep leg extensions, leg curls, hack squats, sissy squats, and all types of calf work.  Work your entire upper body thoroughly with exercises that work well for you, but put extra emphasis on all variations of lateral raises, curls, tricep extensions, and lat pulldowns.  Try to keep your bodyfat in the range of 8-10% using whatever combination of diet and cardio works for you.  This type of training will create the most aesthetic physique that your genetics will allow.

How to Train for the Look of Power

The most direct and effective approach is to train for strength on the basic compound barbell exercises like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, cleans, overhead presses, bent over rows, and curls, and eat enough wholesome food to gain weight.  Perform enough reps (5 or more per set) to stimulate muscle growth and always strive to add weight to the bar.  Add in some heavy carries such as farmers walks to strengthen and thicken your core, traps, and forearms.  After the heavy basics, include some lighter high rep isolation exercises with dumbbells or machines to add more volume to your routine which will build even more mass.  If you want the extreme size of a massive bodybuilder or pro strongman, you’ll also need the genetics to be big and the right combination of anabolic drugs.  I don’t recommend performance enhancing drugs because they’re bad for your health and illegal, but they’re worth pointing out because they’re the unfortunate reality when it comes to getting freakishly huge.  The smaller yet powerful look of the male crossfitters above is entirely achievable without drugs.

Which Look is Superior? 

Neither is inherently better than the other, it’s all personal preference!  Your preference may even change over time.  Over the years I’ve noticed that most people begin weight training with the goal of an aesthetic physique like Reeves or Zane or perhaps a less extreme version of them.  As they gain more experience in the gym, some lifters find they enjoy the process of getting bigger and stronger, and they start chasing size and strength with little regard for aesthetics.  Other lifters remain true to their original goal of looking good by normal standards i.e. aesthetics.  Lastly, as we age into our 40’s, 50’s and beyond, lifting super heavy and chasing mass isn’t feasible or healthy anymore, so most people drift back towards the goal of being trim with good aesthetics.  Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you know how to get there, and you enjoy yourself along the way.