Let’s not kid each other: as much as we hit the gym to feel awesome, live longer, compete with our buddies, relieve stress, and, of course, have a damn good time slinging giant pieces of steel, it doesn’t hurt that working out makes us look damn good, too. Which means that, if you’re a guy seeking to round out your sex appeal, you’re probably more than familiar with all the coveted (admittedly superficial) physical attributes that constitute a “perfect male physique”—the ones even hardcore gym rats have trouble achieving.
These include the well-defined arm “horseshoe” (see: Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter), ridiculously chiseled V-cut abs (see: Brad Pitt in Fight Club), and the giant wingspan of a well-carved upper back (see: Hugh Jackman in any film in which he sprouts metallic claws). So, with the help of some of the nation’s best trainers, strength coaches, and strongmen, we’ve laid out in exhaustive detail everything it takes to achieve them. If you’d love a physique even Michelangelo’s David would be envious of, we’d advise you to start here.
Goal #1: A tapered torso
Remeber the old adage that “abs are made in the kitchen?” Well, the same principle applies to your entire midsection. “You can do all the gym work in the world,” says Zach Even-Esh, founder of New Jersey’s The Underground Strength Gym, “but if your body’s covered by a layer of fat, then nobody will know.”
That’s why getting yourself on a very strict, clean diet—with the right balance of proteins, fats, and carbs—is the key to transforming your flabby torso into a perfectly cut, tapered midsection.
But how do you do it? The first order of business is to get your math in order, and that means calculating what your overall calorie intake needs to be, says sports nutritionist and strength coach C.J. Murphy, MFS, owner of Total Performance Sports, in Malden, MA.
So if pure fat loss is your goal, you need to set the goal of ingesting roughly eight to 12 calories per pound of your entire body weight per training day, depending on how active you are and how much fat you need to shed. (And remember: Be honest with yourself.) If you’re already fairly lean and you just want better muscular definition, you’re allowed 12 to 15 calories per pound of body weight. (Though it’s best to start on the low end and see how it goes.) So if you’re a 200-pound guy looking to get lean, at 10 calories per pound, you’re looking at roughly a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
Now what should it be? Well, Murphy recommends a simple high-protein carb-cycling program, with which you eat more carbohydrates on your strength training days and less on days off, creating a caloric deficit that torches fat.
So let’s start with strength-training days.
First, of course, you’ll need lots of lean protein. “That includes anything that swims, runs, or flies,” says Murphy. Meaning: steak, chicken, fish, turkey, and ground beef. Eggs and protein powder are good, too. As a rule of thumb, Murphy calculates meats at 7 grams of protein per ounce. “Different foods have different values, yes, but if you’re eating a wide variety of meats you’ll still be in the ballpark, which is what we want.” All told, that means roughly 1g of protein per pound of body weight (calculated at 4 calories per gram). So that same 200-pound guy needs to eat 200g of protein every gym day.
Then there are carbs: Yams, sweet potatoes, white rice, white potatoes, and fruit are all good carbs to power your workouts. Those carbs should make up 35-45% of your daily calories, calculated at 4 calories per gram. We’ll give our guy 220g.
The remainder of your calories each day can be made up of vegetables and healthy fats, like nuts, nut butters, olive oil, and avocado. (Calculate fats at 9 calories per gram.) For our guy, that comes to roughly 35g of fat. On non-strength-training days, you should cut carbs up to 50% and increase fat to 20-30% of total calories to help fill you up, reduce hunger pangs, and increase your likelihood of sticking to it. So our example guy should eat 200g of protein, 125 g of carbs, and 50g of fat for a total of 1,750 calories. But when you eat is important, too.
“Earn your carbs,” says Murphy, which means you should be ingesting carbs directly pre- and post-workout. Also, save the bulk of your off-day carbs for the evening, which prevents you from bingeing at night and gives you a little more energy (in the form of stored glycogen) to carry into the next morning. “Carb cycling isn’t the only way to put on lean muscle mass, but it’s the simplest,” Murphy says. “It’s easy, people get it, and it’s hard to screw up.”
Goal #2: A broad chest
“Nobody likes a chicken chest,” says trainer Murphy, and we can’t argue with him. If you want to project an image of strength and power, a broad, chiseled chest is one of the oldest, most time-honored ways of doing it. But there are better ways to build pecs than the bench press. “The bench does work the chest,” Murphy says, “but it also works a bunch of related muscles, like the deltoids and triceps, among others.” With these other exercises added to your once-a-week pec workout, you’ll have a “chest you can balance a beer on” in no time.
Murphy first suggests the highly underrated decline dumbbell press. “It activates more available pec fibers than any other exercise,” he says. “It’s almost all pec because the range of motion is so short that your delts and triceps don’t do a ton of work.” The angle also allows you to use heavier weights, which equates to more work and a bigger chest. (Using a weight that allows 10 to 12 reps on your first set, perform five sets, pushing each one until you’re one rep shy of failure.)
Then it’s on to flyes. Murphy advises using bands or chains to put less wear and tear on the shoulders. (When the weight unloads as you go down on chain flyes, your shoulders will be safer at the bottom and you’ll get a more powerful pec contraction at the shoulder.) With bands, you can loop an exercise band around each hand and behind your back before picking up dumbbells. (Do four sets of 15 to 20 reps.)
Finally, “dips are like the squat for the upper body,” says Murphy, “in that they’re a great way to increase pec mass.” They press the muscles fully and also hit stabilizing lats and abs hard when done with proper technique. (Perform 50 dips in as few sets as possible.)
But to really stimulate growth, try suspension trainer flyes, which utilize full-body tension. “Plus, it’s done from an angle that you hardly ever use when doing presses,” Murphy says, “which creates a totally new stimulus that causes your nervous system and muscles to work differently, stimulating growth.” To do it, ensure that you’re maintaining a strong plank position throughout each flye. Perform 40 total in as few sets as possible, using a body angle of 45 degrees.
Goal #3: A triceps horseshoe
News flash: though biceps are cool, triceps actually make up the bulk of the upper arms. Growing big arms and—even more impressive, carving out a detailed triceps horseshoe—means working every part of the muscle. “You need to make sure you hit all three heads of the muscle—long, medial, and lateral,” says Noah Bryant, C.S.C.S. “While you can’t completely isolate them, you can do exercises that emphasize each one.” Add these three moves to your routine as much as twice per week—on chest day and shoulder day.
The first exercise, which hits your triceps’ “long head,” is the EZ-curl bar French press.
To do it, sit on a bench and grasp the EZ-curl bar with a pronated grip. Start with straight arms and the bar directly overhead. Lower the bar by bending your elbows. Go as far as you can while keeping your back, neck, and upper arms straight and perpendicular to the ground. It’s important to perform the full range of motion if you want better results. Return the weight under control to the overhead starting position.
Then the triceps dip is Bryant’s top choice for hitting this deep-down part of the triceps. Set up on a dip bar like you would for normal dips, only this time you’ll keep your body straight up and down (perpendicular to the ground) and your feet underneath you rather than crossed behind you. Lower yourself until your forearm and upper arm make a 90-degree angle, then push yourself back up.
To hit the lateral head, Bryant suggests straight-bar cable pushdowns. “The lateral head is the one most responsible for the ‘horseshoe’ shape of the triceps,” Bryant says, “and working it is extremely important to get that look.” Any movement that pushes weight down will hit the lateral head, which runs on the outside of the arm, but this is his favorite. Start with the bar about chest level, your elbows in tight to your body, and your upper arms pointing straight down to the ground. Keep your elbows tucked tightly in to your body, and push the bar down while keeping your upper arms static. Feel your triceps moving the weight—and your horseshoe getting more and more cut.
Goal #4: Strong, well-developed glutes
To really fill out a pair of blue jeans with an amazing rear, Toronto-based coach and personal trainer Lee Boyce, C.P.T., put together this stand-alone workout you should add to your routine as many as two days a week. Stick with the order described here—from most isolated to most dynamic—so you start with the heavier lifts. That way your body will recruit more fast-twitch fibers, which is key to building strength.
But a few ground rules to ensure you’re doing them right: 1) Always maintain a neutral spine, and don’t round or arch your back; 2) Press through your heels; 3) Make sure your hips are always the pivot point; 4) Start light, and make small progressions.
First: the barbell hip thrust, a building-block exercise that helps train the hip-hinge movement without having to coordinate other joints for an effective workout. To do it, sit on the floor and roll a loaded barbell into your lap. Lie back with your shoulders against a bench, bend your knees, and plant your feet on the floor. Then drive through your heels so you raise your hips off the floor to full extension.
Next: sumo deadlift, a deadlift variation that uses a wider stance—with toes rotated further out—to better activate the glutes. Be sure to use a narrow grip (inside your legs), push your hips back, and lean slightly forward to grab the barbell. Keep the barbell close to your body as you lower it back down.
Finish with the dumbbell stepup, which works the posterior chain even harder. Start by standing behind a bench that brings your thigh parallel to the floor when your foot is on top. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and step up onto the bench, but leave your trailing leg hanging off. Return to the starting position.
Goal #5: A wide upper back
A strong, wide upper back doesn’t just look great, says Jeb Stuart Johnston, C.P.T., a Brooklyn-based Strongman. It opens up your shoulders and improves posture. You stand taller and appear more confident.
To get there, Johnston recommends hitting the upper back with some of the same full-body functional movements that are central to Strongman competitions. Loaded carries force every muscle in the body to work together to lift and stabilize heavy odd objects, and much of the load is placed on the upper back. They also provide tremendous cardiovascular benefit. “Any of these would be great as a finisher on back day,” he says, “or try pairing them with sled pulls and car pushes to make your own ‘Strongman Saturday.’”
The first is the farmer’s walk, a Strongman staple that works the whole body, developing powerful legs and hips, increased core strength, and incredible grip strength, in addition to making your back stronger and more stable. To do it, simply grab the heaviest dumbbells or kettlebells you can comfortably carry (half your body weight in each hand is a good starting point) and do it. “Also, nothing taxes your posterior chain and your lungs quite like sandbag carries for distance,” says Johnston. “Simply pick up your sandbag and walk for as long as you can without dropping it. Easy peasy.”
Finally, there’s the snatch-grip deadlift, a deadlift that puts you at a mechanical disadvantage with a wide grip that engages the lats and rear deltoids and keeps them engaged for more time as a result of the longer range of motion. To do it, set up like you would for a regular deadlift, but take an extra-wide grip on the bar. Always lower in a controlled manner, keeping the back flat through the entirety of the movement.
Goal #6: V-cut abs
Ever since celebrities started showing off those V-shaped cut lines that start below their abs and disappear into their pants, girls have been lusting after them and guys gunning for them. Even if you have six-pack abs, though, the V itself is very hard to sculpt for one simple reason—it’s not a muscle. “The V is formed by the inguinal ligaments,” says New York-based personal trainer Ryan George, “and that’s hard to build.” We all have inguinal ligaments, which originate from the hip and run into the pubic region, but most of us have a layer of fat covering it. “If you really want the V-cut to be prominent,” George says, “more important than anything is eating clean so you can achieve really low body fat.” We’re talking 8% (for help with that, refer back to No. 1). That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are exercises that target the obliques and transversus abdominis that can indirectly engage it and cause it to grow more defined.
For this George recommends the cable woodchop because it engages the obliques and is a functional movement, the seated medicine ball trunk rotation, which also targets the obliques and—bonus—can be done anywhere, no machines required, and, finally, the kettlebell windmill, which engages the entire trunk. In the case of the latter, remember to start with a wide straddle stance and aim to touch your toes with your free hand while keeping that kettlebell up to the sky the entire time.
Repeat these three exercises 12 to 15 times, then start the circuit over. Perform three rounds two to three times a week, taking care to rest your core in between to up your chances of carving out your V-cut.
Goal #7: Bigger biceps
They may not be the most functional muscles you need to grow, says Murphy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to look great at the beach. Here are three moves to add to your routine twice a week.
The first is the towel pullup. Simply drape a thick towel evenly over a pullup bar, take hold of either end using a neutral grip (palms facing each other), and perform pullups. You get a shitload of biceps work on this and because the towel is so thick and you have to constantly squeeze it, it smokes your forearms so you can develop an iron grip. Perform 50 total pullups in as few sets as possible.
“Hammer curls are also an outstanding exercise for making biceps bigger,” Murphy says. “Everybody focuses on the biceps brachii—or the biceps itself—but the brachialis runs beneath the biceps, and hammer curls work the brachialis in particular. A bigger brachialis pushes the biceps up further, making them appear bigger.” Working the brachioradialis also increases the size of the forearm, which makes the arm appear more full. Using a weight that allows 10 to 12 reps on your first set, perform five sets in total, pushing each one until you’re one rep shy of failure.
Finally, work in some barbell chain curls. “Using chains for resistance with barbell curls is great,” Murphy says, “because—since weight increases as the chain is lifted off the floor and your biceps get closer to full contraction—you can overload the weight you’re lifting compared with a regular weighted bar.”
Do five sets of eight to 10 reps.
Goal #8: The low-quad teardrop
The VMO, or vastus medialis oblique, is the most impressive leg muscle to define, if only because it’s the only quad muscle visible when you’re rocking boardshorts. Located in your lower quad, a fully developed VMO not only creates a teardrop-shaped cut just above your knee, but it also acts as an important stabilizer that guards the joint against injury. For his part, trainer Nick Tumminello recommends focusing on exercises that hit the entire quads hard. “If you develop the quads overall,” says the trainer and founder of Performance University, “you’ll get the coveted teardrop.” Mix these exercises into your regularly scheduled leg workouts once a week for a teardrop that would make any pro cyclist jealous.
Start with the leg extension, Tumminello says, “which complements squats and lunges because it loads the quads in part of the joint range you don’t get from those movements.” When you’re standing at the top of a squat or lunge and your knees are extended, you’re not getting any force through your quads, but the leg-extension machine keeps the tension on through the entire range.
Expert tip: You can work the quads harder by elevating your heels with 5-pound plates. For the heels elevated squat, set up as you would for a normal squat, only elevate your heels 1 to 2 inches using weight plates. Bend your knees and lower your body in a controlled manner until your hamstrings touch your calves and your glutes are below your knees, then return to starting position.
Goal#9: Boulder shoulders
Sculpting the perfect v-tape physique starts at the shoulders, which means training your deltoids and traps. “Shoulders that are round and powerful-looking give the impression that your body is built for performance,” says Zach Even-Esh. But getting there can be difficult, he contends, especially if you’re doing the same old lifts day in and day out. “The body adapts and doesn’t feel challenged, limiting new muscle growth.” For a fresh set of shoulder exercises, try these three exercises that attack the delts from all angles and build strength and endurance both concentrically and isometrically. (Note: Once a week is plenty.)
First, there’s running the rack side raises, a simple way to overload the deltoids. Start with a light pair of dumbbells and perform three reps of side raises. Go to the next pair of dumbbells for three reps and continue “running the rack,” climbing up in weight until you can no longer perform three reps with perfect form. From there, reverse order and work your way back down the rack to where you started. If you can do more than two sets, Even-Esh says, then you didn’t push hard enough.
Then he suggests the dumbbell overhead carry, which challenges your shoulders, abs, and upper back isometrically. Lock the dumbbells (or kettlebells) overhead with arms completely straight, engage your abs, and walk slowly for 50 feet. Start off with three or four sets at this length, and slowly increase the distance to 75 and 100 feet per set. It’s great for adding size and strength to your shoulders and traps.
Lastly, you should do the dumbbell press 21s, which hit the shoulders through various angles while maintaining constant muscle tension. To do it, perform seven reps at a time from each of these ranges of motion—bottom half, top half, and full range. Start with very light weights, and press seven reps from your shoulders to the midway of full extension. Then press seven reps from midway to full lockout. Then do seven reps of full-range overhead presses. Two or three sets should be enough to blast your shoulders.
Pro tip: One of the best things you can use to build size and strength anywhere, Murphy says, is a pair of Grip4orce grip sleeves. They increase bar thickness and force you tosqueeze the bar throughout each exercise, which causes targeted muscles to contract harder and recruit surrounding muscles for a better workout.