Have you ever made fun of that guy at your gym with the massive upper body and scrawny legs? Is his issue really just that he is allergic to the squat rack or scared of hard work? While this is possible, it’s not always the case. Alternatively, what about those guys you have seen who have thick muscular legs and calves with a relatively small upper body? Are they guys who don’t like chest and arm work? Not likely. While training has a HUGE impact, most people have some level of genetic dominance to their upper or lower body. Understanding your genetic strengths and weaknesses can give you further clarity into your expectations and training practices.
First, the nature vs. nurture debate
The topic of body type training always brings heated debate. Some think it is complete nonsense while others use genetics as a license for laziness. After spending almost 20 years as a trainer (most of those years working with groups of athletes and students), I have seen it all when it comes to different body types. I know for sure that genetics affect training results. However, I have also had athletes who seem to out-work their genetic limits. The challenge for all of us is to set reasonable goals and then approach our training in personalized manner with incredible amounts of effort, consistency and discipline.
Lightbulbs and Christmas Trees
Years ago, I was teaching a personal training course and during a conversation with one of the students, he used the terms lightbulbs and Christmas trees to describe upper body and lower body genetic dominance respectively.
Some people appear to have more of a lightbulb or Christmas tree build simply because of their training history. Take a male gymnast who specializes in the rings. Adding an extra 30+ pounds of lower body muscle is not what you would call a performance enhancer. On the other hand, think of a speed skater or short-distance cyclist. For these athletes, extra upper body mass is just dead weight to slow them down.
It is also important to note that all sports naturally select the body type most suited to that sport. That is why you might see a variety of body shapes and sizes at the lower levels, and less variety in body type at the elite level (especially in training sports). Elite athletes look the way they do because of how they train AND their natural body type.
The Test: Are You a Lightbulb or Christmas Tree?
An honest look in the mirror will probably answer this question for you. Training also provides clarity. Train your upper and lower body consistently with equal time and effort spent on each area. The part of your body (upper or lower) that develops relatively faster and “easier” is your natural genetic dominance.
Once you know your natural body type, the next big question is, “What do I do about it?” Before we get into training strategies, you have to ask yourself a philosophical question:
“Do I want balance or greatness?”
Elite athletes are not balanced. They have taken their genetic abilities to the zenith of their potential through incredible work and dedication.
A classic example of this is comparing Tom Platz to Arnold Schwarzenegger. While most competitors from their eras have long been forgotten, Tom Platz will forever be remembered for having the most incredible leg development. Check out this video from Nick's Strength and Power: The Quadfather Tom Platz.
Note: this is not just genetics. Tom grew these amazing legs because of his incredible work ethic with really heavy high-rep squats. Check out this video of him squatting 525lbs (238kg) for 23 reps!
Then you have Arnold. Even by today’s standards he has some of the most impressive pecs and biceps bodybuilding has ever seen. Check out this video and note how small Arnold’s legs look (though still impressive) in comparison to his massive upper body:
In the sport of bodybuilding, competitors are judged on muscularity, definition and symmetry. Tom Platz would have had a much more symmetrical body if he had backed off on his leg training. Arnold would have been way more symmetrical if he had backed off on his chest and biceps training. However, we wouldn’t be talking about either bodybuilder if they truly trained for a symmetrical body.
Bottom line: you need to choose between balance and taking your strengths to their full potential.
Training Strategies for Anyone Training to Bring Up a Problem Body Part
Start by finding the right exercises for you. Do not assume that just because an exercise is really popular that it is right for you. Muscle-building exercises should meet the following criteria:
- Feel the target muscle
- Use a good amount of weight
- Progressively add weight
- No joint pain
For example, if (assuming you are doing them properly) you struggle to struggle to feel back squats in your quads and they hurt your back, they will not be an effective way to pack muscle on your thighs – no matter how many articles refer to them as “the king of all exercises!”
Give top priority to the area that you are trying to build. You can do this by:
- Training the weaker area first in the week
- Training the weaker area first in your workout
- Saving any special training methods (e.g. rest-pause, isometrics, back-off sets, forced reps, drop sets, etc.) for your problem spots
- Keeping the training for your non-problem spots simple. You don’t have to go light or take it easy. However, you want to avoid excessive fatigue, super high volumes, draining training methods and psyching up.
- Flex or activate the problem muscle before each set to improve your mind-muscle connection
- Try a higher training frequency for your weaker areas (e.g. 2-3 times per week)
Training Strategies for Lightbulb Body Types
Ditch the track pants. If you have a big upper body, you can easily hide your legs with pants. Wearing shorts in public will motivate you to train your legs!
The single biggest limiter to leg development is effort. If you are serious about bringing up your lower body, you need to be prepared physically and mentally for some brutal training sessions. If you are training hard enough, you should go into your leg workouts a little scared!
Quads respond well to a variety of rep ranges. As a result, a heavy/light weekly layout works great! For example, you could do heavy squats and lunges on Monday for sets of 5. Then, on Thursday you could higher rep work of 10-20+ reps. This was a favorite training style of Tom Platz. Note: for high-rep work, you want to find exercises that allow you to stay upright so you hit your quads and now your lower back. Bulgarian split squats and safety bar squats where you hold the rack on are great options if you don’t have a good squat structure
Hamstrings are speed muscles. They respond well to lower reps, heavy weight and speed. For example, you could do lower rep deadlifts and leg curls on Monday and higher rep kettlebell swings and Romanian deadlifts on Thursday.
Adductors (inner thighs) can add a lot to your thigh girth. Lunges, split squats and sumo deadlifts will get the job done.
Glutes respond well to higher reps. Although most good leg exercise will involve the glutes, you can maximize their development with hip thrusts.
Calves are made up of 2 muscles: gastrocnemius and soleus – working on both is important. The gastrocnemius are fast-twitch dominant. Therefore, they respond well to jumping, sprinting, sled pulling/pushing and heavy calf raises. Pauses at the bottom and hard squeezes at the top also work great! The soleus are slow-twitch dominant. Many reps work well to maximize soleus development. You can also train the front of your shins (tibialis anterior) with toe raises to further increase your lower leg size.
Training Strategies for Christmas Tree Body Types
If you are naturally bigger in the legs, don’t think this gives you and excuse to just train pecs and biceps. For example, I’m naturally a Christmas tree body (side note: this is frustrating – especially since current men’s fashion states that shorts should come to your knees so quads are never seen). I’m able to build my lower body if I hammer it once a week. However, I find my upper body develops better when I train legs twice a week. The thing that is unique about leg training is that it does not just build your legs. Heavy, intense leg training is a catalyst to total body growth. Now, be careful not to take this too far. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you squat hard, everything will grow. Rather if you don’t train your legs hard, nothing will grow. Building your upper body to your potential will require hard upper and lower body work.
Contrary to popular belief, the bench press is not a great pec builder. Unless you have a good bench press structure, stick emphasize dumbbell pressing, push-ups and (if your shoulder can handle it) dips.
Related: The Truth About the Bench Press
Don’t assume that a wide grip pull-up will build you a wider back. Try various pull-up and chin-up variations. Focus on how well each variation targets your lats. Emphasize those in your program with a decent amount of volume.
Related: Wide Grip Pull-Ups for a Wide Back?
Rows are great for upper back thickness. Include one row variation with your elbows out (this will target more upper back: mid traps, rhomboids and posterior deltoids) and one with your elbows in (this will hit more lats). Avoid excessive cheating on bent-over rows and 1-arm dumbbell rows – make sure you are feeling your target muscles do the work!
Shoulders will get a lot of work with other upper body pressing and pulling exercises. Dumbbell presses are great for strength and mass. Add some higher-rep side-raises to pump-up the deltoids as a finisher.
If you struggle to build your upper body, you will need direct arm work. Compound movements that emphasize your arms such as chin-ups and close-grip pressing are a great way to expose your arms to heavy weight without destroying your joints. Single joint biceps and triceps are great for a pump. Include these at the end of your upper body days.
Want more on body type training? Checkout:
You, Your Body Type, Your Habits and Your Results
Genetics and Your Training Results
Deadlift Right for Your Body Type
Squat Right for Your Body Type
5 Keys to Personalizing a Muscle Building Program