What is the most glaring visual signal that identifies a man who is fit and in shape to a distant observer? You could say it’s simply the amount of muscle and definition relative to the average man, but from far away it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between muscular bulk and just plain fat. Guys who work out, eat healthy and take care of their bodies have a specific shape that marks them as part of an elite group, and that shape is what’s known as a “V-Taper.” The phrase derives its origin from the inverted pyramid form of the letter V itself; wide on top and narrowing to a tiny point. On a human body, this translates into wide lats and shoulders tapering down to a small waist. It’s a look that’s highly sought after, and with good reason. Many of the most aesthetically stunning physique athletes of all time have had exaggerated V-tapers. In fact, if you showed a series of pictures of muscular men to the average hard-training gym member and asked them which physiques they aspired to look like, the ones with the killer V-tapers would be chosen 99 times out of 100.
The Role of Genetics
Obviously, some men are gifted with a natural V-shape before they ever touch a weight. This is almost entirely due to their skeletal structure, which features wide clavicles and narrow hips. Building on this framework with additional muscle mass in the back and shoulders, their taper only becomes more dramatic. Typically this category is the domain of mesomorphs (naturally athletic build), though many ectomorphs (naturally slender build) fall into this group as well. Endomorphs, who tend to be naturally stocky and are prone to obesity, almost always have wider waists and very little taper. You could say that the skeletal torso shapes of mesormorphs generally resemble inverted triangles, an ectomorph’s would look like an elongated rectangle, and an endomorph would be a square, or in the worst-case scenario, a rhomboid with the narrow end on top (pear-shape body). From this description, it may seem as if only those born with the right configuration of bones can ever hope to have a dynamic V-taper. Certainly, it will be easiest for them, but what is life without challenges? Any of us can improve our overall shape with concentrated efforts in three key areas: widening the back, building broad shoulders, and minimizing the size of our waists. Let’s tackle each of these areas one by one.
For many years, various training authorities have propagated what I consider an irresponsible myth; that certain exercises for the back are specifically geared for “width,” while others are for “thickness.” Usually chinning and pulldown movements are credited with this magical ability build width. The truth is, as the upper back accumulates more muscle mass, it becomes wider simply because it is expanding away from the spine. Both vertical and horizontal pulling movements contribute to this phenomenon, so one should not rely on either at the expense of the other. That being said, there are ways to more selectively target the upper back in the general area surrounding the scapulae or shoulder blades, which is the most critical region for creating the illusion of superior width. Let’s look at these now.
Chin-ups. The one thing I want to get out of everyone’s heads is the absurd notion that super-wide chin-ups or pulldowns will give you extraordinary back width. I see so many trainers taking a very wide grip, near or at the very ends of the bar and way past shoulder width, and the only thing they’re getting is a truncated range of motion. Do this right now to see what I’m talking about. Grab an imaginary lat pulldown bar overhead with as wide a grip as you can, then pull it down. Where did your hands end up? That will vary depending on arm length, but I bet it was no lower than your mouth. You may also have noticed that you felt your rear delts working more than your back. Now, do it again spacing your hands just a bit wider than your shoulders. That time, you should have been able to get your hands down around your upper chest. And your lats should have also felt far more involved. An easy gauge for most trainers is to never place the hands any wider than the points where the standard lat pulldown bar or chinning bar bends. Now, to better target the upper back, maintain an arched back and a high chest as you chin or pull down, and actively attempt to thrust your upper chest upward to meet the bar. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and contract the entire musculature of the upper back at the end of each rep for a full second. Stretch the back between sets by pulling on both horizontal and vertical machine frames.
Rows. To emphasize the upper back, all rowing movements should feature your hands pulling to a point no lower than your top row of abs (if you can see your abs, that is). The guidelines for hand width are identical to those for vertical pulling. My favorite upper-back-accentuated rows are done with a barbell, machines, or a seated cable with a longer bar attachment rather than the close-grip handles. Several companies manufacture machines with handles that are close to motorcycle handlebars in design. For these, set the seat a little lower than usual and blast away at your upper back.
Pullovers. An often-neglected exercise for building the upper back is pullovers, either with a dedicated machine, standing and using a cable attachment, or lying across a bench with a dumbbell or barbell. Pullovers allow you an excellent stretch that I believe over time does in fact widen the back through a combination of stretching the shoulder blades and breaking up some of the tough muscle fascia that inhibits growth. And, it’s also the only back exercise where the biceps are not a weak link and the lats work directly against resistance. Use it as a way to pre-exhaust the lats before chins or rows, put it in between them to give the biceps a chance to recover, or finish off your back workout with a dose of pure isolation.
Big shoulders and wide shoulders are not the same thing. A lot of men who have focused on heavy bench pressing and overhead pressing develop tremendous mass in the front delts, but don’t always pay equal attention to their side heads and thus lack width in the shoulders. Lateral raises must have an important role in all your shoulder workouts.
Lateral Raises. Lateral raises can be done with dumbbells, cables, or specific machines. None is really any better than another, but good form is paramount. The movement must be controlled, with an effort made to feel the lateral deltoids working. Always try to “catch” the rep for a pause at the top and lower for a slow negative, around 2-3 seconds. It’s OK to loosen up the form after you have already done 6-8 good reps and give the side heads a final burn. Don’t try to go too heavy on these, or chances are other muscles will be doing most of the work.
Upright Rows. Upright rows have a deserved reputation as being potentially dangerous to the rotator cuff structure, but this is something you probably would know about by now if it applied to you. Many trainers do the exercise for many years with no negative issues. Upright rows are also a good adjunct to side raises in developing fuller, rounder side deltoids. Take a grip on a bar about shoulder width, and try to pull the bar over your shoulders. It should wind up at the level of your collarbone.
Overhead Presses. Overhead presses will always have a vital role in overall mass acquisition. One way to be sure your front delts aren’t being overly stimulated is to do your presses after your side raises and upright rows. By pre-exhausting them in this manner, you will be assured that the front delts will not be at an advantage and hog all the stress that you want to go to the side heads. If you can press behind the neck with no problems, do so. Otherwise, I advise seated presses with dumbbells, where your hands are directly in line with your head as you press up and down. Of the machines, my personal favorite is the Hammer Strength behind-neck press, which provides the benefits of a barbell behind-neck press yet without putting the shoulder joints under load in a position of external rotation.
The third and final component in the making of a V-taper is having a small waist. Most writers will not be as blunt as I am about to be, but I feel it is my duty. Once the fat is stripped away, the width of your waist is what it is. Some men are blessed with very narrow hips, while others are not. For those of us who are not, the best we can do is to minimize the amount of fat we carry around our midsections. Anyone who tries to tell you that you can continue to reduce your waist beyond this point is either trying to sell you something or just plain ignorant.
Simply put, you must do cardio on a regular basis to get lean and stay lean. The only other option is to perpetually eat below your maintenance level of calories and remain on a totally strict diet at all times. In that case, you would be forever hungry, grouchy, and gaining muscle would be biologically impossible. How appealing! How much and how intense your cardio needs to be is an individual matter that you need to experiment with to determine for yourself. Some guys can get by with two or three easy 20-minute sessions a week, but these tend to be naturally lean people with high metabolisms. Others may need to do an hour of intense cardio a day, six days a week. This also has a lot to do with how much fat you need to lose.
This is a subject for an entire article (or book), but suffice to say that eating clean will make you lean, and eating crap will make you fat. Junk foods are an obvious no-no, but so are such seemingly innocuous items as white bread, white pasta, fruit juice, dairy products, and muffins. Be careful never to combine fatty foods like pork, red meat, or peanut butter with carbs. Also, don’t eat complex carbs with every meal. Your body needs a little in the morning for normal brain function, then some before and after weight training. Giving your body more carbs than it needs will result in the excess being stored as body fat.
Thermogenic products are a multi-million dollar industry, and with good reason. They give you a great boost of energy and concentration for your workouts, while at the same time helping your body to burn greater quantities of fat than it would normally. However, don’t make the common mistake of looking to a pill to take the place of good nutrition and cardiovascular exercise. The fat burners definitely work, but if the other pieces of the puzzle aren’t there you can forget about getting that waist nice and trim.
Now it’s up to you. Do you want that awesome V-shape, or will you be comfortable looking more like a mailbox? If you want that coveted taper, you have the tools at your disposal. The ultimate V-taper can be yours if you follow these guidelines and stay the course. It won’t appear overnight, but your hard work will eventually pay off. And then, whether you’re standing right in front of someone or 50 yards away, they will instantly recognize you as truly muscular, fit and ripped.
Follow Ron on Instagram @ronharrismuscle
3 Extra Tips for the Ultimate V-taper
1. Avoid Heavy Squats and Deadlifts
Though squats and deadlifts are virtually magical in their ability to add size to the legs and back in a hurry, they often do so at the expense of widening the waistline. I can unfortunately use myself as an example. In my early years of bodybuilding I rarely squatted and never even knew what a deadlift was, and my waist in lean condition was 31 inches in circumference. Then I went on a two-year mission of adding size and worked especially hard at becoming very strong on both lifts. Though I definitely grew a great deal during that time, my waist grew to 34 inches. Though I haven’t done either movement in several years, my waist is still 33 inches. There are the lucky few who are able to squat and deadlift heavy without such repercussions, but the vast majority of those I have seen practice these two exercises over the long term inevitably see an increase in the width of their hips, size of their stomachs, and glutes.
2. Forget Side Bends
Probably the most suicidal exercise for someone interested in a V-taper to perform is side bends. At the club I used to work at back in 1989 and 1990, the European Health Spa, all members were started out on the same exact full-body circuit that probably dated back to the Kennedy administration or earlier. It began with dumbbell side bends, an exercise to strengthen the obliques, the muscles just over your hip bones on each side. I knew one member who worked up to doing 50 reps each side with an 85-pound dumbbell in his hand, and just in the 18 months I worked there his waist measurement increased 3 full inches with no noticeable rise in body fat. I know this because we weighed and measured our members on a monthly basis and recorded the results on the back of their workout charts, which were kept in an alphabetized file. For some sports, big strong obliques are a plus, but for something so appearance-based as bodybuilding they should be avoided at all costs.
3. Be Very Careful With Steroids and GH
Though steroids and growth hormone are illegal in North American without a valid prescription, many thousands of avid weight trainers and bodybuilders continue to use them anyway. Over the past 20 years, the dosages commonly used have escalated in direct proportion to the rising standards for size. Even when I first got into bodybuilding seriously in the late 1980s, an off-season weight of 230-250 pounds was considered a “big” man. Nowadays, that’s just average, and a bodyweight of 270-300-plus pounds is what you need to be a big boy. And the big boys use a lot of juice, and for very extended periods with little or no “off” time. An indirect result of the bigger muscles has been growth of the internal organs, which most people attribute to growth hormone, but I believe it’s also related to steroids as well. If you do choose to go the chemical route, keep a close eye on your gut and bear in mind that an additional 15 pounds of muscle may mean another 4 inches on your waist. You could say that building more size in the upper back and side delts will make up for it, but there comes a point when the belly is so large that all the mass in the world up top won’t be able to create a V-taper anymore.
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Skull-Crushers to Build Razor-Sharp Triceps
You work your triceps when doing bench, incline and overhead presses. For maximum arm development you have to isolate your triceps. Few exercises get the job done better than bench triceps extensions. This exercise not only builds your arms, but also enlists your chest and back muscles as stabilizers. The technique: Lie on your back on a bench with your feet flat on the floor. Using a narrow grip (hands 6 inches apart), start with the bar over your chest with your arms fully extended. Keep your elbows fixed and lower the bar until it touches your forehead, then push the bar to the starting position. You can easily break your nose or lose a few teeth if you lose control of the weight during the exercise, so use a spotter. For best results, superset skull-crushers with close-grip bench presses. Set the EZ bar over your chest and pump out close-grip presses, keeping elbows tightly at your side. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.
How to Speed Recovery. Muscles grow after the workout is over. Your activities between training sessions are critical for promoting maximum growth and preparing you for the next workout. If you don’t recover adequately between workouts, you cannot expect to train vigorously during your next exercise session. David Donatucci, in a National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal (24: 55-56) article, discussed common techniques for promoting recovery and enhancing muscle regeneration. Sleep is the most important recovery technique. People who train consistently with weights should sleep seven to nine hours a night. Include relaxing activities, such as listening to music, reading or meditating. Active rest activities may also enhance recovery. These include light stretching, cardio activities and games. Nutrition is critical. Drink a high-protein/carb drink immediately after your workout. Drink plenty of water during the day. Hot and cold showers, ice bags and massage may also speed recovery. Scientists have little proof that any of these techniques actually work, but anecdotal evidence says they do. Experiment to see which ones work for you. (NSCA Exercise Methods Notebook)
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Spring Clean Your Nutrition and Fitness Routine
With winter making way for sunshine and warmer temperatures, there’s something about this time of year that sets the stage for a fresh start. As we plan to spring clean our homes, with the outdoor weather and nature changes, it’s also a perfect time to reassess and spruce up your nutrition and fitness plan with some renewed energy and vigor.
Here are some great ways to reset your healthy habits this spring.
While certain core aspects of healthy nutrition persist year-round (such as balancing meals with plenty of colorful produce, ample protein, and inclusion of healthy fat), with the increase in fresh fruits and veggies, spring is a great time to get some variety into the rotation.
Try Seasonal Produce
Adding some in-season produce not only freshens up the color and flavor of your eating routine, but it also provides a host of fresh and bioavailable nutrients to fuel a healthy metabolism. Here are some spring favorites to throw into the mix:
- Strawberries: Try them sliced up with mixed greens and balsamic dressing or atop plain, full-fat yogurt for a satisfying dessert.
- Spinach: Use it as a base to your favorite colorful salad, such as with crumbled goat cheese, pistachios, and roasted beets.
- Garlic scapes: These low-FODMAP green-bean-like sprouts can be sautéed with olive oil and topped with lemon as a side, chopped finely into a basil pesto, or simmered down with butter to use atop fish or poultry.
- Chives: Chop these finely to garnish soup or serve sprinkled on your favorite entrées to provide a bright pop of color and onion flavor.
- Rhubarb: These celery-like stalks can be minced and cooked down with strawberries and your favorite healthier sweetener (such as granulated monk fruit or erythritol) and stirred into oatmeal.
- Radishes: Sliced thinly, this vegetable provides a pepper and bold flavor that can be tasty when served on a veggie tray or with cottage cheese.
- Collard greens: Serve up these dark leafy greens as a perfect, low-carb, and versatile wrap replacement. Simply trim the hard stem and blanch in boiling water for a minute before plunging in an ice bath. Pat dry and roll with turkey, cucumbers, and hummus or your choice of fillings.
Consider a Spring Reset
I’ve always been a big fan of doing a 14-day detox reset as the seasons change. For my clients, it’s served as a straightforward and no-nonsense guide to refocus on what we all ought be eating regularly anyway: fresh and frozen organic produce, high-quality meat and fish options, satisfying healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado, and complex, naturally gluten-free carbohydrate sources like root vegetables, berries, and quinoa.
If you’ve never considered it before, it’s worth checking out. It’s not as intimidating as it might seem, and most people coming out the other side of it enjoy a five- to seven-pound fat loss, better sleep, more energy, and an improved complexion. You can check it out here: Life Time D.TOX Program.
If anything, your water needs will increase during this season. A typical rule of thumb is to shoot for half of your goal body weight in ounces for optimal daily intake. But the more active we are and the more we sweat (even if we're just lying by the pool!), the more our need for water increases.
Bring a little spring to your water by adding some fruit or veggies for infused flavor. Keep a pitcher of filtered water in your refrigerator, and add raspberry and lime or pineapple and mint. Not only does it make it look more appealing, it also gives a great fresh, new taste to encourage optimal intake.
There are everyday supplements that most of us would do best to take throughout the year, but a new season is an opportune time to look at what you are taking and see if you are missing anything.
Continue your multivitamin and fish oil. Although it sounds simplistic, the metabolic and health benefits of high-quality vitamins and minerals, along with omega-3s, have far-reaching positive impacts. When prioritizing the most bang for your buck, I always start my clients with these two to make sure they’re set up for success.
Caveat: quality is everything. Be sure your quality multivitamins are capsule-based and have the most bioavailable nutrient forms, and ensure your fish oil is from small fish and in the triglyceride form as well.
Add in a shake habit. There’s something about spring that makes lighter fare more appetizing, and replacing a meal (often a refined carbohydrate breakfast, such as cereal, English muffins, or toast) with a high-quality, fiber-rich protein shake can be both convenient and refreshing. If you use in-season fruit and veggies (such as strawberries and spinach), the cool sweetness is a satisfying, easy way to keep your nutrition on-track.
The key with a daily shake, however, is to make sure you’re including a top quality protein powder and healthy fat, such as nut butter, to stabilize blood sugar. Simply mixing fruits and veggies together provides vitamins and minerals, but alone can cause blood sugar to fluctuate too erratically. Find some recipes to try here: el.lifetime.life/recipe-meal/shakes
Boost your immune support. With the environment changing, we’re exposed to new allergens and bugs. To balance your body’s defense systems, be sure to optimize your vitamin D status, increase your vitamin C intake, support your gut with probiotics, and ideally pair any extra zinc with the polyphenol quercetin to help reduce the histamine response to common allergens this time of year. This type of support is mindfully provided together in the Life Time Immune Stack.
When the weather breaks, we’re all tempted to skip the club and head outside — sometimes to a patio for happy hour. If we aren’t careful, our structured exercise pattern from the colder months can take a tumble.
This time of year, it’s crucial to come up with a plan that suits your preferences with the seasonal change while still keeping you on track. Here are some trainer-tested tips to help:
Swap out one or two weekly workouts for the outdoors. In most cases, your cardio days would be easiest. It’s much more appealing to head outside for your usual run than continue to pound away on the treadmill.
In order to ensure you’re not reducing your frequency of strength training for more outdoor cardio, it’s best to connect with a fitness professional to help you strategize. They can help you by providing some bodyweight programming or utilization of things you might have in your backyard, such as monkey bars or a wheelbarrow, to provide added resistance.
Focus on your steps. Even the most dedicated club-goers sometimes have trouble fitting in adequate movement outside of their workouts. If you don’t already, consider getting a step tracker and heading outside daily with the family to get some extra steps in. If possible, aim for a daily goal of 10,000 steps outside of structured exercise.
Gamify your movement. Now is the perfect time to try new ways to move and challenge your body. Never tried tennis? Take a lesson. Want to involve the kids? Play a family game of kickball at the local park. Exercise doesn’t always have to be formal.
With spring in the air, take stock of your current habits and decide which ones might be feeling stale and in need of a new approach. Whether you implement one or all of the tips above, you’ll be ready to move forward with your healthy way of life plan without any seasonal slump.
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In Training, Consistency Is the Key to Your Fitness Goals
Consistency is arguably the most important component when working to accomplish goals, in or out of the gym. Without consistency, programs are unorganized, the body has a harder time adapting, and forming habits may be more challenging.
Build and Follow Workout Programming
Whatever your goals may be, they require a consistent level of training for you to reach them. One way to ensure consistency within the scope of your goals is to build a program. Programs make it much easier to stay on track because you won’t have to think about what you’re going to do at the gym today—it’s already written out. Most programs are designed to be followed for a set amount of time, typically about 4 weeks. Depending on the desired goal, the program will have a different focus—hypertrophy, endurance, strength, and so on. Each day is designed with the goal in mind, while ensuring that you are training in a way that minimizes imbalances within the body. If you aren’t following the program consistently, the chance of it working is reduced.
Theoretically, if you have a program and you don’t follow it, the body is not going to be able to adapt to the program because there isn’t an opportunity for progressive overload, which is when the amount of stress on the body is gradually increased over time, leading to increased strength and performance.
Work Toward Adaptations
Biologically, a lot of things happen in the body during exercise. Over time these reactions change the body to become stronger, grow, or run more efficiently. Different factors affect adaptations in everyone, so it’s impossible to predict when these changes will occur. But being consistent with training will increase the likelihood of seeing adaptations sooner.
Different modes of exercise elicit different adaptations. Endurance training will produce different changes than resistance training. While there are far too many adaptations to discuss in this blog, a few examples reported by the CDC include the following:
Improved ability of muscles to use fat as energy Stronger ligaments and tendons Increased VO2 max and lactate threshold Increased number of capillaries in muscles Cardiac muscle hypertrophy Increased force production
Each of these changes is beneficial for different scenarios. The body is either becoming more efficient or stronger, or performance is enhanced. However, these long-term benefits are seen only after consistent training over a period of time.
We are creatures of habit. The more we practice something, the more natural it becomes. We experience this when we learn to walk as babies, when we learn to drive, and when we exercise. It’s normal to feel out of your element when you try something new, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel.
Current research suggests that to make a habit stick it must be performed for 68 consecutive days. The idea of sticking with something brand new for 68 days may feel overwhelming for some people. When taking on a new challenge, focusing on taking it day by day might be a helpful mindset. Yes, we might be aiming to create a lifelong habit; however, thinking about just starting a habit to last for years could seem daunting. Start by doing it for one day, and then two, and then three, and so on.
Once you feel comfortable with one small change, add another small change, and so on. Small changes are more sustainable over the long term and add up to form new habits. There will likely be days that your plan doesn’t work out how it was supposed to, but that doesn’t mean all progress is lost.
Our bodies adapt gradually to exercise. In the end, consistency will help you reach your goals. Without it, you might not have enough structure to allow for growth. Work first on figuring out your goals, determine the best route to achieve them, and get started with one step. If you’re not sure how to get started, the trainers at NIFS can help you set goals and develop programs tailored to those goals.
This blog was written by Hannah Peters, BS, CPT, Health Fitness Instructor. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.
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