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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STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: Midyear Resolutions
I’ve never really been a New Year, New Me kind of person. Celebrating New Year’s Day always felt a little random, as did the idea that an ambitious resolution could change something about my life in the middle of winter. I’ve always connected with winter as a necessary time of growth through rest, and I personally like to dedicate this season to maintaining good habits and getting plenty of sleep.
As I’ve grown older, even the societal pressure to name a goal, intention, or vision for the new calendar year has lessened.
Fast-forward six months, though, and you’ll find me in quite a different mood. Perhaps it’s the energy of a northern summer, brimming with life, warmth, and sunlight after months of darkness and snow. Maybe it’s my birthday, on July 1, pushing me, as birthdays do, to reckon with the past and look to what lies ahead.
Or it could be some combination of the two — the natural world and my interior world conspiring to irritate and energize me. What I know for sure is that as summer rolls around, the days seem endless and I feel restless, yearning to move.
For years, I didn’t have any outlets for my heightened energy; each summer I struggled with insomnia and a depressed mood. But as I discovered sports that I loved and my physical activity increased year-round, it became clear that I could harness this summertime energy for good.
Now, as the days stretch out and snow is a thing of the past, my activity levels peak almost organically: I want to walk, run, bicycle. I want to lift weights and try some outdoor boot camps. I want to paddleboard, hike, and take my virtual Zumba classes outside.
In other words, if I’m not working, I want to be moving my body, preferably outdoors. I want to feel as alive and vibrant as the world around me.
And as my activity increases, my mind jumps in to turn up the intensity by setting goals — specific and measurable goals, as I’ve been taught. Goals like performing 10,000 kettlebell swings in one month, running 100 miles in a month, completing a 27-mile through-hike, or logging 1,200 activity “points” each day on my smartwatch (twice my wintertime goal for what is essentially calories burned through exercise).
I love having something to reach for every day. And I love the feeling in my body and mind as I work toward and achieve my goals.
This is a fine line to walk. There are many rewards to my increased activity level, including improved overall fitness, sleep, confidence, and mood. But there is a cost, too: the risk that my positive mindset will evolve into something unhealthy, emphasizing goal-setting and achievement over everything else.
You see, even though I feel like I should know better, I still tend to fall into a common resolution trap — losing sight of the why behind my actions.
I’ve learned that as summer progresses, I tend to push myself to do more or perform better every day. I tend to ignore signs to pull back or rest. I tend to berate myself when my workouts don’t go as planned or I don’t hit a particular goal. I trick myself into believing I can maintain this level of activity not just all summer, but all year.
All these tendencies are common — it’s easy to get excited about progress and caught up in achievement. But if they disconnect me from my why, then can I really call it progress? If I don’t feel alive — if I don’t feel the vibrance I initially sought out — are my achievements sustainable?
In noticing these tendencies, I’ve learned from them. Now I am able to stop and ask myself: How do I want to feel? Is this activity helping me feel that way?
“How I feel” isn’t as specific or measurable as how fast I’m running, how much weight I’m lifting, or how my body composition is changing.
And “how I feel” isn’t a substitute for those goals. Rather it works with them, side by side, to help keep me accountable, consistent, inspired, adaptable, and connected to myself.
Fitness — like life — isn’t about choosing to feel good or perform well. I can get enjoyment from working hard, and I don’t have to suffer for my goals. Experience has taught me it’s possible to have both, if I keep both in mind.