elitefts™ Sunday Edition

I am finally to the point where, after thirty years in this sport, I am sick with the direction of bodybuilding. It isn't even just the competitors, either. Guys in gyms all over the world are taking on a look that is just not terribly appealing. While almost every bodybuilder out there is complaining about Crossfit, they should be discussing how ugly the sport is and where it is heading. In my opinion, it is taking away from the aesthetics of a great looking physique and is flipping the sport from something that a young kid finds appealing, to something that not many people aspire to look like anymore. I am speaking of guts, in the literal sense — the ugly ones that are becoming all too common in our sport.

I have spoken to many of my peers over the years, from top bodybuilders that have been around for a very long time, to other prep guys and top training gurus in the sport. No one can settle upon one reason why the gut problem started, or even why it continues to be an ongoing issue. It isn’t just with competitors, either. It is also an issue for guys that just train to be big. There are some things that I have noticed that can’t be argued or explained away. As usual, I think I am right, and even though these other people that I have discussed this topic with might have other ideas as to why the problem exists, they also can’t dispel my theories.

Now, to be clear, when I talk about “guts,” I am not talking about only a high level of body fat. I admit that as I have gotten older I have clearly seen how the body tends to carry and store body fat differently. Had you asked me about this twenty years ago, I would not have thought this was possible, but I assure you that it is. I am not talking about body fat, though. I am talking about the rounding out of the abdominal wall even when someone is very lean, and how the actual size of the waist and midsection increases exponentially as you add muscle to your frame. Clearly, you can see how it isn’t terribly aesthetic if you add two inches to your arms, five inches to your back and chest measurement, and three inches to your legs, but your gut increases four inches in size at the same time.

Most will notice that bodybuilders of the eighties weren’t known for having huge guts. Sure, Rich Gaspari was known to be “blocky,” but blocky is completely different than having a big gut. Blocky is more of a genetic thickness to the waist and how your midsection is shaped. In other words, some people like Rich have very thick obliques. Benny Podda, "The Beast From The East," was a rare exception of that era and most of the top physiques had nothing of the midsections that they have today. The era of the eighties were midsections like Haney, DeMey, Paris and Labrada, all of which were very streamlined by today’s standards.

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Not even a decade later you had physiques that started to look completely different. The sheer size of bodybuilding competitors changed quickly as the Dorian era began. Bodybuilders were then routinely over two-hundred-and-fifty pounds and as they got larger, so did the midsections. It should be noted that if bodybuilders get larger, then their midsections should also get larger. What isn’t right, though, is when the gut grows larger, in comparison, than the increase in the size of the competitor. If you have growth in the arms and chest and legs of X then the growth of the midsection shouldn't be XX. In my opinion, this is when the appeal of looking like a pro bodybuilder starts to slide — at least for me.

So what changed?

That is a hard question to answer though there are a ton of opinions on the topic.

I use my situation as an example for this discussion: I have been training for thirty years and competing for about twenty-two of those years. I am a good case study for this topic because I started training at the early age of fourteen and over the years had very little issue with the size of my midsection until I was about thirty five. From there, it seemed that no matter what I did to try to control my midsection, it was futile. In my pursuit of more muscle, my midsection would continue to expand. Since then, it has been a top priority for me to control my midsection as much as possible. I am naturally narrow-shouldered so it is that much more important that I keep my waist size down as much as possible to make myself appear wider through the shoulders.

After a lot of debate with some very knowledgeable people and a few dumbass bodybuilders (hey, some of us are just plain stupid, accept it), I have settled on a few main factors that I think are the top contributors to gut size.


All things considered, and we can argue a lot of things about gut size, age is a constant variable here.  The older you get and the more years you train hard and heavy in the pursuit of more muscle, you have a much higher likelihood of having your midsection increase in size. Sure, there are younger guys in their early twenties with big guts, but I am not saying that you can’t have a big gut when you are young. What I am saying is that as all of us age, the situation only gets worse. That kid with the big gut that has only been training for four years? If he is still around in fifteen years, check out what that gut looks like then. It likely won’t be pretty.

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The Musculature of the Spine and Midsection

I might get destroyed for this one because I have seen little to support this. It is simply a theory of mine. Just be fair and think about this logically for a minute.

If the muscles of the back hypertrophy over time from heavy training, logically, the other smaller muscles that support the spine and the inner muscles of the abdominal region must also hypertrophy over time. These muscles are within the abdominal cavity so when they hypertrophy, they would essentially take up space that is otherwise taken up by organs (better known as "guts").

Think about this:  We see skeletal muscle grow “out” or grow off the body, so-to-speak. An example would be if you increase your quad muscle size those muscles will stand out more off of the thigh bone and growth is obvious. I think it is entirely possible that for the abdominal wall, growth also occurs inward simply because there is no bone structure behind the abdominal wall. It is entirely possible that when the abdominal muscles hypertrophy, they grow like any other muscle in the body: in all directions. Unlike a quad muscle, there is no bone on one side of the muscle so instead of growing “out” it grows equally inward, out and to the sides. This is an elementary explanation, but I am of elementary intellect so take it for what it is. I am simply trying to explain something in its simplest terms.

If my theory is correct, the thicker the abdominal wall gets, the more space that is taken up by the muscles in the abdominal cavity. Add to that the space that the anterior spinal muscles take up as they hypertrophy, and over years you have less and less space in the abdominal cavity for organs. Where do they go? The only place they can. They can’t push out the back of the body because the spine and ribs provide a barrier, so they push out from the front and sides. This causes the look of rounded out guts.

What does this mean? It means that doing heavy compound work that strengthens and increases the size of the muscles of the spine and abdominal wall will take up more space, over time, inside the abdominal wall. If you don’t agree, again, think about this logically for a minute. Heavy deadlifts (as an example) weren’t a staple in 80s bodybuilding like they were in the 90s and beyond. If you look at squatting poundages late in the 90s vs. the 80s you will find that the smaller waisted guys didn’t squat as heavy versus guys today that are known for heavy squatting and deads like Johnny Jackson and Branch Warren. Neither one is terribly impressive when it comes to midsections especially in relation to someone like Arnold or Lee Haney or anyone else from an earlier era.

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The other two variables above are significant contributors, but I feel food is the number one culprit. Until the Dorian era of bodybuilding, there just weren’t the gut issues as mentioned previously. What also changed at the same time was the new ideology of eating yourself to new and bigger muscle gains. The mindset of “getting huge” changed the way bodybuilders ate and the ideology shifted to “eat big to get big.” I prefer to call it force feeding. Prior to this shift, bodybuilders would eat enough to grow but, relatively speaking, it was taken to a new level in the mid to late 90s.

With the push of force feeding for gains, the body is forced to deal with a higher volume of food than it is otherwise capable of handling. Over time the body will eventually start to process more and more food even if it isn’t able to. This idea of eating more will not limit your gains. This is, in part, why physiques are so much larger these days than in the 80s but also why the guts are larger, as well.

Clearly, there are other issues, like hormones, that people tend to jump to first to explain the increase in gut size. I wouldn’t say that they don’t play a role. However, I strongly believe that the hormones themselves aren't a main culprit. Saying they are would be like saying that nitrous oxide is the reason that NASCAR drivers are killed in crashes. There are many other variables at play in a NASCAR accident than just the fact that they are going fast.

Hormones contribute to muscle hypertrophy and they allow your body to process more nutrients and they increase protein synthesis. These factors play into my theories above so, again, to be clear: I completely agree that they play a part.  I just do not believe that hormones alone play the most significant role in the surge of large guts. Hormones were a huge part of the 80s era of bodybuilding and yet the dramatic change in gut size didn’t happen until later.

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What is the answer to the big gut issue?

I'm not sure there is one. If you are after as much muscle size as possible then you are going to risk increasing the size of your midsection over time. This is what happens when you advocate for the idea of “eat big to get big.” There is nothing wrong with this approach and it works very, very well. Otherwise, if you want to keep control of your midsection, you better have incredible genetics that will allow you to grow without having to force-feed yourself for gains.

If you want to get the biggest gut possible, all you have to do is combine the three factors that I discussed above and it won't take long.

Speaking for myself, I won’t do the force-feed thing anymore. I apply logic to everything I do in this sport and adding four inches to my chest and back measurement isn’t worth a damn if I add three inches to my midsection. Plus, I am old as shit, so my sexiness fades almost yearly these days, anyway. I gotta fight to stay in the game and having a rounded gut just...well, ain’t sexy. As my food volume has been cut back over time, my midsection has gotten considerably smaller. It just takes time to undo what has been done for years. At the same time, I have to be good with the fact that gaining muscle with this approach isn't going to produce dramatic gains. I am old, I am good with it but the question is: are you?