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July 16, 2009 5:56 AM   Subscribe

Is there training method to add definition to muscles after gaining strength? Or, do I just need to accept my curious frame?

I'm curious if there's a way to train in order to add definition to my muscles.

I was recently called out by a friend as having "chicken legs." They weren't wrong: knobby knees, no definition in the calf, thin looking thighs. My entire body is actually pretty similar. I'm a guy, 6', 175lb, look like 130lb. I'm usually comfortable poking fun at my weaknesses, but this struck a nerve.

The thing is that my legs are pretty strong from a leg-focused sport I trained in when younger. On Nautilus-like leg machines, I can easily do several sets of 10 reps on the top weight (e.g., ~350lbs for leg extension, ~400lbs for leg press and calf extension, don't remember the others off-hand), and can do ~400lb squats. My upper body's not as strong, but not the little-girl level you'd think by looking at me.

When I was training for sports, this didn't make much difference to me -- performance was more important than appearance. Now I'm older, and starting to get a skinny-guy gut from a more sedentary lifestyle. I'd like to either (a) not get called out on being scrawny, or (b) stop my urge to 'correct' people about my strength.

Are there training methods that people use to get the muscle-pop look? Have I somehow been cheating at the lifting I've been doing? Or is it just genes, and I have to accept my lot?
posted by FuManchu to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In order to gain muscle, you have to increase your calories. 6', 175# is a fairly good weight for most, but if it looks "skinny" on you, then eat a surplus of "clean" calories while working hard on compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, etc.) with high weights/low reps to failure. That usually works for most people hoping to add muscle mass, though metabolisms vary.
posted by xingcat at 6:17 AM on July 16, 2009

Cliche alert: Pilates?
And the next time someone calls you scrawny, just pick them up and swing them around.
posted by heather-b at 6:22 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Who f*ucking cares? Get new friends. I like skinny guys, personally.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 6:23 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pilates != Strength Training. It won't make you strong and it won't put on muscle mass.

A few things: Nautilus machines are a poor way to measure strength. Maxing them out is not uncommon. A 400lbs squat at 175lbs is excellent, though. I'd never describe anyone who could do that as having chicken legs so maybe you are cheating the movement? How low do you go on the squat? Your thighs must break parallel for a low-bar squat and your ass must nearly touch the ground for a high-bar squat.

What is your body-fat percentage? To a point, a higher BF% will make you look skinnier than a lower BF%.

Finally, 175 at 6' is pretty light. If this is really a concern for you then a bulking/cutting cycle might be in your future. T-Nation and Starting Strength are your friend here.
posted by Loto at 6:34 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: It's probably just the genes. Some guys (and most women) just can't build substantial mass no matter what they do, short of steroids.

That said, there are two ways to improve muscle definition: gaining muscle mass and losing fat. It sounds like you probably don't have too much of a problem with the latter, so adding muscle mass is the most likely option.

Are you getting enough protein in your diet to sustain increasing muscle mass? When engaged in strenuous strength training you (a 175lbs person) should probably get somewhere between 200 and 300g of protein per day, depending on which studies you want to believe. That's 50-100% more than the USRDA, so protein supplements (e.g., a low calorie protein shake after working out) will probably be necessary to get to that level without taking in too many calories.

You mentioned using machines. You should transition to free weights for as many exercises as possible. Learn how to use them safely (you may need a spotter for many exercises), and you should get better results than with a machine.
posted by jedicus at 6:40 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Get new friends. I like skinny guys, personally.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small


Instead of jumping to correct people, try to work up a nice quiet confidence based on how the foolish people are underestimating you.

Forget Superman. Be James Bond.
posted by rokusan at 6:41 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: I recall seeing a program about bodybuilders desparate for pizza after a competition, talking about how on one you could see "his kidneys pulsing." My understanding is they gain definition by having a low body-fat percentage, which sculpts the enlarged muscles. That's distinct from 'worlds strongest' guys who usually look like barrels.

I also saw a 'no-duh' study on body types in different sports, with wrestlers being mesomorphic and runners ectomorphic. I think the idea was people gravitated to the sport their given bodies were best adapted to.

Those are the studies. In your post, though, it seems you weren't bothered until your gut began to show. Even a small gut on a skinny guy looks bigger than muscles. It's hard to burn off calories, so if this is making sense you may want to look more towards diet than muscle buildup.

And if he's a real friend, he won't object to a small contest of strength to prove a point...
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:54 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Muscle definition is the effect of having larger muscles and low body fat so the muscle shows through. There is no exercise that makes your muscles look super well defined.

Also, a lot of the way a muscle looks through your skin is genes so once you get there you have to accept what you have.

At 6ft 175 if you're doing 400lb squats you shouldn't have a chicken leg appearance. You should actually have a lot of lean muscle if you're pulling off squats that heavy. I have a feeling you probably aren't free squatting or squatting ass to floor. Squats will also build a mean looking upper body when done in the correct form.
Keep on the Olympic lifts, free weights, etc, and off most the machines. The machines let you cheat.

My advice would be to eat everything in your path while starting a serious strength program or to wear jeans if this is really bothering you.
If not, just keep on keeping on. You should feel pretty confident at your weight to strength ratio.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:55 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd question your squat technique if you can do 400 and still have thin thighs. Are you doing your squats to this position? If you can really squat 400 at your weight, you're an advanced lifter and well on your way to being elite (i.e. in the top 1%).
posted by diogenes at 6:58 AM on July 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I was recently called out by a friend as having "chicken legs." They weren't wrong: knobby knees, no definition in the calf, thin looking thighs. [...] I'd like to either (a) not get called out on being scrawny

Does this mostly happen when you're wearing shorts? If so, you could consider wearing long trousers.
posted by Mike1024 at 7:00 AM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, guys.

So yea, I'm pretty sure I must be cheating the squats at this point, and may also be getting help from the guide rails. As inferred, I don't do a ton of free weight training and don't have a spotting partner. And if the machines are basically worthless, that answers a good part of my question -- that my estimate of strength is simply all wrong. I was always surprised at how easy they were.

I'm not terribly bothered by it, I was simply surprised by my sensitivity to the comment. I can easily toss my own bodyweight around, which is how I trained initially, and is more fun than free weights anyhow.

My work schedule has opened up a workout opportunity, and was curious if there were different methods. Clearly it's the standard "add mass, lose fat," which isn't different for anyone.

Thanks for the info/support, all.
posted by FuManchu at 7:23 AM on July 16, 2009

I'm seconding zephr_words' comment. If you can squat that much then your thighs should be very well toned, especially at 175lb body weight. When you go down during a free squat are your knees at least parallel? If not, then you're not really squatting 400 lbs. When you stop too high you don't engage your hamstrings at all which means you're ignoring over half of your thighs when you're lifting.

Also, concerning muscle definition: do not ignore the significant effect that diet can have on muscle definition. Exercise is fine, but losing fat really does require a proper diet. Eat a lot of calories, but eat the right calories. Meats, vegetables, eggs, nuts and oils are great. Don't eat refined sugars, trans fats, or wheat. I'm serious about the foods to avoid. You can expect your thin man belly to drop off in two weeks, about a pound and a half a day (at least that's always been my experience when I do it). You'll lose fat and your muscle definition will increase.
posted by scrutiny at 7:25 AM on July 16, 2009

...and may also be getting help from the guide rails.

You are doing squats on a Smith machine? Stop that! Not only is it bad for your knees (unlike a normal squat) it isn't comparable to a real squat at all. Your estimation of your own strength is definitely off. Drop the weight 200lbs. and see how you do in a free-standing squat. That'll give you a good measure of your own strength.
posted by Loto at 7:30 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You are doing squats on a Smith machine? Stop that!

Jawohl! I suppose that order goes for presses as well. Just means I need to rustle up a partner/spotter, which is a hassle.
posted by FuManchu at 7:38 AM on July 16, 2009

If your squat is over 2x your body weight and you still look scrawny, then you probably are cheating on them.

Are you using a Smith machine to do your squats? If so, cut that out. Use a barbell. And what Loto said is correct -- your hips should be lower than your knees at the bottom of a squat in order to fully benefit from the movement. Otherwise, it's only half an exercise and you'll only get half the results.

I would quit using Nautilus machines and start using freeweights. Squats, deadlifts, presses, bench presses, rows, and the like are all much better at building muscle than isolation exercises (which, in my opinion, are useless).

In order to gain mass, you're going to need to increase your calorie intake as well. Start eating more, and start drinking lots of milk (but only after you've fixed your workout).

Check out for some instruction on how to do barbell lifts. You'll also want to check out Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.

...on preview: Yeah, what everyone else said.
posted by tipthepizzaguy at 7:43 AM on July 16, 2009

Yeah, that goes for presses too :) You don't need a spotter. You just need to figure out how much weight you can handle, and then slowly increase it. Seriously, just buy Starting Strength. You won't regret it.
posted by diogenes at 7:55 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

You shouldn't need a partner for anything but the bench press. For all other lifts you can bail out to avoid injury.

If you get stuck in the hole on a squat release the bar and go forward to your knees. The bar will roll off your fingers and upper back. The reason for going to your knees is so you don't fall backwards at the sudden change of your center of gravity. It's pretty natural to do when you are in that situation.

And yes, no Smith machine anything. Well, I lie. They are good for pull-ups and inverted rows since it is basically an adjustable height pull-up bar.
posted by Loto at 7:57 AM on July 16, 2009

Just means I need to rustle up a partner/spotter, which is a hassle.

I do squats without a spotter - although I wouldn't do bench presses without one.

1. Use a power cage.
2. Make sure the power cage pins (the short horizontal bar thingies the bar starts and ends on) are at a comfortable height - not too high - as there will be no-one to help you put it back in place. Remember to do this before you put the weights on!
3. The power cage should have adjustable height safety bars (parallel to the floor). Set these so when you're at the bottom of the squat, the barbell is about 2 inches above the safety bars. Hence, if you reach the bottom and can't get back up, you can lower the barbell onto the safety bars; and likewise if you have a problem going down or up you can simply lower the bar onto the safety bars (ideally in a controlled manner).
posted by Mike1024 at 8:06 AM on July 16, 2009

Sometimes I'll use the Smith Machine to anchor my legs for Glute-Ham sit-ups. Not really the best way to do it, but it's a rare gym that has a GHD. Smith machines are also good to hang rings from for dips.
posted by scrutiny at 8:53 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you have two goals that are slightly at odds: gaining muscle and losing fat.

Gaining muscle requires frequent heavy lifting, preferably with big compound movements (squat, deadlift, presses). It also requires one be eating a surplus of calories. The more the better, and the "cleaner" the better (ie not junk food). This is called bulking.

Losing fat requires that you continue to lift in the same way while eating a deficit of calories.

Basically, eating is the true vehicle of body mass change -- you eat more, you'll add tissue; you eat less, you'll lose tissue. Training then helps to affect the composition of the tissue added/lost.

The way bodybuilders use this knowledge is by employing a "two-steps-forward, one-step-back" approach: They will eat tons of food and lift really hard during a bulking phase. They will gain a lot of weight, and if they're training well, much of it will be muscle. Then they'll do a "cutting" phase, hoping to keep most of the muscle they gained and shed the fat. Over time there will be a net increase in muscle tissue with no fat increase.

My recommendation for you would be this: decide how serious you are about changing your body. Bodybuilding can be done, but it requires a serious commitment to training and especially eating. If you are serious, search the internet or start a new mefi question.
posted by dualityofmind at 10:06 AM on July 16, 2009

Everyone is right. The answer to your stated question is that you need to lose bodyfat to gain definition. But the appearance of your legs is not a problem excess bodyfat, it's lack of muscle. Learn to do proper squats and deadlifts with a barbell (and prepare to be humbled somewhat), eat lots of food, and you'll take care of that. If you have access to a power rack, you don't need a spotter for anything but the bench press.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:20 AM on July 16, 2009

Body-building is, roughly:
60% diet
20% exercise
20% rest

Eat as much protein as you can stomach and work each muscle group no more than twice a week.

I've always thought of myself as a "hard-gainer". I used to work out like 3 hours every day and ate a super-healthy rice and tofu sort of diet. Couldn't put on weight to save my life, although I was pretty cut and quite strong. After a friend told me the above formula, I started lifting just once a week and eating all the protein I could stomach (chicken, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, etc) and making excellent gains. Bam, crazy results, and quickly too -- about 20lbs solid muscle within a year. (I heard via the rumor mill that the neighbors thought I'd started using steroids, haha)

Sounds like you're working out a lot with no attention paid to diet or rest, which makes you feel like you're doing a whole lot, but it's not a recipe for muscle growth. Focus on diet, work out less, and get good rest in between workouts.
posted by LordSludge at 2:08 PM on July 16, 2009

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