by Jim Cordova

Can you change the shape of a muscle? This has been debated within the bodybuilding realm since the conceptualization of the sport. And just as the sport has evolved over the years, so has the obscurity and speculation as to what changing the shape of a muscle actually entails. This doesn’t come as a surprise given that the level of fitness knowledge among those peering into the notion varies quite remarkably across the bodybuilding realm. Even so, the extent of which it can be accomplished, if at all, will become much more apparent simply upon clarification as to how one defines it.

The majority of you reading this are already aware that you cannot modify a muscle beyond the limitations that the attachment points will allow for. Without some sort of implant or other surgical modification, you cannot build the “lower biceps” to fill in the gap, lengthen the upper calves by stretching, or do anything to change the shape of a muscle belly in this way. Likewise, the fiber density of each muscle (including the proportion of slow and fast twitch fiber types) is what dictates the degree of hypertrophy that one is able to attain in every bodypart. Though difficult to accept, the sad truth is that the fiber composition of each muscle was predetermined before you were born and, presently, most scientific evidence suggests that there is no way to change this.

These two factors equate to the basic structure and growth potential of every muscle on your body and a sound understanding of changing muscle shape will acknowledge the fact that everyone is limited to working with the cards they have been dealt in this regard. Therefore, if your definition of the concept involves overcoming these genetic limitations, I can state with certainty that your efforts will result in futility. But don’t get down on yourself just yet! I promise that this article ends on a high note!

Before we get into the good stuff, we need to delve a bit more as to why solving the enigma of muscular alteration presents us with such a challenge. You see, even when a muscle appears to have transformed within the genetic framework spoken of thus far, conflicting views arise as to whether it has actually changed shape. For example, if one were to flex their arm and make a mold of it before the pursuit of bodybuilding, and every few years up through the advanced level, there will be obvious changes to the musculature of the arm on each occasion. If the arm was initially flat and under-developed, but years later the biceps rise up and the triceps billow down, these attributes reveal a non-uniform hypertrophy. In the strictest sense, how could anyone interpret the alteration in their dimension and form as anything less than a progressive change in muscle shape?

Conversely, some would argue that the biceps, triceps, and underlying muscles have simply become a larger version of what was there before he or she ever picked up their first weight. The fiber dispersion varies throughout a muscle belly from origination to insertion, inevitably leading to an irregular growth pattern. So, if the biceps had a moderate peak to begin with and now it is noticeably higher, that is merely a result of enlarging the outer head (and/or the brachialis, which will push the biceps up) and the same goes for the long head of the triceps. A simple glance at the before and after pictures of these muscles will reveal that they are the exact same shape on each occasion, just larger!

Basically, you have two groups of observers viewing the change in size and overall appearance of the same muscles, but forming opposing conclusions. What you have to ask yourself is how you view the matter. Upon reflection, it should become apparent to you that both sides present sound arguments. The disagreement arises simply as a result of the terminology used to describe what has occurred. For this reason, I find it wise to revise the idea that you can change the shape of your muscles since its implication is too vague. It might be better to view it in terms of changing the appearance of a muscle, or even muscular accentuation.

I must make it clear to you that your muscles will always have the same basic shape. However, I am certain that you can take what you have and, in a literal sense, make it look different. Some muscles have the capacity to be manipulated more than others, but even at the advanced level of bodybuilding it is possible to make such incredible progress that it speaks of nothing less than the attainment of muscular modification! In this article, I will discuss three effective approaches that you can use to alter the appearance of a muscle.

The first method involves creating the illusion of enhanced size and aesthetics of a muscle by stimulating those that lie underneath it. Examples include increasing the height and girth of the biceps through hypertrophy of the underlying brachialis muscle, building the pectoral minor to increase overall chest thickness, developing the soleus to enhance the bulge of the gastrocnemius, and creating a more pronounced look in the upper quads by building the vastus intermedius, thereby pushing out the rectus femoris. In time, the change in both the dimensions and appearance of the overlying muscles can be quite remarkable with consistent application of this strategy!

If you seek to maximize your potential as a physique competitor, you should know that every muscle is composed of fast and slow twitch fiber types, which are dispersed irregularly throughout the belly. While you cannot isolate one type over the other, numerous studies reveal that both training style and intensity level can dictate their degree of recruitment. Both types are capable of growing (though fast twitch fibers are more prone for such), and if one were to consistently implement a training style to influence their activation pattern, the end result would be a non-uniform hypertrophy. Over time, the results of strategically training in correlation with this notion would lead to a perceptible change in the appearance of a muscle belly. While this might seem far-fetched to some, given that most muscles are comprised of equal amounts of fast and slow twitch fibers, a bodybuilder seeking maximum hypertrophy will require that he or she probe into training methods that target individualistic fiber types anyway!

It has now come time to delve into the most effective method to create the illusion of muscular modification, which is by way of the hotly debated concept of fiber-specific training. Basically, this refers to being able to place more emphasis on a muscle within a group or an area of fiber within a single muscle, which, of course, hints toward the prospect of changing its shape. Here you have two obscure concepts in a sport where many athletes have both contradictory definitions and a limited understanding of each. The result produces a great deal of miscommunication, and of the sort that I find most responsible for rattling the hopes of many ambitious physique competitors.

Oftentimes, a young aspiring bodybuilder asks a veteran of the iron game how he can build up his “inner chest.” He explains that he can bench a respectable amount of weight and has been doing so for years. Nonetheless, he is losing hope because his front delts and outer pec region seem to grow, but the inner region isn’t up to par. In many cases, the veteran will shoot this notion down, stating that you cannot apply extra tension to a given region of fiber within a single muscle and that all of the fibers in the pectoral region fire and break down equally. The young man walks away believing that he is relegated to building a larger version of what he has, which appears almost as if he is carrying a half-pipe fit for Tony Hawk on his sternum!

Likewise, it might be that you have worked your triceps to death and cannot get them to billow down, or maybe your side delts or outer quads will not flare out despite endless hours of training. The relevance of these particular scenarios is that this is what many have in mind when they wonder if they are able to achieve what they would define as “changing the shape” of a muscle. What you really seek to pull from this article is whether you can improve these problem areas, better stimulate those fibers to grow, and enhance the appearance of a specialized area, or are you doomed to this level of development forever. Well, I have good news for you: there is outstanding potential to advance toward the aforementioned goals and enhance your physique through region-specific development!

Anyone can place themselves in position to reap the rewards of progressive muscular accentuation – literally! To do so, the first thing you need to understand is that a muscle responds to the stress load. This means that the body will recruit fibers that have a mechanical advantage relative to line of tension in a given position. In other words, you can position the body against gravity (or the path of resistance) to place extra stress on a target region of fiber and cause specialized hypertrophy. I am a realist, so I will tell you that cannot totally isolate a specific muscle within a group. The specialized focus, stimulation, and growth potential of a particular region will be limited, with notable enhancements taking years in some cases. Moreover, there will be a great capacity for fiber manipulation in some muscles and not so much in others. Nevertheless, I will state that considerable region-specific improvements can be achieved, even among advanced-level bodybuilders!

It is important to realize that the development potential afforded to you through positioning tactics will be diminished without at least a basic knowledge of muscular anatomy, specifically as it relates to the fiber direction of a given muscle. Such knowledge will expand your understanding of muscular function, aiding in your ability to establish accurate movement pathways. In turn, this allows you to position the body to appropriately match the movement pathway with the line of tension so that the target region takes the brunt of the stress when performing an exercise. Once you grasp these concepts, you will boost your potential to thoroughly break down each muscle to attain complete development and apply extra emphasis to a particular region.

Essentially, your gym is a toolbox with every tool imaginable at your fingertips. Like a tool, each exercise, including the exact combination of principles and strategies within that framework, is best suited for a specific purpose. As you increase your understanding of the correlation between these elements and how they affect a muscle, you can more precisely structure a plan according to your individualistic needs and rapidly advance toward your goals. Maximizing your potential to mold your physique in accordance with the bodybuilding or figure archetype is simply a matter of selecting and utilizing the right tools for the job!

The pursuit of reaching your full potential as a physique competitor necessitates that you make the most out of what you have. Due to genetic limitations, you might be limited by less-than-ideal insertion points and muscular fiber density. Nevertheless, I can promise you that, through implementation of the strategies discussed in this article, you can turn those inferior bodyparts into praiseworthy assets! Ultimately, with consistent application of an intelligently sound exercise approach, you can accentuate the musculature of your physique, combine it with meticulously detailed posing tactics, and create an on-stage illusion that speaks of nothing less than a masterpiece!