Pat Grieco is an official judge, promoter and Vice Chairman of the National Physique Committee (NPC) in the state of New Jersey. I recently had the opportunity to pick his brain to find out exactly what judges are looking for when scoring bodybuilding competitions. For example, I've seen some shows boil down to a face off between a guy who's huge and massive versus a guy with less size but who's completely shredded - so who wins?
While Pat was kind enough to share numerous tips for aspiring bodybuilders one common theme seemed to keep resurfacing in his answers: symmetry.
Symmetry by definition is the correspondence in size, form, and arrangement of parts on opposite sides of a plane. In relation to bodybuilding, this simply means that your right side should be as developed as your left, your front should be as developed as your back and your upper body should be as developed as your lower body.
Compare Other Physiques
With that said your first step toward that coveted symmetrical physique should be to check out as many bodybuilding shows, magazines and websites as possible to help gain a better understanding of the type of look that you are aiming to achieve. Take notice of who's winning and who's coming up short.
Pay attention to the subtle differences in conditioning and body composition that separate the winner from the rest of the field. Try to take this seriously and view things from a judge's perspective, not just through the eyes of a spectator.
Now that you have a better understanding of what your goal is, grab a mirror or ask a friend to help perform a visual scan of your body. Take an honest assessment of yourself from every angle. How proportioned do you look? What areas could use some more development or improvement?
While the eyes may sometimes play tricks on you, numbers don't lie, so your next step should be to break out that tape measure to find out just how balanced and symmetrical you actually are. Compare your right bicep to your left - is the number the same? How about your calves? Are they in proportion to the rest of your body?
I would recommend taking measurements with the muscle both flexed and relaxed to determine whether you have a legitimate muscular imbalance or whether it's simply a matter of you not flexing your muscle the same way on both sides.
This is why practicing your poses is crucial for any aspiring bodybuilder. You may have the most symmetrical physique on the stage but if you don't know how to present those muscles properly, some other athlete may end up walking home with the trophy that you so rightfully deserved.
Tan & Oil Evenly
Presentation isn't limited strictly to posing however. Make sure that you're also tanned and oiled evenly or you may also appear to have an uneven distribution of muscle definition.
Posture also plays a key role in how symmetrical you may appear. Do you tend to slouch or round your shoulders forward? Do you tend to lean to one side? If so, you'll need to make a conscious effort to correct these habits before stepping in front of a panel of judges.
Train All Muscle Evenly
Of course, there are some cases where it's not simply an optical illusion and there is a legitimate muscular imbalance that needs to be corrected. The most obvious cause for this scenario (beyond God given genetics of course) is that you're simply not training all of your muscle groups with the same level of intensity.
Do you keep skipping that dreaded leg day or rushing through your shoulder routine? All of these costly shortcuts could prove to be the difference between first and second place.
If your current workout split has you training more than one muscle group per workout, for example chest and back; try alternating which muscle group you lead off with each time. This way both areas have equal opportunity to be blasted at your full energy level.
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Before you begin worrying about workout splits, however, make sure that you are actually aware of all the muscle groups that you need to train. No... seriously, it's a more detailed list than you might think. Depending on your frame, you may need to give a little extra TLC to your neck, forearms and other oft-neglected areas.
Some of the usual suspects like chest, back and shoulders for example may need to be subdivided to maximize your aesthetic appeal as well. It's not just your chest for example; it's your upper chest, lower chest, inner chest and outer chest (I'll skip the technical nerd terms, but I'm sure that by now you get the point).
Each muscle group needs to be worked from different angles in order to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers, which will cause you to grow and develop at the same rate.
Neglecting any area for an extended period of time while you train the rest of your body is going to cause you to look asymmetrical, so put some thought into your workouts and know what your goal is each time you step inside of the gym.
Barbell Bench Press
Just be sure that your particular training style isn't the actual cause of your imbalance. Utilize a spotter or the mirrors around you to check if the bar is moving evenly on the bench press. If you're performing cable crossovers and are placing one hand over the other at the finish, make sure that you're alternating which hand ends up on top.
Do you constantly lug that heavy gym bag on the same shoulder? Switch sides every now and then or you may develop more strength and size on one side of your body. How about the people you see walking all the way from the parking lot with their weight belt on already? Unless it's an extremely risky lift, leave the belt in the bag and allow your muscles the chance to work and grow.
Another key contributor to muscular imbalances is flexibility. Admittedly, stretching isn't nearly as fun as pressing a heavy bar over your face, but it is just as important. If your tendons and ligaments are always tight, not only will this make you more susceptible to injury, it will also prevent you from being able to fully contract the muscle.
Leg-Up Hamstring Stretch
In regards to symmetry, this is an even bigger issue if you're naturally more flexible on one side of your body than the other. Without working to become more flexible on both sides, your compound strength movements may not be smooth or balanced. Think about that before you laugh at those guys in the yoga classes, they may be on to something.
While I'm not saying that you have to run out and buy incense and tights, I am suggesting that stretching becomes a regular part of your routine. It's great for your posture and will help align your body towards your symmetrical goal. Also make sure that you're warming up your muscles with light activity before beginning and then either stretching, hitting the sauna or grabbing a massage once you're finished.
All of these measures will not only help increase your flexibility, but will also aid in recovery and injury prevention. Be sure to also check out the extensive list of post recovery supplements listed on the Bodybuilding.com store.
The human body is an amazing machine so fortunately most minor muscular imbalances eventually even themselves out over time. So if you found a minor difference there's no need to panic just yet. You may need to give some extra attention to some lagging muscle groups but in general, with good form, proper technique and a little sweat, you should be able to balance things out over time.