T Nation

What Is Really "Specific" To Building Mass?

Hi everyone.
I’ve been reading a lot of threads here on the forums lately, and I came across something that bugged me.

I read lots of statements, mainly from very experienced and knowledgeable users, like “if being a bodybuilder is what you’re after, don’t train us in 5/3/1 or [other strength-focused program]. Train like a physique athlete instead.” or “you have to do what it takes to look like a bodybuilder if you want to look like one”.

So I’ve been wondering what, besides the obvious, is really specific to physique training. Most likely, diet wise the tried and true approach of lots of protein, complex carb etc. holds true whether you’re training for physique purposes or strength, but when it comes to training, there’s something I can’t totally grasp.

The reason being that most people tend to say that “anything works, provided you’re consistent with it”. I believe this to be true, although I’m no seasoned lifter and I don’t have a whole ton of experience yet. Still, what I would like to discuss in this topic is: when you guys talk about training specifically for size, what is more optimal? Since I’m not really interested in developing strength I would like to optimize my training and align it with my goals.

For example, there is lots of debate about whether time under tension is the most important factor for growth versus load.

So what has your experience been like?

I’m currently in the second week of a slightly modified version of PHAT program (I’ve basically taken out the leg strength day turning it into a 4 day split because quite frankly I don’t have much interest in developing my legs, which are pretty big compared to my upper body already and I would rather spend more time recovering — I’m getting ready for the name calling lol) and I’m wondering if that’s good enough for my goals.


80% is in the kitchen and in bed, I’m told.

I’d do triceps pulldowns to mimic using a knife.
Hammer curls to improve spoon and fork use
Rows and presses with the cable, standing, partial ROM, at waist height to train shaking a pan

For bed, squats to improve your get out of bed performance. Deadlifts for getting in but only the eccentric.

Start all if these 3x per week for 3x5 before moving to a split with aceessories. Or just get strong AF


Apparently you haven’t read enough lel. You can answer this shit for yourself if you look hard enough.

Answer TLDR: Very little

Read: “Powerlifters Should Train More Like Bodybuilders” Strongerbyscience

There’s no debate only semantics.

Time Under Tension and Load are just two sides of the same coin: Work Done. Overload is the most important factor.

For me and my training there’s no separation between bodybuilding and strength training (powerlifting in my case). They are one in the same with one being the means to the other and vice versa. Hypertrophy potentiates strength which potentiates hypertrophy and so on.

The only distinction is in the target muscle groups / exercises and weak points to bring up or end goals. Powerlifters bench squat and deadlift using hypertrophy to improve their lifts. There’s almost no muscle that a bodybuilder would grow that a powerlifter would not benefit from growing.

The end goal is where the two obviously differ and therefore where focus and effort is put may differ slightly also.

1 Like

The key is effort/intensity. Load is immaterial, but rather a measure of your effort/intensity since a larger muscle attained as a result of expending said effort/intensity will be able to lift a heavier load, and lifting that heavier load will be needed to maintain the effort/intensity needed to cause further growth. And so on.

It really is this simple. You probably knew this, or at least had the basic idea before you started reading nonsense on the internet.

In a perfect world where noobs just approach the big, strong guys in the gym and train with them, there would be no need for even progression models to quantify effort/intensity and progress.

This is not an intellectual sport. It is something I do because I want to let the idiot inside of me loose for several minutes each day. Don’t overthink things.


To me, the largest difference between training for strength only and training for physique is mindset.

In both styles of training you are using a combination of compound movements and isolation movements; in both styles of training you are progressing (hopefully) and getting stronger (hopefully). But the end-goal is different, and thus exercise selection and split selection is different.

For strength, getting stronger everywhere is the key, so gaining mass everywhere is the goal. For physique, getting stronger everywhere is the key as well, but gaining mass in specific places in order to look a certain way is the goal.

5/3/1 is a great program. Will it get you stronger? Yes. Will it put more mass on you? Yes. Will it focus on your weak points and/or give you the proportions you need as a physique competitor? Maybe, maybe not.

Mountain Dog Training is a great concept too. Will it get you stronger? Yes. Will it put more mass on you? Yes. Will it increase your one-rep max A LOT? Maybe, maybe not.

At the end of the day, exercises are just tools. We all have the same tool-box full of tools, but the order in which we use our tools or the need to use specific tools is different because our construction projects are different.


So far, the initial post already is talking about 3 different things.

Are you wanting to discuss building mass, physique training, or bodybuilding? Those are 3 different things, and the biggest issue is that people lump them all in together and then get upset when the conversation gets confusing.

Powerlifters and Strongmen in the upper weight classes are VERY accomplished at building mass. There are classic photos out there of Big Z and Radz making Jay Cutler look tiny. Brian Shaw dwarfed Phil Heath when they met. However, what they do isn’t anything close to bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding is certainly about building muscle, yes, but it’s also about creating the ILLUSION of size. This is done by emphasizing certain characteristics that lend to a far more dramatic physique compared to one that is just huge. Tapered waist, wide delts and lats, dramatic quad sweeps, etc. And then you factor this with learning how to pose to really maximize your current features.

And then physique training would be even more user dependent, because bodybuilding has a certain set of guidelines it strives to meet, while physique (assuming we’re not speaking about actual physique competitions) will be dependent on what you want to accomplish.

So, to make this easier on yourself, you need to figure out WHAT it is you are actually trying to pursue FIRST and THEN look into it. If you just want to be big, something like 5/3/1 Building the Monolith or 20 Rep Squats will get you there. If you want to be a bodybuilder, you should get a coach.


This is one of the main things I want to discuss initially. How is a type of split superior to another for building mass versus strength? Also, are there exercises that are actually more suited for building mass than strength? I might say isolation exercises, however I think they definitely have their place in strength training too, so are actually there any “pure mass” exercises that someone mostly interested in size might want to include that someone training for strength wouldn’t?

Hi, here’s my thought process:
While I don’t want to look like a max weight bodybuilder (think Mr. Olympia, even if that was remotely possible without steroids), what I’m after is something more similar to men’s physique’s or fitness models’ physiques.
I would like to put on a good deal of mass and eventually get pretty ripped.

So although I have no will to become absolutely huge (just pretty big, defined, and with a good looking physique all around), I believe I should training as if I were to put on as much mass as possible, just to avoid Pre emptively limiting myself.

So what I am trying to train to: maximum mass and muscle development possible.
My end goal: big, aesthetic, shredded physique

Would you suggest doing anything different, training wise, to emphasize on the features you described? I would be glad if you could elaborate on that a little bit

I would get a coach that specializes in this and follow their instructions.

1 Like

In short, No. Generally, building mass is all about recovery, so there is no split that is superior to another in regards to putting muscle onto your body. However, WHERE you put mass onto your body can largely be controlled by the split that you choose.

Again, in short, No. It is my belief that this is where volume comes into play (sets and reps rather than the exercise in and of itself).

This can be a complicated situation depending upon how you look at it.

  1. Muscle is built when the body repairs broken down muscle. Muscle is only broken down by force/tension that it isn’t accustomed to. (i.e. Progressive Overload)
  2. Strength is an adaptation where the body adapts to a force/tension that it isn’t accustomed to, and the only way to get STRONGER is to introduce more force/tension. (i.e. Progressive Overload)

Thus, Progressive Overload gets you bigger and stronger. Subsequently, this becomes a question of how much stronger you want to be or how much size you want to add and where that size is to be added.

If you want a very easy, cut and dry answer…here you go:

The big compound lifts (squats, deadlifts, overhead press, rows, bench press) incorporate the most muscle groups and are therefore likeliest to promote strength improvement or hypertrophy in the most areas ‘at the same time’.

Then again, it is very hard to get stronger without getting bigger, and it is very hard to get bigger without getting stronger.

If this is your goal, I’m going to echo what @T3hPwnisher said: It’s all about creating an illusion of being big. You don’t need to be the size of Phil Heath to look enormous in every day life. So, how do you create such an illusion? Depends on who you want to impress. (and this advice will be assuming you are just walking around in clothes…not posing trunks)

If you’re looking to impress people that actually lift and know what they are looking at:

I think the simplest approach has been one that @EyeDentist has touted for years: Place emphasis on developing your upper back, your shoulders and your upper chest to create the appearance of depth AND broadness, while working your abs to look shredded and help maintain a relatively small waistline.

If you want to impress random people (chicks on the beach for example) that have don’t understand the ‘big picture’, get big arms and abs.


Based on the one leg pic you’ve posted, this is inaccurate. You’re definitely not experienced enough or developed enough to need to neglect entire bodyparts.

That’s too vague to be a useful goal. Figure out a more concrete target to work towards, which will give you a better framework to design your long-term approach. You’re 5’10", kinda-lean, and 160-ish now? Maybe shoot for 190 with ab definition (a general indicator of leanness) as a long-term goal. You’re young, so it’s definitely doable. Just saying “I want to end up big and shredded” means nothing.

Like the guys have said, training all comes back to your goal because that’s how you work towards whatever you’re working towards. Also understand that it’s ideal to set a long-term goal that’s broken down into short-term ones. So if, like, you know you want to end up at a lean 190 in 3 years, you might decide to spend 6 months building strength because a body that can overhead press 185x10 will always be bigger than a body that can only overhead press 115x5.

Don’t think you’re only going to train “one” way from now until you hit your goal. That basically never happens because trial and error is a core principle of training, regardless of goal.


I understand that when you talk about overhead presses, squats etc. you are referring to the movement pattern rather than a single exercise but I’ve wanted to ask this question for a long time: can I progress optimally and build muscle using the db variations of the big exercises?

Since I started training, I’ve always had little success with the standard Bb versions. For example, I am very weak with the Bb bench press and overhead press, the movements just don’t feel right no matter how much I try and practice the technique, plus I can’t feel the target muscles working. With db presses, instead, I have found the weight to increase more easily and I was able to develop a better mind muscle connection. Can this work in the long term?

I have read a lot about this kind of approach and these are my 2 cents: I totally agree with developing delts and abs. As a matter of fact, last month I gave CT’s growth factor shoulder specialization program a try and it yielded decent results. Delts are a big priority of mine because I want to try and give the illusion of having broader shoulders than I actually have and also try and de emphasize the sloped shouldered look my trap attachment and neck shape give me naturally. To that regard, what do you exactly mean by developing the upper back? Which muscles? I can see how bigger lats can make you appear wider, but I’m not sure about traps. Won’t that make matters worse?

I can confirm that when viewed in person, my upper legs are one of the first things you notice about my physique. Although my Calves aren’t really big, I see legs as a one muscle group that can throw off symmetry and looks when it comes to aesthetics. Although I’m trying not to totally neglect them, the will to train goes down the toilet when it’s leg day, and that’s because I don’t want them much bigger than they are now in the first place, for the time being

About the goals thing, thank you for your input. I will sit down and have a look so that I can make a long term plan accordingly

There are no mandatory exercises unless you compete in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. Using dumbbells is fine, but figuring out why the barbell versions “don’t feel right” is important. The movement pattern is the movement pattern. The tool is secondary.

Nobody likes training legs. If your rationalization is legit, fine. But as an objective person who sees your physique, they definitely do not dominate your appearance. I believe they may be the first thing you notice when looking at yourself, but that’s a separate issue.

Cool. It’ll help for sure. I recommend the S.M.A.R.T. approach.

1 Like

I googled Italian Legs, to see if standards were different than our ideal legs in the US.

It was a pretty good Google.


First image did not disappoint!


Haha, you should have been a little more specific with your search words!

Most certainly. I myself favor using dumbbells for most exercises. Several arguments will advocate that DBs are actually better due to unilateral work-load, a more natural hand-placement/movement path.

However, I wouldn’t dismiss BB work completely because they do incorporate stabilizing muscles that DBs don’t.

When I say the upper back, I’m referencing your lats, traps. rhomboids, and rear delts. It’s some extra work that will help balance the muscle you add to your chest and front delts. By having extra upper-back muscle, it helps “pull your shoulders back” and will actually help make you appear broader. Plus, by working your upper back, you will inherently work your rear delts. Rear delts can be hard to form a mmc with for many people, and having them give a lot of mass illusion.

1 Like

I am still doing some Bb work, for example I am currently doing Pendlay rows and Bb curl, not much for pushing exercises tho.
This is what my split currently looks like
The upper body days are basically like in the article, except I’m only doing 1 leg day so it’s
Upper body strength
Back shoulders
Chest arms

Luckily, I love training my back and I have worked a lot on developing my rear delts (I’m always doing some specific row, face pull or rear delt raise) since shoulders are one of my favorite muscles to train.

What I’m a little concerned about is my traps. Judging from my pics, which you can find in my last topics from my profile page, would you suggest I work on my upper traps or could it take something away from shoulder appearance?

:anguished: is there something wrong with me??


Ya wut. LMAO.

I’d rather train legs than anything else.

Same, and I had ACL surgery on both knees. I don’t know, with your back, they are your biggest strongest bodypart, yet most people dislike training legs and back.