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The aesthetics of strength


The aesthetics of strength

CrossFit always talks about how “form follows function” but we seldom go into detail about it.
As far as I know we generally don’t delve into long-term expectations in any kind of meaningful context.
Considering that as humans we are hardwired to care more about form, it’s time someone fixed that,
and in keeping with the RWS CrossFit tradition of asking “why” to everything I will do my best to be that someone.

The thought that is not often voiced but secretly lurks at the back of many people’s minds is
“I just wanna look better naked—what the hell am I lifting this stupid weight for?
Ah whatever, this stuff seems to be working so far.”
Fear not, gentle readers, for I’ve pieced together some observations regarding what reliably happens to
people who spend appreciable time under the bar.

The common denominator here is your strength-to-weight [S/W] ratio.
Improving this simple statistic invariably comes with a lower body fat percentage and
more muscle definition throughout the entire body.
If you start out small, increasing your strength necessarily comes with sizable gains in lean body mass [LBM].
On the flip side, if you start out big you end up either lifting bigger weights, losing weight yourself, or—far more likely—
both, with fat melting away as LBM goes up (even if total bodyweight remains unchanged).


Going from a 1x-BW DL (novice) to 2x-BW DL (advanced):

When you can lift double your bodyweight, you look pretty much the way you’re supposed to as determined by your genetics.
Shoulders & neck get broader, abs get thicker and more defined, and your butt gets rounder and firmer.
The bulk of your visible results have taken place—what comes after this point is just the delicious cherry on top.
Unless you’re a superheavyweight powerlifter, you probably have a fairly low bodyfat percentage (< 15%)
and good muscle definition at this S/W ratio; a picture of you from before may not even look like the same person.

Two hypothetical examples, side by side:

“Cartman,” a former high school wrestler, initially weighs/deadlifts 240# at 5’6” (chunky but fairly strong)
and ends up weighing 160# and deadlifting 320# (lean and a good deal stronger).

“Kenny,” a distance runner, goes from weighing & deadlifting 140# at 5’9” (skinny and weak)
to weighing 175# and deadlifting 350# (athletically built at a still-lower body fat percentage).

If you want to be a competitive CrossFitter, you better get that deadlift up to the 2.5x-to-3x-bodyweight range.
When you’re that strong relative to your bodyweight…you can’t NOT look good.
Come on, have you seen an elite CrossFitter? If you weigh 180# and deadlift 500#, you’re going to like the way you look.

Going from 2 strict pull-ups (novice) to 20 strict pull-ups (advanced):

Arms get noticeably bigger and more defined, veins become more visible, and shoulders get broader—
you get your V-shaped torso from building up the muscles in your mid- and upper back.

Going from 1 muscle-up (intermediate) to 10 muscle-ups (advanced):

Yes, there’s even noticeable change between the intermediate and advanced stages of development.
Arms get bigger & more defined and by this point you definitely have the aforementioned V-shape that everyone loses their shit over.
It’s very rare to be this proficient at gymnastics above 15% bodyfat, so plan on having strong abs that stand out.
Generally speaking, anyone with a S/W ratio this good will be in the range of 5-12% bodyfat, meaning you’ve got a 6-pack going on for sure.


Going from a 0.25x-BW strict press (novice) to a 0.67x-BW press (advanced):

Everyone hates the press since it’s so brutally hard, but it’s worth it.
Shoulders & arms get way more muscle tone with the upper arms especially firming up,
and generally your whole body is leaner by this point; if you had “wings” or “jigglies” on your triceps before, they’re sure as hell gone now.
And no, you’re not going to be “big and bulky” at this level of strength.
Chances are you won’t be “big and bulky” at ANY level of strength unless you’re fat.
Fat takes up lots of space.  Meat does not.
I’ll give you a second to recover from your excuse bubble being popped.

Men & women:

Going from a 0.5x-BW squat (novice) to a 1.5x-BW squat (advanced):

This is the truest measure of overall S/W ratio in my opinion, even more so than the deadlift and the press (though they do come close).
If you started out skinny you will have filled out, and conversely if you started out chunky you will have trimmed down.
Most of all, no matter how you were when you began you WILL look better naked.
Presuming you’ve done your due diligence in developing your other lifts, the major physical changes associated with strength training
will have taken place by now.
Aside from the world-changing difference in quality of life associated with this much improvement in relative strength,
you will notice one thing in particular: your butt and thighs look much, MUCH better—even if they looked okay before.

Example: “Jimbo,” a 6’0″ man goes from weighing 250# and squatting 125# (chunky & sedentary)
to weighing 180# and squatting 270# (lean & strong) over the course of a year and a half.
He may not be an elite athlete yet, but he’s seen some big changes take place and he ain’t about to stop now.

All the changes I detailed for men regarding pull-ups and the deadlift also have parallels for women,
but at lower thresholds and with different physiological changes.
For example, a woman that can do a strict pull-up and a 1.5x-BW deadlift (intermediate) will have broader shoulders,
firmer arms/butt/legs, more of an hourglass figure, and better overall muscle tone (shapelier physique, i.e. look better nekkid)
than a woman that can’t.

Also for women, something I feel obliged to mention:
From an aesthetic standpoint, there comes a point of diminishing returns after the advanced stage.
As you get more athletic and your body fat drops below 20%, depending on your body type curves may start to go away.
You DO have control over whether and to what degree this happens, and it will literally take
years of accumulated physical training before this even becomes an issue, but this is partly why many
female athletes at elite levels don’t tend to have much in the way of curves—
they make a conscious decision to be leaner for the sake of their sport.
Also, many female body types predisposed towards elite athletics aren’t predisposed towards curvaceousness.

If you REALLY want more cushion on your frame you can start by eating more food in general, especially fruit,
and add in a second STWKY day per week if you absolutely have to.
This does NOT constitute a valid excuse to avoid getting strong.
Getting fatter is easy…that’s why most sedentary people stay that way.

To summarize, there will come a time (provided you stay consistent with the CrossFit regimen)
when your goals will necessarily stop being aesthetically-based and start being performance-based.
In other words, the changes you had in mind for your appearance will have long since occurred so
your priorities will shift and you’ll make new goals—athletic development for its own sake.

Men have it easy as far as CrossFit aesthetics goes—more is better.
As you get leaner and stronger you will continue to look better and better,
and if you’re not happy with your appearance by the time you’re advanced
you probably need therapy for your incorrigible self-image issues.
The time frame required for this level of training is about 2-5 total years including
any progressive-overload strength training you did before CrossFit.

This is only slightly more of a balancing act since the goal for the average woman is to “tone up” without losing curves.
Start out with your sights set on intermediate achievements; I promise that by then you’ll have seen dramatic improvements
and you will be much happier with your physique.
Reaching this level may take 12-36 months if you have no previous athletic background and bust your buns in the gym and the kitchen.

To break it down further:
When you’re a well-rounded novice you will probably look pretty good;
Expect to look great as an intermediate;
and when you’re advanced, in addition to looking awesomely athletic you will be in the 90th percentile or above
for physical work capacity—meaning that even if you’re not yet competitive at the top levels of CrossFit,
you will still be indisputably among the fittest humans on the planet.

You may be thinking that 1 to 5 years (depending on gender, goals, and starting point) seems like a long time just to look good naked,
and it might be, but think of it this way:
If you put in that time investment, every time you look at yourself in the mirror…you will SMILE.
There is simply no substitute for that.

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