For the longest time, body- building’s ideal shape was a V. Don Howorth, 1967 IFBB Mr. America, was just one of the champs celebrated for his torso’s V-taper. Guys simply didn’t have enough quad mass to form the inverted V at the bottom of an X. By modern standards, even the legs of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva are undersized. The latter is known foremost for his V-shaped victory pose. The first prominent X-man was ’80s amateur phenom Matt Mendenhall. He owned the outer- quad sweep to complement his capacious shoulders and slender hips. As leg standards expanded in the ’90s, the term X-frame came into vogue. When he won his first three Olympias, Ronnie Coleman’s silhouette formed a broad X. And, in my opinion, Flex Wheeler circa 1993 possessed the greatest hourglass of all time.
As the name suggests, an X-frame begins with the skeleton. If you’re blessed with wide clavicles and narrow hips, you’re starting a 100-yard dash with a 30-yard lead. The same is true of your muscle attachments. If you have lats that are neither too high nor too low and widen from bottom to top, and if your vastus lateralis (outer quads) expand easily, you can fill out ideally. It’s also worth noting that most, but not all, great X-men have been 5’9″ and over. Shorter bodybuilders tend to have correspondingly narrow clavicles, and if they’re propelled by appropriately large legs they’ll likely have a blockier look. (The 5’3″ Ahmad Ashakanani is an exception to that clavicle rule, as was 5’5″ Franco Columbu, although neither is/was exactly X-shaped.)
But don’t dwell on what you can’t change and instead focus on what you can. The truth is no one gets a great X without working for it, and everyone can improve their X, even if they’re originally shaped more like a 1 or a 0. Let’s break the X-frame components down to the top (shoulder width), near top (lat width), middle (waist and hip slenderness), and bottom (outer quads).
Not everyone can possess a dramatic X frame, but everyone can enhance their top, middle, and bottom to maximize their X.
Phil Heath has narrow clavicles. They’re so slim his critics used to claim he’d never own a Sandow. He now has a sextet of Sandows, and before he’s done he may have more Olympia wins than anyone ever. Nothing about his skeleton has changed. What changed was the muscle he packed on that foundation. Specifically, he expanded the size of his delts, thus widening his shoulders by adding fleshy extensions to the ends of his clavicles.
The key to this is targeting your medial deltoids. Work your middle delt heads first when your strength and energy are greatest, and do at least two exercises for this area. Our sample shoulder-width routine starts with two medial delt exercises—dumbbell side laterals and wide-grip upright rows–and ends with a final high-rep set of top side laterals to make certain you’ve pumped your “medials.” For the upright rows, take a grip that’s slightly beyond shoulder width and focus on getting your elbows so high that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Alternately, you can do dumbbell upright rows with your arms at your sides as if to shrug. Pull your elbows up and out while keeping the dumbbells brushing against you. Both of these exercises will work the medial delts with the trapezius, but by doing them after side laterals you should be able to focus more on your delts. With the top side laterals, lower the (light) dumbbells only halfway to maintain continuous tension.
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10–15
- Wide-grip Upright Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10–12
- Seated Dumbbell Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10–12
- Machine Rear Lateral | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10–15
- Dumbbell Top Lateral Raise | SETS: 2 | REPS: 20–30
Without sweeping lats to accompany your wide shoulders, your upper body will resemble a T and not a V. Like your shoulders, your back is a complex body part that should be worked with a plethora of exercises. But also as with shoulders, you need to prioritize width. Do your pulldowns and pullups with a medium-to-wide, overhand grip and go through a full range of motion on each rep. Many bodybuilders go too heavy on pulldowns to feel their upper lats contracting. Our routine also includes stiff-arm pulldowns to take your biceps out of the movement and isolate your upper, outer lats.
Stiff-Arm Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12-15
Front Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-15
T-Bar Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
One-Arm Dumbbell Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-12
One-Arm Pulldown | SETS: 2 | REPS: 10-15
The great conundrum of X-frame enhancement is how to minimize your middle. You can’t do anything to reduce your hip skeletal structure, which is the primary component of middle width. There’s not a lot of muscle on the outside of the hips, but what’s there is your gluteus medius. Its primary function is pulling your legs outward, so don’t do any hip abduction exercises. This is probably just telling you to avoid something you’ve never done. The more pertinent question is,Should you skip free-weight squats and deadlifts, which can expand the gluteus medius—a stabilizer in such exercises. If you’re a physique or classic physique competitor, the answer is probably yes. But most bodybuilders will find the growth-enhancing benefits of squats outweigh the downside of slightly wider hips, because you can’t get big wheels without getting bigger glutes.
The external obliques lie on the sides of the abdomen. To avoid greatly expanding these muscles, don’t do heavy side bends. On the other hand, don’t fear oblique work. Your biceps, unfortunately, don’t rapidly expand just because you crank out a dozen sets of curls once weekly. So why expect your obliques to balloon outward because you do some twisting crunches? They grow as slow as any other muscle. Include some moderate- to high-rep oblique work in your ab routine to accentuate these muscles and create a visual frame for your middle. You don’t want a blank canvas at the center of your X, so train to grow your abs.
Diet and cardio are the most important components in slenderizing your waist. Never let yourself get so smooth that your abs completely vanish. A “blown- out” waist will be hard to pull back in. Wear a lifting belt during exercises like leg presses, squats, and barbell rows to prevent your waist from stretching outward with your exertion. You also need to work the ab muscles you don’t see, the transverse abdominis. This is a sheath that lies beneath your rectus abdominis and obliques that functions to keep your waist from protruding outward and pulls your abs inward. The best way to work it is to vacuum your abs in as far as possible and hold for at least 20 seconds. You can do this anytime, standing, sitting, or lying. We’ve included vacuuming in our slenderizing ab workout, but do it outside the gym, as well, to help you keep your waist in, and thus smaller, at all times.
SLENDERIZING AB ROUTINE
- Vacuum | SETS: 4 | REPS: 20–30 seconds
- Cable Woodchop | SETS: 4 | REPS: 15–20
- Rope Crunch | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
- Hanging Leg Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
A broad base to the X is all about outer-quad sweep, and the muscles responsible for this are the vastus lateralis, which lie on the outside of your thighs. Most quad muscles function together, so you’ll work the lateralis with any set of squats, leg presses, leg extensions, etc., regardless of your foot position. However, to target this area, you need to take a narrow stance on squatting or pressing exercises and angle your toes in on leg extensions. Our sample outer-quad routine pre-exhausts the vastus lateralis by frontloading toes-in leg extensions and narrow-stance hack squats. It’s optional whether you perform any of the remaining exercises so that they too target your outer quads.
Leg Extension (toes in) | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
Narrow Hack Squat | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
Leg Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12–15
Sissy Squat | SETS: 3 | REPS: 15-20
superset with Walking Lunge | SETS: 3 | REPS: 30 steps
THE UNLIKELY X-MEN
These five champs prove you can achieve a superb X despite structural or muscle deficiencies.
STEVE KUCLO: He lacks a wispy waist, but Kuclo’s front-lat spread forms an hourglass because of his shoulder and leg breadth.
FLEX LEWIS: Despite standing 5’5″ with narrow lats, the Welsh Dragon attained the best X in the 212s by accentuating his delts and outer quads and keeping his waist thin.
ED NUNN: Back is his major weakness. Still, Nunn sports a stellar hourglass because of his invisible hips and curvy legs.
SHAWN RHODEN: No one owns a better combo of monster-truck wheels and svelte waist than Flexatron. Though his shoulders and back have long lagged, he expanded them enough for a second in the Mr. Olympia.
FLEX WHEELER: The three-time Olympia runner-up achieved arguably the greatest X of all time by constructing on his relatively narrow clavicles.