Conventional (aesthetic) lifting will hardly ever exit the bodybuilding globe, the most productive system for creating muscle mass microtears, doubling or even tripling sizing, and offering a far more chiseled definition.
But with purposeful physical fitness having the health sector by storm (a la CrossFit, calisthenics, or even natural dumbbell physical exercises — like kettlebell rows), we’re still left with two however-unsolved debates:
Are aesthetic or purposeful routines superior for your wellness?
What is the variance involving aesthetic and practical muscle mass anyway? (Is there a distinction?)
Considering the fact that just one finally prospects to the other (purposeful training plops you ideal in purposeful muscle’s lap), this’ll be a two-for-1 variety of offer. Let us settle these ongoing controversies the moment and for all!
What is Aesthetic Muscle?
The time period aesthetic loosely indicates “beauty” or “visual attractiveness,” which may perhaps not be in your vocabulary as you’re waiting around your turn at the bench press or chatting in the health club locker place.
In less complicated phrases, aesthetic muscle mass describes your classic bodybuilding physique.
On top of mildly daunting bulging muscular tissues spanning from traps to calves (sure, legs way too), an aesthetic create will also involve:
- Symmetry & well-well balanced proportions
- A huge higher back (a V-taper in the latissimus dorsi — the lats)
- Spherical, boulder-like deltoids
- Peaking biceps and described triceps
- A rather slim waist
- Washboard abdominal muscles (hint: individuals stubborn core muscle tissue remain hidden until finally <10% BF)
- Vascular, thick, and chiseled muscles (ripped, jacked, swole, what have you)
Unless you’re blessed with the ACTN3 gene that nurtures 2-3% extra growth in fast-twitch fibers due to advanced alpha-actinin-3 production (a protein), aesthetic muscle is no accident.
It typically requires a high-volume hypertrophy routine (nuzzled nicely in the 8-12 rep sweet spot), 0.5-0.8g of protein per pound to repair damaged muscles post-workout, a mixture of isolation and compound exercises, and lots of supplements (creatine, whey, casein, the whole nine yards).
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4 Benefits of Aesthetic Muscle
1. Both Guys & Gals Like to Gawk.
How’s this for a curveball?
When asked about the most aesthetic muscles in men, here’s how both sides responded:
Aside from the obvious ego boost, the benefits of aesthetic muscle are two-fold: respect from your fellow male lifters (with a satisfying touch of envy) and catching the attention of more ladies.
2. There’s a Link Between Size, Strength, & Confidence.
Women undergo crushing societal pressures to be thin, hourglass-shaped, and yet, somehow also busty and “thicc.” But modern society doesn’t let the male physique off the hook either.
On top of a sharp jaw and well-groomed hair, male attractiveness largely lies on large, aesthetic muscles, leading many guys to buy gym memberships and stock up on creatine pills.
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But here’s the kicker: bodybuilding does improve confidence!
A 2005 study found that both competitive and non-competitive bodybuilders touted more confidence, higher social self-esteem, and significantly lower physique anxiety.
Therefore, sculpting aesthetic muscles can bolster your ego (without becoming cocky!).
3. There’s a Lesser Risk of Muscle Imbalance.
Unless you’re on a classic bodybuilding regimen where the lower-body gets the back burner, building aesthetic muscle intentionally will limit (or even reverse) muscle imbalance.
We’ve all seen clear-cut cases at the gym: a right deltoid that’s (slightly) towering over the left, an ultra-wide upper-body paired with scrawny wheels, or a chiseled chest and flat back.
Instead of cranking out push-ups or kettlebell goblet squats and waiting to see where the (muscle) cards fall, you can pay extra attention to the stalling and stubborn muscle groups.
For example, if your quads are visibly outgrowing your hamstrings, you can add an extra three sets of 8-12 reps on the leg curl twice a week to spark some added growth to match.
4. Smaller Muscle Groups Get Some TLC.
Standard weightlifting and aesthetic routines don’t just sculpt beefier, more defined muscles from traps to calves you also have more control over how your smaller muscle groups grow.
That was exactly the basis for a 2018 study.
While single-joint exercises alone (ex: bicep curls, calf raises) may not double your mass, combining them with multi-joint exercises (ex: lat pulldowns, squats) can yield serious gains.
In fact, the research shows that the MJ/SJ duo added an extra 1.2% more to flexed arm circumference in just eight weeks, compared to MJ alone.
The point: aesthetic muscle isn’t just chiseled pecs or tree trunk quads it’s also peaking biceps, capped delts, and less-pathetic calves!
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3 Reasons Against Aesthetic Muscle
1. Flexibility, Speed, & ROM Can Ultimately Suffer.
As Peter Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, sculpting beach-worthy and sleeveless-T muscles can come at a cost: lower speed, flexibility, and ROM.
(Now, we want to point out that these side effects often stem from more extreme cases.)
In a 2002 study, researchers learned that bodybuilders averaged a 14-degree loss in shoulder rotation compared to non-lifters. Sometimes, the issue is simply far too much mass.
For example, Hulk Hogan’s biceps were once so massive (from, um, training) that he couldn’t touch his shoulder with the same hand. The same explanation goes for flexibility, of course.
On the speed front, the issue isn’t poor cardio endurance as much as added weight from mass.
A bodybuilder could weigh some 90+ pounds more than an average weight guy. While the 100-yard spring difference may be a second or two, it’s harder to pick up speed with the extra weight of a wide back.
2. The Psychology “High” Can Border on Obsession.
Unfortunately, aesthetic muscle is a prime example of “there is such a thing as too much of a good thing,” at least from the psychological perspective.
While bodybuilders (casual or pro) rarely start building muscle to fill an insecure void, as society once implied, the desire to pack on even more mass can eventually border on obsession.
Research from 2018 studied just that, and the results were startling.
It suggests that some 67.5% of bodybuilders may have an eating disorder, the difference between ideal mass/fat and current is concerning, and 58.3% of lifters have muscle dysmorphia.
To some extent, aesthetic muscle can completely undercut your confidence.
3. Progress Will Eventually Begin to Slow.
If the natural muscle mass were unlimited, Ronnie Coleman and Roelly Winklaar wouldn’t be peak physique (theoretically, you could balloon right past the pros, which is mildly disturbing!).
The problem with aesthetic muscle is that after two years of steady-ish growth, you’ll eventually reach your body’s maximum potential.
Here’s how much mass you can reasonably pack on with each milestone:
- One year: 2 pounds/month
- Two years: 1 pound/month
- Three years: 0.5 pounds/month
- Four years: 0.25 pounds/month
After you gain about 40-50 pounds of lean mass, there’s not much more you can do other than shred fat to achieve a more chiseled look. Some of us will never reach our ideal physiques.
What is Functional Muscle?
The term functional translates to mean “practical” or “having a special purpose,” which means you’re ditching the visual aspects of classic gym training (mirror reflections, selfies, tight shirts).
In other words, you’re no longer cranking out eight-rep sets to thicken stubborn biceps, sculpt six-pack abs, or enhance chest vascularity alone (though those aren’t entirely off the table).
Now, what is functional training? In short, functional fitness builds strength and power while practicing normal, everyday movements (like hinging, squatting, or carrying) with injury prevention and overall health in mind.
These muscle gains result from more natural physical activities like:
- Bodyweight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups)
- Isometric training
- Standard weighted exercises (farmer walks, lunges)
- Compound weightlifting exercises (deadlifts, squats, etc.)
- Sports drills (if you’re training for athleticism)
Thus, a functional physique is born. These muscular yet lean builds offer more of a natural and realistic physique, with low body fat, veiny arms, and well-defined larger muscles (ex: chest).
But because functional gains are side effects of more practical training and sideline isolation exercises, mimicking Jay Cutler’s 58” chest or 21” biceps are pipe dreams more often than not.
4 Benefits of Functional Muscle
1. Develop the Trifecta: Strength, Power, and Endurance.
Functional muscle may never compare to the physiques of the late Steve Reeves (you may know him better as Hercules), Lee Haney, Phil Heath, or even the Champ — John Cena.
But while the size isn’t always remarkable, you do reap benefits that make aesthetic muscle envious. In particular, it zeroes in on the athlete’s trifecta: strength, power, and endurance.
A 2018 study compared high-intensity functional training (multi-joint exercises with a little aerobic activity sprinkled in, like CrossFit) to the traditional high-intensity interval training — good ‘ol HIIT.
On top of some extra lean mass, after 8-16 weeks, HIFT was proven to:
- Improve oxygen consumption by 12%
- Cut body fat by 8%
- Build bone strength by 1%
- Boost exercise enjoyment to 100%
- Increase bench press by 10.5 more pounds
- Slash two-mile run times by an extra 74.58 seconds
- Add an extra 0.9 to flexibility
In other words, these training mechanisms can make you a better all-around athlete.
2. The Workouts Mimic Everyday Movements Better.
Controversial opinion: though bulkier muscles might be more attractive, they don’t necessarily equate to greater strength and power (go figure!).
But where functional muscle has the upper hand is that it’s more practical, and the training better mimics everyday movements (ex: how often do you do leg curl movements daily?).
For example, practicing goblet squats is similar to picking a heavy box off the floor. Or mastering the farmer’s walk is unofficial training for carrying heavy shopping bags through the store.
Training for the movement and enhancing flexibility, balance, posture, and strength can potentially reduce injury risks in everyday life, too.
3. Functional Doesn’t Always Mean Scrawny.
The second you sway from aesthetic muscle, you might assume that functional signals scrawny. But if you’re methodical with your training (ex: regular calisthenics), this is simply a myth!
Don’t believe us? Maybe this 2017-era study will prove our case.
After eight weeks of training, the researchers discovered that cranking out 40% 1RM bench presses vs. push-ups yielded similar mass gains in both the chest and tricep muscles.
Obviously, once you can perform 12+ reps on the sit-up, pull-up, push-up, squat, or deadlift, you’ll need to add more weight (don’t forget your weightlifting belt on the heavy compounds).
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That could mean a plate on your chest, chains, the whole shebang. A functional physique may not be as buff as an aesthetic one, but if Bruce Lee is any proof, functional doesn’t mean small!
4. There’s a Better Athletic Transfer.
Aesthetic muscle is purely for, well, aesthetic purposes (to look good in the mirror and the eyes of others). But while more mass can mean strength and power, it sacrifices one thing: athleticism.
Functional training is the hottest new training fad in the sports world.
For example, football players (both amateur and professional) practice explosive movements, front squats, sled pushes, and bench press.
The benefits are three-fold: functional trainees can build strength and power, enhance speed and agility, and perform better on the court or field.
2 Reasons Against Functional Muscle
1. Smaller Glamour Muscles Don’t Get Much Attention.
Since functional training prioritizes compound movements like squats, deadlifts, or push-ups, the smaller muscle groups (ex: triceps, abs) don’t always get the TLC they need for equal growth.
Piggybacking off a study from above, multi-joint exercises alone (ex: pulldowns) will average 1.2% less growth in the biceps than adding single-joint exercises (ex: concentration curls).
If you’re craving head-to-toe gains, functional muscle could leave your core, arms, and lower legs looking — well — deflated. Lagging muscles are almost guaranteed unless you prevent them.
2. Size Depends Mostly On Genetics.
Unless you’re blessed at the chromosome-level and actively supplement for size, functional training sessions probably won’t leave you with Swiss Alp biceps or tree trunk quads.
Aesthetic vs Functional Muscle Conclusion
Neither aesthetic nor functional muscle is the undisputed winner because there’s never a one-size-fits-all answer in the fitness community. Like other this-or-that scenarios, it depends on your genetics, diet, skill level, strength and power, and goals (physique vs. health).
If you’re sculpting a beach-ready summer bod or hoping to pack on tanktop-worthy mass, then building aesthetic muscle is your obvious answer.
If you’re dead set on building athleticism, slashing injury risks, and improving your overall health, then functional muscle will be the aftermath of a more strategic training regimen.
Neither is perfect, but it’s also not a neat either-or situation. There’s no harm in straddling both paths with a classic PPL bodybuilding routine while either infusing functional exercises into your workouts or squeezing some functional training in on the side (ex: CrossFit or calisthenics).
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