Ok now that we’ve covered the “I want to tone up for summer” guy/girl, let’s tackle situation #2 the person who says, “I want that long, lean, dancer look”. Long lean muscles flow into each other with a slight definition, taking away the sharp look of the joints, the muscle belly is relatively straight, and no glaring peaks or valleys giving the “soft toned” look (think of the model on any yoga product vs the bodybuilder in the supplement commercial).
The question now is, are these qualities trainable?
Unfortunately the answer is sort of, but mostly no. Let’s examine why, and talk about the limited role of muscle shaping.
We’re going to make a quick comparison to the sprinter from part 1.
(Troll disclaimer: I’m fully aware of the genetic component involved in a top level sprinter, from fiber spread, type of glycolytic enzymes, single reaction time, rate coding ceiling, to the series/parallel component of elastic fibers in connective tissue etc. etc. if you want to debate this let’s wait until the speed articles, deal?)
While there is a huge genetic component to the success of a sprinter in competition, the sprinter’s physique is predominantly a product of their training. By selectively targeting high threshold fast twitch muscle fibers via specific training, they can elicit both an anabolic (muscle building) response, and direct effect on fat loss, (and you can too!). The dancer, however, is specifically selected for his or her aesthetic appeal, and their physique is both a product of their activity and mostly their genetics.
The “long and lean” look is a predominantly a byproduct of three qualities:
1) Long muscle bellies and a short transition into the tendon attachment giving the look of the muscle spanning the whole length of the bone, flowing into the next muscle with no sharp valleys. Where the muscle attaches to the tendon and bone is 100% genetically predetermined, and short of some sort of debilitating surgery there is no way to change this.
2) Where that tendon attaches to the bone, the closer to the joint, the better, also 100% genetically determined
3) Muscles that do not “peak” from bone they follow. This is somewhat trainable, but you are going to have to start from your genetic starting point and don’t expect to see metamorphic changes.
Recent studies have finally confirmed the bro myth that you can selectively hypertrophy (grow) specific areas of the muscle belly, but only up to your genetic limit. Once you hit your genetic limit you are once again determined by your individual genetics, but chances are you are far from that level, even if you consider yourself an advanced trainee. So say you have a short biceps muscle belly and a long tendon that leaves a gap between your elbow and bicep peak, you could choose something like an incline stretch curl focusing on the bottom portion of the lift and ease off the peak contraction to selectively target the lower fibers of the muscle to smooth out some of the peak. The idea is to pick exercises that put the most stress on either side of your natural peak to smooth out the muscle line. Combine this with some extended stretching and you may be able to slightly alter the aesthetic look of your muscles; however, unless you are a competitive figure athlete or a fitness model etc., stick to the basics: gain muscle, lose fat, improve your physique, and be happy with the genetic shape you were given.