2 Muscle Building Workouts: Building the X-Frame Physique
If you walk in to any 21st century commercial gym you’ll find at least one top-heavy gym rat with chicken legs and one lifter with an impressive set of wheels that seems to avoid direct shoulder training at all costs. While the goals amongst these two individuals might vary slightly, I’m betting both are looking to improve their body composition and overall appearance.
Think about the most impressive physique you’ve seen. Chances are their build was not only lean but also balanced and aesthetic. Competitors in bodybuilding and physique competitions strive for an X-frame physique. Broad shoulders, sweeping lats, a narrow waist, beefy quadriceps, and muscular calves are five critical components of an X-frame physique.
Round, evenly developed deltoid muscles increase the illusion of a narrow waist and contribute to a v-taper running from the shoulders to the waist. Most trainees overtrain and overdevelop the front deltoid muscle with excessive pressing movements.
Prioritizing the direct training of the side and rear deltoid muscles is a sure-fire way to improve shoulder health, posture, and move closer to achieving an X-frame physique. To build sweeping lats one must focus on building lat width through vertical and horizontal pulling movements.
You can achieve a narrow waist by dropping fat, building and strengthening the abdominal muscles, as well as practicing the abdominal vacuum exercise. Mastering the abdominal vacuum can make the difference between a good and great X-frame physique.
Sweeping quadriceps and calves with slabs of muscle require direct lower body training; and no a few sets of squats once per week won’t be enough. Quadriceps and calves benefit from a combination of high volume, high frequency, time under tension, and high intensity protocols.
The two workouts presented below target, strengthen, build, and shape the muscles contributing to the X-frame physique. Start with the X-frame Introduction Routine if you’re new to weightlifting or want to add a small supplementary workout that won’t significantly impact recovery.
Those with 6+ months of consistent weight training experience and those looking to jump-start the development of their X-frame physique using a higher intensity workout should perform the X-Frame Fast-Track Routine. After selecting the appropriate routine for your goal(s) and training experience perform it at least once and ideally twice per week on non-consecutive days.
You can also perform both the Introduction and Fast-Track Routines in the same week. These routines are going to be challenging but with the proper nutrition, rest, and progressive overload protocols you will experience gains in both size and strength.
X-Frame Muscle Building Workouts
X-Frame Introduction Routine
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
The lateral raise is a staple movement for isolating and building the lateral deltoid muscle. You’ll feel a nice burn and pump when performed using a smooth controlled motion and raising the dumbbell no higher than your shoulder.
Set up for the movement by selecting two dumbbells of the same weight, taking a neutral grip (palms facing each other), keeping your arms straight, and placing them at your sides. While keeping your chest up, shoulders down, and arms straight (but not hyperextended), raise the dumbbells until they’re in-line with your shoulders. Your elbows should never be significantly higher or lower than your wrists.
Hold for one to three seconds and slowly lower back to the starting position. Many lifters experience improved lateral delt engagement by slightly twisting their wrists with the pinky being higher than the thumb as if they’re pouring a pitcher of water. If you find your grip giving out before your shoulders, then use high quality straps like Versa Gripps.
- Band Pull Apart – 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps
The band pull apart is an effective exercise for warming up the shoulder girdle, training scapula retraction, and pumping the rear delts with blood and nutrients. Start out by choosing the thinnest band, taking a hip-width stance, and taking shoulder width pronated grip (palms facing away from you).
Keep your arms straight and raise them so that they’re in-line with your shoulders and parallel with floor. There should be some slack in the band but not enough for it to significantly sag towards the ground. Initiate the movement by using your rear delts to pull your arms away from each other and the band apart. Your shoulder blades should be squeezed hard together and arms almost in-line with your shoulders at the top of the movement.
Hold for one to three seconds before returning to the starting position Your chest should stay up, shoulders down, and hands straight in-line with you elbows and shoulders throughout the entire movement. Increase intensity using a thicker band with more initial tension or a narrower starting grip.
- Machine/Partner/Band-Assisted or Negative Pull-ups – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Pull-ups are a staple movement for building lat width and v-taper. If you’re new to weightlifting, then you may be unable to perform full range-of-motion (ROM) pull-ups using strict form. To build confidence, strength, and reinforce the proper motor patterns perform negative repetition or use a machine, partner, or band-assisted variation. A negative repetition involves slowly lowering yourself from the top position of the pull-up to the bottom position.
You will not be pulling yourself up from the bottom but you’ll still experience some serious delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in your lats. Many gyms offer machines with a platform on which you can stand or kneel and select a counter weight to decrease the net bodyweight you’re pulling up and lowering down during the movement. As you decrease the counter weight the intensity and net bodyweight increases.
A workout partner or band wrapped around the pull-up bar supporting your lower legs uses accommodating resistance so that you can perform full ROM pull-ups and blast through sticking points. These techniques increase the ease of pulling yourself up from the bottom position without significantly altering the movement pattern.
This exercise should target and build lat width so don’t let your grip be the limiting factor – use straps if needed.
- Kneeling Rope Crunches – 60 total reps in 3 sets
A rock-hard set of abdominals contributes to the aesthetic X-frame physique, protects against injury, and increases the illusion of a narrower waist. While some trainers and coaches advise against flexion exercises for the abdominals, many of iconic Golden Era bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Frank Zane incorporated weighted sit-ups and cable crunches to develop their mid-section.
Kneeling rope crunches require almost no set up and when performed properly have little to no impact on the spine. Furthermore, the ability to adjust the resistance on the cable pulley allows for steady progression over time. Set up for this movement by moving the cable pulley to the highest pin on the cable tower and attaching a rope with two knobs or knots at either end. Place a yoga mat or foam pad in-line with but a few feet away from the base of the pulley.
While standing grasp the rope attachment with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip and slowly bend down until your knees and shins are in-contact with the mat or pad. Gently pull down the rope so that the knots or knobs are lightly resting right above your ears or on your forehead. At this point you should feel some resistance pulling you upwards but not so much that you are unable to hold this starting position.
Begin exhaling and flex your abdominals to pull the rope towards the ground roughly one foot in front of your knees. Continue flexing until you almost touch the ground or feel a nice contraction in the abdominals. Hold this position for one to three seconds before slowly returning the starting position. I’m a big fan of higher repetition weighted abdominal exercises so get ready for some serious DOMS after completing 60+ reps in just three sets.
- Plate Loaded Hack Squat Machine – 1 set with a triple weight drop
While most of us have a dedicated leg day it never hurts to add in some extra squats to build those sweeping quads. Plate-loaded hack squats are an excellent exercise for building the quadriceps without putting the spine in a compromised position if you fatigue towards the end of the set. The hack squat machine also offers the added benefit of safety catches which decreases the likelihood of injury during this brutal drop-set.
Set up for the movement by placing equal amounts of weight on either side of the machine spread across three plates per side. For example, if you place 30lbs on each side use three 10lb plates instead of a 25lb and a 5lb plate. Choose a starting weight you can safely lift 15 to 20 times. Perform as many repetitions as you can with good form and then drop the weight by one plate per side.
So if you had 30lbs on each side you’d now have 20lbs. The rest between weight drops should be minimal so quickly remove the plates and continue lifting or ask a spotter to remove then while you stay set up in the machine. Once again perform as many repetitions as you can, drop the weight by one more plate per side, and perform one more set of as many repetitions as you can.
You can expect two things at the end of this set – to be sucking wind and to be experiencing a serious pump in the quads. If you don’t have a hack squat machine they you can substitute the leg press but be sure to take a narrow stance lower on the platform as this emphasizes the quadriceps rather than the hips and glutes.
- Seated Calf Raises – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps
Calves are one of, if not the most stubborn muscle group for weightlifters to build and shape. You might see guys or gals load up the leg press or calf raise machine with 8 plates per side and bounce the weight up-and-down using a ROM smaller than their IQ, but for most that’s not going to do a darn thing for calf growth. Calves benefit from high frequency, volume, intensity, and time under tension.
Seated calf raises, when performed correctly, are going to leave you with an unmatched calf pump. Set up for the movement by placing a weight you can typically lift for 20 to 30 reps. We’re going to start with a slightly lighter weight because you’ll be holding the top and bottom position of each rep for at least two seconds.
Sit down on the calf raise machine, adjust the thigh pad, press your legs upwards using your calves and remove the safety catch. Hold this top position for two seconds before slowly lowering down your heels until you feel a nice deep stretch in the calves.
Hold this position for two seconds before slowly pushing your heels upwards back to the top position. The two second holds at the top and bottom of each rep will not only decrease the risk of injury but also eliminate the unnecessary momentum that takes stress off of the target muscle groups.
X-Frame Fast-Track Routine
- Seated Behind the Neck Shoulder Press – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Traditional overhead presses starting and ending on the front deltoid muscles are great for building the shoulder. However, those without preexisting shoulder injuries or major flexibility issues should perform behind the neck press because it more evenly stresses all three heads of the shoulder.
When performed seated the safety of the movement further increases because you have back support and it’s more difficult to use body English to press the weight overhead. Set up for the movement by adjusting the bench so that the back support is at or slightly less than perpendicular to the ground and the seat is parallel with the floor.
Set the barbell pins so that your arms are almost fully extended when you grasp and unrack the barbell with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip approximately 1.5x shoulder width. Place an even amount of weight on both sides of the barbell, take a deep breath, and unrack the bar. Slowly lower the bar, moving your head forward just enough so the barbell doesn’t whack you in the head. Ideally you should stop when your upper arm is parallel to the floor or the barbell is in-line with your ears.
Those with flexible shoulders can continue lowering the barbell as low as trap hold. In a smooth yet explosive motion, press the barbell upwards using your shoulders and getting your head under the bar as quickly as possible. Add weight when you can perform 3 sets of 12 reps with the same weight.
- Machine Rear Delt Fly – 1 set with five weight drops
Unlike dumbbell reverse flies the machine rear delt fly places constant stress on the rear delts and upper back throughout the entire range-of-motion. Most chest fly machines also double as rear delt fly machines. Move the handle pins so that they’re as far back as possible, in-line with the weight stack.
Adjust the seat height so that your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in-line with the handles when you grasp them with a neutral or pronated grip. Position your torso so that your chest is in-contact with the upper-body support pad. While keeping your chest in-contact with the pad engage your rear delts and upper back and pull the handles back and away from each other.
Continue pulling backwards until you feel a nice contraction in the rear delts, your shoulder blades are squeezed together, and the handles are in-line with your shoulder. Hold for one to three seconds and slowly lower back to the start position. Ensure your wrists, elbows, shoulders remain in-line with each other throughout the entire movement.
- Weighted Pull-ups – 50 total reps in 5 sets
If you’ve already mastered the bodyweight pull-up then adding resistance using a weighted vest, chains, dumbbell in-between the legs, or weight plates hanging from a belt are an excellent way to continue building that barn door back. Set up for the movement by adding enough weight so you can complete 15 reps with good form.
Grasp the pull-up bar with a pronated grip approximately 1.5x wider than shoulder width. Take a deep breath, retract the shoulder blades, and engage your lats to pull yourself up to the bar. Many trainees find the cues of keeping the chest up and pulling the elbows down to be helpful. Continue pulling yourself up until your chin is in-line or slightly above the bar. Hold for one to three seconds before slowly lowering yourself back to the start position.
At the bottom of the rep your shoulder blades should remain tucked and shoulders should be as far away as possible from the ears. Terminate a set when you feel your upper back rounding, arms taking over as the primary movers, or find yourself using leg drive to complete the rep. You can also rotate grips (neutral, pronated, and supinated) to add variation.
- (Weighted) Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
Hanging leg raises are one of my favorite movements for stretching the back and building the abdominal muscles while placing minimal stress on the spine. Most folks will find bodyweight to be a sufficient load for creating significant contraction in and engagement of the abdominal muscles. Those masochists looking to increase the intensity can place a dumbbell in between their legs or attach ankle weights.
Set up for the movement by approaching a pull-up bar and taking either a neutral or pronated shoulder-width grip. We’re training the abdominal muscles, not the back or grip, so use straps to prevent form breakdown due to fatigue of those muscle groups. At this point you should retract the shoulder blades and be at a dead-hang, hips and knees fully extended. In a smooth and controlled motion exhale and raise your legs towards your torso.
Those new to handing leg raises can bend their knees and raise them towards their chest whereas more experienced trainees should keep their legs straight throughout the movement. Those bending their knees should continue raising them until they’re higher than the belly button. Those with straight legs should aim to have the ankles, knees, and hips in-line with each other at the top of the rep.
Hold the top position for one or two seconds before slowly lowering yourself back to the starting position. If you finding yourself swinging your legs to complete the rep then terminate the set, rest, and perform another set. Ensure you flex the abdominals hard throughout the entire set and get ready for a deep burn.
- Barbell Hack Squats – 1 set each of 20, 15, and 12 reps
The barbell hack squat is an underrated exercise for those with average leverages and body mechanics. This squat variation places minimal stress on the upper back and when performed correctly, leaves you with an epic quadriceps pump. Proper form is extremely important with this exercise so start light and progress only once you complete all reps without excessive struggle or body English.
Place an even amount of weight on both sides of the barbell. At least one 45lb plate per side is preferred to ensure you’re not squatting to far down to get in to the start position. If you need to use less weight than either find a lighter bumper plate or stack weight plates underneath whatever weight is loaded on the barbell so that it starts at approximately the same height.
Take a hip-width stance in front of the bar and position your body so that your ankles are almost touching the barbell. Bend down and grasp the barbell with a pronated shoulder-width grip; straps are advised as your grip and upper back may fatigue during the set. Take a deep breath and while keeping your chest up sit back on your heels until your thighs and hips are parallel with the floor.
Push through your heels, stand up until your hips and knees are fully extended, and you’re standing upright. It’s okay if the bar slides along your upper leg during the ascent. Slower lower the barbell back to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps, terminating the set when you feel your spine or upper back rounding.
- Standing Calf Raises – 1 set of 50 reps using rest-pause
Standing and seated calf raises are foundational movements for building the calf and lower leg muscles as well improving ankle flexibility. Set up for the movement by setting the standalone or Smith machine pin height so that the barbell or pad is slightly lower than your shoulders and upper traps.
If you’re using a standalone machine, then position yourself under the shoulder pads and gently extend the ankles and knees so that you feel a nice but not intense stretch in the calves and ankles. Those using a Smith machine should do the same but instead stand on a plyometric box, aerobic step, or stacked weight plates that won’t slide. Engage your calves and press through your toes until your ankles are fully extended and you feel a nice contraction in the calves.
Hold this position for three seconds before slowly lowering to the bottom position. In the bottom position your heels should be below toe height and you’ll feel a nice stretch in the calves. Hold this position for two seconds before pressing upwards again. Ensure your spine stays neutral throughout the movement and your legs remain straight but knees not hyperextended.
Rest-pause repetitions require you to complete the prescribed number of reps without racking the barbell or machine weight. Progress but completing all 50 reps in fewer sets, taking short breaks in between the rest-pause mini sets, or by adding weight. Strive to complete the 50 reps using no more than 3 rest-pause mini sets.