How to Start Physique Training (and Build Your Dream Body)

Physique Training
(Image credit: Unknown)

Photography Glen Burrows; model Tom Eastham

A change might be better than a rest – at least when it comes to training. If you’re in a rut, the experts at Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness have assembled everything you need to know to give something new a try. Next up: Physique Training.

Physique Training 101

What is it?

Assuming you aren’t planning to step onstage and bust out a double-biceps spread, physique training is simply training with aesthetics, not performance, at the forefront of your mind. It uses drop sets, forced reps and other techniques to cause maximum muscular damage in the pursuit of gains. You can also use it in tandem with other training to hit your weak spots and bust through plateaus.

What’s it best for?

“In essence, training to improve body composition is about increasing lean muscle while reducing body fat,” says coach (and PhD in male body image) Jonny Jacobs. “For optimal results, combine strength training with anaerobic conditioning.”

What are its limitations?

Training to failure – or for tempo – isn’t always transferable to sporting disciplines, so if you’re looking for success on the five-a-side pitch or for a 5K PB, you’d be better of focusing elsewhere.

The outside view

“Bodybuilding can be great fun, but old-school training like having an ‘arms only’ day where you do a ton of volume just doesn’t make sense to me and isn’t necessary,” says powerlifter Tom Hamilton. “My view is that there should be an element of powerlifting within your training programme whereby you have some objective progress, monitoring lifts instead of just basing your opinion on if your training is working by what you see in the mirror – which is very subjective.”

Instant Expertise

Know Your Hypertrophy

There are two kinds: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. In sarcoplasmic, the volume of muscle cell fluid sarcoplasm increases – making your muscles bigger, but not necessarily stronger. Myofibrils, on the other hand, are what contract and generate power, and increasing their density will help you do it better. To build the latter, make your lifts explosive.

Invest in RMR

“Your resting metabolic rate dictates how much energy you’ll burn when you’re not in the gym,” says Jacobs. “Build more lean muscle, and it’ll improve.” Translation: by lifting weights, you’ll transform your body into a 24-hour fat-furnace.

Get on HIIT

“It wasn’t invented by Instagrammers,” Jacobs says of the increasingly popular interval training method. “It’s what we used to call a finisher.” What most people are missing is the high intensity part. For best results, use it twice a week at most – and leave it all on the floor.


You’ve made it when...

You see your body fat percentage start to drop. As a general rule, you’ll be able to see the outline of your abs at 10-12%; less means shredded. “Single-digit body fat is incredibly impressive and for most people takes a lot of dedication,” says Jacobs. “Very few people can maintain it, and it’s more about food than what you’re lifting.”

Put on Size

“Three sets of eight to 12 reps is old-school for a reason – it works,” says Jacobs. “For any physique programme, aim to do large compound lifts first, then add in accessory exercises such as biceps curls, lateral raises or triceps push-downs. To improve body composition keep rest periods to around 60 seconds.”

Here’s a classic chest-builder.

Bench Press

Sets 4 Reps 12

Keep the reps to a 4010 tempo: lower for four seconds, and press up for one.

2 Incline Dumbbell Press

Sets 3 Reps 10

This time, you’re going to hit a 3111 tempo. Pause at the bottom and top of the move, giving your pecs a chance to stretch.

3A Incline Dip

Sets 3 Reps 10

Lean forward as you perform the dip – it’ll target your chest more.

3B Dumbbell Flye

Sets 3 Reps 10

Do this move with slightly bent arms, and pause at the bottom of each rep to feel the stretch across your chest.

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.