Natural bodybuilding for non-bodybuilders

If you’re a man trying to build an impressive body with strong, broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and some semblance of a six-pack abs, but DON’T want to get caught up in the world of bodybuilding – you definitely want to check this article out.

When most people first get into physique transformation, they tend to gravitate toward bodybuilding-inspired resources. Whether it’s websites, magazines, or blogs – mainstream fitness information is heavily influenced by bodybuilding.

The interesting thing, though, is that the vast majority of people training to build a better-looking body don’t actually want to be a bodybuilder. Most people associate “bodybuilding” with “aesthetics”, assuming that if their goal is to build a better-looking body, a bodybuilding approach is right for them.

So they go to or one of the other thousands of websites that hands out fitness advice from (or geared toward) “bodybuilding.” And typically, one of two things happens:

  1. They spin their wheels, making little progress and experience a lot of frustration from trying to fit such an extreme, time and energy-consuming approach into the context of a “normal” life.
  2. They get caught up in the bodybuilding world – whether they meant to or not – and up making fitness and everything it entails #1 in their lives.

And for alotta people, neither of these options align with what they originally set out to do.

The question that needs to be asked more often – but isn’t being asked – is, “How would things look differently – from nutrition to my workouts and everything in between, if I want to look awesome but don’t actually want to be a bodybuilder?”

Now that’s a productive question. This article aims to answer that.


If I asked you to do a simple “word association” exercise with the word “bodybuilding” and just say the first few words that come to mind when you hear that term, you might say something like…

  • Steroids
  • Ripped
  • Posing on stage in posing trunks
  • Fake tans
  • Huge

…am I close? By and large, this is the cultural perception of “bodybuilding.”

But, if you look up the definition of “bodybuilding”, you’ll find the following: “the practice of strengthening and enlarging the muscles of the body through exercise.”

Here’s what’s interesting about this: the words we’ve come to associate with the term “bodybuilding” don’t do a great job of reflecting the definition discussed above. We’ve lost the distinction between bodybuilding the sport and bodybuilding the practice.

If bodybuilding is “strengthening and enlarging the muscles of the body through exercise”, then I am a bodybuilder.

But if bodybuilding involves the other things that we brought up – things like steroids, fake tans, and competing on stage – then I am not a bodybuilder.

Anyone who trains to improve strength and increase muscle size practices bodybuilding.

Someone who trains specifically for the sport of bodybuilding, in order to compete, is a bodybuilder.

This may seem like a small distinction, but it has huge implications in terms of how you approach your fitness and nutrition.


To answer this question, we need to reflect back, once again, on the distinction we made above:

  • Bodybuilding = Working out to improve strength and build bigger muscles.
  • A Bodybuilder = Someone who trains to compete in the sport of bodybuilding.

I’d challenge that both of these groups of people are working out to gain strength and build bigger muscles, but they don’t want to end up in the same place.


A Bodybuilder who is planning to compete on stage needs to reach an extreme level of conditioning. The kind of shape you get in for a show is not sustainable for more than a very short period of time and is not “liveable” (meaning you can’t have any kind of a normal life while maintaining that condition – you have to be fully committed to your body).

According to, you want your bodyfat percentage to be 7% or lower at the time of competition. The end-goal with a bodybuilder isn’t necessarily to build the ideal body, it’s to have the most extreme levels of muscularity and leanness the human body is capable of (remember this – it’s really important).

A visual will probably help…

Everything - from training to nutrition - must be more extreme to take your body to this kind of condition.
Everything – from training to nutrition – must be more extreme to take your body to this kind of condition.

What do you notice here? Being a “bodybuilder” is about the extreme. Most guys (and gals, I presume), would agree that the pictures above are not what comes to mind when they think of the ideal male body.

There’s another, probably larger group of gym-goers that I like to call “semi-serious bodybuilders.” These are guys that don’t actually want to compete in bodybuilding, but they still follow (or try to follow) the workout and nutrition information of bodybuilders.

So despite recognizing that they don’t want to be a bodybuilder, this group still does all of the extreme tactics like crash dieting and marathon workouts because they have mistakingly determined that if that’s the approach that gets a bodybuilder in shape to be on stage it must be effective for getting them to their goal as well.

Semi-serious bodybuilders recognize that the look you see of bodybuilders on stage isn’t an ideal look for everyday life, but they still shoot for something similar, just a little less extreme.

Here’s an example this:

How many guys out there can get this big and this lean naturally? Very, very few (and that's being optimistic.
How many guys out there can get this big and this lean naturally? Very few (and that’s being optimistic).

Here’s what I know about this:

  1. Most guys don’t want to be competitive bodybuilders.
  2. Doing the “semi-serious bodybuilder” thing, where you follow the approach of a competitive bodybuilder and try to cram that into a “normal” life is rarely an optimal approach and often leads to burnout and frustration.

Not that either of these looks aren’t impressive – but it’s too extreme to be an ideal look for everyday life. And the training and nutrition tactics used aren’t conducive for someone who wants a life outside of fitness.


Now, let’s contrast the sport of bodybuilding (including “semi-serious bodybuilders) with someone who’s into bodybuilding – meaning, they work out to gain strength and build muscle so that they have an aesthetically appealing body.

The end goal of someone in this category is to have enough muscle in the right places to look muscular and be lean enough to see a decent amount of definition – often measured by whether or not you can see your abs.

This look – or what many consider the ideal male body – isn’t nearly as extreme as that of a bodybuilder competing on stage. Rather than prizing extreme levels of muscularity and leanness, the ideal male body prioritizes having ‘enough’ muscle in the right places and being lean enough to show an appreciable amount of definition.

As a man, having an “X-Shaped” physique characterized by broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and proportions elsewhere to match is what characterizes the “ideal body.”

There is a good amount of research showing that for men the shoulder-to-waist ratio is the most important factor for having a body that is attractive to others and seen as masculine to your peers.

And thus, when we start talking about the “practice of bodybuilding”, this is what we’re referencing: guys who work out to build an ideal body.

One final attribute of the ideal male body – and this is crucial – it’s a look that is sustainable within the context of everyday life (with a certain amount of dedication and discipline of course). 

Once again, a visual will be helpful…

This is more inline with what most would refer to as an ideal male body. Most guys can build a body similar to this (that doesn't mean you'll have the notoriety of these guys, though).
This is more in line with what most would refer to as an ideal male body. Most guys can build a body similar to this (that doesn’t mean you’ll have the notoriety of these guys, though).

Notice here: the men in the pictures above do not possess near the muscularity or leanness of a bodybuilder, but they have a look that is more appealing for everyday life.

A great example that “extreme” is not always better – it all depends on your goal.

So back to the original question: bodybuilding vs. the ideal male body – is there a difference? Yup, I’d say there is. And your approach to fitness and nutrition must align with what your goal ultimately is.


So here’s where we’re at:

Option #1 – If you’re interested in competing in the sport of bodybuilding: go to or any of the other hundreds of websites that seem to be geared towards “being a bodybuilder.” Even if you don’t plan on stepping on stage – if that massive and ripped look is what you’re after (semi-serious bodybuilders), you’re gonna have to follow all of the extreme tactics and align most of your life around the goal of building the most extreme body possible. 

Option #2 – If you’re interested in building an ideal body, but want to do that in the context of a normal life: Take a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief. Most of the extreme, life-altering tactics necessary to compete in bodybuilding won’t be necessary. Focus on building an X-Shaped physique and keeping bodyfat levels low enough to see your abs.

A bodybuilder on stage will typically be around 6% bodyfat. But that’s a very short-term condition – no one can sustain that for very long. A more livable condition – the kind of condition we’re talking about when we say “ideal male body” is more around 10-12% bodyfat.

So let’s do a side-by-side comparison of a “bodybuilder vs. normal person” and see how they differ:

This is the difference between a bodybuilder and a normal person, in terms of an “ideal look.” The dude on the right is going to do fantastic in his competition, but it’s not a sustainable look for everyday life (nor is it desirable for normal life).

The things he had to do, in terms of workout and nutrition to get there is much different than what I had to do to look like I do above.

I’ve never competed in the sport of bodybuilding, nor do I ever plan to, so I’m not in a place to hand out advice on how to excel in that arena.

But I know a thing or two about helping normal dudes build an ideal body, and doing so in the context of a normal life with a hundred different things going on…


Typical bodybuilding nutrition can get pretty complicated. There’s all kinds of rules and specifics and often it can seem like you need a degree in calculus just to figure out what and how much you should be eating each day.

Is that level of dedication and exactness necessary for someone trying to get to low single digit bodyfat and step on stage? You better believe it. But it’s not necessary for a dude that just wants an ideal male body for everyday life.

Forget about the bullshit you’ve read about protein dosing, crash diets, and all of the other complicated stuff.

As a 20, 30, or 40-something guy who wants to build an ideal body, you should start with these 6 habits:


When you start eating whole, unprocessed foods most of the time, it’s amazing how many of the details just “fall” into place.

Fat loss becomes easier. Gaining muscle more simple. Oh, and you start feeling better, too. You have more energy and experience less of the energy “crashes” most guys are used to.

Instead of feeling that gurgling, I-might-shit-my-pants feeling after meals, you feel… nothing. And man, let me tell you, feeling nothing is really nice.

Most people have no idea how much intestinal discomfort they feel until they cut out the processed crap and start eating whole foods.

Aim for four unprocessed meals per day (or 3 “meals” and 1 “snack”) consisting mainly of protein, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables.

If you’re already fairly lean, or if you have an intense workout that day, through in some minimally processed carbs like rice or potatoes (all kinds) and you’re good to go. Make that stuff 80% of what you eat and you’ll be amazed at your ability to build muscle and lose fat (or stay lean).

While this will mean you need to cook your own food some of the time, it doesn’t mean every meal has to be homecooked.

Enter: Made-for-you meals.

Thanks to places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other Health Foods Stores, you now have access to pre-made healthy meals consisting of fresh, whole foods.

I can go into any of the four or five health foods stores within a few miles of my house and get awesome made-for-me stuff like grass-fed chili or cooked chicken breasts, steaks – along with different vegetable and bean medleys, fresh salad fixings and more.

Take advantage of that shit. It isn’t going to be incredibly cheap – but convenience is worth a lot. And remember, this isn’t just for vanity’s sake – this is about optimizing your body – the ONE body that you get, to be able to perform as you want it to. I haven’t gone to the doctor in years, and a lot of that is due to how I eat.

So now you know that 80% of what you eat will be whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods… so you might be wondering, what about the other 20%? Eat stuff you like. Have some chocolate for dessert. Eat a piece of pie. Go out to your favorite restaurant. Just keep it to 20% of your food intake and you should be fine.


Drinking your calories (soda, beer, those foo-foo drinks from Starbucks – which I love) is a great way to smash a couple hundred calories without taking in any nutrients – or feeling full at all.

Until you are at, or close, to your desired leanness, it’s best to stay away from calorie-containing drinks.

Does this include alcohol? Well — yes, but I know that’s a tricky one. I’ve found that when you’re pretty lean, as in, around 10-12% bodyfat and have visible abs, you can get away with having some alcohol on a semi-regular basis.

I’m not a big drinker, but I’ll have a beer every now and then. I can do that and maintain my condition fairly easily. But you may not be able to until you are leaner.

So my advice? Cut (or severely limit) alcohol until you are at or near desired leanness and then keep it minimal. And if you’re just in it for the effect, Vodka is going to be your best choice.

Beer just doesn’t fit well with being a lean, muscular guy. That’s not to say you can’t ever drink the stuff, but I’d keep it to no more than a few per week at the most, or save it for special occasions.


When you follow #1 and base most of your meals around whole, unprocessed foods, this one should take care of itself. Alotta people want to get really specific about your “macro split.”

They want you eating 35% protein, 35% carbs, and 30% fat (wait, does that even add up? Wait for it… yep, we’re good). I’ve tried that – and every other approach under the sun.

And being really specific with the number of macronutrients was somewhat important when I was trying to get in really good condition for a photoshoot, but to look awesome in everyday life – nah, that much specificity isn’t warranted.

I’ve found it’s relatively easy to maintain around 10-12% bodyfat and continue building muscle while only counting protein and following the rest of the “rules” I’m laying out for you today.

So here’s the deal. From now on, I only want you to count protein — and even that can be a good-faith estimate. You’re aiming for .8 – 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

So a 170-175 pound guy like myself would aim for  140 – 175g of protein per day.

Some of your daily protein intake can be from protein supplements if necessary for convenience, but a good amount should come from whole foods like beef, eggs, chicken, fish, etc.


Your body is 83 percent water. Your muscles are 75 percent water. And your brain is 74 percent water. Get the feeling that water’s important? Yup, it definitely is.

So here’s the deal: you need to be drinking enough water. But that doesn’t mean you should be forcing it down your throat so often that you’re peeing every 20 minutes.

When you wake up in the morning, chug a glass or two of water. Repeat this every few hours. If you’re following #2 and not drinking your calories, you should be getting plenty of water.


When you follow this principle, instead of viewing calories on daily basis, you view them on a weekly, or even monthly basis.

Here’s the thing most fitness and nutrition blogs, websites, and magazines fail to mention: While total calories are important, and you must consume less calories than you expend to lose fat – this doesn’t have to happen on a daily basis.

Why does that matter? Well, consider this…

Let’s say I know that I am going to eat that 1,500 calorie dish at Pei Wei (one of my favorite restaurants) Friday night and follow it up with a few beers – something that would put me at, or over my daily caloric total in ONE meal.

Instead of freaking out and a) avoiding the situation all together, or b) Participating but feeling guilty the whole time, I simply adjust for this ‘special occasion’ earlier in the week.

Since I know I am going to be eating a lot on Friday, I eat less throughout the week leading up to that day.

I end up eating the same total calories at the end of the week, but I was still able to eat the foods that I want.

I found a simple way to balance restriction and indulgence so that I can live life on my terms and reach my fitness goals.

Pretty simple, right?

This is what the over/under principle is all about: If I eat more today, I’ll adjust and eat less tomorrow (or the day before) so that I can stay on track with my goals.

This works whether you know of a special event (you are going out with friends this Friday) and can plan ahead; or if a spontaneous event causes you to change plans (You end up out for dinner with little/no notice).

For occasions that you can plan ahead for, just eat a bit less on the days leading up to that event.

For spontaneous occasions, eat a bit less in the days following the event.

It’s that simple.

Now, this can also be applied to occasions that are longer in duration. Let’s say you have a Cruise coming up. Obviously, you want to look your best while being half-naked on the beach for a week, but you also want to indulge in foods you like.

So you cut back and tighten things up nutritionally for a few weeks leading up to the cruise so that you look your best; and you apply the over/under principle during your vacation as needed to maintain your look.

So you might choose one day where you go all out at breakfast, and cut back a bit at lunch or skip snacking that day. The next day, you might do the opposite.

The options are endless and are completely up to your preferences.


I think I heard this first from Vince Delmonte, who I have very little in common with, but found this piece of advice to be brilliant. Basically, the idea is that wherever you find yourself, put in the effort to make the next best decision – regardless of the decisions you’ve made leading up to that point.

More often than not, the villain opposing good decisions is “what the hell syndrome”: as in, “I already ate two pieces of pie – I’ve already screwed things up – ahh, what the hell, I’ll just crush the whole thing.”

Stop doing that.

No matter what happens, don’t throw yourself farther down into the gutter. Instead make the next best decision.

Find yourself shoving two donuts in your face during a moment of weakness in the break room? Don’t eat two more because you’ve already “blown it”, get the hell out of there and get back on track.

Three beers deep when out for supper with the guys? Stop there, order a water, and pass on the nachos. Just because you overdid it a bit with the booze doesn’t mean making more bad decisions is warranted.

Make the next best decision. Get it? Good. Now go do it.

Wait… that’s it? Sure, we could get more detailed and specific, but if you did the 6 things above consistently, you’d be thrilled with your results. So let’s start there.


The purpose of a “non-bodybuilders” bodybuilding workout is to provide an approach that delivers in building an ideal body within the context of a normal life.

All of the workouts I create at Muscle That Matters are based on the same principles:

  • 3-4 workouts per week
  • Each workout lasting no longer than 60 minutes
  • Targeted muscle and proportions are emphasized over “general mass”
  • Variety and fun have to be built in
  • “Show and go training” (look good and perform well)

And this workout template is no different. If someone came to me with the primary goal of building an ideal body, this is the kind of setup I’d put them on.


For the Minimalist Bodybuilding Workout, you will train 3 or 4 days per week, based on preference/time availability. Day 4 is an optional day that focuses on “targeted muscle growth” for the muscle we want to emphasize to improve the broad shoulders/narrow waist ratio. If you can only train 3 days per week, skip day 4. Although, I set things up so that you could easily do Day 4 at home with minimal equipment to make it easier to fit into a busy schedule.

If possible, separate Days 1 and 2 with a day of rest. So you could do Day 1 on Monday and Day 2 on Wednesday, for example. If this doesn’t work with your schedule, just get all workouts in each week in a way that fits with what you’ve got going on.

Sets/reps/rest notation: 3 x 10 x 60 would indicate that you are to perform 3 sets of 10 reps with 60 seconds of rest in-between each set.


  1. Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 10-12 x 60

*Maintain maximum tension within chest muscles throughout entire range of motion of each rep. Worry about working the muscles first and how much weight you are lifting second.

    2. Bench Press 3 x 8, 6, 4* x 60 

*You will do one set of 8 reps, one set of 6 reps, and one set of 4 reps. Add weight each set.

3. Dumbbell 1-arm Clean & Press 3 x 10-12 x 90 

*Rest 90 seconds between arms

  4. Dumbbell 1-arm Row 4 x 8-10 x 30

*Rest 30 seconds between arms

  5. Cable/band Face Pull 3 x 10-15 x 60  


  1. Bodyweight Jump Squat 3 x 5 x 60 

    2.  Deadlift Variation (trap bar or sumo) 3 x *8, 6, 4 x 90

*You will do one set of 8 reps, one set of 6 reps, and one set of 4 reps. Add weight each set.

3. Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat 2 x 15 (per leg) x 60 

4a. Farmers Walk 3 x 45 seconds x 60

4b. Hanging leg/knee raise* 3 x 8-12 x 60

*If you can’t do at least 8 reps with legs straight, stick with bent knees. Focus on initiating movement with abs not hip flexors.

**Perform 4a and 4b as a superset. So you’ll do one set of farmers walks, rest, then perform one set of hanging leg raises. Continue this until all sets are completed of each exercise.


1a. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press* 3 x 10-15 x 60

*Can do handstand push-ups in place of shoulder press if desired/able

1b. Chinup (or lat pulldown) 3 x 10-15 x 60

*Perform 1a and 1b as a superset, alternating back and forth between exercises until all sets are completed.

3a. Seated Lateral Raise 3 x 10-12 x 60

3b. Standing 1-arm Cable/Band Row 3 x 8-10 x 60

4. 75 push-ups as fast as possible: Record the time it took you to complete the 75 push-ups and try to beat that time from week to week.


1a. Hammer Curl 5 x 10-15 x 15

1b. Triceps Extension 5 x 10-15 x 15

1c. Shrug* 5 x 10-15 x 15

*If doing this workout at home and have limited equipment that is too light to do shrugs within this rep range, replace with upright row.

1d. Single Leg Deadlift 5 x 10-15 (per leg) x 15

*Perform 1a – 1d in circuit fashion, resting 15 seconds between exercises. Repeat the entire circuit 5 times.

**You can use bands, cables, dumbbells, kettlebells – or whatever is most convenient for you for these exercises. Just keep it consistent from week to week so you can track progress.


  • You can run this setup for 4-6 weeks, then you need to switch things up
  • Remember that this is a template, long term progress necessitates a longer-term planning.


Hopefully, you walk away from this with a few things:

  1. An understanding that the sport of bodybuilding is different from training to build an ideal body that is achievable/sustainable for everyday life.
  2. The approach for competing in bodybuilding is much different from training to build an ideal body. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to live in the gym or meticulously track everything you eat to build an impressive ‘beach body.’ 
  3. If your goal is to build an ideal body, the information you find in most bodybuilding websites, blogs, and magazines isn’t all that useful or necessary – and may even cause more confusion and frustration than help.

Most guys don’t make these distinctions. Instead, they equate the term “bodybuilding” with working out to look better and think that they should be following a bodybuilder’s approach, even though being a bodybuilder is much different than working out to build an ideal body.

I put the publication of this article off for a while because I was trying to find the best way to balance talking about focusing on the aesthetic without compromising the message of Muscle That Matters – which promotes a balanced approach that extends beyond just being ridiculously good looking.

And I don’t spend a ton of time talking about training specifically for looks here at Muscle That Matters.

That’s intentional since I’ve found focusing solely on training for looks often leads to a path of comparisons and vanity and obsession with snapping the perfect selfie. And in my experience, getting too caught up in that distracts from living a more purposeful life and focusing on what truly matters in this world, like the people around us.

But that doesn’t mean that trying to build a better-looking body is a bad or unworthy goal. And I’d be lying if I said that working out to improve they way my body looks isn’t still a large part of my focus.

The important thing, though, is that through years of practice (and getting it wrong), I’ve come to a place where I’ve found a good balance; where I can focus on building a better looking body without becoming obsessed with how I look.

I’d encourage you to search for the same balance.

– Eric

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