Most people think that in bodybuilding, size is the name of the game. That’s true at first, but after a while, it’s muscle definition that becomes more important. After all, while a 16” arm is better than a 14” arm, a ripped 16” looks way better than a fat 16”. And truth be told, a ripped 15.5” arm will often look bigger than a fat 16.5-17” arm. To take advantage of that, here are a few ways to improve your muscle definition.
Get Lean First
If muscle definition is your goal, then the obvious first step is going to be to reduce your body fat levels. You can carry as much muscle mass on your frame as you want, but if you also carry too much fat, then there will never be separation between muscles, and everything will just look like a giant, sometimes even shapeless, blob.
You might have read or been told that high reps “tone” muscle and are good for “getting ripped”. It would take insane volume to get any effect for the latter and there’s no scientific evidence of the former at all. Instead, you’re best served getting your diet on point.
You can start by multiplying your desired body weight in pounds x 10 to determine how many calories you should average daily. After that, multiply that same desired body weight in pounds x .75 to calculate daily grams of protein. You can then split your remaining daily calories between carbs and fat however you like.
After diet is on point, you can continue to get lean by adding aerobic cardio to your overall program. Going easy won’t use up excess recovery reserves you need for your weight training workouts, and will allow you to up the total weekly volume so as to burn the most calories. Start off with 3.5-4 cumulative hours of steady-state aerobic cardio per week, spread out over several days. You can then increase from there if needed.
How You Should Lift Weights
Now that you have your cardio and diet taken care of, it’s time to discuss lifting weights. Just because muscle definition is now your goal, that doesn’t mean you should veer away from heavy lifting. Strength-based hypertrophy is always going to be the best approach for most lifters. Making a compound lift done for heavy sets of 6-8 should still form the base of your routine. If nothing else, heavy lifting like this leads to thicker muscle fibers, which can improve muscular density.
After you have your heavy lifting out of the way, you’re going to want to do at least one slow and controlled exercise per body part. This could either be another compound lift or an isolation movement. You don’t have to take it to the extreme, but use a weight that will allow you to lower each rep under great control (say 2-4 seconds) and, more importantly, hold each contraction for at least 2 seconds.
Being able to squeeze hard and hold at the isometric contraction point, you’ll be able to further improve muscle density and hardness. This density, and resulting separation, can be even more evident when you’re “cold” and muscles aren’t pumped full of blood. This is because at very low bodyfat levels, a pump can actually smooth out your muscles.
In fact, 4’11” pro bodybuilder Flavio Baccianni was known for stepping on stage cold when competing in the mid to late 1990s. This was because every time he got a good pump, he actually lost separation and his muscles didn’t look as defined.
Which Exercises to Use
To maximize muscle definition, do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps in this fashion after your heavy work. Here is a list of exercises this approach would work well with. Choose 1-2 per body part:
Seated dumbbell press*
Dumbbell bench press (flat or incline)*
Dumbbell shrugs (hold the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing each other)
Calf raises (standing and seated)
*Hold the contraction just before the fully locked out position.
Improving your muscle definition won’t happen overnight, but it is very doable. Start with lowering your body fat and ensuring you’re still lifting heavy. After that, strive to increase muscle density even further with slower movements, emphasizing the muscular contraction. This will squeeze the muscle fibers harder, causing them to get even thicker and leading to more separated, defined look you’re after.