By Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
I’m often asked what my body measurements are and/or what are the ideal measurements for a bodybuilder or a classical muscular male physique. Believe it or not, there are actually many formulas for determining the “ideal body proportions.” On the other hand, you might want to take them with a grain of salt…
QUESTION: Tom, there is one thing that I really would like to know – your measurements. You have a physique that (in my opinion) is ideal and your photos are a real inspiration to me. I am able to move up in weight gradually with my workouts, so I know I am building muscle, but I never have a measurement to shoot for – e.g. biceps, chest, waist, hips, etc. Also, it seems like certain ratios (for example, chest to waist ratio, and maybe there are others?), would be helpful also. My thinking is that if my waist and hips are “growing” faster than my chest, then that might be an indicator that I am gaining fat where it likes to show up first (hips and waist). The measurements I have of myself are: chest, waist, hips, biceps, forearms, thighs, calves. Thank you.
ANSWER: Personally, I no longer take my measurements, although I did regularly when I was a teenager. I do, however think it’s a great way to chart progress. Circumference measurements give you feedback about how well your training (and nutrition) regimen are working and let’s you catch yourself if certain body parts are lagging behind others, or in the case of waist and hips, if you’re gaining body fat.
The waist measurement is an important one, because when your waist circumference is going down, you know your overall body fat is going down. Also, when your waist shrinks even a little bit, it tends to completely change the way you look – even if you don’t gain any muscle, a narrow waist creates an illusion of broader shoulders. Abdominal fat and a large waist measurement is also a health risk.
There have been all kinds of different formulas proposed over the years for the “ideal proportions”, but I never aimed for a certain measurement myself. Bodybuilding is a very visual sport. The judges don’t come up on stage and measure your arms in a bodybuilding contest – you are judged on appearance.
I’ve always gone after a certain “look” as opposed to a certain measurement. I cut out photos of bodybuilders whose physiques I admire and want to emulate and rather than having a measurement in mind, I always have a picture of my ideal in mind.
On top of a solid base of muscle size, I simply work towards symmetry, so all muscles are developed equally, with no single muscle groups that are out of proportion compared to others - for example, a huge chest and rib cage with small arms looks silly - huge arms and small legs looks un-symmetrical as well.
I’m not all that hung up on weighing a certain amount either, although I do weigh myself regularly. The main reason I monitor my weight closely is because in the off season, I’m always interested in gaining more lean body mass and prior to competition I have to make a weight class (middleweight has a 176 1/4 lbs cutoff. )
I’m 5’ 8” tall and I weigh 174-176 for competitions. That is very much a “false” weight, however, because I easily lose 6-10 pounds of water weight in the three days before a contest. By the Monday after a Saturday contest, my weight is usually back up to 180-184 or so. Off season, I weigh about 195-200 lbs. My off season body fat is usually around 9-10% and before contests it’s around 4%.
Years ago I do remember measuring my arms and they were 17 1/2” cold and 18” pumped. That was a long time ago. I would imagine they’re bit larger now, but who knows. My waist is 31-32” most of the year, even smaller before contests (last notch on the lifting belt!)
These are somewhat typical off season / pre contest height, weight and body fat measurements for a natural bodybuilder. In the professional and open federations (not drug tested), those weights and measurements might be considered “small.” However, a 17-18 inch arm on a lean and proportionate body can look very impressive.
Steve Reeves for example, was known as one of the most symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing bodybuilders of all time, even though he was not “huge” by today’s standards.
Reeves wrote about ideal measurements frequently and was always striving for his idea of perfection in this regard (and came close to achieving his own personal ideal). One of his criteria for ideal proportions included having his arms, calves and neck measure the same.
Steve Reeves Measurements:
Arms: 18.5 inches
Calves: 18.5 inches
Neck: 18.5 inches
Thighs: 27 inches
Chest: 54 inches
Waist: 30 inches
In his “classic physique” book, Reeves said his formula for “ideal proportions” was as follows:
Muscle to bone ratios:
Arm size= 252% of wrist size
Calf size= 192% of ankle size
Neck Size= 79% of head size
Chest Size= 148% of pelvis size
Waist size= 86% of pelvis size
Thigh size= 175% of knee size
Steve Reeves’ height and weight chart for a bodybuilder (natural)
In the book Brawn, Stuart McRobert published the old “John McCallum formula for “challenging yet realistic” measurements for “hard gainers. His formula is based on wrist measurement and was also published in the book Super Squats:
John McCallum’s realistic measurement ideals for hard gainers
1. 6.5 times your wrist gives chest girth
2. 85% of the chest girth produces the hips
3. Take 70% of the chest girth for the waist
4. 53% of the chest gives the thigh girth
5. The neck size is 37% of the chest
6. 36% of the chest produces the upper arm girth
7. The calves come out a little less at 34%
8. The forearms get 29% of the chest measurement
Incidentally, McRobert’s book Brawn has an entire chapter called “expectations” which discusses the truth about measurement claims.
I find all these measurement ideals very interesting, but personally I take them with a grain of salt.
Be careful with some of the formulas for “ideal measurements”, because if they were based on steroid using and or pro bodybuilders, you may get discouraged by trying to pursue an impossible goal for a natural bodybuilder or the measurements of someone with a totally different bone structure than you have.
Measurements - especially arm measurements - are also frequently exaggerated. Twenty inch arms, for example, are rare and when you actually see them in person, you realize just how massive they really are. But somehow beginners and natural athletes get the idea in their head that bodybuilding success means 250 pounds and a 20 inch arm.
The truth is, a 17 to 18 inch arm on a ripped 175-180 pound physique with excellent balance, symmetry and proportion can look much larger than it really is – it’s an optical illusion of sorts.
Some of these guidelines for “ideal proportions” are the “Grecian” or “classical” ideals while others are ideals for bodybuilders. In either case, keep in mind they are subjective – they’re just someone else’s opinion of what is an ideal measurement. The only opinion that matters in the end is your own.
Train hard and expect success,
Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
Lifetime Natural Bodybuilder
About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, certified personal trainer and freelance fitness writer. Tom is the author of "Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle,” which teaches you how to get lean without drugs or supplements using secrets of the world's best bodybuilders and fitness models. Learn how to get rid of stubborn fat and increase your metabolism by visiting: Burnthefat.com