Hang around in bodybuilding circles long enough and you’ll more than likely have heard someone make a comment or two about the elusive “X-frame.” You might have smiled and nodded along even though you weren’t exactly sure what an X-frame is — or how the heck to get one.
Simply put, an X-frame is one of the principal pursuits of most bodybuilders. Each bodybuilding division has its own judging criteria, but some general foundations still tend to apply. If you’re training for competition, you’ll typically aim for wide shoulders and upper back, a small waist, and well-muscled thighs. (Picture it: it kind of resembles the letter “X.”)
In that way, the X-frame provides a solid foundation for each competitor. But even outside of bodybuilding, many athletes seek this aesthetic. Changing up your physique training to build towards an X-frame might be just the move to bring your Hulk-shoulder, Captain America-waist goals to life.
What is the X-Frame?
The X-frame breaks your body down into segments, strategically targeting and tapering the major muscle groups to create a body that resembles the letter ‘X’. Think: big shoulders and upper back, small waist, and muscular thighs. At the top of the X, you’ll have sweeping, broad shoulders and a thick upper back. In this aesthetic, the X (your body) will taper into a relatively trim waist that then flares out into the bottom of the X — muscular thighs and defined calves.
To accomplish this, training for an X-frame will emphasize certain areas — like your upper back and thighs — while intentionally keeping others from growing too broad, like your waist. You might want this aesthetic to prepare for competition, or you might have grown up in weight rooms (or social media feeds) that idolize the bodybuilding greats. Whatever your reason for training for an X-frame, it’s certainly eye-catching in a way that shouts that you work out.
Why Bodybuilders Want An X-Frame
Winning a bodybuilding competition isn’t just about growing freakishly large. Judging criteria accounts for many different attributes. Yes, that includes your overall size — but conditioning and proportionality are equally as important.
The most desirable look in a competition is one that uses training to shape your muscles in complementary ways. An X-frame physique features contrast — big, then slim, then big again — which helps grab the eye. This configuration also flows seamlessly into posing or positioning that can more easily emphasize the muscle groups the judges want to see.
Having the X-frame as your foundation sets you up for success in competition. This solid starting point allows you to maintain the most important components of your physique. In doing so, it takes the pressure off of growing everything at all times and lets you focus some growth periods on weak points.
Muscles You Need for an X-Frame
There are certain muscle groups that pop when correctly trained. They will improve the look of your body’s broadness in certain areas and help trim down others, such as your waistline. This is the general anatomy of your X-frame.
Developing three-dimensional shoulders will really help you establish the top of your X-frame. By virtue of prioritizing your medial and posterior deltoids, capped shoulders can bring up the difference between the three muscle bellies as the anterior deltoid normally gets unknowingly overemphasized by other forms of chest training.
The lats are another muscle group that need to be intelligently programmed. You can target your upper, middle, and lower lats with different exercise types to continue the V-taper effect brought on by building up your shoulders. The ideal X-frame uses this concept to gradually taper your back towards the smallest point of your X-frame, which is your waist.
Generally speaking, to create an X-frame you’re going to want to minimize your waistline. That will maximize the visual effect of your broad shoulders and lats tapering down and your legs tapering back out. You’ll accomplish this primarily by paying attention to your nutrition with the aim of bringing down your body fat percentage. But through some tried and true bodybuilding posing techniques and direct bodybuilding abdominal exercises, you can train for the overall tightness of your ab muscles once they are revealed.
Your legs bring a lot to the table for your X-frame. They need to reverse the taper from your upper body. They’ll start modestly and slowly grow larger as you track down the musculature of your lower body. To accomplish this, you’ll need to build your glutes, hamstrings, and a nice set of quadriceps.
Although it might be tempting, avoid over-emphasizing any particular muscle group to avoid washing out the aesthetic effect you’re after.
Calves can be the bane of your existence, but they also help contribute to the last pop of your X-frame at the bottom end of some tree trunk legs. Similar to the shoulders at the top portion of your aesthetic, tirelessly building up your calves to match the development of the other X-frame muscles can make all the difference in completing the look.
Best Exercises for an X-Frame
To build yourself that elusive X-frame, you’ll have to focus hard on making sure you’re eating enough to build muscle while keeping a trim waistline. But the work you put in at the gym is a huge part of crafting huge shoulders and quads — so it’s worth figuring out what exercises to emphasize for an X-frame.
To get the most out of the top half of your X-frame, you’ll want to build out a monstrous set of boulder shoulders. You’ll likely get a lot of spillover growth from some other exercises in your program like those meant to grow your chest — big pushes like bench presses can contribute big gains up front to the anterior delts. To round out your shoulders, this means you’ll need to spend more time focusing on targeting the medial and posterior delts with a ton of lateral raises, reverse flyes, and rear-delt raises.
The lats are the next link in your X-frame chain. You’ll be looking to create a nice V-taper towards a narrow waist, meaning that you should use a combination of single-arm rowing and pulldown exercises to best target the upper and middle fibers of your lats.
Single-arm dumbbell rows, single-arm cable rows, and single-arm lat pulldowns will be great additions to your program to shape the lats. Through using predominantly unilateral variations, you’ll get a much greater return on investment to prevent any compensations or uneven growth. You want to prevent asymmetries from throwing off the development of your physique.
Your waistline isn’t something you’ll be necessarily building to a huge degree. Rather, you’ll be looking to develop muscular control and leanness to properly accentuate the taper of your upper and lower body. Performing basic exercises such as planks or abdominal crunches are a great way to increase your muscular tone without necessarily adding waistline bulk. Additionally, practicing the vacuum technique popularized by countless successful bodybuilders can be a potent way to supplement your X-Frame development.
Your legs will need a nice dose of training for your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Many of your best exercise options will hit more than one of those muscle groups at a time, so track your growth to make sure you’re not accidentally throwing off your proportions. The aim is to reverse taper out of the small waist aesthetic. This means a good set of glutes should balloon out into some beefy quads and supporting hamstrings.
A good hack squat or leg press should be the meat and potatoes of your leg training — they won’t build out a thicker waist like back squats will. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts and lunges can help you flesh out the look you need and should build a great foundation for your lower-half X-frame needs.
Your calves are the lower body cap of the X-frame physique. It’s important to train them with the volume, intensity, and priority that they need to keep pace with the other muscle groups. Take into special consideration how they can be particularly stubborn to grow for many lifters. Training them frequently and targeting both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles with seated and standing calf raise variations should be perfect for packing some meat onto your leg bones.
Sample X-Frame Workout Plan
There are a ton of great workout options to develop an X-frame. Using a diverse training split that allows most major muscle groups to get hit around twice per week lets you target all the areas you’ll need. You can then prioritize one heavier day and one lighter day to account for fatigue throughout the week. Make sure you’re able to best target the muscles you are prioritizing by relying on cables and machines for maximum time under tension.
Push (Day 1)
Pull (Day 2)
Legs (Day 3)
Upper (Day 4)
- Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row: 3×12
- Machine Pec Flye: 3×12–15
- Cable Lateral Raise: 3×12–15
- Single-Arm Cable Reverse Flye: 3×12–15
- Cable Cross-Body Triceps Extensions: 3×12–15
- Machine Biceps Curl: 3×10–12
- Front Plank: 3x 1 minute
Lower (Day 5)
How to Eat for an X-Frame
Building muscle will always be married to how you eat and recover in order to maximize your results. The X-frame is predicated on a certain degree of leanness and a long-game mentality of building up each muscle group. To best accomplish this, you’ll want to prioritize one and then the other.
String together several long phases of muscle-building growth. During this time, you’ll be emphasizing a high-protein diet and tons of sleep and hydration for recovery. The second side of this coin will be the reveal — you’ll be leaning out slowly and methodically in order to retain as much muscle mass as possible while stripping away any excess body fat. Enter a mild caloric deficit while keeping your training intensity, sleep, and protein as high as you would during a building phase. Watch your X-frame come to life.
Spend more time growing than leaning out, as building muscle is a tough process. Try scheduling your programming with the intent of a 2-3:1 ratio of muscle building to fat loss. For example, do one year of prioritizing building muscle before looking to lean out a bit.
X Marks the Workout
The X-frame aesthetic in bodybuilding might score a ton of points and help bring home the trophies. But if it’s a goal of yours, it can also help you look and feel your best in the gym or everyday life. Big broad shoulders, a finely tapered back, trim waist, beefy legs, and superhero calves can help people feel more confident in their presentation — and not just on the bodybuilding stage.
With a split designed to smash your delts, lats, legs, and calves complemented with a high-protein diet and plenty of recovery, you’ll be well on your way to carving out the attention-grabbing physique that a bodybuilding judge won’t be able to help noticing.
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