July 1, 2012 Damon Hayhow

Carving in Muscle Separations

(NOTE: Please excuse the bro-sciency-ness of this. PubMed is a little light on research into carving in muscle separations… probably because the whole concept is extremely bro-ish!)

One of the most idiotic and misunderstood myths in body transformation training is that of exercises or techniques for ‘carving in muscle separations’.

This is not to say that there aren’t ways to improve the visible separations between muscles. There are. But you need to understand what is happening if you hope to achieve the desired outcome and not just waste massive amounts of time and effort… like so many do!

Before I get to the guts of this blog, I must make mention of the two most important factors in visually pronounced muscle separations:
1) fat – the number one reason people fail to display the definition and separation they would like between their muscles is that they are simply too fat!
2) genetics – some people have muscles that appear deeply and distinctly separated; others just don’t. That said, the vast majority of people who blame their genetics are simply fat… and usually lazy and lacking the ‘personal responsibility’ gene!

In all but the absolute most extreme cases, if you cannot clearly see your muscular separations it is probably because you have too much bodyfat! Even competitive bodybuilders who say they are “holding water”, 9 times out of 10 are just too fat!

Do not underestimate how lean you need to be for clear definition! It does not matter how lean you FEEL or THINK you are, nor how lean your Trainer has measured you (assuming your Trainer even does measurements), its probably simply not enough. And just because you don’t know how to get any leaner doesn’t mean you aren’t still too fat!

Everybody possesses the same distinct muscles. Those muscles ARE separate from one another! They are each wrapped in their own fascial sheath. What MOSTLY hides them from external view is the water, fat and skin on top! Typically the fat is the most significant factor. It literally ‘blankets’ the muscles and fills in the ‘gaps’. Mostly…

Despite the above, at the more advanced levels of bodybuilding muscle size becomes a factor. More specifically, the current state of an enlarged muscle can be a factor that REDUCES the visible separations between the muscles.

Let me give a crude illustration of the issue. Imagine two, 1/2-inflated balloons inside a glass box. The box is fractionally too small in all directions for the two balloons so they are lightly squashed together and against the glass on all sides.

Now imagine inflating the balloons. With nowhere else to go, the balloons will expand into the empty space between each other and the walls of the glass box, reducing the gaps between them. As you keep inflating the balloons they press tighter and tighter together until, eventually, they form 2 almost-perfect cubes with almost no separation between them.

This balloon analogy is not dissimilar to what happens with muscles within their own fascias. When bodybuilders use food, training and supplements (and drugs) to force-fill their muscles with glycogen, fluid and other substrates, the muscles expand – like the balloons in the box – to completely fill their fascial sheaths. The muscles can press together so tightly that the visible separations between them reduce significantly.

This is why pro-bodybuilders can often be seen with extraordinarily low bodyfat, paper-thin skin, their bodies covered in veins, and yet completely lacking deep muscular separations. It is also why separations in leg muscles often completely disappear with a big leg ‘pump’ and why legs are famous for having reduced separation and definition for days after heavy squats and leg presses. Blame inflammation or fluid, much of it is WITHIN the muscular compartment.

The simple remedy to this state is for the muscles to SHRINK… a bit! For most of us, shrinking muscles is quite simple:
1) Don’t train. Easy. Most lean bodybuilders know that their legs (in particular) are more separated and defined after 10+ days of not training them. They are also measurably smaller.
2) Do ineffective training. This is where the concept that leg extensions with light weights and lots of ‘squeezing’ and ‘flexing’ the muscles comes from. There is little inflammatory response, absolutely no stimulation to maintain strength/muscle plus a wasting of glycogen and, when dieting, the muscles shrink measurably. The very fact that this sort of training is INEFFECTIVE for muscular development is the reason it is effective for separations!
3) Do HIIT or more intense ‘cardio’. If you feel a burn, glycogen is likely being burned and the muscles shrink. Even better, taking peak-strength-performance trained muscles and suddenly training them for endurance is the best way to cause maximum muscle loss! At some point there will be a benefit to muscular separation. Too much endurance exercise (combined with the typical starvation diets of many bodybuilders these days) can result in so much muscle shrinkage and depletion that the muscles wind up appearing soft and flabby.

The bottom line is, to genuinely “carve in separations”, muscle shrinkage is what is happening! Hopefully in understanding this you can choose more wisely WHEN to utilise such techniques. If you are getting ready for a bodybuilding competition, using the stepper and light leg extensions 16 weeks out from your contest is probably not ideal. 2-4 weeks out – assuming your low bodyfat didn’t solve the problem anyway – is more appropriate.

Justifying almost every training or diet concept these days are massively overcomplicated (and incomplete) explanations of biochemical processes within the body. As interesting as they are, basing your actions on your hopeful guesses about something you cannot measure and cannot affect is a certain way to be wrong and probably fail!

1) If you have too much fat obscuring your muscles, you need to lose that fat with effective diet and weight training for body recomposition. Measure your body composition, measure your goal and train and diet to achieve those numbers. You cannot BS the basic math of body composition just because you learn some interesting new facts about biochemistry!

2) If you have uneven fat distribution then thats just how it is. There are some long-term drug options that can help. But shy of this extreme, you are not going to change your bodyfat distribution with any form or amount of exercise, diet or supplement. Despite all the convincing biochemical theories of what is going on, the fact is it just doesnt happen!

3) If you are talking about muscle separation then the above is what you are talking about. So next time you read that stupid chest training article in Flex magazine that says to do bench press for mass and then cable crossovers for separations, now you know why you shouldn’t! You cannot achieve these 2 contradictory results simultaneously!!

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Damon Hayhow

Damon Hayhow has been in the body recomposition (Recomp) and bodybuilding industry for 30 years as a coach, competitor, gym owner, teacher, sponsor, show promoter, judge and MC. He has won National competitions in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, set world records, and coached others to the same success in strength sport and physique competition.

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Body recomposition diet and training concepts based on logic and reason; not scientism