Maximum Genetic Muscular Potential – The Models And Their Limitations

Key points:

  • There are limitations to the maximum drug-free muscular potential models out there.
  • It’s useful to be aware of them, but you shouldn’t necessarily cap yourself at what these calculators would peg you as being capable of achieving.
  • As fun as it would be, it is not possible to simply make a calculation to determine whether someone is ‘roided to the gills or not.

The guy you see below is legendary Korean bodybuilder, Kim Jin Ho. This photo was taken of him at the Bodypower Pro show in Birmingham in May, a qualifier to get into the Mr Olympia competition 212lb division. Mr Olympia is bodybuilding at the highest level. The contestants are not tested for drug use. He is 5’4, and weighed 178lbs on that day. He won.

Is it possible that he is natural?

Muscular bodybuilding posing bicep flex

Four weeks ago when a mutual friend of ours insisted that he was, I scoffed at this idea. – Certain models of maximum muscular potential would suggest is he is significantly over his genetic limit. And though in fairness they weren’t developed for people of his stature (very short), he’s simply too far over it for him being natural to be plausible. Or is it?

I may now have changed my tune.

Why I’m Writing This Article Now

Ken and I have built our Japanese language sister site, AthleteBody.jp, into the most popular fitness information site in Japan. We are highly trusted, but with such a big readership I feel there is a big burden of responsibility on our shoulders to get things right.

It came to my attention recently that I had screwed up – we released a translation of an article on genetic muscular potential that left people open to steroid accusations as we hadn’t discussed the limitations. In honesty, I wasn’t aware of them until recently but I should have been more careful. We fixed the error a couple of weeks back by providing an extensive update, and influential industry friends here kindly shared the shit out of the updated version once again on social media.

Now, when it comes to my English readers I am guilty of linking far too many people to a couple of articles on genetic muscular potential over the years, believing the formulas and calculations discussed within to be the definitive word on the subject of what a drug-free athlete can achieve.

They are not.

There are some historical exceptions and limitations to the models that I’d like to discuss. And we’ll finish with our man Mr Kim as an example.


Maximum Drug-free Genetic Muscular Potential Models

The Models In Question:

Lyle McDonald has made an excellent analysis of both in his own article on genetic potential and pretty much concludes that when glycogen and water weight are taken into account, that they come out at roughly the same level regarding maximum muscular potential. I’m not going to go into more detail on it, you can read that here.

The Berkhan Model Of Maximum Drug-free Genetic Potential

Though I’d highly recommend that you read the article, Martin’s formula for determining the maximum that a drug-free trainee will weigh when in “stage-shredded” condition (i.e. 5-6% body fat) is as follows:

(Height in centimetres – 98-102) = Body weight in kilos.

This is likely to be the formula that my Facebook chum Gregory O’Gallagher, at the ripe old age of 23, has used to conclude that he is, “pretty close to the brink of what is achievable naturally for my height.“. He really needs to reel his neck in (and trust DEXA scans less) as he’s doing himself a grave injustice here by placing limiting beliefs on himself, which is something I’ll come to later.

Anyway, if you’re,

  • 173cm tall (5’8), your stage-shredded maximum will be ~75kg (165lbs).
  • 178cm tall (5’10) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~80kg (176lbs).
  • 183cm tall (6’0) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~85kg (187lbs).
  • 188cm tall (6’2) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~90kg (198lbs).

While this is not a bad rule of thumb for estimating what a seriously hard-working trainee will achieve over a lifetime, it doesn’t take into account the genetically blessed exceptions to the rule. We’ll look at these exceptions now.


Using FFMI To Determine What Can Be Achieved As A Natural Bodybuilder

Eric Helms wrote an excellent guest article for Alan Aragon’s Research Review recently, What can be achieved as a natural bodybuilder? Alan decided that it was such an important piece that he published it for free, and I’d encourage you to read it. (For those that won’t be bothered, from here to the table graphic below is a quick summary.)

Eric writes about some famous research from 1995, that looked at the fat-free mass index (FFMI) of steroid using and non-steroid using bodybuilders.

FFMI = fat-free mass in kg ÷ (height in meters)²

In the research 83 users, 74 nonusers FFMI were calculated and then compared. The average FFMI of the steroid users was ~25, of non-users it was ~22, and on the extreme ends a handful of non-users reached a FFMI of ~25.

To put that into more meaningful figures, the average height of the men in both groups was ~180cm (5’11), average body-fat percentage ~13%. The average weight of the steroid users was 92kg (202.5lbs), vs the non-users which was 82kg (180.5lbs).

The maximum FFMI of the non-user group was 25; for the steroid-using group it was 32.

From this research, it was suggested that the genetic ceiling for a natural trainee was a FFMI of around 25.

Comparison With The Berkhan Model

Here’s how the Berkhan model looks when the predicted figures from his model are converted to FFMI:

  • 173cm (5’8), 75kg (165lbs) @5% = 71.25kg lean mass = 23.8 FFMI
  • 178cm (5’10), 80kg (176lbs) @5% = 76kg lean mass = 24.0 FFMI
  • 183cm (6’0), 85kg (187lbs) @5% = 80.75kg lean mass = 24.1 FFMI
  • 188cm (6’2), ~90kg (198lbs) @5% = 85.5kg lean mass = 24.2 FFMI

We can see that the Berkhan model figures are lower, and the math works out to be ~6.5-8lbs (~3-3.5kg) lower than a FFMI of 25.


Research vs History

Eric then goes on to talk about the FFMI data of the Mr America winners from 1939-1959, spanning a period where steroids were almost certainly not used, to a time when they were, that was also discussed in that study.

Using Table 2 from Kouri et al, high scepticism is indicated by the winners in the green box, while moderate scepticism is indicated by the winners in the orange box. If we accept the 1939-1944 winners as natural, the average FFMI is 24.9, with the highest reported at 27.3. Applying moderate skepticism and accepting the 1939-1953 winners as natural, the average FFMI is 25.6, with the highest reported at 28.0. These means are not much different from the 1939-1959 group mean. In fact, the authors analysed the FFMI’s to determine if they were increasing over time. They noted: “there was no significant trend towards increased FFMI among the Mr. America winners over a 20-year span from 1939 to 1959.” Thus if drug use was occurring, perhaps it wasn’t frequent or effective enough to significantly affect the aggregate FFMI.

Mr America Winner FFMIs - 1939-1959

One thing worth mentioning, as it’s an issue I’m sure people will raise: ‘golden age’ bodybuilders usually carried more fat on stage than guys today (8-10% was more common than the 5-6% we expect now) which means their FFMIs were overstated a bit. On the flip side, awesome leg development wasn’t expected or desirable (compare Arnold’s legs to literally any pro BB today), which probably more than makes up for the difference. (i.e. if those guys were competing today, they’d probably have 3-4kg (~7-9lb) less fat, but at least 3-4kg more muscle on their legs and ass.)


Criticisms of the 25 FFMI Genetic Ceiling

1) There were guys with a FFMI over 25 that were almost certainly not on steroids. You can see from the table, one guy had a FFMI of 27.3, and another with a FFMI of 26.9, and if we lower our scepticism just a bit, we can take it all the way up to 28.

2) If we’re going to take a FFMI of 25 (or even 27.3 or 28) as the absolute limit of what’s attainable naturally, we would also have to assume that the most genetically elite people imaginable are included in that sample, which is not likely. Yes, those guys had physiques that were on par with the top drug-tested bodybuilders today (and some lifters of that era, including 26.9 FFMI Grimek, put up weights that are still very impressive by today’s standards), but lifting and physique sports have grown considerably since the ’40s and ’50s.

There is certainly the possibility that there are some people better suited for gaining muscle mass currently participating in bodybuilding and strength sports now, unless we can be sure that the bodybuilders from the ’30s and ’40s represent the absolute pinnacle of attainable human muscularity. However, the records in every other sport have progressed over time as better genetic specimens have entered the pool of competitors (I’d suggest The Sports Gene by David Epstein for more information), so I’m not sure why we’d assume levels of muscularity in drug-free bodybuilding would be any different.

3) We also have to assume that we’ve made no progress whatsoever in terms of training, nutrition, and supplementation. The cynic in me believes that we really haven’t made that much progress in terms of training for hypertrophy since a) periodization doesn’t seem to play much of a role, and b) the biggest determining factor for muscle growth just seems to be training hard and doing a bunch of hard sets, with other factors playing a much smaller role. Basically, getting big isn’t rocket science – it’s mostly about hard work.

However, I do think we’ve made some progress in terms of nutrition and supplementation. I mean, take something as basic as creatine – those guys didn’t have access to it unless they were eating a lot of raw red meat. Will it make a night-and-day difference? No. But it has been shown to pretty reliably help people gain a little more muscle mass.

Applying the Formula – An Example Case

Kim Jun Ho - Bodypower Pro 2015 Lineup - iPhone Snap

 

So let’s go back to Mr Kim Jin Ho. He was on stage at 178lbs (~81kg), ~5’4 (163cm) in height.

  • This puts him with a FFMI of 29.5, with an adjusted (for height) FFMI of 28.4, which is just 1.1 points above the biggest of the Mr America Winners of the 1939-1944 (almost certainly steroid-free) period.
  • He is 46, so he has a very long training history, and many years to potentially put on muscle.
  • He had a normal voice, his jaw/forehead looked normal, and he doesn’t have the distended gut. (So, no hallmarks of human growth hormone use.)
  • Shredded, but didn’t have the overpowering traps/delts, and no acne marks on his back. (So, none of those obvious signs of AAS use.)

So is he natural?

Well, I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it, but it’s certainly possible. Regardless, this misses the point of this article…


The Point Of The Article

It’s essential to keep these models and their limitations in mind when you plan your bulk. This helps to ground us in reality rather than fantasy land, ensuring that we don’t fall into the ‘dream bulk’ trap, gain a ton of fat, and waste a lot of time and effort dieting it off again.

The Casey Butt / Berkhan model calculations are probably best described as roughly an average of what’s attainable for most reasonably “blessed” people.

A FFMI of 25 is the number usually thrown around as the upper limit, even for someone with great genetics. But as we’ve seen, there are people who go beyond that.

We know that a FFMI of at least 27.3 is attainable naturally, and in all likelihood, 28.0. Add in some minor advancements in training, nutrition, and supplementation, along with some scepticism about whether the most elite of the elite genetically were competing in bodybuilding in the ’40s, and I think it’s pretty likely that some people can attain a FFMI in the 28s naturally. Can many people? Absolutely not. Can most people reach the more conservative limit of 25? Nope. Your genetics are your genetics, and some people were simply dealt a better hand than others. But a FFMI over 25 definitely doesn’t automatically mean someone’s using drugs. And if you have rocketed your way up to the genetic limits calculated by the Berkhan model in your first few years of training, there’s every reason to believe you are one of the few that has the potential to go on and exceed it.

So, don’t limit yourself based on these formulas. The mind exerts a powerful effect over the body. Believe in yourself and have the mindset that you can, and you may just do so.

Update 30th Sept. 2015: Here’s an excellent article by Greg Nuckols over on Strongerbyscience.com on how to calculate YOUR Drug-Free Muscle and Strength Potential.

*********

Thank you for reading. 

Productive discussion, correcting errors in my logic, etc. are welcomed in the comments. Accusations or name calling are not, and will be deleted without hesitation. I just can’t be bothered with it.

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Andy Morgan

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing online, via email, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation.

64 Comments

  1. Josh says:

    Hi, I’m 21 years old. 134kg well over weight at 34% bf but my fat free mass is 87.8kg. I am 183cm tall and have managed to increase my fat free mass while dropping body fat. What does this mean as this fat free mass is higher than the examples given? I seem to be able to make fast gains and I am 100% natural (fat is also coming off at a steady pace) will I keep gaining fat free mass or will it stop soon as my bf gets lower? Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Josh. Well, even if the body fat percentage tool you used to estimate your lean mass was off a little, it means you carry a lot of muscle. This is excellent! You’ll likely make some progress as you lean out and this may lead to further muscle gain, but given how much fat you carry you may not be able to measure the differences.

      Practical steps: Train hard, lean out, look forward to seeing what you have underneath. 🙂

  2. Carl Juneau, PhD says:

    Great post! Been a while since I’ve seen anyone add to this discussion in a meaningful way. I’ll share in this week’s bodybuilding science review newsletter.

    Cheers!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Thank you, Carl. 🙂

  3. Hos Delgado says:

    Andy, as far as I know, the very first known reference to anabolic steroids in a bodybuilding magazine is dated 1938 – in a magazine called Strength and Health, there is a letter addressed to the editor of Strength and Health. So there is a destinct possibility that in the late 40’s there might have been some experimentation kept strictly between the elite bodybuilders of the time.

    Ref: Hoberman JM, Yesalis CE (1995). “The history of synthetic testosterone”. Scientific American 272 (2): 76–81. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0295-76. PMID 7817189.

  4. Matthias Flehl says:

    Are there studies or better formulas out there related to muscle growth respecting the age?

    I mean there should be a tremendious difference in building muscles between a joung boy starting with 15 years and a men starting with 30 or 40 or 60 years when they work out in similar intensity and all other conditions like nutrition, sleep and stress are the same.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matthias.

      I recall the one (but can’t find the link), and I believed it showed that adaptations to training (muscle growth) get less as we age. The real question is whether this matters at all, and I’d say no. You’re not getting any younger, so it’s pointless worrying that you’re not getting the gains you would have. Higher lean body mass levels are linked with longevity and quality of life in old age (being able to sit and then stand from the toilet by yourself for longer) and studies show time and time again the positive effects of strength training in the elderly.

      Let’s do a little more mental masturbation here. At 15 we will take advantage of the growth spurt, so let’s set that aside for a moment and consider 20-60 instead. The difference we’re talking about is a gradual reduction in recovery capacity, more injury considerations, and an increase in the lower threshold of protein intake in one sitting for MPS to take place (~20g – ~35g, meaning fewer meals with more protein per sitting are better, or just keeping protein intake high a good idea). The latter is irrelevant outside of extremely high meal frequencies or low protein intake, the injury part we have no control over (what’s done is done), so we get to the first item – recovery capacity.

      Recovery capacity and adaptions to training will be different in different people. Some blessed, some not, most of us average. Forget that. Will YOU get the same training effect, all things being equal at 50 as you would 20? Not quite.

      However, all things aren’t equal. You probably sleep better now, have access to better information, training modalities, money (should you need to see a trainer to guide you around any injuries) and your quality of diet is probably higher. You probably have a lot more commitments which make hitting the gym harder too… Well, I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.

  5. George says:

    I also forgot to give a massive thank you as I was originally 90kg and managed to lose 6kg using your cutting calculator and principles leaned from your site over a 4 month period. (Intermittent fasting and carb cycling). I had the added bonus of some abs for the first time in my life too 😉

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Awesome, really happy to read this George. Keep it up. 🙂

  6. George says:

    I’m sorry but I refuse to believe these figures. I’ve been working out on and off for a few years but only serioisly in the past year. I’m 5’10 and 86kg with about 10% Bf (Jackson pollock method) . I believe I am still a beginner in terms of lifting weight as my squat is only 110kg and benching 90kg on the 5×5 program. I’m still gaining strength and size each month. I have always been a bit heaver than other people my size and build even before starting working out but I have small wrists and ankles and am not big boned. Anyway these calculations mean that I am at the upper end of my limits which is totally ridiculous!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Absolutely George. You’re an outlier, didn’t say there weren’t any. Ignore this article.

  7. Trent says:

    Hi Andy,
    Many of the pages I found for adjusted FFMI added a coefficient for height; ie adjusted FFMI = FFMI + 6 x (height – 1.8).

    I just had a read of the pubmed extract, and the ratio is REVERSED! 🙂

    That is “We then added a slight correction of 6.3 x (1.80 m – height) to normalize these values to the height of a 1.8-m man”.

    So the formulae for adjusted FFMI = LBM/(Height^2) + 6.3 x (1.8-Height).

    In my case, LBM = 92kg and Height = 1.91m
    therefore adjusted FFMI = 92/1.91^2 + 6.3 x (1.8-1.91)
    = 24.52

    much more reasonable than the suggested 26 which occurred when the coefficient ended up with a positive value adjustment.

    🙂

    Kind Regards,

    Trent

    1. Nathan says:

      Trent, in the study text it’s actually 6.1, where the abstract 6.3 (likely a typo). Every online calculator I’ve found appears to get this wrong. Based on how I’m reading the study, the taller people had a higher FFMI, even with less muscle development, so their adjusted formula reduces the number for tall people and increases it for short people. They explain this by pointing out that taller people are usually also wider/thicker, and the standard FFMI formula is 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional. I’d love to know where all this went wrong. Since most online calculators seem to use the same source code, one mistake seems to have been copied quite a number of times.

    2. Andy Morgan says:

      Cool glad you found it Trent.

  8. Trent says:

    Thanks Andy,
    I note though, the adjusted FFMI suggests adding to the index for heights above 1.8m.. ie adjusted is FFMI + 6*(height-1.8).. In my case, this takes my current 25 up to 26…

    I’ll have a DEXA done in a couple of weeks to make sure my numbers on BF% & LBM are correct… but i’m unlikely to have bf >12%, being i’m only 13 weeks post comp (INBA physique) and haven’t been binging or on a massive surplus….

    Has anyone ever calculated a formulae for muscle mass index, ie maximum genetic potential of muscle mass based on height, size, bone density etc?

    Perhaps this will be a good question for Eric Helms (he’s co-presenting camps with Layne Norton in Sydney this April, I’m lucky enough to have gotten a place to attend)..

    Thanks again.

    Trent.

  9. Trent says:

    HI Andy,
    Nice article and a good read in the comments too – it’s great to see your engagement with your readers and fans!

    Anyway, on the FFMI; is there a way to “adjust for height” for tall blokes?

    I’m 191cm, and run a LBM of 92kg at the moment; that’s a FFMI of 25.2..
    100% natty, 35 years old and training for only 3 years.

    I wouldn’t call myself genetically gifted, growing up as a very skinny, lanky kid & teen.. Whilst my 3 years of lifting has seen me reach half-decent lift 1RM results (Sq 185kg, Dead 245kg, Bench 120kg)..

    I still have a good number of years ahead of me and still have room to grow.

    I think part of the problem with the formulae is no coefficient for bone density/mass – especially as a taller person further builds on this through compound lifting..

    Keep up the great work – btw your page helped me with my first introduction to training back 3 years ago.. Links from Fitocracy brought me to your site, and I used your training recommendations in hand with IF to hit sub 9% for the first time in 2013..

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Thanks Trent, glad the site has been so helpful to you.
      – Yes, this is called an adjusted FFMI. Just google it and you’ll see guides come up.

  10. Victor says:

    I don’t believe the guy in the example is or could be natural.
    All the point made in this article, as well as in the Eric Helms one, is based in the assumption that the FFMI of the Mr Americas is remotley acurate which i don’t think is the case.
    Look at the FFMI of John Grimek: it goes from 24 to 26.9 in the timespam of one year. Assuming he is 1,75 tall, he would have gained 9kg (20lbs) of lean mass in that time. 9kg of muscle in one year is a great acomplishment for a begginer, it’s just impossible to put that much in one year (or at all) on top of an already Mr America winning physique.
    Also, if you look at photos of these guys, for example Steeve Reeves and Jack Delinger side by side (https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-0ADfy0vRAuI/TpE5sTE9TpI/AAAAAAAADuY/vss7UIDche4/s1600/one.jpg), they look they have the same degree of muscularity. There’s no way one FFMI is 23 and the other 28.
    These FFMI of former Mr Americas are completely urreliable to draw any valid conclusion.
    A FFMI of 25 is actually great in real life (outside the internet). Its someone with very good genetics who trained hard for years, someone that look big to most people and will be acused of juicing frequently. Most wont reach a FFMI of 25 naturally. There should be some freaks capable of reaching 26, but more than that? I don’t buy into it, specially considering how financially and professionay rewarding is to be a fake natural bodybuilder, trainer or youtuber nowadays.

    I agree with Casey Butt when he says : “The truth is 20 pounds of real, permanent muscle would transform your body. Most magazines and websites make it seem like 20 pounds of muscle is nothing …like your grandmother could gain that much. The reality is, if you gain 20 pounds of muscle this year everyone will notice and they’ll probably whisper behind your back that you’re on steroids – my friends did and I didn’t gain nearly that much in any one year. Gain 30 pounds of muscle (above your normal, healthy adult weight) and you’ll be carrying as much muscle as a world-class drug-free bodybuilder.”

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Victor, thanks for commenting. I’ll reply in order.

      1. Re: Grimek. He made a jump from 24 to 26.9 FFMI in a single year, 1940-1941 – the years when we’re fairly sure steroids weren’t available. Essentially the question is, “What possible explanations are there for the 2.9 jump in FFMI (~20.7lbs in stage weight difference) in a single year, other than steroid use?”

      Well, back then people were less consistent with individual stage condition (how shredded they were), and the levels of conditioning expected were not what they are now. A less lean, more hydrated and glycogen filled Grimek on stage, with a year of solid training behind him, could easily explain the 20lb increase, and perhaps overall size was more important than being leaner back then, to a point.

      2. An interesting point. I have assumed that the FFMI figures are correct, for lack of choice really. I would’t try and read too much into a single photo, with different angles.

      3. “There should be some freaks capable of reaching 26, but more than that? I don’t buy into it.” – Fair enough, I disagree though. (The math of why I think it’s possible is covered in the article.) There are more people in the sport now, so the chances of one of the few people in the world with potential to reach 26+ starting it are higher. And though the financial rewards of becoming a fake natty are going to overpower a lot of people’s morals, some people won’t do it simply out of principle, knowing they have to look at themselves in the mirror each day.

      – A man walks out of the coffee shop leaving his briefcase behind. You look to see if you can find a name on it, and it pops open, revealing $10mil in cash inside. Now, a lot of people are going to silently take the money and disappear. – Not everyone though.

      4. I absolutely agree with your last paragraph.

      1. Victor says:

        Andy, while i don’t agree completely i can see tour points.

        You are right about the variability of the conditioning these guys presented at contest day. The carb intake and short use of very high volume in the weeks prior to competition sure could have an effect on lean mass. But 20lbs would be more what a fighter varies in lean mass with weight-in dehydratation. Still possible, just not likely in my opinion.
        It’s just that one would expect that the top genetic gifted individuals, with no access to drugs, training with the same goal, would end up somewhat in the same ballpark of muscle mass. But the values vary so much, even in the same individual, that makes me very suspicious of the acuraccy of the measurements. Also because i don’t see that crazy variation in old photos or videos. But i could be wrong.

        Let just forget the number aspect for a moment. The old school guys had a very different look, this is not only a matter of body fat percentage, you didn’t see the “full muscle”, “thin skin” pumped look. Look at Clancy Ross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VCdnLTHSi8. Acording to the chart, his FFMI is over 26, even then doesnt have “that look”.

        I agree that there are many individuals that refuse to pull the fake natty routine due to their morals. Unfortunetly these guys are often the guys who have their advice discredited as trainers because they are being compared to drug assisted standards of muscle mass, or are the guys losing a natural bodybuilding competition because they are competing against users.

        Just as a closing thought: I live in Brazil, fitness is a big thing here , lots of gyms, so a very large talent pool. But at the same time, while selling steroids is a crime here, the possession is not, and its not as much seem as a morally reproved thing as in some other countries, and even some supplement sponsored competitors admit using. So here people talk more openly about it, and people are more realistic about what can and can’t be achived naturally. Its interesting that here you almost don’t see these huge naturals genetic freaks that appear so frequently in the US.

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