We jogged to the gym together. We spotted each other on the bench press and at the squat rack. We pushed each other to go a little heavier on the weights, or a few more reps. We made fun of other guys’ bad lifting form. We even ate together — me cooking the meals, him leading the clean-up.
Yet where I feared that missing a workout would lead to me getting fat around the waist and chest, Christian Sanchez, who stood 5-foot-11 and 130 pounds, worried about the exact opposite. Though I was the same height, I could gain a pound seemingly at will. He, on the other hand, couldn’t put mass on his lean, strong frame — no matter what he did.
We became college roommates nearly a decade ago, and in our sophomore year, I watched from the sidelines as Christian began an exhausting routine. We lifted four times a week together, but he pushed harder and made more progress. He ate seconds at lunch and dinner whenever he could. His days were bookended by fat bottles of thick shakes, fortified with protein, fat and carbs.
Then there was the constant stream of milk, which replaced the water in his glass. At one point, he tried drinking a gallon a day. I told him I’d forgive him for the farting in our shared bedroom if the God of Mad Gains blessed his frame with more mass.
The flatulence let its presence known. The mass never did.
“I don’t think I cared about gaining weight until after high school. I was wrestling in high school, so it was more about being strong and actually cutting weight to be competitive,” he tells me from Seattle, where he lives today. “But I think there’s a perception that to be really masculine, you want to look sorta bulky and muscular, not just have strength. When we got to college, we were around all these bro-bod frat guys who seemed to have that bulk. And I was trying to fit in, trying to hook up, trying to look good.”
All my life, I wanted the kind of metabolism and makeup that made it easy to be lean, like Christian. But what he saw in the mirror was a figure that couldn’t fill out a shirt correctly. He was a skinny guy who couldn’t gain weight — despite working just as hard as anyone else in the gym.
A swirling equation of genetics, metabolism, diet and fitness define how men put on bulk, and the skinny guys who struggle with this end up feeling like they drew an unlucky poker hand. Some men push themselves beyond rational limits of food consumption and exercise in pursuit of the body in their minds. Others stress for years about whether their frame makes them lack a masculine aura — in either the boardroom or the bedroom. The frustration of being “small” is shared by short men and tall men alike, but the root of each man’s insecurity is as complex as their fingerprint.
“We have a whole unit in the hospital for people with eating and body image disorders, and men are absolutely represented in that group. More usually, as an amateur athlete, I come across a lot of guys who can’t understand why they can’t bulk up,” says Dana Hunnes, a clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in L.A. “There’s an image put out there by media and society of the Thor-type man, and that’s what men aspire to be. Just as much as women worry about an ideal body, men deal with the same thing. It’s just not as commonly discussed in public.”
Like he said, Christian hadn’t really thought about whether he was too small until he hit college. Others, however, realize it from a far younger age, like Jamie (a pseudonym), a 24-year-old in L.A. Jamie’s parents were short and slim, too, so he never had grand expectations about his frame. But topping out at 5-foot-8 and 110 pounds was even smaller than he expected — and neither weight training nor eating close to twice his normal diet helped change that, whether in high school, college or post-grad life.
In a sense, Jamie’s size has never held him back. He’s currently a writer and director, and he’s proud of the humor and conversational charm that allows him to light up a room. Jamie hasn’t had much trouble dating either, and he’s usually at ease with the body he has. Still, once in a while, maybe when he’s anxious about work or his relationship has fallen into a short-term funk, the doubt comes back. If only you weren’t so small, it whispers. Maybe you would have less to worry about.
“It’s certainly true that… well, not a lot of girls have a ‘thing’ for skinny guys. It’s just a reality. Sometimes it’s that I want to be taken a little bit more seriously when I meet people. And while I’m not going around trying to pick fights, I’d like to be able to hold my own in one,” Jamie admits. “In the past, maybe it was that I was single for a while or just feeling depressed, and hoping that working on my body will make me feel better. The motivation can change. I’ll do the work and still just be skinny, though.”
Even the skinny guys who succeed in getting bigger and stronger end up fixating on the reasons why their gains aren’t continuing. David (also a pseudonym), a journalist in L.A., was once an overweight teenager who struggled to fit in at school while growing up in Atlanta. His love of nerdy pop culture and incompetence in physical education classes made him a target. “I felt fat, ugly and kind of worthless,” David recalls, adding that the abuse from peers led to more stress-eating throughout high school.
At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, David wasn’t exactly obese, but he felt the shame of every extra pound. Senior year of high school, and the prospect of starting anew in college, motivated him into a diet and cardio regimen that helped shed more than 50 pounds. It took a few years, though, for David to realize that he was now underweight at a rail-thin 135 pounds — if anything, he was still worried in college about being fat. But about two years ago, he embarked on a plan to gain muscle, working with trainers and a nutritionist. By every objective measure, it’s been a win: David sports biceps that bulge under a shirt, a strong chest and a visible six-pack of abs.
It’s not enough for him, however. He can’t help but fixate on the fact that his gains have plateaued at 180 pounds. “It’s a mix of feeling like I’m still fat and that I need to be more cut. I don’t have that classic V-shaped back and torso,” David says. “I’m doing the work, so I don’t know why it’s not translating. I’m working out more than others at my gym who are in better shape and have bigger arms. So I keep doing more, hoping it eventually happens, but it’s just not.”
David openly suggests that he has “really bad” body dysmorphia, which has been supported by his nutritionist, coaches and countless Google searches, though he isn’t officially diagnosed. The condition makes people obsess over perceived or minor flaws, and he wonders whether all that bullying in his childhood was the genesis for the negativity he feels today. “The memories of being fat, and also feeling like I’m just not strong enough, has to have played a role,” he says. He works out six times a week because the routine helps raise his spirits, but his pursuit of gains is also a thread that leads back to the worst period of his life.
While trying to improve one’s physique can be a healthy goal (for body and mind), research shows that young American men have an almost irrational desire to be visibly muscular, fueled by depictions of male bodies in media and stubborn notions of what kind of figure is the masculine “ideal.” In fact, a 2007 study found that 90 percent of surveyed undergraduate men in the U.S. wanted to be more muscular. “In the United States, men’s ratings of their current and ideal muscularity were associated with endorsement of the male role, and many men desired increased muscularity for reasons related to increased dominance and attractiveness to women,” the authors concluded.
The 2000 book The Adonis Complex, written by a trio of psychiatry experts from Harvard University and Brown, also found that shifts in advertising, commercialism and sexual norms in the latter half of the 20th century have combined to create “a health crisis that is striking men of all ages.” Experts suggest that men’s desires for a ripped body are shaped by the same social and cultural factors that push women toward the feminine “ideal” of being slender and toned. “Bigorexia happens more frequently in males, anorexia more in females. People with anorexia nervosa think that they’re too fat, too large and want to become thinner, whereas people with bigorexia think they’re too small and want to become bigger,” as Jamie Feusner, an expert in behavioral sciences at UCLA, told ABC News.
But does being muscular actually matter when it comes to attraction? Various studies have backed that notion by surveying women’s ranking of male body shapes. Others, though, have found differing opinions, whether concluding that women dig dad-bods or guys with thin waists. Having a spindly frame can be a virtue for men who vibe with alt and emo scenes (to the confusion of bodybuilder types, hilariously enough), and there appear to be plenty of women who profess their love of skinny guys online.
Nonetheless, Andrew Deutsch, a fitness expert and founder of Nerdstrong Gym in North Hollywood, California, estimates that around 80 percent of the men who walk through his doors openly desire a buff body, not just weight loss or athletic improvement. With his personal training clients, Deutsch makes it a point to dig into the reasons why someone specifically craves a bigger body.
The end goals of these men might be similar, but their motivations are singular. “The why can be something like ‘My dad never believed in me,’ or ‘I was bullied when I was in marching band in high school.’ Sometimes I hear, ‘You know, I see all these other guys at the gym, and I want to look like them,’” Deutsch says. “Which makes me ask, why would you want to look like them? You’re not them! As a trainer, it’s almost like being a therapist. You need to drill down into the core of why they want to put in this work.”
Miles Howard, a 30-year-old writer, editor and political consultant based in Massachusetts, was never that skinny or small by average standards, standing 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds by the time he was a high school freshman. That’s when he bought his first copy of Men’s Fitness, lured by the cover’s promise that he could “Get Ripped In Time for Beach Season!” He dug into the magazine’s workout with optimism. That fizzled out once he looked in the mirror after completing the regimen and saw the same tall, slender frame reflected back at him.
Noticeable gains came later, in freshman year of college, when he took classes on weightlifting and realized that he needed to eat a lot more to bulk up. Meanwhile, it became increasingly easy to compare his figure to other men around him. “I remember being surrounded by a lot of guys in school who were able to get these Adonis-like builds seemingly effortlessly,” Howard says. “Whether it’s just that they had more testosterone at the time or something, I don’t know. But I felt unworthy, almost, because it was freshman year, everyone was flirting and hooking up, and I felt like there was a sort of ideal standard that I wasn’t measuring up to.”
Howard is now 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, and despite the improvement, he considers himself a “five” on a one-to-ten scale when it comes to muscle mass. (“I want to be, like, an eight,” he adds). He’s gone through cycles of trying to gain muscular weight, and each time he’s been stymied not by the exercise but by the sheer effort of eating so much all the time. “There’s this general rule out there that a lot of people accept, which is that if you’re trying to gain mass, you should eat a gram of protein per body weight. In my case, that’s a ton of protein to consume in one day,” Howard says. “It’s not only expensive, but it can really mess with your digestive system too. The few periods I’ve tried that, I’ve felt pretty awful.”
In his case, the desire to keep trying is fading with age and experience. About a year ago, he began dating a woman whom he had an intense physical attraction to — even though he admits that he “felt like I was almost out of her league, comparing body types, so to speak.” Then he discovered that the attraction was truly mutual, both physically and emotionally, and it helped soothe the itch to chase a body he’s struggled to attain. “It really broke me out of the last traces of those feelings that there’s one certain type of male body that projects masculinity. It really just made me embrace who I am a little bit more in some ways,” he says. “I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have had that experience.”
For other men, a great relationship can only go so far. My friend Christian notes that he’s happily engaged, but that he sees wanting to get bigger as a desire separate from insecurities about romance and sexual attractiveness. “It’s in my own head, maybe, but I want people to think of me as masculine to the world. It’s like, how does the general population judge me physically?” he says. “It’s weird because I try not to judge others. I probably do have some biases underneath, but I try not to let them impact the way I view others. But seeing myself is different.”
The men I spoke to have all hit a wall on their efforts to gain muscle, and it’s not really the working out that hurts the most — it’s the diet. For those who have fast metabolisms and naturally skinny frames, often referred to as the “ectomorph” body type, the sheer amount of calories required to bulk up will make them literally sick to their stomachs. Consult the amateur experts on the web, and the consensus is clear: A naturally skinny man has to commit to eating up to five or six meals, plus snacks and shakes and dairy and other fats in between, day in and day out, if he wants to gain weight.
“EAT MORE EVEN WHEN YOU CANNOT LOOK AT THE FOOD ANYMORE. That’s the only way to do it,” one person declares in response to a request for advice on the forums of Bodybuilding.com.
“You might even have to double (or even triple) what you are currently eating,” says a redditor in response to a similar request for advice.
“In the past 2 months I’ve been eating like a horse and hitting the weights like a mad man. Not sparing a second of my time being hungry, but quenching my thirst with a plate stacked with protein and calories and a drink thicker than mud,” crows another redditor on his post stating that a lack of gains despite eating heavily is BS.
This is a lifestyle change that can disrupt your daily schedule, your relationship with a partner or friends and your wallet: Eating so much food, plus the pricey supplements many men choose to consume while bulking, can cause a monthly budget to skyrocket. “I work long hours at a startup, I have a fianceé at home and I need time to do things that aren’t meal-prepping and working out,” Christian tells me. “It’s just so, so much effort to get all those calories in, get to the gym and spend extra money trying to meet an ideal I’m not even sure is important.”
That makes me think of something Deutsch mentioned to me. Changes in emotional maturity often have a way of sanding down the insecurities of the men he works with. Or as he puts it, “The more knowledge they get, the more experience they have with their bodies, and the older they get, that need to be bigger and show off muscle tends to erode away.”