The effect of popular media and the fitness industry upon people’s body image is nothing new. In fact, for years we’ve successfully fought back against the energies that trapped women into thinking only one body type was right. With each passing day, women have shown that the female form can have many incredible shapes – each achieved via hard work and an absolute love for themselves.
Yet, as we’ve dug our feet in and pushed back against the notions that women shouldn’t lift weights, should be on calorie restricted diets, or should present themselves in a specific way, we’ve lost track of the pressures that the very same media is applying to men. The media, supplement companies, and sponsoring brands need a profitable target audience and they’ve found it in the young men eager to look like an alpha male.
Some Recent History
Once upon a time, the ads in magazines spoke to women in voices that told them they needed to “be less”, “weigh less”, and “do less”, all while pushing diet shakes, stimulant-laced pills, and toning creams. Women were portrayed as runners, Zumba dancers, yoga practitioners, and home DVD users, with no mention of a dedicated strength and conditioning program.
The rise of female strength coaches, such as the incredible folks at Girls Gone Strong and a tremendous contingency of celebrity coaches, such as Chad Landers, Gunnar Peterson, and Ben Bruno, have helped redefine, literally, the female celebrities that are pushed by the popular media. Now, videos of Kate Upton hip thrusting two-twenty-five are crossing the social media accounts of young women everywhere.
And it is awesome. A chasm has been crossed, but not all the work is complete, and won’t be until every girl can grow up knowing she can look and be however strong as she wants to be via training and healthy nutrition habits. I’m confident that day will come.
The Problem Now
Men, however, have no one standing up at the front of ship demanding a course change. There is no one yelling that the quest of a bodybuilder’s muscle mass, a fitness model’s leanness, or a powerlifter’s strength comes at a cost that usually isn’t worth it. Instead, every man has their head down in pursuit of a bigger deadlift, twenty-inch arms and single-digit body fat.
No one’s looked up from the chase and said, “Holy smokes, this is unhealthy”. It hasn’t crossed the collective consciousness that men shouldn’t feel like they must look like an Avenger to be masculine. The editors of magazines aren’t mentioning the amount of anabolic drugs the elite bodybuilders are on, and no one is discussing the salt-manipulation, carbohydrate depletion, and diuretic plan that last month’s “Men’s Magazine” model had to use to look so shredded.
Instead, another feature on another training plan is printed with sponsorship dollars brought in because of the embedded ads for a protein powder, a testosterone booster, and an overpriced pair of jogging pants “made for lifters”. And the cycle continues. More men are pulled into an ever-growing marketing campaign that says:
“To be man, you must look like Thor, lift like Hulk, or be shredded like Magic Mike”.
What a perfect slogan to tap into a male’s caveman innate need to attract a mate. It’s as if they get paid to come up with this stuff.
Its More than Just Supplements
Now, a cursory glance at everything stated might initiate an impulse response that says, “well, that’s just the nature of marketing in the 21st century – create a need for your customer to buy your products. That’s just business”.
And you would be right. Business marketing principles imply that the most successful brands create a need that the consumer didn’t even know they had until introduced to said product. Except, in the case of the fitness industry, the consumer isn’t just buying the supplements and over-priced pants. They are also diving into illegal anabolic drugs.
The photos of Phil Heath and the like fill the minds of young males looking to fit in and before long, they are googling steroids in a private browser. A glance at Google Trends reveals that “anabolic steroids” is keyed at least once for every four times that “muscle building” is searched. This effectively states that 25% of people wanting to build muscle are willing to at least search for illegal drugs to do so. Numbers on actual usage are hard to trust since there is a stigma to “using”, and thus, self-reporting is unreliable; however, one can ascertain that the internet has made accessing illegal drugs easier.
Now, the efficacy and danger of anabolic steroids are not the point of this discussion, and so we will not go there with this article. This point was made, however, to highlight the lengths that young men are willing to go to achieve the body that has been deemed masculine and appropriate.
The pressure to become the type of body that is seen on an Instagram feed or a supplement ad is driving more and more men to take extreme measures to get the results they crave. It is more than just steroid usage too. Men are wearing sweat suits in saunas, doing long bouts of ketosis to burn body fat, and even injecting fat cells directly into muscles to “bulk them up” (Hall, Grogan, Gough, et al., 2015). A more common occurrence is an overconsumption of protein, especially through powders, to meet absurd recommendations of 2 to 3 grams per pound of bodyweight. There is also a noted increase in clinical body dysmorphia (American Addiction Centers, 2018).
So, there is an issue here and it needs some attention.
How Men Exercise
If you listen to the popular magazines and the advice of the locker room leaders, then there is only one acceptable modality of exercise for men and that is weight lifting. More specifically, it is lifting the most weight you can for the most repetitions you can to get bigger and stronger. Cardiovascular exercise is sometimes frowned upon amongst the group of men who want to “get big or die trying”. Practices such as yoga or Pilates are laughable, or so the culture says.
And therein lies the problem. There is a culture around “how” men should exercise, and it is causing many men to develop muscular, but unhealthy, bodies. The chase for more muscle is influencing men to avoid lacing up their running shoes, avoid working their body in three planes of motion, and lift only what looks impressive, even at the risk of their own structure.
The popular fitness memes about “everyday being chest day” or “skipping legs” are just the comical tip of an iceberg that keeps wrecking the health and wellness of men. The misinformation that cardiovascular exercise will “consume their muscle mass” prevents men from taking care of their heart and lungs. The constant pressure to go heavier at all costs places spines, shoulders, and knees at a serious risk of injury.
And men don’t like asking for help either.
It’s as if the classic remark that “men can never admit if they are lost in the car and will never ask for directions” has permeated the concrete walls and rubber floors of the gym. Many men will refuse personal training, shrug off a quality tip given free-of-charge, and continue to push forward even at their own peril.
Similar to the struggles faced by women around the world, men, especially in America, are feeling an absurd pressure to exercise a particular way, look a particular way, and conduct themselves in a particular way. The power and influence of supplement companies, popular media, and marketing gurus is too much for one single voice to overwhelm.
Thus, just as tremendous trainers and coaches have fought back and pushed back against the culture formed around women, we must apply the same pressure in the benefit of men. As us coaches of both sexes continue to gain traction, it is important for us to not give into the common prescription of gendered workout habits.
It is the responsibility of the coaches and fitness personalities at large to stand opposed to the typical prescriptions that men should be benching all the time, deadlifting as much weight as they can, and that they are still “manly” even if they don’t look like Thor, lift like the Mountain, or have abs like a cover model. That doesn’t mean we stop pushing men to be the best version of themselves – quite the contrary – we push them to be more well-rounded with their fitness routine.
Some progress has been made as popular fitness coaches have discussed the values of three-dimensional training, Yoga, Animal Flow, and going for a long bout of cardiovascular exercise. Still, this message isn’t making it down to the guys in the small gym in the small town in middle America. Improved fitness routines seem to be found in the New York, Miami, and Los Angeles markets, but not much further.
Personally speaking, I’ve evolved my message to both men and women. I find myself empowering women to deadlift heavy, train their upper body with a heavier resistance, and still practice the modalities they’ve come to love as a balance (spin, barre, etc.). With men, I push them to think beyond the barbell, beyond the load, and towards balance.
Can you run a little, lift a little, and move with grace?
It doesn’t matter what you are, what you identify as, or what society tells you – you should train to maximize all aspects of your physical condition.
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