Every straight guy knows how a girl’s femininity can tug on our heart strings. And our lust strings. Sometimes a woman’s shape, personality, face, voice—it all just adds up to make her absolutely irresistible. Women feel the same way about us men … just based on a whole different set of traits.
For better or worse, the impression we give off can have a huge impact on our life. Even if we train and eat well for our health and performance, we also want to attract great women, and ultimately spending the rest of our lives with the one we want is a pretty damn big deal. And of course, even once we have her that doesn’t mean we should stop striving to be the man of her dreams.
It’s not just about women either—getting the respect of other men is important to us too, both in our personal and work life. Aesthetics, muscle, health and masculinity are all so closely related that how we train and eat can roll over into every area of our life. It makes sense for us to care.
The tricky part is that some of the traits we portray are obvious … but some we’d never even think to think of. Moreover, sometimes it’s those elusive traits that make or break us.
I should also point out that caring about building a manly physique isn’t just a skinny-boy thing. In a study done on college football players—guys who are madly in love with their sport and whose careers depend on how well they perform—they found that while most of them listed power and performance as their reasons behind wanting muscular bodies … they also admitted to caring a whole hell of a lot about their physical appearance and sex appeal. (study)
Aesthetics isn’t something we can avoid, and everyone is influenced by it. To a certain extent we’re all unique snowflakes, sure, but when it comes to aesthetics, well … we aren’t. Personal preference has its place, but a lot of it, in fact almost all of it, is basic human nature with some social conditioning sprinkled on top. Love it or hate it, it happens. It’s instinctive, uncontrollable and often subconscious. We’re built to automatically respect men who display certain traits, and in a similar but different way some of our male traits can create gut-level attraction in women.
Think about the effect that a curvy female hourglass physique has on you. Combine the right bone structure with fat in the right places and muscle in the right places and bam—you get that instinctive response that turns your head and knocks the wind right out of you. I often find myself tempted to click on ridiculous ads featuring photoshopped girls for that very reason.
As men, sometimes the character we portray is obvious. I have one uncle who’s 6’2 and maybe 250 pounds. That man loves his football and loves to eat. He’s been lifting heavy things and eating big his entire life, resulting in around 100 of those pounds being in his shoulders. He doesn’t look like a bodybuilder, he looks like a bear. He has to get all of his clothing not just tailored but completely custom made to accommodate his cartooned musculature. Combine that with his deep booming voice and the overall effect is pretty wild—when he speaks the room falls silent, when he walks down the sidewalk guys give him a wide berth, and when he asks you for something you hurriedly splurt out a yes, often before he finishes his sentence. It isn’t all show either, and I’ve seen him lift a man off his feet who was (very) disrespectful to my female cousin. When my uncle put him back down the man hit the ground running. Seconds later we heard tires skidding as he sped off. Understandably—if a bear set me back down I’d seriously consider the same exit strategy. Having a guy like that on your side immediately makes you feel safe. If something goes wrong you just figure things will be okay. He’s a smart and well-read guy, too, and his voice, physique and confidence all make for a hell of a lot of charisma when he speaks.
Do you know what words a stranger would use to describe you when you walk by?
As men we tune into certain things about other men, immediately sizing them up and forming an opinion … yet we’re often totally unaware of how we’re portraying ourselves to other men, let alone women. There are traits we don’t even know exist that can have a powerful drug-like effect on women. Some strong athletic masculine men convey them naturally, but I’ve always found that it pays to consciously know how we can improve, even if just to encourage ourselves to be the most that we can be. That’s how us ectomorphs become strong athletic masculine men, after all.
Besides, aesthetics aren’t just skin deep. The benefits go all the way down to our bones*, improving our health, strength, intelligence, performance and mood. Good looks signal higher degrees of those traits after all, which is why they look “good” to begin with.
*Not a figure of speech—heavy strength training actually increases bone density, as does solid nutrition.
Without further ado, here’s my most research / study / illustration-filled article yet:
It’s not about women being shallow and judging you just based on how hot you are, it’s about women being extremely perceptive and using your physique to give them clues about your genes, your lifestyle and your character. Will you make a good breeding partner? A good husband? A good father?
And can she trust you? Will you protect her? Are you intelligent and ambitious? Will other men respect you? Are you physically, mentally and genetically healthy enough not just to survive, but to thrive?
These are really important questions, and right away smart women will make assumptions about all of them based on the very first impression you give them. Is that fair? Surprisingly it usually is, because, well, women are really damn good at it. (study)
See, lots of guys will pretend to be nice to get what they want. Some guys brag and exaggerate, scheme and manipulate. Some guys will hide skeletons and put only their best foot forward.
An attractive woman can’t give every single guy a chance—there isn’t enough time. And they can’t bet their future on a man if they don’t know if he’s worth it or not. It’s not like they can wait for a disaster to see if a guy can keep it together under pressure … because by then it’s already too late.
So girls judge us based on things that are extremely hard to fake.
All women thus come programmed with the ability to pick out an attractive, healthy, strong, intelligent, honest man. It’s just part of their genes. Then, based on their social conditioning and media exposure, those abilities are slightly tweaked and “heightened” to match the society they live in. (That’s where trends and fashion come in, but we can largely ignore that, since the underlying universal fundamentals are far more powerful anyway.)
There are several things that women instinctively look for regarding your physique, and I’ll break ‘em all down and tell you why they matter … but first here’s a rough idea of what’ll put a gal’s heart in her stomach:
The weights and measurements are based on a 6″ tall male, although we don’t really care about height here—just proportions. Body fat is 8-12%.
Now let’s break it down.
1. Strong Broad Shoulders
It’s no coincidence that business suits are designed to make men seem broader in the shoulders – constructed shoulders are the padded push-up bras of male culture.
… actually that’s unfair to suits. Women respond to broad shoulders far more powerfully than men respond to babely breasts, making suits the more powerful of the two. You know that lustful feeling well cloven cleavage can instil in you? Well broad shoulders give women that same feeling, except stronger.(study)
The first things women will take in is your overall shape, allowing them to get a quick guess at how you’ll stack up in all the following aesthetic arenas. There’s a lot of information in how broad your shoulders are – especially in comparison to your waist – and it’s available at a glance. Every study is in unanimous agreement here, and you’re probably already well aware of it. (study, study)
Why? Well broad shoulders are very indicative of a strong man, since adding muscle to your body invariably adds several inches to your shoulders. And what woman doesn’t want a man whose shoulders can bear the weight of the world? There’s a correlation between guys with naturally broad shoulders and naturally high levels of testosterone too, so even in the absence of muscle it’s still a very masculine trait, which girls dig. As such the breadth of your shoulders is a very good indicator of health, strength and masculinity: it’s accurate, it’s hard to fake, and women can see it right away.
The ideal shoulder to waist ratio: 1.618 to 1.
This particular ratio—the golden ratio—appears all over the ideal human body (and throughout nature) and sculptors and artists have been using it for millennia to depict the ideal physique. All those sculptures of Greek gods and Olympians are rockin’ exactly that ratio. What this means is that if you’re a skinny dude with a lean 30 inch waist you’d want to build your shoulder muscles up to 49 inches (1.618 times as big as your waist). With a 32 inch waist you’d build your shoulders up to 52 inches around, etc.
Whatever width your shoulders are right now, don’t fret. Like I said, powerful shoulders can be built:
Narrow shoulders. Guys with naturally narrow shoulders have some advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that they’ll appear more muscular earlier into their training, as their frames fill out easily. The disadvantage is they need to build up a fair bit of muscularity to achieve a powerful broad-shouldered look. Posture is important as well, as proper shoulder alignment will make your shoulders appear broader.
Typical shoulders. These guys have it easy. If you’re skinny your shoulders will appear narrow, yes, but often after adding just a dozen or so pounds of muscle you’re already rocking a badass shoulder / waist ratio. Further down the road, you’ll likely hit the ideal ratio at the same time as you hit the ideal level of muscularity, making achieving the ideal physique pretty straightforward. Clothing is designed for you too, and with a bit of mass on your bones you’ll fit into clothes incredibly well—especially “fitted” clothing, as you’ll have a leaner than average waist.
Broad shoulders. With broad shoulders the ratio is incredibly easy to achieve, but this body type can be equally as tricky as the narrow one, since you need a fair bit of musculature to fill out your frame. Otherwise you’ll look broad from the front but thin from the side. Another problem here is that you need to buy really damn big shirts to fit your really damn broad shoulders … which tend to be designed for overweight people. You’ll probably need to buy huge shirts and find a tailor that can take ‘em in at the waist, and perhaps even in the arms (until you add some arm size).
2. A Trim Waist
Size only matters if that size is lean. Women aren’t trying to just find a big man, they’re trying to find a strong one. Since our male hormones cause us to store a lot of fat in our midsection, the best way to quickly spot a chubster is to look at his belt size. Thus broad shoulders are only attractive when paired with a proportionately small waist.
Why do women care if you’re holding onto some fat? Well obesity has always been a sign of suboptimal health, and it can result in a plethora of issues. Generally speaking a bit of fat isn’t necessarily bad, and thus throughout most of history being a little pudgy was okay … but in today’s culture we’re hyper-sensitized to it, likely because so many first-world men struggle with it. We hear about the problems of obesity every single day, while being lean is an increasingly rare and impressive trait.
Having your midsection mastered immediately suggests a lot of things about you: a healthy diet, possible good genetics, physical health, youth, and, of course, self control. (study) And since a trim waist hints at a longer lifespan, chances are she’ll get to enjoy all those great things about you for longer.
This is a really big thing for women—so much so that it actually doesn’t matter how big you get if you’ve got any sort of pudge going on.
It’s like being a really skinny guy with abs. Our abs don’t count until we’re muscular. (Dammit.)
Those big beefy strong guys? They’re disqualified. No matter how muscular a chubby guy is they still have the sex appeal of an overweight guy (less than a skinny guy). They win points from men for being stronger, but their guts fail to win them points with women.
I should note here that I don’t mean abs, I simply mean a trim waist, i.e., no love handles or belly. A flat stomach is equally as attractive as abs, unless you’re dating a woman who’s really into fitness, in which case she may prefer abs simply because she’s part of that cut culture. Generally though being extremely lean is a way for us to show off to each other—not to women.
Yep, that means you can take your ab shot off your online dating profile. A girl can tell how much she likes your ‘bod from how good you look in a fitted tee.
Keep in mind that the coveted “V” taper isn’t just created by broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Having beastly back musculature and strong glutes is also incredibly important, and will both make your waist seem smaller and your shoulders seem broader. Forget your back and legs and you’ll wind up with a “T” taper.
With your shoulder / waist ratio women are getting an idea of our muscularity, but the main factor there is the ratio, not about whether it’s from our muscle mass or bone structure. Further studies needed to be done to determine an ideal level of muscularity independent from our shoulder width, and they found that broad shoulders are attractive even in absence of muscle, and muscle is attractive even in absence of broad shoulders. (study)
So here we’re talking less about your frame and more about muscle itself, making this more of a chest & back / waist ratio thing. (Factoring in your lats and chest.)
The drive for muscularity in men is both very innate and very cultural—sort of a chicken and egg scenario. (You know, the scenario where we should really be eating a lot of both.) Men are naturally drawn to muscle, and that drive is further exaggerated by the media. As men we have different biological priorities combined with exposure to different media than women. We thus have very slightly different ideals concerning muscularity than women do. Most guys, myself included, instinctively get this part wrong. (I’ll talk more about male ideals later.)
Muscles aren’t just a man thing though, and one of the main reasons we love them so much is because of women—women love a certain degree of muscularity too.
Why? It’s like a peacock’s tail, indicating an abundance of the ingredients required to thrive. Since the beginning of humanity only the most capable of men have been able to build muscle. It requires a steady supply of a lot of good food, indicating that you can acquire that food consistently; it requires lots of hearty physical activity, indicating that you’re physically healthy and capable; and it requires masculine hormones which have a lot of positive effects on our health and performance.
(Muscularity is heavily influenced by our production of testosterone, hGH, IGF-1 and insulin. Some of this is genetic, but much of our hormone production has to do with our diet and exercise.)
Muscularity isn’t an outdated mechanism either. In today’s society the same basics hold true, and while we may not need to hunt down food ourselves, protein is not the cheapest of foods, healthy food is more expensive than heavily processed food, and consistently eating well and training requires good health, time and dedication. Muscle speaks of a lifestyle of health and abundance.
Going beyond that, it also says a lot about your character. Building a strong lean physique requires dedication, consistency and self control. Since muscularity is such an innate masculine goal it can almost be assumed that every man would prefer to have it, all else equal. Deep down every man wants it, but not every man has the willpower to achieve it. It thus says a lot about your ability to get what you want out of life.
As ectomorphs we can start getting the benefits of being muscular pretty early into our development, since we’re often starting out fairly lean. As soon as our shoulders, back, glutes and chest (in order of importance) start beefing up we do pretty great. The “fit” bodytype isn’t that muscular and can often be accomplished in a matter of months.
Eventually we get to that optimal level where we don’t just look fit—we look strong and masculine. It takes longer, but women really start to feel feminine, sexy and safe around us, since we have a larger and more classically masculine physique.
Going from strong to jacked is no walk in the park, and adding muscle beyond that point is a challenge for most men. Once you get to that highly muscular point it’s truly commendable—but you’ve gone beyond what women find ideal, and you’ll fall behind the more slenderly muscled “fit” guy in terms of desirability. Not by much though, and you’ll still be very highly sought after.
Long story short: slimmer than “fit” and you risk being perceived as weak, fickle, submissive, etc. Any bigger than “jacked” and you lose points for being overly yoked, and thus hormonally fragile.
For guys who are already into strength training that’s a bit of a weird thing to wrap your head around, and I have to admit I fall into the category of guys who instinctively think “whoa wait—why isn’t more better!?”
Turns out more is not better. Not at all. And if you go much beyond the muscularity of the “jacked” guy your physique stops becoming attractive altogether. (study) Women begin to get the sense that something fishy is up hormonally … and they’re probably right—muscularity beyond a certain threshold is nearly impossible to accomplish without either abnormal hormone production (overly mesomorphic genetics) or pharmaceuticals. A very lean 200 pounds (under 10% bodyfat) is the upper limit of muscularity for most 6″ tall men, even with many years of intelligent and consistent training.
See, men have always wanted to be muscular and women have always been drawn to it … but the whole really muscular thing doesn’t work for women. They aren’t socially conditioned to like it, since Cosmo is full of Brad Pitt / Ryan Gosling types—guys who are somewhere between “fit” and “strong”.
(Both examples are ectomorphs, with Pitt being less muscular with naturally broader shoulders, and Gosling being more muscular with naturally narrower shoulders.)
There’s a legitimate reason behind it too though. With peacocks the bigger the tail is the better. It might be costly and dangerous to parade it around, and it may mean they die sooner (either of illness or lion) … but that’s okay. Peahens want the most badass offspring possible and don’t really care about what happens to their mate after they mate. Women, however, do. They want a man who’s emotionally stable enough to stick around and healthy enough to survive. That’s how you raise badass offspring, after all.
The right amount of muscularity means you’re healthy and strong. You’ll be able to protect her, provide for her and help her raise healthy muscular kids like you.
4. A healthy masculine (chiseled) face
To a certain extent we’re stuck with the faces our mothers gave us, but there’s actually a whole lot we can do just by improving our health, increasing our muscularity and lowering our body fat percentage.
Mastering our muscularity and midsection will go a long way to changing how attractive women find our faces. See, regardless of how large our noses are, we want faces shaped by muscle, not bone or fat. This will build up manly jaw muscles and chisel out our faces, making us appear more masculine, which women find sexually irresistible.(study) Interestingly enough, the more attractive a woman thinks she is, the more drawn to masculine facial features she is. (study) It may not just be how attractive she thinks she is, either, and some studies are showing that greater attractiveness and femininity in women results in a stronger preference for men with masculine faces. (study)
Facial masculinity is just one piece of the puzzle though, and the next piece is perhaps even more interesting: women can subconsciously pick up on what our skin tone is saying about us. Having the right amount of red and yellow in our colouring is an indicator of health, and will make us appear more attractive. How do we improve our skin tone? Exercise and sound nutrition. Yep, you probably saw that one coming. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables (nutrition), higher levels of oxygenated blood (exercise) and more melanin production (both) will all help. (study) It will go a long way to clearing up acne and improving your complexion, too.
Even in a snowsuit* women can tell if we’re lean, healthy and muscular. Pretty wild.
*This matters to us Canadians.
5. Masculinity (i.e. testosterone)
Masculinity is an interesting thing, and different women are drawn to different levels of it depending on what they’re looking for, how feminine they are and how high their confidence is:
- Generally the more feminine the woman, the more she’ll be drawn to masculinity. Similarly, more masculine women are often drawn to more feminine men.
- The more attractive a woman thinks she is, the more confident she’ll feel around masculine men and the more she’ll enjoy being around them. One theory here is that only the most desirable of women are able to attract a very masculine man and keep him. The more masculine the man, the more options he’ll have, after all.
- The more masculine a man, the more sexually attractive he is. This is that gut-level kind of attraction that women find irresistible—they’re just drawn to it.
- The more hormonally balanced a man is the more a woman will be inclined to get into a relationship with him. While a slightly less masculine man might not have the same raw sex appeal, they often give off better boyfriend / husband vibes.
- It’s possible to balance masculinity with an equally impressive degree of health, making you irresistibly masculine yet stable enough to rock a successful relationship.
Women can tell how masculine we are from our body language, stride, voice, muscularity and even our scent. Having the right amount of masculine hormones changes us right down to the way we smell, and that can either make our scent irresistible to women or instinctively give them bad vibes. (study, study, study)
The variance in testosterone levels between men is huge, and it has a big impact on our personalities, appearance and health. Some men walk around with 4-5 times as much testosterone pumping through them as others. Not fair, us slenderly muscled ectomorphs might think, but once again this is not out of our control.
Why does masculinity matter? It says a lot about our health and fitness. Taking it one step further, women can also infer clues about our character. High levels of testosterone in men are linked with ambition and confidence … but there’s another lesser-known side of testosterone too—it also hints at a man’s integrity.
Higher testosterone is strongly linked with honesty, for example. In a study done just a couple weeks ago they found that men whose testosterone levels had been increased (using a gel) were significantly more honest than the men who were given a placebo. Looks like the confidence and power that comes with testosterone also gives us the strength to man up and be honest with one another. (study)
On the flip side, overly high levels of testosterone are actually quite unattractive, as they can cause selfishness, volatility and fragility. While the golden zone of testosterone improves strength, confidence, integrity and ambition … overly high levels of testosterone can make some men emotionally unstable (study), less likely to stick around in a relationship and more prone to illness.
Less likely to stick around in a relationship?!
Interestingly enough, men in longterm relationships have slightly lower testosterone output. Whether entering into a relationship causes the testosterone drop, or whether lower testosterone increases a man’s desire to enter a relationship isn’t clear. (study) Whichever causes which, women are often wary of men with sky-high testosterone.
High testosterone output making us prone to illness is another weird one. Testosterone is a costly hormone, and too much of it not only increases the likelihood that we’ll do stupidly dangerous crap, it also sacrifices our immune system in favour of power. Of course, too little testosterone and we also become vulnerable. Women know we can’t have it all, so they’ve become finely tuned to pick up on Goldilock’s “just right” amount of testosterone output.
Too little testosterone and we’ll be deemed weak, fickle and effeminate. Too much and we’re deemed selfish, volatile and fragile. Rough.
Luckily this isn’t all up to our genetics. Strength training and solid muscle-building nutrition will help regulate your masculinizing hormones (like testosterone) and feminizing hormones (like estrogen), and staying lean will help as well. If you’re doing all that right you can just let your hormones take care of themselves.
+1 for fit guys.
Symmetry is pretty straightforward—it’s indicative of good genes. Just like your face is probably pretty symmetrical, chances are your muscles were relatively symmetrical by default but your lopsided desk-dude lifestyle has resulted in some asymmetries.
That’s fine, and relatively easy to fix. The best way to fix’ er right up is just to focus on unilateral lifts (e.g. one-armed bench press, 1-armed lat pulldown) for a while. Train your weaker side first, and limit your dominant side to whatever your weaker side can do. The first phase of our program features a lot of unilateral lifts and by the end of it most of our guys are pretty symmetrical and a hell of a lot more muscular. Symmetry doesn’t take as long to fix as you’d think, and you can add mass everywhere while doing it.
Asymmetrical shoulder heights are also really common among our members and sometimes take a bit longer to fix. Many of us, myself included, started out with one shoulder cocked higher than the other. Luckily I was able to gain 40 pounds while addressing it, so once again it’s not something that should get in our way.
6. Posture / Alignment
Better posture increases your perceived masculinity, height, status, strength, and confidence. Posture is so finely tied to status and confidence that improving your posture will improve not only the impression you give off, but also how confident you feel. To make things even more interesting, proper posture actually increases our testosterone output and improves the transmission of strength from our lower body to our upper body. Improving our alignment makes us both more masculine and stronger in and of itself. Pretty sweet.
This is fairly advanced stuff, and one reason why I don’t make my own workout programming. We let Marco do his thing and trust his expertise. It’s also why we highly encourage our members to take photos and post them on the forum. From there we can spot any potential problems and make sure we’re addressing them. Luckily most of us ectomorphs have a very similar and distinct problem: upper and lower crossed syndrome with internally rotated shoulders (shown above).
We place a lot of emphasis on lifting heavy and adding mass, but we also dig building wickedly functional, strong and aesthetic bodies, so we always round out our workouts with some quick postural exercises. (More on posture here)
7. Muscular Balance
Women really dig musculature that actually works. Most women couldn’t tell you the difference between your deltoid and your rhomboid, but they’ll still instinctively get a “something is funky over there” vibe when guys have disproportionately built physiques.
Many bodies aren’t trained for function, don’t look like they were trained for function, and thus fail to accomplish their (presumed) primary goal of looking good. Whoops.
How do you get a disproportionate physique?
a) Certain sports. Hockey players, soccer players and bikers often have large legs combined with small upper bodies (the t-rex), rock climbers tend to have really big backs with small chests and triceps, tennis players get one big arm and one little arm, and basketball players are often really tall. In a way that’s a good thing, because it allows them to kick serious ass at their sport. They also need to be careful though, because unbalanced musculature can limit performance and increase the chance of injuries. A degree of physique specialization is recommended for athletes, but it shouldn’t be haphazard.
b) A homemade training program. That’ll give you a pretty wonky ‘bod, guaranteed. We naturally gravitate towards certain exercises and making a program ourselves inevitably leads to a body that we think looks good in the mirror but that women are confused and repelled by. Women, who get a full 360* view, care about how big your back and butt are.
c) Being totally out of it. The best way to get an unbalanced body is by taking up desk-hunching and couch-riding without any solid physical activity. Some things will tighten up, some things will stretch out, some muscles will get lazy (like your ass), and others will get tendonitis.
Tricks for having perfectly balanced functional musculature:
a) Train your back twice (i.e. a pull) for every time you train your chest (i.e. a press). Back muscles respond better to a higher volume and will contribute more to your athleticism and aestheticism than your chest. This is especially important for us ectomorphs who look like a lollipop when viewed from the side, since your back musculature is responsible for two thirds of the thickness of your upper body. It’s also responsible for our v-taper when viewed from the front and back.
… but don’t neglect your chest. You really do want strong and plump pecs, since they’re such a huge indicator of muscularity and strength.
b) Train your legs almost as often as you train your upper body, and squat deep enough that you get your glutes and hamstrings working along with your quads. You want your thigh bones going down parallel to the floor. You’ll squat less weight, sure, but even with less weight you’ll build more muscle. You can spend a bit more time growing your upper body if you prefer the look, but if you don’t build up impressive leg (and thus full body) strength you’ll fail to achieve the aesthetic and athletic physique that women long for.
c) Deadlift like a monster. It’s the best back exercise, it’s the best trap exercise, it’ll do wonders to your lower body, it will strengthen your posture and it’s an incredible exercise for core strength. Want a Superman-like silhouette in a hurry? Deadlift. You’ll get absolutely strong as hell and it’ll show from a mile away. It’s also the best forearm / grip exercise out there, so you’ll develop rock hard man-hands that your lady will love to hold.
The Bodies Men Respect & Idolize
Any article on aesthetics needs to be broken up by gender, since both men and women dream of having a body that’s rather different from what the other gender dreams of waking up next to.
Women prefer a man who’s significantly leaner and more muscular than average, you know, like a man found in Cosmo. They found these physiques more attractive than the more muscular ones in magazines targeted at health conscious men, like Men’s Health, and much more attractive than the muscles aspiring male weightlifters are exposed to in magazines like Men’s Fitness. (study) Rest assured that male bodybuilders are not what your dream girl is dreaming of. (Us ectomorphs actually have a pretty great shot at quickly becoming rather ideal in the eyes of most women.)
As ectomorphs some us set our sights a little smaller. When I was 6’2 and 130 pounds damn I was eager just to bulk up to the point where the word bony didn’t spring into everyone’s mind when I entered the room. It wasn’t until I reached 150 that I started trying to look fit, and it wasn’t until 170 that I wanted to look strong. At 185 I’m pretty happy with how I look and care most about actually being strong.
Ectomorphs aside though, most men want slightly more muscular physiques than the men found in Cosmo, shooting instead for the stronger look popular in Men’s Health. (Surprisingly, the physiques in Men’s Health line up pretty well with the physiques that women actually gravitate towards, photos in magazine aside.)
Generally the more interested in fitness a guy is, the more muscle related media he gets exposed to and the bigger he wants to become. Many guys, like me, gradually increase their goals as they go along. That can definitely be a good thing, but many weightlifting enthusiasts eventually get to a point where they’re overestimating what women want by as much as 30 pounds. (study)
I’m not saying it’s all created by the media—Hell the media might just be mirroring what us guys are naturally drawn to. Muscle is a very masculine thing historically, culturally and biologically (men have much more muscle-building potential than women do) so it makes sense that we just want more of it.
Bringing us to:
This niche of dudes has relatively distinct goals, so it deserves a bit of attention of its own. Perception varies between subcultures, and while women have a rather uniform preference for healthy, strong and athletic looking guys, different subsets of men shoot for different goals. A bodybuilder would see the “muscular” guy girls are fawning over and think “Psh. Do you even lift?”
So while most guys and gals dig strong human-like proportions, some guys strive to achieve superhuman proportions.
While I’d argue that training with an emphasis on strength, posture and alignment is the best starting point for everyone, at a certain point (beyond the “jacked” point) bodybuilding often needs to start diverging from classic muscle-building, as it needs to start emphasizing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy over myofibrilar hypertrophy. Both strength and size require a degree of both, but with bodybuilding the rep ranges become higher, allowing for more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. There’s a huge difference between say, powerlifter training, where strength is measured in relation to body weight, and bodybuilding, where size and symmetry are the main factors.
Using the analogy of a car, an athlete or strength trainee would have extremely high horsepower (allowing the production of explosive power), while a bodybuilder would have an extremely large fuel tank (allowing for higher reps).
While many bodybuilders these days do simply focus on size, there’s often an equally large emphasis on proportions. The ideal shoulder / waist ratio remains the same, but you’d want bigger measurements in both areas. To determine muscularity you’d start by measuring something fixed, like your wrist size, and then building up your relaxed arm, neck and calf muscles to 250% of that size. For a guy like me with 7″ wrists that would result in nearly 18 inch upper arms / calves / neck, which is far beyond what’s attractive to people outside of the bodybuilding community—and these are the proportions advocated by the classic bodybuilder Steve Reeves, who had a relatively slender physique by bodybuilding standards!
Because of a heavy focus on symmetry and proportions, more isolated exercises need to be introduced to prevent dominant muscles from overpowering weaker ones. Once again form is placed over function, further separating bodybuilders from classic trainees.
Instead of training your lower body using, say, a squat, you’d need to break up your leg exercises into a leg press, hamstring curl, leg extension, calf raise and hip thrust. This becomes incredibly time consuming, and you no longer have the option of training your entire body in one gym session. Add to this that as muscle size goes beyond what our body is naturally comfortable with, our muscle groups need to be pushed further into exhaustion, requiring more recovery time.
… enter the bodybuilding split, where your body is broken up into specific muscle groups and trained once or twice per week (e.g. leg day on Monday and Thursday).
The result is a physique that looks less like an athlete’s and more like, well, a bodybuilder’s. I don’t have a problem with that—in fact I find it interesting how they’re pushing muscular hypertrophy to its full potential. Even though there’s more focus on form than function, it’s by no means wimpy stuff. The training required is actually quite painful, as you need to push so far into muscular fatigue. Besides, I think old bodybuilders like Steve Reeves look pretty badass.
(Steve Reeves, for the record, took a strength training approach to his training, working his entire body each workout using compound lifts. Bodybuilding splits are required for the really big guys, and became popular when steroids became much more powerful.)
There’s a dark side to bodybuilding too, and steroid abuse is becoming quite common, permeating even novice bodybuilding circles. Steve Reeves was among the early bodybuilding pioneers in the 40′s, taking relatively low doses of steroids (if any) by modern standards. Now that steroids have been around for a few decades, studies are showing them to be the male equivalent of anorexia and bulimia—both typically being the result of anxiety and body image issues. The same drive that causes even very thin women to develop eating disorders results in even already very muscular men taking steroids. (study) Among thinness / muscularity heavy niches, like female fashion and male bodybuilding, these practices can become quite common and even an accepted part of that subculture. That certainly doesn’t describe every bodybuilder though (or even every steroid user).
A parting point: while bodybuilding is often thought to be a vain sport, there’s actually very little correlation between narcissism and the drive for extreme amounts of muscle. It isn’t an obsession with beauty, after all, and more so an urge to develop extreme masculinity. (study)
Classic Male Aesthetics
Most men want a strong dashing ‘bod that’s healthy, muscular, functional, looks good to women, earns the respect of men and doesn’t require an arsenal of pharmaceuticals.
Bodybuilding techniques trickle down into mainstream culture though, and many novice weightlifters mimic their routines, not realizing it’s a highly specialized form of training that likely doesn’t match their current situation or future goals at all. Athletes, actors and classic strong dudes train a totally different way.
We’re better off using big compound lifts (bench press, squats, deadlifts, chin ups, etc) that naturally build muscle mass everywhere. It’s efficient, requiring less time in the gym; it’s functional, meaning our growing muscles directly translate into improved strength and athletic performance; and it’s aesthetic, in that both men and women will think they look rad.
This ensures that you can use your muscles to both literally and metaphorically pick up women.
But there’s still a bit of a discrepancy between how woman want us to look and how we want ourselves to look. See, women place a high priority on balance and function … and don’t typically judge us based on how we look in the mirror. (Women are tricky devils like that.) The result is that there’s a relatively low priority placed on glory-muscles, like our biceps.
If you have badass biceps, sure, girls are going to comment on them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a defining characteristic of your physique. If your girlfriend has particularly dainty feet you might compliment her on them—especially if she’s proud of them—but if she had average feet you’d probably be almost equally as enthralled with her overall appearance. Biceps are kind of like that. Having rad biceps certainly doesn’t hurt, and girls like nice biceps just fine … it just isn’t any kind of big deal.
Most of us guys who build muscle, on the other hand, quite like them. I’m smiling down at mine affectionately right now while I’m typing this up, and when I flex at myself in the mirror they’re right there giving it their all. Improving our back strength is the best way to make them bigger (think chin ups), and improving our fitness levels results in a prominent vein running through them (due to increased oxygen delivery). They’re a pretty good indicator of how we’re doing.
As a result our biceps are perhaps the most visible and impressive muscle on our body—to us.
Women judge our strength primarily through our posterior chain (legs, glutes, lats and traps) and the width of our shoulders. Even from the front the “muscularity” of a man is largely judged by our chests. And it’s our belt size that tells girls whether we’re lean or not, not how vascular our biceps are. Sure, arms are certainly somewhere on the aesthetics list, but they’re by no means any kind of important thing, so long as they’re proportionately sized.
Men judge other men in a similar way—but we add in the arms. Since we judge ourselves partly based on how large our biceps are, we also look for it in other men. As such we typically gravitate towards a physique where the arms are ever so slightly proportionally larger. The most famous example of this is Brad Pitt in Fight Club. He’s got broad shoulders, a tight waist, great posture, solid definition in his chest and an overall athletic look. This, combined with his character’s personality and Pitt’s masculine face, makes it one of the most appealing physiques to women. He also has proportionally large arms and shoulders, making his physique a common goal among men. This is especially true with us ectomorphs, since he’s a good example of an ectomorph who successfully added some muscle to his frame.
One thing we struggle with though is the temptation to over-emphasize our arms and chest at the expense of our posterior chain. This inevitably leads to disproportionately large arms and, ironically, a small chest. An underdeveloped posterior chain results in muscular balance issues which prevent the pec muscles from being properly activated in chest lifts, like the bench press.
We thus often sacrifice our chest, a powerful muscle that actually makes us strong and women actually care about (study), by neglecting our posterior chain—which is the strongest and most physically appealing muscle group out there!
Anyway, by focusing on proportional and functional strength we naturally develop a big chest, so that’s already part of the “strong” package. And the good news is that so long as we’re strong and functional we can increase our arm size and get the best of all worlds. Women won’t dock us any points, since we’re still indicating health and strength, and we get to have a physique that feels right to us, too.
Muscle and Power
For better or worse, women judge each other’s ability to attract men largely based on physical attractiveness. When it comes to men sizing each other up for competition though we don’t much care how attractive the other guy is, and place twice as much emphasis on how socially dominant* they are. (study)
*Social dominance being a combination of physical dominance, confidence, ambition, social status, assertiveness and charisma.
So while women get jealous of other beautiful women, as men we instinctively infer status amongst one another largely from our strength, posture, athleticism and the strength of our jawlines. From this we get clues to confidence, ambition, assertiveness, charisma and power. (study, study, study)
Most of these benefits max out at a certain point, with the “strong” physique outperforming all others, including much bigger and more highly muscled ones. Where the more muscle thing comes into play though is with physical dominance, which is simply height, muscularity and strength, i.e., total functional mass. This trait has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with lean mass. The stronger and more masculine someone is the more physically dominant they are, and that’s the advantage that incredibly physically powerful men have. The catch here is that their mass still needs to look functional, athletic and strong. (study)
(Being absolutely incredibly muscular will also win you points among guys who are into bodybuilding, where size can be likened to athletic prowess in their sport.)
Interestingly enough even a guy with wealth, socioeconomic status, ambition and confidence will still have more social success if he’s fit and healthy, both with men and women. (study)
This is becoming more and more true as societies become more and more modern. With gender equality comes a change in how men and women are judged and perceived. Women are being judged a lot more based on their status, intelligence and earning power, whereas men are beginning to be judged a little more on their sex appeal, strength, attractiveness and health.
Aesthetics and Brain Power
As we touched in the woman section, how fit you look is usually an indicator of how fit you are. (This depends on your nutrition and training, of course.) As such increasing your strength and improving your diet can have a huge impact on all of your organs—including your brain.
Strenuous physical activity stresses the brain and promotes adaptation and growth, improving brain function and allowing the brain to better respond to future challenges. As a result a good training program will have an impact on your memory, concentration, mood and ability to learn. (study)
Building muscle is also a matter of nutrition, which is strongly tied to brain function as well, reducing anxiety, increasing energy levels, improving concentration, etc.
This deserves an article all on its own, but long story short, improving your aesthetics can also boost your intellect, make you as emotionally stable as a rock, and increase your enjoyment of life.
This is one reason why people infer so many character traits from aesthetics. When you see a pristine Ferrari you instinctively expect what’s under the hood to be pretty impressive, too.
For better or worse other guys will make similar assumptions about you.
It’s basic human nature for us to care. Part of being a normal healthy man is caring about the impression we give off, and we know that a lot of that has to do with our strength and muscularity.
It may sound shallow or superficial but it really isn’t. Our physical appearance is such an accurate representation of our health and strength that we really don’t need to be ashamed about caring about it. Becoming better looking (the right way) can make us more ambitious, healthier, stronger, more attractive to women, more respected by men, smarter, live longer and have better brain health.
As ectomorph men we often think we’re at a disadvantage in the muscle department, but we’re actually pretty lucky. Building muscle beyond a certain threshold is challenging and requires both consistency and patience, but as ectomorphs we often experience very rapid growth when we first begin training. If we can do that while correcting our posture and alignment we very quickly start to look pretty good.
With dedication and a good plan we can pop into the “fit” category in a matter of months, and not too long after that, given consistent effort and smarts, land ourselves in the “strong” category.
Easier said than done, I know, but these are extremely achievable goals with huge rewards, both inside and out.