How Big and Muscular is Ideal for Aesthetics and Attractiveness?

(Under Construction) Most of us are eager to improve our appearance, but we’re also notoriously bad at understanding how to do it. Some of these mistakes are simply about how far to take things. For example, when men guess what degree of muscularity women find the most attractive, they’re off by thirty pounds (study).

But other guys have an even deeper misunderstanding. They don’t realize that our appearance is so influential because of how accurately it reflects our strength, fitness, and health. They try to become more attractive on a purely superficial level, muscle by muscle. That will never work. It will never be as convincing as the real thing.

So in this article, we’ll dive into:

  • What women find the sexiest (attractiveness)
  • Which physical traits men respect and idolize (aesthetics)
  • How those two ideals differ from one another
  • How to get the best of both worlds.

We’ll cover exact proportions and ratios, talk about which strength standards correspond with which degrees of muscularity, and dig into a bunch of fascinating research. By the end, you should have a full understanding of how far away from the ideals you are and know exactly how to improve your appearance.

We’ll also make sure that as you improve your appearance, it comes along with benefits that run far deeper. Or, if you want to look at it the other way, we’ll make sure that as you get into better shape, it also makes you more attractive.

However, be warned, this article is long. I’ll understand if you don’t want to read the whole thing. If that’s the case, here’s a quick and simple trick that will make you instantly sexier: have a drink. It will boost your attractiveness (to yourself) by 50%. This is called the reverse beer goggles effect, also known as beauty is in the eye of the beer holder (study). I know it’s not a perfect solution, but it could save you a good half hour of reading.

If you’re looking for an improvement that other people will notice, too, don’t worry—that’s what the rest of this article is for.

Table of Contents

  • Is it Wise to Care About Your Appearance?
  • The Difference Between Attractiveness and Aesthetics
  • Attractiveness: The Body that Women Find the Sexiest
    1. How much should you weigh (BMI)?
    2. What Degree of Muscularity is Most Attractive?
    3. What Degree of Masculinity is Most Attractive?
    4. How Broad Should Your Shoulders Be?
    5. What’s the Most Attractive Body-Fat Percentage?
    6. What Muscle Proportions are the Most Attractive?
    7. How Lean and Muscular Should Your Face and Neck Be?
    8. How Important is Muscular Symmetry?
    9. What Does Ideal Posture Look Like?
  • Aesthetics: The Physiques that Men Respect and Idolize 
    1. Most Men Want to be More Than Just Attractive
    2. Mainstream Male Aesthetics
    3. Classic Bodybuilding Aesthetics
    4. Modern Bodybuilding Aesthetics
  • Building a Body That’s Both Attractive and Aesthetic

Is it Wise to Care About Your Appearance?

Do women prefer guys who are naturally fit and athletic? Or guys who are lean, muscular, and lift weights?

A few years ago, we surveyed a thousand people about which physiques they preferred and why (survey). When we asked the women if a guy should exercise to improve his appearance, they said no. They didn’t want to date a bodybuilder with a contrived physique. They wanted to be with a guy who was naturally fit and athletic.

Then we presented those same women with photos of bodies with the heads cropped off, and we asked them to pick the most attractive one. In the first photo array, they chose the body of the celebrity personal trainer Bob Harper from The Biggest Loser:

Which celebrity male physique is the most attractive to women? Bob Harper

They chose his body because they said it looked naturally fit. Of course, Harper isn’t naturally fit. He’s a professional personal trainer who cares a great deal about rigorous exercise. He worked hard for that body.

We showed the women a few other photo arrays. When we showed them the bodies of various musicians, they chose the body of Henry Rollins:

Which musician male physique is the most attractive to women?

Henry Rollins is a naturally thin punk singer who started lifting weights to bulk up. He worked hard to become strong, and he intentionally keeps himself in great shape. He’s known for saying things like, “Discipline is money in the bank. A real friend, true strength.”

We also showed them a photo array of actors, again with the heads cut off. Women chose the body of Brad Pitt in Fight Club:

Which actor male physique is the most attractive to women? Brad Pitt Fight Club Tyler Durden

Why did they prefer this body? Because he looked naturally strong. Brad Pitt isn’t naturally strong, though. Like Rollins, he’s naturally skinny. He had to gain quite a bit of muscle in order to bulk up for that movie role.

The same was true of married women. If they had husbands who were overweight or underweight, they said they’d prefer if they got themselves into better shape. They said they’d find their husbands more attractive if they were fitter, stronger, and more athletic. But in a natural way, of course.

This miscommunication, where women say they prefer naturally fit guys while in reality preferring guys who are disciplined about their exercise, messes a lot of guys up. It can make it seem like it’s uncool or unattractive to be a guy who goes to the gym and eats a good diet, but that’s not the case.  After all, we showed women a range of physiques, including guys who were out of shape. Some were skinny, some were overweight—it didn’t matter. The guys who were out of shape, regardless of their body type, got 0–1% of the votes.

There’s another side to this, though, and most men find it even more confusing.

The Difference Between Attractiveness and Aesthetics

Women were being honest when they said that they didn’t find bodybuilders and fitness models attractive. If we look at the bodies that women preferred, they aren’t incredibly musclebound or ridiculously lean. These represent fit, healthy, athletic physiques that are actually quite realistically attainable by all of us, and in quite a short timeframe.

What’s interesting, though, is that women really did have a distaste for people who looked more like bodybuilders. Male aesthetics icons like Zyzz, Frank Zane, and even Ryan Reynolds were considered overly muscular and overly lean:

It's possible for your body to be too lean and too muscular to be considered attractive by women

Women thought these physiques looked contrived and unappealing. They rated them as unattractive. In some cases, they were rated as less attractive than the guys who didn’t exercise at all.

The Ideal Male Proportions

According to the research of Casey Butts, PhD, the first thing we need to do is measure (or estimate) the size of our waists at a lean body-fat percentage of roughly 8–15%. Using that ideal waist measurement, we can then calculate the rest of our ideal proportions:

  • Ideal male waist size: you at 8–15% body fat
  • Ideal male hip size: waist circumference × 1.25
  • Ideal male thigh size: waist circumference × 0.75
  • Ideal male shoulder size: waist circumference × 1.618
  • Ideal male bicep size: waist circumference × 0.5
  • Ideal male forearm size: biceps circumference × 0.8

These measurements line up with what you might find on the statue of an Ancient Greek warrior as well as what you’ll find in most modern male attractiveness studies.

For example, here are the ideal proportions for a man who has a 30-inch waist at 12% body fat:

  • Waist: 30 inches
  • Hips: 37.5 inches
  • Thighs: 22.5 inches
  • Shoulders: 48.5 inches
  • Biceps: 15 inches.

The good news is that even for naturally skinny guys, these proportions are often realistically achievable, and usually within just a couple of years, too.

The Adonis Index (Golden Ratio)

Adonis is a character in Greek mythology who was gored to death by a boar and then banished to the underworld. What he’s known for, though, is being the most attractive man to ever exist. And why did women find him so attractive? Because he had the perfect shoulder-to-waist ratio of 1-to-1.618.

  • Ideal shoulder size = waist × 1.618

Okay, so that’s not quite how the myth goes. But nonetheless, this ratio has been nicknamed the Adonis Index. Or, in mathematics, it’s called the golden ratio.

When it comes to the most attractive male body, some proportions matter more than others. Your shoulder-to-waist ratio is incredibly important, whereas the size of your legs hardly matters at all.

Why is our shoulder circumference so important? Some evolutionary researchers think that it’s because women evolved to be attracted to men who look more formidable (study). By “formidable,” they mean men who can fight: who can punch, wrestle, and use hand-held weapons. Formidability, then, depends on upper-body strength far more than on lower-body strength.

When it comes to a man’s upper-body strength, most of his muscle is going to be packed around his shoulder girdle: his upper back, his chest, his shoulders, his upper arms, and his neck. A more formidable man, then, is going to have a much larger shoulder circumference.

When it comes to waist size, what women are looking for is a man who’s lean. Leaner men are more likely to be healthy, more likely to be athletic, and it also makes having a large shoulder circumference more impressive. After all, more of that shoulder circumference will be made from muscle.

The Adonis Index, then, favours men with strong upper bodies who are also lean.

How important is our shoulder-to-waist ratio, though? As it turns out, not very important. What’s important is being strong and lean.

Getting stronger will increase your shoulder circumference, yes. And getting leaner will decrease your waist circumference, too, sure. So there’s certainly a correlation between having big shoulders and a small waist. However, our bone structure also plays a role in determining our shoulder-to-waist ratio, adding a confounding factor.

Attractiveness research is quite clear on the fact that bone structure doesn’t have a strong link to attractiveness. The researchers found a strong link between strength, muscularity, and attractiveness. After strength and muscularity, the next two most important factors were body-fat percentage and height. A man’s bone structure didn’t even rank in the top three, which means that if we focus on our shoulder-to-waist ratio, we’re adding a needless layer of abstraction.

Better to focus on gaining muscle, becoming stronger, and keep our waists lean. If you do that, there’s really no need to focus on achieving a specific shoulder-to-waist ratio. It will just favour people with longer collarbones and narrower waists.

If you wanted to focus on achieving a perfect shoulder-to-waist ratio, though, then the golden ratio is a good choice.

The Old Ectomorph Aesthetics Article

Both men and women dream of having bodies that are rather different from what the other gender dreams of waking up next to, so any article on physical appearance needs to be broken up by gender. The first section of this article will focus on which male bodies are considered most attractive to women. The second section will focus on which male bodies men find the most aesthetic.

When we’re talking about attractiveness, we’re talking about the bodies that women find the sexiest. As tempting as it is to brush of attractiveness as being based entirely on subjective personal preference, the vast majority of women prefer physiques that are shaped by the same three traits: masculinity, health, and athleticism. Depending on our genetics, those traits are going to look a little different on all of us, but so long as we can get into visibly great shape, we can all look reliably attractive.

However, we don’t just need to be in great shape, we need to look like we’re in great shape. It needs to be visible, obvious, slightly exaggerated. You could say that sexiness is conspicuous health. That’s going to mean getting a little stronger and leaner than the average man, and depending on your genetics, it will probably help to emphasize strength in certain muscle groups (such as your shoulder girdle) or bring up certain areas that are making you look weaker (such as bulking up a skinny neck).

So even though an attractive physique is simply one that looks abundantly masculine, healthy, and athletic, it can still help to know exactly what that looks like.

When we’re talking about aesthetics, we’re talking about the physiques that men respect and idolize. Women are most attracted to men with reasonable, moderate, balanced physiques. Most men prefer those same traits in women, too. We’re looking for visible health and fitness in one another. When we’re judging our own sex, though, balance goes out the window. Men want to be even bigger, even leaner, even more masculine; Women want to be smaller, thinner, even more feminine.

So if we’re talking about building a physique that other men will respect and idolize, this is where the more stylized physiques come in. Now we’re talking about Rambo, Hells Angels beards, and bench pressing 315 pounds. We’re not talking about regular guys anymore, we’re talking about remarkably strong guys who look like total badasses.

These physiques are quite a bit harder to build. Most guys can build an attractive physique within just a few months of serious training, whereas building a physique that looks strong and aesthetic will usually take at least a couple of years, and will require hitting some pretty impressive strength standards.

Can you build a body that’s both attractive and aesthetic? In the final section of the article, we’ll talk about how to get the best of both worlds. There’s a range of leanness and muscularity that’s considered attractive and aesthetic, with quite a bit of overlap between the two. There’s nothing stopping you from becoming masculine, healthy, and athletic while also being a little leaner and stronger than the average sex icon.

We can illustrate this with a study that looked into the differing degrees of muscularity in men’s and women’s magazines (study). Most women are attracted to physiques that are a little leaner and more muscular than average, like the guy you’d see on the cover of Cosmo. We’ve got our first disparity here, where most men consider that physique too small.

At the Men’s Health level, the disparity shrinks. These bodies are big enough to look good to men, but not so big that they look bad to women. In fact, these “strong” physiques line up more closely with the physiques that women actually gravitate towards in real life. After all, if these guys put shirts on, the guy on the cover of Cosmo would start to look thin, whereas the guy in Men’s Health would still look athletic.

However, once you’ve got a “fit” physique, you’ll certainly hit a point of diminishing returns. Gaining another twenty pounds of muscle won’t make you look significantly more attractive to women because it won’t make you look significantly healthier or more athletic. Most of the benefit at that point will be in the fact that you look better to yourself and to other men.

Then, as we move more towards media designed for male lifters, such as Men’s Fitness, the disparity between male and female preferences widens again. Most guys who lift weights prefer these more muscular physiques, but women start to find them overly muscle-bound and unattractive.

Let’s start by breaking down attractiveness, then aesthetics, and then finding the overlap.

Attractiveness: The Body that Women Find the Sexiest

What are the most attractive proportions for a man? How muscular should he be? Are bodybuilders are attractive?

The first thing to understand about attractiveness is that it isn’t shallow. Women evolved a preference for certain physical traits for a reason.

Will you make a great father and a good husband? Are you disciplined and ambitious? Do other men respect you? Can you keep her safe from them? Are you the type of guy who accomplishes his goals? These are important questions, and as soon as a woman sees you for the first time, she’s going to be able to answer most of them.

Is that fair? Surprisingly, yes. Women have great intuition. Their assumptions are usually quite accurate (study). That’s a good thing, too, because it strengthens the link between what looks good and what is good.

Consider a guy who looks strong. If he looks strong, chances are that he is. The link between muscle size and muscle strength is near perfect (study), and proportions are a good indicator of what movements a guy is strong at. Big shoulders and round butt? Probably athletic. Thick spinal erectors, forearms, and traps? He can probably carry a lot of weight. What you see is what you get.

And if a guy is strong, it proves that he’s got healthy genes, access to an abundance of resources, that he’s disciplined, and that he’s able to accomplish his goals. This guy has at least a few important aspects of his life under control.

The more of these positive physical traits a man has, the more attractive he’ll be to women, and as you can probably guess, the more attractive something is, the stronger its link to your actual wellbeing.

Let’s break down those traits, working our way from most important to least important.

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 breasts, making suits the more powerful of the two. Do 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. As I said, powerful shoulders can be built:

Bony to Beastly Ectomorph Hardgainer Transformation—How to build broad shoulders

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. In today’s culture, we’re hyper-sensitized to it, though, 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 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. 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 having well-defined abs. The exception to this is if you’re dating a woman who’s into fitness, in which case she may prefer abs simply because she’s part of that ab-oriented 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.

3. Muscularity

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-to-waist ratio, women are getting an idea of our muscularity, but the main factor here 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 not talking about your bone structure so much as your degree of muscularity, making this more about how big your chest, upper back, and shoulders are.

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” body type 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% body fat) 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 (chiselled) 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 sexiness, they often give off better longterm partner 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 in some cases make 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 ride our motorcycles off of a cliff, but it also sacrifices our immune system in favour of power. Of course, if we have too little testosterone, 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.

6. Symmetry

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 and 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: an 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.

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?

  • Certain sports cause imbalances. 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.
  • When people wing it in the gym, they tend to double down on their strengths while ignoring their weaknesses. We naturally gravitate towards certain exercises, and so making a program ourselves inevitably leads to a  body that we think looks good in the mirror but that women are bewildered by. Women, who get a full 360* view, care about how big our backs are. Here’s our article about how to get the most out of your strengths without neglecting your weaknesses.
  • People live a sedentary lifestyle. 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: 

  • Train your back at least as often as you train your chest. This is especially important for us ectomorphs who look like a lollipop when viewed from the side because our back muscles are responsible for two-thirds of the thickness of our upper bodies. Having a thicker back will also give us a better v-taper when viewed from the side.
  • Don’t neglect your chest. You really do want strong and plump pecs, since they’re such a huge indicator of muscularity and strength.
  • Train your legs with hearty compound lifts. It’s okay if you spend most of your time training your upper body, but a good training program will involve at least a minimalist approach to lower-body training, often centred around squats (especially front squats) and deadlifts (especially conventional deadlifts).
  • Do lots of deadlifting. It’s the best exercise for building a thicker upper back, it’s the best exercise for building bigger traps, it’ll do wonders for your lower body. It’s also the best forearm exercise out there, especially if you use a double overhand grip.

Here’s a good example of an aesthetic bulking transformation

Klaus has built up broad shoulders and a muscular chest while also trimming his waist down. His posture is good, and his proportions are great. To most women, this physique will look pretty ideal.

Aesthetics: The Physiques That Men Respect & Idolize

Most Men Want to be More Than Just Attractive

I have an uncle who’s 6’2 and 250 pounds. He loves his football and his steak. He’s been lifting heavy and eating big his entire life, and he has to get all of his clothing custom-made to accommodate his cartooned musculature. 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 spurt out a yes.

It isn’t all show, either. When a man made a lewd comment and grabbed my young cousin’s ass, my uncle picked him up by the collar and shoved him up against the wall. When my uncle put him back down, the man hit the ground running. Seconds later, we heard tires skidding as he sped off. It felt like a scene from a movie.

Having a guy like that on your side immediately makes you feel safe. If something goes wrong, you figure things will be okay. And my cousin certainly felt safer thanks to his help.

But this scenario could have very easily gone the other way. What about when it’s the powerful guy who’s grabbing the young girl’s ass? In that situation, who’s going to have the courage to step in and the strength to win? Us, I hope.

That’s why the very best of us need to be the ones stepping up. And in order to improve our odds of succeeding in the moment, we need to start preparing long before. Not just in terms of getting in a physical fight, but in terms of being respected role models that other men want to emulate.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t just want to be attractive. That’s important, sure, but I want more than that.

Bodybuilder Aesthetics

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 many professional bodybuilders these days do simply focus on size, there’s often an equally large emphasis on proportions. The ideal shoulder-to-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!

His exaggerated physique and remarkable good looks made him one of the first bodybuilding celebrities. He wasn’t just an oddity, he became a celebrity and icon. This brought bodybuilding into the mainstream.

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 mainstream bodybuilding pioneers in the 40’s, taking relatively low doses of steroids (if any) by modern standards. He followed a routine that was typical of natural bodybuilders:

Years later Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the arena. Like Reeves, he was handsome and charismatic enough to popularize his even more exaggeratedly masculine physique and have massive success in the mainstream.

Professional bodybuilding culture began to evolve as drugs became more potent, and nowadays many guys who don’t even take steroids are accidentally following routines initially designed and optimized for steroid users. Not so long ago this wasn’t a very well researched topic, and many of the bodybuilding pioneers were responsible for figuring out what worked best by simple trial and error. Guys like Schwarzenegger and his friends would try out a variety of techniques, see what worked, and then pass on that information to others. Some of this stuff had merit, some of it was just muscle mythology. That information would then be spread around in muscle magazines, eventually trickling down to the mainstream.

Drugs have a huge impact on what style of lifting is effective though, and information trickling down from the trial and error of guys using steroids (and other drugs) can make it very hard for natural guys to figure out how to train. “Triple-split” routines are perhaps the most common example of a bodybuilding routine that trickled down from steroid users and was then adopted by the mainstream.

There’s also some truth to the idea that bodybuilders tend to focus on growing their muscles via metabolic stress (“the pump”) instead of exclusively via mechanical tension (lifting heavy). This can affect how your body adapts, although many of the myths surrounding bulkier guys, such as bigger guys being slower or less flexible, are false. After all, most gymnasts are incredibly muscular. If your goal is to become bigger and stronger in an aesthetic and healthy way, here’s our article about hypertrophy training.

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 the “Big 5” compound liftsbench press, front squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, and push presses—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 women 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, our overall muscularity is largely determined 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, and good muscle 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. Instead, we place twice as much emphasis on how dominant they are. (study)

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 only becoming truer as societies become 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 physical attractiveness, strength and health.

Aesthetics and Brain Power

As we touched on in the section about female preferences, 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.

Here’s a good example of an ideal male aesthetics transformation:

JoeBrusk is starting out looking strong and lean—perfect in the eyes of most women. However, by gaining even more muscle and lowering his body fat percentage, he developed a physique that looks absolutely ideal to most guys. He became the guy at the gym that all the other guys want to look like, and the dad that every son wants to grow up to be like.

In Conclusion

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 naturally skinny 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 skinny guys, we often experience very rapid growth when we first begin lifting weights. If we can do that while correcting our posture and alignment we very quickly start to look pretty good.

With dedication and a good workout 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.

Ideal Male Body—Thanos' Bony to Beastly Ectomorph Transformation
Ideal Male Body—Bony to Beastly Ectomorph Transformation

Easier said than done, I know, but these are extremely achievable goals with huge rewards, both inside and out.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

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  1. Gregory on May 19, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Great article on the science of attraction. I have studied this topic for a long time and you provided excellent research on how to get there. But one thing I just can’t get my finger wrapped around is this. Lane Goodwin in his article titled which is more attractive athletic or muscular physique stated that when he had an athletic physique he was almost invisible to women unless he took his shirt off. But when he went from athletic physique to muscular large muscles his attention from women skyrocketed. He stated that the bigger his muscles got the more women he attracted. He also stated that others who in the past who had athletic physiques and went to muscular physiques had similar experiences that the bigger they got the more women they attracted. Lane got too about 200lbs, lean weight, what you define in your article as jacked.

    He also did not believe that the athletic and toned Brad Pitt fight club physique was the most attractive. That women were just choosing it because it’s socially acceptable not because it’s more attractive and his life experience shows that been jacked gave him far more success with women. The important thing Shane is we men want to look our best in our clothes. Because we spend almost all our lives in them. It does us no good to have muscles if no-one can see them with our clothes on. We want to look strong with our clothes on.

    I’m 5 foot 9 about 160 pounds and very lean and I have an ecomorph body type. To look my most attractive do I need to be 185lb of muscle or about 200lb or somewhere in between? I look forward to your reply on this topic. You can find Lane Goodwin post on the internet just Google which is more attractive athletic or muscular and his website should come up. If you already read his article then tell me what you think and I’m sure other guys would like to hear your thoughts on this. What physique is the most attractive with our t-shirts, polos, and dress shirts on: strong, jacked or somewhere in between