Most men want to have an attractive physique. Trouble is, few know exactly what that means. When men guess the degree of muscularity women prefer, they’re off by thirty pounds (study). To make matters worse, some guys have an even deeper misunderstanding, failing to realize their appearance reflects their fitness and strength. They try to become more attractive on a purely superficial level, muscle by muscle. That never works. It’s never as convincing as the real thing.
So in this article, we’ll dive into attractiveness research, explaining the ideal degree of muscularity and the ideal body proportions. Then we’ll go over how strong you need to be to achieve different tiers of muscularity. Finally, we’ll talk about the law of diminishing returns and whether it’s possible to become too muscular. By the end, you’ll know exactly how to improve your appearance.
But be warned: this article is long. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s a simple trick to improve your appearance: 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). It’s not a perfect solution, but it could save you a good half hour of reading.
- Attractiveness Versus Aesthetics
- The Ideal Male Body Weight (BMI)
- The Ideal Degree of Muscularity
- The Ideal Male Body-Fat Percentage
- How Body Fat & Muscle Affects Your Face
- Building A More Masculine Physique
- How Posture Affects Your Appearance
- The Ideal Male Proportions
Attractiveness Versus Aesthetics
The Most Attractive Male Body
A few years ago, we surveyed a thousand people about which physiques they preferred and why (survey). We asked the women if guys should exercise to improve their appearance. They said, “No.” They didn’t want to date a bodybuilder with a contrived physique. They found it more attractive when a guy 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:
They chose his body because they said he 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. His physique is about as contrived as could be. Mind you, he isn’t overly muscle-bound. He looks more like a healthy everyday guy than a professional bodybuilder.
Next, we showed the women the bodies of various musicians. Again, the heads cropped off and no names were given. Most of the women didn’t recognize the bodies they were rating. Of all the musicians we showed them, they chose the body of Henry Rollins:
Henry Rollins is a naturally skinny punk singer. He famously 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.” So again, women are choosing the body of someone who started lifting weights to improve their appearance.
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:
Brad Pitt is a naturally thin guy. To bulk up for Fight Club, he started lifting weights. This is the physique that became legendary. This is the physique that women rated as the most attractive. It’s not the physique of someone who’s “naturally” in good shape, but it’s not the physique of a diehard bodybuilder, either. This the body of someone with fairly average muscle-building genetics who spent a few months building muscle.
There’s a miscommunication here. Women say they prefer “naturally” fit guys, but in reality, they prefer guys who look like they lift weights. Remember, we showed women a wide range of physiques. The guys who were out of shape got 0–1% of the votes.
There’s another side to this, though, and most men find it even more confusing.
The Most Aesthetic Male Body
Women were honest when they said that they didn’t find bodybuilders and fitness models attractive. If we look at the bodies women prefer, they aren’t incredibly musclebound or ridiculously lean. They look like fit, active guys who do at least a little bit of weight training. Remember, Brad Pitt was a thin guy who only spent a few months building muscle for Fight Club. He wasn’t a dedicated bodybuilder.
We showed women a wide variety of bodies, including those of famous fitness models, bodybuilders, and actors. 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:
I understand why Zyzz and Zane were rated as too muscular. They look like bodybuilders who take performance-enhancing drugs. It’s surprising to see Ryan Reynolds there, though. He’s the love interest in a lot of romantic comedies, and he’s not significantly more muscular than the guys on the covers of modern romance novels:
If you’re trying to suss out the most attractive male body type, look at media marketed towards women. 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. Most men consider that physique too small.
At the Men’s Health level, the disparity shrinks. These bodies are muscular enough to look good to men but not so muscle-bound that they look bad to women. Some researchers argue that these stronger physiques are what women gravitate towards in real life. After all, both guys look ripped with their shirts off, but the Men’s Health guy can fill out a shirt better than the Cosmo guy can.
However, once you’ve got a “fit” physique, you’ll 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. The benefit at that point is that you’ll look better to yourself and other men.
Then, as we move 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, whereas women start to find them muscle-bound and bulky.
The Ideal Male Body Weight (BMI)
Before we dive deep into an ocean of details, let’s start simple. Let’s start with your body weight. That way, you’ll know whether you need to gain or lose weight to get to your goal. It seems that one of the more important factors is simply being big and heavy enough. A study by Crossley et al. found that women preferred men with a BMI of 24.5. We can call this the most attractive body. Men thought guys looked best with a BMI of 25.9. We can call this the aesthetic physique.
If you want to know your own BMI, here’s a calculator:
For a man who’s 5’10, the ideal body weight works out to:
- The most attractive weight: 171 pounds (BMI of 24.5)
- The most aesthetic weight: 180 pounds (BMI of 25.9)
The catch is that you need to be lean and muscular at that weight. After all, the vast majority of men with a BMI over 25 are overweight. Instead, think of having a body-fat percentage in the range of 9–15%. Not only does it look better, but keeping your body-fat percentage within the healthy range (10–20%) seems to be the most important factor for your general health (study).
Also, remember that these are rough estimations. Someone lean and thinly built might look better at a slightly lower weight, whereas someone with a naturally burlier build might look best at a higher weight. Use your own best judgement here.
Even though it’s far from perfect, this finding gives us a clear path to follow. If your BMI is less than 23, you know you have a bulk in our future. Perhaps best to start there. If your BMI is over 27, perhaps better to start with a cut. The next section, though, is arguably far more important.
The Ideal Degree of Muscularity
How Muscular Should A Man Be?
The drive for muscularity in men is innate and cultural—sort of a chicken and egg scenario. As in, guys love to eat chicken and eggs because we’re naturally drawn to muscle and because our culture rewards us for it. Thing is, men have different evolutionary pressures and are exposed to different media than women. We thus have slightly different muscularity ideals than women do.
Being muscular is universally attractive. The exact ideal amount of muscularity can vary depending on who you ask, but looking strong is never a weakness. Our muscles are like a peacock’s tail, indicating an abundance of the ingredients required to thrive. They require a steady supply of good food, indicating you can consistently acquire that food; they require lots of hearty physical activity, showing that you’re physically capable; and muscles require a healthy balance of masculine hormones. Perhaps most importantly, we evolved in a primitive and violent world, and our muscles hint at our ability to protect others. That’s why upper-body muscles are seen as being so important. They’re the muscles that swing clubs and hurl javelins.
(Consider how you think about the muscles in your shoulders, arms, and chest compared to how you think about the muscles in your legs. Most of us have a more visceral desire to bulk up our upper bodies than our lower bodies. When women see us, they often have that same gut instinct. The muscles in our upper bodies—the ones used in primitive combat—are the badass and attractive ones.)
Muscularity isn’t an outdated mechanism either. In today’s society, the same basics hold. While we may not need to hunt down food ourselves, protein is more expensive than carbs and fats; healthy food is more expensive than junk food; exercising and eating well requires good health, free time, and dedication. Muscle speaks of a lifestyle of health and abundance. And even now, more muscular men still appear more formidable. They’re still perceived as being more dominant.
Diving deeper, your physique also speaks to your character. Getting in shape requires dedication, consistency, and self-control. And because muscularity is such an innately masculine goal, we figure every man would prefer to be lean and strong, all else equal. Your physique can thus hint at your ability to get what you want out of life.
How Long Does it Take to Become Muscular?
The good news is you can start getting the benefits of being muscular quite quickly. Becoming a stage-ready bodybuilder is a long, arduous road. Getting into good shape is not. The first twenty pounds of muscle that you gain will have the biggest impact on your appearance, and it’s not that hard to come by. You can see noticeable gains in muscle mass within months. This will bring you to the “fit” level.
As you keep building muscle, you’ll continue inching closer to your genetic potential. You won’t just look like someone who exercises; you’ll look like someone who’s good at lifting weights. This can take 2–3 years of hypertrophy training and eating a good muscle-building diet. And keep in mind that most people take breaks. If you only spend a third of each year bulking, it will take you three times as long. This is how you move beyond “fit” and begin looking “strong.”
Once you’ve built a strong physique, gaining more muscle is a real challenge. Plus, now you’re at the point of greatly diminishing returns. There isn’t much extra benefit to looking “very strong” instead of merely “strong.” But if you’ve already put in the work to get strong, you’re probably in the habit of lifting weights and exercising. It can be fun to bulk on, building a truly dominant physique.
Long story short: if you’re skinnier than average, you risk being perceived as weak. Becoming fit is easy and gets you most of the benefits of being in shape. Becoming strong is harder, but it’s slightly more attractive. If you keep building muscle after becoming strong, the extra muscle is hard to come by and you may not notice any extra advantages. Still, it’s impressive.
Can A Man Become Too Muscular?
As we evolved, women learned to favour men who looked stronger and more capable. Not just men who were good at hunting, but also men who were formidable protectors. The sexiest guy was the one who looked like he could swing his club the hardest and hurl his javelin the furthest. These were guys with big shoulders, backs, arms, and chests.
Thing is, there are tradeoffs to being excessively muscular. Beyond a certain point, additional muscularity starts to hurt more than it helps. Perhaps too much testosterone makes guys overly reckless. Perhaps extra muscle requires too many additional resources. Point being, we evolved with limits in how much muscle we can build. When men have outlier genetics or use performance-enhancing drugs, they go beyond those limits. At that point, it stops looking attractive and starts looking alien.
Ask a girl what she thinks of someone lean and strong who built their muscle naturally. She’ll probably say that she likes it. It’s attractive. Then ask her what she thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger. You probably won’t get that same response. He’s gone beyond what can be achieved naturally. There are some women who appreciate that. Most don’t (study).
Now, how muscular is too muscular? It’s hard to say for sure. Everyone is built a little bit differently. Our bones grow to different thicknesses, our frames span different breadths, and we all grow to different heights. Plus, some people are better at building muscle than others. Still, a guy weighing 200 pounds at 10% body fat and standing 5’10 is more or less the pinnacle. Maybe you’re 6’2 and can bulk up to 220 pounds. Maybe you’re 5’8 and cap out at 180 pounds. But go much beyond that, and there’s no extra benefit to be found (at least as far as the average woman is concerned).
The Ideal Male Body-Fat Percentage
After muscularity, the most important factor is body fat (study). There have been periods in history where people thought chubbier men were more attractive. It was a sign of affluence—of being able to afford an abundance of food. In modern times, though, most people in first-world countries struggle with overeating, not starvation. Being overweight has fewer positive associations and isn’t rated as highly anymore. Now, both men and women tend to rate leaner bodies as more attractive.
On the bad side, our propensity to overeat has large genetic and environmental components. And the less time and money we have to invest in a solution, the harder the problem is to solve. On the bright side, though, we don’t need shredded abs or striated glutes, just a flat stomach with maybe the hint of some upper abs. Anywhere in the 10–20% body-fat percentage range is good for general health (study), and anywhere in the 9–15% range seems fairly ideal for attractiveness. These ideals are realistically achievable for most people, but it’s much easier for some than others.
Preferences for abs can vary, too. My wife grew up in Cancun among a group of surfers and football players. To her, abs are normal and desirable, including for herself. You’ll also see fairly well-defined abs on the covers of romance novels and women’s magazines. It wouldn’t surprise me if more women preferred abs than the research suggests. At the moment, though, it seems that looking fit and athletic is enough, whether or not that means having abs.
For aesthetics, men often prefer how guys look when they’re “ripped”—when their body-fat percentages are under 9%. That’s not necessarily ideal for our general health, though, and most men have trouble maintaining such a low body-fat percentage in the longer term. Plus, some new research suggests that being excessively lean can also impair muscle growth.
How Body Fat & Muscle Affects Your Face
Becoming leaner and stronger can change the appearance of your face by a surprising amount. At high body-fat percentages, your jawline will grow rounder, your neck will smoothen out, and you’ll lose definition in your face. At the other extreme, at extremely low body-fat percentages, your neck will shrink, your cheeks will hollow out, and your face will look gaunt. Bodybuilders call it the “death face.”
Next we have our muscles. If you eat a good diet that’s rich in protein, your body will hold onto more muscle, and so you may notice that your face becomes slightly more muscular. This effect is quite small, though. Far more important is the muscle you carry in your neck. Men who wrestle, fight, or play contact sports tend to develop strong necks. Men who don’t, don’t.
There’s another factor that’s interesting, too. It seems that improving our fitness gives us higher levels of oxygenated blood, improving our skin tone and making our faces appear more attractive (study). Eating more fruits and vegetables helps as well.
The best way to improve your appearance, then, is to:
- Stay within a body-fat percentage range of roughly 9–17%. This varies from person to person, but your face will probably look its best somewhere within that range. Fortunately, this range also tends to be ideal for our general health.
- Build a strong neck. The muscles in our necks are like the rest of our muscles. If you want to make them bigger, you have to make them stronger. For more, we’ve got an article on neck training.
- Engage in regular exercise, including both hypertrophy training and cardio.
- Eat a good diet that’s rich in protein, fruits, and vegetables.
Building A More Masculine Physique
More masculine men tend to be bigger, leaner, and more muscular, with broader shoulders and narrower hips. But women can also tell how masculine we are from our body language, stride, voice, and even our scent (study, study, study). Testosterone affects our personalities, too, influencing our ambition, aggression, and confidence. And the variance in testosterone levels is huge. Some guys walk around with 4-5 times as much testosterone pumping through them as others.
You’ll notice that being masculine doesn’t make men want to cut their hair short, prefer blue to pink, or avoid high heels. In fact, in the 1920s, pink was the masculine colour. Back in medieval times, military men wore high heels. And eons ago, in the Hyborian Age, Conan the Barbarian had long flowing locks of hair. These cultural norms shift with the times. And besides, as with this entire article, we aren’t trying to comment on what men ought to do or want. There’s nothing wrong with being more or less masculine, either culturally or hormonally. Still, if we look at group averages, some interesting attractiveness trends emerge:
- More feminine women are drawn to more masculine men. Conversely, more masculine women are often drawn to more feminine men.
- Women who are more confident in their attractiveness prefer more masculine men.
- More masculine men are more sexually attractive on a gut level, but moderately masculine men are sometimes preferred for long-term relationships.
Interestingly enough, men in long-term 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). And with all of these studies, it pays to have a certain amount of skepticism, at least until they’ve been reproduced a number of times. Outside of being lean and muscular—which many studies confirm is attractive—I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions.
So, what should we do with this information? Too little testosterone, and you’ll be deemed weak, fickle, and effeminate. Too much, and you’ll be seen as selfish, volatile, and fragile. Fortunately, your body can probably help you find that healthy middle-ground. You just need to support it. There are a few things you can do:
- Lift weights and exercise.
- Eat a good diet.
- Get enough sleep.
- Manage your stress.
- Maintain a healthy body-fat percentage.
How Posture Affects Your Appearance
Some research shows that having a more dominant, open, and “expansive” posture can make men appear more attractive (study). So, someone who stands tall and confidently will be rated as more attractive than someone who slouches with their shoulders caving forwards. That finding is fairly intuitive, but it’s a mix of both posture and body language. The research looking into how posture plays into attractiveness is fairly scant. It’s hard to say for sure what’s going on.
Furthermore, it’s debatable how much our posture affects health and performance, especially if you don’t have a restricted range of motion or joint pain. For instance, many men have their hips tilted forward. It’s common among desk workers and it’s often thought of as “bad” posture. However, many professional and Olympic athletes have their hips tilted forwards as well. It’s not quite as simple as “good” and “bad” posture.
With that said, most people want to stand tall, want their shoulders to look wide and broad, and want their stomachs to look flat. And the good news is that simply getting stronger seems to help quite a lot. Weak muscles often have trouble holding our bodies in the “correct” position. Think of exercises like front squats, push-ups, deadlifts, overhead presses, and loaded carries. These exercises strengthen our hips, abs, obliques, spinal erectors, upper backs, and the dozens of other postural muscles that hold us upright. If we can improve our technique and strength on those lifts, we can often “fix” our slouching posture.
For more, we have a full article on posture.
The Ideal Male Proportions
Now we’re moving into the finer details. If you’re strong overall, it doesn’t really matter if you have the ideal shoulder breadth or biceps girth. Similarly, if you’re lean overall, it doesn’t really matter how big your waist is. So before you worry too much about the proportions of your muscles, it’s usually wiser to focus on simpler getting stronger and/or leaner. That’s what really matters.
The Ideal Shoulder-to-Waist Ratio
The ideal male shoulder-to-waist ratio is 1.618-to-1. This ratio frequently occurs in nature and is often called the Golden Ratio or the Adonis Index. But it’s also somewhat of a trick, and if we focus on it too directly, it can mess up our progress.
Men with broad shoulders are fairly unanimously considered more attractive to women (study, study, study). The reason that broad shoulders look so good is that they hint at upper-body strength. Strong, masculine men tend to have a ton of muscle packed around their shoulder girdles: big deltoids, chests, upper backs, and necks. So the best way to improve your appearance is simply to build more muscle overall—especially in your upper body (study, study).
What this means is 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. But to accomplish that, you wouldn’t just focus on overhead presses and lateral raises. Instead, you’d focus on getting stronger at all of the big compound lifts. Lifts like the front squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, chin-up, and barbell row. Consider adding some biceps curls and triceps extensions to bulk up your arms, too. As you build muscle overall, your shoulder girdle will grow thicker and wider.
The coveted “V” taper has broad shoulders tapering down into a strong chest and upper back, which then tapers down into a small waist. Focus on just your shoulders, and you’ll build yourself a “T” taper. There are actually quite a few studies that look at chest-to-waist ratio instead of shoulder-to-waist ratio (study). They have similar findings. A broader chest is considered more attractive. Again, this shows it’s not the breadth of your shoulders that matters, it’s the strength of your upper body.
Now, the big caveat here is that some guys have natural broader shoulders. This makes it easier to appear strong, masculine, and lean. And because of what it signifies—more testosterone and masculinity—it’s attractive in and of itself. But we have no control over how long our collarbones are. All we can control is how lean and muscular we are.
Ideal Body-Part Measurements
Going further down the list of priorities, we can look at the ideal proportions for each muscle group. As mentioned above, these ratios are best to worry about later (if ever). The most important thing for a beginner is to focus on getting bigger and stronger overall. Then, once you’ve gained a good 20–30 pounds, you can see if any of your muscles are lagging.
According to the research of Casey Butts, Ph.D., the first step is to measure (or estimate) the size of your waist. Ideally, you’d take your waist measurements while at a body-fat percentage of roughly 9–15%. Using that waist measurement, you can then calculate the rest of your ideal proportions:
- Ideal waist circumference: you at 8–15% body fat. Measured at the narrowest point.
- Ideal hip circumference: waist circumference × 1.25. Measured at the largest point.
- Ideal thigh circumference: waist circumference × 0.75. Measured at the midway point between your knee and hip socket.
- Ideal shoulder circumference: waist circumference × 1.618. Measured with your muscles relaxed at the largest point.
- Ideal bicep circumference: waist circumference × 0.5. Measured with your arms flexed at a 90-degree angle at the largest point.
- Ideal neck circumference: same as biceps. Measured at the narrowest point.
- Ideal forearm circumference: biceps circumference × 0.8. Measured with your fist clenched, arm held out straight, at the thickest point.
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. But these are rough estimations, and we’re all built a little bit differently, so feel free to give or take 10%.
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.
Research shows that, on average, women are most attracted to men who look fit, athletic, lean, and strong. That’s probably not all that surprising. Where men go wrong, though, is assuming that women prefer guys who look like bodybuilders. That’s not the case. Most women prefer men who look “naturally” lean and strong. Think of a guy with a healthy body weight (BMI of 23–25) who lifts weights and has a flat stomach with at least a hint of abs (9–15% body fat). These physiques are realistic for most of us. The degree of muscularity is well within our genetic potential. The degree of leanness is healthy and sustainable. And skinny guys often have an advantage because we’re naturally leaner. For many of us, an attractive physique is something we can build within a few months and then happily maintain into our sixties.
Male preferences can be more extreme, especially for guys steeped in bodybuilding culture. A guy who lifts weights might prefer the look of a guy who’s technically overweight (BMI over 25), who can bench three plates and deadlift five, and who has shredded abs and striated shoulders (under 9% body fat). These physiques are bigger and leaner than most professional and Olympic athletes. They can require outlier genetics or performance-enhancing drugs. Natural lifters who look like this often diet down and pump up their muscles for a specific photoshoot, then go back to maintaining more reasonable physiques.
With that said, at the upper end of the attractiveness range, we get guys who are quite strong and fairly lean. This corresponds fairly well with the lower end of the aesthetics range. In this “strong” middle-ground, we tend to have guys who have succeeded in getting close to their natural genetic potential. They’re strong, but not unnaturally so. They’re lean, but not unhealthfully so. It can take a few years of hard work to build one of these strong physiques, but if you can do it, you may be able to get the best of both worlds.
Building a strong, aesthetic physique is harder and takes longer. Even so, with a couple years of work, many of us can get quite close! Benching 2–3 plates, squatting 3–4 plates, and deadlifting 4–5 plates is reasonable for almost all of us. Most of us can build 14–17 inch arms. Most of us can get abs. By the time we get within spitting distance of our genetic potential, most guys look totally awesome.
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