Everyone of us who has passed through the biological trauma that is adolescence has wondered in various times and settings how we measure up to our peer group, or some reference group that we would like to join. Later, we wonder how we can improve for career or personal development. In some cases, it is pretty clear where we stand in the rankings. In the less politically correct past, we stood tallest to shortest in class; sprinters are timed and it is clear who is fastest; the military has ranks and a chain of command; and so on.
If you have ever competed in, or watched a bodybuilding or fitness contest, you likely questioned why one contestant placed higher than another. Even though bodybuilders all try to get big, muscular, and ripped, there is no uniform body type. If you approach improving your appearance and athletic ability in a mentally healthy manner, you realize that you are never going to be exactly like anyone else. For some people, becoming fit and beautiful/handsome is judged by others – this is not a healthy approach. Unless you have a spouse or partner who truly loves and cares about you, your appearance and performance are little more than entertaining distractions for others. Even those who judge their physical state based upon their own achievement, enjoyment, and contributions face uncertainties because there is no measurable standard of fitness and beauty; this is particularly true for men.
Rightly or wrongly, women have long been judged for their physical traits. Measures of beauty have been defined for the structure of the face, breasts, and other features. These features have been broken down into mathematical formulae, and are used by plastic surgeons, modeling agencies, and marketing firms. We are born with pre-determined height, facial features, and body characteristics that cannot be changed by adhering to a disciplined diet and exercise regimen. However, we can change our physical condition, cardiovascular health, muscle and fat mass through our efforts. The question becomes, what is the target?
What Are The Ideal Body Proportions For Looking Good?
We all have personal preferences as to size, condition, and type of exercise. Is there some rational that can explain what is excellence, what is desirable in terms of the amount of muscle, degree of leanness, and relative symmetry for a man’s physique. Yes, I am limiting this to the male physique because I have asked myself from time to time if I am trying to get too big, too lean, or if I am affecting my health by trying to force a change that becomes unhealthy. For the record, my wife gets final say as to whether I look good.
“Looking good” is dependent upon the audience, but if we fall back on natural selection (whether you want to call it adaptation or evolution), there are standards that suggest “looking good” reflects being healthy, as well as physically dominant. These standards can be warped by social pressures, such as the Ethopian Bodi tribe that regales men who become the fattest. However, in socially stable environments that do not suffer from food shortages, the “fit” body often represents one that offers the best “breeding” genes, and ability to provide. Obviously, social status, wealth, and other factors equate into the “complete package.”
Naively, we all might assume that the best “breeder” and best provider, as a male, would be someone about seven feet tall, weighing 380 pounds with 1% body fat. Well, since we are not Clydesdales (the Budweiser horses, beautiful animals), this is not true. The body is dependent upon vital organs that do not vary in size as much as people’s mass does – your heart is not much larger than your neighbor’s. Supporting mass is stressful on the organs, requires a lot of nutrients, and generates a lot of oxidative damage. Remember, for the vast majority of human existence, food scarcity was a major issue. Beyond the “breeding,” providing and surviving are innately considered when judging a person’s appeal.
Through surveys, some common ground has been reported, showing that the “ideal” male BMI from the perspective of the opposite sex is 23 (Ana Mills – Beauty and the beast: an evolutionary perspecitive). BMI stands for body mass index and is a calculated ratio of weight to height; a BMI of 23 for an average height male of 5′ 8″ allows for a weight of 151 pounds. Most weight lifters and bodybuilders would consider that to be very light, even with a body fat of 3%. However, assuming the typical build, that is the BMI associated with greatest health. Of course, most people with higher BMI do not have greater muscle mass, but fat mass.
One can look at the data on BMI and consider that a body mass above 30 is associated with health consequences. Looking at our average height adult male, at 5′ 8″ a weight of 165 – 198 pounds would stay within the “overweight” BMI range of 25 – 30. I have chosen to limit my weight to this guideline to avoid “mass” associated health consequences (e.g. hypertension, arthritis, insulin resistance, etc).
Now, this BMI of 30 is much higher than 23, so how can that be considered a “male ideal?” In addition to weight, the shape of a man is considered when judging desirability. Again, surveys have researched this, finding that for men, shoulder width and taper from the shoulders to waist are judged highest (Horvath, 1979). The classic “V” that bodybuilders used to manifest before the sheer scale of mass dominated the sport. Thus, it is not size for size sake, but a healthy, athletic form. This would require a fairly low body fat, and is easier obtained by the young. Perhaps the youthful, as well as powerful presentation is part of what makes the “V” so appealing.
As a spectator sport, bodybuilding fans are often young and fascinated by “hugeness.” This, along with the judging criteria favoring the easily quantifiable mass, has led to the loss of public favor; especially from adults, parents, and the public media. Young people have a clear predilection for “mass.” They “misjudged the body preference of same-sex peers, exaggerating the extent to which other men perceived large physiques as ideal and desirable.” (Cohn & Adler, 1992) This is no different from driving fast cars, selecting uber-avatars in video games, etc. It is the nature of developing maturity.
Yet, Is Size What Attracts Others?
Though the majority of study has been on facial symmetry, there is research supporting the role for body symmetry as a factor for attraction by potential mates. Randy Thornhill has published a number of studies regarding symmetry, and one in particular fortifies the selective drive for symmetry. In women, orgasm during sexual intercourse was associated with symmetry and physical attractiveness of the male partner. Social status, wealth, and other factors had no bearing. (Thornhill, et al. 1995)
Thus, one cannot rely on a workout that consists only of “curls for the girls” though biceps circumference is the only measure related to drive for muscularity. (McCreary, et al. 2006) What determines symmetry? Well, for muscular men, a comparative chart was proposed by David Willoughby that described ideal and superhuman measures based upon recreational exercisers and professional bodybuilders. Willoughby’s superhuman category is function-specific, as it relates to professional bodybuilding and requires size that is rarely seen outside of livestock yards. The ideal category is more modest, and could even be considered comfortably acquirable by people interested in their physique from a social point of view. One website even modified that to have an in-between category.
Let’s look at the average male again. Standing at 5′ 8″ the ideal weight would be 165 with a little less than 16″ for the flexed biceps, neck, and calves; 31″ waist; and 41-42″ chest. The proposed level higher would have the same person weighing 188, with 17″ neck, arms and calves slightly smaller; 32″ waist and nearly 44″ chest. Certainly respectable numbers, and let’s look at the ratios.
The upper category is under the 30 BMI, and has a shoulder to waist taper of 12″ correlating well with the previously mentioned factors in male attractiveness. The 17″ neck would fit in off-the-rack shirts though snugly, and the arms and legs are developed such that strength is well demonstrated.
I have personal preferences, based in part on having been involved in bodybuilding for much of my life. Neck size is a function of need, and most do not develop thick necks. Helmet wearing, whether it be sport, safety, or military/law enforcement, is the function most associated with a thick neck. I prefer to keep the neck, flexed biceps, and calves within an inch of each other. However, in the case of a developed weight lifter, the arms will outgrow the other two. Nonetheless, if the arms grow disproportionately large, it takes away from the symmetry and reduces one’s attractiveness. At some point, it may behoove one to look for disproportion and focus on lagging parts rather than strengths.
So Do You Measure Up?
So, how does a person determine how he measures up? Especially if he is not 5′ 8″? Well, David Willoughby has posted several pages on his thoughts on symmetry, and included summaries of his decades of measuring bodybuilders. However, not everyone is a bodybuilder; most prefer an athletic build. Figure out for yourself what ideal you admire. Is there a sports star whose build you find aesthetic? It may be a star like soccer player David Beckham, NFL running back Adrian Peterson, or Lebron James of the NBA. It could just as legitimately be someone in your world, a fitness instructor or someone who has your respect. After all, the end goal is to build your own respect, along with your body. Don’t get swayed by the bodies promoted by the media, either overly slim or immense.
Take a measure of where you are now. Perhaps your greatest concern is your size, or lack of size. Perhaps you first need to lose several inches in the waist before you worry about building your arms or shoulders; or perhaps you are slim and putting an inch or two on your upper arms and chest would give you greater confidence. The first step is to figure out where you are, then you can determine what direction you need to take, and where you should focus your efforts.
In the end, never forget that your efforts are to benefit you and those who truly care about you. Fitness is a component of health, and the pursuit for physical fitness/attractiveness should not result in a detriment to your mental, social or spiritual health.
About the Author
Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.