Gaining muscle is more popular than ever, but is it a good thing for your body image?
Photo: Getty/T2 Images
A quick browse of #fitstagram will prove to any lingering doubters that muscles are a *thing* right now. The #gainingweightiscool hashtag now has over 80,000 posts, many of which feature "reverse" transformation photos, or ones where the "after" shows a woman who is at a higher weight—and is totally thrilled about it. Often, these photos feature women who have actively tried to put on muscle by working out and following a specific nutrition plan.
Survey Reddit's popular female-focused xxfitness board, and you'll find just as many women "bulking," or purposely trying to gain weight, as you will who are "cutting," or trying to lose it. espnW's Body Image Confidential survey of Division I female student-athletes showed a whopping 70 percent were not afraid of becoming "too muscular" as a result of their training. Add to all of this the fact that celebrities like Kate Upton and Britney Spears are posting photos of themselves lifting weights, and we've got a bona fide trend on our hands. (Related: An Open Letter to Women Who Are Afraid of the Weight Room)
There will always be people who want to lose weight (or who need to for health reasons), but suddenly, having the goal of gaining some (in a healthy way) is more popular than ever. So how did this change happen, and what does it really mean about how women see their bodies today? And is it always a good thing? We talked to fitness industry pros to find out.
What's Behind the Shift?
Part of the reason muscular physiques are becoming more popular may have to do with much-increased interest in the sport of weightlifting. "Recently, I've noticed an upward trend in women participating in our strength development program," says Ruben Belliard, founder of The Training Lab in NYC. Belliard says that while weightlifting is on the rise in general, this is especially true with women. "In June, we started with one lifting class per week, and in October, we will be offering eight classes per week, which are attended by about 80 percent women." As for what's causing the change, he thinks that for once, the media and social media are doing some good for women's body image. (Yay!) "I believe positive campaigns like #likeagirl or Strong Is the New Skinny have helped evolve body image. Athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey have also helped project another view of health and beauty, driven by athletic performance rather than aesthetic goals," Belliard notes.
And he isn't the only one who has seen a rise in female clientele interested in building muscle. "I've noticed this trend increasing steadily over the past five years," says Brandon Marcello, Ph.D., a sports-performance strategist based in San Diego. "While there is still some aversion to gaining muscle, I believe those who are averse are more of an exception rather than the rule. Sure, the scale goes up (muscle weighs significantly more than fat), but people in general are more educated on body composition." And while appearance probably does factor into many women's decisions to get more muscular, Marcello notes that for many, the desire to build muscle may be more about getting stronger than it is about changing their appearance. "There is an enormous sense of community around training and becoming stronger. Becoming stronger together as a community is a powerful thing."
It's undeniable that training for health and fitness rather than solely to lose weight is a positive change, and some experts say that focusing on muscle development allows women to perform better at their chosen sports than they would otherwise. "With more women wanting to participate in sporting events, whether it is running a 5K or competing in a triathlon, they see having more muscle as a way for them to get to their fitness goals," explains Shayla Roberts, C.S.C.S., a peak performance coach. "Women are realizing that body composition—what you are made of—is more important than the number on the scale." Plus, there are SO many benefits to having more lean muscle mass. According to Roberts, putting on muscle can improve bone density, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, help maintain weight loss, reduce your risk of chronic disease (like heart disease), and lower inflammation. Other benefits include improved posture, better sleep, better balance, higher self-esteem, and better performance in sports like running and cycling. (Related: Beyond Awesome Benefits of Olympic Weightlifting)
Body types shouldn't be treated like fashion trends, and it's definitely possible to take the movement too far. Research still shows that overall, "fitspirational" images can be just as bad for body image as images of thin bodies. One study published in Body Image in 2015 found that female participants' body image was just as negatively impacted by looking at thin, toned bodies as it was by looking at thin, un-toned ones. Interestingly, the researchers did note that body image was not negatively impacted when the participants looked at images of muscular bodies that were not categorized as "thin," so the idea of normalizing larger bodies is still more important than ever.
Even industry professionals aren't sure this is a completely positive trend. "I have very mixed feelings about this shift," says Victoria Jarzabkowski Lindsay, R.D., a Washington, DC–based dietitian who specializes in body composition. "On the plus side, I find it encouraging that women are moving away from the waif look that prevailed for many years, and is still prevalent in high fashion." That's because most women don't naturally have this body type (although some do!), so it's pretty hard to achieve and maintain. "I'm delighted that more women are rejecting that ideal and are instead opting to get in the gym, learn how to lift properly and regularly, and add more muscle mass over time. However, I do worry that we are simply switching one ideal for another," she says. "Society isn't pressuring you to be extremely thin anymore—because now it's telling you that you need a six-pack and lots of muscle definition."
She's got a point. Much like being able to stay very thin, the ability to develop and maintain a six-pack is also largely genetic. "I think that disordered eating, excessive exercise, and drug use—all the risky behaviors associated with trying to stay thin—exist within the group of women wanting to achieve more muscle gains as well," Lindsay says. "Orthorexia, or the preoccupation and obsession with being 'healthy,' is a very real thing, and the incidence and awareness of this have certainly increased since I've been a dietitian." (For more on that, read why orthorexia is the eating disorder you've never heard of.)
The Bottom Line
We're all for loving what you've got and being committed to fitness at the same time (that's pretty much the idea behind #LoveMyShape), but it's clear that the pendulum can swing too far in one direction or the other when it comes to the pursuit of "health." Still, there's nothing better than feeling strong AF. "For me, a strong body is a reflection of a strong mind and the hard work that goes into shaping it," says Seana Forbes, 24, who trains with Freeletics. "My muscles not only remind me and make me proud of my morning grind, but they also help make everyday tasks, such as carrying bags or taking out the trash, so much easier—meaning I've got more energy left over to do the things I love, like cooking, dancing around my apartment, or going for walks with friends."
If gaining weight or muscle is something that interests you, it's a good idea to chat with a trainer or nutritionist beforehand to make sure you're doing it sustainably. That way, you can actually enjoy all those #gains.