A few years ago, we ran a survey where we asked women to rate photos of male bodies to see which physiques they found the most attractive. Our results showed that the vast majority of women preferred men who looked strong but not overly musclebound.
However, a new study titled Cues of Upper Body Strength Account for Most of the Variance in Men’s Bodily Attractiveness, authored by Aaron Sell, PhD, found that the more muscular a man’s body was, the more attractive women found it. None of the male bodies were rated as being overly muscular. In fact, the most muscular body in the study was rated as being the most attractive.
I think this new study, combined with all of the other research published since 2011, show that we need to adjust our description of the ideal male body… although maybe not in the way you’d expect.
Let’s dive in.
What’s the ideal amount of muscle mass according to our survey?
Back in 2011, our survey results showed that women preferred the bodies of guys like Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1st), the celebrity personal trainer Bob Harper (2nd), and a bodybuilder from back before steroids were invented (3rd):
Men, on the other hand, assumed that the more muscular a man was, the more attractive women would find him. They guessed that Zyzz—a famous young bodybuilder who openly used steroids—would be rated as having the most attractive physique.
When we published those results, we got hundreds of comments confirming our findings:
- Men commented that our survey results were incorrect, certain that women actually preferred more muscular physiques
- Women commented that our survey results were correct, and that they did, in fact, prefer the bodies of guys like Brad Pitt in Fight Club to the bodies of bodybuilders and fitness models.
This lined up with most of the research that was available at the time. Most studies found that being muscular was good, but at a certain point, gaining more muscle started to make a man look less attractive (study, study, study). This suggested that there was an inverted U curve relationship between muscle mass and attractiveness, like so:
Our conclusion was that being strong was incredibly attractive, but only if it looked natural and healthy.
The new study: is it possible to gain too much muscle?
This new study challenges our conclusion… kind of. The idea underpinning the study is that women find men more attractive than others because they have objectively better traits. Since having more strength is objectively better, women should find stronger men more attractive.
The researchers list a few evolutionary reasons why being stronger would be an advantage, such as being better hunters, being able to defend their resources from other men, being able to better protect their mates and children, and so on. That’s definitely interesting, but there are also reasons that still apply in modern times:
- Stronger men are healthier. Your grip strength has a closer association with your lifespan than the amount of exercise you do (study, study), greater strength is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (study), and a study from Harvard Medical School found that push-up performance was a better predictor of heart health than jogging performance (study).
- Stronger men are more formidable. All else being equal, the more muscular a guy is, the more formidable he is. This becomes obvious as soon as you consider weight classes in combat sports, which were created to protect the smaller guys from having to compete against more muscular guys, given that the more muscular guys have such a massive physical advantage.
- Being big and strong proves that a man has access to abundant resources. Gaining weight requires having extra food; muscle is built out of protein, which is more expensive than fat and carbs; and you need extra time and energy to invest into lifting weights.
- Stronger men are more conscientious. Building muscle takes consistent effort and discipline, so a guy with more muscle mass is thus more likely to be more conscientious, which is one of the greatest predictors of overall success in life.
Because being stronger does seem to be objectively better, the researchers hypothesized that women would find stronger men more attractive, with no upper limit to muscularity.
To test this hypothesis, they found 190 male students at the University of California at Santa Barbara. 130 of them were psychology students, and the other 60 were recruited from the college gym. They were 21 years old on average.
Here’s a photograph of one of the study participants:
I’m guessing this is one of the lifters, and I’m guessing his favourite lift is the bench press, given how internally rotated his shoulders are. However, he’s also clearly in great shape. He looks lean and strong.
I know this is off topic, but this is a super common issue with new lifters. If he wants to fix his posture, he needs to strengthen his proportionally weaker upper back, abs, and butt, which will pull his hips and shoulders into the proper position. His issue isn’t that he’s too strong, his issue is that he isn’t strong everywhere:
Anyway, the researchers also found 160 female college students who would rate the strength and attractiveness of the male bodies.
This next point may be obvious to you already, but bear with me. The first thing the researchers needed to do was see if women could tell how strong a guy was just by looking at him.
To test this, the upper-body strength of the men was measured (study) and then the women rated how strong their bodies looked. They found that the women were able to accurately sort the men from weakest to strongest just by looking at their bodies.
This lines up with previous research. For example, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that bench press strength is directly correlated with the amount of muscle mass someone has in their chest, arms, and shoulders (study). The bigger a muscle is, the stronger it is. And women can see that strength.
The next thing the researchers did was have the women rate how attractive they found the various male bodies. As expected, the women rated the stronger male bodies as looking more attractive. In fact, not a single woman had a preference for smaller or weaker men.
So to summarize, the study found that:
- Strength is an accurate indicator of certain advantages, such as general health and formidability.
- Women were able to accurately guess a man’s strength just by looking at him. The stronger a man was, the stronger women thought he looked.
- The stronger a man looked, the more attractive he was. This was an extremely robust finding, too. There were no limits or qualifiers. Strength was never a disadvantage. And not a single woman had a preference for weaker men.
- How strong a man looked was by far the biggest indicator of his attractiveness. Strength accounted for a full 70% of how attractive a man’s body looked. Women didn’t care much about bone structure, limb proportions, or muscle shape. (The other main factor that they cared about was leanness.)
The researchers plotted the results on a graph, finding a perfectly linear relationship between muscle mass and attractiveness in men. Here are the charts:
Why are these results different from the previous research? Lukaszewski, one of the authors of the study, explained that older attractiveness studies asked women to rate drawings and silhouettes of men, and that the cartoonishly muscular drawings might be turning women off. He suspected that in reality, looking at photos of real men, women would always prefer the guy with more muscle.
That wasn’t true of our survey. We used photographs of real male torsos. However, we did use some “cartoonishly” muscular men in our photo arrays, including photographs of genetic outliers (such as world-class bodybuilder Frank Zane) and photos of guys who openly took steroids (such as Zyzz).
This study, on the other hand, used a regular sampling of university students. Some of them lifted weights, yes, but they still averaged just 21 years old, and it’s unlikely that any of them had world-class genetics.
In fact, even just judging by their age, we wouldn’t expect any of these guys to be overly muscular. Most natural bodybuilders don’t reach their peak muscle size until their early 40’s. And even in their 40’s, I’m not sure that most natural bodybuilders would look unnaturally muscular. We had a classic natural bodybuilder in our photo arrays, and women thought he had one of the most attractive physiques. They thought he looked strong in a natural way.
It’s possible that some of these college students were taking performance-enhancing drugs. But even if some of these university students were using steroids, it’s not like steroids instantly transform someone into a bodybuilder. It would still take years of disciplined lifting for someone on drugs to surpass their natural limits.
I did some digging, and Lukaszewski confirmed that none of the men in his study had exaggerated proportions. These were just regular college students, some of whom lifted weights. And in that context, the strongest guy was rated as the most attractive. I think that solves the riddle.
Just to be sure, though, we can look at the results of another study. In this study, they had women create the most attractive male body shape using a computer program. The women could have made their ideal man as muscular as they wanted, but they didn’t.
According to women, the most attractive male physique looks like this:
That physique is quite strong, yes, but in a totally healthy and realistic way. He looks like a guy who lifts weights and eats well, not a bodybuilder who takes steroids.
Can YOU become too muscular?
In our survey, most of the men who were rated as being too muscular were older than 21, had outlier genetics, and took steroids. The only exception to that were fitness models (such as Scott Herman) who dieted down to an unsustainable degree and then pumped up for a professional photo shoot. His photo was also probably edited before appearing in the magazine. I suspect that in a more casual setting, Scott Herman’s physique would have been considered one of the most attractive ones.
I think that suggests that there is a point of excessive muscularity, but that so long as we stay within our natural limits, and so long as we don’t have top 0.1% genetics, there’s no risk of us ever becoming too muscular.
I suspect that attractiveness works like this:
I doubt it’s a linear relationship. I think by the time you start to look fit and athletic, you’re going to reach a point of diminishing returns, where adding even more muscle mass only makes you slightly more attractive. If that’s true, and I think it is, then the “most attractive” physique above would be rated as only slightly more attractive than the much smaller “more attractive” physique. But we’re splitting hairs here. The main point is that under normal circumstances, the stronger you get, the better you look.
However, with outlier genetics and/or steroids, I still suspect it’s possible to eventually achieve an unnatural level of muscularity, which may then start to represent something different to women: a genetic abnormality, drugs, or perhaps an obsession with one’s appearance.
What’s interesting about this new study, though, is that it shows that there’s probably a benefit to becoming as muscular as we naturally can. In theory, that should make our bodies as healthy and attractive as possible.
Full disclosure: we have a bulking program designed to help naturally thin guys build muscle. It makes sense that we would have a bias towards becoming stronger and more muscular. (Although, if anything, this new research is even more gung-ho about it than we are.)