Male Body Image And Fitness Goals
We’re talking about male body image and fitness goals.
You may have noticed a trend in recent posts and podcast episodes around this topic.
And a lot of this is driven by the work I have been doing on myself to try and feel more comfortable with my body and in my own skin.
I mention it in every post, but just in case you’re new here, I had surgery to remove loose skin after weight loss. And while my confidence has improved a lot, the idea of being happy and comfortable with my body is kind of alien and I am having to do some work around just getting used to that feeling.
There is a lot more to it than that and I am trying to explore and unpack years of anxiety and discomfort with living in my own body.
And to bring it all together, I wanted to talk about male body image and fitness goals.
My Experience With Male Body Image And Fitness Goals
Without going into another epic monologue about my history with weight and weight loss (which I cover in plenty of detail already), here are the main things to remember for the purposes of this:
- I lost 140 pounds from my heaviest to my lightest.
- I was very conscious of my weight when I got to my heaviest.
- I became more and more sensitive about my body image as I lost weight – positive reinforcement and praise from listing weight drilled in the idea that weight loss is good and thinner is always better.
- I got down to a size S or even XS in most clothing brands but still constantly felt like I needed to lose weight.
- I had my excess skin from that weight loss removed from my chest and abdomen in March 2022.
- It dramatically improved my confidence in my own body, but I am still prone to bouts of body dysmorphic disorder.
So it’s been quite the rollercoaster and there is a lot more to each part of that, that I have either already covered in previous posts or will be covering in future posts.
But for the purposes of this post, let’s look at my goals throughout this whole great journey I took my body on.
Getting Started With Weight Loss
Each and every time I started a new weight loss kick, including all the unsuccessful attempts and the one that did finally work, my goal was literally to just lose as much weight as possible as quickly as possible.
This is the classic goal that I think a lot of us aim for when we try to lose weight. We feel a bit emotional, in pain, maybe a bit desperate – and feel ready and willing to do whatever it takes.
But once I got off to a successful start and had something that was working for me, I actually became a bit more comfortable with the pace of weight loss slowing down.
I knew I finally had something that was working and that I could stick to, and as long as things were still going in the right direction and I was still making progress, I wasn’t feeling as desperate or emotional.
And I had started to get a bit bored of the food I was eating and wanted to go out a bit more.
I knew I had something that would work for me, so I didn’t mind going a bit easier on my plan for the sake of some pleasure or enjoyment.
Throughout this time I was 100% only focused on the number on the scales.
Getting As Skinny As Possible
When I started exercising, that shifted from losing as much weight as possible to getting as skinny or as lean as possible. I wasn’t sure how slim I wanted to be, but I just knew I wanted to be skinny.
And this is where I started to develop some slightly obsessive exercise patterns and disordered eating habits.
While my goals up to now had been vanity or aesthetic-focused goals, I did have some performance goals mixed in as well:
- Being able to run for 30 minutes without stopping
- Running 10km in under an hour
- Running 10km in under 50 minutes (by the way 10k is my favourite distance)
- Deadlifting 150kg
- Completing a Spartan Race
- Completing the Spartan Trifecta – that is all 3 of their main distance – Sprint, Super, and Beast – in a single calendar year
- Touching my toes without bending my knees – Having no flexibility sucks
- Being able to do 1, then 5 and then 10 pull-ups.
When I had performance goals, I was able to set up a training plan and nutrition plan for that specific goal and was able to get there. I’ve hit each of those goals I mentioned above.
I always told myself they weren’t my main goal and they were secondary to my goal of getting skinny.
But if you look at the way I trained and fueled myself, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t my main goal.
And I enjoyed chasing those goals. They are very specific, I could control my inputs and it was easy to track progress to a clear end result.
My other goals of just losing as much weight as possible or getting as skinny as possible left me constantly chasing a moving target because in my head I would never be light enough or skinny enough.
There would always be some part of me that I needed to shrink down.
The Big Problem With Vanity And Aesthetic Goals
Every health and fitness start I had came from chasing an aesthetic goal in some form – from weight loss, to getting lean, and even now where I am trying to gain some muscle.
(Eating to deliberately try and gain weight is a kind of new idea for me and it is taking some getting used to by the way.)
But one of the main issues with aesthetic goals is that we often start from an emotional point or from viewing a part of you as flawed:
- “I’m not lean enough”
- “I’m not skinny enough”
- “I weigh too much”
- “My muscles aren’t big enough”
And as well as starting from that negative and potentially damaging mindset, you might see some cases of pseudoscience pop up as well.
One of the most common goals is where people say “I don’t need to lose much weight, I just want to tone up a bit.”
There is no such as “toning up”.
Muscles can get bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker, and the fat that covers them can increase or decrease.
Muscles don’t “tone”.
What someone usually means is they want to have more muscle definition without changing size much.
But to achieve this, it’s important you understand the science and not just focus on the aesthetic goal.
To get that aesthetic look, you will probably need to lose some body fat and probably will need to look at gaining some muscle size.
This is still a vanity goal, but at least it can be based on actual science rather than made-up ideas.
Lack Of Control
I always worry about my wording when I say this next bit so I am going to try to over-explain it a bit if I can.
But you can’t typically guarantee a certain vanity goal and you can’t fully control if or when you get there.
You can train as hard as you want, as often as you should and follow the perfect workout plan, and eat correctly – you can’t guarantee your biceps will reach a certain size within a fixed amount of time.
You can track your calories exactly and follow the perfect diet – you can’t 100% guarantee exactly how much body fat or weight you will lose or which parts of your body it will go from.
You won’t be able to say “I’m going to eat exactly X number of calories, burn off exactly Y number of calories and this is exactly how much body fat I will lose.”
You can control the input in terms of training and nutrition to go in the right direction, and you can tweak things as you need to. But you still can’t 100% guarantee the rate at which you’ll get to a certain point if you ever do get there.
Plus, as I already mentioned, they often do come from a deeper emotional starting point.
Not being happy with your body shape or an aspect of your body can intertwine with anxiety, self-esteem issues, and depression, and can have an impact on your whole personality.
So focusing on a goal that you don’t have 100% direct control over while feeling emotional and anxious is a recipe for disaster.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have aesthetic goals and shouldn’t aim for anything. It just means we want to be a bit more mindful of how we set them and I will talk about that further down.
The Pros And Cons Of Performance Goals
There is a similar issue with performance goals in that we don’t have 100% direct control over the end result.
We have a hell of a lot of control over how we train, how we fuel ourselves and how we recover.
We can set ourselves up to head in the right direction and tweak and adapt things as we need to. But we can’t 100% guarantee how far we’ll get on the path to a certain performance goal or how quickly we get there.
That’s why we all don’t have Olympic gold medals around our necks.
That’s why 2 people can follow the exact same training and nutrition plan and achieve different results.
When I got into running, I had specific goals:
- Run for 30 minutes without stopping
- 10km in under 1 hour
- 10km in under 50 minutes
(By the way, 10km is my favourite distance.)
I had a very specific and structured plan:
- Running 3 times per week
- Low impact cardio twice per week
- Strength twice per week
- Stretching 3-4 times per week
And I could track my run times and track my progress and knew how to adapt my training or my nutrition. And I knew what the right level to push myself was during my training.
I could see improvements week on week, but I didn’t know how much lower below 50 minutes I would get or how soon.
In the end, my best official time in a 10km run was 48:01 so I was very happy with it.
Had I continued running I would have aimed for 45 minutes and maybe 40 minutes eventually but my training priorities shifted soon after this run.
Why Goal Setting Is Important
I hope all of that hasn’t put you off the idea of setting goals.
Goals are great and they are important.
It’s just important we set the right goals for both our mental and physical health.
Aesthetic goals often start from a negative self-perception. Not always, I’ll admit. But anecdotally I suspect it is the case more often than not.
On the flip side, I am going to contradict myself and point out that negative feelings might be the emotional kickstart you need for an important goal.
My successful weight loss attempt started from feeling desperately unhappy and negative about my body. And my life, my health, and my fitness have all transformed a lot for the better in a lot of ways since then.
The problem is relying on negative emotions can be toxic, damaging, and unhelpful. You want to think about the life you’re living, what it’s going to take to get to a certain goal, and what your life will be like when you get to that goal.
That is often why people’s weights rebound after a strict diet.
There is a huge emotional fixation on getting to an end result without thinking about how to empower yourself to stay at that result.
So out and out vanity or aesthetic goals can set you up for an emotional roller coaster.
What is great about performance goals is that you’re less likely yo be starting from the view of wanting to fix a flaw. It is usually more about growth, development, improvement, or building something.
That’s not 100% true 100% of the time but again, anecdotally, it does seem to be more common.
And it becomes a fun, enjoyable, and positive experience.
Most people who love or learn to love sport, fitness, and exercise end up in this bracket at some point on their fitness journey.
As an example, saying “I want to get skinny” feels like a negative goal to tear yourself down. Saying “I want to get my bench press up to 100kg” (which I am absolutely nowhere close to by the way) is a much more positive goal involving growth and development.
Your goals are your own and it definitely isn’t my place to say to not have aesthetic goals. And that is not what I am saying.
But maybe take the benefit of my experience and try not to make aesthetic goals your main focus. If you focus on a specific performance goal and fuel yourself accordingly and train correctly, aesthetics often follow.
When I trained for my Spartan races, I was doing different kinds of training that I wasn’t used to and I got leaner, I definitely felt like my muscles developed a bit more and I enjoyed the whole process.
It is incredibly common for men into fitness to want arms and shoulders like gymnasts. I am not an expert on gymnastics training and have had zero experience of it. But my understanding is that gymnasts don’t train for a specific aesthetic – they just train and eat to be the best at their sport and the appearance follows suit.
How To Set Better Fitness Goals
First of all, your goals are your own. It’s not my or anyone else’s place to tell you what you should or shouldn’t aim for.
But as I said, both with performance and aesthetic goals, you don’t have 100% direct control over if or when you get to that goal.
You do however have control over your inputs:
- How you eat
- What you eat
- How often you train
- What exercises you do
- How you hydrate
- Your bedtime
- The time you wake up
- Your sleep hygiene
- Your caffeine intake
And if you prioritise settings goals around your inputs like the above, that is something you have direct control over and can hold yourself accountable for.
They will set you on the path to your bigger goals.
And when you build habits from those input goals, your overall health is likely to improve anyway, but also it becomes easier to manage and tweak the parameters around your bigger goal.
Wrapping Up On Settings Goals
Let’s just wrap this up a bit.
Aesthetic goals are common. But it is also common that they start from a negative emotional place. So it is something to be careful of.
Performance goals can be better because there is more growth and development around these and it is less likely to feel like you’re trying to fix a perceived flaw.
Whatever your performance or aesthetic goal, you won’t have 100% direct control over if or when you reach that end result.
You do however have direct control over your inputs, and that will set you on the right path to achieving your bigger goal.
Plus the habits you build from input-focused goals will have an ongoing long-term benefit beyond just the current big goal you’re aiming for.