As a dedicated weight lifter, I'm used to people asking me for advice on a range of topics, from proper form to good nutrition. So it was no surprise when one of my coworkers started asking me about supplements for bulking up. However, I was surprised when I learned that his questions were not for himself, but for his teenage son who had come home from football practice with a wishlist of pre- and post-workout ingestibles. As a former high school and college football player, lifelong athlete, and counselor, the conversation raised many red flags.
The pressure for young men to get big and strong isn't new. Studies dating back to 1959 have reported the male desire to match the masculine stereotype of "bigger, stronger, faster, better." Popular media show large, muscular men as ideal, and many sports coaches, while well-meaning, are pushing young athletes to build six-pack abs and create muscles that bulge against the fabric of their shirt sleeves and jeans. In "Broscience," a popular YouTube series parodying the hardcore gym lifestyle, the main character jokes: "The day you start lifting is the day you become forever small, because you will never be as big as you want to be."
As with any good comedy, there's a hint of truth in this line, as it touches on the main problem with an out-of-control drive for muscularity: There is no goal state, no acceptable level of muscularity. While a normal training regimen can lead to positive health outcomes, including healthy diet and regular exercise, research has repeatedly shown that teens with an excessive drive for muscularity are prone to negative physical and emotional outcomes, including eating disorder symptoms, depression, and low body image-esteem. This extreme drive for unattainable perfection in the body becomes a physical compulsion, as well as a cognitive obsession with imagined flaws and self-imposed restrictions. In its extreme state: Self-perception becomes completely disconnected from reality.
Although all men are susceptible to media influences and are bombarded with messages about the benefits of exercise and the need to be "ripped" in order to reap the best rewards from society, adolescent boys are especially vulnerable. Outside influences like well-meaning, but ill-informed coaches, peer pressure, and media sources drive athletes to higher and higher ideals, without regard for genetic predispositions and overall health. Adolescents are already exposed to lofty ideals of attractiveness, and this emphasis on leanness and muscle development can lead to body image obsessions, and in extreme cases, muscle dysmorphia, a kind of reverse anorexia in which teens train for an impossible-to-obtain ideal of physical appearance while causing themselves considerable internal harm.
It can be difficult to recognize when a young person is training too much. Exercise is often promoted as such a good thing that it seems impossible to do too much. Yet a 2013 article from the Psychology of Men and Masculinity offers a few helpful tips.
Teens who are at risk may choose weight training over social, interpersonal, and educational goals. They begin sacrificing other parts of their routine to accommodate more and more training hours. Ironically, this can lead to overtraining (intense workouts with insufficient recovery), which can tax the body so much that performance is affected, making it seem as though more training is needed. The cycle of training>poor performance>more training may begin to appear as a change in mood state, an increase in fatigue, and in some cases, a set of symptoms that mimic depression.
The most important thing a parent can do is understand why a child is training. Maintaining involvement with a young person's weight lifting routine allows a parent to monitor change in mood and interpersonal behaviors, to prevent overtaxing the body or mind. Parents are encouraged to talk to coaches about lifting programs, and not about supplements -- that's what dietitians and pediatricians are for. And if they suspect their teen's workout is getting too extreme, parents should contact a counselor to evaluate the teen and possibly provide brief solution-focused or cognitive therapy to address issues of self-perception. Muscularity and strength should never come at the cost of overall health, and overall health comes from education, intention, and moderation.