The buff body type is back in style. On social media, teens find inspiration, dangerous trends
Buff bodies are back!
OK, in truth, did they really ever go anywhere? Folks of a certain age will remember those 1970s comic book ads from Charles Atlas, who guaranteed that with his bodybuilding regimen you’d never get sand kicked in your face again.
That said, this does seem to be a new golden age for the Gold’s Gym set. Sculpted physiques on men and woman alike pop up everywhere from Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle” to Ryan Reynolds’ shirtless brag in “Free Guy.”
Being toned isn’t enough; it’s about being ripped. Nowhere is that more apparent than on social media, where aspirational images push teens to pump themselves up. But as with any free forum where sources of information can range from expert to suspect, such sites are home to misinformation that requires vigilance and intelligence to ensure that a healthy pastime doesn’t morph into a dangerous pursuit.
Even a cursory cruise through TikTok, YouTube and Instagram turns up a sea of self-admiring videos from the likes of buff soccer player Noah Beck (nearly 30 million followers on TikTok) to bodybuilder Lexx Little (230,000 on Instagram). Women are in the mix as well, including bodybuilder Dana Linn Bailey and buff physical therapist Linda Durbesson.
One popular bodybuilder dispensing advice on social media is South African Noel Deyzel, who also co-owns a supplements company. He has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers who turn to him for tips on everything from the lowdown on carbs to the best T-shirts for the muscle-bound.
Another touchstone for many teens is the transformative journey of David Laid, 23, whose now six-year-old YouTube video showcasing his physical journey from waif to buff has been viewed 43 million times. While comments often debate whether Laid took steroids, there’s a distinct “if he can do it, anyone can” vibe to it all.
“For many, fitness today definitely seems to be about the social media and all about vanity,” says Jason Kozma, a former Mr. America who owns High Performance Personal Training in Los Angeles. “But if it gets people into the gym, that’s great.”
Kozma says many newcomers to the gym aren’t coming through specific sports and instead are simply looking to be their best selves, aiming for well-defined bodies and not bodybuilding titles. “It’s about being big humans as opposed to mutants,” he says. “For many kids, there’s a big draw to that classic physique.”
Icons of bodybuilding from the 1970s – including actor/governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and “The Hulk” Lou Ferrigno – are more en vogue than today’s champs, says Kozma. “It’s about ratios, making sure the height and weight and size are proportional,” he says.
The pandemic also plays a role here, giving many teens a focus at a time when it would be easy to drift into depression, says Barbara Brehm-Curtis, professor of exercise and sports studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“The isolation during COVID-19 clearly has led many kids to training and hopefully, that has led to other good habits,” she says. “But there are definitely things you want to watch out for, whether you’re a teen getting into lifting or their parents.”
Those include making sure a newcomer to weights is using proper form, to both avoid injury and build muscles properly. There’s also having a good routine that includes alternating muscle groups and making sure there are enough rest days. And most of all, keep it as social as possible, she says.
“The key here is beyond building your body you should focus on role modeling good health and a good attitude,” says Brehm-Curtis, whose grown sons had their pumping iron phases. “People who go off the deep end are those who tend to work out in isolation, have no social life and regiment their lives to a terrible degree.”
There are other potential pitfalls for those new to the buff body bandwagon. The biggest is the plethora of shady advice that lives side by side online with earnest tips from well-meaning enthusiasts.
One of the biggest subjects of scrutiny are so-called pre-workout powders, which when blended into drinks aim to give the user a boost. Often a key ingredient is creatine phosphate, which helps with muscle contractions and allows for more intense workouts. Caffeine, a stimulant ingredient, is also popular in pre-workouts.
Do you need to take pre-workout powders? Experts weigh in.
But given that such powders are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, users need to be wary that some products could contain other ingredients that might not be as helpful to a workout, says Jonathan Purtell, a registered dietician with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
“A good place to start is to see if a powder you want to use is third-party tested because the good ones can be very safe and helpful,” says Purtell. “Overall with the whole supplement industry, there are some people out there providing relevant advice for kids, and others providing horrible advice. If anyone is promising fast results or trying to sell you something, that’s a tip-off to stay away.”
A few trends gone viral on TikTok are worth steering clear of, he says. These include the dubious online phenomenon known as “dry scooping,” which finds people pouring pre-workout powders into their mouths and either adding water or simply trying to swallow it whole.
Another is a potentially dangerous technique to get your forearm veins to pop, which requires you to squeeze a vein above your bicep and then flingi your arm downward.
Purtell is glad that kids today are seeing fitness as something worth pursuing for both its physical and psychological benefits. But he urges teens and parents alike to be wary of the potentially corrosive effects of coupling a gym passion with a social media obsession.
“At a click of a button, kids today can see someone they want to be, and while that can be inspiring we often don’t see what it took for that person to get that body, all the work and dedication,” he says. “That can put pressure on teens who think they need to be there, now. But it’s a process and involves proper sleep, nutrition and gym techniques. Like anything, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out.”