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Buff Short Kings Are Taking Over the Gym

Short guys who got ripped tell us about the inner demons they still battle at the bench press

John, a 42-year-old powerlifter living in California, is the 5-foot-5 jacked guy you see strutting around the gym — and he loves it. “I don’t know how many times people refer to me as ‘the fit guy,’ ‘in shape,’ ‘buff’ instead of ‘short,’ ‘small,’ ‘little,’ etc.,” he tells me. He hits the gym five times a week, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

James, 5-foot-6, was sick of feeling small. His buds were bigger and stronger, he says, and “what we see in the media [are] guys needing to be ripped and jacked.” So he got off the couch and hit the gym. “I maintain an iron-will discipline: tracking macros, going to bed, getting rest, learning how to cook my own meals, being very committed to making a lifestyle change,” the 23-year-old says. “The change feels amazing: I’m sleeping better, I have more energy, more confidence and have more of a ‘take-charge’ mentality.”

Other short buff guys suggest the world doesn’t quite know what to make of them.

Austin, 30, stands 5 feet, 4.5 inches; he jokingly calls himself a “manlet.” He got fit “for looks,” but soon he noticed an unintended effect: Bigger guys wanted to fight him. As for his love life, he sounds resentful: “Women don’t give a shit how much you can lift when you’re short.”

Randall, 18 and 5-foot-2, started getting buff to help him land dates — but found that the only compliments he got were from other guys at the gym. Now, he worries, people just see a guy who’s trying to compensate for his height. He feels confident and fit, “but it means nothing since I’m below-average height.”

Dr. David Ezell, a psychologist specializing in men’s psychology in Connecticut, says short guys like John, James, Austin and Randall are at a social disadvantage because people see height as a sign of masculinity. “We live in a culture that focuses on optics, and height is quite frequently the first thing people see when meeting someone. Height is highly valued; it’s a sign of manliness, health and power.” He adds that the research supports this: “Men over 6 feet tall are more likely to succeed in their careers. A majority of women prefer tall men as partners.”

Since they can’t control their height, Ezell says, they often seek to grow another aspect of masculinity: their muscles. “So for men who cannot stand out in stature, they opt for a masculine variable they can control — muscle. … By becoming more fit, they take a negative — beliefs about stature — and make it a positive.”

I asked guys on Reddit forums for short people (r/short) and body buffs (r/fitness) what it means to be the pint-size powerhouse at the bench press, and how gym culture has changed their self-perception — for better or for worse.

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John, 42 — 5-foot-5, 185 pounds

I can do what most people can’t. It makes me feel really good about myself. Everywhere I go, people comment on my body. Family, friends, co-workers, strangers… When people are constantly talking about how amazing, strong, fast and sexy you are, how would you not feel good about yourself? Sometimes I get comments about it being “vain” or “too into fitness” to spend so much time on my body. But I honestly only spend about 10 to 12 hours a week working out and doing prep meals, and those comments usually come from females who are out of shape.

As for dating? Fuck yes, it helps. Instead of pretending to be confident, you really are confident and simply project that. And having a body that makes people think of sex is always going to be a huge advantage. I can’t count the number of times I was groped, fondled, felt up, swolested by a woman when I was out. It still happens and I’m 42 years old now.

Think about it this way: If the first thing people notice and the most important thing they remember is that you have an outstanding body, then that’s how they will think of you. Treat you. Feel about you. I don’t know how many times people refer to me as “the fit guy,” “in shape,” “buff,” instead of “short,” “small,” “little,” etc.

I started lifting in high school because I wanted to excel at sports, particularly wrestling and football. And like a lot of ’80s kids and ’90s teenagers, I idolized Arnold.

As time went on, I stopped playing football and wrestled exclusively. During the season I would cut down and get as lean as possible, and in the off season I would lift to get as jacked as possible. It was about winning — being an overachiever. A champion.

Once high school and college were over, I lifted for exercise and enjoyment. I’ve been powerlifting for 28 years now, and I just love it. Lifting heavy things is fun to me. Challenging myself, setting goals and achieving them. And it makes me look good to boot.

I now I work out five times a week, run a 10K once a week, do a two-hour squat session and then two upper-body workouts: bench or push-ups, dips, curls, cable rows or pull-ups.

I truly believe that the person is a system: mind and body. Lifting heavy weights and being able to run far and fast don’t just change your body, it transforms your mind. I spend my entire life jacked up on the endorphins and testosterone my body produces.

One time I met up with a bunch of old friends to do an unofficial 15-year high school reunion. During dinner, one guy blurts out that it is weird seeing me because he remembers me as a huge person. I laugh, but a few other people chimed in saying the same thing. They all remembered me as being a really big guy. When I asked specifically what they all remembered, they all remembered my wrestling matches and lights going out. The spotlight would come on the mat and they would see me walk out slowly and fuck someone up. Then walk away like I was bored. They had all built me up in their minds as someone big.

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James, 23, Texas — 5-foot-6

My saying is: “Be like a Pokémon, always keep evolving.” Cheesy, but I’m a gamer geek.

I started really hitting the gym when I hit 213 pounds. After constantly hearing things like “You’re small if you’re not 200 pounds,” being around guys who are bigger and stronger, and in general, what we see in the media of guys needing to be ripped and jacked, I realized the solution was simple: get off the couch and hit the gym.

I got tired of how some aspects of my life were falling behind, so I decided to take accountability [and] responsibility and [to] make a change for myself. There’s no excuses and no nonsense. You got yourself into this, you can get yourself out.

I typically work out about seven times a week, with at least two full body works per week and two to five cardio sessions per week. I maintain an iron-will discipline: tracking macros, going to bed, getting rest, learning how to cook my own meals, being very committed to making a lifestyle change.

The change feels amazing. I’m sleeping better, I have more energy, more confidence and [I] have more of a “take-charge” mentality. You’re you, but better. I know being in great shape helps with dating, but I also realize you still need other aspects like personality to go with it. Even if you have a decent build, it wouldn’t do you any good if you have a personality of a wet sponge. Having an awesome personality and having a great body is the package deal in the world of dating.

To be honest, I tend to stay off social media now. Our perception of body fat, physiques, etc. are probably going to be distorted because of what is promoted.

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Austin, 30, North Carolina — 5-foot-4.5, 158 pounds

I was mainly working out for looks, and I just couldn’t admit it to myself at the time. Up until I was 22, I was a stereotypical boy eager to get into fights, so I also wanted to be strong for that, but I quickly grew out of that phase. Being in great shape also helped me be a pretty good free-runner for a while, but I started to get too afraid of being arrested.

However, I’ve learned that being in great shape does not combat the stereotypes and actually makes people believe in them more, in my experience.

Part of why I quit working out is that I noticed other men were more aggressive to me when I was ripped. Like they had to prove that a manlet couldn’t possibly be stronger than them. Strangers would start fights with me, police/security guards would treat me more harshly, even my own friends would do little things to “show dominance” over me. All that disappeared when I let myself go a little bit. I’ve even confirmed this phenomenon occurs with other manlets.

The other reason I quit working out is I was sick of gay guys hitting on me all the time. I finally realized that women don’t give a shit how much you can lift when you’re short.

I even specifically got the “you look like you’re overcompensating” shit from women I attempted to date on several occasions. The most ironic part is all three of those particular ones were chubby; I thought the fitness discrepancy would work in my favor but apparently not. Maybe they were trying to neg me or something.

In any case, it’s not like I’m walking around everywhere with my shirt off in the first place, and a small hairy frame kinda makes any aesthetics you gain a waste, anyway (in women’s eyes). Maybe it was different in the past, but the advent of Tinder brought with it “under 6 feet, swipe left” dating economics, so I’m basically SOL in the dating scene until society changes. 

The health benefits honestly aren’t worth the guys constantly trying to fight and fuck you in my experience. Fellow manlets should only lift if they have a specific reason for doing so. DEFINITELY don’t lift expecting that it will make you more attractive to women. Cardio is always good, though.

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Randall, 18, Florida — 5-foot-2.5, 160 pounds

I’m 5-foot-2 — technically 5-foot-2.5, but adding that extra half inch would make me seem insecure, which I am. I’m at 160 pounds or so last time I checked, and I’ve been working out five days a week since March of 2016.

I would say that I initially started working out for looks, at the behest of the (naive) idea that working out would help me with dating. I also saw it as a supplemental benefit to when I play soccer. Being stronger means I can easily body people to offset having the higher vertical for receiving the ball. Now I basically only work out to keep my physique so that I don’t deteriorate, keep myself healthy, and for that slight bit of hope that being rather fit will help me with girls — since I would say that being fit helps fight the stereotypes with guys, but doesn’t help with girls stereotyping. For example, I’ve gotten more compliments from fellow guys who work out than from girls who I am friends with (literally zero mentions from girls about that… only time it has ever come up is when the conversation was about fitness).

So I’d say that being in shape helps combat 50 percent of the stereotyping a short guy may receive from guys, with the other 50 percent being girls who will still stereotype because height stands out more, and guys who are just narcissistic.

I haven’t had to deal with the fallout of “Napoleon complex,” since I’m never usually aggressive about something — I really hate conflict, due to constant conflict I was in with my mom during my earlier teenage years. However, I feel that some people subliminally see me as trying to compensate in general, and just interact with me differently than other guys who work out.

In reality, even though I am confident in my abilities and physically fit, it means nothing since I’m below-average height. I’ve had no more success with girls than I did before I started working out (which is zero). I’ve seen no change in the ways girls treated me, so that means that even though I’ve become more social in conjunction with getting fit, none of those things matter. It ends up boiling down to height.