Jacob Campbell, a 26-year-old self-professed “gym rat” in Berlin, has a routine for whenever he wants to pump himself up to work out. First, he exchanges his stuffy suit and tie for his gym sweats. Next, while drinking half a protein shake in the locker room, he opens a private folder on his phone entitled “Work.” It consists of images he’s collected from bodybuilding forums, fitness websites and Facebook workout motivation groups.
Almost all of the pictures are of oiled-up bodybuilders flexing their muscles, or jacked-up guys with perfect pecs and hairless bodies, lifting weights, pushing tires and showing off their abs after intense workouts. Also mixed in — old photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger standing triumphantly in Gold’s Gym, shirtless with long, pronounced veins running down his biceps and cover models from Men’s Health or Men’s Fitness.
He’ll look through these photos for “a good 10 minutes or so” before starting his work out, sometimes just scrolling through them for a “hit of inspiration.” Other days — especially when he has an area of his body he wants to train — he’ll look at specific features of guys he admires in his collection, visualizing what he’s “working toward” at the gym. For example, he’s recently been inspired by the “leg gains” of Greg O’Gallagher, a Canadian fitness author and YouTube personality with more than 200,000 followers on Instagram. “My legs are like sticks at the moment,” Campbell explains. “I want them to be stronger and look more like tree trunks.”
Every time Campbell sees pictures of other guys whose physical features he likes, he adds them to his collection, regardless of whether he ends up using their physique as a blueprint for his own workouts. For him, they serve as an example of the physical ideal he wants to embody. As for that ideal, at the moment, Campbell, by his own admission, has a long way to go. He’s 5-foot-8, with a slim build, weighing in at just under 140 pounds. But by the end of the year, he’s hoping to have changed all that — due in no small part to his “Work” folder.
You’ve probably seen people like Campbell in your social media feeds, particularly on — but not limited to — Instagram. Just look through hashtags like #fitspo, and you’ll be bombarded with images of guys showing off their #leangains or going out of their way to #muscleup. Some photos are accompanied by cheesy motivational taglines like “True warriors refuse to fail” or “Train the quit out of you.” In fact, it’s become a standard part of Instagram culture, along with cat photos and overhead shots of Avocado brunch.
For the most part, though, this type of #fitspo content — promoting the idea that being strong is better than being skinny — has been targeted at women, designed as a counter to #thinspiration by promoting strength and clean eating over behavior that could lead to anorexia or bulimia. Yet not everyone buys it’s having that effect. For example, many have warned that #fitspo’s promotion of low body fat and unrealistic body types is just as dangerous to women’s mental and physical health as #thinspiration, and that the emphasis should be on general fitness and wellbeing.
At the same time, a growing body of research indicates that men are vulnerable to the same anxieties and physical dangers that come with #fitspo culture, and thus, they’re aiming for hyper-specific and potentially unhealthy body types as well.
Like Campbell, Steve Higgs, an Australian business manager who aspires to be a competitive bodybuilder, also has his own folder of swole dudes that he uses for workout motivation. But, unlike Campbell, he refrains from Instagram, opting instead for Pinterest, a social media platform largely known for its collection of interior-decor imagery. On Higgs’ Pinterest page, there’s an eclectic mix of pictures — bodybuilders lifting heavy weights, workout plans and diet tips and a hit of Chris Hemsworth (aka Thor) and Gerard Butler (aka the guy with the unforgettable abs in 300). He started collecting images of muscular men during the 1990s when he was in his late teens, because he was “fascinated by how they looked. They were like gladiators to me. I had this poster of Kevin Levrone in my room from a bodybuilder magazine, and I remember being amazed by how his body looked.”
For Higgs at least, Pinterest offers a “healthier community” that, by and large, rejects the #fitspo culture of Instagram. “No one is expecting me to motivate them, or sell them fitness supplements,” Higgs says. “I can’t game the algorithm for likes and shares. But at the same time, I’m not interested in self-promotion. I want to be stronger, and I want my body to look good — but I’m doing that for me, not anyone else.”
“Bodybuilding is about community,” he continues. “If you watch some of the old documentaries, you see guys who are all helping each other, supporting each other. There’s that famous scene in Pumping Iron where Arnold is showing the other, smaller guys how to pose and why it’s important to stand tall and look strong. He did that because he cared about the community — not so that people could adore him. That’s the problem with Instagram, it rejects what fitness culture is supposed to be about.”
Within the bodybuilding community then, there are long, heated debates about whether Instagram belongs in a gym environment or not, and who should be using it. “I do have clients who I’ve found respond well to Instagram pictures of guys losing weight or getting leaner — it gives them optimism their goals are reachable,” says Lyndal Vaile, an online pseudonym of a personal trainer and regular poster on the bodybuilding.com community forum. “The problem is when fitness guys post inaccurate garbage on their platforms, and convince people that their products and content is valuable.”
She adds that she’s had several male clients she’s had difficulty training because of how easily influenced they were by Instagram-savvy fitness guys “selling their own brands of protein, creatine and weight-loss supplements and promising them quick and easy gains through gimmicks. Because they video themselves working out and spend a lot of time defining their muscles, it can convince other guys who aren’t as knowledgeable in the gym — or can’t afford to have personal trainers — that their solution works.”
When I ask Jacob about whether he thinks his pre-workout routine and collection of strongmen images were potentially harmful, he’s quick to dismiss it. “People go to the internet to find motivation all the time,” he argues.
“Could you though, see yourself becoming obsessed with a hyper-specific body that you go to unhealthy lengths to attain?” I respond.
He hesitates. “I want to be proud of my body,” he answers after a few beats of silence. “I do have an image in my head of what that would look like, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t imagine it being something that other people would admire — or even want to imitate.”