For the past six months, Michael, a 28-year-old IT engineer and self-proclaimed “reclusive introvert,” has been going to the gym twice a day. He meticulously records his “personal bests” on the squatting rack as well as the weekly measurements of his chest and biceps in a blue, A5 spiral notebook. Before he started going to the gym, Michael described himself as the archetypal “loser computer nerd” with a beer belly and man boobs, who was usually sporting a deep slouch. He’d never been on a date, never had a real relationship and never had sex more than a handful of times since he left college. Now, he says, he’s in the “best shape of his life,” having cut most of his body fat and put on more than 10 pounds of muscle since he started lifting weights.
As a result, you might think Michael’s success with women would have increased — or at the very least, that he’d begun to get more right swipes on Tinder. But you’d be wrong. He hasn’t had much luck even talking to women, let alone going out with them. “I might look better, but it hasn’t changed how I am as a person,” he explains. “I still can’t talk to women, and they don’t talk to me either.”
Nonetheless, he lifts. But unlike most guys, Michael doesn’t see the gym as a place to get more fit. Rather, he views it as a place to compensate for his supposed “lack of ability” when it comes to dating. He hopes that by getting more ripped, he’ll eventually catch the eye of a girl he likes. At the same time, he says, “Lifting is a way I can distract myself from my problems while doing something meaningful.”
Michael says there are “hundreds of guys” like him. On Reddit threads, bodybuilding forums, private Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats, they refer to themselves as “gymcels.” According to the gymcel subreddit, which has just under 350 members, a “gymcel” is a subgroup of the “incel” community — a male subculture that describes itself as “involuntarily celibate,” a state of being they blame on society itself. Some incels believe that political ideas like feminism and progressivism have given too much power to women, and consequently, have undermined their ability to date, have sex or get married. Other incels use the ideology to promote harassment and violence against women, leading the BBC to describe them as having a “raw hatred of women.”
Incels are no longer an obscure subculture either. Most recently, they entered the mainstream after Alek Minassian, a self-described incel, killed 10 people with a van in Toronto earlier this year. Four years earlier, Elliot Rodger, considered a poster boy of the incel movement, killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, claiming it was a “revenge attack” against women who rejected him.
Michael was the only “gymcel” willing to speak to me on the record (though, in full disclosure, “Michael” is a pseudonym), and he was quick to separate gymcels from incels that we tend to be more familiar with. “The only common trait is that we’re men who haven’t gotten laid,” he tells me. “Gymcels aren’t violent. Part of that is because we take our frustrations out at by lifting at the gym.” Michael claims he was never part of the incel movement anyway, though he did read posts in the incel subreddit (a group that’s subsequently been banned from the platform). He also still regularly reads posts in other areas of the online “manosphere,” including the Red Pill subreddit and the Men Going Their Own Way subreddit.
In these groups, Michael found “men who had insecurities, anxieties and self-esteem problems. I could relate to that, because I spent so much of my life depressed and feeling as though [I had] no control.” He tells me that he was aware of the toxic elements in the manosphere, especially guys who would blame women directly for their problems, or who, like Rodger, would blame society itself for their lack of achievements. That’s why, he claims, they weren’t the ones who motivated him to go the gym. “For me, the gym is a place where I can challenge myself so that, if I lift more than I did yesterday, I’ve achieved something,” he says. To that end, he finds the process of setting fitness goals manageable — at least “when you compare going to the gym to dating.”
Although Michael doesn’t see the gymcels as a threat, others haven’t been as charitable. YouTuber BasedShaman, who makes videos about male subcultures, thinks gymcels are “toxic,” believing they’re “just an extension of the incel ideology.” More specifically, he doesn’t believe gymcels are genuine about wanting to physically improve themselves. Instead, he thinks their intensive workouts “feed into the idea of victimhood and reinforce a negative mindset” that’s foundational in broader incel culture. As an example, he cites gymcels’ use of memes that are common in online incel spaces that imply that men can either only be awkward virgins or confident lotharios.
On Bodybuilding.com, the internet’s most popular forum for amateur and professional bodybuilders, the concept of a gymcel tends to be routinely mocked, mainly for their misguided attempts to attract women by lifting weights. For some members, this is because “gymcels are pussies, are awkward and lack personality.” “Gymcels are pathetic because they don’t understand that it’s all about genetics. If your genetics are lousy, it doesn’t matter how much you lift,” user MacNz wrote in a 2017 thread. Another, LukeS1, put it more succinctly: “Athletes have money and fame, while gymcels are just insecure guys who are overcompensating.” Some users refer to gymcels as “copecels,” a term for men who, despite all their efforts to find love (or sex) by “improving themselves” through fitness, continue to be undone by their inferior genes (e.g., less than ideal facial features or height).
“People posting that on these forums and on Reddit might think they’re being funny, but I imagine what they’re saying is damaging, too,” says Sam West, a regular poster on Bodybuilders.com and a self-admitted “former gymcel.” West has been especially critical of the way users and moderators have dealt with discussions of male subcultures, particularly because “the forum can be a toxic place.” As he explains, “Lots of young guys come here because they want advice on their fitness. Instead, they’re exposed to all this garbage about being weak and pathetic if they haven’t gotten laid.”
“I’m sure that many of these guys [already] have a ton of self-confidence issues,” he continues. “They lack confidence, and the thing is, bodybuilding is a good way to build up physical and mental strength. But if you’re going online and being told that you’re never going to find a partner because you’ve got bad genes — or that all the work you put in doesn’t mean anything because you’re seen as worthless — how does that help? You’ve see what happens with these guys who go deep into the incel world. The same could happen with gymcels, or whatever ‘cels’ come after them.”
On r/inceltears (“a part-mocking, part-watchdog subreddit for posting screenshots of hateful, misogynist, racist, violent and often bizarre content created by incels”), one of the most commented upon posts of 2018 warns that online gymcel culture is “preying on the insecurities of teenage boys.” The thread shows a meme depicting the stages of love and relationships that almost every young man goes through. At the end, the meme suggests that if a man hasn’t had a girlfriend by the age of 20, they should give up their hopes for love and intimacy, and instead, focus on getting shredded. “Maybe if I lift more, [the pain of not having a relationship] will go away,” the caption under the last image reads. (I saw it posted on bodybuilders.com, other manosphere related blogs and 4chan’s dedicated bodybuilding page known as /fit/.)
“As a young adult who has never had a relationship and lived a rather boring life, I can also confirm that this image is incredibly fucking toxic,” one user wrote in an r/inceltears thread. Another added, “Honestly, the ones of my friends who didn’t have a relationship in their teens are the ones who have the most stable and good relationships now. It’s not some developmental milestone, you just find it when you find it. Some earlier, some later — nothing wrong with that.”
Yet, even on a Reddit thread specifically designed to counter incel ideology, there was some sympathy for the message portrayed in the meme. “There is some truth to it,” user MAGAparty wrote. “Young love makes one more adjusted. After a certain age, your chances of being well adjusted are going to dim. Beyond a certain point, you need to accept yourself and cope with being like you are. Self-delusion is a clear way for self-destruction.”
For West, such sympathy is indicative of the emotional and psychological problems that can develop from gymcel culture. “The problem is that as a society we believe that going to the gym is good, and there aren’t any toxic elements to working out, especially if you’re a man,” he says. “If you’re a man, you’re expected to work out. But what people don’t realize is that it’s about mindset, too. If you go into a gym believing you’re worthless, lifting weights isn’t going to change that. Sure, you’ll get a little stronger, but you’ll still hate yourself. Gymcel culture encourages that, but like incels, it doesn’t encourage men to want healthy relationships. They’re basically saying that by working out, you can avoid all the emotional stuff in your life.”
Muscle, however, is only so strong.