It’s the cringe factor we can’t resist: a skinny fat dude posts a mirror shot in a forum and asks what he can do to jump from a 4 to an 8 to collect his first-ever Tinder matches (big yikes).
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The entire “bro” corner of the internet links arms in solidarity and sings the same harmony:
“Bro, lift weights, and you’ll be fine.”
But weightlifting is now a vague term since classic resistance training has evolved into other styles: functional, aesthetic, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and calisthenics (to name a few).
Aesthetic training and bodybuilding are among the easiest to confuse. Below, we’ll settle the aesthetic training vs. bodybuilding debate to help you decide which style is best for you.
What is Aesthetic Training?
Aesthetic training shifts the focus away from enhancing athletic or functional performance and toward physical attractiveness. In the 2020s, the traditional “aesthetic” physique means:
- Muscular legs (but not so thick that it diverts attention away from the upper half!)
- A slim, narrow waist
- Clearly defined abdominal muscles
- A wide upper body, with capped shoulders and well-defined chest and back muscles
- Bulging biceps and horseshoe-shaped triceps
- About 8–10% body fat
- Symmetrical (left/right) and proportional (top/bottom)
- Dense muscle
Your diet and exercise routine will zero in on these characteristics as you build a more visually appealing body, like Jeff Seid, Jeff Cavaliere, or Jeff Nippard (that can’t be a coincidence).
3 Benefits of Aesthetic Training
1. The Obvious Answer: The “Attractive” Factor
One of the most highly cited studies in the field of physical attractiveness revealed that a 1:1.6 waist-to-shoulder ratio in men is most attractive to women (also known as the “Golden Ratio”).
But additional research published in 2019 dug a little deeper into the perception of the male physique, discovering that men and women do find some muscles more attractive than others.
Men ranked the abs, obliques, biceps, glutes, and pecs as their top five. Women responded similarly, with a preference for the obliques, glutes, abs, biceps, and shoulders.
The common thread is that almost all of these fit the mold of the stereotypical aesthetic build.
Increasing definition and size in these six identified muscle groups can bump up your status across the board. There’s instant respect from other guys, and women will take notice.
(Of course, feeling confident in your own skin comes above approval from others!)
2. There’s Plenty Of Training Variety
Eighteenth-century poet William Cowper (and likely every marriage counselor across the country) said it best: “Variety is the spice of life.”
The worst momentum-killer in the gym isn’t a lack of effort; it’s boredom. The less variety in exercises, reps, sets, intensity, and frequency, the more likely you’ll call it quits early on.
Aesthetic training brings the freedom of blazing your own trail, as your goal extends well beyond building more lean mass; that means you can:
- Stick to the ACSM’s hypertrophy recommendation of 8–12 reps per set, 70–80% 1RM intensity, and 1–3 sets per exercise. (Hey, sometimes simple is best!)
- Swap out traditional sets for a drop set, which a clinical trial from 2018 shows can significantly improve muscle growth.
- Add some exercise variety from week to week without sacrificing progress while also boosting intrinsic motivation (proven in a 2019 study).
- Split training between compound (70–80%) and isolation (20–30%) exercises.
- Enhance other areas of fitness with varying exercise intensities and rep ranges (i.e., 1–5 reps to build strength and power).
- Squeeze in a few cardio sessions per week to trim excess body fat and maintain cardiovascular endurance (full-body health perks).
- Experiment with time under tension, negatives, and static holds.
In the early days of an aesthetic program, you’ll also dedicate most of your training to the multi-joint, compound lifts like the bench press, deadlift, and squat.
These exercises fall into what we call “functional training,” which simulates movements you might do outside of the gym. In the long run, these exercises can lessen your risk of injury!
3. The Physique Goals Are Much More Attainable
Building an aesthetic physique isn’t easy, though it is less of hustle if you’re a natural-born mesomorph. But with the right aesthetic program, diet, and worth ethic, it’s certainly realistic.
The first benefit catches wind during your first few months of training. According to Lyle McDonald, newbies dedicated to a hypertrophy program can build muscle at a decent pace.
|In Your …||You Can Build … Of Muscle|
|First Year||20–25 Pounds|
|Second Year||10–12 Pounds|
|Third Year||5–6 Pounds|
|Fourth Year (and Beyond)||2–3 Pounds|
Remember that, while muscular, aesthetic physiques are also leaner and less bulky than the Phil Heath build. So a visibly aesthetic physique could be just 18–24 months in the future.
Aesthetic training also delivers more consistent and healthier results than bodybuilding.
Bodybuilders typically eat like kings (4,000+ calories a day) and lift heavy during the off-season. But then they yo-yo back to insane cardio and dangerously low caloric intakes pre-competition.
It’s simply not sustainable for anyone attempting to maintain their sanity.
While it’s not the most efficient strategy, body recomposition allows you to build muscle and shred fat simultaneously — no crash diets, unhealthy binges, or insane cardio requirements.
And, even if genetics aren’t on your side, an aesthetic physique like Colin Kaepernick is more realistic for the average person than sprouting out Arnold-sized biceps.
2 Reasons Against Aesthetic Training
1. There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Strategy
We all have our own definition of “aesthetic.” For example, some men are perfectly content with a year-round Bear Mode, while others won’t be satisfied unless they’re absolutely ripped.
But when you’re training for the traditional aesthetic physique — with a narrow waist, wide upper body, muscular legs, and shredded core — you’re at the mercy of factors out of your control.
Your personalized approach to aesthetic training could depend on:
- Your somatotype: If you’re an ectomorph or a hard-gainer, the average aesthetic workout routine may not produce the same rapid results as your mesomorph friends (lucky bastards). For an endomorph starting with higher body fat, chiseling away at an aesthetic physique may require more cardio than iron-pumpin’.
- Genetic factors: Some muscle groups are reluctant to grow, especially if thin calves or forearms run in your bloodline. Like Arnold and his six-day-a-week calf routine (which blew up into 20” monsters), you may need to up your frequency, volume, or rep ranges to hone in on aesthetic proportions and symmetry.
- Your level of commitment: The “magic” behind aesthetic training happens in two locations: the gym and the kitchen. If you’re hesitant to train 4–5 times per week, do cardio to maintain a <10% body fat, or track your calories and macros, your aesthetics will suffer or stall.
- Nothing at all: For whatever reason, some physiques respond well to year-round bro splits, while others require a higher frequency or even a specialization routine like Athlean-X TNT. What helps your gym buddy gain five pounds of lean mass in a month may do nothing for you (talk about frustrating!).
It’s impossible to know which programs will work for you and which won’t until you follow them for 6–12 weeks. Even if they do, you’ll need to adapt it eventually when you hit plateaus.
Aesthetic training will build an attractive physique … with an individualized approach!
2. Symmetry & Proportions Require Specialized Training
A fit physique features well-defined muscles and generally low body fat. But what makes a physique aesthetic is the symmetry and proportions that the human eye finds visually appealing.
In the bodybuilding world, all lean mass is good mass, and the lower your body fat, the better (often dipping as low as 3–5% pre-competition).
Aesthetic training requires a more targeted approach for a few reasons:
- An aesthetic physique has a tight V-taper between a wide upper body and a slim waist. Instead of your ordinary back and core day, zeroing in on a weak V-taper may mean extra lat work for a shaper V and more shoulder training for a wider top-half. (This shoulder-to-waist ratio is widely regarded as the most attractive.)
- Left/right symmetry isn’t an exact science. Research from 1989 reveals that, on average, the dominant hand is about 10.74% stronger than the weaker side. That also translates into bilateral training involving both halves of the body, where the stronger side picks up the slack when the weaker side exhausts its strength mid-set. Aesthetic training means more unilateral, single-leg, and single-arm exercises to create balance.
- Proportionality between the upper and lower halves matters. Training for aesthetics means a little extra focus from the waist up, but that doesn’t mean entirely neglecting your legs. If you double up on chest and back, one measly leg day a week won’t cut it!
- Minor muscles and heads matter more. A modern-day Greek God physique doesn’t exist without defining features, like aesthetic arms or capped shoulders. So instead of just shoulder presses or close-grip benches, you’ll also have to tailor your training around smaller muscles — like the posterior deltoid or medial head of the tris.
It’s clear that building a conventionally attractive physique requires you to train smarter, not harder (though harder does help). You may also have to alter your routine quite frequently.
What is Bodybuilding?
Bodybuilding is exactly how it sounds unless Frankenstein comes to mind initially.
Whether you’re a hobbyist, amateur, or professional bodybuilder, the sport of bodybuilding revolves around one focus: maximizing the size of the human body through hypertrophy.
Its extreme cut/bulk cycles paired with ridiculous-intensity, hours-long workouts are essentially aesthetic programs to the max.
This training style takes years or even decades for a head-to-toe physique transformation where bulky muscles and low body fat take priority
and the points don’t matter.
Jeff Nippard is a “tamed-down” and more realistic version of the modern-day bodybuilder. But “that can’t be natural” physiques like Lee Haney still run the pro bodybuilding circuit.
2 Benefits of Bodybuilding
1. The Extremes Can Feel Enticing
Modern-day bodybuilding is all about extremes: occasional two-rep sets at 90% of your 1RM, skyrocketing PRs, stuff-yer-face bulking diets with 3,000+ calories and unhealthily short cuts.
But although moderation is typically the safer option, the body and mind can’t resist these satisfying milestones and indulgences.
This also simmers down to the chemistry in your brain and human nature.
After 60 minutes of intense exercise, the body will release its natural “feel-good” hormones, also known as endorphins. These natural mood-boosters give rise to that post-lifting “high.”
The link between exercise and endorphin release increases the motivation to train while also boosting the odds of developing an addiction to exercise (which can reach unhealthy extremes).
Success is also one of the best motivators in the gym and kitchen. When you obliterate your old PRs or add ½” to your once-bony biceps, you’ll sense a rush that you’ll continue to chase.
Aesthetic training impresses others. Bodybuilding allows you to realize what you’re capable of and build the most muscular version of “you” possible!
2. Ego-Lifting (‘Nuff Said)
Ego-lifters are the bane of Planet Fitness’s existence, and the grunting, weight-slamming, and cheat reps alone will likely land you on PF’s permanent ban list.
But ego-lifting — at least to an extent — is one of the biggest mental and physical perks of choosing a bodybuilding routine. (It’s just so satisfying to lift heavier and heavier weights.)
The safest way to stroke your ego without sidelining yourself with an injury is to:
- Focus on the proper form above anything else; once you have to arch your back or use pure momentum to finish a rep, call it a set.
- Include a few three and five-rep sets into your routine to put up heavier weights while targeting your muscles in new ways.
- Try partial reps against heavier resistance, which a 2019 randomized controlled trial found could enhance hypertrophy in the triceps.
Traditional ego lifting is an injury waiting to happen. Yet, with a few ego-boosting lifts, you can fluff your ego from time to time to keep motivation high without sidelining yourself for months.
If you can’t finish the set without breaking form, you’re better off toning it down a notch.
3 Reasons Against Bodybuilding
1. It Can Take Years to Perfect Your Physique
Flexing on stage in front of a panel of judges may not rank high on your to-do list.
But to understand the sheer magnitude of the training required to be a true bodybuilder (hobbyist or more), it helps to look at the ridiculous physique requirements of the professionals:
- Men’s Bodybuilding: The stereotypical and unnaturally massive bodybuilder, judged on their muscle mass via a variety of poses
- Men’s Physique: An emphasis on symmetry, proportions, and leanness (what many would call a traditionally “aesthetic” physique)
- Classic Physique: Somewhere between Bodybuilding and Physique, where contestants must hit certain weight and height requirements
Whether you’re training to become huge, aesthetic, or somewhere in between, your highly scrutinized physique will require years of consistent dieting and training (if you don’t quit).
It could be 1 ½ year before you can call yourself a bodybuilder. But if you’re starting from scratch without steroids or unhealthy habits, five to ten years might be a more realistic goal.
This slow progress can be wildly discouraging to newbies.
2. The Can’t-Touch-My-Shoulders Look Isn’t Conventionally Attractive
It’s only human nature to crave social acceptance, though many bodybuilders pursue training to boost their self-confidence during those lanky (and awkward) teen years.
Bodybuilding can boost confidence (case in point: Zyzz and his relentless “u jelly bro?”). But when taken to an extreme, it can actually damage your relationships with women and men.
That, according to a 2016 original paper published in Current Problems of Psychiatry.
Researchers surveyed 60 men — 30 bodybuilders and 30 recreational athletes — to learn more about their habits and underlying personality traits. Bodybuilders were much more likely to be:
- A source of narcissistic anger
- Less tolerant to criticism
- Obsessed with their physical appearance
- Intrigued by dominance and a power imbalance
Bodybuilding could give you a new lease on life where masculinity leads the charge. And, if you were bullied as a teen, your intimidating physique is also a satisfying dose of vengeance!
But when it becomes your entire personality, your obsession could be extremely off-putting.
A Bony to Beastly survey of 423 women also confirmed what we’d suspected all along. While women do prefer muscular physiques over skinny ones, there’s a limit to their attraction.
Ninety-four percent of women found the athletic or strong male body most attractive. The “very strong” group earned just 6% of votes and was a far cry from the hulking Dorian Yates look.
Not only will fellow gym rats find you to be arrogant, but women may also keep their distance.
3. You May Fall Into Unhealthy Habits & Shortcuts
(We’re not talking about the dopes with thin forearms injecting their biceps with literal oil. But if you’re looking to mentally scar yourself, watch the video of doctors draining those suckers.)
Bodybuilders reek of confidence. And, after years of intensive training and dieting, they have the right to flaunt their gains like Johnny Bravo whenever he passes a mirror.
But the obsession with sculpting the perfect physique isn’t always rooted in cockiness.
In fact, research published in the American Journal of Men’s Health found that bodybuilders tend to struggle with their self-esteem, confidence, and body image at concerning rates.
Of the 120 bodybuilders surveyed, 58.3% ranked high for muscle dysmorphia symptoms, while 67.5% were on the verge of disordered eating.
Research from 2013 also points to rampant anabolic steroid use in bodybuilding circles. While 24.5% of respondents admitted using PEDs, they predict this number’s closer to 40%.
Long ago, well before Schwarzenegger and Yates entered the scene, bodybuilding was about building a proportional and symmetrical physique. Steve Reeves was once the gold standard.
These days, the focus is to push the human body to its limits and build an ungodly amount of muscle through whatever means necessary.
It’s hard to win with a natural physique when your competition looks like Coleman in his prime.
That, unfortunately, means cycling between dirty bulks and crash cuts, injecting the body with questionable drugs, and building an unhealthy obsession with training.
Aesthetic Training vs Bodybuilding Conclusion
Aesthetic training and bodybuilding both have their pros and cons. But for most guys, an aesthetic program is much more efficient, sustainable, and flat-out enjoyable.
It’ll help you stand out in a crowd and assert yourself as the alpha dog without obsessing over your physique and sinking into unhealthy eating and training habits.
All that’s left now is to choose the right aesthetic program and diet!