They don’t drink. They ‘eat clean’. They work out twice a day. A generation of young men is becoming more body-conscious than women
This article was amended on December 31, 2015.
Every morning at 6am, 26-year-old Nick Dacks wakes up in the home he shares with his father in Milton Keynes and begins the routine that has become an essential part of his life. After 100g oats, he has three whole eggs and three more egg whites mixed with protein powder, along with cod-liver-oil tablets and perhaps some branched-chain amino acids. Following three hours working as a scaffolder, he’ll break for his next meal: two large chicken breasts, 200g white rice and some steamed or raw broccoli, followed by the same meal at 1pm. After getting home from work at 4pm, he’ll eat two cans of tuna fish and some sweet potatoes, “and sometimes I’ll add a protein shake in there, depending on how I’m feeling, how I’m looking, how much water I’m holding”.
Sometimes he’ll have a small amount of creatine (a powdered drink that increases the body’s ability to produce energy rapidly), then it’s time to go to the gym, where he’ll train intensively for up to an hour: a general full-body workout would include inclined bench press, shoulder press with dumbbells, wide-grip pull-ups, weighted squats, rope curls, close-grip press-ups and weighted dips. Most exercises are done for 3 or 4 sets of 8-15 reps, with the bench press peaking at about 110kg, or around 120 per cent of Dacks’ own body weight.
With the weights done, he can return home for more red meat and more sweet potatoes. Then it’s one more pre-bedtime meal of white fish or more chicken and … sleep.
The reward for all this discipline and effort is Dacks’ new body. At 6ft 3in, he doesn’t have the lumpy appearance of a bodybuilder (the look that Clive James memorably described as “a condom stuffed with walnuts” after interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger), or the arm-heavy, superficial pump of blokes who frantically get in shape before a holiday. Instead, he has a T-shirt-filling, all-over muscular symmetry, a healthy glow and a clean, well-groomed look.
A lean and not particularly sporty teenager, he spent his student years in a typical blur of “late nights, bad food, drinking a little bit too much”. “I was really skinny – I’d never wear a short-sleeved T-shirt, ever. I’d always cover past my elbows,” he recalls, before detailing how he was introduced to weight training by a work colleague. “The results came in the first month or so. You start to see it instantly. Your body’s changing right before your eyes; it adapts to it. I’ve always been quite tall and I’d always thought at some point I want to be able to look a bit more ‘full’. So if you’ve been going from doing nothing and eating two or three meals a day, to suddenly getting the protein shakes in, eating a bit more here, a bit more there … Those first six months to a year are when you notice the biggest difference. They call it your ‘beginner’s gains’. I would have put on about half a stone or so. I saw considerable results quite quickly and that was when I became hooked.”
Scroll through Tinder and Instagram and bodies like Dacks’ are becoming a familiar presence. What was once the preserve of a small core of bodybuilding enthusiasts, the “ripped” physique is now the look to aspire to. It’s a fitness trend driven by social media, where the topless selfie is prime currency, and the more “dry” you look (the term used to describe a body with low fat, tight skin and muscular definition), the better.
It comes against a backdrop of a booming fitness industry, which is seeing smartphones double up as pedometers and calorie counters, and protein drinks now available in Tesco and advertised on billboards. Body-conscious men are becoming big business.
Building a ripped physique requires a commitment to a whole way of life – a clean diet, protein drinks and supplements, socialising in the gym rather than the pub, regular waxing (no longer deemed effete, but a must) and clothes that show off vein-bulging muscles to maximum effect (slim jeans, deep V-neck T-shirts, clinging fabrics). Think Ronaldo on holiday or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men films. “It’s football-informed, hip-hop informed, but the obvious reason is Tinder,” says fashion writer Daryoush Haj-Najafi. “Gay men have been doing this for years. Now it’s the same for straight men: you’ve got to have that photo with your top off.”
According to Ryan Scully – a 19-year-old from Watford who trains seven days a week (twice a day at weekends) – while the taking of selfies is “about showing off what you’ve got a little bit”, there’s also a business logic behind the use of Instagram.
“If you’re going to get sponsored in future, by a supplement or a clothing label, it’s all about your social-media profile. If you’ve got a following, that’s what a sponsor is looking for.”
“A lot of it just comes down to lighting and angles,” says Dacks of the perfect muscle selfie.
For men older than Dacks and Scully, who grew up in a less metrosexual time, this new normal can be difficult to take in. Nowadays, according to the Office for National Statistics, young people in the UK are not just working out more but drinking less, with 20 per cent declaring themselves teetotal. Thirty per cent of all the photos taken by 18 to 24-year-olds are selfies, with 34 per cent of young men admitting to digitally retouching the images before posting.
“We’ve had our business a decade, and we’ve noticed there’s more pressure for men to look a certain way,” says Rob Grim. As owner of Revolution Personal Training Studios – it advertises on the London Underground with before-and-after shots of fitness converts – he has a close-up view of how training has come to dominate many men’s lives.
“For many, they want it both ways now – bigger, but also more ‘shredded’ [well-defined].” Grim is acutely aware of how this atmosphere can affect the people filling gyms up and down the country. “There was a time when you had a daughter and you thought carefully about her future in terms of body image and how she’d feel about that. Now, I’d worry about a son just as much.”
“A lot of people associate gym culture with arrogance and aggressiveness, but it’s not the case,” argues Nick Dacks. “When you’re in the gym, everyone’s just there to do the same thing.” He’s polite and well-informed about his lifestyle. And, arguably, is displaying a level of commitment and deferred enjoyment at odds with the public perception of young men and his generation.
For many men who are getting seriously ripped, their exercise and dietary programme is planned over a whole year so they can “bulk” over winter, before aggressively “cutting” in the warmer months. Nick Orton, CEO of BodyPower, stresses the positive side of men’s new obsession with fitness: “There’s a really important aspect to this. We needto encourage it, because there are such huge obesity and diabetes issues. It’s a healthy thing for men to be doing.”
It’s clear from talking to Dacks just how much effort is involved in his lifestyle, although not necessarily in the way one might expect. “The key downside is probably the food: if you skip a meal, instant guilt kicks in. Say you want to go and see your girlfriend – you’ve got to take Tupperware tubs of food with you. It’s not romantic. Or if you’ve had a hard day at work and your friends are saying, ‘Come to the pub,’ you’re thinking, ‘But I’ve got to go to the gym, got to eat, do my meal prep for the next day, make sure that I’m getting 6-8 hours’ sleep a night …’ ”
Men like Dacks are fond of clothing labels such as Gymshark (motto: “Be a visionary”), which offer tightly cut workout gear in clinging fabrics and eye-catching neons. The look has also spilt out of the gym. Asos, the online retailer that is the go-to destination for image-conscious twentysomethings, has changed the look of its male models to reflect this new aesthetic, says a former staffer.
“A couple of years ago, we went from using slim models to much bigger guys, because we found that men with muscular physiques helped sell more units of a T-shirt. Around the same time, we began receiving a lot of comments on social media from customers asking why we weren’t catering for muscular men, so we did something about it.” Now on Asos you’ll find sections devoted not just to T-shirts but also vests (even in the middle of winter). The models are ripped, with sleek hair, smooth chests and tattoos. One model, Stephen James, apparently sells clothing better than anyone else. James is something of a celebrity in his own right, with 1.2 million followers on Instagram.
Another star of this world is Ross Dickerson, who has 900,000 Instagram followers, 26,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and 198,000 likes on his Facebook page. Every platform is filled with comments from men who want to look like him, asking about his routine, about their own diet, about where his shorts are from. The 26-year-old is sponsored by Gymshark and EHPLabs and has exactly the clean, healthy glow you’d expect of someone who trains with Spartan levels of discipline and whose idea of a blowout is an occasional burrito.
“I didn’t know anyone when I moved to London, so I joined a gym, and I was training pretty hardcore.” His commitment has paid off: “I’m the biggest fitness page for an individual in the UK.”
A large part of Dickerson’s appeal – beyond his body – seems to be how accessible he is: waking up in the middle of the night to post on Instagram, vlogging everything from his breakfast routine to his trip to the hairdresser, and going below the line on YouTube to answer questions posed by fans. This extends to his regular life, where simply looking the way he does makes him an object of random attention. “Sometimes you might get someone who hates you for looking like that; other people want to know [about it]. And I love talking about it. I came from the s*** end of the spectrum – I was skinny, I was not doing any exercise, I was unhealthy – to people now thinking I’m a super-health freak. I’m not. I’m still an ordinary person.”
At a time when status anxiety weighs heavily on a generation of young men, the gym is a place where hard work and commitment are genuinely rewarded in the way that you’re told they will be when you’re growing up. There are no short cuts in the gym. You turn up, lift and repeat (literally) ad nauseam. No one can do the work for you. It’s a truly egalitarian space.
There is a problem, however, and one that is growing. Everyone I speak to is adamant that they don’t use – or condone – steroids. However, recent surveys show 17 per cent of gym-goers use amphetamines to lose weight; the same figure use thyroid hormones; 15 per cent take diuretics; 60,000 people in the UK take anabolic steroids and steroid users start younger. One needle exchange in Middlesbrough has reported dealing with 2,000 people, the majority taking steroids.
“The main precursors for steroids are testosterone. Also, growth hormones, insulin, often used in combination. Chorionic gonadotropin …” Professor Julien Baker, an expert in steroid use from the University of the West of Scotland, is reeling off the substances most commonly used by British gym-goers. “Basically, if they think something will work, they’ll take it. And the problem is, they do work.” He suspects the official figures are underestimating the extent of steroid use, due to “a subculture within gyms where you’ll have one individual who goes out and buys a lot [of steroids] and distributes them. Same with needle exchanges.” He also suggests that average doses are increasing, and organised criminals are becoming more involved in their distribution thanks to the lower penalties and risks compared with regular drugs (steroids are a class-C substance and, while illegal to distribute, are legal to possess and take).
One needle-exchange service manager in the southwest of England reports “a definite widening of our user base in the past three years, mainly around IPEDs [image and performance-enhancing drugs]. One thing that’s characteristic is that it’s not about performance enhancement; it’s about image. We still have a few traditional bodybuilders, but the biggest increase is people just wanting to look and feel better. They now maybe make up half the people who use our needle exchange – and in some places in the northwest that figure goes up to around 80 per cent.” As to what he thinks is driving it, he talks of men being introduced to it by their peer group and the pressure of “the whole ‘looking good in a T-shirt’ culture”.
On a condition of anonymity, one trainer at a chain gym goes through a laundry list of steroids commonly found in most gyms: Anavar, Winstrol, clenbuterol (an asthma medicine similar to ephedrine), T3 thyroid hormone, growth hormones, peptides. Contrary to perception, he claims that “injecting is actually safer as it doesn’t have to go through your liver. The tablets leave a residue that your liver has to process.”
After years working in gyms, he is well placed to observe how the shape of young men has changed: “The weird issue now is that because it’s more common than you think, it could be absolutely rife – it’s at the point now where the perception of the norm has changed. It’s like women with plastic surgery. But, to be honest, if it’s done safely, most of these things are just based on normal, natural hormones that are already in the body. It’s just increasing the amount of them, the same way that HRT or the Pill does.” One other trainer is even more blunt: “I did anabolics, because when you’re 22 you want to be the alpha. It’s not to say it’s the right thing to do by any means, but it’s the reality.”
But whatever you take, there is no avoiding hard work. If you want to get ripped, you need to put in a lot of work in the gym. Repeatedly.
I’m in a gym in the City of London with Justin Maguire. A huge, South African-born trainer, author and fitness expert, he specialises in the kind of lifestyle transformation that turns office workers into men who can fill Instagram with topless photos. In our pre-workout chat, he talks me through a life spent in training – boxing, bodybuilding, weight lifting – and the qualifications he has achieved to the stage where he is about to open his own state-of-the-art gym in east London. He has observed the latest changes in male body image at close quarters.
“In the Seventies, Schwarzenegger with two women on his shoulders – that was the pinnacle of being an alpha male. Now it’s a guy with a six-pack with a towel around his waist looking much the same type of frame size as the woman standing next to him. Now, they all say, ‘I want to look athletic.’ ”
Maguire’s approach stresses that a ripped look is obtainable, but it requires targeted, time-controlled exercise and a holistic approach that focuses as much on diet, rest and recovery techniques as it does on sweating in the gym. “The effort isn’t just in the training session,” he explains. “It comes in the psychology behind it.”
Maguire is about to take me through two workouts that would typically form the basis of “a balanced, aesthetically pleasing physique”. I’m reasonably confident that with years of training under my belt, and stamina acquired from long-distance running, I’m going to thrive. After warming up, the first exercise he leads me through is a simple, almost yogic move, lunging forwards while raising up an extremely light weight. Seems easy enough.
Within 45 seconds, I’m shaking uncontrollably and struggling to hold my balance. Maguire talks me through a series of moves on a timed circuit; each appears to be the sort of thing a pensioner could do, until about the third repetition, when I feel deep layers of muscle that I never knew I had being prodded awake and burning with exertion as I try to maintain my form. We move to a series of squats: I’m not even carrying any extra weight, but by the sixth rep I’m having to grip hold of Maguire’s hands to stay upright. I feel light-headed. I just about make it to the end of the first session with a distinct impression that the trainer was going extremely easy on me.
I move on to the weights. Again, a series of small, controlled, but brutally targeted movements that see me reduced to a quivering heap. Finally, I admit defeat and bail out two thirds of the way through.
I sit in the changing rooms for 20 minutes afterwards, concerned that if I stand up suddenly I might faint or vomit. Men like Dickerson and Dacks do this at least once a day, sometimes twice, and to a much more brutal extent. It’s an astonishing workload, but one that more and more men are taking on.
Where young men have led, older gym-goers are following. Typical of the older breed of newly ripped men is Tom Whitehead, 36, an ex-navy man who admits to having left service, joined the City and “got very fat, very quickly”. His first brush with a personal trainer was a sobering experience that saw skin-fold measurements taken at 12 sites around his body, an ultrasound scan and an unflinching eye cast over his diet and lifestyle. “In the first two weeks, on a paleo diet [rich in foods such as meat, nuts, and berries], I lost 6kg, mainly just water weight. And that comes from having two young kids, working long hours, commuting three hours a day, wine to relax in the evening. Those first two weeks are like a boot-camp phase.”
With a whole-life training programme drawn up, Whitehead set about a 15-week regime that saw him drop more than 20kg of fat. “I was doing it for the family’s benefit,” says Whitehead. “So I’d be around for longer, rather than dropping dead of a heart attack at 40. On holiday, I felt like I didn’t want to take my top off. I was holding myself back from doing stuff with the kids. That was a shock.”
A new book by middle-aged fitness guru Craig Cooper stresses that with the right combination of sleep, supplements, training and diet, your forties could see you in the prime of your life with a body and testosterone levels to eclipse those of a 25-year-old. Where previous generations of men saw getting older as an inexorable decline into a soft, weary shapelessness, the example of young men has convinced them to work harder, eat better and train longer. And, as Whitehead explains, the end results of training can go well beyond the physical. “Confidence-wise, everything has gone up massively. I’m far more mobile. I’ve got more energy. I’ve got that fire in the belly again, clarity of thought – it’s life-changing. I’m probably in the best shape of my life.”
This sentiment is echoed by Oliver Bailey, a 39-year-old stockbroker who has been training prior to a transatlantic charity rowing trip in January. “I feel fit and able to push myself a lot further mentally than I did when I was younger. Training for the sake of body beautiful doesn’t interest me now; I care more about biomechanics, mobility and usable strength. Mixing disciplines is vital to stay interested, and my body responds quickly to healthy eating. I don’t feel it’s any more of a struggle to get in shape than it was in my twenties, apart from niggles with my joints.”
So is the extreme-fitness trend here to stay? “I don’t see any reason why it would slow down,” says Julien Baker.
Nick Mitchell, the author of Your Ultimate Body Transformation Plan and founder of UP Fitness, takes an interesting long view of the fitness phenomenon and why both young and older men are working towards the same goals: “The world is becoming more aware of fitness and our looks, because of the internet, this constant bombardment of images. But it’s been coming a long time. If you look at the trends that came through in the Eighties – people like Stallone, Schwarzenegger – they never really went away. And the opinion leaders now are people in their forties who grew up with that. People realise it’s quite cool to have some muscles, to have a six-pack.”
“Once you’ve achieved a certain level, it’s very hard to go back to being average again,” says Dacks. “You don’t want to drive an Audi TT, then go back to your Corsa.”