Tom Venuto's

Muscle Dysmorphia: Obsessed or Dedicated?

Tom Venuto

Muscle dysmorphia is like “reverse anorexia,” where you can never get muscular enough, big enough (muscle mass) or ripped enough. As a bodybuilder, involved in a sport where there is a common incidence of body image issues among participants, I find scientific studies on muscle dysmorphia interesting. I just read a new one that was recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Does muscle dysmorphia exist? Yes. The real question is, where do you draw the line between pursuit of excellence and self image disorder? It’s an interesting dilemma…


The technical definition of muscle dysmorphia is:

“a condition in which individuals are preoccupied with the belief they are insufficiently large and muscular, and they may be obsessed with weightlifting, dieting and other activities aimed at increasing size and definition. Case reports and research reveal that these individuals also experience anxiety about having their bodiees viewed by others, experience impaired occupational and social functioning and participate in risky health behaviors such as physique enhancing drugs.”

Clearly, weight training is a positive endeavor. Natural (drug-free) bodybuilding is also a positive endeavor, but I don’t dispute the fact that there’s a fine line where the “obsession” with muscular development can turn into a self-image disorder.

On one hand, we bodybuilders often defend even our most ardent pursuits of our ideal physiques by saying, “obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.”

I particularly dislike hearing the ‘talking head experts’ - even if they do have PhD’s in psychology - say that my fellow bodybuilders and I are training too much and spending too much time in the gym in preparation for competition, whereas athletes in most other sports spend far more hours practicing their craft - sometimes more hours in a day, than I spend weight training in a week!

It’s called pursuit of excellence!

On the other hand, its clear that this condition - muscle dysmorphia - is every bit as real as anorexia. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, marriages crumble because one spouse put bodybuilding competition ahead of the relationship.

The researchers in this area agree that weight training and pursuit of muscular development are not inherently negative, and especially so when the goals include doing it for health and performance. They suggest that when these pursuits start to interefere with a person’s health, well being and social functioning, that’s when it becomes detrimental.

In this most recent study (there have been many studies published previously), they discovered that symptoms of muscle dysmorphia decreased during training and on training days as compared to rest days.

They suggested many possible causes including reasons for training (training for size/bodybuilding = greater symptoms and reduction of symptoms on workout days than those training for health or performance).

And this one was very interestingly - muscle pump! Seeing the increased muscle size from pump during a workout reduced the symptoms, presumably because it temporarily lead the individual to having a body shape closer to their perceived ideal.

The dysmorphia symptoms that were measured in this study included:

1. drive for more muscle size
2. intolerance with current appearance
3. functional impairment (including social)

An interesting dilemma to be sure, because a very good bodybuilder MUST have a drive for more muscle size. I would even go so far as saying that to be a champion bodybuilder, you have to have intolerance for your current appearance and that is quite similar to the drive for more size. Rather than symptoms of disorder, these are pre-requisites for success!

I think the bodybuilders who have a strong self image and are as mentally strong and healthy as they are physically, possess the ability to have an intolerance for their current appearance while at the very same time, being grateful and appreciative of their current appearance. I dont think those two are mutually exclusive.

In my view, it’s symptom #3 added on top of #1 and #2 that might constitute a diagnosis of “muscle dysmorphia” in a sense that it is a negative, like anorexia is a negative.

Identifiying specific characteristics of #3 - functional impairment, I believe is most helpful and revealing: as in:

a) constant verbal statements about body disatisfaction and negative perceptions about muscularity that dont match reality
b) real anxiety and depression
c) strained relationships and social dysfunction
d) problems / dysfunction at work

If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment below, and please indicate whether you are a comeptitive or recreational bodybuilder or not.

- Tom Venuto, author of:
Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle
Holy Grail Body Transformation System

Muscle Building & Fat Burning Resources:

The fat burning secret of bodybuilders and fitness models;

How to gain 100% lean muscle (not bulk), or even gain muscle while losing fat at the same time!


Variability in muscle dysmorphia symptoms: the influence of weight training. Thomas LS, Tod DA, Lavallee DE. Strength Cond Res. 2011 Mar;25(3):846-51. Aberystwyth University, UK.

Published on 20 March, 2011


Brad said:

Hi Tom,

I am just a regular dude that wants to get big, strong and ripped (and probably compete one day). I'll admit that I have some degree of “muscle dysmorphia". I train my ass off in the gym and eat clean but I still get depressed sometimes because my hardwork is not paying off as well as it should be.

The problem is I lack patience and especially since I am surrounded by many bigger and stronger dudes. But I agree that this “muscle dysmorphia" does exist. However, I think we just have to strike a balance between life and bodybuilding.

No doubt it is true that plenty of people around me will call me "weird" and "freak" because I eat different and goes to gym often. But that is just because they are lazy and fat and weak with no strive for self improvement.


Posted on Mar 20, 2011 02:42 PM

Alex said:

I don't think that theres any healthier obssession than this one, well that is if you dont start using drugs.. off course sometimes it is difficuld to grow fast without them and training alongside with huge dudes using roids and growing fast as hell is an even worse feeling..
but if you think a litlle every genius or champion is exactly someone who is completelly obssessed by what they do, sometimes forgeting about anything else.
I know by my self experience this is real, im a completelly hooked by bodybuilding, health and fitness, the time i dont spend in the gym i spend it studying it, but i also know this has saved my life, having a past of other much less healthy addictions..
It depnds a bit on what your goal is, and if it is to get freaking huge, wich isn't mine, you can get depressed, because the way bodybuilding id evolving all the role models for kids are now steroid using freaks who are not healthy at all..
Anyway everything in life is about balance, find yours..
Very good post, keep it up !!

Posted on Mar 20, 2011 04:47 PM

Greg C. Bieg said:

I have finally reached a point and understand an average guy like me just needs to be the best I can, and not compare myself or use someone else as a model, when the majority of excellent physiques have been attained by drugs. Furthermore, an average guys like me must remember the photos were taken when that individual was in peak condition and does not look like that on a regular basis. This whole issue of being ripped is just a matter of days, and that's a fact.

Posted on Mar 20, 2011 06:05 PM

K.C. said:

I remember reading about muscle dysmorphia last year, and it was also being described as "reverse anorexia" - which is basically what it is. Even though there seems to be a fine line between this disorder and sheer motivation, I think there is pretty clear-cut separation between the two, when you think about it. A person can be motivated and dedicated to achieve their goals without being obsessed to the point of having a mental illness.
If a person finds that their entire life is surrounded by this particular bodybuilding obsession and they are still not happy or ever satisfied with themselves, then there is an obvious problem developing. Pursuing goals is one thing, destructive thoughts upon one's self during the process - is another. Besides, there are so many other facets of life to enjoy besides locking into just one self-centered obsession, like a lot of the ones with muscle dysmorphia often do.

Posted on Mar 21, 2011 02:23 AM

Dassier said:

Nice article man. I remember reading about this, but it was referred to as bigopia.

Posted on Apr 06, 2011 11:03 AM

tom venuto said:

I've actually heard it referred to as BIGOREXIA

Posted on Apr 06, 2011 11:05 AM

Rainy said:

Very nice,timely article. I was just discussing this subject today with a bodybuilder buddy of mine. I'm a competitive figure athlete and my friend is getting ready to do his first competition in the next few months.
The idea of muscle dysmorphia is defined by PhD's and mainly recognized by those who are not serious bodybuilders. It should be noted that there is a difference between a bodybuilder and a serious bodybuilder. Amongst serious bodybuilders, or the talented ones, I believe this muscle dysmorphia can be redefined as self awareness. The ability to take a step back, look at yourself, and accurately identify your lagging muscles and other areas of your physique that need to be improved.
So while the PhD's are looking at serious bodybuilders and discussing the muscle dysmorphia problem, the bodybuilders are looking at the group of people with a "self-awareness deficit." These are the people we often see wearing little skimpy gym outfits when they probably shouldn't be, or perhaps the people that we see who achieve a small amount of success in fitness and stop trying because they see themselves with championship physiques-even walk around with the cocky attitudes to match- when they still have a long, long way to go and clearly cannot see it. These are the people who are lifting the same weights, in the same exercises, for months and months without progressing. They are also the same people that can continue to do this for years and years before they finally realize that it's not working and contemplate, maybe, one day, trying something else. Unfortunately, they are also the people that can sit by and watch their bodies get so out of shape, and their health constantly decline, until at the age of 40 they finally realize it was time to make a change.........20 years ago. So I guess (depending on who's doing the defining) bodybuilders may be more inclined to have muscle dysmorphia and the rest lean more towards a self-awareness defecit.
In the meanwhile, while my friend and I are constantly setting new goals for the bigger muscles we are chasing's helpful to remember one thing: Each time you meet a goal, take the time to stop, breathe, and recognize that you achieved a goal. Even strut around for a while. The point is that it's important to pat yourself on the back and put credit where it's due before you set another, higher goal. That way, at least for a moment in time, you feel like you "arrived" instead of always feeling like you're just not big enough or ripped enough......

Posted on Apr 17, 2011 04:10 AM

michael mahoney said:

I believe that muscle dysmorphia does exists because i feel like i have a little of it. I am alway thinking about the gym and my next workout. I'm always feeling guilty about my meals if there not healthy. people tell me I look great but when I see myself in the mirror I see a work in progress. but to me its a lifestyle I love the gym and researching new was to increase mass and strength.

Posted on Apr 29, 2011 03:24 AM

Mark Suffolk said:


I am a Psychology researcher,and for my Masters Degree Thesis I am undertaking research in this area.

I also have competed in five bodybuilding competitions spanning a number of years.

I am still working my way through the copious amount of previous research in the area. An overwhelming problem I have noticed so far, is the diversity of the population samples employed for investigation. This is facilitating a large amount of misinterpretation among various media and other researchers.

Generally you find one researcher makes a statement, and another will cite the same statement. There is a large amount of ignorance that is fueled by stereotypical schema of Bodybuilders.

It is impossible to accurately assess the data, due to, as suggested above, sample diversity from study to study. For example, here are three definitions I have found so far of a 'Bodybuilder' for sampling purposes.

1. Train more than twice a week for a year.

2. Can BP more than 275lbs.

3. More than 6 months training.

So who are they exactly referring to? If the study mentions Bodybuilders, the public and media make an assumption they are referring to their mental representation of a bodybuilder.

Studies comparing MD in 'bodybuilders' and weight lifters, or American footballers, are also flawed for obvious reasons. A question asking
" Are you concerned about your muscle definition and size"

Would obviously find BB in all probability responding yes, and the footballers no. Oh dear the BB have more MD tendencies.

Getting back to the samples employed. A man puts on some weight, the media and governments would like these people to lose it and get 'healthy'. They themselves feel those trousers getting tighter, and decide to join a gym. Straightaway they would answer yes to the following questions;

"Are you unhappy with parts of your body?"

"Are you aiming to increase your muscularity?"

Again two ticks in the MD box. Have them train for at least six months and they can be classed as a BB for study purposes.

Is psychopathology involved in some BB, I dare say there is. Has there always been? again I dare say there has.

But the fact is, more and more men are getting fatter and entering gyms as a means of reversing this trend. However, I feel BB are feeling the brunt of this due to bad research and misinterpretation.

Some BB may themselves be questioning their own dedication, and commitment due to this.

But you are an Olympic athlete who trains for hours a day. You monitor macro, and micro nutrients diligently. You are a praised for your dedication and a role model for others.

On the other hand you may train with weights for an hour and a half a day, monitor macro, and micro nutrients diligently, and you have a mental illness.


Posted on Oct 15, 2011 03:00 PM

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