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.
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