Design by Kate Shen

I have a confession to make: I’ve always wanted to be a gym bro. 

Scratch that: I’ve always wanted to be like a gym bro.

For years, running was my main form of exercise. I was on the track and cross country teams in high school, so I defaulted to running when I wanted to work out. It wasn’t until last year, when I started lifting regularly with some friends, that I found weightlifting to be an enjoyable way to work out as well. Around this time, the almighty algorithm worked its magic, and I started to see posts from various fitness pages on my Instagram feed. It was mostly things like diet tips or different workouts to try, but every so often I would come across a post of a muscle-bound dude flexing in front of the camera, or a man with impossibly large biceps trying to sell me a new variety of protein powder. This was the start of my experience with “gym bro” culture.

Gym bro” describes someone whose life centers completely around fitness. Much like a frat bro who lives and breathes for his brothers, a gym bro makes their entire personality gym-related, including what they eat, what clothes they wear and what music they listen to. The line between “fitness is my passion” and “fitness is my obsession” becomes blurred. Debates about the best pre-workout or whey isolate protein run rampant, and the phrase “We go Jim!” is used as a rally cry.

So why would I want to become a part of this? The truth is, I started to envy those who could commit themselves to sculpting a perfect body. Under all of the bro-ness of it all, there seemed to be this idea that if I listened to the posts I was seeing and constantly pushed myself, I could become as jacked as they were. And so I decided to give it a try, to jump headfirst into becoming the closest thing to a gym bro as I could within a week.

Before I could become like a gym bro, I first needed to immerse myself in the culture. I curated my Instagram Explore feed to give me more gym bro content by liking and saving every relevant post I saw. Within a few days, the majority of my feed was filled with the stuff. I then picked out a few tips, hacks and recipes from pages that I was seeing frequently to follow each day. My roommate, who works out more frequently than I do, agreed to join me.

Day 1:

In preparation I picked up a container of blue raspberry-flavored C4, a popular brand of pre-workout. As far as I can tell, this stuff is caffeine powder mixed with other chemicals I’ve never heard of, such as “BetaAlanine” and “L-Arginine.” The label promised me “explosive energy and performance,” and I had seen many posts talking about the benefits of pre-workout, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I mixed the recommended amount into some lukewarm water and waited 20 minutes for the effects to kick in. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, just that the directions warned me that some people feel a “harmless tingling sensation.” Pretty soon I was feeling a bit jittery, the same way I feel when I drink too much coffee without eating anything first. My roommate and I headed to the gym for a back and arms workout. I didn’t notice any of that “explosive performance” while lifting, and instead I felt sweatier and thirstier than normal.

Day 2:

Day two was busy so I decided to take a rest day, as recommended to me by this bodybuilder. I found a post that suggested I eat plenty of protein and stretch on my rest days, so I set out to make a protein-packed meal. I finally found a recipe for some sort of canned chicken pasta dish that promised me 104 grams of protein with only 770 calories. This meal turned out to be the most disgusting 770 calories I’ve ever consumed. The recipe seemed pretty simple, but I was left with a salty, gooey glop of food that I had to try and choke down. I guess I should have been more wary of a recipe that used ranch packets as seasoning. 

I ended the day by following a 20-minute deep stretch routine designed for rest days and went to bed with a belly full of chicken goop.

Day 3:

I decided to try pre-workout again, with roughly the same effect. My roommate and I did a harder and longer workout today, but once again I didn’t see any improvement in my performance. 

When we got home, I made a protein smoothie I had seen a recipe for that included raw oats and egg whites. Just like yesterday, I was utterly disgusted by the taste of it. I don’t know how a liquid can taste dry, but this one did. Within an hour I felt like I had just eaten a Thanksgiving meal as my digestive system tried to keep up with the massive amount of protein I had thrown at it. The invigorating feeling of coming home from the gym was totally ruined by this smoothie.

Day 4:

Today the experiment fell apart. It wasn’t that I gave up on going to the gym, but I started to notice that the content in my feed was shifting. I was seeing less and less gym bro posts that were actually helpful — instead, my feed was slowly becoming a minefield of people trying to sell me the gym bro lifestyle rather than teaching me how to work for it myself. It started to feel like I was doing everything wrong. I should be taking this protein powder, not those other nasty ones! This supplement will help me lose fat and get shredded faster! I was even shown a post that was promoting a type of hormone therapy to add more testosterone into my system. So much of this advice was buried under sponsorships that it became hard to distinguish when someone was trying to be helpful or just pay their rent. 

I also noticed a wave of toxic masculinity creeping through my feed. I found a lot of blatantly sexist posts from some accounts that framed women as untrustworthy or manipulative, or just straight up insulted them. A lot of these posts reminded me of the “sigma male” movement, where men see women as just a distraction from “the grind” to better themselves.

Women aren’t the only thing being framed as a hindrance to the gym bro lifestyle. I started to see a lot of posts that portrayed showing emotion as a weakness, another trait of toxic masculinity. The gym was a place where you could bury your emotions better than any therapy. If working out is your release, that’s great. I often go to the gym to clear my head after a hard day. But the general sentiment from these posts is that the gym has become a part of who they are, and if you’re not the same way, you’re just not committed enough. 

After seeing more and more of the problematic elements of gym bro culture, I’ve tried to purge my feed of any sort of weightlifting content. When I started out I was hoping to find some positive takeaway, but I wasn’t ready for my experiment to take such a dark and upsetting turn. Exercise is supposed to be about health, but what I was seeing wasn’t healthy. While I’m sure there are plenty of people who bring positivity and actual advice to people trying to get into working out, there are too many others who are gatekeeping or pushing toxic ideas. I think it’s for the best that I stay away from this community to avoid getting caught up in its questionable ideals. 

Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at hdbishop@umich.edu.