If anyone reading this article has had the pleasure of going regularly to their local gym, they've witnessed the "gym bro." Everyone knows the type — amped-up dudes in a string tank top using a squat rack to do bicep curls. It is often impressive to witness such an individual’s commitment to their own personal strength.
Despite characterizations of “gym bros” as arrogant and unintelligent, they promote the pleasures of athletic self-improvement and community. Not only are these stereotypes unfair, but they are damaging as well. While many Stanford students work out, they rarely have a sheer dedication to fitness — unless they play a sport.
The belief that one cannot be well-rounded, physically fit, intelligent, virtuous, and kind is at best a limiting philosophy and at worst discourages fitness and health. Yet, this classic division between the nerd and the jock is universally recognizable. At Stanford, it is made very obvious. Athletes exist in a separate bubble from non-athletes, eating together, practicing together, and often living with each other, apart from Stanford’s regular admits.
Thucydides once remarked that “The society that separates its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Now I do not mean to say that the non-athletes are cowards, nor that Stanford Athletes are fools. But making the distinction limits both from integrating with each other and combining the best aspects of each group. The Greek ideal of the athlete-scholar is lost when one is forced into either category.
Non-athletes miss out more. While Stanford’s athletes are still required to take classes, non-athletes are not required to participate in Stanford’s athletics. This, I believe, is where an unfortunate imbalance lies. In the US, 57% of high school students play a sport. Yet once they arrive at college, most simply stop. While some continue to have intense workouts, many lose the benefits of regular exercise. Having a more well-rounded relationship between one’s academic pursuits and personal fitness goals would certainly prevent such a limiting school of thought.
Daily exercise and playing sports are extraordinarily good for your health. Studies show exercise is an endorphin generator and helps with depression, it even increases social bonding. If you ask any person who goes to the gym or plays a sport, they will unfailingly testify that even if these activities did not provide any physical gain, they would still be worth the effort solely due to their mental health benefits. As one of my friends remarked about lifting weights: “it’s like taking an antidepressant that also makes you shredded.”
If the goal of a school like Stanford, a self-proclaimed provider of liberal education, is to literally liberate the individuals who go through it, then it must encourage behavior that is becoming of free, virtuous, and upright individuals. This must extend beyond the classroom. The Stoics believed that only individuals who have cultivated strength and virtue in themselves can cultivate positive change in the world. It is our duty as individuals to engage in activities that will allow us to become strong in mind, spirit, and body.
Athletes, fitness influencers, and celebrities have consistently worked to encourage people to find the same joy of discipline and physical exertion that they do. The ‘80s were full of such colourful figures, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously compared lifting weights to having sex.
More recently, there has been a resurgence of this phenomenon online. The rise of “gymtok” is a great example of this, the same absolutely jacked dudes in tank tops are now rambling about macros (short for macronutrients), curling iron, and “fighting demons” to audiences of millions, mostly young men. Fascinatingly, this culture is quite organic. While everyone in that culture can point to their favorite “fitness influencer” (mine is Dom Mazetti), there seems to be no single individual responsible for the sudden and inexplicable interest in lifting among young men. You can go to Instagram and find hundreds of accounts promoting vitality, physical strength, and discipline, some with millions of followers.
This online “gym bro” movement seems to be also framed largely around finding male community, filling a desire to find a group identity with other men. This is a great thing. Especially at Stanford, where the administration has attempted to atomize the student body, finding community with those with similar interests and identity is vital to well-being. The time I spend with my friends and teammates on the rugby pitch or in the gym is time well spent in the pursuit of community.
This “gym bro” culture is a way for men to take a step towards a healthy masculinity that promotes physical fitness and better mental health. However, the “gym bro” lifestyle is not exclusive to men, women too can benefit from the same sense of community, physical health, and discipline. This is afforded to anyone with a life-long commitment to fitness, even if this online movement has been focused mainly on men.
If you’re reading this and have been meaning to start working out or playing a sport, this is your time to do it! The hardest part is starting. If you already do, encourage a friend to come out to a practice session or work out with you at the gym, you might just change their life for the better. So yes, I proudly defend the Gym Bro, for if he has discovered the virtues and benefits of athletics and self-improvement, he is far wiser than any ‘80s movie stereotypes would suggest.