There is a saying in most gyms that, for men at least, “the day you first pick up a weight is the day you become forever small.”
Like many sayings there seems to be some truth in it. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that every man who starts to lift weights is doing it because at some level he wants bigger muscles. Oh sure, he might start with the idea of getting stronger for sports or maybe it’s because he is getting picked on for being too skinny (or too fat) or because he thinks it will help him get noticed by girls or any of a dozen more reasons. But, at the basic motivation level, he wants to be able to roll up his shirt sleeve and have something to flex. Or better yet, something to flex that will stretch his shirt sleeves without rolling them up.
This isn’t an issue just for American men. If my most popular blog post – When is a Man’s Arm Considered Big? – is any indication this is a concern for men all over the world. I’ve had hits from every continent (except Antarctica) and most every country. Some even from real people!
Go to social media or your favorite search engine and you’ll find that building bigger arms is a popular subject for literally thousands of Instagrammers, YouTubers, Facebookers, and I suspect Tik Tokkers too. Even men with extraordinarily big arms will talk about how they want to add just a little more “size to the bis” with the usual goal being a muscular 20 inches (or a little over 50 cm). Which, frankly, is unrealistic for most men and difficult to achieve even with vitamin-S (steroids).
“But wait,” you say, “don’t guys who are jacked know that they are jacked?” No, they don’t always know. Obviously a few do and they are eager to capitalize on this (again go to social media – you’ll find plenty of them willing to sell you a training program). But for most of us “average Joes” it’s a constant battle to gain a little more size and shape. Because no matter how developed we become there’s always the same skinny/fat guy looking back at us in the mirror.
Many people joke that bodybuilders and weightlifters – but never crossfitters for some reason (zing!) – suffer from body dysmorphia. I’m not going to go that far as true dysmorphia is a serious mental health disorder that can lead to significant issues. But I do think that as a group the bodybuilding community may suffer from what I’ll call a physical “misperception.” It’s no secret that in a way we are all two different people. We are the person who the world sees and also the person who we see inside our head. Moreover this inner perception of ourselves is often formed when we are young and difficult to change. If you were skinny as a kid, your self-image is one of a skinny kid. I myself always thought I was fat as a kid but pictures from my youth clearly indicate that this was never the case!
From my own personal experience regardless of how big or small my arms have been over the years – from stick thin (thanks to my Crohn’s disease) to flat and fat (thanks poor diet) – in the mirror I always see the same somewhat shapeless, flabby arm. Even when presented with external evidence to the contrary.
For example, here are a few comments I have gotten about my arms over the years:
- “Wow, you have big triceps,” from an EMT helping to remove my sweatshirt in the Emergency Room (long story told here).
- “You have big triceps,” a friend making casual conversation at a party after asking if I had been working out.
- “You must workout,” from a phlebotomist about to take my blood.
- “Don’t go breaking my blood pressure cuff with those muscles,” a medical technician during a pre-exam. Yes, in case you noticed, many of the comments I get about my arm development come from medical professionals.
- “At some point your arms just kind of blew up like…(making a motion that indicates the size of a basketball),” a friend who was commenting on my weight room progress.
- “You think your arms are small because you can’t see your triceps,” from a training partner.
- “Looks like someone brought the big guns out tonight,” a crew member taking my ticket while I was boarding a boat for a dinner cruise (I was wearing a short sleeve shirt with admittedly tight sleeves).
- “Oh come on, make a muscle,” a female friend at a party. I put this one here because all the other above comments were from men – so much about bigger muscles attracting women (sorry guys).
Interestingly enough, I got many of these comments when my arms were not at their biggest. Why? Because a fat arm doesn’t necessarily look big. Especially if it matches the rest of the body. Without definition and a visible “peak” to the bicep or “horseshoe” to the tricep the assumption is that there is no muscle underneath. A man with 18″ (46 cm) arms, which are big in anyone’s books, at 35% bodyfat may therefore look smaller than the man with a 16″ (41 cm) arms at 15% bodyfat. In this case size does not actually matter. The perception of size does.
So, if a big arm can look small and a small arm can look big – how do you know if you have big arms?
Simple, other people will tell you.
Now, go hit the gym. It’s arm day!
All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr