Dissecting the cult of the curlbro

When those spectacularly awkward photos of Paul Ryan showing off his mad lifting skills surfaced on the internet last week, I flipped through them and thought, “I knew it!”  I just knew that Paul Ryan would be the kind of guy who loves nothing more than plonking himself in front of a mirror and doing curl after concentration curl after preacher curl, all while basking in the radiance of the valleys and peaks of his biceps.

That’s right – Paul Ryan is a total curlbro.

I wish I could take credit for the phrase “curlbro” but I can’t – credit for that goes to Girl Got Muscle.  I’ve adopted it, though, because it is so perfect in the concise way it describes a specific kind of guy who goes to the gym.  You know who they are. They are the men who line up in front of mirrors in gyms all across the United States, who pass hours curling their way into oblivion, who look at a squat rack and see not a squat rack but a really fancy contraption in which they can do curls.  Every day is arms day for these guys.

At first, I found these guys rather amusing, the way they would heft the biggest dumbbells possible, so big they have to drop them after each set, and how they never seemed to understand that the whole gym was filled with things that could help them build all of the other muscles on their bodies.   Shoot, these guys didn’t even seem to know that they had other muscles on their bodies.

But one day it occurred to me that I was seeing something a bit more insidious than just a bunch of guys who didn’t know jack shit about lifting weights.  I realized that, to many people, the biceps aren’t just a set of muscles.  No, they are so much more than just bags of blood and tissue.  The biceps signify masculinity: virility, physical prowess, strength.

And what makes the biceps better than the other body part commonly thought to be the locus of masculinity is that you can make them bigger without scary surgery and you can show them off without getting your ass tossed in jail.  They are highly visible symbols of manliness that, unlike other symbols of manliness, are actually within the guy’s control.

For a lot of guys, there is no such thing is “too manly.”  You can’t drive a truck that is too big or drink too many beers or bang too many chicks or whatever.   That goes for the arms.  If big biceps mean the owner is manly, then having biceps the size of watermelons means the owner is the manliest man to ever man!  (In which case, this doofus is King Man and we are all just plebes.)

But for women, there is such a thing as “too manly.”  A woman who wants to have big biceps…well, that’s just wrong.  At least, that’s what I hear whenever a woman with well-defined arms is cut down for looking “like a man” or “being too manly.”  Doesn’t she know that she’s not supposed to lift anything heavier than a Barbie weight?  What if, god forbid, she bulks up?  And puts on muscle?  Quick, fetch me my smelling salts!

The dichotomy is clear. If you are a woman and your arms are small and “toned,” you are Doing Femininity right.  If you are a man and you have big biceps, you win a gold medal in the Masculinity Olympics.  Fail to adhere to those standards, and you might as well ship yourself to the Island of Misfit Toys to live out the rest of your sexless days with all of the other unnatural freaks with arms that are all wrong for their gender.

The sadly ironic thing is that the curlbro has more in common with the cardio queen than just about anyone else in the gym.  In fact, I’d say the two are photo negatives of each other.  Each one is so focused on making their body look a specific way – a way that is defined strictly according to their gender – that they completely ignore all of the things that actually make for a strong, healthy body.  I mean, who cares if you have twenty inch biceps if you can’t run a mile or you can’t bend over at the waist.  And big deal if you can fit into a size O but you can’t even open your own damn jar of pickles.

It’s a perfect metaphor for the limitations imposed by gender roles, isn’t it?  If you spend too much time trying to be a Man or a Woman, you are liable to end up sucking as a Human Being. You cut yourself off from half of the human experience, and you are all the poorer for it in the end.

I’m not going to act like I think no one should do curls.  I will freely admit that I like doing curls because I like watching my arms in the mirror when I do them, how all of these muscles appear and move and shift under my skin like tectonic plates of awesome.  In that regard, I totally get the curlbro.  Doing bicep curls is a super-easy way to feel like a stud, and sometimes we all need a little insta-boost of some Kinetic Bad Ass to help us get through our day.  But just as I think women should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights and building some muscle, curlbros should not be afraid of doing some squats or giving yoga a try.  And who knows?  They might even find they like it.


15 responses to “Dissecting the cult of the curlbro

  1. I loathe lady weights. I worked for a short time with a trainer & when we did weights she wouldn’t let me lift too heavy. I am a stout girl & what she had me one was like lifting air. Her focus was on me losing weight, not me gaining strength. FOOL!

    • Wow…So did you have a weight-loss goal or did she set this goal for you? Lifting heavy weights has so MANY benefits! You trainer really was a fool… I think the most important thing is to be healthy, eat right and be physically active– not just to “lose weight.”

      • It was a slimming challenge, so weight loss was the overall goal. I was just shocked at how serious they were about just the weight & blind to all else. She suggested some really crazy stuff to do to shed pounds for the weigh-ins, so I didn’t finish it.

  2. Pingback: Curlbro - strength, fat loss, weight training, cardio, aerobics, running, swimming, health, nutrition, sports - City-Data Forum·

  3. “The sadly ironic thing is that the curlbro has more in common with the cardio queen than just about anyone else in the gym. ”

    Brilliant. So so so so true.

  4. I’ve been going to the gym for a long time and that sort of body used to be called a Bar Body because it looks good when posing at a bar, with legs out of sight. Sometimes they build pecs too. These two groups happen to be the easy for men to build as well.

    • “Bar Body” – that’s hilarious. And yes, the guys who do nothing but pecs make me laugh as well. I had a friend in high school who would do nothing but bench presses, so he had this amazingly developed chest on top of the teeniest little legs. We tried to convince him to spread the weight work around but he wasn’t having any of it.

  5. Here is my issue which I think is related to this. I try to eat healthy and bit fit. I don’t really care about having big muscles. I want to do things that give me a healthy, happy long life. I run about 20 – 25 miles per week, and occassionally bike and swim. My BMI is 23.03, which is HIGH in the normal/healthy range (18.5-24.9). I have a runners body, like Ryan Hall. The feedback I get is that I look too skinny or too skinny FOR A MAN. I think part of this is there are so many overweight and obese people now, people’s perception of average/normal/healthy has drifted up – a lot. When I ask this person giving me this feedback to show me someone who is not “too skinny” they usually point out someone who is medically obese or nearly obese. They might also point out a Curlbro type of person. In my experirence, women don’t seem to generally understand that calling a man “skinny” vs Fit or lean is not a compliment.

    Given all the feedback I have recieved since I started to get healthy in 2003, I am not manly because I am fit. If I only had bigger biceps and pecks, or if I was obese, then I would be perceived as more masculine. Its almost enough to make me want to do curls because if this. Especially, since becoming unhealthy is not an option for me. Its a good thing I don’t care! Haha.

    • You make a really good point, that the unhealthy and unrealistic expectations go both ways. One of the more disappointing things I’ve seen in recent years has been the fact that guys are feeling more vulnerable to the same kind of pressures that women experience. That’s not exactly progress – in fact, I’d say that’s the opposite of progress.

      Anyway, like you said, I’ve found the best alternative is to just not care. If I cared, I’d probably never lift weights or swim because those things definitely give me bigger muscles, and that’s just NOT AN OPTION. (Plus, I like my muscles and a pox on anyone who doesn’t.)

    • My husband gets the same treatment. He’s a distance runner; never happier than when he’s training for a marathon. Fit and lean, of course. When we go see his family they flip out over how “skinny” he is. But the weird thing is, the comments are usually directed at me for not feeding him enough!! I usually just roll my eyes and tell them that he knows where the kitchen is. Old southern ladies, what are ya gonna do?

  6. I am a woman and I love lifting heavy! I lift weights 4-5 times a week and I am not bulky at all. In fact, today I had an awesome bicep’s workout and I am pumped for the day! Great post!

  7. Yup, the Mirror Muscles workout…chest and biceps all the time. Monday is International Bench Day…after a long weekend of drinking beer and watching football, every gym suddenly is infiltrated by the bench-n-curl crew. It’s mad. A related female phenomenon is the “one week before spring break!” rush for the cardio machines…I *almost* miss my university gym but not really. 😛

  8. … curlbros should not be afraid of doing some squats or giving yoga a try.

    Trufax: All of my manly bicep muscle has come from chaturanga push ups. 😛

  9. I want to take this post out to a nice dinner and an indie movie. THAT is how much I love it.

    Seriously, though. Everything about this is perfect and reminds me of my days working out at LAFitness. The ellipticals were always covered with college girls, and the workout benches with dudebros doing curls with 100-lb. weights and grunting the whole time.

    …and now I want to watch “My New Haircut” again.

  10. Exactly: “If you spend too much time trying to be a Man or a Woman, you are liable to end up sucking as a Human Being.” I’ve often mentally connected the curlbro and the cardio queen, but never bothered to dissect the logic behind it. This is the perfect analysis.

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