What if exercise made you ugly?

Within my last entry, there were several excellent responses posted to the comments section. Readers from all walks of life explained why they exercise. Most offered several reasons, and many of us shared similar responses. A few common examples included health benefits, performance improvement for a specific sport or physically demanding career, enjoyment of the actual training experience, and the simple joy of living an active lifestyle.

Oddly enough however, very few listed physical appearance as one of their reasons. One reader who did, worded it as such,

I would be lying if I didn’t say vanity was one of them.

The reader had to almost confess to the vanity aspect. At least one other responder worded his desire to look good in a similar fashion.

Such responses leave one with the impression that we are not supposed to exercise to improve appearance and feel better about ourselves. Has the modern functional fitness era caused a shift in purpose? Do people honestly exercise with no consideration for physical appearance? If so, would these people continue to exercise if it made them ugly?

I don’t believe there are many who would answer YES to these questions. But I also don’t believe that one should need to answer YES to such questions.

Why should one be forced to conceal the fact the he or she exercises to look and feel better about themselves? What is wrong with doing something that boosts self confidence? Confidence is very important in this world. Ample research suggests a positive relationship between confidence and performance (performance in business, at school, in sport, etc.).

Why must we hide the fact that physical appearance matters? And please note the following… I’m not suggesting that one stand in the mirror and admire their physique all day. I am simply stating that one of your many reasons for exercise may be the fact (and likely is) that you enjoy the physical appearance that comes through regular exercise.

Even competitive athletes often share these same feelings. One common example comes from the combat sporting world. As a young fighter, I wouldn’t feel that I was in top shape until I had a ripped midsection. Whether or not the six pack did anything from a performance standpoint was irrelevant. Once I had the six pack, I believed I was in shape. It may sound crazy, but I know that I’m not the only person who has felt this way. I’ve spoken to many fighters, at all levels, who have shared similar stories. They see their abs come in during training camp, and suddenly feel like a Spartan warrior.

I realize that it sounds ridiculous, and it probably is. That isn’t the point however. The point is that who cares if something is ridiculous if the individual benefits from it in some way. If you feel better about yourself, don’t be ashamed of it. You have the right to feel good about yourself. No one should convince you otherwise. You shouldn’t need to hide the fact that you are proud of the work that you’ve performed and the physical results that have followed.

And to those who adamantly state they physical appearance doesn’t matter, why then do you bother to match your socks and shoes in the morning? Why not grab a blue sock and a yellow sock, along with a white sneaker and a black boot? Why bother matching anything if appearance means nothing? Why bother washing the tomato sauce stain from your dress shirt? Why not leave it, considering that appearance does not matter? Why not cut your hair while wearing a blindfold? Who cares if you miss a few spots? Appearance doesn’t mean anything, right?

What about your house and automobile? Do you care if I spray paint both? Does it really matter, considering that appearance doesn’t mean anything? Who cares about some random graffiti on the hood of your car or perhaps the front door of your home?

Does It Really Matter!

What’s the big deal about admitting that you may in fact care about appearance? Admitting that you care about how you look doesn’t mean that you don’t care about getting stronger, faster, and so on. It also doesn’t mean that you admire yourself in the mirror all day. It doesn’t mean that you are stuck up and shallow. Perhaps it means nothing other than the fact that you possess self confidence and are not afraid to admit it.

Even many of the modern functional training fanatics have a certain “look” to them. They may blast the bodybuilders for their look, but the functional superheroes often have their own unique look as well. Who the hell said that one is acceptable but the other is not? Who believes they can actually decide how anyone else can or should look?

And as crazy as this all sounds, there are people who deliver such a message, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps not.

My advice is simple. Don’t let anyone decide anything for you. You do you and I’ll do me. After all, aren’t we all busy enough with our own lives? Do we really need to be concerned over what someone else may or may not do? Does it really matter why someone else does what he does?

If your own life isn’t keeping you busy enough, I suggest finding a new hobby. Worrying about what others do isn’t a productive use of time.



  1. You’re absolutely right. One reason I train is to look good. I admit it. I’m not a bodybuilder, nor do I want to be, but there’s no doubt that strength training and conditioning will make you look good. I actually prefer the look of a solid, muscled, ripped body to that of a very large bodybuilder, and this is the look I’m trying to achieve. It’s not my only goal, nor is it exactly my primary goal, but it’s certainly something I’m trying hard achieve in addition to my main goals.

    I’m glad training doesn’t make me look like the, uh, thing in the picture 🙂

  2. What we determine to be “attractive” and “ugly” revolve around how our bodies tend to look when we are healthy. If the human body gained massive amounts of fat deposits when we exercised or ate a healthy diet, then as a whole, that is what we would consider beautiful (just as in colder climate cultures, a woman with a larger percentage of bodyfat is considered more attractive than one with less, because having bodyfat in a cold climate is advantageous to health and the ability to have children.
    ) If one is healthy, it is impossible to look unhealthy (barring a disease or physical condition that would downgrade the condition of your health).

    Men tend to want women with exaggerated features that imply fertility (large breast, wide hips, hour glass figure), and women tend to like men with equal intentions (tall, lean and/or strong, intelligent, wealthy). We do not choose these things, they are encoded onto our genes. This is why we never have to fear becoming ugly if we are healthy and active, because if we did, our species as a whole would fail.

  3. I compeletely agree. My humble opinion everybody would like to good in essence. The question is how much whould one sacrifice for the looks (time, money, eating etc..). If not for anything else, I admire people who exercise for having what it takes to go after what they like. And as for those who look down on people that exercise for the looks; I will stop exercising when all the clothing companies close, having a haircut gets outdated, putting on make up becomes a crime :).
    Great article,
    Thanks Ross.

  4. Ross, Would you work out if it made you ugly? interesting question, but the truth is, working out does not make one ugly. anytime i run into someone i haven’t seen in a while who “looks good” they usually tell me how they have been working out. so it seems that working out can get you strong, and the same person strong looks better than when they are weak (for lack of a better term). so it looks like we don’t actually have to decide between the two as the domino effect is in our favor on this one.

  5. Robert – Of course exercise doesn’t make us ugly. That isn’t the true point of entry. I’ve seen many people who look down on those who admit to training for aesthetic reasons, even if these reasons are secondary. I’m not ashamed of the fact that training and exercise do positively influence appearance. No one should be ashamed of such, and no one should try to make anyone think as such. That’s the real point of the entry.

    Mark – (or James or Luke, names you’ve used under this IP) – This entry isn’t about the definition of beauty. Clearly, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. That isn’t the point however. The point is that many people exercise at least partly because of its impact to physical appearance. Training can be performance based, but it can also simultaneously lead to other physical (appearance) improvements. If someone wishes to train for such reasons, more power to them. They should not be condemned for their decision to exercise for looks. It doesn’t need to be a dirty little secret that someone wants to look better and feel better about the way they look.

    That’s the message that I am presenting throughout this entry.


  6. I agree that appearance matters, but I distinguish between grooming and exercise: I leave the house with clean clothes, hair done, makeup on and matching shoes because I think grooming is important and shows respect for the people I’m meeting and for my work. I just don’t see size and weight as being in the same category as the cosmetic stuff above.

    I see what you’re saying about the fighters seeing abs and feeling like a Spartan warrior, but is that universal? Would this man feel more confident or be more intimidating if he had visible abs?

    As for the gym, I’ve always seen that as being more about what I do rather than how I look. There a certain satisfaction in confounding people’s expectations, in seeing the realization dawn on some skinny person’s face that they can’t lift what I can or do as many burpees. It’s childish and immature of me, but there it is, and it has always (for me, thus far, may change in future) trumped the satisfaction of fitting into a smaller size.

  7. Mich, the point Ross is making is WHY don’t you feel that body size and shape are not in the same category as the other cosmetic stuff?

    How is worrying about your hairstyle less trivial than worrying about how much you weigh?

  8. Ross,
    You talk it and walk it! In the words of Dan John, I want to look good nekked for the wife! I can’t do anything (alright I can but I ain’t paying for it) about my receding hairline. I love it when my kids see me do a move that they can’t and think that’s cool, that an old man (45) can do. 3 years ago my daughter had to submit an essay on the importance of exercise and her parents’ goals. I told her that my goal was to be in better shape at age 50 than I was at age 20. That still is, and she’s one hell of a softball player with a competitor’s attitude-I hope my example has had something to do with that!!

  9. I originally started training for 2 reasons – be able to defend myself and look good. Over time my priorities have changed. My present goals concern fighting and to be more “functional” and yes I want that “functional look” that you mention but I see how I look as a side effect of my training not a direct goal. I think many of your readers (like me) got bogged down in looking good, bodybuilding, but came to the realization that general fitness and other goals (fighting, health, etc). Body Builders are amazing, but for myself I found that much of the look was “all show and no go”. Still, I admire the dedication, drive, conditioning etc of bodybuilders, as well as their look (men and women). In addition I admire the athletes in many spheres, fighting, strongmen, endurance events etc. and wish, at times that I had that look but above all I want to be able to do what they can do.

    In the end, I feel that looking good and feeling good are very much synonymous (at least for me). When you feel good about yourself that is projected into your appearance. Being fit makes me feel good, it is something that was instilled in me from a young age. If I miss more than a day or two of exercise a week I don’t feel as good about myself. For others, making more sales or deals in a week makes them feel good and they look better when they do it.

    Whether people would exercise if it made them ugly, tough question. It seems to depend on the direction of their exercise – many people will do anything, sacrifice anything, to win in their sport, for them appearance isn’t even considered. If I was the best at something I may not care about how I look but at present I’ll settle with looking “fit” it may not be others peoples “fit” but it is mine.

  10. Ross – I think you have a good point about the connection between performance and looking good – i.e. until you could see your abs you did not feel as if you were in shape. To truly experience that feeling of being ‘lean and mean’ I find it’s necessary to spend a bit of time in front of the mirror, whether it be shadow boxing or flexing or whatever. For me it feels as if admiring one’s own physique and getting pumped about one’s performance ability / lean-ness / muscularity are very closely linked and therefore it would be overly simplistic to describe it solely as vanity.

    So as one of the ‘confessors’ to vanity, I would say your post and my subsequent reflection have made me less apologetic about my self-admiration 😉

  11. Mich – Of course it isn’t universal, why would it be? Those are feelings that I had a 15 year old kid, which is over 15 years ago. That isn’t the point however, as I explained within the entry.

    The point is that if one feels better about his or her appearance because of exercise, so be it. Why should anyone else care? And to add to that, I am not suggesting that appearance should be the primary driving force. I already mentioned this above. It can serve as one of many secondary motivators however, and if it does, there is no reason to conceal the fact.


  12. Ross, I get your point. I personally wouldn’t call appearance a secondary motivator, more a secondary benefit. If it is the primary motivator for others, it makes no difference to me. Why I say secondary benefit is this. I was motivated, and still am, to workout because of the physical reasons I earlier described. Being 46, and maybe a bit naive, I grew up in a time when there was less influence through the media on physical appearance. Those old black and white Jack LaLanne videos, I watched on TV when they originally aired. Believe me, he was unique, a lone wolf back then.
    I never heard the term six pack abs until very recently (within the last 10 or so years?) But I do remember them popping out on me (before I had a name for them) when I was swimming 3 miles a week. Yes, I liked the way I looked, and still do, very much (still have those abs showing, ha)but it was definitely not a motivator, but more of a nice surprise.
    To add to that, yes, I feel better about myself than I probably would if I were not in shape, but for the same reasons. 1. I couldn’t enjoy surfing and other things I am passionate about. 2. I would be hurting myself at work. 3. I would not like what I see in the mirror as much 4. I’ll add to that, I wouldn’t be getting the great compliments that I do often get on “how good I look”.
    So there it is, for me, a secondary benefit. I would have and would workout without it, but the truth is, we don’t have to choose between the two, they come together. Mind, Body, and Spirit. I believe we are one big package mad up of those three.
    By the way, thanks for these great blogs that inspire, motivate, and make us think!

  13. ‘look ugly?’ – I think it´s a matter of the point of view, for some people a six-pack is ugly, they don´t like the veins popping out… to others it´s the cream of the crop. For myself I can say that I don´t train for a ‘good looking’-reason. I train to feel good and if training means to look ugly I would do it although, because I love it… It´s a nice side-effect. I love to challenge myself, every day, every workout, every minute.
    Thanks for those blogs, they really inspire.

  14. Demo – Of course of it is point of view… Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This entry is not intended to define beauty, as we all will have different interpretations.

    We all do what we do for our own reasons. If one of your (your = anyone) reasons for exercise are to enhance appearance, that is fine. No one should be criticized for taking an interest in improving their physical appearance.

    Yet, as others have stated, training has a downstream effect in regards to additional benefits. You don’t need to train “for looks” to have a positive influence on appearance. Training offers multiple benefits, to the body and mind.


  15. True words from you Ross!

    I keep it short: Do what you like (bodybuilding, powerlifting etc.)

    But don´t make it so complicated and don´t listen to those who are saying that you may lack here and there.

    At the end , if someone trains for functional strength etc. , he would´t say i just functional stuff but i don´t take care about my look.

  16. Why I go to the gym / keep fit / eat well / generally take care of myself (approximately)…

    # Health benefits + enjoyment of the actual training experience + simple joy of living an active lifestyle: ~ 25%
    # Performance improvement for Ultimate Frisbee: ~ 35%
    # PERSONAL physical appearance (or how I feel when I look in the mirror): ~ 35%
    # EXTERNAL physical appearance (how much I care what other people think of my appearance) ~ 5%

    My point?

    It’s all about me.
    I’m 26 now but it wasn’t so long ago I was a skinny runt who found himself bullied at school and looking at the ‘hot’ girls believing them out reach.
    Then I played some sport and this progressed to joining a gym.
    Now I’ve got self-confidence in abundance and I walk down the street tall. I’m never going to be ‘big’ but I’ve a muscular toned body that the previously out-of-reach girls – and most importantly my girlfriend – apparently love.

    I heard a line once. Someone (not sure who, maybe Dannii Minogue) was asked if they believe ‘The One’ is out there.
    They replied that no, they didn’t. Instead “first you have to be The One, then you have to find someone who love to be with”.

    For me, it’s all about self-confidence and I’ve found it.

    Thank you, Ross, for helping me find it.

    ps, I often forget to match my socks and don’t care about my hair once my helmet comes off (I commute by bike)…

  17. uh… i used to be fat. almost 290 with 28% BF. i wore a shirt to bed. im no longer this way and my damn shirt rarely stays on anymore. so yes, i train for appearence too. i love the look on peoples faces when they see me again – its very rewarding and motivating… for me.

  18. To mention the ‘six pack’: It is a testament of conditioning, as it is the last place in which we lose visible bodyfat. I forgot the order but according to Master Fitness School (circa 1992) the midsection is the first place we gain and last we lose.

    I do care about ‘how’ I look. A Soldier is supposed to have a look of confidence and personal pride. If exercise made us ‘ugly’ then ‘pretty’ would be unhealthy and the ugly people would be attractive. I would be glad to be as ugly as I could get…ROFL

  19. One of the things my mother taught me growing up, was you teach people how you want to be treated. Another thing is people will treat you the way you appear. You look like a fat person who doesn’t take care of themselves, that’s the way they’ll treat you. Take care of your look and have pride in yourself and people will treat you that way. Take care of your physically is one of the ways I take care of my appearance. Exercise has done wonder for me physically and mentally and I plan to workout until the day I die. It is part of who I am and it part of the day routine like showering and brushing your teeth.

  20. Right on Dave-you said it.

    In helping people become personal trainers and break into the industry, one thing I talk about a lot is how important it is to keep in solid shape yourself.

    Like you said–it’s a reflection of who you are as a personal, in in a trainer’s case, how you are as a trainer.

  21. Ross. You always have some good things to say for others to ponder on. I intended to comment on the last blog but did not know what to say or where to begin because there are several reasons why I desire to be in good health and great shape.

    Perhaps the major reason for this is because I want to be around longer for my wife and son. I know physical fitness does not garauntee longevity because if it is my time to go that’s what it is fit or not. However,it opens opportunities for a better life.

    The second reason is I have always had a heart for combat sports but was never afforded the opportunity to pursue a career in such an arena.

    The final reason is just simply having a desire to push my body to its limit. I have never been the fit person in my family. It has always been my younger brother.

    As long as I could remember my goal was not so much to look with my shirt off but to fit my clothes better. Any other benefits was icing on the cake.

    I still have a competative heart but know fighting is not in the cards (At least not professionally). So I will just compete with myself and see where it takes me.

    I appreciate the encouragment you give all your readers. It means a great deal to me.

  22. i’m with Mark on this one. There’s a symbiotic relationship between how we feel and how we perform. Exercise is a good yard marker to how we perform and the more confident we become with it, the better we feel; the better we feel, the more confident we are in our day to day relationships.

    Evolution: Success breeds success.

    If we were to really desire a change in society than perhaps we could reinforce and value the importance of a healthy lifestyle instead of the dog eat dog mentality driving the avarice we see in the world today. Is material wealth a good indicator of someone’s ability to provide for their family moreso than a healthy body? This is what we have evolved into.

    We bear the marks of our work upon our very bodies. If we push, pull, lift and set down heavy objects then we gain muscle. If we run long distances for long periods of time then we become a walking sinew. Either body type is made to look beautiful to those who regard success in these abilities as something worthy of aspiring to.

    That’s my two cents.

  23. Well said, Ross. And, it did need saying. Tom Meehan summed up why I started working out. To be able to defend myself and for looks.
    Now, since I started jiu-jitsu, you can add performance in my chosen sport to the list. And especially, now that I have kids, for health. They need me and I owe them my best self.

    But at the start, it was equal parts of defense and chicks.

  24. Interesting post–I notice all the comments are from guys. Your title question actually can be a practical consideration for some women. If a female athlete gets strong and lean enough, it’s pretty easy to go from socially acceptable and/or even attractive looking to being less so (in the opinion of the masses) as you become more muscular and leaner. It’s something I’ve had to consider. I’m a smallish woman who runs lean anyway, and in no way do I resemble the steroid-fueled professional bodybuilders out there, but when I started developing some upper-body muscle definition and a bit of vascularity that looked, well, non-average, it became pretty clear that a lot of people find it unattractive and wonder why you’d do that to yourself. Me, I train for strength, which is terribly functional when you’re a bit over 100 lbs–and for sanity. But I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that many people–my own mother included–don’t like how my training makes me look.

  25. When I see a wild animal like Tiger or Cougar with the beautiful definition of muscle moving beneath their coat, I thnk to myself what beauty! That is the physique that I wish to achieve. That natural look of raw primal power. Being that I’ve worked in public service with violent offenders, achieving and maintaining that bodytype has been like a knife that cuts 2 ways. People have either respected my physical presence or have wanted to see if they could beat the snot out of me.

  26. I think that working out solely to look good says it all because looking good or wanting it is a reflection of what our subconscious is thinking. What we look like is what we are in every other way. So when people want to look good, it could mean that they actually want to be healthier, fitter, more mentally strong, etc.

    Ross, you’re the closest thing to a perfect trainer.

  27. I think the point is that BB formats promote 1 type of Body perfection that is dictated and promoted as the ultimate and superior format.

    While “functional” or Sport specific training pursuits tend to create a body that caters to a movement priority. This may take many forms. None of which are better or worse only different and specific to the demands placed on that individual.

    So the argument becomes one of attitude and philosophy behind the training regimen and that of BB is fixed and rigid with no allowance for individual deviation. That and there fixation on themselves is purely unhealthy in multiple respects

  28. I think it all goes back to the “Look good, feel good, do good” line of thought.
    I won’t lie and say that appearance doesn’t matter to me. Performance is my primary goal, but I want to look good also. The funny thing is that the better performance I have, the better I look, and stepping in to the cage looking in better shape than my opponent is a huge psychological advantage. I know that I’ve put the work in and prepared myself. I put the work in and was disciplined with my diet. If come in bigger and more ripped than my opponent, than he has to have questions about his abilities and training. Even if he doesn’t, I think he does, and it improves my confidence.

    On top of all that, if a pretty girl is attracted to me because of how I look, I’m definitely not going to complain. 🙂

  29. I have three motivators…

    1 – Doing good: I’m trying to break into firefighting, and that requires an above-average level of fitness. Not quite the same kind of “fighting” that most people here are working for, but the intent is the same. 🙂

    2 – Looking good: Appearance follows training, obviously, and it’s a visible reflection of the work I’ve put into preparing myself for a FF career.

    3 – Feeling good: Attitude follows appearance, and my attitude and outlook on life improves exponentially based on feedback I get from other people about my appearance…most especially from my fiance. This, in turn, motivates me to keep training. Her smile is an amazing booster! 😀

    Great post, Ross. It really made me own up to my “secret” motivation!

  30. I think people who workout are allways *HOT* (well ok girls mainly), so the whatif… doesn’t really work. Seeing someone get the most out of their body is a beautifull thing, even if that person would be ugly. The human body in action is a beautifull thing.

    Damn I’m pretty ugly myself with or without working out, so to answer the question, I would still workout even if it woud make me (more) ugly.

  31. For real Ross. I’m all about looking good for my girl cause the better I look the more she wants to touch me. And really that’s why I work out. Not to “dominate the competiton” . That mentality seems a little backwards to me.

  32. If training were to make you ugly, then a large portion of people who go to the gym in this would be significantly decreased. Many people train for asthetic reasons, and if that is their primary reason for training i say fair play. if it keeps them training and not sitting on their ass infront of the T.V what is wrong with that. I am not claiming to be a brad pitt or george clooney but i love seeing nice changes in my appearence. Even tho my primary goal for training is to fight doesn’t mean i dont like to look good!

  33. I know it’s an old post, and I dont know if anyone will wind up reading it. “Looking good” looks good because of evolution. If you “look good”, you are healthy and you are a good hunter or gatherer and are able to provide for your mate and offspring, so that really couldn’t happen. I guess what I’m trying to say is that “looking good” looks good for a reason.

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